Filby: who is Filby?

There were seven in the room, the host and six guests. Some of the details we can establish, others we have to imagine. The house was in Richmond, in the comfortable outskirts of London, with a view from the hill down towards the river. It was sometime in the winter of 1893-94 so let us imagine it as the kind of Victorian Christmas that lives on in our dreams, with log fires, boughs of holly and snow lapping at the front door. Outside, ladies in fur trimmed coats are escorted by gentlemen in top hats, and in the foggy light from a gas lamp a cheery old soul in large flat cap and woollen scarf is selling roasted chestnuts in paper bags. The night is quiet save for the snow-muffled clomp of horses’ hooves on the cobbled street and the faint sound of wassailing drifting through the night air.

It is a small household. The only resident is the host, a bachelor of independent, but limited, means. The daily running of the house is left to Hillyer the man-servant and Mrs Watchets who acts as cook and housekeeper. Mrs Watchets guards her kitchen with pride and occasional flashes of temper, while Hillyer does his best to preserve an air of respectability over the house. This is not always an easy task, for the host is an inventor whose activities often generate local complaints about noise and smells. A dining room and drawing room meet all the host’s social needs, and beyond these two rooms wherever possible every available space is filled with books, scientific instruments and pieces of electrical apparatus. At the rear of the house is a laboratory.

Every Thursday evening the inventor plays host to a small party taken from his circle of friends and acquaintances. In part, these are social occasions to be reciprocated on other days of the week; in part, they provide a public outlet for the inventor’s latest enthusiasms and theories. Each evening the arrangement is the same: a dinner prepared by Mrs Watchets (for some this is always the best part) followed by cigars and brandy in the drawing room with discussions often rolling on late into the night. On this particular evening the inventor will surprise his guests with a small scientific demonstration.

The only record we have of what happened that evening is the one given to us by Wells and, contrary to the impression given by the first-person narrative, Wells himself was not present. Wells, of course, has his own story to tell; a story for which that evening in Richmond is only the spark. To tell a good story he expands the one evening into two. Not only does this give him a better structure to work with but it also creates extra time for the action to take place. If we consider the nature of the action that is presented, then time would appear to be the one thing that need not be worried about. In such circumstances, stretching one evening across two with the action hanging in-between is clearly a literary device and exposes Wells’s fiction, but it also reveals something about the original guests. Across two evenings Wells has to invent fictional characters simply to make up the numbers. Their descriptions are non-specific (“very young man”, “quiet shy man”) and serve to highlight the very specific professional identities given to the other guests (PROVINCIAL MAYOR, PSYCHOLOGIST, MEDICAL MAN, EDITOR, JOURNALIST). The specificity of these professional labels might be seen as an indication that Wells has real people in mind, that these were the real guests at that evening in Richmond.

We can see the significance of these professional labels if we try to identify the PSYCHOLOGIST. This is a very curious label for Wells to choose. We are now familiar with the term, but in the early- to mid-1890s the more usual term would have been “mental philosopher” or even “psychiatrist”. By referring to one of the guests as “psychologist” Wells is highlighting a discipline that was still in its infancy. It is such a particular term that there is really only one person who fits the bill. At that time and in a metropolitan setting the PSYCHOLOGIST must surely be a reference to James Sully, Grote Professor of Philosophy of Mind and Logic. It was Sully who had recently introduced the subject from Germany and afterwards was to establish England’s first laboratory for experimental psychology at University College London. It was also Sully who was the author of Illusions: a psychological study. This had become a major work in the field and a fourth edition was soon to appear. Chapters 2-6 of the book are devoted to the psychology of perception. It is not surprising, therefore, that he can so readily pick up the host’s suggestions about “diluted perception” as an explanation of why the demonstration model would not have been seen earlier if it had indeed been sent back in time.

So with a little imagination mixed with reasonable conjecture we begin to put names to these Victorian gentlemen as they luxuriate in the after-dinner atmosphere of the inventor’s drawing room.

In one chair we can see the editor of a “well-known daily paper”. Could it be A.E. Fletcher from the Daily Chronicle, or maybe P.W. Clayden, the radical nonconformist editor of the Daily News? Maybe not, because Wells also tells us that both the EDITOR and the JOURNALIST were “the new kind of journalist – very joyous, irreverent young men.” Henry Cust at the Pall Mall Gazette remains a possibility, but if we really want “the new kind of journalist” then there is a much more likely candidate: Ernest Parke from The Star. It was Parke’s sensationalist reporting of the Jack the Ripper murders that had established the large circulation for The Star and it was also Parke who was primarily involved in the reporting of the Cleveland Street Scandal, the story of a homosexual brothel said to be frequented by the Duke of Clarence and Lord Arthur Somerset the head of the Prince of Wales’s stables. It is easy to imagine that it is Parke who, Wells says, was “thinking in headlines” and offering “a shilling a line for a verbatim note” of the inventor’s story. The JOURNALIST would then be one of Parke’s colleagues from The Star.

Next to the EDITOR sits the PROVINCIAL MAYOR who presents us with a curious puzzle. What was a provincial mayor doing as a regular guest at dinner parties in London? It seems so incongruous that it raises the suspicion that the label may not be entirely accurate. It makes more sense if we see this as a piece of Wellsian humour. The guest is indeed a politician but of much greater eminence than the label implies. “Provincial mayor”, for example, is just the kind of cruel nickname that political enemies and snobbish allies would apply to Joseph Chamberlain who had, indeed, at one time been the Mayor of Birmingham. I can’t quite see Chamberlain at such a scientific dinner party, nor is it easy to imagine Wells making such a jibe about Chamberlain’s lowly background (especially considering Wells’s own humble beginnings). Also, Wells was not likely to mock anyone with an interest in science and so I think it is reasonable to suppose that the humour is meant more kindly. If we are looking for an eminent politician who also has an interest in science then the chances are we will find Arthur J. Balfour, leader of her majesty’s loyal opposition in the House of Commons and widely-known for his longstanding interest in philosophical and scientific matters, especially those fringes that challenged scientific orthodoxy.

Identifying the MEDICAL MAN is more of a problem. The label is much too general and even if we could narrow it down to hospital doctors or general practitioners there would still be too many to choose from. One theory, one delightful theory rich with possibilities is that it could be……but no; it is speculative to the point of fantasy and is best left until later.

Six guests and one host in after-dinner conversation at a house in Richmond in the winter of 1893-94. Only one of those present is given a name: Filby.

Unlike the other guests where our questions can lead us towards a name, with Filby we have a name that only leads us to more questions. The name (along with variant spellings Fileby, Filbey and Philby) comes from Norfolk, but there is nothing to suggest that Filby the man is from there. Wells first introduces him to us as “an argumentative person with red hair” which could indicate Celtic origins, but the “red hair” might simply be Wells’s literary way of emphasising Filby’s argumentative nature because this is what comes across as Filby’s key characteristic in the narrative (“‘There I object,’ said Filby” and “‘It’s against reason,’ said Filby”). Maybe this is the key that helps us unlock the mystery. It seems very odd, for example, that the host (an inventor) has not invited a physicist, chemist or engineer to the demonstration, one can only assume, therefore, that it is Filby who has this background in the physical sciences and this, in turn, would help to explain his down to earth scepticism (“a pork butcher could understand Filby”).

And we can push this further. What if we were to ask not “Who is Filby?” but “Why is he the only one named?” Wells loved to argue and so an argumentative Filby is just the kind of person that would have been welcome in Wells’s own social circle especially if Filby could in any way be described as a scientist. Now we can see that Filby is “argumentative” because Wells is directly addressing Filby as a reader, a small but significant piece of banter between two old friends, acknowledgement that Wells knew Filby through their own arguments. Read in this way (Filby as scientist, Filby as old friend) we might even be able to associate Filby with Wells’s student days at the Normal School of Science. We can now also see why Filby is the only person to be named: not only is this the hailing of an old friend but it is also recognition that Filby is the source of the story. Wells was not there, but Filby was. The story with which we are now so familiar is Wells’s embellishments on Filby’s initial report. Unfortunately this still leaves us with a final puzzle. Why is there no mention of Filby anywhere in Wells’s writing after this story of the evening in Richmond?

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