• Tono-Bungay

  • By: H. G. Wells
  • Narrated by: Greg Wagland
  • Length: 15 hrs and 52 mins
  • 4.3 out of 5 stars (12 ratings)

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Publisher's Summary

Tono-Bungay is very possibly H. G. Wells' finest novel, bringing together so many strands of his work: that of the novelist, the scientific romancer, the humorist, the historian, and the prophet-like sociologist. It was published in 1909, and although Wells was disappointed by its poor sales, Arnold Bennett praised it thus: "When with the thrill of emotion that a great work communicates I finished reading Tono-Bungay, I was filled with a holy joy because Wells had stirred up the dregs again and more violently than ever.... Human nature - you get it pretty complete in Tono-Bungay."

George Ponderevo is the novel's first person narrator, his mother the housekeeper of Bladesover House, a great country house in Sussex, that Wells uses throughout the novel to embody the decline of England, its certainties and its values. Tono-Bungay is Dickensian in stature, broad in its social panorama, taking George from childhood in the 1860s, to Chatham in Kent, to teeming London, to Africa and France: His life unfolds warts and all, as he rubs shoulders with every class, goes to live with his aunt and uncle, a Wimblehurst chemist, who goes on to invent a patent medicine of dubious efficacy, that he names, for no obvious reason, Tono-Bungay.

George goes up to London to study, falls in love, goes to work for his increasingly wealthy uncle, abandons academia, marries, returns to the study of aeronautics (theory and practice), eventually attempting to dig the crumbling family business out of a very deep hole, by prospecting illegally for a nastily radioactive substance called quap on Mordet Island, and even attempting a moonlit flit in the Lord Roberts beta flying machine. George Ponderevo is a mass of contradictions, seeking truth in science, truth in romance, mourning the passing of old England, chasing the new and the novel.

Public Domain (P)2016 Greg Wagland

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Different from the usual Wells

Tono Bungay is the odd name (picked out of a hat?) of a patent medicine developed by one of the characters in this "social novel" by HG Wells. It makes the inventor a tremendous fortune - for awhile. But in some ways it's more of a MacGuffin - a plot device - than anything else. The novel really isn't about Tono Bungay; mainly it's about the effect of sudden wealth on his main character (and narrator), George Ponderevo.

(If this were one of Wells's science fiction novels, Tono Bungay would turn out to have miraculous healing powers. But this one takes place in the real world.)

George was the son of a housekeeper on the Bladesover estate. As he grows up, he meets and falls in love with Beatrice, the laird's daughter. Only much later he learns that she'd fallen in love with him as well; but their class differences would have ruled out a marriage anyway.

George's life takes a different turn. He works for his uncle, a pharmacist, who invents a snake oil product that turns out to be surprisingly successful - the result, thinks the uncle, of combining a benign product with skillful advertising. George shares in his uncle's growing wealth. They move repeatedly, each time to a bigger estate. George marries Marion, a woman he doesn't love; has a passionate affair with a secretary; gets a divorce; makes another failed bid for Beatrice's hand, this time from a position of wealth - but not class - equal to her own.

He isn't an especially appealing character. He's nice enough in the beginning, and clever; he uses his wealth to finance his interest in balloons and gliders, his designs becoming more grandiose with each iteration. But he also uses people, and his efforts to save his uncle's business, once it begins failing, takes him into some dark moral territory indeed.

The first two-thirds of the novel is mostly all narration. Dialogue does break out from time to time, but usually only for a line or two. This sounds like a recipe for boredom, but George is a charming and delightful narrator (if not human being), and I found myself completely absorbed in the story. In the latter part of the novel, the scenes become longer, the conflicts more intense, the characters more sharply drawn. (It does, unfortunately, have a very preachy epilogue, but it's not a long one.)

Greg Wagland is a really good narrator of Wells. He's done other writers as well, including several volumes of Sherlock Holmes stories, but Wells seems to be a special project of his. I enjoyed his performance and recommend the book. Some critics apparently compared it to Dickens: I wouldn't go that far; it doesn't have Dickens' brio. But it does have an array of highly individualized characters and a morally dubious narrator.

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Dickens meets Huxley

HG Wells' 1909 (non sci-fi) satiric novel, Tono-Bungay is the semi-autobiographical story of a scientifically minded young man who helps his brilliantly shady uncle build a patent medicine business into a financial empire. Uncle Ponderevo is a British PT Barum type, who uses advertising and the gullible public's desire to buy hope in a bottle, to first make and then mismanage a fortune. The narrator, who knows Tono-Bungay is rubbish, nevertheless is in need of a career, so he can court, then support, the various young ladies who come into his life. Further complications are caused by the stresses and strains of early 20th century sexual and societal mores, which contravene the impulses of nature to a high degree. This book starts out similar to Wells' earlier autobiographical novel Love and Mr. Lewisham, then it wanders into Galsworthy territory before swinging off into a dark and very terrible Joseph Conrad style adventure off the coast of Africa, in pursuit of a radioactive substance called Quap and it winds up in a Jules Verne-like escapade, as young Ponderevo, who is also a pioneer of early aeronautics, pilots his now fugitive uncle out of England in an airship of his own building. This book is filled with original characters, including a young woman, the protagonist's aunt, who masterfully jokes and teases her way through life. A quick way to sum up Wells, I think, would be Dickens meets Aldous Huxley, two fine elements combined to make something quite new in a book.

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  • Peter Maggs
  • 11-07-21

Disappointing

I don’t know what to make of this book. If I apply my personal criteria of ‘good’ or ‘bad’ in respect of fine art, music, and literature, i.e., would I want to see it/listen to it/read it again, then the answer must be that no I don’t... But that is far too simplistic, and in any case, I would not dare to treat one of the giants of English writing in that way. I love Wells’ scientific romances, including many of the short stories, and I also very much enjoy Mr Polly, Lewisham, and Ann Veronica. But this book is neither fish nor fowl.

The consensus seems to be that Tono-Bungay is Wells’ greatest novel. But it seems to me that the author took various bits and pieces of ideas and decided to roll them into one story. I enjoyed the portraits of the storyteller’s aunt and uncle, and his descriptions of the rise of Tono-Bungay—a quack medicine. But other episodes jarred and seemed unconnected: for example his experiments with aeroplanes and balloons and the expedition to collect ‘quap’ (a radioactive substance). The romantic interlude with Beatrice, was self-indulgent and I was left wondering what it was all about.

For the reader who has come to Wells via The Time Machine, War of the Worlds or The History of Mr Polly, beware! You will be disappointed... Even Greg Wagland’s excellent narration—he is the authentic voice of H G Wells—failed to engage my interest.

1 person found this helpful