You can't be too careful, by H. G. Wells

Chapter 6

Advertised to Death

EDWARD ALBERT’S mother died when he was thirteen. The elderly doctor who attended her last illness certified that she died of “bronchitis.” It was a prevalent custom in those days to certify for bronchitis and probe no deeper into the matter. Doctors are a mentally overworked race, and in this matter of diagnosis they have their own epidemic and epidemic disorders. As a matter of fact she died, as a great number of people died in those days, of a surfeit of patent medicine advertisements.

Because in that golden age of freedom, security and opportunity in which our story opens, people enjoyed, among other enviable liberties, great liberty of salesmanship, and a number of enterprising business men, realising that a vast majority o their fellow-creatures suffered from internal pains and discomforts due to the consumption of well-advertised but unwholesome foods, to the unhygienic quality of their housing and employment, and to the survival at a low level of existence of multitudes of individuals who would have been far better dead, devoted themselves to their exploitation. This great uneasy majority constituted from the point of view of salesmanship a mass of consumers to be catered for with a view to profit, and to that these entrepreneurs vying with one another, set themselves with great energy.

The medical profession in those days worked almost, entirely for private gain and protected its privileges upon trade union principles; it combined very low standards of education and qualification, with a creditable insistence upon the honour and privilege of the individual practitioner. Doctors were disposed to’ stand by one another under criticism, in a post mortem or anything of that sort, when definitely unprofessional conduct did not.appear. Their methods of diagnosis were old — fashioned; good diagnosis was a matter of aptitude rather than training, and generally they preferred to diagnose a definite disease and bring it out fairly and squarely and cure it or kill, than tackle all those various and ill-defined states of malaise that would not yield to such forthright treatment. They waved these aside as fancifulness. Consequently there was a considerable irritation between doctors and patients; the doctor and his antiquated and incomprehensible prescriptions, his authoritative manners and his failure to enlist the intelligence of his patient such as it was, in the process of recovery, was distrusted even more than he deserved; and the way lay wide open for salesmanship, to flout his claim to be the sole dealer in the health of the community.

So in spite of him there had grown up a steadily expanding business of pills, aperients, tonics, sustaining foods, cures for every sort of twinge and pain, stimulants, purifiers. These new salesmen began perhaps crudely, but they steadily improved in their methods and reached an ever-widening clientele. Their advertisements became a more and more important item in newspaper finance. From early appeals to people who already had pains, their more and more competent methods instructed people how, when and where to have pains. The medical profession attempted warnings, published analyses of popular remedies, explained their ineffectiveness and their harmfulness, and so forth, but this now gigantic system of human enterprise had achieved the control of all the media of news distribution, and the doctors were quite unable to get their protests over to the public at large. Their pamphlets vanished from the bookstalls and got no “Press.” They said things to their patients, but they found their patients incredulous in the face of an enormous volume of skilled assertion.

This book is no picture of the Edwardian–Georgian age, but these simple circumstances have to be stated here if the reader, in this new and vivid world of adventure and disaster in which we live today, is to understand the way in which Mrs Richard Tewler did herself to death.

The newspapers began to look for Mrs Tewler in real earnest in the benign reign of King Edward the Seventh. Then it was that “Constant Reader”, in anticipation of Professor Crew, changed sex. In the old days when Richard was alive, Mrs Tewler hardly ever glanced at the paper. She took no interest in Politics or what men had considered to be news, and it was only when she discovered the existence of “Aunt Jane” and “Dorothy Wisdom” through such publications as the Mothers’ Vade-mecum, that she spread out her reading to the new daily Press, so different from the grey uneventful expanses of the old.

She began to read first about bargains and cosmetics, because, although no decent Christian woman paints her face or does anything of that sort, it might be possible to learn something about one’s appearance that did not involve that. Naturally her attention flowed over to the more intimate discussions beside them.

There was “that tired feeling.” She had it. But she did not realise what it meant for her until the salesmen told her. It meant the onset of anaemia and then pernicious anaemia. For that a certain blood mixture was admirable. She stocked that and forgot to note its effect because next she was being made conscious of a whole series of neuralgic pains.

They flitted about, pursued by nervous panaceas, and got to her head. There always had been times when she had had headaches, but never the. splitting headaches she realised after she had seen a picture of a mighty fist hammering nails into a head. It was liver pills she needed for that, and they were added to her medical menu.

Effervescent salts promised and failed to restore her to a giddy cheerfulness, because now she lay awake all night suffering from night starvation. That too could be met. Uric acid also got loose in her system and clamoured for further remedies. Her washstand carried an ever-increasing array of bottles, capsules, pills and powders.

Still the salesmen pursued her. It dawned upon her that she had sinus trouble and incipient arthritis, cancer in several places and osteomyelitis. She did all that could be done to anticipate and defeat these evils. She did not tell her doctor about the cancer, because the salesman assured her that would bring upon her the crowning horror of an operation. She could not face that. No operation. No!

She felt under-nourished, and, instead of taking wholesome food, she consumed a cup of feeble tea with a meaty flavour, that the salesmen assured her with vivid illustrations, had the strength of a whole ox in it. Never a newspaper dared to denounce this murderous lie. She swallowed the stuff, felt satisfied for half an hour or so, and then faded again. She picked herself up with a viciously drugged red wine because its salesmen assured her that all its profits went to the promotion of Christian Missions throughout the world.

Its advertisements were endorsed with signatures of venal divines of every persuasion. All religious organisations, as Shaw has been reminding us in his Major Barbara film, need funds, and all organisations that need funds can be bought A.M.D.G., and so ultimately the Lord’s work was done on the craving stomach and suffering frame of Mrs Tewler. Poor Mother Eve, from first to last thou and all thy seed have been the victims of the Salesman! For so it was we lost our paradise, when the first salesman sold thee his fruit and lingerie. He proffered his free sample, he guaranteed satisaction. And until selling shall cease from the earth —. . . .


She stood in her bedroom wearily taking her doses, hoping she had not forgotten anything, and listening to her ever more sinister internal noises. Then she would feel herself all over for growths and tumours. Often she felt quite hard ones.

She told everybody she could all about her sufferings, and Mr Myame called her “Our Dear Martyred Sister.” And he told her, all this will be returned to you a thousandfold, which possibly was not exactly what he intended to say. Some of the other members of the inner circle were fairly good at affliction, but none could produce anything to equal hers either in depth or variety. Mrs Humbelay one day described an artificial hernia to her, and remarked that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, and Mrs Tewler said, “If it comes to that, my dear, I think I would rather die. . . . ”

But hernia she was mercifully spared. It did not come to that. The salesmen could make nothing out of artificial hernias.

She clang so desperately to life; because where would her Only One be without her? And it is to be noted that very little of this remedial struggle of hers extended to him. But that was because she was able to observe her own terrible symptoms, while, after one single experience with some tonic drops, nothing would induce Edward Albert to admit he had any symptoms at all. His demonstration of his extreme vitality on a later occasion included an attempt to stand on his head which was only partially successful and led to the breaking of a plate.

“You cannot be too careful”— she coughed from her chair — she was developing her pleurisy that day. “Doing that might lead to a rush of blood to the head and apoplexy. Promise me, whatever happens, you will never attempt that again.”

She had a spasm of pain. “He’s not much use, darling, but do you know I feel so queer that I think I ought to see Dr Gabbidash. If you’ll go round for him. He might at least give me a morphia injection.”

The good doctor did, and in the course of a week assisted her departure from this vale of trial and error in a soundly professional manner. For she really had pleurisy. She had brought herself down to a vulnerability that gave any old germs a fair chance with her. Their blitzkrieg was swift and successful.

During her final phase of medicated malaise Mrs Tewler made several wills, couched for the most part in a richly pious phraseology. The valid instrument left a number of trifling souvenirs to various friends, including a marked Bible and a silver-framed photograph for her dear friend Mrs Humbelay, and named Mr Myame as sole executor, trustee and guardian for her son until the dear child was twenty-one, exhorting the young man to trust and obey his guardian as a Father and more than a Father, a Guide and a Wise Dear Friend.

Edward Albert listened to these dispositions without an excessive display of emotion.

He looked at the lawyer and he looked at Mr Myame, He sat on the edge of his chair meagre and wary.

“I suppose it ‘ad to be,” he said with resignation, He sucked his teeth for a moment.

“Who was that Mr Whittaker who sent that great wreath?” he asked. “What sort of relation is he to me?”

Neither of them could tell him.

Then he reflected, “I didn’t know Mother was nearly so bad as she was. No. . . . I suppose it ‘ad to be. . . . That was — it was”— gulp —“a lovely wreath anyhow, She would have liked. . . . ”

And suddenly his white little face crumpled up and he was weeping.

“You have lost the Noblest and the very best of Mothers,” said Mr Myame. “That Sainted Brave Woman. . . . ”

Edward Albert had acquired a habit of never listening to what Mr Myame might be saying. He wiped his miserable sniffing face with the back of a dirty little hand. He was only beginning to realise what all this meant to him. Day or night she would never be there any more. Never. He wouldn’t go home to her presently and tell her things to his credit, true or false according to circumstances, and bask in the love she bore him. She wouldn’t be there. She wasn’t there. She’d gone!

Last updated Sunday, March 27, 2016 at 12:02