Monday, 18 December 2017

The Book of Catherine Wells (1928)



Amy Catherine Robbins, who had become the second Mrs Wells in 1895 (and who had adopted the name ‘Jane’ at Wells's prompting, for reasons that remain opaque) died in October 1927. She had been diagnosed with an inoperable cancer in the spring of that year, and her health declined very rapidly. Wells returned from Europe to be with her and was present at her death.

Wells decided to curate a memorial volume. Back in the mid 1890s Catherine had been his sometime collaborator, nosing out ideas for short articles and newspaper pieces and helping him realise them, and whilst the bulk of the resulting saleable pieces were written by Wells, she herself sometimes sketched out and wrote up these light-hearted pieces herself. Writing wasn't a career she developed any further than these few sketches, instead devoting herself to being Wells's homemaker and companion, turning a blind eye to his many infidelities and often (as with 1920's The Outline of History) acting as secretary, amanuensis and researcher.

The Book of Catherine Wells is a collection of some of her writing from the 1890s, with a seven-page introduction by Wells himself (the intro was later collected in H G Wells in Love). The preface gives us an interesting if inevitably partial view of the dynamic that had for three decades sustained marriage between these, on the face of it, rather incompatible human beings.
What is more difficult to tell is our slow discovery of the profoundest temperamental differences between us and of the problems these differences created for us. Fundamental to my wife's nature was a passion for happiness and lovely things. She was before everything else gentle and sweet. She worshipped beauty. For her, beauty was something very definite, a precious jewel to be discovered and treasured. For me beauty is incidental, so surely a part of things that one need not be directly concerned about it. I am a far less stable creature than she was, with a driving quality that hold my instabilities together. I have more drive than strength, and little patience. I am hasty and incompetent about much of the detailed business of life because I put too large a proportion of my available will and energy into issues that dominate me.
You notice how a sweet, if rather patronising, compliment to Catherine morphs into a lengthy and slyly-self-serving compliment to H.G. by H.G., poorly camouflaged as self-criticism (it's like the joke about the job-interview question: ‘... and what do you consider your greatest weakness?’ ‘My perfectionism’). To be fair to Wells, he was usually aware of the manifold ways his self-awareness led him towards narcissistic self-regard; the question is how far this preface is able to balance out Wellsian self-criticism with its more particular business, praise for his dead wife:
We had to work out our common problems very largely by the light nature had given us. And I am appalled to reflect how much of the patience, courage and sacrifice of our compromises came from her. Never once do I remember her romancing a situation into false issues. We had two important things in our favour, first that we had a common detestation not only of falsehood but of falsity, and secondly, that we had the sincerest affection and respect for each other. There again the feat was hers. It was an easy thing for me to keep my faith in her sense of fair play and perfect generosity. She never told a lie. To the end I would have taken her word against all other witnesses in the world. But she managed to sustain her belief that I was worth living for, and that was a harder task, while I made my way through a tangle of moods and impulses that were quite outside her instinctive sympathy. She stuck to me so sturdily that in the end I stuck to myself. I do not know what I should have been without her. She stabilized my life. She gave it a home and dignity. She preserved its continuity.
David C Smith, Wells's biographer, finds this passage genuinely moving. After he quotes it, the stiff upper lip of his generally level-headed and unemotional biography wobbles for a moment: ‘his words seem to me to convey better than any others the extraordinary relationship of Bits and Bins—of Bertie and Jane—of H.G. and Amy Catherine,’ he gushes, adding:
Their friends who received the book understood its message clearly. It was not an apology, for none was needed. What it was in a manly way is simply a farewell—Vale, to the dearest person he had ever known. [Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal (Yale 1986), 388 ]
That, I have to say, is not really how I read the quoted passage. Wells's performance of a rather mannered abjection of personality strikes me as more calculated than that. He is saying that Catherine was solid, a home-maker and refuge, the dependable plinth upon which the statue to Wells's mercurial genius could be positioned the better for the world to see it. Describing one's wife as ‘sturdy’ is hardly a flattering thing to do, after all; and Wells's claim that his ‘moods and impulses’ were ‘quite outside’ her ability to sympathise is really quite insulting when you come to think about it. Smith may think that no apology was required from Wells to Catherine, but that's not really for him to say, now, is it. The only people really able to judge the degree of apology needful here are both dead. But we can at least sat that one of them was clearly wronged and the other was clearly the wronger. The ethical gradient of that fact makes Wells's ‘oh I've been a mad, impetuous, sexy fool, but she loved me!’ act a little grating, frankly.

I may be being unfair. The truth, of course, is that we don't know. We don't know how Amy Catherine felt about being so often cuckqueaned. We know that she was aware of most, if not perhaps of all, of her husband's affairs, and she certainly knew about the most significant relationships: Amy Reeves and Rebecca West in particular. According to Mary Hunter Austin, who was staying with them at the time, Wells announced that West was pregnant with his child at dinner, before guests; and Jane Wells's response was a calm remark that ‘Rebecca would need help dealing with the consequences’. This intrigues me: was it ‘Jane’ tacitly boasting of her own superior organisational competency, as against West's scatty boho immaturity? Or was it a different sort of boast, before guests, a way of asserting how cool and collected she was, even in the teeth of so startling a pronouncement? Or was it, maybe, exactly what it appears to be: a neutral judgement by a woman who simply doesn't care that her husband has impregnated another woman? Practically, and in the semi-public arena of their large group of friends, Catherine certainly condoned Wells's adultery; accepted it, perhaps, as the price to be paid for her materially comfortable existence and for being part of her genius husband's life. What we cannot know is how she felt about it, what emotional contortions she put herself to in order to achieve that outward equanimity.

Indeed, it's very hard even to speculate about this without taking sides. Smith certainly does: from his moist-eyed tribute to Wells's ‘manly’ refusal to apologise quoted above, to blaming Amy Catherine for her husband's cheating. If the two had been ‘more sexually compatible’, he says, or more precisely ‘if she had been willing to accept his needs more completely’ then perhaps his multiple infidelities (‘these events’) ‘might not have taken place’ [Smith, 212-13]. Blaming the wife for her husband's infidelity is hardly a very becoming thing to do—I'm put in mind (though it strays from relevance to Wells) of the way Trump's supporters used Bill Clinton's cheating as a stick to beat Hillary with in the 2016 election—and this assertion is Smith at his most hypothetical. Was this why Wells strayed? Where the sexual incompatibility of H.G. and Catherine is concerned, we only have Wells's side of things, recorded in H G Wells in Love. He says the problem manifested early in their marriage, and attributes the incompatibility to the fact that he was still infatuated with his first wife, Isabel. That's certainly possible, at least at the beginning; but presumably it doesn't explain the following more-than-thirty years. Besides which, Wells' is not the testimony of a disinterested party in this situation.

Conceivably Catherine was wholly untroubled by H G shagging other women. Maybe she minded, but kept it to herself; or perhaps more probably minded at first, but got used to it with time (human beings can get used to anything, in time). Maybe she hated it with a passion, and nagged and ranted and wept in private, but maintained the public façade for her own reasons. That last looks less likely to me, although I also don't get the sense that the two of them agreed on a mutually open relationship. I presume that ‘we had a common detestation not only of falsehood but of falsity’ means: we didn't lie directly to another, but also didn't maintain any of the polite fictions by which some couples paper over their emotional cracks. It looks more admirable than it is, though, that claim. The rationale ‘cheating on your partner is fine so long as you don't lie about it’ inadvertently tangles itself in its own ethical nets. After all, the reason lying is bad in the first place is because it's a kind of infidelity (an unfaithfulness to the truth, an untrustworthiness—fidēs means confidence and trust as well as faith). The ethical maths of ‘this negative thing, cheating on my wife, is cancelled out by this positive thing, telling her the truth about it’ is, simply, a misunderstanding of the logic of the human heart. Adulterers who confess do so to make themselves feel better, not to make their partners feel better. If you're going to cheat, you should at least have the courage to lie about it. You've already transgressed; have the residual decency at least to own that fact.

But then again: maybe not. As I note above, we just don't know how Catherine felt about H.G.'s sexual incontinence. Maybe she was fine with it so long as she knew about it: there are certainly people in the world who would feel that way about a partner's infidelity. Though I have to say that's not the sense I get of Catherine's personality, from reading about her. She comes across, though forceful in her way, as an individual rather swept up by the sheer energy of her husband.

It seems she did not enjoy having sex with him very much (because he was rubbish in bed? because she just didn't fancy him? because she was gay, or asexual? who knows). There's no evidence of her sleeping with anybody else. Of course, who knows what she got up to (her husband was away a lot, after all); but I wonder if ‘I would have taken her word against all other witnesses in the world’ means, actually, ‘she told me she was never unfaithful to me and I believed her’.

And I suspect I am less enamoured of Wells's preface here than Smith is in part because it carries with it the whiff of all that higamous-hogamous bullshit. Wells's advocacy of freeing humanity's erotic energies from Victorian prudery and oppression was a fine and, in its way, even a noble thing; and that he lived as well as wrote this new sexual ethos, that he walked the walk as well as talking the talk, is at least consistent. But there's something diminishing, it seems to me, in the way it actually panned out in his life: not a sexual liberation so much as a kind of semi-licensed serial bigamy, in which Wells found the thrill of sexual novelty with a string of younger women whilst also positioning his wife as a kind of mother confessor, to whom he could always return and unburden himself. What's wrong with this picture? I don't know. I suppose it's the way it suggests the ways in which he wasn't walking the walk as well as talking the talk—the way, in other words, that his own psyche remained striated by a fundamentally Victorian sexual guilt that needed the absolution of a maternal, home-making, dependable woman to clear Wells's conscience, such that could once again range out into the world of sexual dalliance. And that's a little ... I don't know: contemptible is probably too strong. But at least we can say: it's not what he's actually preaching from the pulpit.

I suppose I wonder if, despite his repeated infidelities, monogamy was closer to the truth of Wells. Even when he is performing ‘honesty in confession’ , in H G Wells in Love, he opens with: ‘I was never a great amorist, though I have loved several people very deeply’. Which is as if to say: I may have been a polygamist, but I have, at least in my own sense of myself, been a monogamous polygamist. It's no good simply denying this, pointing Wells to the evidence of his really quite wide-ranging promiscuity (Anthony West thinks he slept with six to eight women a year throughout his adult life, which would mean he was unfaithful to Catherine with over 200 people)—Wells's sentiment is a statement of emotional self-perception, not notches on the bedpost. For the same reason, we're entitled to disregard the kind of justification we find sometimes in Wells fiction: as, for example, when Sempack in Meanwhile (1927) goes on and on about how sex is just ‘a consoling and refreshing physical release’, ‘such a simple thing’ ‘as healthy a thing physically as breathing mountain air’ and so on. If that's all sex was then we wouldn't get so worked up about it. More to the point, if that's all sex was, then it wouldn't matter so much to Wells. (We could point out the obvious thing: if that's all sex was to him, a trivial matter, then why couldn't he breath that air with his wife? Why did it need all these other women?)

As Adam Phillips says in his intermittently interesting though oddly elliptical book on the subject: ‘the opposite of monogamy is not just promiscuity, but the absence or the impossibility of relationship itself. Indeed, one reason monogamy is so important to us is because we are so terrorised by what we imagine are the alternatives to it ... in other words, we do not know whether we want monogamy, but we do know that we fear excess: an excess of company, an excess of solitude’ [Adam Phillips, Monogamy (Faber 1996), 98]. So it is that the real polygamist's boast is always actually I was never a great amorist—rather I have loved a few select people very deeply. And another of Phillips' main theses is also peculiarly relevant here. Death inevitably forces us to think of mortality, of our own death and therefore of the possible alternatives to that fate; and although it might not seem entirely intuitive there's a psychological logic that leads on to the contemplation of monogamy:
Not everyone believes in monogamy, but everyone lives as though they do. Everyone is aware of lying or wanting to tell the truth when loyalty or infidelity are at stake. Everyone thinks of themselves as betraying or betrayed. Everyone feels jealous or guilty, and suffers the anguish of their preferences. No one has ever been excluded from feeling left out. And everyone is obsessed by what they are excluded from. Believing in monogamy, in other words, is no unlike believing in God. [Phillips, Monogamy, 1]
Which throws a slightly different light on this preface: Catherine's ‘detestation of falsehood and falsity’ becomes: she is truth. Her sturdiness, stability, the home she provided, become, perhaps, a different ein feste burg ist unser Gott sort of refuge. To be clear: I'm not suggesting Catherine was, in any sense, Wells's god. That would just be common-or-garden idolatry, and wouldn't, I think, describe the dynamic of their relationship at all. But I am suggesting that the idea of monogamy with Woman figured, for Wells, as the form of the divine in his life, even as he repeatedly fell short of it. God the Invisible Queen, we might say, even if his behaviour and her reticence means that she figures in most accounts only as the invisible cuckquean.

3 comments:


  1. But there's something diminishing, it seems to me, in the way it actually panned out in his life: not a sexual liberation so much as a kind of semi-licensed serial bigamy, in which Wells found the thrill of sexual novelty with a string of younger women whilst also positioning his wife as a kind of mother confessor, to whom he could always return and unburden himself. What's wrong with this picture? I don't know. I suppose it's the way it suggests the ways in which he wasn't walking the walk as well as talking the talk—the way, in other words, that his own psyche remained striated by a fundamentally Victorian sexual guilt that needed the absolution of a maternal, home-making, dependable woman to clear Wells's conscience, such that could once again range out into the world of sexual dalliance.


    I can't help but read this material against the backdrop of the appalling sexual predation among the rich and powerful men that's been paraded across the front pages for the last month or so. Wells is certainly no Harvey Weinstein or Leon Wieseltier but still, we certainly are bedeviled by sexuality aren't we – by "we" I mean the race of naked apes.

    I can sort of understand penetrating rape, not condone it by any means, not THAT kind of understanding, but understand as something a horny bastard would do (and, yes, I know "it's about power"). What I don't get is these guys, for Weinstein isn't alone in this by any means, forcing women to watch the masturbate. What's up with that?

    It's like a three year-old finds himself with a "stiffy" and is both enormously pleased ("my aren't we standing proud!") and a bit terrified ("what if it won't go away!?"). So he does what any good three year old would do, he shows it to his mommy. Maybe she'll kiss it and make it go away, maybe not. But surely she'll do something!

    Catherine Wells as mother confessor seems in the same ballpark. To be sure, a different location in the park, but the same park nonetheless.

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  2. There's no evidence of her sleeping with anybody else. Of course, who knows what she got up to (her husband was away a lot, after all); but I wonder if ‘I would have taken her word against all other witnesses in the world’ means, actually, ‘she told me she was never unfaithful to me and I believed her’.

    I try to resist biographical readings of fiction, but I found it interesting how many of Catherine Wells's stories in this volume are about married women in love with other men, or unmarried men in love with married women. In every case they are doomed to never be together. Or you have "Robe de Boudoir," where a woman feels so emotionally trapped by her husband that she can't even buy fancy lingerie for herself.

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