Putting the Parts Together

There are several ways to read the title of David Lodge’s novel about H.G. Wells, A Man of Parts. Lodge himself directs us to two readings in an epithet taken from Collins English Dictionary:

Parts PLURAL NOUN 1. Personal abilities or talents: a man of many parts. 2. short for private parts.

Both of these readings are clearly sustained throughout the novel. Wells is clearly a man of talents, which are varied if not always compatible. He is also a man driven by his private parts, a priapic adventurer whose sexual conquests often undid much of what his talents might have achieved. But having read much by and about Wells over the last few years, I am inclined to a third reading: that he was a man in parts, a man whose life was in bits that in a sense even he could not put together. He was not whole.

Ever since the postscript to his Experiment in Autobiography was published under the title H.G. Wells in Love in 1984, our focus on Wells’s life has been as much sexual as literary or political or scientific. The problem, I think, with all writing about Wells, this novel as much as the biographies or the critical texts, is that they tend to concentrate on one or other of the four. But you cannot think about his gadfly involvement with the Fabian Society, for instance, without also bringing in the sexual scandals that undermined his efforts to reform that Society. And those scandals, in turn, fed into and just as often emerged from his fictions. And his scandalous ideas about sex emerged not just from his priapic nature but from his scientific, and especially evolutionary, ideas. In other words, the different aspects of his life all interacted, you cannot separate them. So in writing about Wells you really need to balance all of the aspects of his life.

Yet I get a very strong sense, reinforced by every new thing I read about the man (although none of the critics, biographers or novelists actually make this point), that Wells himself did compartmentalise them. And, indeed, was constantly surprised and undermined by the fact that they would not stay within their separate compartments.

Jane with HG just after the publication of The Time Machine.

Let us take sex, since that is what Lodge and most others now concentrate on. Wells married twice. His first wife, a distant relation, Isabel, was very conventional not to say provincial in her attitudes (this was, we must remember, the height of Victorian sensibility). Wells himself says that they were sexually incompatible, and there is no reason to doubt this, but I think it is probably more significant that they were intellectually incompatible. When he left her for one of his students, Amy Catherine Robbins whom he called ‘Jane’, I think he was as much looking for an intellectual equal as a sexual partner. After all, he said of Jane also that they were sexually incompatible, but he never divorced her. She was his match in most things: Jane like HG served on the executive of the Fabian Society; she typed and helped to edit all his writing (and if Lodge is correct in the number of times she warns him that, for instance, Ann Veronica will be controversial or that Boon should not be published, her judgement seems to have been far better than his); she wrote herself (Wells arranged to have a collection of her stories published after her death); she kept up with him on the cycling trips and Alpine walks that he so loved; and she provided the steady, secure centre in a life that was constantly flying off in every direction out of control. The more I read, the more convinced I am that Jane must have been a remarkable woman.

So, Wells says that both of his wives were sexually incompatible. And I begin to wonder if they were not sexually incompatible because they were wives; if Wells saw being a wife as an intellectual and a social role, and sex belonged in a different compartment altogether.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Jane was that she knew of, and seemingly condoned, most of HG’s sexual adventures. She advised him when a relationship was likely to be dangerous, and she maintained friendly relationships with most of the women. And when, for instance, Rebecca West tried on numerous occasions to persuade him to leave Jane for her, he flat out refused. In the compartment of marriage, Jane clearly provided something far more important than sexual incompatibility. And it wasn’t just a Victorian loyalty to the mother of his children, since both Amber Reeves (later, after her marriage, the wonderful colour combination of Amber Blanco White) and Rebecca West bore him children, and HG felt equally fatherly towards the children without for a moment thinking that he should ‘make an honest woman’ of their mothers.

Amber Blanco White with Ann Jane, HG's daughter

In this separate sexual compartment, therefore, we find Rosamund Bland (the daughter, or perhaps more accurately step-daughter, of Edith Nesbit and her husband Hubert Bland), Amber Reeves, Rebecca West, Elisabeth von Arnim, Odette Keun, Moura Budberg and any number of others. Of these, Lodge suggests that Rosamund, Amber, Rebecca and Odette threw themselves at HG, and all brought trouble for him. The relationship (Lodge uses the word passade  throughout for these sexual affairs) with Elisabeth was one of mutual convenience, and she seems to have been the only long-term mistress who tired of him first. And Moura, the presumed Russian spy (so far as I know, it has never been proved, but it seems likely), was the woman HG wanted to marry after Jane died, but Moura refused. Significantly, both Elisabeth and Moura were mature and experienced women when they began their relationships with HG, these were relationships of sexual equals, which certainly wasn’t true of any of the others.

Moura Budberg

Rosamund, Amber and Rebecca were all in their late-teens or early 20s when they began their relationships with Wells, who was at least 20 years older. All three seem to have deliberately targeted Wells to end their virginities. And though Lodge portrays Wells as something of a sexual predator, which is dressed up by Wells’s oft-stated political belief in the equality of the sexes, in each of these relationships we get a distinct impression of the woman being the predator and Wells being rather ignominiously unable to say no whenever sex was offered. I think the fact that HG saw his life as compartmentalised, was indeed unable to envisage that things from one compartment might overflow into another, is clearly shown in his relationships with Rosamund, Amber and Rebecca.

Rosamund and Amber were both the daughters of prominent Fabians, and he began these affairs just at the point when he was leading a campaign to radically change the nature of the society. He put details of these affairs, only very slightly fictionalised, into such novels as In the Days of the Comet and Ann Veronica. The central figure in Ann Veronica is an unmistakeable portrait of Amber Reeves, and he was surprised when she was affronted by this. This was all during the first decade of the 20th century, well before women even got the vote in Britain, yet he was astounded when these books were denounced from the pulpit and the newspaper editorial as immoral. He had presented, in In the Days of the Comet, a subtle argument that in a truly rational society (one of the early versions of the world government he wrote so often about) where men and women were fully equal, each would be free to take their sexual pleasure where they wished; the book ends with a group marriage. He seems to have been incapable of seeing that this argument is too subtle for his audience, and all they will see is free love. Yet, having expected the reading public to pick up on a very subtle argument in In the Days of the Comet, he assumed they would not be subtle enough readers to see through the light fictionalisation with which he disguised himself and Amber Reeves in Ann Veronica. He was, in effect, carrying on a secret affair in one compartment and publicising it in another, while at the same time utterly failing to understand that the fall out from the relationships in one compartment and the outcry caused by the books in the other compartment might also affect his political ambitions in the third compartment of his Fabian ambitions. (One of the best passages in Lodge’s book is his account of this complicated interplay of sex, fiction and politics leading to the multiple humiliation of his exposure as a philanderer, the complete failure of his attempts to reform the Fabian Society, and the public denunciation of his work.)

Rebecca West

Yet many of the same public and personal catastrophes that attended his affairs with Rosamund and Amber would be echoed during his affair with Rebecca. The way Lodge writes it, Jane warned him repeatedly, but he seems to have been unable to learn the lessons of his own past.

There is a similar sense of the compartmentalisation of his life in the rather sad Boon affair. Wells and Henry James had been friends ever since Wells moved down to Sandgate, just a bicycle ride away from James in Rye. During his brief time as a theatre reviewer, Wells had been one of the few critics to write favourably about James’s theatrical disaster, Guy Domville. The two regularly sent each other copies of their new books, and exchanged many letters over the years. But there were always disagreements. Although James was older and more established, Wells was more successful, more popular, and considerably richer. James believed that the focus of any fiction should be on the art with which it is presented; Wells believed that fiction served a political function. James’s letters praising each new work by Wells would always contain a nugget of dislike; Wells’s letters in response would, over the years, come to parody (perhaps unconsciously) his friend’s increasingly convoluted sentence structure. Then, in 1914, James wrote a two-part essay on ‘The Younger Generation’ of novelists for the TLS, which included a very pointed attack on Wells and Arnold Bennett. Any writer taking them as a model, James warned, would produce work that was lamentably heavy on content and light on form. I don’t imagine James intended this to sting as much as it did, but it really hurt Wells. He retaliated by returning to a literary satire he had been writing, off and on, for 10 years already. Now he added a vicious satire on James, and Boon was published the following year, despite Jane strongly advising against it. It ended their friendship for good; in many ways, I think, it also ended Wells’s critical reputation. His great years as a writer were already behind him. He would produce one or two more decent novels (Mr Britling Sees it Through in 1916, for instance), but the ones that would stay in print and which are still read today had all been published before this point. His biggest success after this, indeed the biggest commercial success of his career, was his Outline of History. But serious critical and academic attention was already the preserve of the modernists and their followers, and from that moment on Wells was denied this sort of attention. His reputation suffered as a result. But Wells had been unable to tell what belonged in one compartment might do irreparable harm in another compartment. He always regretted the severing of his relationship with James, but he could do nothing about it.

Of course, much of this is taken from Wells’s fiction, which leads us to the inevitable problem with fiction and biography. At one point, Lodge has Wells say that a novelist has nothing else to draw on but his own life. Which is true. But how close are the two? How much can the biographer draw from the fiction in a recreation of the life? To an extent, Lodge has it easy. His book is avowedly fiction, so he is free to imaginatively expand from the fiction into the life. But at the same time, the novel follows the biography pretty closely, to the extent that for large portions of the book it reads more as a lightly fictionalised biography than as out and out fiction. And then, of course, we have the extent to which Wells really did put his own life into his fiction. In the social comedies of the first years of the 20th century and in the so-called ‘prig’ novels that followed over the next half decade or so, in Love and Mr Lewisham, Kipps, Tono-Bungay, Ann Veronica, The History of Mr Polly, The New Machiavelli and so many others of that period, Wells was very consciously putting his own life into his books. In this period, which is the major focus of Lodge’s novel, you almost cannot help but read the biography in the fiction. What is almost harder is reading the fiction out of this biography. Lodge pays almost no attention to the early scientific romances (some of what he presents as the genesis of The Time Machine is plain wrong), and, except for the postscript to the Experiment in Autobiography and Mind at the End of its Tether, covers nothing written after 1915. And the novels written during that period of his most extravagant sexual affairs are mentioned only to the extent that they cast light on the character. So, although we know that Wells is a writer, this novel doesn’t actually tell us much about what sort of writer he is. Indeed we learn more about the size of his penis than we do about 90% of his literary output. Wells is compartmentalised again, we see only parts of him, but maybe that is the only way to write about Wells.

Still, A Man of Parts is an excellent novel, I read all of its nearly 600 pages in just two days, which is an almost unheard of rate for me. And what is interesting, in an oddly Jamesian way, is the form as much as the content. It is clear that Lodge is aching for the chance to interview Wells himself, so he has cast the large part of this novel as an interview. Wells, in the last years of his life, in the home on the edge of Regents Park that he has refused to leave throughout the Blitz, effectively interviews himself (his sons, Gip and Anthony West, and Gip’s wife, who look after him, see him constantly mumbling to himself). It is a constant refrain of ‘why did you do that?’, with Wells regularly going to his bookshelves or digging out a letter as a way of reminding himself of what really happened. There is, therefore, an air of self-justification, offset by self-recrimination. Neither are guaranteed to lead to the truth, of course, and this is always Wells’s own version of his own story. Somehow it works as a portrait of one of the most singular and most fascinating characters in British literary history.

3 thoughts on “Putting the Parts Together

  1. Good work here. Some of my joint (with Meg Tasker) study of Australians (& Kiwis) in London at the turn of last century took in some Fabians–eg Pember Reeves, who was the father of Amber and an interesting person in his own right. And also the strange connection between Henry Lawson and Edith Nesbit. An interesting time to write about.

  2. Pember plays quite a big part in the Amber Reeves section of Lodge’s novel and comes across very strongly as a disappointed man, someone who nevber achieved what he felt he should have achieved. Edith Nesbit, on the other hand, is very interesting – the whole Bland household comes across very strangely in Lodge’s novel, and I’m not inclined to think he exaggerates. The way it is presented in Lodge is that the Blands effectively lived everything that HG advocated about sex, but could not help themselves being very conventional when it came to their daughter.

    Yes, it is a very interesting time, but also a very interesting place. This whole stretch of coast from Rye through to Folkestone just seems to have been crowded with writers: James, Conrad, Ford, Nesbit, Crane, Wells and so on. Come here today, however, and there’s no sense of it.

  3. Pingback: Review of 2011: Reading « Through the dark labyrinth

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