"I don't want to put my toys away"
H. G. Wells, Gameplaying and the Narrative Floor
Keywords:H. G. Wells, literary juvenilia, Victorian literature, childhood studies
At a public celebration of his seventieth birthday hosted by the PEN Club in London in October 1936, H. G. Wells expressed dismay at the experience. “I just hate it,” Wells told the gathering that included such luminaries as Bernard Shaw, Julian Huxley, G. B. Stern and André Maurois. “I feel like a youngster at a wonderful party sitting on the floor with all my games spread out before me. When you tell me I am 70, it is as if my nurse were coming to me to say, ‘Bertie, it is getting late—time to put those toys away.’ … I don’t want to put my toys away.” In this startling act of speculative reminiscence, Wells figures himself as a youngster and the toy-covered floor of a child as the material backdrop to his creative activities. “So few of my games are nearly finished,” he continues the metaphor. “Just now I’m playing with films. … I want to write another novel….” (“Wells at 70”). This is not the first time Wells had figured the floor as the material backdrop to creative acts of the imagination. He begins his 1911 hobby book, Floor Games, by noting that “The jolliest indoor games for boys and girls demand a floor, and the home that has no floor upon which games may be played falls so far short of happiness. It must be covered with linoleum or cork carpet, so that toy soldiers and such-like will stand up upon it.” Wells sees access to a “floor upon which games may be played” as being crucial to the creative development of young children. “Upon such a floor may be made an infinitude of imaginative games,” he writes, “not only keeping boys and girls happy for days together, but building up a framework of spacious and inspiring ideas in them for after life” (9-10). As Gene and Margaret Rinkel note, Wells based Floor Games on “lingering childhood memories” of playing with his older brother Freddie on a linoleum floor of their family home at 47 High Street, Bromley. He and Freddie would play on the floor of Atlas House “with soldiers, bricks, boards, and planks. They became captains, lord mayors, and little generals. Bertie improvised and arranged cities, railroads, buildings, seas, and boats” (Rinkel and Rinkel 118).
This essay builds on the work of such scholars as Gene Rinkel and Margaret Rinkel and Teresa Trout to consider how Wells’ childhood gameplaying influenced his literary storytelling, and argues that we need to consider not just the toys he played with or the games he invented as a child, but also the material backdrop for these toys and games, the floor. What is interesting about the floor as an element of gameplay is that it stands both inside and outside the game. On the one hand, it is the foundation of the game, the stable ground on which gameplayers place their toys—for Wells, this meant bricks and soldiers, boards and planks, clockwork railway rolling stock and rails. The floor circumscribes the game world and stays the same while the other elements of the game are in the flux. On the other hand, the floor is a piece of mundane reality that cannot be entirely co-opted into the game because it belongs to the real world as much as to the game. The linoleum- or cork-carpeted floor keeps the game anchored in mundane reality because it is what is left when the game is packed up. As Wells whimsically concedes in Floor Games, “Occasionally, alas! it must be scrubbed—and then a truce to Floor Games” (10). Floor games involve a constant negotiation between the fantasising child who is engrossed in the game and the intervening adult who augurs the intrusion of real-world concerns into the fantastical microcosm.
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