Wednesday, 30 August 2017

An Englishman Looks at the World (1914)

A compendium of Wells's choice 1909-1914 journalism, this: twenty-six pieces, some shorter, a couple (‘The American Population’ is over sixty pages long) more substantial. There's the cover: Wells, undeniably an Englishman, looking. Presumably The World is just off to the left of the spine.
1. The Coming Of Blériot
2. My First Flight
3. Off The Chain
4. Of The New Reign
5. Will The Empire Live?
6. The Labour Unrest
7. The Great State
8. The Common Sense Of Warfare
9. The Contemporary Novel
10. The Philosopher's Public Library
11. About Chesterton And Belloc
12. About Sir Thomas More
13. Traffic And Rebuilding
14. The So-Called Science Of Sociology
15. Divorce
16. The Schoolmaster And The Empire
17. The Endowment Of Motherhood
18. Doctors
19. An Age Of Specialisation
20. Is There A People?
21. The Disease Of Parliaments
22. The American Population
23. The Possible Collapse Of Civilisation
24. The Ideal Citizen
25. Some Possible Discoveries
26. The Human Adventure
The first piece opens with Wells running up from his garden to take a phone call from the Daily Mail informing him that Blériot has just flown the Channel and asking him for ‘an Article ... about what it means’, which he then goes on to provide. From there he speculates on the future of the Empire, the coming war, comes out against military Conscription, opines on the limitations of parliamentary democracy and many things. He reacts to the contemporary literary scene, denies that sociology is a science (since ‘counting, classification, measurement, the whole fabric of mathematics, is subjective and deceitful, and that the uniqueness of individuals is the objective truth’ [14]) and looks into the future.

A preface attached to the collection ties the above-listed twenty-six pieces into an odd little sort-of narrative: ‘Blériot arrives and sets him thinking. (1) He flies, (2) And deduces certain consequences of cheap travel. (3) He considers the King, and speculates on the New Epoch; (4) He thinks Imperially, (5) And then, coming to details, about Labour, (6) Socialism, (7) And Modern Warfare, (8) He discourses on the Modern Novel, (9) And the Public Library; (10) Criticises Chesterton, Belloc, (11) And Sir Thomas More, (12) And deals with the London Traffic Problem as a Socialist should. (13) He doubts the existence of Sociology, (14) Discusses Divorce, (15) Schoolmasters, (16) Motherhood, (17) Doctors, (18) And Specialisation; (19) Questions if there is a People, (20) And diagnoses the Political Disease of our Times. (21) He then speculates upon the future of the American Population, (22) Considers a possible set-back to civilisation, (23) The Ideal Citizen, (24) The still undeveloped possibilities of Science, (25), and—in the broadest spirit— The Human Adventure. (26)’

There's not much mileage, I think, in a detailed close-reading of all these essays. Some have aged badly in terms of argument (the anti-Conscription one, for instance, looks especially shortsighted: difficult to see how Britain could have prevailed in the First World War without that strategy) and some in terms of tone. There's a prevailing jauntiness of voice that becomes rather grating in large doses. For example, this is how Wells starts his essay on Chesterton and Belloc:
It has been one of the less possible dreams of my life to be a painted Pagan God and live upon a ceiling. I crown myself becomingly in stars or tendrils or with electric coruscations (as the mood takes me), and wear an easy costume free from complications and appropriate to the climate of those agreeable spaces. The company about me on the clouds varies greatly with the mood of the vision, but always it is in some way, if not always a very obvious way, beautiful. One frequent presence is G.K. Chesterton, a joyous whirl of brush work, appropriately garmented and crowned. When he is there, I remark, the whole ceiling is by a sort of radiation convivial. We drink limitless old October from handsome flagons, and we argue mightily about Pride (his weak point) and the nature of Deity ... Chesterton often—but never by any chance Belloc. Belloc I admire beyond measure, but there is a sort of partisan viciousness about Belloc that bars him from my celestial dreams. [11]
Which is fairly jolly, although probably a little too effortfully conceited to really work (I mean, we get it: Chesterton made for a jollier drinking companion than Belloc). The rest of the essay is peculiar, too: hard to know if its, well, obtuseness is Wells being dim, or is instead some kind of three-dimensional-chess move of irony. What I mean is: Wells purports not to understand why Chesterton and Belloc and he don't get on, since they all patently want the same thing, at the same time as saying that he doesn't know what the other two want.
In many ways we three are closely akin; we diverge not by necessity but accident ... These two say Socialism is a thing they do not want for men, and I say Socialism is above all what I want for men. We shall go on saying that now to the end of our days. But what we do all three want is something very alike. Our different roads are parallel. I aim at a growing collective life, a perpetually enhanced inheritance for our race, through the fullest, freest development of the individual life. What they aim at ultimately I do not understand, but it is manifest that its immediate form is the fullest and freest development of the individual life. [11]
Does what they aim at ultimately I do not understand mean ‘I know, as religious people, they see God and faith as fundamental to human flourishing, but these are things I as a materialist literally do not comprehend’? Or does it actually mean what, on its face, it says: ‘who knows what these strange people want for mankind? It's a riddle wrapped inside an enigma’—Because if it is the latter then the whole essay becomes an exercise in point-missing on a really quite impressive scale.

Otherwise the essays in this volume cover a variety of topics to various degrees of edification and entertainment. That's a pretty wishywashy assessment, I appreciate; but there you are. Towards its end the volume reverts several times to Wells's idea (previously fictionalised as Remington's big idea in New Machiavelli) of ‘the Endowment of Motherhood’: Wells mocks the Fabians for not endorsing this notion, and praises Teddy Roosevelt for supporting it, with words if not with actions. Still: it is an idea that combines a more-or-less Feminist commitment to giving women financial security and freedom with an unashamed eugenicist agenda that is really pretty racist. ‘The birth-rate, and particularly the good-class birth-rate, falls steadily below the needs of our future’ Wells warns [17], and ‘good-class’ is really code for ‘white, middle-class, healthy’. He admonishes his readership that ‘every civilised community’—every white community, that presumably means—‘is drifting towards “race-suicide”.’ Nor are speeches alone enough, without the practical policies Wells is proposing: ‘I doubt if all the eloquence of Mr. Roosevelt and its myriad echoes has added a thousand babies to the eugenic wealth of the English-speaking world.’ Eugenic wealth is a queasy-making sort of phrase, though, isn't it?

So: yes, it's the eve of World War 1 and Wells is still banging on about eugenics:
The modern State has got to pay for its children if it really wants them—and more particularly it has to pay for the children of good homes. The alternative to that is racial replacement and social decay. That is the essential idea conveyed by this phrase, the Endowment of Motherhood. [17]
The oddity here is that the collection also includes perorations to the longue durée history of humankind precisely as a mode of strength through racial intermixing:
Every age is an age of transition, of minglings, of the breaking up of old, narrow cultures, and the breaking down of barriers, of spiritual and often of actual interbreeding. Not only is the physical but the moral and intellectual ancestry of everyone more mixed than ever it was before. We blend in our blood, everyone of us, and we blend in our ideas and purposes, craftsmen, warriors, savages, peasants, and a score of races, and an endless multitude of social expedients and rules. [24]
But make no mistake: the future to which Wells is looking—as in that cover photo, at the top of the post—belongs in his imagination to strong-limbed Anglo-Saxon people. Here's the very last paragraph in the collection:
And this Man, this wonderful child of old earth, who is ourselves in the measure of our hearts and minds, does but begin his adventure now. Through all time henceforth he does but begin his adventure. This planet and its subjugation is but the dawn of his existence. In a little while he will reach out to the other planets, and take that greater fire, the sun, into his service. He will bring his solvent intelligence to bear upon the riddles of his individual interaction, transmute jealousy and every passion, control his own increase, select and breed for his embodiment a continually finer and stronger and wiser race ... Sometimes in the dark sleepless solitudes of night, one ceases to be so-and-so, one ceases to bear a proper name, forgets one's quarrels and vanities, forgives and understands one's enemies and oneself, as one forgives and understands the quarrels of little children, knowing oneself indeed to be a being greater than one's personal accidents, knowing oneself for Man on his planet, flying swiftly to unmeasured destinies through the starry stillnesses of space. [26]
Those starry stillnesses are all very sublime, and so on, but ‘mankind must control his own increase, select and breed for his embodiment a continually finer and stronger and wiser race’ could hardly be a harder-core eugenicist expression.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

The Passionate Friends (1913)


This is another (tempting to say: yet another) of Wells's consequences-of-adultery novels, although it is a cut above some of the others. The Passionate Friends falls into three discrete storytelling phases. It starts as an aristocratic love triangle, digresses from the rather mannered melodrama of this into a much more interesting novel about a tour of India, China and America as a vehicle for the protagonist's awakening political and spiritual consciousness, before, finally, reverting to the original she-loves-he-loves-she-loves for its tragic, or tragic-ish, denouement.

It's a first-person narration: the life story of Stephen Stratton, the son of a respectable though not particularly wealthy family (his father is rector of Burnmore). As a child his ‘playmate’ is the daughter of local aristocrats, Lady Mary Christian, and as teenagers they fall in love. When he turns nineteen Stephen proposes marriage, but Lady Mary turns him down, for a variety of reasons. Indeed, reading the novel I wasn't sure how sincerely or otherwise we're supposed to take these myriad excuses. So: despite loving him, she says that she won't marry him because (a) what they have together is too special to be sullied by the material day-to-day of married life, (b) she doesn't want to ‘belong’ to any man, since she is determined to ‘belong to herself’ (‘“Why should one have to tie oneself always to one other human being?” she asked. “Why must it be like that?”’ [4:5]), and (c) this last point notwithstanding, she is going to marry somebody else: a super-wealthy financier called Justin. Her rationale for this last decision is twofold: first that Justin has lots of money, where Stephen has very little, and that she doesn't fancy living ‘in some dreadful place ... no money ... worried and desperate. One gets ill in such places’, which I suppose at the least has the virtue of honesty. Her second reason is that that Justin has, it seems, agreed not to trespass on Mary's resolution to ‘own herself’, even agreeing not to press himself on her, sexually: ‘“But,” I choked. “You! He! He will make love to you, Mary .... You will bear him children!” “No. He promises. Stephen,—I am to own myself.”’ [4:5]

Since Mary later has two daughters with Justin, that resolution clearly didn't survive contact with reality.

Anyway: Mary becomes Lady Mary Justin, Stephen is heartbroken and takes himself off to South Africa, where (it being 1899) the Second Boer War has just broken out. Wells writes this war chapter well, conjuring a believable and vivid sense of the South African milieu. Stephen proves a naturally gifted officer, and distinguishes himself in the fighting. He returns to England to discover that his father has, quite unexpectedly, inherited a vast fortune, freeing him up from the need to get a job. Instead he meets up again with Lady Mary Justin and the two of them become lovers, although it's a consummation that doesn't make him particularly happy. ‘From the day,’ he says, ‘that passion carried us and we became in the narrower sense of the word lovers ...’
... I do not think that we even had the real happiness and beauty and delight of one another. Because, I tell you, there is no light upon kiss or embrace that is not done with pride. I do not know why it should be so, but people of our race and quality are a little ashamed of mere gratification in love. Always we seem in my memory to have been whispering with flushed cheeks, and discussing interminably—situation. Had something betrayed us, might something betray, was this or that sufficiently cunning? Had we perhaps left a footmark or failed to burn a note, was the second footman who was detailed as my valet even now pausing astonished in the brushing of my clothes with our crumpled secret in his hand? Between myself and the clear vision of this world about me this infernal net-work of precautions spread like a veil. [Passionate Friends, 6:9]
His feelings of shabbiness are intensifed by the fact that he had started courting an eligible, virtuous young woman called Rachel More, and that she has unmistakably fallen in love with him, before this secret affair with Mary happened. The situation stretches out until Mary's husband Justin chances upon Stephen and Mary kissing, and there is a scene. The husband and his allies spirit Mary away to Ireland, and Stephen goes into a sort of frenzy trying to track her down. He lies to his own friends, travels to Ireland, discovers her gone, comes home, and eventually has to accept the inevitable: that the affair is over. To avoid scandal Stephen agrees never to meet with Mary again, and promises to leave England altogether for a period of three years.

That's the end of the first movement of the novel. Chapter Seven (of twelve) is called ‘Beginning Again’, and is as good as its title. Stephen travels, first to Europe, and from there to India. Here his old Imperialist beliefs crumple under the shock of what he sees, and his whole worldview shifts about. The tenor of the novel shifts too, broadening from its claustrophobic focus on a small group of upper-class Englishfolk into something altogether more panoramic:
Before my eyes again as I sit here, the great space before the Jumna Musjid at Delhi reappears, as I saw it in the evening stillness against a glowing sky of gold, and the memory of countless worshippers within, praying with a devotion no European displays. And then comes a memory of that long reef of staircases and temples and buildings, the ghats of Benares, in the blazing morning sun, swarming with a vast multitude of multicolored people and the water also swarming with brown bodies. It has the colors of a bed of extravagantly splendid flowers and the light that is Indian alone. Even as I sit here these places are alive with happening ... the sun sinks in the skies of India, the Jumna Musjid flushes again with the glow of sunset, the smoke of evening fires streams heavenward against its subtle lines, and upon those steps at Benares that come down the hillside between the conquering mosque of Aurangzeb and the shining mirror of the Ganges a thousand silent seated figures fall into meditation. And other memories recur and struggle with one another; the crowded river-streets of Canton, the rafts and houseboats and junks innumerable, riding over inky water, begin now to twinkle with a thousand lights. They are ablaze in Osaka and Yokohama and Tokio, and the swarming staircase streets of Hong Kong glitter with a wicked activity now that night has come. I flash a glimpse of Burmese temples, of villages in Java, of the sombre purple masses of the walls of the Tartar city at Pekin with squat pagoda-guarded gates. How those great outlines lowered at me in the twilight, full of fresh memories and grim anticipations of baseness and violence and bloodshed! I sit here recalling it—feeling it all out beyond the trellised vine-clad wall that bounds my physical vision.... Vast crowded world that I have seen! going from point to point seeking for clues, for generalities, until at last it seems to me that there emerges—something understandable. [Passionate Friends, 8:1]
The brute fact of mass poverty convinces him that ‘civilization has never yet existed, it has only continually and obstinately attempted to be. Our Civilization is but the indistinct twilight before the dawn’. From ‘the panther-haunted palaces of Akbar at Fatehpur Sikri’ he travels on to China, and walks ‘the Bruges-like emptinesses of Pekin’, where ‘the vast pretensions of its Forbidden City’ strike him as ‘like a cry, long sustained, that at last dies away in a wail’ [8:3]. The result of all this travel is that Stephen dedicates himself to the echt Wellsian project of facilitating the creation of a utopian World State: ‘a new world-city, a new greater State above your legal States, in which all human life becomes a splendid enterprise, free and beautiful.’

Stephen caps-off his world tour with a trip to America where he makes friends with a US millionaire called Gidding, who shares his beliefs and ambitions: ‘“Say, Stratton,” he said, after a conversation that had seemed to me half fantasy; “Let's do it!”’ [8:10]. Do what? Why, help lay the foundations for the coming World State, that's what.

They set up an international publishing house, ‘Alphabet and Mollentrave’, employing multiple teams of experts to translate the classics of world literature and science into all the major world languages, and making the results cheaply available across the globe. This is one of the most interesting and prescient elements of this novel, I think: ‘a huge international organ of information, and of a kind of gigantic modern Bible of world literature’ [10:1] anticipating our very own, much later, Wikipedia/Google Books et al revolution in knowledge.
Behind our enterprise of translations and reprints we were getting together and putting out a series of guide-books, gazetteers, dictionaries, text-books and books of reference, and we were organizing a revising staff for these, a staff that should be constantly keeping them up to date. It was our intention to make every copy we printed bear the date of its last revision in a conspicuous place, and we hoped to get the whole line of these books ultimately upon an annual basis, and to sell them upon repurchasing terms that would enable us to issue a new copy and take back and send the old one to the pulping mill at a narrow margin of profit. Then we meant to spread our arms wider, and consolidate and offer our whole line of text-books, guide-books and gazetteers, bibliographies, atlases, dictionaries and directories as a new World Encyclopædia, that should also annually or at longest biennially renew its youth. [Passionate Friends, 8:1]
It's here Wells first uses the phrase that was to become one of his slogans: Gidding and Stratton's project represents what the latter calls an ‘open conspiracy against potentates and prejudices and all the separating powers of darkness’ [9:10].

As this second movement in the story comes to a close, Stephen has put his life in order. He marries Rachel, confessing to her his previous affair with Lady Mary, but assuring her all that is behind him now. They start a family (the overall conceit of the novel is that Stephen is addressing the whole narrative to his son, for him to read when he comes of age), and he slowly builds a reputation as a campaigner for global justice and the amelioration of the human condition. He pushes ahead with the publishing, gets invited to address peace conferences and so on.

All this sets-up the final portion of the story. Taking a break from the exhausting whirl of work, Stephen goes on a brief walking holiday in the Alps, solus. At a hotel on Engstlen Lake, and quite by chance, he meets Mary again. She is also staying in the hotel with her maid and companion. Both have promised not to see or speak to the other, but since they still love one another they decide Providence has arranged the meeting and make the most of it: spending the day rowing about on the lake, talking old times and generally communing, though not having any sex.

The meeting has disastrous consequences. Word gets back to London, and Mary's husband, the haughty and imperious Justin, announces he will divorce her, with Stephen to be named as co-respondent. Stephen returns to London, hoping to avert the scandal of this. It doesn't look likely, though: Stephen's solicitor reveals that Lady Mary deliberately swapped rooms with her own maid in order to occupy the adjacent room to Stephen's: ‘“You were sleeping with your two heads within a yard of one another anyhow”,’ the lawyer notes. ‘“Thirty-six you had, and she had thirty-seven.” He turned over a paper on his desk. “You didn't know, of course,” he said. “But what I want to have"—and his voice grew wrathful—"is sure evidence that you didn't know. No jury on earth is going to believe you didn't know. No jury!— Why,”—his mask dropped—“no man on earth is going to believe a yarn like that!”’ [11:8]

Things are looking bad for Stephen. His wife Rachel is distraught, struggling and failing to bring herself to believe Stephen's insistence that he did not have sexual relations with that woman, Lady Mary. Stephen knows the coming court case will drag down his public reputation, and so destroy the good he can accomplish with Alphabet and Mollentrave. But Justin is implacable, and there's nothing Stephen can do.

So is set-up the novel's Tale of Two Cities-style final twist. Lady Mary visits Stephen at his London house one last time, telling him that she has made a deal with her husband: he will not go ahead with the divorce and in return she will agree to be sequestered in some secret fastness, ‘a lonely place, my dear—among mountains. High and away. Very beautiful, but lonely’ [11:10]. It occurs to Stephen during their conversation that she might be planning suicide, but the real danger of this only really dawns on him after Mary has left. He hurries round to her London house:
I saw instantly that I was too late when the door opened and showed me the scared face of a young footman whose eyes were red with tears.

“Are you Doctor—?” he asked of my silence.

“I want—” I said. “I must speak to Lady Mary.”

He was wordless for a moment. “She—she died, sir,” he said. “She's died suddenly.” His face quivered, he was blubbering. He couldn't say anything more; he stood snivelling in the doorway. [Passionate Friends, 11:12]
So Stephen's reputation, and ‘great work’, are saved; but at the cost of Mary's life. It is a far far better thing that she does now, and so on, and so forth—except that sounds pat, and a little snide, and the actual affect of the novel is not so by-the-numbers. If not quite full-on tragic, the conclusion is touching and effective, and it raises as many questions as it answers. The novel closes with a brief twelfth chapter in which Stephen declares ‘I give myself, and if I can I will give you [he's addressing his son], to the destruction of jealousy and of the forms and shelters and instruments of jealousy, both in my own self and in the thought and laws and usage of the world.’ [12:3].


In my post on his previous novel, Marriage (1912), I noted that Wells bracketed The Passionate Friends with Marriage, The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman and The Research Magnificent as the product of the years of his affair with Elizabeth Von Arnim, claiming that ‘none of them are among my best work.’  That's harsh, I think, although it speaks to Wells's own sense of personal interregnum, between the intensity of his (as he knew in his heart, even as he struggled to deny it) doomed relationship with Amber Reeves and his more equal but just as problematic affair with Rebecca West. Speaking broadly, the novel attempts to perform an effective transition (by ‘effective’ I mean: believable, compelling, but also ideologically or politically persuasive) from love as a narrowly personal to love as an effectively global phenomenon. Stephen is characterised as somebody with a great capacity for love: he loves Mary deeply and without diminution, through all the vicissitudes of their relationship, from the start to the end of the novel; but he also loves his wife Rachel, and his desire to improve the world is motivated by more than just rational calculation. Wells's target in The Passionate Friends, ‘jealousy’, becomes, functionally speaking, the artificial restriction on the whole scope of love as such, the thing that stands in the way of bettering the entire world. And the focus-pull in the novel's middle sections, when Wells opens the narrative convincingly-enough to a more global perspective, is quite an achievement, technically speaking.

But framing this with a heterosexual love-triangle, one man between two women, tends to throws into relief how little women as such figure in Wells's larger conception. Janice Harris may well be right that a key impetus for Wells to write The Passionate Friends was ‘Wells' growing conception of himself as an ally of the feminists, indeed a feminist himself’ (She adds: ‘Like other social activists during the decade, Wells viewed woman suffrage as an obvious necessity but more important was a reconceptualization of men's and women's working, parenting, and sexual lives’ [Harris, ‘Wifely Silence and Speech in Three Marriage Novels by H. G. Wells’, Studies in the Novel, 26:4, (1994), 406]). But where Wells's next novel, The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, manages at least to a degree to situate the female characters in the larger flow, The Passionate Friends styles its women as marginal, passive and ultimately sacrificed to the—I fight shy of this word generally since my students misuse it so egregiously, but in this case it's strictly appropriate—patriarchal logic of the larger work.

So: the novel is a narration by a father addressed to his son. The first chapters concern the narrator's relationship with his own father. His key working relationship is with his male friend, Gidding; his relationship with Mary, the love of his life, is determined by his antagonism with Mary's husband, Justin, of whom Stephen remarks ‘It is a curious thing that in spite of our bitter antagonism and the savage jealousy we were to feel for one another, there has always been, and there remains now in my thought of him, a certain liking, a regret at our opposition, a quality of friendliness’ [6:9], The novel's final conclusion is that the only method for cutting the gordian knot of man's implacable threat to another man's great work is—the death of a woman they have in common. There have been plenty of feminist analyses of the way women figure as objects of exchange circulated between men according to the laws of masculine discursive systems, and some [I'm thinking of, eg Gayle Rubin's ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex’, in Rayne R. Reiter (ed) Toward an Anthropology of Women (New York: 1975), 157-210] how positing women's value in intermasculine terms creates a tension with the sense of women as valuable in themselves, this latter justifying the exchange in the first place. That's very much at play in The Passionate Friends.

The symbolic economy of this novel requires Mary's Sidney Carton-esque sacrifice in order to square, to ‘make sense of’ the conflicting demands of masculinity: to ‘solve’ the problem of how male desire for women comes into conflict with male duty to other men. Since the oldest of justifications for male jealousy, the exclusivity of marriage, was masculine paternity fears (a woman will likely know who the father of her child is, but a father can never be sure), it is not coincidental that Wells devotes so much of The Passionate Friends to issues of parenthood. The figure of the child provides the copula between the personal drama of Mary, Stephen, and Rachel (who all have children) and Stephen's larger humanitarian project. It is an investigation into the horrors of child labour in India that first reshapes Stephen's consciousness:
I waded deep in labor, in this process of consuming humanity for gain, chasing my facts through throbbing quivering sheds reeking of sweat and excrement under the tall black-smoking chimneys,—chasing them in very truth, because when we came prying into the mills after the hour when child-labor should cease, there would be a shrill whistle, a patter of feet and a cuffing and hiding of the naked little creatures we were trying to rescue. They would be hidden under rugs, in boxes, in the most impossible places, and we dragged them out scared and lying. Many of them were perhaps seven years old at most; and the adults—men and women of fourteen that is to say—we could not touch at all, and they worked in that Indian heat, in a noisome air drenched with steam for fourteen and fifteen hours a day. And essential to that general impression is a memory of a slim Parsi mill-manager luminously explaining the inherited passion for toil in the Indian weaver, and a certain bulky Hindu with a lemon-yellow turban and a strip of plump brown stomach showing between his clothes, who was doing very well, he said, with two wives and five children in the mills. [Passionate Friends, 8:2]
That plump Hindu, with his two wives and five children, mentioned briefly here and never again, stands as a sort of rebus for Stephen himself: with his two women, and their aggregated kids (Mary's two, Rachel's three, only the latter biologically Stephen's of course). Which is how the novel understands its protagonist's own complicity in the misery it narrates. It is an oblique sort of knowledge, I suppose; but that may be part of the issue too. Passionate, in the title, speaks both to the intensity of Stephen and Mary's feelings and to its fundamental passivity; they are patients, not agents, in their own emotional interactions; and in the larger sense there is a deliberate sense of things happening to Stephen, rather than Stephen making things happen. When they are discovered together by Justin, Stephen urges Mary to accompany him, the two of them walking away to start a new life together; and he himself storms out of Justin's house. Only when he is outside does he discover that Mary has not come with him. It's a moment almost comic in its crumpling bathos; almost, but not quite. Because the whole novel ultimately replicates the claustrophobia of existential passivity. Maybe that's actually a feature, not a bug, although it tugs the book against its more programmatic ‘open conspiracy’ Wellsian World-State agenda. Reading these novels of the early nineteen-teens, I get the impression Wells believes in this goal intellectually, but can't quite bring himself to believe in it on other levels.


One last, brief, note. Something I noticed with this book, which I haven't noticed with earlier ones, and which is indicative (I think) of a writer straining, rather, for effect, is how often its prose falls into roughly approximate blank verse. So, for example it doesn't take much to turn (picked more-or-less at random) this:
You see, my son, there are two sorts of love; we use one name for very different things. The love that a father bears his children, that a mother feels, that comes sometimes, a strange brightness and tenderness that is half pain, at the revelation of some touching aspect of one long known to one, at the sight of a wife bent with fatigue and unsuspicious of one's presence, at the wretchedness and perplexity of some wrong-doing brother, or at an old servant's unanticipated tears, that is love—like the love God must bear us. That is the love we must spread from those of our marrow until it reaches out to all mankind, that will some day reach out to all mankind. But the love of a young man for a woman takes this quality only in rare moments of illumination and complete assurance. My love for Mary was a demand, it was a wanton claim I scored the more deeply against her for every moment of happiness she gave me. I see now that as I emerged from the first abjection of my admiration and began to feel assured of her affection, I meant nothing by her but to possess her, I did not want her to be happy as I want you to be happy even at the price of my life; I wanted her. I wanted her as barbarians want a hunted enemy, alive or dead. It was a flaming jealousy to have her mine. [Passionate Friends, 4:8]
You see, my son, there are two sorts of love;
We use one name for very different things:
The love a father bears his children, that
A mother feels, that sometimes comes, a strange
Brightness and a tenderness half pain,
Of revelation at some touching aspect
At the sight of a wife bent with fatigue
And unsuspicious of one's presence, at
The wretchedness and the perplexity
Of some wrong-doing brother, or perhaps
A servant's unanticipated tears,
All that is love—like [the] love God must bear us.
That is the love that we must spread from those
Of our own marrow til it reaches out
To all mankind, that will some day reach out
To all mankind.
and so on. There's quite a lot of this in The Passionate Friends, and I'm not convinced it's a good thing.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Marriage (1912)

1. Preliminary contexts

After the public scandal and personal heartbreak of Wells's affair with Amber Reeves (fictionalised in The New Machiavelli, amongst other books), Wells moved on to a rather different woman: Elizabeth von Arnim, née Mary Annette Beauchamp. She and Wells were lovers 1911-13, or more probably just from 1912-13. In H G Wells in Love, Wells recalls her as ‘a very bright and original little lady’ a successful author in her own right (the ‘Elizabeth’ was the name under which she wrote a string of popular novels, beginning with Elizabeth and her German Garden in 1898, which fictionalised her marriage to the German Count from whom she acquired her surname). Indeed, ‘little’ is the frankly condescending watchword for the whole of Wells's account of the affair: ‘The Episode of Little e’ is how he styles it, Elizabeth not even, it seems, meriting a capital letter. ‘She was incapable of philosophical thought or political ideas,’ he tells us; although she had her native Irish ‘passion for absurdity and laughter’ and was ‘insincerely sentimental’ [Wells in Love, 87].

Wells's whole account is really rather offputtingly self-regarding: ‘I attracted her,’ he says, laconically, adding that ‘she had found love-making with Von Arnim a serious and disagreeable business, but she was aware that it might be far less onerous and more agreeable’, thereby creating the self-serving impression that he was the man who gave her the practical experience to confirm that awareness. Not so: she'd had plenty of other lovers before him. Wells goes on: ‘we made love very brightly, but I cannot imagine a relationship more free from passion than ours ... we carried on the liaison with an impudent impunity. We flitted off abroad and had amusing times in Amsterdam, Bruges, Ypres, Arras, Paris, Locarno, Orta, Florence—and no one was a bit the wiser.’

David Smith's account of the affair is considerably more friction-ful, and rather more plausible, taking as it does evidence from Von Arnim's own fictionalised version of her liaison, as well as her own autobiographical writings and letters. After her marriage irretrievably broke down in the 1890s (the husband himself died in 1910) Von Arnim took a string of lovers, mostly from among her impressive coterie of devoted, younger followers: her children's tutors, Hugh Walpole, even, improbably enough, E M Forster. ‘She attracted and was attracted to younger men’ is how Smith puts it.

Wells met her in 1910 or 1911 and persisted with his advances despite her initial coolness towards him. At the time he was competing for her affections with the (much younger and better looking) C S Stuart, and though he did eventually win her round, or perhaps did eventually wear her down, it was not plain sailing. ‘Eventually (and it is difficult to say how much Elizabeth resisted, as her fiction usually gives her the better of the situations portrayed) the two older people planned a romantic interlude in Ireland’ [David C Smith, Wells: Desperately Mortal, 371]. She seems to have changed her mind and gone off instead to Switzerland on her own: ‘Wells, now very importunate, followed her to Switzerland, after “reproachful” letters and amid scenes “of quite surprising violence”’ (Von Arnim's words in the double-quotation marks). They did become lovers, but, if you believe Von Arnim, it was not the happy-go-lucky fling implied by Wells's account:
The romantic interlude planned in Ireland finally took place in northern Italy, and although Elizabeth [Von Arnim, that is] informed her daughter than ‘his excessively trying behaviour’ broke up the affair, it was an affair conducted at the best of times under difficulty. She liked younger and more adoring men, and did not especially care for the rough and tumble manner in which Wells conducted the early part of his romantic escapades. After this trip they broke off the affair, but remained close friends. [David C Smith, Wells: Desperately Mortal (1986), 372]
Wells version, read in this context, looks like a kind of wishful-nostalgia rather than a true account. He can't keep out the tone of unconvincing retro-brag: ‘twice we broke a bed—not very strong beds they were but still we broke them—and it was a cheerful thing to hear Little e explaining in pretty but perfect German why her bed had gone to pieces under her in the night’. There's also Wells's anecdote about the two of them reading in the Times a disapproving letter by Mrs Humphrey Ward ‘denouncing the moral tone of the younger generation’ of writers, and demonstrating their contempt by stripping naked—outdoors though they were—and ‘[making] love all over Mrs Humphrey Ward’: which might have more point if the two of them actually were writers of the younger generation. They weren't, though: Von Arnim, born in 1866, was the same age as Wells, though she looked younger than her years.

Indeed, if a detail from Von Arnim's fictionalised version of the affair, The Pastor's Wife (1914), is to be believed, when the two of them booked into their hotel together, the hall porter referred to H.G. as ‘Monsieur votre père’, which can't have pleased him. In the novel, Von Arnim says of her fictional version of herself at this juncture: ‘with the easy tactlessness of one who has not yet learned to be afraid, she looked at him and laughed.’ Uh-oh!

Incidentally, here's the Wells of that period (specifically, from April 1914):

Very like a père. At any rate, all this is in a very general way contextual to Wells next big novel, Marriage (1912), and relevant only obliquely, since that book doesn't in any way fictionalise Wells's affair with Von Arnim. I go into all this in detail here partly because I'm entertained by the mild Rashomon-effect of juxtaposing their two accounts, and partly because it became important to Wells to characterise the whole thing as a pleasant bit of fun sandwiched between his two much more significant love-affairs: Amber Reeves and Rebecca West. If I'm honest, I suspect it mattered rather more to him in the moment than he later admitted, but since my concern is with Wells's writing and not with his willy I am really only discussing it because Wells so specifically linked it to a decline in the quality of the fiction he wrote 1910-13.
The period in my life between 1910 and 1913 when Little e was my mistress corresponds with several novels that were naturally published a little later than the writing. These are Marriage, The Passionate Friends, The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman and The Research Magnificent. None of them are among my best work ... they have less sincerity and depth than anything else that I have written. [H. G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography (ed G P Wells; Faber 1984), 93]
Doesn't that look, even if only a smidgeon, as if Wells is somehow blaming Von Arnim for his dip in quality? Hardly gentlemanly. More to the point: hardly credible.

To return to the novel under discussion: Marriage has a particular role to play in this interregum, functioning as a specific copula between Wells prior deep love for Amber Reeves and his to-come deep love for Rebecca West. It was West's swingeing review of the novel in the shortlived feminist magazine The Freewoman that led to Wells inviting her to meet him, from which developed the second great extra-marital passion of Well's life.

It's quite the hatchet-job, that review. You could do worse than click the link [to pdf] and check it out.

2. Marriage and Kenosis.

The novel isn't as bad as West's review suggests. I'm sure you'd expect me to say as much, but it's true. The worst to be said of it, I think, is that it feels like a second-thoughts, refried beans, sort of project. Wells's original plans for Ann Veronica (1909) had been for a novel twice as long as the one that was actually published. He had wanted to trace at novel-length his heroine's early life and her falling in love (with, you'll remember Godwin Capes, her tutor in science at Imperial College), and then to follow-through with a second half, just as long, detailing the heroine's life as ‘Mrs Godwin Capes’ not in terms of Anna Karenina-style misery, conflict and tragedy, but true to the smaller-scale bumps and lumps, the little anticlimaxes and more settled pleasures of actual married life. In the end he decided that this second half would unbalance the novel, which, I have to say, I think was the right call.

But the idea evidently wouldn't let him go, so he returned to it in Marriage. In this novel, Marjorie Pope, the daughter of an affluent Edwardian bourgeois family ruled by her crotchety, bumptious father, accepts a proposal of marriage from Mr Magnet: a fortysomethng writer of comic prose, wealthy, balding, earnest (Wells includes several examples of his painfully strenuous ‘wit’). She does this partly under family pressure, and partly because she has run up debts as an undergraduate at ‘Oxbridge’: £50 or so, not much in the larger scheme, but more than she had admitted to her father, and something that preys on her mind.

Wells draws the milieu of upper-middle-class Edwardian summertime life well, and when a plane crashes in the middle of the Pope's lawn tennis party it strikes a nice note of romantic disruption. The plane belongs to the super-wealthy Sir Rupert Solomonson (‘he was,’ Wells writes in what must have struck a jaunty note in 1912 but which reads today as heartsinkingly ill-judged, ‘manifestly a Jew, a square-rigged Jew—you have remarked of course that there are square-rigged Jews, whose noses are within bounds, and fore-and-aft Jews, whose noses aren't’ [123]). The co-pilot is the not-wealthy-at-all-but-very-handsome R.A.G. ‘Rag’ Trafford, a university tutor in science specializing in crystallography. Marjorie falls in love, breaks it off with poor old Magnet, and marries Rag.

The first half of the novel ends, as Ann Veronica had done before it, on this high note. Indeed, Ann Veronica herself even has a cameo in Marriage, when, late in the novel, she is part of a dinner party which Marjorie and Trafford also attend—‘Mrs. Godwin Capes, the dark-eyed, quiet-mannered wife of the dramatist, a woman of impulsive speech and long silences, who had subsided from an early romance (Capes had been divorced for her while she was still a mere girl) into a markedly correct and exclusive mother of daughters.’ [417] So that's the after-story of Ann Veronica. A little disappointing, really.

In Marriage Wells does what he wanted to do with the earlier novel but couldn't: that is to say, he carries the novel on for as long again with an account of how ‘Mag and Rag’ fare as a married couple as he had with their courtship. We get their day-to-day in some detail. He works, she keeps house and spends his money. They have four children. There are no great traumas or dramas, no infidelities or flaming rows, but as the book goes on there grows an increasing sense of dissatisfaction on both sides. Trafford grows quite rich with a form of synthetic rubber he invents; signing an agreement with Solomonson to use the latter's wealth as investment and, over seven years, leveraging his skill as a chemist into a commercial success. But Marjorie has bigger plans for him. She wants him to be a great scientist and to use that position to go into politics. She sees herself as a great society hostess, with the ear of statesmen and eminences. Indeed one of the most interesting things about the second half of the novel is the way Wells portrays Marjorie filling her lack of sense of purpose with shopping: fitting out their house, buying herself things, then insisting they move to a bigger house and fitting that out too. She wants to move to an even bigger house, and matters come to a mild sort of crisis:
This darkling mood of his had only become manifest to her during the last three or four years of their life. Previously, of course, he had been irritable at times. Were they less happy now than they had been in the little house in Chelsea? It had really been a horrible little house. And yet there had been a brightness then—a nearness....

She found her mind wandering away upon a sort of stock-taking expedition. How much of real happiness had she and Trafford had together? They ought by every standard to be so happy....

“Rag,” she said, “something's the matter?”


“The house?”

“Yes—the house.”

Marjorie considered through a little interval.

... “I want to open out. I want you to take your place in the world, the place you deserve.”

“A four-footman place?”

“Oh! the house is only a means.”

He thought upon that. “A means,” he asked, “to what? Look here, Marjorie, what do you think you are up to with me and yourself? What do you see me doing—in the years ahead?”

She gave him a silent and thoughtful profile for a second or so.

“At first I suppose you are going on with your researches.”


“Then——I must tell you what I think of you, Rag. Politics——”

“Good Lord!” [Marriage, 419]
Marjorie's insistence that he has ‘a sort of power’ and ‘could make things noble’ provokes Rag to, in effect, throw in his towel:
“I can't go on with my researches,” he explained. “That's what you don't understand. I'm not able to get back to work. I shall never do any good research again. That's the real trouble, Marjorie, and it makes all the difference. As for politics——I can't touch politics. I despise politics. I think this empire and the monarchy and Lords and Commons and patriotism and social reform and all the rest of it, silly, silly beyond words; temporary, accidental, foolish, a mere stop-gap—like a gipsey's roundabout in a place where one will presently build a house.... You don't help make the house by riding on the roundabout.... There's no clear knowledge—no clear purpose.... Only research matters—and expression perhaps—I suppose expression is a sort of research—until we get that—that sufficient knowledge. And you see, I can't take up my work again. I've lost something....” She waited. “I've got into this stupid struggle for winning money,” he went on, “and I feel like a woman must feel who's made a success of prostitution. I've been prostituted. I feel like some one fallen and diseased.... Business and prostitution; they're the same thing. All business is a sort of prostitution, all prostitution is a sort of business. Why should one sell one's brains any more than one sells one's body?... It's so easy to succeed if one has good brains and cares to do it, and doesn't let one's attention or imagination wander—and it's so degrading. Hopelessly degrading.... I'm sick of this life, Marjorie. I don't want to buy things. I'm sick of buying. I'm at an end. I'm clean at an end. It's exactly as though suddenly in walking through a great house one came on a passage that ended abruptly in a door, which opened—on nothing! Nothing!” “This is a mood,” she whispered to his pause. “It isn't a mood, it's a fact.... I've got nothing ahead, and I don't know how to get back. My life's no good to me any more. I've spent myself.” She looked at him with dismayed eyes. “But,” she said, “this is a mood.” [Marriage, 420-21]
After this, Rag scoots off to Labrador to, in effect, have a long hard think about things: ‘he wanted intensely to think, and London and Marjorie would not let him think. He wanted, he felt, to go away alone and face God, and clear things up in his mind’ [388]. Persuaded by his mother, he takes Marjorie with him, and the two hike off together into the Canadian wilderness:
Their journey lasted altogether a month. Never once did they come upon any human being save themselves, though in one place they passed the poles—for the most part overthrown—of an old Indian encampment. But this desolation was by no means lifeless. They saw great quantities of waterbirds, geese, divers, Arctic partridge and the like, they became familiar with the banshee cry of the loon. They lived very largely on geese and partridge. ...

And at last it seemed fit to Trafford to halt and choose his winter quarters. He chose a place on the side of a low, razor-hacked rocky mountain ridge, about fifty feet above the river—which had now dwindled to a thirty-foot stream. His site was near a tributary rivulet that gave convenient water, in a kind of lap that sheltered between two rocky knees, each bearing thickets of willow and balsam. Not a dozen miles away from them now they reckoned was the Height of Land, the low watershed between the waters that go to the Atlantic and those that go to Hudson's Bay. Close beside the site he had chosen a shelf of rock ran out and gave a glimpse up the narrow rocky valley of the Green River's upper waters and a broad prospect of hill and tarn towards the south-east. North and north-east of them the country rose to a line of low crests, with here and there a yellowing patch of last year's snow, and across the valley were slopes covered in places by woods of stunted pine. It had an empty spaciousness of effect; the one continually living thing seemed to be the Green River, hurrying headlong, noisily, perpetually, in an eternal flight from this high desolation. Birds were rare here, and the insects that buzzed and shrilled and tormented among the rocks and willows in the gorge came but sparingly up the slopes to them. [Marriage, 440-42]
They live alone for a while, and talk about things. On a hunting trip Rag's face gets savaged by a lynx; he falls into a crack in the rocks, badly breaking his leg. Though he urges Marjorie to leave him, take their supplies and go home, she manages to retrieve him. Then she lugs him for three days on a makeshift shed back to their hut and nurses him back to health. They discuss metaphysics (‘we ought to partake of immortality,’ Rag argues: ‘I mean we're like the little elements in a magnet; ought not to lie higgledy-piggledy, ought to point the same way, be polarized’ [479]); and Marjorie comes to a conclusion about her own gender responsibility:
My dear, I've been a fool, selfish, ill-trained and greedy. We've both been floundering about, but I've been the mischief of it. Yes, I've been the trouble. Oh, it's had to be so. What are we women—half savages, half pets, unemployed things of greed and desire—and suddenly we want all the rights and respect of souls! I've had your life in my hands from the moment we met together. If I had known.... It isn't that we can make you or guide you—I'm not pretending to be an inspiration—but—but we can release you. We needn't press upon you; we can save you from the instincts and passions that try to waste you altogether on us.... Yes, I'm beginning to understand. Oh, my child, my husband, my man! You talked of your wasted life!... I've been thinking—since first we left the Mersey. I've begun to see what it is to be a woman. For the first time in my life. We're the responsible sex. And we've forgotten it. We think we've done a wonder if we've borne men into the world and smiled a little, but indeed we've got to bear them all our lives.... A woman has to be steadier than a man and more self-sacrificing than a man, because when she plunges she does more harm than a man.... And what does she achieve if she does plunge? Nothing—nothing worth counting. Dresses and carpets and hangings and pretty arrangements, excitements and satisfactions and competition and more excitements. We can't do things. We don't bring things off! And you, you Monster! you Dream! you want to stick your hand out of all that is and make something that isn't, begin to be! That's the man—— [Marriage, 488-89; ellipses all Wells's]
After this, Rag ‘discovers’ a new Marjorie: ‘all the host of Marjories he had known, the shining, delightful, seductive, wilful, perplexing aspects that had so filled her life, gave place altogether for a time to this steady-eyed woman, lean and warm-wrapped with the valiant heart and the frost-roughened skin. What a fine, strong, ruddy thing she was!’ [500] The path from a particularly gendered sort of decadence of consumerism, of over-refined civilisation, to this mutual, and philosophised, strength closes the novel on what Wells, we have to assume, considered a high note. As for me, I am specifically resisting the temptation to explore all the parallels between Wells's philosophy of strength in this novel and echt fascism, except to note that by 1912 Mussolini's La Filosofia della Forza had been out for four years. That which does not kill us makes our marriage stronger.

Anyhow, Mag and Rag resolve return to England, with Rag declaring he will give up his research in order to write a book called From Realism to Reality, ‘a huge criticism and cleaning up of the existing methods of formulation, as a preliminary to the wider and freer discussion of those religious and social issues our generation still shrinks from’ [501]. The two of them trek for weeks back towards civilisation, and the novel leaves them waiting for the steamer that will return them over the sea to their home.

This final portion of the novel, and its explicit turn to the classic Sublime (as landscape, but also as a kind of activated theology, a religious kenosis: ‘if God chooses to be silent—you must pray to the silence’ says Trafford. ‘If he chooses to live in darkness, you must pray to the night’ [511]) sorts strangely with the book's first two thirds, which are pointedly, even over-determinedly, domestic and bourgeois. But strange is not dispraise in my critical lexicon, and I take it that this is part of what Wells wants to do with the (for want of a better term) traditional lineaments of the novel. Indeed, to refer back to Wells's own assessment, mentioned above, that Marriage represents a decline in his fictional powers: might his 1930s perspective (when H G Wells in Love was written) reflect a reaction against his drift through the first half of the nineteen-teens towards, well, God? One of the last images of the novel is this one, as the reborn lovers hurry home again: ‘the snow blazed under the sun, out to sea beyond the ice the water glittered, and it wasn't so much air they breathed as a sort of joyous hunger’ [528]. Later Wells came to dislike the hunger, I think. But it makes for a strangely creatively-dislocating and therefore memorable fictional experience.

3. Coda.

That Marriage is one of Wells's longest novels shouldn't surprise us. After all, it is actually two novels, welded together, after the manner of dodgy used-car dealers: a novel of courtship leading up to marriage, and a novel of how a marriage pans out.

Now: there's a case to be made for saying that the former of these two archetypes is the major mode of The Novel as such: Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1957) is still essential in its account of how the novel came into being, as, basically, a bourgeois entertainment refracting and ideologically self-justifying the new economic and social dynamics of emergent capitalist Europe in the 18th- and 19th-centuries via domestic narratives of courtship ending in (the right) marriage. Not all early novels are like this, of course: but Watt frontloads this particular tradition, from Richardson through Austen and into the nineteenth-century, as the major one.

For Watt, the point of the marriage-plot is to allow the artform to address larger social concerns, and it is those larger concerns that really matter. Indeed, he specifically praises Defoe (who almost never wrote those sorts of bourgeois courtship stories) precisely because ‘he seems long ago to have called the great bluff of the novel—its suggestion that personal relations really are the be-all and end-all of life; portentous because he, and only he, among the great writers of the past, has presented the struggle for survival in the bleak perspectives which recent history has brought back to a commanding position on the human stage.’ [Watt, Rise of the Novel (1957), 133-34]. Nonetheless Watt considers Austen the first great genius of the form, and she never wrote anything other than bourgeois courtship narratives.

Of earlier writers like Fielding and Smollett Watt argues ‘it cannot be claimed that either completely achieved that interpenetration of plot, character, and emergent moral theme which is found in the highest examples of the art of the novel’ [Watt, 15]. It's Austen who transmogrifies her predecessors:
Jane Austen faces more squarely than Defoe, for example, the social and moral problems raised by economic individualism and the middle class quest for improved status; she follows Richardson in basing her novels on marriage and especially on the proper feminine role in the matter; and her ultimate picture of the proper norms of the social system is similar to that of Fielding although its application to the characters and their situation is in general more serious and discriminating. [Watt, Rise of the Novel (1957), 298]
A great many courtship-leading-up-to-marriage novels have been and continue to be published, of course, and very few of them manifest Austen's extraordinary technical panache. But it means that the form has its own logic, which boils down to: heroine is on course to marry Mr Wrong until Mr Right appears in an unexpected manner and she ends up marrying him. Or perhaps, heroine initially believes Mr Right to be Mr Wrong (as with Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy) and only slowly comes to realise her mistake. It's a needful narrative kink to make the story dramatically interesting: the course of true love not running smooth until the end. That's the template Wells applies to the first half of Marriage, with poor old Mr Magnet as Mr Wrong, and Trafford dropping in literally from the sky to bring the narrative back to its proper conclusion.

But the second kind of story, novels about married life, are much fewer and further between, and such examples as come to mind—Middlemarch, Anna Karenina and so on—tell stories of unhappy marriages, since a happy marriage lacks conflict, and therefore drama. All happy families are alike, after all. Or so it is reputed.

Indeed, I finished Wells's Marriage wondering if he was the first person ever to do this specific thing: to write a Jane-Austen-y bourgeois courtship narrative and then carry-through on the marriage for as long a space as the courtship narrative. What are the priors? There's David Copperfield, with its portrait of David and Dora's married life (but think about it: isn't Copperfield really the courtship-narrative of David and Agnes, with the twist that David happens actually to marry Ms Wrong? Such that Dickens, rather cruelly, has to kill of Dora in order to make it clear that she's a plot-point and not the terminus of David's romantic journey?). On Twitter, my friend and colleague James Smith drew my attention to Pamela, which, provided we take both Parts 1 and Part 2, does exactly what I'm suggesting Wells was the first to do in Marriage: it shows the lead up to the wedding and then follows-through on a happy, rather than a tragically doomed, marriage. I take the point, although the first part of Pamela is a pretty twisted version of the bourgeois courtship narrative, what with all the kidnap, violence, sexual harassment and threats of rape and so on. I don't know: I'm tempted to say that Wells was indeed doing something new in this novel. I could be wrong.

Monday, 7 August 2017

Ronald Wright, A Scientific Romance (1997)

This sort-of sequel to The Time Machine was Wright’s first novel. I remember it creating a small buzz on publication (it won the 1997 David Higham Prize for Fiction for instance) though it’s probably true to say it’s dropped off the collective radar rather since then. That may be because it’s so solidly tied to its decade: written 97, set 99, heavy with the now-passé doomsdayisms of that weird pre-millennial moment—when Creutzfeldt-Jakob’s disease (remember that?) had narrative plausibility as the agent of imminent apocalypse—plus many specific cultural references that, a mere two decades later, now have the lavender scent of the hopelessly out-of-date.

Still, it’s a shame that it has sunk into the cultural mulch. In many ways it’s a very interesting novel: jauntily and sometimes lyrically written, witty and wry (although the Wells connection proves something of a feint, in the end). The novel’s premise is that the Wellsian time-machine is real: Wells, we’re told, liaised with Tesla, and developed a working model with one of Tesla’s students, Tatiana Cherenkova. The machine is programmed to appear in Chelsea in 1999. Our narrator, David Lambert, a public-school-educated Cambridge archaeology graduate, intercepts it, finding Tatiana’s clothes inside but no Tatiana. He upgrades its 19th-century telemetry with a bit of 90s computer whizzery and jumps to 2500 AD. This leads into the novel’s strongest portion, a 130-page account of Lambert's trek across a future Britain entirely—it seems—depopulated, jungly, flooded and thronged with weird fauna. The protagonist picks his way through the wreckage of the intervening centuries attempting to decipher the disaster.

Lambert is haunted by the death of his on-off girlfriend Anita, and his broken relationship with his quondam best friend Charlie ‘Bird’ Parker (not that Charlie Parker, though this novel's ‘Bird’ is also a jazz musician: a long-haired white bloke motorcycle-nut living on his uppers). A large proportion of the novel is devoted to Lambert's exasperatingly interminable recollections of his time with the sexy Anita and the volatile Bird. Anyway: eventually Lambert reaches Scotland and discovers a tribe of racially-black future-Scots, scratching a living farming llamas on the banks of Loch Ness. Here the novel rather abruptly shifts gear into a post-apocalyptic replay of the crucifixion via Macbeth, entertainingly written but a bit random. Lambert survives being nailed to a cross and makes his way back to London by boat. The novel ends with the increasingly ill Lambert recovering his machine and planning his backward journey.

There are several ways in which this putative Wellsian novel is quite at odds with the spirit of H.G. For example there is the question of class. Wright gives every indication of being really quite posh, and on the level of content but also of tone this doesn't read like a lower-middle-class individual's novel. Another has to do with sex. There's a deal of sex in the book, ingeniously and vividly described, but it's all rather more repellent than is ever the case in sex-positive Bertie ‘I Like Sex, Me’ Wells. For example, early on Lambert attends an orgy in Chelsea:
Soon there was a merry scene: daisy chains, sandwiches, people stacked up like mating toads, woman on all fours, men pumping them at either end, and two or three complaisant slashers delicately inscribing each other with razor blades. The room filled up with the sounds of a milking barn, the semen smell of unripe Brie. [A Scientific Romance, 41]
I really don't mean to sound like a prude, but surely only the most hardened bufophile is going to find the description of ‘people stacked up like mating toads’ erotic. The purpose may not be titillation, of course, though the sheer quantity of the novel given over to a la recherche du bonks perdu with Anita rather suggests otherwise: Lambert addressing his memory-Anita on the subject of a pushbike ride they took together ( ‘A glorious day, you in white shorts with midriff bare ... a saddle with a long leather snout between your legs.’ [188]) or recalling ‘you let me bind you with silk and spray my pearls in your hair. Oh Anita!’ [146] and the like. So hard to write sex well, of course.

But the biggest difference between Wright's novel and anything Wells wrote is its most powerful and memorable section: Lambert's trek north and its proto-Atwood, proto-VanderMeer weird nature writing. Wells in his writing is largely uninterested in flora and fauna, and spends little time on describing landscape. But in this portion of A Scientific Romance Wright achieves brilliance by only detailing flora and fauna and landscape. Maybe the whole book would have been better if the Wells connection had been excised completely and a generic own-brand time machine had been deployed.