Arion Lyre

82. Tono-Bungay, by H. G. Wells, with art by Stan Washburn

More about the novel Tono-Bungay

Despite its serious nature, Tono-Bungay is a highly entertaining book. The title is the brand-name of a patent-medicine concocted by Edward Ponderevo, the uncle of the narrator George Ponderevo. This tonic is clearly based on the history and phenomenal commercial success of Coca-Cola, introduced by a pharmacist in Atlanta, Georgia, in 1886. The “secret ingredients” in its original formulation included cocaine. Like Coke, Tono-Bungay is not entirely good for you. The nephew recognizes that “Tono-Bungay was a thoroughly dishonest proceeding. The stuff was, I perceived, a mischievous trash, slightly stimulating, aromatic and attractive, likely to become a bad habit and train people in the habitual use of stronger tonics, and insidiously dangerous to people with defective kidneys.”

In the words of its creator:

“You see,” said my uncle in a slow confidential whisper, with eyes very wide and a creased forehead, “it’s nice because of the” (here he mentioned a flavoring matter and an aromatic spirit), “it’s stimulating because of” (here he mentioned two very vivid tonics, one with a marked action on the kidney.) “And the” (here he mentioned two other ingredients) “makes it pretty intoxicating. Cocks their tails. Then there’s” (but I touch on the essential secret.) “And there you are. I got it out of an old book of recipes—all except the” (here he mentioned the more virulent substance, the one that assails the kidneys), “which is my idea! Modern touch! There you are!”

Guessing at the origins of the name one might think of Ben-Gay, the analgesic heat rub for muscle and joint pain developed in France by Dr. Jules Bengué and introduced in America in 1898. But Bungay is a town in Suffolk, while Tono may be taken from tonic and toning-up. Its pronunciation, whether as “tone”, “[t]un”, or “[t]on”, must be left to the reader’s choice.

Ponderevo products proliferated to include other quack medicines: for the eyes, the throat, the hair, and, though tastefully referred to, the sexual organs. From there the uncle, with the help of his nephew, went into other business ventures, taking on distribution of lines from the United States, such as Texan Embrocation, as well as their own expansion into domestic conveniences (indoor plumbing) and other devices for modernizing the home. Their rise in business was spectacular. As the narrator George describes Edward Ponderevo:

“Astraddle on Tono-Bungay, he flashed athwart the empty heavens—like a comet—rather, like a stupendous rocket!—and overawed investors spoke of his star. At his zenith he burst into a cloud of the most magnificent promotions. What a time that was! The Napoleon of domestic conveniences.”

And just as sudden and precipitous was the disastrous descent of the company. The nephew survives, having pursued an engineering career, and goes on to design a new and improved destroyer that is not bought by the British Navy, because of lingering disgrace attached to the Ponderevo name, but is ordered instead by the U. S. Navy. At the end of the novel the ship runs down the Thames for sea trials, with London, itself a significant character in the novel, passing in review. That description, of the city observed from the bridge of a warship, is one of the grandest pieces of writing in the book, reminiscent of Melville rolling on from one inspiration to the next, to the next.

The organization of the novel is ingenious. The story is really about the life of George; his uncle’s quackery is a leit motif for the reader’s entertainment. As the narrator George claims, he is writing a novel about his life. He apologizes at the outset that his “love-story. . . falls into no sort of neat scheme of telling” and that “the restraints and rules of the art” are impossible for him. Still, the book is tightly organized, into four Books and fourteen subsidiary Chapters and their many Sections. As Mendelson points out, Wells’s narrative innovation has George telling of his public and private life in separate chapters, regardless of overlapping events in the chronological sequence. The first-time novelist says: “I see my life as it were arranged in two parallel columns of unequal width, a wider, more diffused, eventful, and various one which continually broadens out, the business side of my life, and a narrow, darker and darkling one shown over and again with a gleam of happiness.”

This is an extremely timely story for its exposé not only of the pharmaceutical industry but of unrestrained financial speculation. It is the latter that brings Ponderevo’s empire crashing down. As the author-within-the-author writes: “I have called it Tono-Bungay, but I had far better have called it Waste.”

In this Arion Press edition, the main characters are given psychological portraits by the artist Stan Washburn. There is Lady Drew of Bladesover House, where George’s mother is housekeeper, the work Wells’s mother did after parting from his father; young Beatrice, the love of his youth, and again, shown as a woman, by then the love of his life; Uncle Edward at various stages of his rise and fall; his wife, the irrepressible Aunt Susan, who loves George more than he knows; Marion, his unfortunate choice as wife; Effie, the girl who succeeds her in his affections; the other Edward in the book, King Edward VII, who presides over the era unseen except in a painting on the wall of a gallery; and finally, the destroyer running down the Thames past the Houses of Parliament. There are fourteen prints in all.

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