H. G. Wells was not John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, or Ford Madox Ford, one of the Victorian/Edwardian writers whom I happily read and reread. I spend far more time than is necessary poring over The Forsyte Saga (I’ve written about it often here), Bennett’s Riceyman Steps, and Parade’s End, which, now that it has been dramatized for British TV (and doubtless will be on Masterpiece Theater soon), I have an excuse to reread.
Wells was different. In my view, he was a popular writer whose books didn’t last, except for a couple of mediocre science fiction novels. During my ’60s childhood, I associated Wells with Rock Em Sock Em Robots, Classics Comics, and boys’ endless tolerance for a science fiction puppet show called “Thunderbirds.”
I am the last woman in the world who would be expected to fall for H. G. Wells.
Women did, of course, fall for him in his lifetime: he had affairs with the American birth control pioneer, Margaret Sanger, and English writers Rebecca West, Dorothy Richardson, Elizabeth von Arnim, E. Nesbit, and Violet Hunt. His socialist pacifist politics are attractive to those of us who are liberals in this benighted century, but politics aren’t enough for a good read.
When I reread War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man in middle age, I thought the prose was wooden. But Wells’s comic realistic novels about class and love are livelier and better than you’d think. At the top of my list is Kipps, a socialist fairy tale classic about the rise of a draper’s assistant, and then The History of Mr. Polly, a charming novel about the rise of a draper’s assistant who gets stuck owning a shop and his inevitable rejection of his bourgeois life.
Wells is not a great writer, but he is a surprisingly consistent writer. I recently finished and very much enjoyed Ann Veronica, a gently satirical romantic novel about a woman who tries to find identity through the study of biology, suffrage, and love.
At 22, Ann Veronica is a middle-class college student living in the suburbs with her father and unmarried aunt. She is not content with her education, however, and tries to persuade her father to send her to a more challenging college. Women do not need that kind of challenging education, he says. She must stay where she is. When she mentions that she is attending a costume ball with the neighbors, he prevents her from going, with violence.
Of course, she runs away to London. There she rents a room and searches for a job; she cannot get a job, so she borrows money from the middle-aged Ramage, a suburban neighbor who has ulterior motives, which Ann Veronica doesn’t understand, partly because she is naive, partly because she doesn’t want to .
With this money, she continues to attend college, finds the lab a sanctuary, and falls deeper and deeper in love with one of the teachers, Capes, who is separated from his wife, but not divorced. In her spare time, Ann Veronica goes with friends to suffrage and Fabian meetings, though she dislikes the bellicosity of the slogans.
The lab is like a church, and she is grateful to Ramage for money that allows her to concentrate and work. Wells goes on for a couple of pages describing the sanctity of the lab. Here’s an excerpt.
It was long and narrow, a well-lit, well-ventilated, quiet gallery of small tables and sinks, pervaded by a thin smell of methylated spirit and of a mitigated and sterilized organic decay. Along the inner side was a wonderfully arranged series of displayed specimens that Russell himself had prepared. the supreme effect for Ann Veronica was its surpassing relevance; it made every other atmosphere she knew seem discursive and confused…. Contrasted with the confused movement and presences of a Fabian meeting, or the inexplicable enthusiasm behind the suffrage demand, with the speeches that were partly egotistical displays, partly artful manoeuvres, and partly incoherent cries for unsoundly formulated ends, compared with the coming and goings of audiences and supporters that were like the eddy-driven drift of paper in the street, this long, quiet methodical chamber shone like a star seen through the clouds.
Half in a state of mental breakdown, she insists on an errand for the suffragists that will end in prison, and in prison she breaks down completely. Wells quotes crazy monologues that go on and on for days because she cannot sleep. Once out of prison, she goes home, and the whole drama is played all over again. Studies, love, politics, and independence: she replays patterns until she suddenly takes control.
There is love, there is sexuality, but there is also great unhappiness. The sadness when Ann Veronica is reunited with her father and aunt, and realizes that they don’t feel much, is both shocking and tragic. She had almost given up her great love for her husband for them. And she realizes it would not have mattered to them.
The writing is sometimes clumsy, the love speeches between Ann Veronica and Capes become annoying, but there is such authenticity about the situation that this novel would bear rereading.
Quite a bit of this is autobiographical, I think: Wells was married, and then fell in love with a student: I think the wife let him go. I don’t have a biography of Wells, though, so this last is just speculation.
I do have a copy of David Lodge’s outstanding historical novel about Wells, A Man of Parts, and if I can find it, I’ll write more about Ann Veronica in the comments.