Adapted by the author from Chapter 8 of her book, Literary Surrey (Headley Down: John Owen Smith, 2005), and illustrated with her own photographs. You may use these images without prior permission for any scholarly or educational purpose as long as you (1) credit the photographer and (2) link your document to this URL or cite the Victorian Web in a print one. [Click on pictures to enlarge them.]
The Local Context
H. G. Wells only lived in Woking, Surrey, for a short while, from the autumn of 1895 to late 1896. But it was at a crucial point in his literary career, and his surroundings there feature memorably in two of the works written in that period, The Wheels of Chance (1896) and The War of the Worlds (1898). It seems strange now that one rather ordinary place in the south of England should have provided the perfect setting for two such different books. The Wheels of Chance uses Woking largely as a starting-point for a cycling trip that goes further south, but The War of the Worlds stays much longer in the same area, and is proudly commemorated there today in its town-centre "Martian" (shown on the left) and in various other ways. What could there possibly have been about the bustling, predominantly Victorian commuter town of Woking, in the flat hinterland of Surrey, to inspire such an apocalyptic vision of mass destruction?
A great deal, as it happens. Long before Wells came to live here, this ordinary-looking mid-Surrey town was, in fact, renowned for its connection with death. Established by the London Necropolis and National Mausoleum Company, on what was originally Woking Common, lies the vast cemetery of Brookwood. Now served by a branch line from the main railway junction, it is said to be the largest burial ground not only in the country, but also perhaps in the whole of Western Europe (Rutherford 33). It was opened by the Bishop of Winchester in 1854 to accommodate the bodies of the many thousands of Londoners who were dying in the great Victorian epidemics. Loaded funeral trains would run up and down regularly between Brookwood station and the company's terminus near Waterloo, and the cemetery became the final resting-place for close on quarter of a million people (the number has now topped this mark). Wells himself was fascinated by this "great camp of the dead" (Mee 332), ranging over 440 acres, and returned to the cemetery long after he had left Woking, accompanied by his much younger lover, Rebecca West. She too was impressed, so much so that she picked out a plot for herself. Her wish was honoured, and she was finally buried there in 1983, almost a century after Wells first came to Woking.
By the time Wells moved there, Woking had yet another association with death. The Cremation Society had selected the borough for its activities as well. A crematorium was built in the St John's area of Woking, where the country's first legal cremation took place in 1885. This is something which Wells himself mentions when writing about that period in his life, saying humorously that "few of our friends made more than five or six jokes about that" (457). Humour was one way of dealing with Woking's connection not simply with death, but, more specifically, with death by burning. Wells quickly found another.
The Invasion, Its Outcome and Significance
Left: Wells explains that the Martians have sets of tentacles that enable them to build and control their tripods (seen here in the Woking model). Right: The Martians rampage through the area of the town developed along the railway, in a tiled underpass mural in Woking.
In The War of the Worlds, an unnamed narrator, whose circumstances are very similar to Wells's own at that time, and who is currently writing a paper on morality, reports on Martian cylinders which land in the natural sandpits of the flat bushy plain of Horsell Common (shown above) and on other open spaces around Woking. To the locals' horror, they disgorge repulsive creatures, all head and no lower limbs, from the "red planet." Apparently, since their own planet, older than our own, is freezing up, they are seeking to colonise new territory. They are observed quickly getting to work on engineering, inhabiting and empowering the kind of giant tripods commemorated in the town-centre memorial shown above. Before long, the dreadful burning from their Heat-Ray weapons, with its "sharp resinous twang" (79), has reduced the whole area around the Wellsian hero's Maybury house into "a valley of ashes" (86), a charnel house of burnt corpses. After that, humans can do little to halt their progress. They sweep up through the Surrey commuter suburbs into London, with reinforcements arriving (the sixth cylinder, for example, lands at Wimbledon). They devastate everything in their path not only with Heat-Rays but also with a deadly vapour dubbed the Black Smoke, and sustain themselves by absorbing human blood. At the end of this most fearful vision of mankind's future troubles, the Martians are suddenly laid low not by the army, not by any human opposition at all, but by the humble bacteria of our earth. As shown below right, these too are commemorated in Woking town centre, in the paved area around the Woking Martian.
Many things came together in this remarkable and groundbreaking work about alien invasion. Wells had been greatly influenced by his scientific studies, and especially by having been taught by Aldous Huxley's father, T. H. Huxley, who warned against the dangers inherent in new scientific advances. He was also reflecting the fears of a particular period in history, when people were on edge because of the growing might of Germany. Recently, too, the planet Mars had been particularly close to the earth, causing a great deal of speculation amongst people of all levels about the possibility of life on the "Red Planet." Moreover, Wells found in this subject matter the ideal vehicle for debating the imperialist enterprise, showing both its motivations and its cruelty in putting down all opposition: before we judge the Martians too harshly, he reminds us, "we must remember what ruthless and utter destruction our own species has wrought, not only upon animals, such as the vanished bison and the dodo, but upon its inferior races" (4-5). But Wells's current location, in a Surrey town famous (or notorious) for burial and cremation, was perhaps the most immediate source of inspiration for this most macabre of novels, and the material it provided was a major part of the novel's effect.
Wells's Topographical and Documentary Approach
St Nicholas Church, with its tall tower (which has not been destroyed by Martians and replaced by a spire, as Wells imagines!), stands near the Thames at Shepperton.
For all its sensationalism, The War of the Worlds is surprisingly credible, and that of course was a major factor in its success. Here again, Wells's present location proved highly significant. He described later how in 1895 he "wheeled about the district marking down suitable places and people for destruction by my Martians" (458), and his research paid dividends. The combination of topographical accuracy with psychological insight turned out to be hugely effective in drawing in his readers. It was his own unique blend: "O! Realist of the Fantastic" was how Joseph Conrad was to address Wells in a letter of 4 December 1898 about The Invisible Man (qtd. in Dryden 27). Chapter 12 in Book I of The War of the Worlds, for instance, is about the "Destruction of Weybridge and Shepperton," and it describes exactly how the Wey flows into the Thames here through several separate channels, how the ferry crosses near the lock, and what Shepperton landmarks (like the top of St Nicholas's Church, shown above) are visible on the Weybridge side. Within this setting, too, the fleeing people act just as one might expect, panicking and struggling with their precious possessions while a few soldiers stand nonchalantly watching on the Shepperton bank, without offering any help. Disbelief is easily suspended when a scene is as recognisable as this. As a result, the sudden eruption of the Martians seems neither more nor less shocking to us than to the hapless victims themselves:
Quickly, one after the other, one, two, three, four of the armoured Martians appeared, far away over the little trees, across the flat meadows that stretch towards Chertsey, and striding hurriedly along the river. Little cowled figures they seemed at first, going with a rolling motion and as fast as flying birds.... At the sight of these strange, swift, and terrible creatures the crowd near the water's edge seemed to me to be for a moment horror-struck. There was no screaming or shouting, but a silence. Then a hoarse murmur and a movement of feet — a splashing from the water. A man, too frightened to drop the portmanteau he carried on his shoulder, swung round and sent me staggering with a blow from the corner of his burden. A woman thrust at me with her hand and rushed past me. I turned, too, with the rush of people, but I was not too terrified for thought.... [98-99]
This reads like a simple piece of reportage. It sweeps us along in the same current as the hero, who, having witnessed the destruction of St Nicholas's tower and the houses along where Thomas Love Peacock's old home is, drifts in the scalding water towards Walton Bridge. What the hero sees in the aftermath of the invasion also rings absolutely true. Walton itself, for instance, comes off lightly because its pinewoods have survived. Unlike the River Mole and other small rivers, such woodland has not provided a friendly environment for the strange and prolific red weed that the Martians brought with them. Wells, like Richard Jefferies and other Surrey "country" writers before him, knew his terrain, and he used his knowledge to make even these strangest of events utterly convincing. Then on he goes past Sunbury, Hampton Court and thence to London, where he finds the buttresses of Waterloo Bridge being enveloped by the red weed, and (rather less realistically) free trains laid on at the old Waterloo Station to bear commuters away from the beleaguered capital. Taking advantage of this, he returns to Woking via Clapham Junction, grimy with soot from the smoke and undergoing hasty repairs to the damaged tracks.
As a Fin-de-Siècle Work
The War of the Worlds sets Wells alongside other Surrey writers who have attacked the "Great Wen" of London, starting with William Cobbett (1763-1835), whose expression that was. However, there is some ambiguity here. Wells also mocks the suburban complacency of Surrey. "'Haven't you heard of the men from Mars?' the hero asks some people on his way home from Horsell Common after his first expedition there. "'Quite enough,' said the woman over the gate. 'Thanks;' and all three of them laughed" (47). With his usual acumen, Wells has taken the measure of his neighbours, and he turns their smug laughter against them here. Even more pointedly, his hero tells the unnerved local curate whom he meets near Walton Bridge: "Think of what earthquakes and floods, wars and volcanoes, have done before to men! Did you think God had exempted Weybridge?" (114). In fact, the novel is negative about both Surrey and London, so that the coming of the Martians and the destruction they wreak seem like a judgement on the inhabitants of both.
From this point of view, the novel is indeed very much of its time, one of many books at the end of the century "warning a decadent England of the dangers of invasion if nothing were done to regenerate the country" (Mackenzie 129), as well as suggesting the drive, inhumanity and dangers of the imperialism (see Wagar 57-58). The difference from other warnings of this kind lies in the imaginative leap that Wells has taken towards an invasion from space, made all too convincing by his topographical accuracy and documentary style.
As a footnote to this brief introductory account, the other popular "scientific romance" that Wells planned and wrote in Woking, The Invisible Man (1896), is set in a Sussex village rather than in the Surrey commuter-belt — although the West Surrey Gazette is mentioned in Chapter 12, in a slip of the pen perhaps (59). Probably Wells decided that a more rural background was required here, especially in the comic opening chapters before Griffin, the young scientific researcher, has turned on the nosy villagers and then been brutally "unveiled" by them. But perhaps, too, Wells thought that Surrey people would have been too blasé to take an interest in a stranger, however peculiar, at least until they felt their lives were under threat. It is worth mentioning this here as a reminder that the humour found in Wells's realistic novels is present in his "scientific romances" too. A leavening agent, it contributes much to their credibility and entertainment value. (The fact that The Invisible Man is set elsewhere has not stopped Woking from commemorating it: as seen on the right, Griffin sits quietly reading on a bar stool in the Herbert Wells public house, a short walk from the Woking Martian. Indeed, no one takes much notice of him here.)
Mackenzie, Norman & Jeanne. The Time Traveller: The Life of H. G. Wells. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973.
Mee, Arthur. Surrey: London's Southern Neighbour. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1938.
Rutherford, Sarah. The Victorian Cemetery. Botley, Oxford: Shire, 2008.
Wagar, W. Warren. H. G. Wells: Traversing Time. Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 2004.
Wells, H. G. . Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (since 1866). London: Faber, 1984. Project Gutenberg. Web. 12 January 2016.
____. The Invisible Man. Ed. Andy Sawyer. London: Penguin Classics, 2005.
_____. The War of the Worlds. London: Heinemann, 1898.
West, Anthony.H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life. London: Hutchinson, 1984.
Last modified 12 January 2016