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The Industrial Poetics of (Sub)Genres

Genera Mixta in Herbert George Wells’s Industrial Romance ‘The Cone’ (1895): Realism, the Uncanny Fantastic, the Industrial Sublime and the Tragic

L’hybridité générique dans la « romance » industrielle de H. G. Wells ‘The Cone’ (1895) : réalisme, inquiétante étrangeté fantastique, sublime industriel et tragique
Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay


Malgré leur importance croissante dans la société victorienne, les machines sont sous-représentées dans les romans sociaux traitant de l’ère industrielle. Les nouvelles et « novellas » de H. G. Wells sont une exception notable dans les années 1890. ‘The Cone’ puise certains modèles dans la fiction des années 1840-1860, notamment Hard Times de Dickens, mais il infléchit cette tradition d’une manière innovante, notamment en raison de son exceptionnelle hybridité générique. Le sublime industriel y coexiste avec un sentiment de mélancolie généralisée, une nouvelle pathologie sociale qui touche des personnages de la classe moyenne (et non plus des ouvriers opprimés, comme dans les textes antérieurs), prisonniers d’un environnement dégradé abandonné de Dieu. « The Cone » peut être qualifié de « romance » industrielle, une expression résumant toute son hybridité : son substrat réaliste convaincant (l’univers industriel des années 1890 dans le Staffordshire), son histoire d’amour (et de vengeance) au sein de ce contexte industriel, la présence d’un symbolisme biblique noir au sein d’une esthétique réaliste, et une représentation de la psyché humaine inspirée de la recherche psychologique contemporaine et liée à une poétique fantastique de l’inquiétante étrangeté qui infléchit le réalisme et qui est alimentée par des figurations complexes du refoulement et de l’oralité dévoratrice. La description réaliste et métaphorique du monde industriel et des machines exprime indirectement les profondeurs insoupçonnées de la psyché d’un individu (Horrocks), et une crise sociale de grande ampleur, si bien que les machines sont aussi des symboles du tragique de l’ère industrielle de la fin du siècle.

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  • 1 Machines are a recurrent aspect of Wells’s fiction from the 1890s on, not only in his novellas The (...)
  • 2 ‘The Cone’ was subsequently collected in The Plattner Story and Others (Methuen & Co., 1897), and l (...)
  • 3 It was initially entitled The Chronic Argonauts (Hammond 83).
  • 4 Francis D. Klingender’s Art and the Industrial Revolution (1947) focuses on the perception of the i (...)
  • 5 Herbert Sussman, for instance, does not include it in his corpus and neither does Tamara Ketabgian.

1In spite of their growing importance in Victorian society, machines and technology are underrepresented in fiction, even in ‘industrial’ or ‘social problem’ novels by Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell, Disraeli, or George Eliot, for instance. H. G. Wells’s works, especially his short stories and novellas of the 1890s,1 stand as a notable exception and ‘The Cone’ is a case in point. It was first published in The Unicorn in September 1895,2 but its composition dates back to 1888 and was contemporaneous with that of the first draft of The Time Machine (1895).3 ‘The Cone’ shares points in common with previous ‘industrial’ fiction, especially Dickensian, because it evokes the damaging effects of industrialization on humans and the environment, and because of its aesthetic approach to the setting in which the ‘industrial sublime’4 is prominent, as, for example, in chapter 45 of The Old Curiosity Shop. But in Wells’s little-known and under-researched story,5 these features are inflected in an innovative and pioneering way, firstly because the protagonists, although they are prisoners and victims of their environment, are a far cry from the working-class underdogs of ‘industrial’ fiction.

  • 6 The phrase is borrowed from Nils Clausson’s essay, ‘Dickens’s Genera Mixta: What Kind of a Novel Is (...)

2This paper will therefore show how ‘The Cone’ rests on a previous mid-Victorian (cautionary) tradition but radically transforms it, especially because of its marked generic hybridity. Just as Wells called his generically mixed scientific novellas of the 1890s ‘scientific romances’ to refer to the unprecedented alliance of science and realism on the one hand, and the fantastic on the other, we may coin the phrase ‘industrial romance’ for ‘The Cone’ to refer to its genera mixta6 status, romance being not only understood in its sentimental sense but, more crucially still, in its generic (and Wellsian) one. The substratum of the short story is actually quite realistic (the industrial world of the 1890s in the Newcastle area) but its hybridity—and its romance aspects—spring from the development of a love (and revenge) plot within this industrial context, the presence of dark Biblical symbolism within the realistic mode, and a metaphoric approach to the human psyche inspired from contemporary psychological research and formulated through a fantastic aesthetics. The realistic descriptive regime is inflected by a form of poetics based on the novel conjunction of the industrial sublime (with its visually and emotionally paroxysmal tonality), and the uncanny that similarly conflates the objective (the setting) and the subjective (interiority). This complex poetics is fostered by images of violence and voracious orality (linked to the industrial sublime) and uncanny figurations of retention and repression. Thus, the representations of the industrial setting and its omnipresent machinery serve as indirect psychological expressions, both of the inner turmoil and unknown depths of an individualized character’s psyche, and of a large-scale collective crisis, so that machinery also turns out to be the tragic paradigm of late Victorian industrial society, as we shall see.

3In ‘The Novelist’s Image of the North’ (1979), D. C. D. Pocock points out how ‘ubiquitous’ (68) smoke and the monotony of the ‘depressing townscape’ (71) are in the industrial novels of Disraeli, Gaskell or Dickens, and how they emphasize the ‘unrelieved Stygian gloom and terror’ (68) of The Old Curiosity Shop, a view shared by Patrick Brantlinger in ‘Dickens and the Factories’ (1971), in which he focuses on the dreariness of the manufacturing townscape and the terrifying image of machinery in this novel.

  • 7 Butler is of course a notable exception: ‘. . .  Butler in his ‘Book of the Machines’ in Erewhon (1 (...)
  • 8 Manlove also evokes Hardy’s novels where ‘the machine is subsumed in the workings of fate against t (...)

4However, in Dickens’s works, and by and large, in Victorian industrial novels, machines are part of the background, subservient to a humanistic message, and are not depicted for their own sake or in detail. Colin Manlove remarks in ‘Charles Kingsley, H. G. Wells, and the Machine in Victorian Fiction’ (1993) that ‘Where the machine appears in the Victorian novel—scarcely any poetry of significance deigns to admit it’ and ‘it is rarely central to the work as fiction’ (213).7 He quotes various examples illustrating the peripheral and merely illustrative function of machinery, in E. Gaskell’s North and South (1854–55), in Disraeli’s Coningsby (1844), when a visit to a Manchester factory reveals the ‘more-than-human abilities of the machines and the apparent contentment of their operatives’ (Manlove 213), or in Hard Times that ‘shows us the effect of the machine making people mechanical’ (213).8 For Herbert Sussman, ‘. . . Hard Times focuses on the effects of mechanized labor on the workers’ minds. Although the book never describes a factory interior, it abounds with attempts to describe the psychological state of a machine-tender’ (Sussman 67).

5Yet, in The Old Curiosity Shop, and in Hard Times, the representational and mythopoetic logic adopted for machines, as for the workers themselves, is panoramic and rather plural than individualized, showing the endless repetition of the same depressing and unhealthy collective entity, deprived of distinctive taxonomic features. The Dickensian metonymic and metaphoric poetics blurs, and even collapses, the frontiers between the humanized machines and the mechanized humans, between the organic and inorganic, that disturbingly come to be undistinguishable, as in Hard Times, with the juxtaposition of ‘The looms, and wheels, and Hands all out of gear for an hour’ (91). Besides, although the workers of the spinning mill are just ‘[s]o many hundred Hands’ (91), the ‘short pinnacles’ of the New church are ironically ‘like florid wooden legs’ (29) and although nature has been irretrievably destroyed in and around Coketown, Stephen, one of the few individualized ‘Hands’, works in a ‘forest of looms’ (91).

  • 9 ‘For Ure, not only does the machine serve as a model for the mechanized human body, but the human b (...)

6The presence of this conflation in works of fiction echoes the surprisingly fantastic (and grotesque) images present in contemporary scientific and economic writings on industry, such as Andrew Ure’s The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835)9 which uncannily evokes ‘more or less automatic’ machines ‘embodied in the coal-mines’ (11; emphasis added). Chapter 45 of The Old Curiosity Shop is a poetic purple patch resting on a nightmarish modality of the (industrial) sublime, and drawing consistent comparisons between the anthropomorphic components of the industrial landscape and the dehumanized population present in it. The anonymous and collective groups of wild, ragged workers or unemployed men about to go on a rampage are mere ‘figures moving to and fro’ (340) or ‘bands’ (340) whose ‘untamed air’ makes them look like the engines they tend, described as ‘wrathful monsters’ (339). These angry men embody threatening eruptive forces in response to the unremitting violence inflicted on their uncanny doubles, the ‘bodies’ of the enslaved machines ‘shrieking’ and ‘clanking their iron chains’, ‘as if in torment unendurable’ (339). The ‘agonies’ of the engines that ‘spun and writhed like tortured creatures’ (339) indirectly express the pains and bondage of the exploited proletariat and the notion they will sooner or later strike back.

  • 10 The deranged, and therefore, potentially dangerous or riotous elephants reappear at least twice, as (...)

7Besides, in The Old Curiosity Shop, when the ‘tall chimneys’ ‘[pour] out their plague of smoke’ (339) and darken the atmosphere ‘[o]n every side and as far as the eye [can] see into the heavy distance’ (338), ‘never ceasing in their black vomit’ so that they make ‘foul the melancholy air’ (339), the hypallage seemingly shifts the burden of ‘melancholy’ from sentient beings onto the air of the industrial cityscape, implicitly suggesting that melancholy has become pervasive and ubiquitous, as the new disease or ‘plague’ (339) of the industrial civilization. In Hard Times, the displaced figuration of ‘melancholy madness’ is also particularly striking, as early as Book I, chapter 5, which presents a panoramic description of Coketown, ‘a town of machinery and tall chimneys’, where ‘the piston of the steam-engine worked monotonously up and down, like the head of an elephant in a state of melancholy madness’ (28).10

8In both novels, the recurrence of the adjective melancholy points to the hazards of an incipient collective pathology. However, in The Old Curiosity Shop, it has no direct impact on Little Nell’s life and the role of chapter 45 is only cautionary, as a warning on the deleterious effects of industrialization. Nell and her companions merely walk through this hell and leave it behind, like a nightmare dispelled by daylight and by the pastoral world they take refuge in. Likewise, in Hard Times, the elephant-like factory pistons are, apparently at least, relatively circumscribed symbols of present social evils. Yet, they can also be read as ominous symptoms of a growing, larger-scale threat to society’s health and sanity.

  • 11 Raut is first referred to as ‘the man’ and his mistress as ‘the woman’ in the opening paragraphs. L (...)
  • 12 Therefore, the woman will remain nameless throughout, and solely identified through her wifely stat (...)

9By the time H. G. Wells had published ‘The Cone’ (1895), the contagious disease had actually spread dramatically. In this short story, melancholy no longer has a figurative (and merely collective) cautionary meaning as the metaphoric disease of machines. It now affects three individualized characters, Horrocks, the manager of ironworks in the Five Towns area in Staffordshire, his unfaithful wife, and her lover Raut, who is an artist (presumably a painter) and also turns out to be Horrocks’s friend. However, these three characters are initially anonymous,11 not because they are part of an anonymous crowd, like the ‘hands’ of industrial novels, but because their nameless status reflects their estrangement from their world, showing that, somehow, their inhuman environment has made them alien. Besides they also have an exemplary dimension12 and so does the archetypal love triangle they form. Unlike the ‘Hands’ of industrial fiction, they are not members of the proletariat, but, like them—although for different reasons—they live bitterly miserable lives and suffer from melancholy. Their privileged social status is an ironic turn of the screw showing that the disease of the piston elephants has worked its way up to higher social spheres. Horrocks is actually called the ‘ironmaster’ (101), a term whose social implications are illuminated by one of the epigraphs to chapter 8 of Asa Briggs’s Victorian Things: ‘The term ‘ironmaster’ has almost become a synonym in general parlance for a rich man.’ (J. Stephen Jeans’s The Iron Trade of Great Britain (1906); Briggs 289)

  • 13 Isaiah 66.14–17 and 66.24.
  • 14 The tongue of flame explicitly refers to Last Judgement. Yet, it can also be interpreted as a figur (...)
  • 15 The same Biblical connotations inflect a previous description of the ironworks with the image of ‘t (...)

10When the story begins at dusk, Horrocks is not yet back home from work, and Raut and ‘the woman’ are planning an elopement. Raut evokes the disfigured, nightmarish environment they are compelled to live in: ‘“This country was all fresh and beautiful once,” he said; “and now—it is Gehenna. Down that way—nothing but pot-banks and chimneys belching fire and dust into the face of heaven”’ (98). The Biblical reference is quite apt, in many different respects. Gehenna is the sojourn of the sinful dead abandoned by God and condemned to everlasting torment by fire in perpetual darkness.13 The woman and her lover are, indeed, sinful and Raut will actually be horribly punished by fire when, in a fit of mad jealousy, Horrocks hurls him into one of his furnaces: a ‘tongue of flame’ (107)14 is released by the lifted cone shutting the top of the furnace and Raut is burnt to death.15

11Besides, the reference to Gehenna, apart from its ethical meaning and proleptic role, fitly defines the prevalent state of melancholy of industrial civilization, which is here represented as a fallen world forsaken by God, punished for defiling and disfiguring His Creation and for worshipping the new gods of capital and machinery.

12The woman is ‘discontented’ (98) with her married life in an uncongenial environment, with a husband who presumably neglects her because of his devotion to his iron-works. Yet, taciturn and lumpish though he appears to be, she and Raut misapprehend and grossly misjudge him:

‘He thinks of nothing but the works and the prices of fuel. He has no imagination, no poetry.’
‘None of these men of iron have,’ he said sententiously. ‘They have no hearts.’ (98)

  • 16 Contrary to John Hammond’s depiction of the character in H. G. Wells and the Short Story (1992), Ho (...)

13Focalization constantly shifts in ‘The Cone’, alternating between unendorsed judgements from the characters themselves—either in direct speech or, more frequently and ambiguously, in free indirect speech—and the narrator’s own authoritative voice that controls the narrative. This dominant voice unobtrusively contradicts some of the subjective assessments of Horrocks as the use of the adverb ‘sententiously’ clearly shows here (98), or when we can tell Raut’s simplistically negative vision of Horrocks as ‘this slouching, scowling monster’ (105) from the narrator’s more nuanced and subtle stance towards this very enigmatic character.16 The generic hybridity of the short story is actually fostered by these constant and subtle shifts in focalization whereby, when a character’s subjective point of view and/or affectivity control/s the narrative, the fantastic dominates (together with the industrial sublime), whereas the narrator’s more objective and detached stance preserves the realistic regime that remains the frame of the text.

  • 17 Despite his association with his industrial machines, Horrocks’s chest, heart and feelings radicall (...)

14Beyond the fact Raut and the wife are quite wrong about Horrocks having no heart, like a machine,17 their brief dialogue hints at the very complex nature of the industrialist whose dehumanizing association with iron is both adequate and, ironically or even tragically, deceptive. So is his inhuman-sounding name, with its rock-like connotations, that do not correspond to his true nature that is far from unfeeling. Yet, this name prefigures the horror of the murder he will commit.

  • 18 The approach to the mechanical in ‘The Cone’ is a far cry from the homely and jocular mood of ‘The (...)

15Horrocks is in more senses than one, a man ‘of iron’ (98), a judgement conflating the figurative and the literal. He is not only an ironmaster but a man of iron because of his strength—as when, on the way to the works, his arm twists into Raut’s ‘with benumbing tightness’ (103) and ‘like a vice’ (104)—and because of his sudden but unflinching determination to get rid of his rival that night. Moreover, his wife’s and Raut’s reductionist vision of him as a man of iron may be reminiscences of the ‘iron man’ (Ure 367), a spinning automaton that Ure extolled in The Philosophy of Manufactures (1835). Andrew Zimmerman’s assessment of it in ‘The Ideology of the Machine and the Spirit of the Factory: Remarx on Babbage and Ure’ (1997) provides the rationale for the two lovers’ own perception of Horrocks: ‘The mechanical human, the automaton, provides a model that allows Ure to speak of humans, machines, and factories as ontologically similar, as uniformly mechanical’ (Zimmerman 13). Raut and the wife are, however, quite mistaken about the ‘ironmaster’. She finds his affinities with the mechanic and his technophilia quite repulsive and alien when she evokes his ‘dreadful theory’ that ‘machinery is beautiful, and everything else in the world ugly’ (100). This ‘theory’, more than a sign of actual technophilia, actually sounds like the compensatory fantasy of a lonely, disillusioned man. So does the sentimental way he describes his huge, powerful furnaces in the masculine and calls one of them his ‘pet’ (103).18

  • 19 Although George Robertson’s painting Nant-y-Glo Iron Works (c. 1788) predates Wells’s story by a hu (...)

16After discovering his wife’s and friend’s betrayal, Horrocks takes Raut on a sort of aesthetic guided tour to ‘show [him] some fine effects of moonlight and smoke’ (99), as he had promised a few days before. The ‘lowering sky’ (98) evoked in the first paragraph of the short story foreshadows Horrocks’s own ‘lowering’ anger and looks just as dark and threatening by the time he takes his long night walk with Raut. If this walk is so angst-ridden—for Raut and above all for the reader—it is because the strong tension that prevails is heightened both by the psychological symbolism of the setting (perceived by the reader) and by the very forceful description of the industrial landscape that probably largely reflects Raut’s own subjective (and aesthetic) perception of it. It is characterized by the pictorial qualities and infernal imagery of the industrial sublime with numerous references to the dark, fiery and fuliginous colours of the ‘landscape’, such as the ‘yellow glare of some late-working factory’ (101), and the ‘colossal’ furnaces, ‘inky-black, and crowned with smoke and fitful flames’ (102).19

  • 20 The metaphor of the ‘penthouse’ (a house on a roof or the top floor of a building; a sloping roof b (...)

17During the walk with Horrocks, Raut remembers a first vague and ignored warning, ‘the mere vague jealousy’ that his companion ‘had shown once before’ (105). On the evening when the story begins, when the ironmaster returns home earlier than expected, his deceptive silence and seemingly impassive behaviour prevent Raut and the unfaithful wife from ascertaining the extent of what he has just overheard and more crucially, from fully measuring the violence of his emotional shock. He glides noiselessly into the room, like a ghost, so that ‘In the shadow of the room stood a great shadowy figure—silent’ (99). The wife and Raut only see his ‘face dimly in the half-light, with unexpressive dark patches under the penthouse20 brows’ (99; emphasis added), and when he eventually speaks, his voice is ‘colourless’ (99). The fiery colours of the industrial landscape at night consequently provide an indirect expression of the intense, violent feelings that passed unnoticed at Horrocks’s that evening because they were left unsaid and were exclusively conveyed in non-verbal ways.

Horrocks, still silent, sat down abruptly in the chair by her little work-table. His big hands were clenched; one saw now the fire of his eyes under the shadow of his brows. He was trying to get his breath. His eyes went from the woman he had trusted to the friend he had trusted, and then back to the woman.
By this time and for the moment all three half understood one another. Yet none dared say a word to ease the pent-up things that choked them. (99)

  • 21 Ketabgian here refers to George Man Burrows’s Commentaries on the Causes, Forms, Symptoms, and Trea (...)

18This descriptive passage is the first direct approach to the wounded character whose tell-tale fiery eyes and clenched hands Raut and the wife are too worried and nervous to pay sufficient attention to. This close-up on Horrocks’s eyes and hands evinces an in-depth understanding of contemporary psychology, and is informed by the Victorian medical approach to melancholy that Tamara Ketabgian deals with in chapter 2 of The Lives of Machines (2011), pointing out that this disorder is ‘identified both with extreme states of feeling and the apparent absence of emotion’ (Ketabgian 56) and that for ‘Bell and Burrows,21 rage is never far from dejection’ (57). Indeed, the ‘impassive melancholy’ of the elephant machines of Hard Times, just as the silent, pent-up suffering of Horrocks, ‘[contain] an equally threatening capacity for violence and instability’ (57). They ‘serve as a lexicon for deeply opaque forms of affect’ (Ketabgian 64). The ‘sultry gloom of [Horrocks’s] eyes’ (100) and the ‘grim quiet in his voice’ (100) pertain to these ‘opaque forms of affect’ that Louisa Gradgrind evokes in Hard Times: ‘As her father presses her to marry Bounderby, Louisa comments on Coketown in a figure that applies simultaneously to her own stifled passion and the resentment of the workers: “There seems to be nothing there but languid and monotonous smoke. Yet when the night comes, Fire bursts out, father.”’ (Sussman 63)

  • 22 This may be another instance of free indirect speech, conveying Raut’s very negative and condescend (...)

19Wells actually picks up where Dickens left off in Hard Times. Horrocks’s repressed but threatening feelings have much to do with Louisa’s self-assessment and view of Coketown, and with Dickens’s melancholy engine elephant as Ketabgian interprets it. The ironmaster’s powerful build, ‘clumsy figure’ (99)22 and ‘big, clumsy hand[s]’ (100) have something elephant-like but, above all, his life as ironmaster apparently obeys the same ‘machine-like regularity’ (Ketabgian 64) as that of the piston elephant. Yet, this regularity is in no way ‘manageable, predictable, and unmysterious’ (64) just as the direction of the plot and generic affiliation of the text are unexpected and unusual.

20‘The Cone’ is generically hybrid, like Wells’s scientific romances of the 1890s. It could be defined as an industrial romance with a strongly realistic substratum: the clearly contextualized industrial world of the Five Towns in the 1890s, a plot hinging on a love (and revenge) story ending tragically, together with an elaborate and convincing characterization. As John Hammond writes in H. G. Wells and the Short Story (1992):

In the spring of 1888 [Wells] was convalescing after a bout of illness and was invited by his old student-friend William Burton to stay at Etruria while regaining his health and strength. He accepted the invitation gladly, staying at Burton’s home for nearly three months, reading, writing . . . and exploring the landscape of the Five Towns. (83)
One of the most interesting aspects of ‘The Cone’ is the wealth of topographical detail it contains; armed with a street-map of Stoke-on-Trent the reader can follow every stage of the walk from Horrocks’s home to the ironworks. During his stay in the Potteries Wells had resided at Victoria Street, Basford, and it seems safe to assume that this is the starting point of the journey. Walking down the hill from Basford the two men cross the railway and the Trent and Mersey Canal before approaching the Etruria Steel Works (then known as Earl Granville’s Etruria Furnaces). En route they absorb the distinctive landscape of the Five Towns: the atmosphere compounded of mist and dust; the glaring lights . . . ; the collieries; the rumbling of steel trains. . . . The locality made a deep impression on Wells—then a young man of 21 who had had no previous experience of industrial England—and remained in his imagination for many years. Later he was to write two novels set largely in the Potteries,
In the Days of the Comet (1906) and The New Machiavelli (1911). (Hammond 85)

21This compelling first-hand experience of the Five Towns area is only one of the factors accounting for the merits of the story. More strikingly, it is the fact that machinery serves as an indirect means of characterization, providing an oblique and yet in-depth figuration of the unconscious workings of a character’s psyche, that makes ‘The Cone’ truly ground-breaking in literary and representational terms.

  • 23 In his paper on Ure, Steve Edwards’s list of some ‘Gothic’ characters such as ‘spectres, alchemists (...)

22In this respect, Wells largely goes beyond the ‘analogy of body and machine’ (18) that Steve Edwards evokes in ‘Factory and Fantasy in Andrew Ure’ (2001), and that ‘has become such a commonplace in capitalistic societies’ (18). ‘The Cone’ is a far cry from the ‘synecdochic substitution’ (22) between workers and hands, whereby the factory is described like a body and humans reified and mechanized, and it radically diverges from gothic, or science fiction scenarios ‘where inanimate objects come to life and run amok’ (29).23 Manlove justly argues that ‘the machine is given serious treatment’ in genres such as fantasy and science fiction that still ‘relegate[d] it to the literary periphery’ (212). Yet, As Lucy Sheehan contends in ‘Trials of Embodiment: Being a Gothic Body in Mary Barton’ (2012), it would be wrong to think these generic forms ‘obscure historical social reality’ and are inadequate to ‘depict class politics’ (35). Romance does not ‘divert attention from the political’ (36), and ‘the spectre of the Gothic’ unquestionably serves a critical function. Indeed, Wells’s ‘technological’ fiction not only provides a very valuable ‘insight into both the continuing and changing views of the machine in the nineteenth century’ (Manlove 212–13) but its poetics is both strongly political and psychological in its scope.

23The title of Wells’s story initially sounds enigmatic and the technological meaning and psychological symbolism of the cone are not immediately clear. The eponymous cone that blocks up the top of the furnace is part of the realistic industrial dimension of the text while also pertaining to an uncanny imaginary as the figuration of Horrocks’s repressed and threateningly eruptive feelings. The first word of the short story is, quite aptly, ‘the night’. It introduces the disturbing description of the industrial ‘landscape’ at dusk. The night is also the paradigm of the subliminal logic of the narrative and of Horrocks’s dark psyche.

24The end is inscribed in the beginning. The proleptic depiction of the dark, fiery industrial landscape at nightfall is saturated with images of violence and destruction. Horrocks’s portrait is drawn indirectly through the setting that precedes his actual physical introduction into the story. The ‘red rimmed’ sunset sky (98) may well refer to the eyes of this jealous husband made sleepless by his racking doubts about his wife and friend. The red sunset also presumably prefigures the death of Raut in the fiery furnace. Like the ‘lowering sky’ (98) which is the counterpart of ‘the fire under the shadow of [Horrocks’s] brows’ (99) and the ‘sultry gloom’ (99) in his eyes, the generalized darkness and fire in the setting suggest ‘a vast and unknowable depth’ (Ketabgian 64), ‘the presence of threatening hidden energies’ (64), and they stand for a ‘model of affect that is grounded in impenetrability’ (65).

25However, what radically distinguishes ‘The Cone’ from previous industrial fiction is that it does not dehumanize its characters in the least. Horrocks, in spite of the dreadful sin he commits at the end, looks neither bestial nor machine-like and remains quintessentially human throughout. His depiction rests on the same complex mixture of realism and the uncanny and the same symbolic and psychological use of the setting as in chapter 2 of Bleak House in which the dreary, rain-sodden Dedlock estate gives a subtle indirect portrait of the melancholy Lady Dedlock. But where the poetics of ‘The Cone’ is quite innovative is in its handling of machinery as a way of illuminating the psyche of an individualized character. The uncanny representation of the train, at the opening of the story, and later on, Horrocks’s explanations about the cone, give indirect clues to his opacity, his unconscious drives and dangerously pent-up feelings. The teratomorphic vision of the railway tunnel is clearly indebted to previous representations such as Dickens’s ‘The Signalman’ (1866). Yet, the network of throat imagery shows that ‘The Cone’ bifurcates from this by investing these figurations of voracious orality with insightful psychological meaning.

The distant sound of a roaring and rushing drew nearer and grew in volume; the house quivered; one heard the metallic rattle of the tender. As the train passed, there was a glare of light above the cutting and a driving tumult of smoke; one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight black oblongs—eight trucks—passed across the dim grey of the embankment, and were suddenly extinguished one by one in the throat of the tunnel, which with the last, seemed to swallow down train, smoke, and sound in one abrupt gulp. (98)

26The greedy throat of the tunnel disturbingly foreshadows the ‘throat of the furnace’ (107) that will finally swallow down Raut, just as, throughout the story, Horrocks had swallowed his feelings of anger and misery. Throats both epitomize the ravages of industry that devours everything around it and symbolize psychological mechanisms of repression. As the industrialist ominously explains to Raut during their night tour of the iron-works, furnaces used to have ‘open throats’ but now, they look as if they were gagged and stifled. They can no longer ‘flare out’ because cones are ‘shoved’ in their throats, as if preventing them from giving vent to their feelings.

‘But these furnaces of mine used to be finer, before we shoved cones in their throats, and saved the gas.’
‘How?’ said Raut. ‘Cones?’
‘Cones, my man, cones. I’ll show you one nearer. The flames used to flare out of the open throats, great—what is it—? pillars of cloud by day, red and black smoke, and pillars of fire by night. Now we run it off in pipes, and burn it to heat the blast, and the top is shut by a cone. You’ll be interested in that cone.’
‘But every now and then,’ said Raut, ‘you get a burst of fire and smoke up there.’
‘The cone’s not fixed, it’s hung by a chain from a lever, and balanced by an equipoise. You shall see it nearer. Else of course, there’d be no way of getting fuel into the thing. Every now and then the cone dips, and out comes the flare.’ (103–04)

27When the cone of the furnace goes up at the end of the story, releasing pressure, steam and fire, the ironmaster’s own violent, pent-up feelings have finally found an outlet. Besides, the terrifying death of Raut gives the ravenous railway tunnel and the ceaseless fire of the voracious furnaces another unexpected meaning that retrospectively (re)orients and enriches our interpretation of the story. ‘The Cone’, therefore, is not only a generically mixed industrial romance, but a late Victorian industrial tragedy in which machinery represents a new, modern modality of determinism. The colossal and overwhelming scale of the ironworks and the Staffordshire industrial landscape represents a very apt background for this modern tragedy in which the unheroic nature of the characters is both heightened and offset by the presence of the industrial sublime in the text. What happens in ‘The Cone’ obeys a relentless form of determinism originating in the characters’ environment, their flawed personalities and their misguided choices and actions. These combined factors are like the cogs and wheels of a tragic mechanism that, once set into motion, cannot be stopped just as the irresistible onward march of industrialization cannot be reversed. If Horrocks had not been an ‘ironmaster’ so devoted to his furnaces and his iron works, his wife would not have felt lonely, neglected and miserable in this inhuman and disfigured industrial environment, and she would not have turned to an artist, and been unfaithful. Before they plan to elope, she says to Raut that he has ‘come into [her] life’ ‘to open’ what she calls a ‘wonderful world’ (99). Horrocks would not have committed the irreparable if his pent-up feelings had found adequate expression and if his mind had not worked in the same way as the eponymous cone. Machines represent the starting-point or origin of the tragedy, its instrument or vehicle, and its outcome as the story ends next to one of the furnaces at the iron-works.

28Ironically, Raut had wrongly viewed Horrocks as a ‘scowling monster’ (105) but Horrocks actually becomes one by hurling his rival into the furnace, causing him to die in unbearable pains, to lose the semblance of humanity and become in his turn ‘an inhuman monstrous creature’ (108). Horrocks sees Raut go through the evolutionary process in reverse—becoming first ‘a charred, blackened figure’, ‘writhing in agony’, then ‘a cindery animal, an inhuman monstrous creature’ sobbing and shrieking in pain, and finally a ‘thing’ (108), referred to with the neutral pronoun ‘it’—while he is being consumed and devoured by the furnace.

Abruptly, at the sight, the ironmaster’s anger passed. A deadly sickness came upon him. The heavy odour of burning flesh came drifting up to his nostrils. His sanity returned to him.
‘God have mercy upon me!’ he cried. ‘O God! What have I done?’
He knew the thing below him, save that it still moved and felt, was already a dead man—that the blood of the poor wretch must be boiling in his veins. An intense realisation of that agony came to his mind, and overcame every other feeling. For a moment he stood irresolute, and then, turning to the truck, he hastily tilted its contents upon the struggling thing that had once been a man. The mass fell with a thud, and went radiating over the cone. With the thud the shriek ended, and a boiling confusion of smoke, dust, and flame came rushing up towards him. As it passed, he saw the cone clear again.
Then he staggered back, and stood trembling, clinging to the rail with both hands. His lips moved, but no words came to them.
Down below was the sound of voices and running steps. The clangour of rolling in the shed ceased abruptly. (108)

29The end of this deafening ‘clangour’ corresponds to the last sentence of the short story. Just before this sudden restoration of silence, the ‘boiling confusion’ in the furnace also ceases, symbolically freeing the cone, but also purging Horrocks of his violence and hatred. This scene has a cathartic tonality since the ironmaster experiences terror and pity. He no longer feels anger but only compassion for ‘the poor wretch’ whose ‘agony’ he fully measures. The fact he ‘tilt[s] the contents’ of the truck upon Raut could be seen as a last symbol of repression and a vain attempt to deny and hide his responsibility but the context rather suggests an act of mercy in order to put an end to his former friend’s excruciating pain. This is all the more likely as his ‘sanity return[s] to him’ and God, who seemed to be quite absent from his world, is reintroduced in it and invoked in awe. The ‘tongue of flame, released from the chaos’ of the furnace and ‘flicker[ing] up towards [Raut]’ (109) is indeed murderous and destructive but also brings a form of purification and purgation.

30The open ending gives no explicit clue about the outcome but implicitly seems to suggest Horrocks’s conscience and/or human justice will not allow him to get away with what he has done.

31Wells’s story pioneers a new aesthetic in order to address ‘the unprecedented social and cultural forces that were transforming English society’ (175) as Nils Clausson writes in ‘Dickens’s Genera Mixta: What Kind of a Novel Is Hard Times?’ (2010), insisting on the rarity of ‘genuinely new’ genres (164). For Clausson, they rather turn out to be ‘a transformation or combination of existing genres’, a recycling and fusing process strikingly exemplified by ‘the strategy H. G. Wells used to create his scientific romances of the 1890s’ (164), and, we may add, by the lesser known, and memorable industrial romance and industrial tragedy of ‘The Cone’ with its three flawed and exemplary characters, who are indeed all three guilty but are above all the victims of their environment that traps and crushes them like a relentless mechanism. In his June 1829 Edinburgh Review essay ‘Signs of the Times’, Carlyle had prophetically diagnosed the deleterious mechanization of life and wrote:

Were we required to characterise this age of ours by any single epithet, we should be tempted to call it, not an Heroical, Devotional, Philosophical, or Moral Age, but, above all others, the Mechanical Age. It is the Age of Machinery, in every outward and inward sense of that word. (100)
Men are grown mechanical in head and in heart, as well as in hand. (103)

32Wells’s three characters are definitely not ‘grown mechanical’ but Horrocks’s revenge is achieved through machinery, just as his thirst for revenge has the same unflinching and inhuman strength and persistence as that of a machine. The genera mixta nature of this late Victorian story of the 1890s and the industrial tragedy of Horrocks, his wife and Raut are, therefore, unmistakable ‘signs’ of very dark and troubled ‘times’.

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Primary sources

Burke, Edmund. A Philosophical Enquiry into the Origin of our Ideas of the Sublime and Beautiful (1757). Ed. Adam Phillips. Oxford: OUP, 1998.

Carlyle, Thomas. ‘Signs of the Times’ (1829). The Edinburgh Review, June 1829: 98–118. Last accessed 24 January 2017)

Dickens, Charles. The Old Curiosity Shop. 1841. Ed. Elizabeth M. Brennan. Oxford: OUP, 1998.

Dickens, Charles. ‘The Individuality of Locomotives.’ Household Words 1.26 (21 September 1850): 614–15. Last accessed 16 December 2016.

Dickens, Charles. Bleak House. 1853. London: Penguin, 1994.

Dickens, Charles. Hard Times. 1854. Ed. Paul Schlicke. Oxford: OUP, 1989.

Dickens, Charles. ‘The Signalman’. 1866. Selected Short Fiction. Ed. Deborah A. Thomas. London: Penguin, 1985.

Leigh, Percival. ‘The Laboratory of the Chest’. Household Words (7 September 1850): 565–69. Last accessed 10 January 2017.

Ure, Andrew. The Philosophy of Manufactures. London: Charles Knight, Ludgate Street, 1835. Last accessed 16 November 2016.

Wells, H. G. ‘The Cone’. 1895. The Red Room and Other Stories. Ed. John Hammond. London: Orion, Phoenix Paperbacks, 1998.

Wells, H. G. The Time Machine. 1895. Ed. John Lawton. London: J. M. Dent, Everyman, New Centennial Edition, 1995.

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Brantlinger, Patrick. ‘Dickens and the Factories’. Nineteenth-Century Fiction 26.3 (December 1971): 270–85.

Briggs, Asa. Victorian Things. 1988. London: Penguin, 1990.

Clausson, Nils. ‘Dickens’s Genera Mixta: What Kind of a Novel Is Hard Times?’ Texas Studies in Literature and Language 52.2 (Summer 2010): 157–80.

Edwards, Steve. ‘Factory and Fantasy in Andrew Ure’. Journal of Design History 14.1 (2001): 17–33.

Hammond, John. R. H. G. Wells and the Short Story. Basingstoke, Houndmills and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1992.

Hillis Miller, Joseph. The Disappearance of God. Five Nineteenth-Century Writers. Cambridge, MA.: The Belknap P. of Harvard UP, 1963.

Ketabgian, Tamara. The Lives of Machines: The Industrial Imaginary in Victorian Literature and Culture. Ann Arbor: U of Michigan P, 2011.

Klingender, Francis D. Art and the Industrial Revolution. 1947. Ed. Arthur Elton. Frogmore, St Albans: Paladin, 1972.

Manlove, Colin. ‘Charles Kingsley, H. G. Wells, and the Machine in Victorian Fiction’. Nineteenth-Century Literature 48.2 (September 1993): 212–39.

Meadowsong, Zena. ‘Thomas Hardy and the Machine: The Mechanical Deformation of Narrative Realism in Tess of the d’Urbervilles’. Nineteenth-Century Literature 64.2 (September 2009): 225–48.

Pocock, D. C. D. ‘The Novelist’s Image of the North’. Transactions of the Institute of British Geographers 4.1 (1979): 62–76.

Sheehan, Lucy. ‘Trials of Embodiment: Being a Gothic Body in Mary Barton’. Victorian Review 38.1 (Spring 2012): 35–53.

Sussman, Herbert L. Victorians and the Machine. The Literary Response to Technology. Cambridge, MA.: Harvard UP, 1968.

Zimmerman, Andrew. ‘The Ideology of the Machine and the Spirit of the Factory: Remarx on Babbage and Ure’. Cultural Critique 37 (Autumn 1997): 5–29.

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1 Machines are a recurrent aspect of Wells’s fiction from the 1890s on, not only in his novellas The Time Machine (1895) or The War of the Worlds (1898), in his novel Tono-Bungay (1909), but also in his short stories, such as ‘The Diamond Maker’ (Pall Mall Budget, 16 August 1894), ‘The Lord of the Dynamos’ (Pall Mall Budget, 16 September 1894), ‘The Argonauts in the Air’ (Phil May’s Annual, December 1895), ‘Filmer’ (Graphic, December 1901) or ‘The Land Ironclads’ (Strand Magazine, December 1903). John Hammond provides a very useful ‘Checklist’ of Wells’s short story corpus in the third chapter of H. G. Wells and the Short Story (1992), 29–39.

2 ‘The Cone’ was subsequently collected in The Plattner Story and Others (Methuen & Co., 1897), and later reprinted in The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911).

3 It was initially entitled The Chronic Argonauts (Hammond 83).

4 Francis D. Klingender’s Art and the Industrial Revolution (1947) focuses on the perception of the industrial world as a new aesthetic object from the late 1700s, and presents pictorial, poetic and literary modalities of the ‘industrial sublime’, a darkly fascinating, if not nightmarish, form of artificially created and mechanized sublimity. The industrial sublime is characterized by the same properties as the natural, elemental or architectural sublime defined by Burke in his 1757 essay but its attendant vastness, unconquerable power, obscurity, and sense of infinity spring from the huge, more-than-human, and terrifying scale of the man-made industrial landscape.

5 Herbert Sussman, for instance, does not include it in his corpus and neither does Tamara Ketabgian.

6 The phrase is borrowed from Nils Clausson’s essay, ‘Dickens’s Genera Mixta: What Kind of a Novel Is Hard Times?’ (2010).

7 Butler is of course a notable exception: ‘. . .  Butler in his ‘Book of the Machines’ in Erewhon (1872) portrays an Erewhonian argument that machines have all the attributes of people and are therefore a dangerous threat that must be removed. He is actually by inversion satirizing the Huxleyan notion of likening organic life to the machine’ (Manlove, Note 4, 213).

8 Manlove also evokes Hardy’s novels where ‘the machine is subsumed in the workings of fate against the central characters, its progressive and scientific nature sweeping aside the old rural methods’ (213) in The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), for Henchard, or for Tess in Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1891). Tess’s interaction with, and victimization by, the threshing-machine at Flintcomb Ash is however, central and highly symbolic, the machine serving as the mechanized embodiment of, and index to, Alec’s ruthless persecution and exploitation of the heroine, as Zena Meadowsong lucidly shows in ‘Thomas Hardy and the Machine’ (2009).

9 ‘For Ure, not only does the machine serve as a model for the mechanized human body, but the human body also serves as a model for the machine. In several places in The Philosophy of Manufactures, Ure develops detailed anatomical images to describe the workings of a machine’ (Zimmerman 14).

10 The deranged, and therefore, potentially dangerous or riotous elephants reappear at least twice, as a disturbing leitmotif: ‘all the melancholy mad elephants, polished and oiled up for the day’s monotony, were at their heavy exercise again’ (Hard Times, Book I, Chapter 11, 91); ‘the melancholy mad elephants, like the Hard Fact men, abated nothing of their set routine, whatever happened’ (Book III, Chapter 5, 340).

11 Raut is first referred to as ‘the man’ and his mistress as ‘the woman’ in the opening paragraphs. Like Raut, Horrocks is only named on the second page of the story, after his initial introduction as a ‘shadowy figure’ (99).

12 Therefore, the woman will remain nameless throughout, and solely identified through her wifely status, as ‘Mrs Horrocks’ (101). Her profile is, significantly, ‘shadowy pallid in the half-light’ (100).

13 Isaiah 66.14–17 and 66.24.

14 The tongue of flame explicitly refers to Last Judgement. Yet, it can also be interpreted as a figuration of Pentecost, since the name of the ironworks, ‘Jeddah Company Blast Furnaces’ (102) can evoke ‘Judea’, namely the ‘men of Judea’ (Acts 2.14) whom God gave the gift of the Holy Spirit to, on the day of Pentecost. Luke evokes the tongues of flame raining down upon them, that ‘clothed [them] in power from on high’ (24.49). Jeddah’s association with the sacred (and sin) could also lie in the fact it is a coastal city in Saudi Arabia where the tomb of Eve is supposed to be located, according to Eastern legends. Besides, Jeddah is the gateway to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.

15 The same Biblical connotations inflect a previous description of the ironworks with the image of ‘tumbled fire writhing in the pit of the blast furnace’ (106) and foreshadow the dreadful outcome. Like the damned in Gehenna, Raut himself will be ‘writhing in agony’ (108) in the furnace at the end of the story with Horrocks watching him dying, and shouting to him: ‘Fizzle, you hunter of women! You hot-blooded hound! Boil! Boil! Boil!’ (107)

16 Contrary to John Hammond’s depiction of the character in H. G. Wells and the Short Story (1992), Horrocks is neither ‘unfeeling’ (84) nor identified with the ‘ancestral ape’ (84) and Wells did definitely not ‘clearly [intend] him to be a malign figure on a par with the Morlocks, a man inspiring dread and fear in all who know him’ (85) or a ‘man committed to ugliness’ (85).

17 Despite his association with his industrial machines, Horrocks’s chest, heart and feelings radically differ from the ‘well-regulated furnace’ that Henry describes to his uncle Mr Bagges in Percival Leigh’s light and humorous scientific dialogue in ‘The Laboratory of the Chest’ (1850). Mr Bagges wonders why ‘if [he has] a fire burning throughout [his] person—which [he] was not aware of’ and ‘if [his] body is burning continually’, how it is that he doesn’t ‘smoke’ (565). Henry’s father assumes that it is perhaps because he ‘consume[s] [his] own smoke’, ‘like every well-regulated furnace’ (565). By the end of the dialogue, Henry marvels at the notion ‘the body is a wonderful factory’ (Leigh 569).

18 The approach to the mechanical in ‘The Cone’ is a far cry from the homely and jocular mood of ‘The Individuality of Locomotives’ (1850) in which Dickens humanizes machines, pointing out that ‘every Locomotive Engine running on a Railway, has a distinct individuality and character of its own’, and ‘its own peculiar whims and ways’ (12). He evokes for instance the ‘meals of coke and water’ some take or the ‘coax[ing]’ others require (12). Throughout, the neutral pronoun is used until a sudden surprising, if not disturbing, slip when one of these engines is said to need time ‘to warm at his work’ (12; emphasis added).

19 Although George Robertson’s painting Nant-y-Glo Iron Works (c. 1788) predates Wells’s story by a hundred odd years (hence the absence of the railway), and it represents South Wales and not Staffordshire, it shares strong affinities with the ‘word painting’ of Wells’s story, conjuring up the fascinating terror of the industrial sublime: ‘Hugging the banks of a sluggish polluted stream, furnaces and chimneys stand out against the red glare of molten iron with a harsh unnatural vitality. Overhead a full moon shines through a sallow haze.’ (Klingender 115)

20 The metaphor of the ‘penthouse’ (a house on a roof or the top floor of a building; a sloping roof built on to another building; an awning or a canopy) is another symbolic reference to concealment and (self-) protection. It is therefore impossible to see Horrocks’s eyes, perceive their exact expression, and understand what he feels.

21 Ketabgian here refers to George Man Burrows’s Commentaries on the Causes, Forms, Symptoms, and Treatment, Moral and Medical, of Insanity (1828) and Charles Bell’s The Anatomy and Philosophy of Expression as Connected with the Fine Arts (1806; 3rd ed., 1844).

22 This may be another instance of free indirect speech, conveying Raut’s very negative and condescending image of Horrocks.

23 In his paper on Ure, Steve Edwards’s list of some ‘Gothic’ characters such as ‘spectres, alchemists, werewolves, vampires’ (29) shows that he uses the term ‘Gothic’ in quite a comprehensive way, as Lucy Sheehan does in her paper on Mary Barton. Instead of this umbrella, very elastic, and historically connoted concept of the ‘Gothic’, I chose to use the generic category of the fantastic to address the representational technique of ‘The Cone’ whose fantastic tonality does not result from anything fantastic or supernatural in the objective sense of the term, but from subjective (and heightened) perceptions of the world that produce a derealizing, uncanny and fantastic effect in the text.

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Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay, « Genera Mixta in Herbert George Wells’s Industrial Romance ‘The Cone’ (1895): Realism, the Uncanny Fantastic, the Industrial Sublime and the Tragic », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 87 Printemps | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 avril 2018, consulté le 16 juillet 2018. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/cve.3536

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Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay

Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay is Professor of 19th-century literature at Université Paris Est Créteil (UPEC) and has published widely on Victorian writers (Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, J. S. Le Fanu, H. G. Wells, A. Conan Doyle in particular), highlighting the cross-fertilization between genres, but also closely focusing on questions of narratology, style and poetics. She wrote Le Fantastique anglo-saxon (1998), translated George MacDonald’s Lilith (1895) into French in 2007, published a monograph entitled L’Autobiographie de Thomas de Quincey. Une Anatomie de la douleur (2010), as well as various papers on Thomas De Quincey.
Françoise Dupeyron-Lafay est Professeur de littérature britannique du xixe siècle à l’Université Paris Est Créteil (UPEC). Ses recherches portent notamment sur Dickens, Wilkie Collins, J. S. Le Fanu, H. G. Wells, A. Conan Doyle et sont orientées par une réflexion sur les croisements et les hybridations génériques, et une approche stylistique, poétique et narratologique. Elle a publié Le Fantastique anglo-saxon (1998), et avec le soutien du CNL, la traduction de Lilith (1895) de George MacDonald en 2007. Outre divers articles sur Thomas De Quincey, elle est aussi l’auteur d’une monographie sur son œuvre, L’Autobiographie de Thomas de Quincey. Une Anatomie de la douleur (2010).

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