Wells’s Outline – A thronging, amazing Paris

March 26 2009

“In 1919, Paris was the capital of the world.” Margaret MacMillan’s Peacemakers, The Paris Conference of 1919 and Its Attempt to End War, John Murray, 2001.

Below, HG Wells’s Outline of History on Paris in 1919.

Wells, as an older contemporary of Toynbee, wanders into this blog occasionally. But why was the Outline, large parts of which were, as he admitted, cobbled together from the Encyclopædia Britannica, taken so seriously in its time?

It was published as a serial in soft covers in 1919, with colour plates and black-and-white photographs, and drawings and maps by JF Horrabin. The first hard cover book edition appeared in two volumes in 1920, reproducing or imitating the large-page format. The book one sees more often, which endured, was a monochrome single-volume blockbuster with no photographs, but with Horrabin’s drawings and maps.

Wells revised and updated the book more than once. After his death, Raymond Postgate and HG’s son GP Wells took the story up to 1963. The last print edition was in 1971.

What value does the Outline have now? None really, though some passages, including those on Versailles, are vintage Wells (I have quoted another on Versailles here). It’s an otherwise intellectually unsatisfying work, a thousand times superseded. Some saw its limitations at the time, but nearly all agreed that it was a wonderful achievement.

Wells had prestige. There was a hunger for a “synoptic view of world affairs” after the war. But, as I have suggested, it impressed partly because the idea of a world history, strange as this now sounds, was new. There had been ancient and medieval precedents, and a few recent multi-volume syndicated encyclopædic efforts (such as The Historians’ History of the World) in a format which the original, serialised Outline itself partly followed, but nothing by a serious modern figure, pace Ranke and Burckhardt.

Soon, there were imitators. Hendrik Willem van Loon’s The Story of Mankind was particularly popular, not only with children. Spengler’s Decline of the West, very different, had appeared in Germany in 1918.

Edward Shanks’s review of the Outline in The London Mercury is reprinted in Patrick Parrinder, editor, HG Wells, The Critical Heritage, Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1972.

Forster wrote at least three critical articles about it (they are reprinted in The Prince’s Tale and Other Uncollected Writings, André Deutsch, 1998).

Catholics objected. Chesterton wrote a book, The Everlasting Man, to refute its world view. “I do not believe that the past is most truly pictured as a thing in which humanity merely fades away into nature, or civilization merely fades away into barbarism, or religion fades away into mythology, or our own religion fades away into the religions of the world. In short, I do not believe that the best way to produce an outline of history is to rub out the lines.”

Belloc wrote A Companion to Mr Wells’s “Outline of History”. Wells replied with Mr Belloc Objects. Belloc replied with Mr Belloc Still Objects.

Toynbee referred to it in the Study.

Nehru’s Glimpses of World History (I mentioned it here) was a kind of Asian riposte to it. This is an enchanting book, even though, or because, written for a child, his daughter Indira (Gandhi). Somebody offered it in a Sunday newspaper list recently as among the unjustly forgotten books. I’ll second that. I’d rather have it on a desert island than the Wells. Its maps were done by Wells’s illustrator, JF Horrabin.

Virginia Woolf referred to the Wells in Between the Acts.

There was more.


Wells on Versailles and Paris in 1919, mainly relying on a quotation:

“As the heads of the principal Governments implicitly claimed to be the authorized spokesmen of the human race, and endowed with unlimited powers, it is worth noting that this claim was boldly challenged by the people’s organs in the Press. Nearly all the journals read by the masses objected from the first to the dictatorship of the group of Premiers, Mr. Wilson being excepted. … [Footnote: Dillon. And see his The Peace Conference, chapter iii, for instances of the amazing ignorance of various delegates.]

“The restriction upon our space in this Outline will not allow us to tell here how the Peace Conference shrank from a Council of Ten to a Council of Four (Wilson, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, and Orlando), and how it became a conference less and less like a frank and open discussion of the future of mankind, and more and more like some old-fashioned diplomatic conspiracy. Great and wonderful had been the hopes that had gathered to Paris. ‘The Paris of the Conference,’ says Dr. Dillon, ‘ceased to be the capital of France. It became a vast cosmopolitan caravanserai teeming with unwonted aspects of life and turmoil, filled with curious samples of the races, tribes, and tongues of four continents who came to watch and wait for the mysterious to-morrow.

‘An Arabian Nights’ touch was imparted to the dissolving panorama by strange visitants from Tartary and Kurdistan, Korea and Aderbeijan (sic), Armenia, Persia, and the Hedjaz – men with patriarchal beards and scimitar-shaped noses, and others from desert and oasis, from Samarkand and Bokhara. Turbans and fezes, sugar-loaf hats and head-gear resembling episcopal mitres, old military uniforms devised for the embryonic armies of new states on the eve of perpetual peace, snowywhite burnouses, flowing mantles, and graceful garments like the Roman toga, contributed to create an atmosphere of dreamy unreality in the city where the grimmest of realities were being faced and coped with.

‘Then came the men of wealth, of intellect, of industrial enterprise, and the seed-bearers of the ethical new ordering, members of economic committees from the United States, Britain, Italy, Poland, Russia, India, and Japan, representatives of naphtha industries and far-off coal mines, pilgrims, fanatics and charlatans from all climes, priests of all religions, preachers of every doctrine, who mingled with princes, field-marshals, statesmen, anarchists, builders-up and pullers-down. All of them burned with desire to be near to the crucible in which the political and social systems of the world were to be melted and recast. Every day, in my walks, in my apartment, or at restaurants, I met emissaries from lands and peoples whose very names had seldom been heard of before in the West. A delegation from the Pont-Euxine Greeks called on me, and discoursed of their ancient cities of Trebizond, Samsoun, Tripoli, Kerassund, in which I resided many years ago, and informed me that they, too, desired to become welded into an independent Greek Republic, and had come to have their claims allowed. The Albanians were represented by my old friend Turkhan Pasha, on the one hand, and by my friend Essad Pasha on the other – the former desirous of Italy’s protection, the latter demanding complete independence. Chinamen, Japanese, Koreans, Hindus, Kirghizes, Lesghiens, Circassians, Mingrelians, Buryats, Malays, and Negroes and Negroids from Africa and America were among the tribes and tongues foregathered in Paris to watch the rebuilding of the political world system and to see where they “came in.” …’

“To this thronging, amazing Paris, agape for a new world, came President Wilson, and found its gathering forces dominated by a personality narrower, in every way more limited and beyond comparison more forcible than himself: the French Premier, M. Clemenceau. At, the instance of President Wilson, M. Clemenceau was elected President of the Conference. ‘It was,’ said President Wilson, ‘a special tribute to the sufferings and sacrifices of France.’ And that, unhappily, sounded the keynote of the Conference, whose sole business should have been with the future of mankind.”


The “Council of Ten” contained the heads of government and foreign ministers of Britain, France, Italy, the United States and Japan.

The months of the conference were those of the Spartacist uprising in Berlin, of the foundation of the Fascist party in Italy, of the Bavarian and Hungarian Socialist Republics, of the Amritsar massacre in India, of convulsions in Ireland, Egypt, eastern Europe and Russia, Turkey, Korea and China.

Arrival of jazz in France. In painting and a vein of “classical” music, the eve of a return to form and order.

Paris would remain the centre of the Western art world for another twenty years. Then its decline would be as steep as that of Vienna’s in music.

Parisian throngs not embroiled in war or revolution: La comédie humaineLes enfants du paradisLa bohème, Act II … Louise, Act II …

Versailles 1919 (post here)


William Orpen, The Signing of Peace in the Hall of Mirrors, Versailles, London, Imperial War Museum

4 Responses to “Wells’s Outline – A thronging, amazing Paris”

  1. davidderrick Says:

    A selection of Chesterton’s journalism in G.K.’s Weekly was published in 1926 as The Outline of Sanity.

  2. davidderrick Says:

    The French encyclopaedists, I believe, intended to produce a world history, but never did. In any case, it might have been a collaborative effort.

  3. […] A few posts ago I asked why Wells’s Outline of History had made such an impact, when to us it looks like very basic and amateurish history indeed, even when lit by a certain Wellsian charm. I suggested answers, and there is another. Its early chapters appealed to, charmed, as popular science, an educated public still vastly ignorant of science. Toynbee in Volume XII of the Study, Reconsiderations: […]

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