Wells, here, does the David Copperfield thing of fictionalising his own autobiography. Mr Lewisham is, as Wells was, a clever, driven, lower-middle class man, working as a teacher in a provincial school, eighteen years old at the start of the story, twenty-one for most of it. The novel traces his progress, and it's tempting to read it by setting it alongside the life it dramatically reinterprets; although I'm going to argue that it is in the ways this novel differs from Wells's actual biography that it is most revealing of Wells's being-in-the-world. Still, not counting the more lightweight Wheels of Chance this is the first novel—of many—to recycle his life experiences into fiction. Back in 1926, Geoffrey H Wells (no relation, it seems) put it like this:
Referring to the question of autobiography in fiction, H. G. Wells has somewhere made a remark to the effect that it is not so much what one has done that counts, as where one has been, and the truth of that statement is particularly evident in this novel. The emotional experiences of Mr Lewisham are not to be confused with those of Mr Wells, nor the Mr. Bonover [headmaster of the Whortley Proprietary School, where Lewisham teaches] of fiction with the Mr Byatt [headmaster of Midhurst Grammar School, where Wells taught] of fact, but it is true that both Mr Lewisham and Mr Wells were at the age of eighteen, assistant masters at country schools, and that three years later both were commencing their third year at The Normal School of Science, South Kensington, as teachers in training under Huxley. The account of the school, of the students there and of their social life and interests, may be taken as true descriptions of those things during the period 1883-1886. [Geoffrey H. Wells, The Works of H G Wells 1887-1925 (London: Routledge 1926), 15-16]I'll come back to the ways Wells takes a kind of antagonistic inspiration from the model of Dickensian fictionalised-autobiography; but one consideration that is relevant on the level of the title is: naming. Dickens populated his novels with versions of himself, and with characters with his CD initials (‘Clenham/Dorrit’, ‘Charles Darnay’) or his initials reversed (‘David Copperfield’ is only the most obvious example of that), and you can't walk five minutes in Dickensland without tripping over people called ‘Charles’, or ‘Mr Dick’, or ‘Dick Swiveller’, or ‘Nicholas Nickelby’, or ‘Pickwick’, or other names with echoes of the ‘ick’ in ‘Dickens’.
Now I'd always assumed that Wells chose the name ‘Lewisham’ because it is so nicely suburban, a bit comical and small-beer. As it happens I was born in Lewisham Hospital (my parents were living in a flat in Peckham at that time) so I know whereof I speak. But, see, now I look again and I'm struck by the way ‘Lew-is’ reverses and shuffles ‘Wel-(I)s’ to make a sort of ‘sham’ Wells. The character's first name in the novel is George, and his initials are ‘G. E. Lewisham’. I don't believe we're told what the ‘E’ stands for. I like to think it's ’Erbert. So? So Love and Mr Lewisham fictionalises Wells's life, sure: but it does so in a twist, playful and often inverted way. I'll tell you what I mean.
Love and Mr Lewisham is a relatively short novel—65,000 words or so—that disposes Wells's early life into three dramatic acts. The first seven chapters (of thirty-two) deal with 18-year-old Lewisham's time as ‘assistant master in the Whortley Proprietary School, Whortley, Sussex’. At this stage in the story he is unconcerned with love, and is instead putting all his energies into a Self-Help-style plan for self-advancement.
To judge by the room Mr. Lewisham thought little of Love but much on Greatness. Over the head of the bed, for example, where good folks hang texts, these truths asserted themselves, written in a clear, bold, youthfully florid hand:—“Knowledge is Power,” and “What man has done man can do,”—man in the second instance referring to Mr. Lewisham. Never for a moment were these things to be forgotten. Mr. Lewisham could see them afresh every morning as his head came through his shirt. And over the yellow-painted box upon which—for lack of shelves—Mr. Lewisham's library was arranged, was a “Schema.” (Why he should not have headed it “Scheme,” the editor of the Church Times, who calls his miscellaneous notes “Varia,” is better able to say than I.) In this scheme, 1892 was indicated as the year in which Mr. Lewisham proposed to take his B.A. degree at the London University with “hons. in all subjects,” and 1895 as the date of his “gold medal.” Subsequently there were to be “pamphlets in the Liberal interest,” and such like things duly dated. “Who would control others must first control himself,” remarked the wall over the wash-hand stand, and behind the door against the Sunday trousers was a portrait of Carlyle.I quote at length to give the flavour of Wells's jocoserious prose. In the Experiment in Autobiography Wells reveals that the young him had written out just such a plan, also pretentiously titled a “Schema”, and pinned it to his bedroom wall. In one sense Love and Mr Lewisham is as its best, as a novel, in these early chapters: for it's here that Wells is able to write about his protagonist with the greatest degree of forgiveness for his sheer ingenuousness. The book treats his yearning immaturity and inchoate sexuality with a gentleness of ridicule, leavened by its awareness of the lad's talent and energy.
These were no mere threats against the universe; operations had begun. Jostling Shakespeare, Emerson's Essays, and the penny Life of Confucius, there were battered and defaced school books, a number of the excellent manuals of the Universal Correspondence Association, exercise books, ink (red and black) in penny bottles, and an india-rubber stamp with Mr. Lewisham's name. A trophy of bluish green South Kensington certificates for geometrical drawing, astronomy, physiology, physiography, and inorganic chemistry adorned his further wall. And against the Carlyle portrait was a manuscript list of French irregular verbs.
Attached by a drawing-pin to the roof over the wash-hand stand, which—the room being an attic—sloped almost dangerously, dangled a Time-Table. Mr. Lewisham was to rise at five, and that this was no vain boasting, a cheap American alarum clock by the books on the box witnessed. The lumps of mellow chocolate on the papered ledge by the bed-head indorsed that evidence. “French until eight,” said the time-table curtly. Breakfast was to be eaten in twenty minutes; then twenty-five minutes of “literature” to be precise, learning extracts (preferably pompous) from the plays of William Shakespeare—and then to school and duty. The time-table further prescribed Latin Composition for the recess and the dinner hour (“literature,” however, during the meal), and varied its injunctions for the rest of the twenty-four hours according to the day of the week. Not a moment for Satan and that “mischief still” of his.
Lewisham gives one of his boys, Frobisher, lines (‘impositions’, Wells calls them). Later walking the summer lanes, he meets a young woman:
He noted her graceful, easy steps. A figure of health and lightness it was, sunlit, and advancing towards him, something, as he afterwards recalled with a certain astonishment, quite outside the Schema. ... Then their eyes met. She had hazel eyes, but Mr. Lewisham, being quite an amateur about eyes, could find no words for them. She looked demurely into his face. She seemed to find nothing there. She glanced away from him among the trees, and passed, and nothing remained in front of him but an empty avenue, a sunlit, green-shot void.In passing she accidentally drops a sheet of paper, and Lewisham discovers that she has been writing out Frobisher's lines for him (for a fee, of course). This faintly ludicrous pretext leads to them meeting (‘I say, you oughtn't to do this!’), whereupon he discovers that her name is Ethel Henderson; that she lives with her mother and step-father in Clapham and is only staying in Whortley for a short time. The two go on what Chapter 6 calls ‘The Scandalous Ramble’ together: a long countryside walk in which nothing particularly improper happens, although it shocks the village. They forget the time, Lewisham is late for his school duties, his headmaster rebukes him, and Lewisham gives his notice. The ramble itself is a lovely piece of writing, capturing perfectly the brimming richness of the two's unformed emotional potential. But nothing comes of it; Ethel returns to Clapham and, though Lewisham writes to her, she does not reply. They lose touch.
Chapter Eight opens two-and-a-half-years later: Lewisham, now twenty-one, is living in ‘the grey spaciousness of West London’, on a scholarship from the Education Department to study at Normal School of Science (where, of course, Wells himself studied: it later became the Royal College of Science, and later still part of Imperial College London). Lewisham is a star student, it looks as though his Schema is coming true. The romantic interest in this portion of the novel is pitched at a cooler level, concentrating on fellow-student Miss Heydinger, who reads Browning and Rossetti and discusses politics, science and philosophy with him. Having established this new world, and set-up the likelihood of Lewisham eventually marrying the bookish but unsexy Heydinger, Wells introduces an unexpected element: fraudulent spirit mediums.
It's a knight's-move in narrative terms, but it works. Lewisham and a friend attend a séance presided over by the elderly Mr Chaffery. They go as students of science, with the stated intention of debunking him; and this they do, turning on the lights at the crucial moment to reveal his charlatanry. But more shocking to Lewisham is his realisation that the Medium's young assistant is none other than Ethel Henderson. Chaffery, it turns out, is her step-father. Lewisham attempts to persuade Ethel to give up assisting her cheating stepdad. They take to promenading the evening streets together, Lewisham notionally walking Ethel home but in fact the two taking deliberately circuitous routes to extend their time with one another. Lewisham neglects his studies, sinks down the class list, and when he and Ethel marry and move-in together he abandons his larger “Schema”-based ambitions and looks for any kind of pay-the-bills teaching opportunity. There's some nice comedy in his initial over-reaching here (applying for highfalutin Professorships in Sydney, Australia for instance), tinged with pathos as he adjusts his expectations downwards, signs-on with teacher-supply agencies and discovers that being married is a serious impediment to him becoming getting a position at a good school. He also is forced to meet the pompous, unscrupulous Chaffery on something like an equal footing, since they are now family. Indeed, Wells does something clever with this character, allowing him monologues justifying his sharp practices that work (rather like Mustapha Mond in Huxley's later Brave New World) upon the reader's preconceptions by the very reasonableness of their amorality. ‘You haven't said anything,’ Lewisham insists, ‘to show that spiritualistic cheating is Right.’
“Let us thresh the matter out,” said Chaffery, crossing his legs; “let us thresh the matter out. Now”—he drew at his pipe—“I don't think you fully appreciate the importance of Illusion in life, the Essential Nature of Lies and Deception of the body politic. You are inclined to discredit one particular form of Imposture, because it is not generally admitted—carries a certain discredit, and—witness the heel edges of my trouser legs, witness yonder viands—small rewards. ... Now I am prepared to maintain,” said Chaffery, proceeding with his proposition, “that Honesty is essentially an anarchistic and disintegrating force in society, that communities are held together and the progress of civilisation made possible only by vigorous and sometimes even, violent Lying; that the Social Contract is nothing more or less than a vast conspiracy of human beings to lie to and humbug themselves and one another for the general Good. Lies are the mortar that bind the savage Individual man into the social masonry. There is the general thesis upon which I base my justification. My mediumship, I can assure you, is a particular instance of the general assertion ...”Lewisham's priggish ethical certainty (at this point in the story he has become a red-tie wearing socialist) is rather shaken by the sheer, indolent self-confidence of Chaffrey's venal selfishness.
“But how are you going to prove it?”
“Prove It! It simply needs pointing out. Even now there are men—Bernard Shaw, Ibsen, and such like—who have seen bits of it in a new-gospel-grubbing sort of fashion. What Is man? Lust and greed tempered by fear and an irrational vanity ... But about this matter of Lies—let us look at the fabric of society, let us compare the savage. You will discover the only essential difference between savage and civilised is this: The former hasn't learnt to shirk the truth of things, and the latter has. Take the most obvious difference—the clothing of the civilised man, his invention of decency. What is clothing? The concealment of essential facts. What is decorum? Suppression! I don't argue against decency and decorum, mind you, but there they are—essentials to civilisation and essentially ‘suppressio veri.’ And in the pockets of his clothes our citizen carries money. The pure savage has no money. To him a lump of metal is a lump of metal—possibly ornamental—no more. That's right. To any lucid-minded man it's the same or different only through the gross folly of his fellows. But to the common civilised man the universal exchangeability of this gold is a sacred and fundamental fact. Think of it! Why should it be? There isn't a why! I live in perpetual amazement at the gullibility of my fellow-creatures. Of a morning sometimes, I can assure you, I lie in bed fancying that people may have found out this swindle in the night, expect to hear a tumult downstairs and see your mother-in-law come rushing into the room with a rejected shilling from the milkman. ‘What's this?’ says he. ‘This Muck for milk?’ But it never happens. Never. If it did, if people suddenly cleared their minds of this cant of money, what would happen? The true nature of man would appear. ... But why go on? You of all men should know that life is a struggle for existence, a fight for food. Money is just the lie that mitigates our fury ... What a lie and sham all civility is, all good breeding, all culture and refinement, while one poor ragged wretch drags hungry on the earth!” [ch. 23]
From here the novel moves into its final act; the last chapters trace Lewisham sinking back down with real poignancy. He struggles to make his marriage work, fritters away all his savings, is cheated by unscrupulous people, and ends up working at crummy tutoring jobs barely scraping a living. Throughout this he maintains his friendship with Alice Heydinger; but, learning of this, Ethel accuses him of having an affair with her; he responds by furiously storming out. Later, repenting of his anger, he buys his wife an expensive bunch of roses to atone; but when they are delivered Ethel guiltily hides them in the bedroom cabinet, believing them to have come from her secret admirer, Mr Baynes. They fight, Lewisham declares the marriage over and packs to leave her; although in the event the fight ends as marital rows sometimes do, with make-up sex:
He stopped. They sat clinging to one another. "I do love you," she said presently with her arms about him. "Oh! I do—do—love you."Shortly after this, Chaffery absconds to the Continent with £500 stolen from a gullible client, and Lewisham moves into the Clapham house resolving to look after his wife and abandoned mother-in-law. In the last chapter we discover that Ethel is pregnant. Lewisham rips up his old “Schema”, and commits to a new guiding principle: ‘it is all the Child. The future is the Child. The Future. What are we—any of us—but servants or traitors to that?’ [ch. 32]. ‘The enormous seriousness of adolescence was coming to an end,’ Wells tells us: ‘the days of his growing were numbered.’ And that's where we leave Lewisham: in a shabby, rented house in unfashionable Clapham, financially precarious, stuck in an ill-matched marriage, saddled with dependents, his huge potential unfulfilled. You can see why Wells's old friend Richard Gregory wrote to him on finishing the novel: ‘I cannot get that poor devil Lewisham out of my mind head, and I wish I had an address, for I would go to him and rescue him from the miserable life in which you leave him.’
He drew her closer to him.
He kissed her neck. She pressed him to her.
Their lips met.
The expiring candle streamed up into a tall flame, flickered, and was suddenly extinguished. The air was heavy with the scent of roses. [ch. 29]
That's not to suggest there's anything dour about Love and Mr Lewisham. On the contrary, the book has a wonderfully elastic feel to it, a joy, a palpable youthful energy: the comedy is sprightly and winning, the pathos actually touching. And the book was a hit: Wells wrote to his mother, on June 7th, 1900, soon after publication, pleased with himself: ‘I am sending you a first review of Love and Mr. Lewisham. They have sold 1,600 copies in England and 2,500 in the colonies before publication, and I think the book is almost certain to beat any previous book I have written in the matter of sales.’ He was right, too.
A question over which critics have disagreed is whether Love and Mr Lewisham is anything more than a loosely-gathered series of vignettes drawn from Wells's own life and unified by the appeal of the central character. Whether, in other words, it is a work of literary art, or just something closer to fictionalised reportage, loose and baggy and inartistic. Wells's friendship with Henry James, to whom no self-respecting academic literary critic would deny the title ‘artist’, is often one of the ways criticism frames this tiresome debate. Some take Wells at his word when he denied that he created ‘art’, in the self-conscious Jamesian mode, at all. ‘Wells himself professed to despise art, maintaining that his ideas were more important than the vehicles that contained them,’ notes J B Batchelor [Modern Language Review 67:2 (1972), 407], adding the punch-unpulling qualifier: ‘but he was an inveterate liar.’ Batchelor thinks Wells worked hard at his artistry, and other critics have tried to make the case for deliberate aesthetic structure and form beneath the surface-seeming charming bagginess of these Wellsian narrative (Kenneth B Newell's Structure in Four Novels by H G Wells (1968) is one, not very convincing, example of this).
I'm going to join in. There are three ways, I'd suggest, that Wells works to impose what we might as well call ‘form’ on the content of his novel, which I'm going to shorthand here as: intertextuality, class and metaphor. The first, actually, is not so much intertextuality as it is a kind of intertextual reaction. To pick up again the Dickensian parallels mentioned at the head of this blogpost, of all the obvious things Love and Mr Lewisham is, the most obvious is that it is a experiment in how the classic Dickensian ‘social mobility’ plotline would go without benefactors. What would Oliver Twist have become without the assistance of benevolent and wealthy old Mr Brownlow? How would Nicholas Nickleby have fared without the Cheeryble brothers? Would John Harmon and Bella have enjoyed marriage without Boffin's cash? Later Dickens relies less exclusively on this particular deus ex machina than earlier Dickens (‘benefactor ex machina’ is good Latin, actually) but even in his non-benefactor novels, it's remarkable just how many people around, say, David Copperfield are invested in the protagonist doing well in the world—that is, how often Dickens's protagonists are surrounded by a network of friends and helpers, even if they are not wealthy ones. In Love and Mr Lewisham Wells plots the path a Dickensian Promising Young Man might follow without such a support network. The only person motivated to help adult Lewisham is Alice Heydinger, because she is in love with him; but she's hardly in a position to do him material good, and her assistance is ruled out anyway by the sexual jealousy of Lewisham's wife. Otherwise he has no parents, no wealthy friends, no patron. Lewisham has to go it alone, without resources and without assistance. Which means he doesn't ‘go it’ very far.
There's another aspect of the anti-David-Copperfield about Love and Mr Lewisham, and it has to do with the sex narrative. Boil it down, and Dickens's novel is about David's relationship with two women: one hopeless, infantalised but sexually alluring; the other accomplished, spiritually mature, a proper helpmeet and partner—but not a woman to whom David is especially sexually attracted. This is a rather stark way of putting it, I know; but it brings out what is the fundamental psychological mendacity of the novel—because the deal Dickens strikes with his subconscious in writing Copperfield is that he will kill-off the sexually alluring wife in order to clear away all obstacles to marriage with the sexually unappealing wife. Of course it's a fool's bargain. Sexual desire is not amenable to being killed off, and the repressed always returns. Catherine Dickens, retroactively written into being a real-life Agnes by this very novel, wasn't able actually to be a real-life Agnes because Dickens's subconscious would not agree to the deal Dickens's superego had struck with his ego. And so in less than a decade after publishing Copperfield Dickens had put his wife away and returned, in secret, to the sexually alluring younger woman. His life simply failed to follow his own Copperfield script.
To read Wells's sexual autobiography (the material he felt he couldn't include in Experiment in Autobiography, and which was published after his death as H G Wells in Love) is to be struck by how much the distress of sexual incompatibility loomed over his life in the 1890s. He married his cousin Isabel in October 1891. Anxious about his own virginity Wells ‘went furtively and discreetly with a prostitute’ to gain some experience, and did not enjoy himself (the encounter ‘deepened my wary apprehension that round about the hidden garden of desire was a jungle of very squalid and stupid lairs’). Married sex was not a success, either: Isabel, according to Wells, took the of-its-time conventional view that ‘lovemaking was nothing more than an outrage inflicted upon reluctant womankind’.
Now, there might be many reasons, aside from this over-dismissively attributed prudishness, why Isabel proved sexually unresponsive to her husband, of course. Wells might simply have been crap in bed. Isabel might not have fancied him, or might have been gay. Or, to turn it about, Wells himself might have manoeuvred himself out of sexual joy precisely by marrying the woman he desired, and Isabel might have been reacting to that fact. A few weeks into the wedding Wells seduced one of Isabel's friends, and talks grandly in H G Wells in Love about how he thereby discovered ‘for the first time’ that sex could be fun. Two and a half years later Wells had divorced Isabel and married his student Amy Catherine Robbins, who became ‘Jane Wells’. Despite the manifest failure of his erotic life with Isabel, this was very much a ‘trading-in Dora for Agnes’ move: for though Wells and Jane had two children together, Wells recalls their sex-life as characterised by ‘immense secret disillusionments’. His second wife was as sexually disengaged as his first, although presumably part of the problem here was Wells's inability to let that first go: ‘there arose,’ is how he puts it, ‘no such sexual fixation between us as still lingered in my mind towards my cousin.’ This marriage endured, though, because Jane was so amusing and supportive a companion, and because she was complaisant where Wells's (many) sexual infidelities were concerned.
All this poses, I think, a particular problem for Wells's writing, though not necessarily, as I argue below, for this particular novel. In the unpublished portion of his Autobiography, Wells declared that ‘quite the most interesting fact’ about his early married life was the way he replaced ‘simple honesty of sexual purpose’ with ‘duplicity’. Insofar as his early mundane novels like Lewisham and Kipps are satirical, they target their barbs against the varying hypocrisies of modern living. In social-prophet mode Wells looks to a future when all such petty duplicities can be swept away, and simple honesty inform life, labour and sex. This idea has polemical clarity on its side, but that's not to say that it has been able to recruit Well's own subconscious to the cause. Because one of the things that comes with unmistakeable, if unintended, force from Love and Mr Lewisham is that though Wells's daylight imagination sets itself again hypocrisy, his nighttime imagination is in love with it. Hypocrisy, we could say, is his kink; duplicity excites him. It's hardly rocket-science. Wells was certainly neither the first nor the last man to separate out companionship from sex, and to have fetishised the latter as a necessary function of secrecy, transgression and illicitness. It's that scene in Annie Hall where the psychiatrist asks Allen's character if he thinks sex is basically dirty, and he replies: ‘only if it's done right’.
So, on to the second of what I suggested earlier are three ways Wells works to impose ‘form’ on the content of his novel. This dialectical engagement with the assumptions of Dickens's narrative of lower-class protagonists making good in the world is one. Related to it is two, what I'm tempted to call the novel's engagement with the way class itself mediates the way aesthetic form maps onto the messiness of lived experience. This, in a nutshell, is the thesis that there is less mess, and more inherent formal harmony and balance, in the wealthy (we could say: the Jamesian or Proustian) life than in the life of lower-middle-class respectable poverty. It is the argument that the latter just is baggier and messier, more impinged upon by derailing contingency, more liable to abrupt stops and unfufilments. This might explain why the socialist component of Lewisham's life is so underplayed in this novel: apart from buying a red necktie and attending a few clubbish discussions, it's almost not there. Marx insists that proletarian existence, though materially denuded, embodies a rather beautiful formal structure, a material dialectic by which History itself comes to knowledge of itself. There's a tradition of radical art going back at least to the Romantics, and manifest in writers as different as Zola and John Berger, that finds an aesthetically harmonizing authenticity in the sufferings of working class life: force, reality, anger and therefore hope.
But it's interesting how little Wells buys this. Compare, once more, Dickens's writing. The one time (we might say) when Dickens imagined what would happen to a talented working-class character whose upwards social mobility was not smoothed by benefactors, friends and providence is found in Our Mutual Friend: Bradley Headstone is Oliver Twist without Brownlow, or Nickleby without the Cheerybles, someone who has had to make his own way on his own merits, unaided. And the remarkable thing about this portrait is how ghastly a figure he is: driven by barely suppressed, murderous rage to wreak disaster on the world of the novel and smite his own ruin upon the lockside. Headstone is the closest Dickens comes to himself answering the question Wells later poses: what would happens to a lower-class man of talents who was not helped to advance by a benefactor? And the answer Dickens gives us is: he would be advance a little way, but he would be thwarted, and furious, and doomed.
Wells's lower-middle-class protagonists are vastly more mild and reasonable than this, as if the palpable injustice of their situation does not punch through to some substrate of pure affect, like rage or Tolstoyan sainthood, so much as only further complexifies the already complex spread of human emotions. In a fine essay, ‘Feeling Like a Clerk in H G Wells’, Richard Higgins notes how much novels like Love and Mr Lewisham, Kipps, Mr Polly and Tono Bungay elaborate a ‘close examination of the relationship between class and the emotions’.
I hope to demonstrate, as I think Wells does, that these emotions have much to add to conventional class analysis. Many of these emotions are more prosaic than we have been accustomed to observe—more passive frustration, for example, than class rage. As Sianne Ngai contends, “the nature of the sociopolitical itself has changed in a manner that both calls forth and calls upon a new set of feelings—ones less powerful than the classical political passions, though perhaps more suited, in their ambient, Bartlebyan, but still diagnostic nature, for models of subjectivity, collectivity, and agency”. Ngai's reference to Bartleby is not an accident; the new feelings she describes were (and continue to be) a profound part of the lower-middle-class experience, making members of this class exemplary vehicles for exploring the significance of the emotions for an analysis of what it means to experience oneself as a member of a particular class. [Victorian Studies, 50:3 (2008), 457-75; Higgins is quoting from Sianne Ngai, Ugly Feelings (Harvard Univ. Press 2005), 5]This is quite an important insight, I think: for the aesthetic pattern of Love and Mr Lewisham is in large part an affective pattern, and the emotions that interest Wells are lower-key and therefore more easily overlooked than the grand passions of Victorian melodrama or Marxist revolutionary anger. Lewisham is sometimes cross, and sometimes despairing, but he is also sometimes hopeful, sometimes amused, aroused, curious, bored, skittish, even accepting. Headstone, as character, hasn't room for such a spread of ordinariness: he's at the pitch of thwarted fury all the time .
Indeed, since one of Wells's main themes in this novel (as in others) is the way impecuniousness and the pinching nature of social convention continually interfere with the stories we would like to plot-out for ourselves, it could almost be objected to that the patterning in Love and Mr Lewisham is too neat, rather than anything else. It's a three part narrative pattern where parts one and three mirror one another, and both reflect forward and backward onto the central section. The end of chapter 29, quoted above, when a ferocious argument between the newlyweds leads to passionate make-up sex, in a room heavy with the scent of rose petals, is a moment of affective intensity designedly placed to balance out the flower-scented affective intensity of Lewisham and Ethel's ‘scandalous ramble’ in chapter 6. The final six chapters of the novel, with this erotic consummation at their heart, balance the first six chapters, something Wells underlines with various deictic echoes:—for instance, young Mr Lewisham reaches down a spray of wild hawthorn for Ethel in chapter 6 and scratches his hand; older Mr Lewisham retrieves the roses from where Ethel has hidden them in chapter 29, and scratches his hand (just in case we miss the parallel, the narrator nudges us: ‘he caught up a handful of roses and extended them, trembling ... His finger bled from a thorn, as once it had bled from a blackthorn spray.’) The problem here is that it tempts Wells into the same kind of psychological mendacity to which Dickens fell prey: this whole scene implies that Lewisham and Ethel's sex-life will be just fine, when the autobiographical provenance tells us something very different; and the peroration to ‘The Child’ as a kind of transcendental signifier bound, like the Star-Baby at the end of 2001, to bring a new unity and order to the fundamentally broken marriage and worn-down shabbiness of the life, strikes a false note. There are other misshapes, too, in the larger structure. Wells needs to keep Alice Heydinger ‘in play’, as it were, to give dramatic flesh to his larger triadic patterning, but for much of the novel he can't quite work out how to do this, which leads to rather ungainly interpolations like Chapter 16, ‘Miss Heydinger's Private Thoughts’, an interlude in which Alice monologues egregiously. But that larger pattern does, I think, hold: a three act drama, carefully built around various triadic scenes, forms and images, that is made in order to articulate on a formal level as well as on the level of story-content the novel's Big Idea that there is always something disruptively extraneous that interferes with the romantic ideal of the twosome, that a corrosive supplement called ‘Life’, or ‘Poverty’, or ‘extra-martial desire’, or maybe ‘sex as such’, is always poking itself in to the potential self-contained neatness of the man-and-woman dyad.
Which brings me, finally, to the third way I think this novel works ‘art’ into its lump of life: by refracting its narrative (the metonymic progression of events in the life of young Lewisham) through a central governing expressive metaphor. That metaphor is, broadly, ‘deceit’; or, since a metaphor needs to be concrete, it is the wonderful central episodes of the fake séance, and the subsequent ways Mr Chaffrey—really the novel's most entertaining and memorable character—attempts to justify his fakery. By juxtaposing these two things, Lewisham's love-life and Chaffrey's fake séance, the novel invites us to consider their points of comparison.
The mediating point is the unexpected presence at the séance of the object of Lewisham's sexual desire. ‘The company was already seated before Lewisham looked across Lagune [at whose house the séance is being conducted] and met the eyes of the girl next that gentleman. It was Ethel! ... Immediately she looked away. At first his only emotion was surprise. He would have spoken, but a little thing robbed him of speech.’ [ch 11] This encounter means that the manufactured eeriness of the actual spirit-rapping is interpenetrated, for Lewisham, with an abrupt renewal of erotic yearning.
He sat in the breathing darkness, staring at the dim elusive shape that had presented that remembered face. His mind was astonishment mingled with annoyance. He had settled that this girl was lost to him for ever. The spell of the old days of longing, of the afternoons that he had spent after his arrival in London, wandering through Clapham with a fading hope of meeting her, had not returned to him. But he was ashamed of his stupid silence, and irritated by the awkwardness of the situation. ...This whole episode plays upon a kind of conceptual pun: the dark room, the physical proximity of men and women, the gasping, the shuddering, it is at once describing a séance and sex. The centrepiece of Chaffrey's performance is a disembodied, luminous hand: ‘ghostly—unaccountable—marvellous’. It touches Lewisham, which makes him shudder and grit his teeth; ‘Almost simultaneously, Miss Heydinger cried out that something was smoothing her hair’. The sheer sensuality of this, and its thrillingly unconventional nature, does interesting things in terms of balancing off the material and immaterial. Sex is preeminently a physical act, after all; the spirit realm is famously non-physical; yet this sort of spiritualist performance is all about the physical manifestation of the immaterial. And this in turn returns us to questions of sex, the broader appeal of which is grounded in that romantic ideal that while it is physical it is not just physical, that (for instance) it expresses an immaterial love, that it links two spirits and perhaps, as at the novel's end, even engenders into the world a new immortal soul. Wells is understandably suspicious of such grandiose romantic sentimentalism. For him sex is bodies interacting, howsoever pleasurably, with other bodies. And Chaffrey's séance is pleasurable, in a spooky sort of way, even for those who come to debunk it. More, it is this that figures the reconnection between Lewisham and Ethel. But it is also a sham, a deceit.
Lewisham, recalling his detective responsibility with an effort, peered about him, but the room was very dark. The silence was broken ever and again by deep sighs and a restless stirring from the Medium. Out of this mental confusion Lewisham's personal vanity was first to emerge. What did she think of him? Was she peering at him through the darkness even as he peered at her? Should he pretend to see her for the first time when the lights were restored? As the minutes lengthened it seemed as though the silence grew deeper and deeper. There was no fire in the room, and it looked, for lack of that glow, chilly. A curious scepticism arose in his mind as to whether he had actually seen Ethel or only mistaken someone else for her. He wanted the séance over in order that he might look at her again. The old days at Whortley came out of his memory with astonishing detail and yet astonishingly free from emotion….
He became aware of a peculiar sensation down his back, that he tried to account for as a draught.
Suddenly a beam of cold air came like a touch against his face, and made him shudder convulsively. Then he hoped that she had not marked his shudder. He thought of laughing a low laugh to show he was not afraid. Someone else shuddered too, and he perceived an extraordinarily vivid odour of violets. Lagune's finger communicated a nervous quivering.
What was happening?
The musical box somewhere on the table began playing a rather trivial, rather plaintive air that was strange to him. It seemed to deepen the silence about him, an accent on the expectant stillness, a thread of tinkling melody spanning an abyss.
Lewisham took himself in hand at this stage. What was happening? He must attend. Was he really watching as he should do? He had been wool-gathering. There were no such things as spirits, mediums were humbugs, and he was here to prove that sole remaining Gospel. But he must keep up with things—he was missing points. What was that scent of violets? And who had set the musical box going? The Medium, of course; but how? He tried to recall whether he had heard a rustling or detected any movement before the music began. He could not recollect. Come! he must be more on the alert than this!
He became acutely desirous of a successful exposure. He figured the dramatic moment he had prepared with Smithers—Ethel a spectator. He peered suspiciously into the darkness.
Somebody shuddered again, someone opposite him this time. He felt Lagune's finger quiver still more palpably, and then suddenly the raps began, abruptly, all about him. Rap!—making him start violently. A swift percussive sound, tap, rap, dap, under the table, under the chair, in the air, round the cornices. The Medium groaned again and shuddered, and his nervous agitation passed sympathetically round the circle. The music seemed to fade to the vanishing point and grew louder again. [ch. 11]
The climax of the show, signalled by a nicely deflating less-than-orgasmic ‘Tzit!’ is when the lights come on suddenly, and Chaffrey is revealed mid-faking. Triste est omne animal post coitum, after all; and Lewisham goes from elation at uncovering the cheat to ‘an extraordinary moodiness’ on the way home. The spectral hand, that had so excitingly and bafflingly caressed both him and Alice, is revealed in the bright lights of afterwards to be a prop, a kind of glove held in Chaffrey's mouth and inflated by his breath. There it sprawls at the chapter's end like a used prophylactic: ‘a thing of shrivelled membrane, a pneumatic glove, lying on the table.’ Disappointment hurries hard behind our erotic satisfactions.
And that's what's so clever about Wells's decision to use this particular metaphor to talk about sex in this novel,or perhaps we could say to reveal the spurting, ectoplasmic story Sex and Mr Lewisham veiled behind the decent title Love and Mr Lewisham. Chaffrey's self-justification, quoted at some length above, attempts to make a cosmic virtue of what he styles as anti-hypocrisy. Love and Mr Lewisham works with a smaller canvas, but more convincingly. Sex itself, this novel suggests, is a particular kind of deceiving performance in which two parties agree to fool one another, and themselves, that the variously mechanical, disgusting or bestial physical actions they undertake upon one another's bodies are transporting magical mysteries freighted with significance and accompanied by the powerful scent of rose petals. Or to put it more broadly, that the pleasure of sex, though real, depends upon a kind of benign mutual fakery. Revealing the ‘truth’ of sex, by (for instance) studying physiology and evolutionary science at the Normal School in Kensington, does not undermine our attachment to this mediumistic rigmarole, just as wealthy, foolish Lagune, having been shown that Chaffery is cheating him, continues to believe in Chaffery. He was, he insists, rigging a few elementary effects to ease the unbelievers in. ‘I told Chaffery you were beginners. He treated you as beginners—arranged a demonstration’ [ch 14], just as University Professors sometimes fake demonstrations, to lead their students to the correct scientific conclusions. ‘If it had not been for your interruptions ...’ Lagune insists and he closes with ‘I still believe the man has powers.’ We might describe this as pride, or obstinacy, on Lagune's part; but then we ought to be prepared to have the same language used to describe our own stubborn attachment to the various performances of sexual life. After all, we know that that whole business is a mere evolutionary drive, designed to enable DNA to make more DNA. Right? I mean, honestly: who are we kidding?
In a review of Roger Luckhurst's excellent Invention of Telepathy book, Marina Warner gets stern with with the sorts of people who were taken-in by fin de siècle spiritualism and table rapping (‘they included the philosopher Frederic Myers; the progressive thinkers Henry Sidgwick, the founder of Newnham College, Cambridge, and Oliver Lodge, a brilliant younger scientist who continued to defend ectoplasm well into the Einsteinian era’):
There’s something ghastly and shameful, as well as inadvertently hilarious, about these high-minded and progressive luminaries taking part in such shenanigans; it’s also a source of profound embarrassment for those who believe in intellectual effort that thoughtful men and women should have colluded with such deceptions and, albeit unconsciously, brought about a spiral of duplicity with mediums who were for the most part female, and invariably of a lower social status than the psychic investigators.Repurpose this and it becomes a different sort of jeremiad, against a different manner of ghastly, shameful, inadvertently hilarious shenanigan (good word!), one in which generations of ‘high-minded and progressive’ men have engaged in with women, often of a lower social status to themselves. I don't mean to be merely facetious. We can ask ourselves: why do we carry on with all these sexual games and performance, all this erotic fiction and role-play, when of course we ‘know’ the truth of sex? If we answer ‘because it's fun’, we're only being half-truthful. I'm not denying it is fun, of course; but I am insisting it's a different kind of fun than push-pin or poetry, or crochet, or kicking a football about. It's the kind of fun that feels like it's more than just fun: that puts us in touch, however hazily, with something beyond ourselves. It doesn't stretch the truth to say that the barebones evolutionary ‘truth’ of sex is actually the truth by which we beat back against death as such. And in that sense Wells's spiritualist metaphor, in all its glorious, ingenious fakeness, is an eloquent one for the concerns of his novel as such. Sex, says the novel, is a snare, a distraction, a mere shadow compared to the grand ambition outlined in Lewisham's Schema. And at the same time this novel says: of course, sex is actually much more important than any of that stuff.
It's like the old joke. A Catholic priest and a Rabbi are sharing a railway compartment, and get chatting. ‘And is it true,’ the priest asks, ‘that men of your faith are not permitted to eat bacon?’ The Rabbi nods. ‘But,’ the priest presses, ‘have you never even tried bacon?’ The Rabbi holds up his hands. ‘I have to admit that when I was young I did eat a little bacon.’ He shakes his head at his own youthful folly. ‘And you, my friend,’ he asks in his turn. ‘Is it really true that you priests can never marry? Never have sex?’ ‘We take a sacred vow of celibacy,’ confirms the priest. ‘But have you never even tried sex?’ the Rabbi asks. The priest is outraged: ‘of course not!’ ‘A pity,’ says the Rabbi. ‘It's better than bacon.’