Tuesday, March 8, 2011

"Tono-Bungay"...the feel good elixir

Snake oil products have been around a long time, are still here, and probably will never go away. Why? Well, there is money in the marketing of such items that claim cures and "feel good" experiences. I guess it's all in the mind. H. G. Wells wrote about such a product--"Tono-Bungay"...the fake product that opened an avenue to riches and finally a downfall.


Tono-Bungay..."is narrated by George Ponderevo, a science student who is drafted in to help with the promotion of Tono-Bungay, a harmful stimulant disguised as a miraculous cure-all, the creation of his ambitious uncle Edward. The quack remedy Tono-Bungay seems to have been based upon the patent medicines Carter's Little Liver Pills and Dr. Williams' Pink Pills for Pale People, marketed by John Morgan Richards. As the tonic prospers, George experiences a swift rise in social status, elevating him to riches and opportunities that he had never imagined, nor indeed desired.

The novel displays Edward's social climbing satirically, and also George's discomfort at rising in social class. The hero's personal life is also narrated with unusual frankness for an Edwardian novel, from his unsuccessful marriage to Marion, to his affair with the liberated Effie to his doomed relationship with the Hon. Beatrice Normandy, whom he had known since childhood.

True to its name ("Ton o' Bunk, Eh?"), the Tono-Bungay empire eventually over-extends itself and then collapses. George tries to prop up his uncle's finances by stealing the radioactive compound quap from an island near Africa, but the expedition is unsuccessful. He helps his uncle escape from England in the aeroplane that he has invented, but Edward dies in France of fever. The novel ends with George finding a new occupation: designing battleships for the highest bidder.

"Uncle Ponderevo" is shown as an ingenious promoter, constantly finding new ideas for promoting Tono-Bungay and new conditions that he claims it will cure. "'George, whad'yer think of T.B. for sea-sickness?... No harm trying, George. We can but try.... It 'ud give 'em confidence, George.'" Wells shows us Ponderevo's sketch for an advertisement which claims that Tono-Bungay can fight influenza by "acting as a sort of Worcester Sauce for the phagocyte, [giving] it an appetite, [and making] it a perfect wolf for the Influenza Bacillus.""

Text...Project Gutenberg

Radio dramatization by the NBC University Theater [March 5th, 1950]

No comments: