Monday, 9 April 2012

H.G. Wells, David Lodge and Elizabeth von Arnim

H.G. Wells is one of those writers I have great admiration for even though I have not read many of his novels.

Wells’s reputation rests on the science fiction classics he wrote at the beginning of his career. Most of us have read either in abridged or unabridged versions Time Machine, The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds and The Island of Dr. Moreau, all of which have been made into blockbuster films over the decades.

Wells, however, was not just a science fiction writer. In the first 20 years of the last century Wells turned his attention to social themes, and published many novels which were very popular in their times. Wells was also an outspoken socialist and a feminist, although, with respect to the latter, he would appear to have been more interested in free love and the women’s right to sleep with anyone (preferably him) of their choice than in their right to vote. Indeed in a 1905 novel entitled In the Days of the Comet he depicted a ménage a quatre, which must have been a very bold thing to do (unsurprisingly it incurred wrath of the traditionalists).

Wells was also an outspoken socialist and an early member of Fabian society (many of whose members went on to form the Labour Party). Indeed he suggested several changes to modernize Fabian Society, which, in his view, was more of a talk shop than an instrument for change. He eventually resigned from the society in frustration because all of his attempts were frustrated by other members of the society, George Bernard Shaw amongst them. The members of Fabian Society probably heaved a collective sigh of relief when he left. He was screwing daughters of his fellow members, and the concept of free love he advocated in his novels around this time was equated by his political (Tory) opponents with his socialistic views, who indulged in considerably scaremongering by telling the apparently gullible public that power to the socialists would mean end of moral order. (‘Don’t believe us? Just read the novels of H.G. Wells.’)

An initial admirer and sympathizer of the Bolshevik revolution in Russia, Wells visited the Soviet Union on 2-3 occasions, and interviewed Stalin (and Roosevelt) in the 1930s during a visit. He was dismayed by what he viewed as Stalin’s refusal to see anything good in the Capitalist system and his (Stalin’s) obdurate insistence on not deviating at all from the Marxist-Leninist doctrine.

Wells was a writer of astonishing output (and longevity). He began his writing career in the Victorian era and, when the last of his books (the relentlessly bleak A Mind at the End of its Tether) was published a few months before his death, Victoria’s great-grandson was the monarch.

Wells published more than 100 works of fiction and non-fiction in a career spanning 5 decades (which means he published on average 2 books every year).

In the middle of writing and publishing books at a furious pace and agitating for political reforms, Wells also found time to bed more than 100 women. At 5’ 5”, Wells was not very tall. He was also tubby and had a squeaky voice. Yet he seemed to have no difficulty in sleeping with women half his age. He was married twice. His first marriage was to his cousin Isabel, but he found that they were ‘sexually incompatible’. He divorced her after 2 years and married Catherine whom he ‘renamed’ ‘Jane’ (with her permission). The marriage lasted for 32 years, produced 2 sons, and ended in 1927 with Jane’s death from cancer. Throughout the 30 odd years of their marriage Wells, with Jane’s knowledge and ‘permission’, slept with other women (including but not limited to the daughters of his friends) and carried out passionate affairs. Jane would appear to have resigned to the knowledge that her husband was a highly sexed man who needed to look elsewhere for the satiation of his sexual appetite. When Wells, at the age 42, fell madly in love with Amber Reeves, the daughter of the feminists and fellow Fabians Pember and Maud Reeves, and eloped with her to France, Jane forwarded to him every day his correspondence. (The lovers returned to England within 3 weeks after Wells made the discovery that irresistible as Reeve’s charms were in bed, he could not live with her.)

I found out all of the above, plus much more (interesting) information about Wells after reading David Lodge’s biographical novel, entitled A Man of Parts

Lodge is one of my favourite novelists, and this is his second foray into writing biographical novels. In 2005 Lodge published Author Author which focused on that period in the life of the American novelist Henry James in which James made (a disastrous) attempt at becoming a playwright. Author Author is the least favourite of the David Lodge novels I have read (and I have read all of his published novels except a couple of early novels). I had wondered whether the biographical Author Author was suggestive of a hiatus (or worse, a decline) in the powers of creative imagination. Lodge belied these fears in his next novel, entitled Deaf Sentence. In Deaf Sentence, Lodge was back at doing what (I think) he does best. Writing witty and funny novel set in academia.  With A Man of Parts Lodge has returned (for the second time) to the territory of biographical novels. The result is a mixed bag. At the beginning of the novel Lodge feels obliged to warn his readers that ‘nearly everything that happens in this novel is based on factual sources’. There is tons of biographical information in the novel, as Lodge quotes liberally (and repeatedly) from Wells’s novels, correspondence, and what others said to him, about him and about his novels.  Indeed at times the novel reads less like a novel and more like a biography.  It wasn’t a problem for me, as I have an interest in H.G. Wells, but I lack the patience (and intellectual rigour) to trawl through several weighty biographies of Wells published over the years (not counting his 2-volumes autobiography entitled An Experiment in Autobiography). But it does beg the question as to whether the novel adds anything useful in the way of information about one of the most remarkable men of 20th century. I assume that Lodge does not cover any grounds that are not covered in dozens of published biographies. And as a novel it is (curiously) not a very well imagined novel. Not a bad novel, mind (Lodge is incapable of writing a bad novel). I shall review it in detail some other time.

                              David Lodge (Doesn't he look a bit like David Irving?)

A Man of Parts focuses on what is generally considered to be the period when Wells was at the peak of his powers—between 1895 (when he published his first novel) and 1920 (when he published The Outline of History). As I read about Lodge’s accounts of the several novels Wells published during this period, I felt I ought to read one of the novels during this period. 

I then remembered that a few years ago I had bought a set of a dozen hard-bound H.G. Wells novels, which were collecting dust on my shelf.  

So I picked up The History of Mr. Polly

This novel, first published in 1910, was a commercial success, and (according to A Man of Parts) was never out of print over the next 40 years. It is a comic account of the life of a mediocre man (named Mr Polly) and how he escapes a life of drudgery and finds happiness. There are themes in the novel which will strike a chord more than a hundred years after it was first published—feeling trapped by your circumstances (unhappy marriage, dreadful job), and a yearning to escape and find a utopia. A very enjoyable read.

My plan is to read a few more novels of Wells published during this period. The next on my list is Tono-Bungay, Wells’s satire on Edwardian advertising. Apparently Wells considered Tono-Bungay to be his best novel, although it failed to sell well. (A Man of Parts informs us that Wells wrote Tono-Bungay and The History of Mr. Polly simultaneously. Tono-Bungay was the more serious novel and (compared with his other novels) was in the gestation for a long time. The History of Mr. Polly was his commercial novel.)

Back to Wells's bedroom antics. There were quite a few women novelists amongst the more than 100 women Wells had sex with. (A Man of Parts focuses on the more famous of these, and would have you believe that in almost all the cases it was the women who pursued—in some cases stalked—Wells, who, being the red-blooded man that he was, had no option but to sleep with them. Most of these women admired Wells greatly as a writer—were almost in awe of him. He was also exceptionally well endowed and was quite a performer in bed, according to A Man of Parts—don’t know whether this is a ‘biographical detail’ or a figment of Lodge’s imagination.) The most famous of these novelists was of course Rebecca West with whom Wells had a son, the novelist Anthony West. (West published an autobiographical novel entitled Heritage in 1955, in America, in which the mother of the protagonist, who resembled Rebecca West, was shown in a less than flattering light. So stung was Rebecca West by her portrayal that she threatened to sue any publisher who published the novel in the UK. The novel was eventually published in 1984, a year after Rebecca West died. The ‘new introduction’ Anthony West wrote to mark the (belated) UK publication of the novel confirmed that the mother and son had continued with their feud to the end. Anthony West idolised H.G. Wells—the more or less absent father— all his life and was, in contrast, highly critical of his mother.)

One of the novelists Wells had an affair with was Elizabeth von Arnim. I had never heard of this novelist before; however, she was apparently a popular novelist of her generation. According to WikiPedia, she was Australian born and a cousin of (the more famous) novelist Katherine Mansfield. Born Mary Beauchamp, she became von Arnim by her marriage to a Prussian aristocrat. Count von Arnim Schlagenthin ran into severe financial problems (he even served a prison sentence for fraud) and Elizabeth von Arnim began writing partly to find an escape from an unhappy marriage (which nevertheless produced 5 children) and partly to generate income. Her debut novel was published anonymously and was intriguingly titled Elizabeth and her German Garden. It was published in 1898, the same year H.G. Wells’s War of the Worlds came out. The novel (I think it is a novel, although it can also be viewed as a memoir) was an instant success upon its publication; it had more than 10 reprints in the first 2 years of its publication, and made Mary Beauchamp a very rich woman. (H.G. Wells had taken note of the book, which had sold more copies than his War of the Worlds.) When, 12 years later, von Arnim—a comfortable widow, the Prussian count, referred to, somewhat dismissively in Elizabeth and her German Garden as the ‘Man of Wrath’, having kicked the bucket a year earlier—indicated that she was willing to be his mistress, Wells was only too willing to oblige. Wells and von Arnim carried their affair—with full knowledge of Wells’s wife—over the next three years. von Arnim lived in a villa in Switzerland during this period. Wells had made it clear that he would not leave his wife, which was acceptable to von Arnim. On her part she had one condition: Wells had to be faithful to her. (She had presumably no pangs of conscience that Wells, in carrying out the affair, would not be faithful to his legal wife.) Wells agreed to this condition, one assumes, in light of what happened subsequently, reluctantly. Expecting this randy old goat to remain faithful to one woman was like asking Sherlock Holmes to give up cocaine. The inevitable happened. When the more vivacious (and much younger) Rebecca West came along, Wells ended up in her bed faster than you can say Mary Beauchamp. von Arnim ended the relationship when she learnt of Wells’s ‘infidelity’. One assumes Wells did not shed many tears, as, according to A Man of Parts, by that time she was beginning to get on his nerves by her snobbish comments about his accent (which she thought was common) and humble origins. 

                                                          Elizabeth von Arnim

I thought I should read Elizabeth and her German Garden to see what was in it that so captivated the later Victorian readers. The novel is in the form of a diary kept by the writer about (as the title suggests) her garden on the estate of her Prussian husband. It is a pleasant, light-hearted, occasionally wry, sometimes piquant (and most of the time twee and schmaltzy) account of a year in the life of its narrator, which she spends in her garden. The narrator is an idle, somewhat snobbish, housewife, who doesn't lift a finger to do anything useful in the way of work, and has tons of opinion about everything and everyone. She considers herself a woman of sly and wicked wit, and is eccentric in a carefully planned manner ('Look at me; I am so different; people consider me eccentric, but I don't care; I will sit in my garden in winter at subzero temperatures to show everyone how eccentric I am'). She passes bitchy comments about her house-guests, her husband, her gardener, her cook (this is a partial list) and her relatives. She also has a disconcerting habit of going into raptures at the sight of roses and acacias. (In short a woman you'd have no hesitation in slipping prussic acid into her tea if you were her  husband.) 

Elizabeth and her German Garden is like an amuse bouche. Not much substance, but it brings an occasional smile to your face. An undemanding read. I might read a few more novels of von Arnim, but I won't be in a mighty rush.