Two of the most famous features of Ann Veronica's reputation turn out, on actually reading the novel, not to be true. Or so I would be prepared to argue. One is that the scandal it occasioned on its publication—in the preface to the later ‘Atlantic Edition’ Wells recalls ruefully that ‘the book was not so much criticized as attacked with hysterical animosity’—looks, in retrospect, overstated or even baffling. True (the argument goes) Wells did write a novel about a beautiful, spirited 22-year-old who leaves her overbearing father's suburban house to make a go of living on her own terms in London, and who as part of that new life has sex with a handsome, older, married man, intercourse she initiates. But (the argument goes on) it was very far from being the first ‘New Woman’ novel, plenty of earlier examples of which genre had been just as shocking. And actually (the argument concludes) Well's novel is rather restrained than otherwise in its sexual representation. There's nothing in it, really, to bring a blush to the cheek of the most virginal of maiden aunts. Now I hadn't read the novel before, and reading it struck me as a rather more sexually shocking experience than its modern-day reputation suggests. I expand on what I mean by saying that below.
The second donné of Ann Veronica criticism is that the novel's ending, where the heroine marries her lover and settles down to happy domesticity and motherhood, is a terrible let-down. I don't think it is, or at least, I think the situation is a little more complicated than that.
To take the latter point first. There is something approaching a critical consensus that this is fundamentally a ‘political’ novel: that is to say, a novel about women's rights, politically conceived. It is often, for instance, taken to be a novel about the suffragettes, whose number Ann Veronica temporarily joins (chapter 10 dramatises the celebrated ‘Rush on the House of Commons’ of 13th October 1908, situating Wells's fictional heroine in amongst the actual protesters). Socialists and Fabians also appear, as does Wells himself under a ‘Wils’ + ‘nicely deflating suffix’ pseudonym:
One evening Ann Veronica went with Miss Miniver into the back seats of the gallery at Essex Hall, and heard and saw the giant leaders of the Fabian Society who are re-making the world: Bernard Shaw and Toomer and Doctor Tumpany and Wilkins the author, all displayed upon a platform ... In the discussion there was the oddest mixture of things that were personal and petty with an idealist devotion that was fine beyond dispute. In nearly every speech she heard was the same implication of great and necessary changes in the world—changes to be won by effort and sacrifice indeed, but surely to be won ... Ann Veronica was carried off her intellectual and critical feet by it altogether, and applauded and uttered cries that subsequent reflection failed to endorse. “I knew you would feel it,” said Miss Miniver, as they came away flushed and heated. “I knew you would begin to see how it all falls into place together.” [Ann Veronica, 7:4]That deflating tone is key. Wells in this work is consistently underwhelmed by both political action and political activists who undertake it. Criticism, generally speaking, is not content to follow him in this.
This is, surely, because hindsight encourages us to see the political and social emancipation of women as one of the great events of the twentieth-century in the West. I certainly think so. And judged by that criterion the book enacts a kind of truancy from history. Anne Simpson argues fiercely that Wells's concluding ‘presentation of Ann’ offered his readers ‘a gesture of appeasement’ to offset his novel's transgressions against conventional morality, and that this reduction of Ann's femininity to ‘utter materiality’ amounts to a betrayal of the character, ‘robbing the heroine of the individuality she had set out to achieve, turning her instead into a Freudian metaphor of woman's function and place as all-giving mother’ [Anne B. Simpson, ‘Architects of the erotic: H.G. Wells's “New Women”’, in Cora M. Kaplan and Anne B. Simpson (eds.), Seeing Double: Revisioning Edwardian and Modernist Literature (New York: St Martin's Press, 1996), 43]. Esther Godfrey says, more drily, that ‘Ann Veronica's credentials as a feminist text are hampered by the ending of the novel’.
I'd certainly agree that, as a feminist text, Wells's novel leaves much to be desired. I would, though, suggest that our contemporary sense of the nature of feminism risks overwriting what Wells is actually doing in this book. By ‘our’ sense I mean something like: a drive towards women's legal, social and cultural equality with men actualised through legislation, education and the public discursive challenging of sexism and misogyny. The way Ann Veronica frames its heroine's awakening, though, styles the public articulation of female liberation as a phase through which she passes, part of her extended adolescence, in order to emerge on the far-side. That far-side is not public, although it is in a sense ‘out’, a word with some splendid modern resonances where sexual liberation is concerned.
One of the problems modern criticism has with a novel like this is that, for all its many strengths (and remembering that I am myself a salaried member of the present-day, er, criticoriate) it remains oddly poorly constituted to talk about fictional character.
‘Criticoriate’ is a word, right?
What I mean is: Wells's own, and his contemporaries', chief praise for the novel was as a portrait of a specific individual, the title character. To them, Ann Veronica's success as a novel was a function of the fact that its main character ‘lives’. That was the Edwardian idiom, and I'm not sure there's anything quite like it in 21st-century literary discourse. ‘The author,’ Wells noted in 1922, after recollecting the scandal and pother the book has occasioned in 1909, ‘has at least the consolation of knowing that Ann Veronica was alive to a very high degree.’ And so she is. It was an open secret, and is now a critical commonplace, that Ann Veronica herself was a close prose-portrait of Amber Reeves, whose affair with Wells I talked about a little in this post.
Anthony West notes that ‘there couldn't be any doubt about Ann Veronica herself; she was only too clearly drawn from life. She used turns of phrases familiar to everyone who knew Amber Reeves, spoke in her voice, and behaved as she behaved’ [West, 15]. This is quite intentional, clearly: the name Ann Veronica is not only a clear play on ‘Amber Reeves’, with the same Christian name first initial and ‘Ver’ reversing ‘Re[e]v’ in the surname, but also references Saint Veronica—she whose handkerchief mopped Christ's brow and came away with the image miraculously printed upon it—whose name was assumed to have been so called because of her vera icon, the truth of her image. It seems scholars no longer believe this, but it was the standard etymology of her name in Wells's day. In other words, the heroine is called what she is because Wells has set out to produce as true an icon of Amber Reeves as he could.
And it is a great strength of the novel that its protagonist does indeed feel real: a compelling combination of attractive self-confidence, wilfulness, idealism and selfishness, combined with a perfectly believable naiveté, almost an active purblindness, about the way the world actually is. Having moved to London Ann Veronica gladly accepts the ‘friendship’ of one of her father's neighbours from Morningside Park, the randily-tuppish-named Ramage, a man who works in the city and who notoriously cheats on his invalid wife. This bug-eyed old lecher lends her £40, to help with her day-to-day expenses and also to cover her fees at Imperial College where she is studying biology. In fact she has fallen into love, or lust, with her tutor: Godwin Capes, tall, blond and handsome, though inconveniently married. Ramage doesn't know that, at first.
Anyway, Ann Veronica accepts Ramage's ‘loan’ unthinkingly, and is equally and blithely unthinking when he starts taking her out for expensive lunches and to the opera (to see Tristan und Isolde of all things) assuming that he just wants to be her friend. When he tries to kiss her at the opera she is amazed, and rebukes him. He apologises, and offers to explain himself over dinner; but dinner turns out to be in a ‘cabinet particuliar’, a special closed supper room in a high-class brothel. Ramage locks the door and, in a scene that reads as genuinely unsettling even today, tries to rape Ann Veronica. She resists: ‘Ann Veronica had been an ardent hockey player and had had a course of jiu-jitsu in the High School. Her defence ceased rapidly to be in any sense ladylike, and became vigorous and effective ... the knuckles of a small but very hardly clinched fist had thrust itself with extreme effectiveness and painfulness under his jawbone and ear’ [9:2]. He is forced to break off. But though she begs for him to unlock the door, he refuses and instead continues the assault verbally:
“And what on earth,” he said, “do you think the world is made of? Why do you think I have been doing things for you? The abstract pleasure of goodness? Are you one of the members of that great white sisterhood that takes and does not give? The good accepting woman! Do you really suppose a girl is entitled to live at free quarters on any man she meets without giving any return?” ...Eventually she gets away, and bounces straight into the arms of the suffragettes. The whole of this subsequent, the novel's tenth, chapter in fact feels a little supernumerary. Quite apart from straining credulity (would the Women's Social and Political Union really fast-track a brand new member right to the front of the pantechnicon raid on Parliament?), it works structurally really only to deliver Ann Veronica into prison where she has her Long Hard Think and changes her mind. The strong implication of the plot juxtaposition here is that A-V embraces public, political action because she has survived an attempted rape, and that when her anger and distress over that assault has cooled she finds herself disinclined to pursue a public form of feminism. Certainly, after porridge she returns to her father's house full of apology. She continues her studies at Imperial and ends the novel by eloping with her tutor, Capes.
Ann Veronica was stung to helpless anger.
“Mr. Ramage,” she cried, “you are outrageous! You understand nothing. You are—horrible. Will you let me go out of this room?”
“No,” cried Ramage; “hear me out! I’ll have that satisfaction, anyhow. You women, with your tricks of evasion, you’re a sex of swindlers.” [Ann Veronica, 9:4]
The point I'm making is: the fact that the novel is so tightly focused on Ann Veronica herself, with much of its text given over to the energy and allure of her personality, doesn't mean that the book is thereby a shapeless or formless work. On the contrary Ann Veronica strikes me as remarkably closely-structured, although not structured according to a pattern that speaks to an external discourse of political engagement like feminism. It is a novel about a fundamentally selfish, if attractive, young woman who finds her life constricted in a sequence of ways but who ultimately frees herself through sexual ecstasy. That's really the whole of it.
It's worth noting that other critics have not found much aesthetic patterning or merit in the novel. Margaret Drabble, for instance, does not hold back: ‘the novel's weaknesses,’ she says, ‘are evident at a first glance.’
It is carelessly and quickly written, and some of its sentences are atrocious. Wells clearly does not know the difference between ‘euphuistic’ and ‘euphemistic’. The text is spattered with contemporary journalistic references. The structure is weak, there are too many monologues and the ending is a classic Wellsian exercise in escapism. [Drabble, xxvi]But this is over-harsh. None of the sentences struck me, on my reading, as ‘atrocious’ (of course, that might merely indicate a deficiency in my sense of what constitutes prose atrocity). The ‘euphuistic’/ ‘euphemistic’ confusion occurs in bumptious Ramage's dialogue, not the narrator's portion of the text, and is clearly designed to characterise him as knowing less than he pretends. And it hardly seems to fair to accuse Wells's novels of being ‘spattered with contemporary journalistic references’ unless you are also going to accuse, let's say, Dickens, Gissing and Zola of the same crime. But it's Drabble's broader point about the novel's alleged shapelessnes that is most telling. Because the novel has a very distinct shape.
To take only one example: Wells takes some pains to externalise Ann Veronica's journey in terms of building, treating built space both literally and metaphorically. In part he does this to draw out the way architecture structures humanity's sense of what is ‘inside’ and what ‘outside’. More, Wells plays the two meanings of ‘inside’/‘outside’ against one another—I mean, inside or outside a building and inside or outside one's person. For Wells growing into a properly authentic existence means ‘coming out’, in both allowing inner desires out into the world, and in literally leaving the stifling domestic spaces of Edwardian bourgeois life. Ann Veronica's early life in Morningside Park (Wells's version of Worcester Park, where he and Jane lived for a while) is set amongst ‘estate of little red-and-white rough-cast villas, with meretricious gables and very brassy window-blinds’ [1.1]. Life in such houses is more than physically constraining (since A-V is prevented from going out, for example to the Fadden dance, the prohibition with which the novel opens): it is existentially constraining.
All the world about [Ann Veronica] seemed to be—how can one put it?—in wrappers, like a house when people leave it in the summer. The blinds were all drawn, the sunlight kept out, one could not tell what colors these gray swathings hid. She wanted to know. And there was no intimation whatever that the blinds would ever go up or the windows or doors be opened, or the chandeliers, that seemed to promise such a blaze of fire, unveiled and furnished and lit. [Ann Veronica, 1.2]The first five chapters of this seventeen-chapter novel are set in various domestic spaces, each tweaked to stress its capacity for confinement. In Chapter 2 (‘Ann Veronica Gathers Points of View’) she discusses her father's prohibition on attending the dance to which her friends are going ‘in the elder Widgett girl’s bedroom’ where ‘Hetty was laid up with a sprained ankle’ [2:1]; and in case we don't take the point we're later reminded, apropos of the whole family, that ‘they seemed the most wrapped things in all Ann Veronica’s wrappered world.’ [2:3]. In chapter 3 (‘The Morning of the Crisis’), A-V's aunt Miss Stanley uncovers her niece's illicit plan to attend the dance by penetrating not only A-V's bedroom (‘it was a neat, efficient-looking room, with a writing-table placed with a business-like regard to the window, and a bookcase surmounted by a pig’s skull, a dissected frog in a sealed bottle, and a pile of shiny, black-covered note-books. In the corner of the room were two hockey-sticks and a tennis-racket’) but within that, opening up a second enclosed space and discovering the costume she was hoping to wear:
She walked straight across to the wardrobe and opened it. There, hanging among Ann Veronica’s more normal clothing, was a skimpy dress of red canvas, trimmed with cheap and tawdry braid, and short—it could hardly reach below the knee. On the same peg and evidently belonging to it was a black velvet Zouave jacket. And then! a garment that was conceivably a secondary skirt.Chapter 4 (‘The Crisis’) sees A-V locked in her bedroom, by way of preventing her from attending the dance. Leaving this room becomes tantamount to breaking out of prison, and Chapter 5 (‘The Flight to London’) shifts to a different set of interior spaces as A-V tries to arrange a place to live. First she takes a hotel room, whose anonymous spatiality becomes internalised into a new and sudden blankness of subjectivity: ‘tidy, rather vacant, and dehumanized apartment, with its empty wardrobe and desert toilet-table and pictureless walls and stereotyped furnishings, a sudden blankness came upon her as though she didn’t matter, and had been thrust away into this impersonal corner’ [5:4]. Then A-V tries to find lodgings, which process drags out (since landladies are disinclined to let to single girls without references) until it actualises an existential dreariness: wandering the London streets, she ‘had never imagined life was half so sinister’ [5.6] as it now appears to her.
Miss Stanley hesitated, and took first one and then another of the constituents of this costume off its peg and surveyed it.
...“Trousers!” she whispered.
Her eyes travelled about the room as if in appeal to the very chairs. [Ann Veronica, 3.1]
These interiors define their tenants: the lower-end of the market, ‘the women who negotiated the rooms looked out through a friendly manner as though it was a mask, with hard, defiant eyes’ [5:6]. The room she finally obtains is a transitional space: green, like spring, and white as suits the still virginal A-V, but with an intimation of much more dangerously cavernous and ominous spaces too, where ‘blacks’ (presumably the well-inked portions of the image that show it to be a superior etching) also hint at the taint to come, the writing on A-V's metaphorical wall:
The room was papered with green, large-patterned paper that was at worst a trifle dingy, and the arm-chair and the seats of the other chairs were covered with the unusual brightness of a large-patterned chintz, which also supplied the window-curtain. There was a round table covered, not with the usual “tapestry” cover, but with a plain green cloth that went passably with the wall-paper. In the recess beside the fireplace were some open bookshelves. The carpet was a quiet drugget and not excessively worn, and the bed in the corner was covered by a white quilt. There were neither texts nor rubbish on the walls, but only a stirring version of Belshazzar’s feast, a steel engraving in the early Victorian manner that had some satisfactory blacks. [Ann Veronica, 5.6]This engraving referred to might be of Rembrandt's celebrated canvas, in which the interiors space is hardly defined, although the ‘Victorian’ references makes me wonder if it isn't John Martin's more austerely pillared and vasty interior:
Chapter 7, ‘Ideals and a Reality’, introduces A-V to the world of socialists, vegetarians and suffragettes, and consists first of earnest conversations inside the flat of the Groopes, an elderly couple ‘following a fruitarian career [i.e, diet] upon an upper floor in Theobald’s Road’, and then various meetings of Fabians and socialists in bare rented rooms. These spare spaces are then contrasted with two very different modes of interior in the two following chapters. First, in chapter 8 ‘Biology’, A-V spends time in the well-ordered scientific space of ‘the biological laboratory of the Central Imperial College’ [8.1]:
It was long and narrow, a well-lit, well-ventilated, quiet gallery of small tables and sinks, pervaded by a thin smell of methylated spirit and of a mitigated and sterilized organic decay. Along the inner side was a wonderfully arranged series of displayed specimens that Russell himself had prepared. The supreme effect for Ann Veronica was its surpassing relevance; it made every other atmosphere she knew seem discursive and confused. The whole place and everything in it aimed at one thing—to illustrate, to elaborate, to criticise and illuminate, and make ever plainer and plainer the significance of animal and vegetable structure. It dealt from floor to ceiling and end to end with the Theory of the Forms of Life; the very duster by the blackboard was there to do its share in that work, the very washers in the taps; the room was more simply concentrated in aim even than a church. To that, perhaps, a large part of its satisfyingness was due. Contrasted with the confused movement and presences of a Fabian meeting, or the inexplicable enthusiasm behind the suffrage demand, with the speeches that were partly egotistical displays, partly artful manoeuvres, and partly incoherent cries for unsoundly formulated ends, compared with the comings and goings of audiences and supporters that were like the eddy-driven drift of paper in the street, this long, quiet, methodical chamber shone like a star seen through clouds. [Ann Veronica, 8.1]From this collective, cool and rational space the novel moves in the next chapter, ‘Discords’, into the claustrophobic, locked space of potential sexual violence, Ramage's ‘cabinet particular’ [9.4], mentioned above. Ann Veronica eventually escapes this carceral space, and the following two chapters again juxtapose a large communal space, the House of Commons itself (in chapter 10, ‘The Suffragettes’) with the small carceral space of A-V's cell, ‘at once cold and stuffy’ in chapter 11, ‘Thoughts in Prison’:
This leads to her resolution to return to the paternal-patriarchal interior of Morningside Park in chapter 12, and the novel has made its fort-da return to its starting point. The path there, though, has been carefully structured by Wells as a series of contrasting pairs. The readily accessible hotel space and the private rented room; the public meetings of the Fabians and the private space of Ramage's cabinet particular; the collective spaces of knowledge and power represented by Imperial and Parliament and the private space of A-V's cell. The novel as such advances via this pulse-like logic, almost as a dialectic, public/private: and appropriately so, since balancing A-V's need for a public life and her need for a private (erotic) authenticity of her own is the larger trajectory of the book as a whole. I don't want to over-read the John Martin but that same diremption is right there in his image: food, on a table laid out as it might be for a family meal, speaks to the domestic interior; and yet Martin situates that little tableau in an interior space so incongruously huge it has clouds forming under its ceiling.
At any rate, the chain of actual-and-also-symbolic interiors that structures the novel caps off with a climactic pairing of large and small, paying out the novel's games with ‘being out’ (sexually speaking) and the double-meaning of ‘confinement’. First there is chapter 16, ‘In the Mountains’, where Wells self-consciously ratchets-up his prose as a correlative of Ann Veronica's new-discovered sexual bliss. So it is that ‘breezes ruffle the sea to glittering scales of silver’ [16.1] and ‘the petrifying branches of trees lie in the blue deeps of an icy lake, and pine-trees clamber among gigantic boulders’ and all the domestic/collective spaces of the novel's early sections are very deliberately swept aside:
Instead of English villas and cottages there were chalets and Italian-built houses shining white; there were lakes of emerald and sapphire and clustering castles, and such sweeps of hill and mountain, such shining uplands of snow, as she had never seen before. Everything was fresh and bright ... It was too good to be true. She would not sleep for fear of losing a moment of that sense of [Capes's] proximity. To walk beside him, dressed akin to him, rucksacked and companionable, was bliss in itself; each step she took was like stepping once more across the threshold of heaven. [Ann Veronica, 16.1]Wells makes the sexual nature of this exterior space as clear as he can within the broader constraints of mainstream 1909 publishing (‘they loitered along a winding path above the inn, and made love to one another’ [16.3.]; ‘they lay side by side in a shallow nest of turf and mosses among boulders and stunted bushes on a high rock, and watched the day sky deepen to evening between the vast precipices overhead and looked over the tree-tops down the widening gorge’ [16.4]). It's big, and public, and erotic.
After the sexual sublime of this chapter the last chapter, ‘In Perspective’, reads as a kind of coda: small, private and parturitive. We're back inside a bourgeois interior space, in the dining room of Mr and Mrs Capes's flat, ‘a shining dinner-table set for four people, lit by skilfully-shaded electric lights, brightened by frequent gleams of silver, and carefully and simply adorned with sweet-pea blossom’ [17.1]. The green of A-V's first autonomous space has blossomed into actual flowers, and Balshazzar's feast has become a meal of familial reconciliation with her father and aunt, at which the ‘writing on the wall’ looks forward hopefully, rather than direfully, to Ann Veronica's first child. Capes has, we assume, managed to obtain a divorce from his wife, and has married Ann Veronica; and although the scandal of their elopement lost him his job as a teacher, he has found both fame and fortune writing popular plays. Improbably enough. Their flat also has ‘a pretty little hall’ [17.2]; but this is now a space of confinement only in the pregnancy sense of that word, and the novel's last passage is Ann Veronica's peroration to the exterior erotic sublimity from which she cannot, now, ever be separated: ‘do you remember the mountains? Do you remember how we loved one another? How intensely we loved one another! Do you remember the light on things and the glory of things? I’m greedy, I’m greedy! I want children like the mountains and life like the sky. Oh! and love—love! We’ve had so splendid a time, and fought our fight and won.’ [17.3]
I've been a little plodding in spelling all this out, I know. I wanted to take my time, partly to challenge the widespread notion that this novel is formlessly or carelessly made, and partly because it stands in an important relation to the novel's sexual theme. I daresay a 21st-century Wells would simply write the sex explicitly, but working in 1909 he had to explore Ann Veronica's body through the metaphoricity of all these inner and outer spaces. Because, obviously that's what's going on here. Ann Veronica is not a novel about how a clever, spirited Edwardian girl joins the suffragettes. Ann Veronica is a novel about a girl who wakes up to the sublime jouissance of her own sexuality, in which the suffragettes are a side-plot—not, I think we're entitled to believe, because Wells thinks women shouldn't have the vote, but because he sees the suffragettes as a de-sexed and even anti-sex movement. Miss Miniver, under whose spell Ann Veronica briefly falls, is a frustrated spinster whose erotic energy has been so sublimated by the struggle as to turn her quite against sex (‘“Maternity,” she said, “has been our undoing”’ [2.1]), and who persuades A-V, if only temporarily, that her duty is to sacrifice herself as a martyr to the cause of suffrage. ‘There must be a generation of martyrs,’ Ann Veronica tells herself, trying to talk herself round. ‘Why shouldn’t we be martyrs? There’s nothing else for most of us, anyhow. It’s a sort of blacklegging to want to have a life of one’s own’.
But of course the novel as a whole doesn't believe that. Capes's final deus-ex-machina, or rather pecunia-ex-machina, as a successful playwright, however implausible it is in terms of the built world of the novel, works more effectively on this level of spaces. A theatre is an interior space in which many people publicly and openly come to watch, inverting a repeated sense in the earlier portion of the novel when Ann Veronica's private spaces are being furtively and creepily surveilled (as when Miss Stanley goes through A-V's bedroom, or A-V's time in the panoptic prison-cell: ‘she became aware that at regular intervals a light flashed upon her face and a bodiless eye regarded her, and this, as the night wore on, became a torment’ [11.1]). It reflects back upon the novel, a sort of interior space that has, as per Alain-René Lesage's Le Diable boiteux (1709), had its roof removed so that we, the public, can peer inside.
Related to this is the amount of scopophilic (as the jargon used to go) attention the novel lavishes on Ann Veronica herself as a sexual body, with an attractive exterior and a secret interior only Capes is permitted to penetrate. The protagonist of Howard Jacobson's first novel Coming From Behind (2003) argues that male academics are so obsessed with Flaubert's fiction only because secretly they want to fuck Madame Bovary. I'm not sure that's true, in general; but I would have to concede that there is something a little queasy about a middle-aged man writing a novel so tightly focused on Ann Veronica as a becoming-sexual entity. Her father calls her ‘Little Vee’ and cannot bear the thought of her incipient sexual maturity: the ‘little’ V is her inviolate vagina as well as an abbreviation of her name; and Manning, an older man who proposes marriage (and whom A-V briefly accepts, although she changes her mind) can only think of her with a stultifying chasteness of imagination: ‘I am your servitor. I am ready to wait for you, to wait your pleasure, to give all my life to winning it. Diana—Pallas Athene! (Pallas Athene is better.) You are all the slender goddesses’ [13.4]. All the virgin goddesses, of course (‘at Christmas he gave her a set of a small edition of Meredith’s novels, very prettily bound in flexible leather’ [8.2]; books by the author of Diana of the Crossways, then?) There are several references to Spenser's epic hymn to a virgin monarch The Faerie Queene, and the suffragettes all praise Platonic love as the only true love. Against all this Ann Veronica chafes, waiting only for the right man to open her ‘V’ and leave all the freezing celibacy behind.
Whilst Wells does, I'd say (with the caveat that I'm speaking as a straight middle-aged guy) capture the sense of Ann Veronica as a person in her own right, the novel exists in a queasy relationship with its own lubricious surveillance of her pulchritude. It dwells on‘the gracious balance of her limbs and body, the fine lines of her chin and neck, her grave fine face, her warm clear complexion’ [1.7], ‘the fine, long lines of her limbs’ [16:8] and so on. But Wells is also aware that he is doing this, I think, and also builds in a kind of autocritique. For one thing, he several times tries to return ownership, as it were, of her body to A-V, in terms of the logic of the text in which she appears. There are several passages like this: ‘she was feeling extraordinarily well that night, so that the sense of her body was a deep delight, a realization of a gentle warmth and strength and elastic firmness’ [15.3]. For another, Wells is canny enough to be conscious of how icky, and often how actively oppressive and distressing, the male gaze can be. It's why he gives the nasty Ramage protuberant eyes, all the better lewdly to watch Ann Veronica with, my dear.
Plus Wells includes one genuinely disturbing, scene upon A-V's first arrival in London. As she walks about the strange city looking for lodgings she is stalked by a man: ‘he must have followed her all the way from beyond Grosvenor Square. He was a tall man and fair, with bluish eyes that were rather protuberant, and long white hands of which he made a display ... he moved, after quiet intervals, with a quick little movement, and ever and again stroked his small mustache and coughed a self-conscious cough’ [5.4]. His persistence is dogged, and it alters the whole city for her:
Heaven knows what dim and tawdry conceptions of passion and desire were in that blond cranium, what romance-begotten dreams of intrigue and adventure! but they sufficed, when presently Ann Veronica went out into the darkling street again, to inspire a flitting, dogged pursuit, idiotic, exasperating, indecent. She had no idea what she should do. ...She stopped abruptly, and looked in a flower-shop window. He passed, and came loitering back and stood beside her, silently looking into her face.She thinks of confronting him, but ‘there was something in his face at once stupid and invincible that told her he would go on forcing himself upon her, that he would esteem speech with her a great point gained’. Wells extrapolates from this incident into a general statement of the relentless of male sexually predatory logic:
The afternoon had passed now into twilight. The shops were lighting up into gigantic lanterns of color, the street lamps were glowing into existence, and she had lost her way. She had lost her sense of direction, and was among unfamiliar streets. She went on from street to street, and all the glory of London had departed. Against the sinister, the threatening, monstrous inhumanity of the limitless city, there was nothing now but this supreme, ugly fact of a pursuit—the pursuit of the undesired, persistent male. [Ann Veronica, 5.4]
In the twilight he had ceased to be a person one could tackle and shame; he had become something more general, a something that crawled and sneaked toward her and would not let her alone. [Ann Veronica, 5.4]Then, abruptly, he disappears. ‘For a time she could scarcely believe he was gone. He had. The night had swallowed him up, but his work on her was done.’ She goes home, shaken and upset, and never feels at ease in the city again.
What makes this little scene so powerful, quite apart from its (as many women will confirm) ghastly verisimilitude, is the way it reverts tacitly back upon the novel itself. After all, the real figure who doggedly pursues Ann Veronica through every alley and byway of her life, into prison and meeting place and her very bedroom, is us: the novel's narration, the protuberant-eyed reader. According to the venerable patriarchal logic this stalking only ends when A-V is ‘claimed’ by another man, the virile Capes. That's the point Wells's narrative steps away.
What's interesting here is that Wells originally planned to write a much longer novel, something with the dimensions of a Victorian triple-decker that would follow-through Ann Veronica's life as she settles into motherhood, but he found there was too much ‘monologing’ in the later sections and cut them. Had the novel followed the original plan it would, obviously, have had a very different flavour, and a different centre of gravity, to the relatively short novel that was published. Some sense of how things would have gone is given by Ann Veronica's cameo in Wells's later Marriage (1912) where she appears, in passing, as:
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. [Marriage, 3.2.7]Arguably the lack of any post-marriage Ann Veronice unbalances the novel as it was published. As it stands it builds to an erotic climax and ends there, without dwelling on any post-coital tristitia. The advantage in this is how sex positive it makes the novel, not only how much agency it gives its female protagonist (since she chooses and takes Capes rather than waiting to be asked) but also in how much rapture the novel permits her without feeling the need to work in any admixture of guilt, regret or indeed consequence. Kirsten Hertel compares Ann Veronica to Bennett's Man from the North (1898) as studies in a shared ‘Versöhnung mit der Desillusion’ [Hertel, London zwischen Naturalismus und Moderne: Literarische Perspektiven einer Metropole (Heidelberg, Winter 1997), 380], a reconciliation with disillusionment. But I think such a reading is only possible if we assume the novel is supposed to be a story of a woman's political and social emancipation. If, as I'm suggesting we do here, we read it as a D H Lawrence novel avant la Lawrentian lettre, a fantasia on female erotic transcendence, then there's no disillusionment with which Ann Veronica needs to reconcile.
I'm saying here stands, I daresay, in only puny opposition to Ann Heilmann's withering assessment of the novel:
Ultimately Ann Veronica is a male fantasy of sexual taming, a self- reflecting mirror that allowed Wells to blank out his gynophobia by overwriting the female consciousness of his heroine with the masculine desire that so neatly frames the text. The novel's circular structure encloses the heroine in two male-dominated homes, those of father and husband, with university - a site of erotic, not academic education - marking the transition from frigid feminism (embodied by man- hating suffragettes) to personal fulfilment through sexual submission. [Heilmann, ‘Revolting Men? Sexual Fears and Fantasies in Writings by Old Men, 1880-1910’ Critical Survey 15:3 (2003), 60]I do take the force of this reading, although I also wonder if it might be possible to turn the critique around. To repeat myself: say Wells's problem is not with votes for women as such, but with what he saw as the sex-negativity of the suffragettes, or more specifically of Pankhurst’s well-known Women’s Social and Political Union. We would at least have to concede that he had a point on that score.
To read (say) Les Garner's Stepping Stones to Women’s Liberty: Feminist Ideas in the Women’s Movement 1900-1918 (Gower, 1984) is to be struck by narrowly autocratic and in many ways hidebound by ideas of middle-class respectability Pankhurst's celebrated organisation was, especially when compared with some of the other, lesser-known branches of the movement (periodicals like the short-lived weekly Freewoman, which advocated quite radical free love ideas, and more democratic suffragist bodies like the Women’s Freedom League and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies). Pankhurst, though she certainly played a vital role in winning women the vote, was also an imperialist, a passionate supporter of the British war effort post-1914 and a dedicated anti-Bolshevik campaigner, socially and sexually conservative and (after 1926 when she joined the party) politically Conservative too. Her daughter Christine, co-founder of the WSPU and co-campaigner with her mother, was even more anti-sex. To quote Alison Light: ‘male power was increasingly denounced by [WSPU] militants in terms of sexual power, the violence said to be inherent in masculinity itself. There is a direct lineage from Christabel Pankhurst’s warnings against the injurious nature of sexual intercourse for women to those radical feminists of the 1970s who saw little to choose between heterosexual penetration and rape’. A 1913 Christabel Pankhurst pamphlet coined the campaign slogan: votes for women and chastity for men. If we read Ann Veronica as an attack on nascent feminism then it will strike us as more or less noisome; but maybe it's possible to read it as a more focused fictional disagreement with the sexual puritanism of one strand of the suffrage movement. Indeed we could say: this is a novel that accedes with the Christabel Pankhurst view that men are by nature violently sexually predatory, but nonetheless manages to affirm its female protagonist's sexual agency and rapture. That's not nothing, I think, from a feminist point of view.