‘The Story of the Late Mr Elvesham’ was first published in May 1896 in the Idler magazine. It’s one of the best stories of H. G. Wells (1866-1946), who left behind dozens of classic short tales which laid the foundations for modern science fiction.
To summarise the plot briefly: the narrator is a young medical student named Edward George Eden. He describes his meeting with an elderly man who approached him one day. Eden is surprised that the man knows his name, as the two men haven’t met before.
The old man takes Eden to lunch, and reveals that he has no heir and that he wants to leave his fortune to a young man when he dies. One of the conditions, however, is that the young man take the old man’s name when the fortune passes to him. Eden, who has little money, agrees to this, and undergoes all of the necessary medical examinations before the will can be drawn up.
The old man takes Eden to dinner to celebrate, and reveals that he is Egbert Elvesham, a respected philosopher who was something of an intellectual hero to Eden when he was younger. When they are drinking liqueurs at the end of the meal, Elvesham adds a pinkish powder to both of their drinks. Eden feels drunk when he leaves, and wakes up to discover he has changed. Gradually, he realises he is now an old man: for example, he feels inside his mouth and is shocked to discover he has no teeth. It dawns on him that he has somehow left his own body and is now inhabiting the body of Mr Elvesham!
He realises that Elvesham had clearly invented a way (using the mysterious powder he sprinkled into their liqueurs) of swapping his thoughts with Eden’s, so each of their minds inhabits the other’s body. Not only is there nothing Eden can do to get his old (i.e., young) body back, but he cannot even access the fortune Elvesham promised him, because his signature remains Eden’s.
He cannot persuade anyone that his story is true, and finding a strange substance in the house, labelled ‘Release’, he knows it is probably poison and takes it. His written account then comes to an end; another voice then concludes the story, appending to Eden’s narrative the fact that Eden was found dead. Not only this, but Eden’s body (inhabited by the mind of Elvesham) was already dead when Eden took the poison, because Eden/Elvesham had been struck by a London cab and killed.
‘The Story of the Late Mr Elvesham’ bears the influence of Robert Louis Stevenson’s 1886 novella, Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde, although only at the superficial level (the powder Elvesham has concocted, for instance, bears the influence of Jekyll’s ‘tincture’ from Stevenson’s story). But whereas Stevenson’s tale (which is as much science fiction as it is a Gothic tale, given the chemical means Jekyll uses to effect his transformation) is about the duality of man, Wells’s story is about the distinction between two very different men.
Nevertheless, Eden’s written narrative, and his subsequent suicide, do echo the ignominious end of Jekyll/Hyde at his own hand, after he has laid down his account of events. Structurally the story takes from Stevenson, but Wells more than pays forward on what he borrows.
For ‘The Story of the Late Mr Elvesham’ is about an age-old idea: wouldn’t it be great if you could live forever, by transferring your brain to younger bodies each time your current body wore out and approached death and decay? This story has obviously been told again and again in fantasy, with priests and priestesses feeding on the blood and flesh of the young and innocent to keep themselves ‘alive’ in a new form.
Wells’s story is an update on this old theme, as much science fiction draws on earlier plots (there are only a few possible basic plots, after all) and gives them a scientific, rational framework. However, what makes ‘The Story of the Late Mr Elvesham’ such a triumph is, I believe, two things.
First, there is Wells’s unsettling description of Eden’s slow realisation that he is not inside his own body any more, but in Elvesham’s:
It was not my own, it was thin, the articulation was slurred, the resonance of my facial bones was different. Then, to reassure myself I ran one hand over the other, and felt loose folds of skin, the bony laxity of age. ‘Surely,’ I said, in that horrible voice that had somehow established itself in my throat, ‘surely this thing is a dream!’ Almost as quickly as if I did it involuntarily, I thrust my fingers into my mouth. My teeth had gone. My finger-tips ran on the flaccid surface of an even row of shrivelled gums. I was sick with dismay and disgust.
The other thing which I think raises ‘The Story of the Late Mr Elvesham’ above other such ‘immortality’ stories is the irony of its ending, where we find out that Elvesham (in Eden’s young, fit, healthy body) actually predeceased his elderly alter ego by a day, because he was struck by a cab.
In other words, all of his scientific scheming was for nothing, since his quest for immortality nevertheless ends almost as soon as he has transferred himself into a new body. Either way, he ended up dying. Perhaps Wells is highlighting the folly and hubris of trying to avoid death?