Is This The Best Short Story Ever Written?
A short while ago I gave a talk about short stories that touched me and I remembered this one, which I first read as a child. Itâ€™s a small story about a big thing â€“ life.
The start of the 20th century was a glorious time to be writing. There were lots of publishing outlets, and they werenâ€™t divided into neat demographic groups as they are today. You could write a futuristic romance or a nostalgic ghost story, a fantasy thriller or a surrealist comedy from a male or female viewpoint and usually find an audience.
This was one of his last short stories HG Wells wrote, because he was starting to see that the market was controlling his output, and he no longer felt comfortable producing short fiction. So itâ€™s a valedictory story, and all the more profound for being so.
The tale is called â€˜The Door In The Wallâ€™. Its sixteen pages hold within them an entire life, from innocence to experience, love and loss, hope and regret, closure and a hint of paradise. Letâ€™s deal with one cavil; itâ€™s that maligned beast, on the surface itâ€™s a white middle-class middle-aged male story â€“ and yet itâ€™s not at all. Itâ€™s a story that could and should be appreciated by everyone in the world.
My favourite quote is from Albert Camus, who said that the whole of our adult life is an attempt to recover the images that first gained access to our souls. And thatâ€™s Wellsâ€™ theme here.Â The hero is a man called Lionel Wallace, a successful Edwardian gentleman living in Kensington. He tells his old friend Redmond of the inexplicable events which have dogged him all his life, starting when he was five years old.
Lionel is on his way home from school when he discovers a scruffy street, and a green door in a white wall surrounded by vines.Â He doesnâ€™t know why, but he goes through the door and finds two spotted panthers, parrots, an exotic garden, a pretty girl, a capuchin monkey. An older lady takes him into the house and shows him a book where each page has moving images from his life. When he tries to see the future he ends up back on the street.
And so he goes home to the grey reality of English life.
Then, one day on the way to school he sees the door again. But heâ€™s late, so he doesnâ€™t stop. Heâ€™ll get into trouble. He tells his friends, and they demand to see this incredible place, but when he takes them there he canâ€™t remember the name of the street. And he canâ€™t find the door anywhere.
Time passes. Heâ€™s now seventeen, on his way to Oxford and a scholarship. In the cab, smoking a cigarette, and there it is â€“ the door â€“ but itâ€™s his first day, so he sends the cabman onwards. He has a more important door to deal with, the door to his career is opening.
Lionel falls in and out of love, advances his career in politics, becomes successful, and throughout his life he sees the door every now and again â€“ it seems to move about, from Campden Hill to Earlâ€™s Court â€“ but every time he sees it, he is not in a position to stop and go through it. One night heâ€™s heading to the reading of a parliamentary bill and there it is again, before his car headlights. But if he stops the bill will be lost, so on he goes into parliament. The door has offered itself up again.
Heartbroken, empty, having told his friend his story, Lionel goes home. A few days later his body is found at the bottom of a deep excavation â€“ theyâ€™re building a railway extension through London â€“ behind a white hoarding with a small door cut in it. And his friend Redmond wonders. Was Lionel on his way home late from parliament, did he think heâ€™d found the door? Did it ever even exist?
And did he somehow discover paradise once and for all time?