From The Time Machine to The War of the Worlds, HG Wells’s dystopian novels have placed him firmly on the map as one of the most influential (and, arguably, controversial) figures of the twentieth century. Unusually, for such a prominent man of letters, he also devoted much energy to political action and English PEN – not to mention a steady commitment to extra-marital dalliances. But, as David Lodge’s latest biographical novel A Man of Parts reveals, behind the scenes Wells cut a more contradictory and increasingly misanthropic figure. At this event, English PEN’s director Jonathan Heawood talked to Lodge about the man who has been described as ‘The Father of Science Fiction’ and a genius of his time.
Considering a particularly unfortunate chapter in Lodge’s past, it’s perhaps unsurprising that he was apprehensive about the publication of A Man of Parts. Back in 2004, the publication of Author, Author, his biographical novel about Henry James, coincided with Colm Toibin’s The Master – on the very same subject. While waiting for Author, Author to come out, Lodge was researching the introduction to a Penguin Classics edition of Wells’s novel Kipps and came across an interesting story of his ‘involvement’ with Mr and Mrs Hubert Bland, the latter being Edith Nesbit (author of The Railway Children). ‘It was an extraordinary ménage; especially considering upper class propriety.’ It fascinated him and triggered (albeit cautious) ideas for possible material for a new biographical novel.
Of particular interest was Wells’s suitably scandalous relationship with Rosamund Bland, the secretly adopted daughter of Edith and Hubert – the latter, it turns out, fathered the child with Edith’s housekeeper. From Rosamund and Cambridge graduate Amber Reeves to the young feminist journalist Rebecca West, Wells’s constellation of lovers was extensive and countless tales of the literary Lothario are well-documented, with particular intrigue surrounding the role of his two wives. ‘They were very similar types,’ Lodge said. ‘He loved them both but they didn’t satisfy him sexually. Jane [Wells’s second wife] condoned his affairs, certainly towards the end of their married life – she was even on friendly terms with some of his mistresses!’
Jane’s motives have long been a source of intrigue but Lodge is reluctant to label her as simply a martyr. ‘She’s a bit of an enigma; nobody could quite believe she could tolerate his adultery – she seemed to accept it as a modus vivendi. What made her stick to HG no one really knows. I’m not sure I could write a novel getting inside her head.’
One of the most famous of Wells’s relationships was his affair with Rebecca West. Stung but intrigued after reading one of West’s critical reviews of his book Marriage, he invited her to discuss it. She promptly fell completely under his spell and, contrary to popular belief that Wells was the predator, she pursued him ardently. ‘He kissed her once and she took it as a declaration of love; she even threatened to kill herself,’ Lodge said.
But events took a more serious turn. ‘Very soon after their affair began – and it’s extraordinary that we can know these intimate details – while they were petting in his flat it began to get out of control. But Wells couldn’t go to his room to get a sheath because a servant was there.’ West subsequently fell pregnant with her son, Anthony. ‘The plan was to give [the baby] up for adoption but they didn’t,’ Lodge said. ‘It was a very stormy relationship where the child was always a problem. The poor child grew up with a lot of personal problems.’
Later in life, Anthony wrote a book, Heritage, about his upbringing including ‘a very hostile portrait of West’. She threatened to sue if he published it in the UK. It was published after her death. Indeed, as Lodge points out, West always doctored her own correspondence so future biographies would have a more favourable view of her.
As a young adult, Anthony had relinquished his job as a dairy farmer to work for the BBC overseas service. But his decision to leave his wife and children to continue an affair with a secretary at the BBC caused much distress to West and Wells – a reaction that, as Lodge noted, seems all the more ironic considering the parallels with Wells’s own romantic past.
Wells’s passions extended beyond writing and women and, at the beginning of the twentieth century, he threw himself into political activity – a move Lodge found somewhat incongruous. ‘He decided not to be a man of letters and instead had a kind of messianic vision. It seemed incompatible with his literary career,’ he said. ‘He had a unique insight into the social structure of England and what was rotten about it and wanted to take an active part and change it. It was quite unusual.’
It was at this point that he decided to join the Fabian Society, but it was not long before he became impatient with it. ‘He thought they were talking shop. He tried to bend the society to his own views and make it more active and expansive and change its constitution.’ His interests, not solely political, extended to cultural revolution and his support of an end to sexual subjugation made him (rather conveniently) very popular with young, left-wing women. However, tensions with the Fabian Society eventually became intolerable and he broke away.
One commitment that was unstinting was Wells’s dedication to PEN and he became the second ever president, after John Galsworthy. ‘PEN began as much more of a social gathering. It’s interesting how it mushroomed into a huge organisation,’ Lodge said. ‘Wells had amazing energy. He quickly redesigned PEN as [an advocate of] free speech. At his 70th birthday party he spoke of PEN as “the utmost freedom of expression”.’
Despite feeling increasingly marginalised ‘because people weren’t into old-fashioned enlightenment’, Wells continued to make contributions to human rights. ‘He started writing to The Times saying, “We should define our war aims. What are we fighting for? Let’s draw up human rights”.’ However, disillusioned with World War II, he began to lose faith in progress and (once a fervent pacifist) became increasingly belligerent and jingoistic. It is a prime example of his often contradictory nature. ‘In the last years he became very melancholic and misanthropic. Like many writers, he was prone to depression and sudden drooping spirits,’ Lodge said. ‘In his last work Mind at the End of its Tether… he seems to give up, there’s no way through, this is the end, we’re going into chaos. It’s a very extreme, barely coherent book.’
It is at the opening of A Man of Parts, which Lodge read to the audience, that we meet Wells at the final stages of his life and find a frail, reflective and poignantly morose character. The scene opens with Wells secluded at his home in Hanover Terrace, stubbornly refusing to join the rest of the mob who have fled to the country – ‘Hitler (or in male company, “that shit Hitler”) is not going to get me on the run.’
As he dons his tin hat and takes his turn at fire-watching from the roof, he observes ‘with gloomy satisfaction’ the fulfilment of his prophesy in his novel The War in the Air ‘that future wars would be dominated by air power and involve the destruction of cities and civilian populations by discriminate bombing’. In view of today’s global current affairs, it seems even more acutely prescient.
Despite Wells’s flawed character, full of contradictions and controversy (not least surrounding his divisive theories on anti-Semitism, eugenics and the treatment of women), Lodge felt he could identify with him on some levels. Both were born in low middle class homes in South London – ‘We were both brought up on the wayside of the track, didn’t go to posh school… and yet we made it. And I can’t help admiring his tremendous energy and lust for life – there’s a kind of life spirit about him.’
After years of being ‘in the shadows’, Wells is experiencing something of a revival, from an ambitious reprint by Penguin to new hardbacks released just before Christmas. A Man of Parts (which has already been warmly received by the critics) could not have been better timed. It is also a welcome addition to the growing canon of biographical novels, from Barnes and Bainbridge to Hilary Mantel. But it is a genre Lodge finds apt for more ‘mature’ writers. ‘A novel uses up experience at an extraordinary rate. While going through life you gather material. The more you grow up the less your life delivers; the more you have to go out and research.’ However, he doubts Wells will have the same influence he did in the first two decades of the century. ‘In a time of growing political awareness, he provided enormous intellectual stimulus. I don’t think that situation will ever be replicated.’
Report by Alexandra Masters
Originally posted with the url: www.englishpen.org/events/reportsonrecentevents/amanofparts/