Joan and Peter

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Joan and Peter
AuthorH. G. Wells
CountryUnited Kingdom
GenrePhilosophical novel
Publication date
September 1918

Joan and Peter, a 1918 novel by H. G. Wells, is at once a satirical portrait of late-Victorian and Edwardian England, a critique of the English educational system on the eve of World War I, a study of the impact of that war on English society, and a general reflection on the purposes of education. Wells regarded it as "one of the most ambitious" of his novels.[1]


The novel begins in 1893 with the birth of Peter Stublands, but the first three chapters are devoted to the lives of his parents. Peter's father, Arthur, is one of the heirs of a wealthy family of Quaker manufacturers from the West of England. His mother Dolly is the daughter of a vicar from a well-off family, but being intellectually inclined, she has "read herself out of the great Anglican culture."[2] Arthur, artistically inclined but not especially gifted, is a devotee of the Arts and Crafts movement and a Fabian socialist. Dolly meets him and falls in love with him while she is studying "in the Huxley days as a free student at the Royal College of Science."[3] Arthur designs a house near Limpsfield called the Ingle-Nook, where they live, and where Peter is born. Arthur has two sisters with advanced ideas, Aunt Phyllis and Aunt Phoebe, who are regular visitors.

Dolly, however, has retained strong feelings for a cousin who joined the navy, Oswald Sydenham, whose face is terribly scarred from the bombardment of Alexandria, and is devoting his career to extending the British Empire in Africa. When Arthur's free-thinking goes so far as to make him unfaithful to Dolly, Oswald and Dolly fall in love, but Dolly rejects Oswald's passionate appeal to defy convention and live with him in Central Africa. Dejected, Oswald leaves to continue his work in Africa. The reconciliation of Dolly and Arthur has a tragic consequence, however: on a trip meant to celebrate the overcoming of their differences, they are drowned in a boating accident off Capri.

In their wills, Dolly and Arthur had named Oswald as the guardian of their son. But because of Dolly's leanings toward Oswald, Arthur changed his will just before he died to add three other guardians: Aunts Phoebe and Phyllis, on his side, and Lady Charlotte Sydenham on Dolly's. The operation of this will in the absence of Oswald in Africa results in an extended battle over the education of Peter and also of Joan, a child of Dolly's brother born out of wedlock and entrusted to them.

Phoebe and Phyllis are devoted to the suffragette cause and undertake their guardianship with enthusiasm, but Lady Charlotte, "one of those large, ignorant, ruthless, Low-Church, wealthy, and well-born ladies who did so much to make England what it was in the days before the Great War,"[4] abhors their values. She schemes to christen Joan and Peter, then plots to remove the children from the faddish "School of St. George and the Venerable Bede," based on the ideas of Froebel and Ruskin, in order to educate them more traditionally. With the assistance of her solicitor, Lady Charlotte kidnaps the children. Peter is placed in the High Cross Preparatory School, located near Windsor Castle, and Joan finds herself at the mercy of an evil-spirited Mrs. Pybus, the sister of Lady Charlotte's servant. Peter is bullied and mistreated by fellow-students and teachers alike, and runs away after being unjustly punished; Joan falls ill. Oswald returns to England after having "given nearly eighteen years to East and Central Africa,"[5] especially Uganda. It is 1903, and his health has forced him to return to England, determined to devote himself to the education of his wards.

The battle over control of the children's education ends when witnesses prove that Dolly perished after Arthur. As a result, her will prevails. Oswald becomes sole guardian of Joan and Peter and undertakes to find them the best education possible. He is disappointed to learn that there are no schools adapted to the needs of the time. Ultimately he sends Peter to White Court and Joan to Highmorton School. Peter later attends Caxton, and Oswald moves to a home at Pelham Ford, in Ware, Hertfordshire. A Mrs. Moxton keeps house. Chapter 11, "Adolescence," is the longest of the novel, and analyzes in some detail the growth to maturity of Joan and Peter. That they have grown up as brother and sister delays the realization that they love each other; indeed, for much of their adolescence they are deeply at odds with one another. But when Joan learns of the details of her own origin and that there is no impediment to their relationship, deeper feelings re-emerge. Joan and Peter are now both students at Cambridge. War breaks out, and Peter enlists, then joins the Royal Flying Corps. He is nearly killed in combat, and it is while he is recuperating back in England that Joan tells Peter she loves him. They marry. Peter is again badly wounded when the observation balloon in which he is serving is shot down. But he is out of the war, and looks forward to working toward a future World State.


Joan and Peter develops a number of characteristically Wellsian themes.

The Unity of Humanity and Its Relation to the Universe[edit]

Joan and Peter concludes with an extended meditation by Oswald Sydenham in which he poses the problem of a collective human will, a notion that Wells would make one of the central themes of his history of humanity, The Outline of History.[6] "Men . . . are wills and part of a will that is . . . paradoxically free and bound. . . . Where was this alleged will of the species? If there was indeed such a will in the species, why was there this war? And yet, whatever it might be, assuredly there was something greater than himself sustaining his life. l . . There was a light upon his life, and the truth was that he could not discover the source of the light nor define its nature; there was a presence in the world about him that made all life worth while, and yet it was Nameless and Incomprehensible. It was the Essence beyond Reality; it was the Heart of All Things."[7] After having published God the Invisible King the year before, in Joan and Peter Wells was in the process of pulling back from his theistic stance, but here he still presents religion among a number of equivalent symbols for the relation of humanity to the cosmos.[8]

At the same time, Oswald is haunted by a nightmare in which this belief is denied and humanity is doomed: "It was the idea of a dark forest. And of an endless effort to escape from it. He was one of the captains of a vaguely conceived expedition that was lost in an interminable wilderness of shadows . . . and this forest which was Life, held him back; it held him with its darkness, it snared him with slime and marshy pitfalls, it entangled him admidst pools and channels of black and blood-red stinking water . . . Then far off through the straight bars of the tree stems a light shone, and a great hope sprang up in him. And then the light became red . . . and he realised that the forest had caught fire."[9]

While recuperating from his combat wounds, Peter has a rather Kafkaesque dream of God as a "Great Experimenter" who reproaches him with not sufficiently exerting himself to realize his ideals. Human beings should not complain to God about the world, the Lord God explains, but "change it."[10] As a result of this vision and of an encounter with an enlightened Indian, Peter "clearly decided to become personally responsible for the reconstruction of the British Empire."[11]


Joan and Peter is an indictment of "the educational stagnation of England during those crucial years before the Great War,"[12] and England's suffering in the war is attributed directly to this.[13]

Wells devotes a section to an "Apology of the Schoolmaster," in which Mr. Mackinder, the headmaster of White Court, explains the constraints that prevent schoolmasters from making ideal schools: "I had to be what was required of me."[14]

England's Need to Get Free of the "Anglican System"[edit]

Lady Charlotte Sydenham represents the sclerosis of Anglicanism, which in Wells's mind stands high among the causes of Britains' ills. "The curious student of the history of England in the decade before the Great War will find the clew to what must otherwise seem a hopeless tangle in the steady, disingenuous, mischievous antagonism of the Old Anglican system to every kind of change that might bring nearer the dreaded processes of modernisation."[15]

The British Empire as a Trustee for the Incipient World State[edit]

Both Oswald and Peter become advocates for this Wellsian hope.

Redaction and publication[edit]

Joan and Peter was written in 1917.[16]


Joan and Peter was "well received by [Wells's] friends, but less so by outside reviewers"; Virginia Woolf, for example, judged it to be too didactic to be successful fiction.[17] However, she did grant the book "continuity and vitality" and praised Wells's ability to constitute a "whole world."[18] Thomas Hardy praised the book and read it aloud to his wife in the evening.[19]


  1. ^ David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 248.
  2. ^ H.G. Wells, Joan and Peter, Ch. 2, §1 (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), p. 17.
  3. ^ H.G. Wells, Joan and Peter, Ch. 1, §3 (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), p. 11. From 1884 to 1887, Wells studied at this institution; it was known as the Normal School of Science until 1890.
  4. ^ H.G. Wells, Joan and Peter, Ch. 5, §1 (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), p. 65.
  5. ^ H.G. Wells, Joan and Peter, Ch. 9, §2 (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), p. 168.
  6. ^ Other themes of Wells's philosophy of history are developed in Ch. 12, "The World on the Eve of the War," in discussions of Oswald's philosophy of history.
  7. ^ H.G. Wells, Joan and Peter, Ch. 14, §10 (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), pp. 461-62.
  8. ^ H.G. Wells, Joan and Peter, Ch. 14, §6 (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), pp. 437-38.
  9. ^ H.G. Wells, Joan and Peter, Ch. 9, §3 (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), pp. 172-73.
  10. ^ H.G. Wells, Joan and Peter, Ch. 13, §15 (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), p. 397.
  11. ^ H.G. Wells, Joan and Peter, Ch. 13, §16 (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), p. 400.
  12. ^ H.G. Wells, Joan and Peter, Ch. 10, §6 (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), p. 214.
  13. ^ H.G. Wells, Joan and Peter, Ch. 14, §2 (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), pp. 428-32.
  14. ^ H.G. Wells, Joan and Peter, Ch. 10, §7 (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), p. 222.
  15. ^ H.G. Wells, Joan and Peter, Ch. 12, §9 (London: Ernest Benn, 1929), p. 331.
  16. ^ David Sherborne, H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life (Peter Owen, 2010), p. 244.
  17. ^ David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 248.
  18. ^ David Sherborne, H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Live (Peter Owen, 2010), p. 244.
  19. ^ David C. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1986), p. 248.

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