By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
The influence of H. G. Wells (1866-1946) on science fiction goes without saying. Brian Aldiss, in Trillion Year Spree, call him the Shakespeare of science fiction, acknowledging his role in raising the emerging genre to an art form. The tales of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds are familiar to millions of people, even those who have never read Wells’s books, thanks to notable film adaptations.
But Wells had an influence on other areas of the arts, too, although in many cases the debt owed to him is less obvious. For example, the popular musical Half a Sixpence was inspired by his novel Kipps. And the Alfred Hitchcock film Rear Window also owes a debt to H. G. Wells, albeit an indirect one. For Hitchcock’s film was based on a Cornell Woolrich story, ‘It Had to Be Murder’, and that story was in turn inspired by an H. G. Wells story, ‘Through a Window’.
To summarise the plot of ‘Through a Window’: the protagonist, Bailey, is convalescing at home with two broken legs. He lies on the couch and takes to watching the world outside his home, observing the various goings-on through the window of his living room. He grows almost addicted to the panorama of activity he can witness in this way, telling his friend Wilderspin that he never thought he could become so interested in things which don’t concern him.
One day, a Malay bargeman working on the river runs amok with a ‘krees’ or kris (an Indonesian dagger), and is pursued by three white men. Bailey loses sight of the chase as the hunters and hunted pass out of sight, but then his housekeeper, Mrs Green, returns and says she saw the commotion going on outside. Then, the Malay man appears at the window, his knife between his teeth, and climbs inside the house. He is shot by the police through the window, and Bailey smashes a medicine bottle over the man’s head.
This central plot – a man laid up at home takes an interest in what’s going on outside his window, only to stumble upon a drama – inspired Rear Window, although Hitchcock’s film differs from ‘Through a Window’ in many respects. Yet perhaps there is some intersection between the central meanings of the two narratives.
Wells’s story is about the ways in which reality encroaches upon us: we cannot be passive observers, viewing the world outside our windows as mere entertainment. Such a detached attitude treats the world outside as somehow unreal, fabricated or constructed for our amusement, rather than what it is: the genuine day-to-day reality of other people’s lives. The very screen through which Bailey observes the Malay’s flight is also the boundary the Malay breaches when he intrudes into Bailey’s room:
In another moment a hairy brown hand had appeared and clutched the balcony railings, and in another the face of the Malay was peering through these at the man on the couch. His expression was an unpleasant grin, by reason of the krees he held between his teeth, and he was bleeding from an ugly wound in his cheek. His hair wet to drying stuck out like horns from his head. His body was bare save for the wet trousers that clung to him. Bailey’s first impulse was to spring from the couch, but his legs reminded him that this was impossible.
This is a crude depiction of an Asian man, especially by Wells’s standards: the ‘hairy brown hand’ and the ‘horns’ (summoning the Devil, of course) are heavy-handed markers of the man’s perceived primitive, barbaric status in Bailey’s respectable English drawing-room.
And is it significant that he is a Malay man? Does that provide a clue to the real meaning of ‘Through a Window’?
Bailey tells Wilderspin of the people he observes through the window that ‘these people come from all points of the compass – from Oxford and Windsor, from Asia and Africa – and gather and pass opposite the window just to entertain me.’
That is to say, they are from all four corners of the British empire (Malay men, as Joseph Conrad’s early novels remind us, often worked in the British navy). It is the British empire, or a manifestation of it, which breaks through Bailey’s window and disturbs his detached cinematic enjoyment of the panorama outside.