08 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: Ann Veronica

My celebration of Wells's 150th continues with this, one of his many semiautobiographical reworkings of his own life:

Trade paperback, 313 pages
Published 2005 (originally 1909)
Acquired and read January 2013
Ann Veronica by H. G. Wells

Ann Veronica is an interesting novel, mixing the way Wells met his second wife with the reaction to one of his first mistresses, Amber Reeves. It's about a young woman, Ann Veronica Stanley, who falls in love with her married biology demonstrator at Central Imperial College, G. Capes. (Weirdly, Capes never receives a first name, though in Wells's later novel Marriage, he is finally forenamed "Godwin.") As someone who has read more Victorian scientist novels than you can shake a test tube at, the differences from those are striking. The first is that one can take a science degree-- most Victorian scientists are self-taught, with medical degrees or the like. The second is that Ann Veronica is female-- there are very, very few fictional female scientists in the nineteenth century. Both of these changes can be attributed, I suspect, to the increasing professionalization of science. Now it's a thing you can take a degree in like any other thing, thus it's easier for women to enter into it because they don't have to teach it to themselves with their extra time and money.

Like many writers of scientist novels, Wells examines the relationship between science and morality, but as always, Wells charts his own path. Ann Veronica does not justify science's moral claims by showing how they replicate traditional moral strictures, nor does it denigrate science's moral claims by showing how they contradict traditional morality. Rather, Wells shows how science can be the basis of a new morality, though he is also careful to show that this is sometime a post facto rationalization, a way of justifying a behavior one has already decided to undertake.

That Ann Veronica and Capes possess an unconventional morality is most clearly demonstrated by their decision to become lovers even though Capes is married and Ann Veronica is much younger than him. When Capes objects that even their meeting together is against the rules, as he is her teacher, Ann Veronica replies that "This is something above all rules" (243). Later, she expands on this assertion, when Capes supposes that she will rationalize the story of his affair during his first marriage:
‘If I told you the facts […] you’d explain the whole business as being very fine and honourable for me – the Higher Morality, or something of that sort…. It wasn’t.’
     ‘I don’t deal very much,’ said Ann Veronica, ‘in the Higher Morality, or the Higher Truth, or any of those things.’
     ‘Perhaps you don’t. But a human being who is young and clean, as you are, is apt to ennoble – or to explain away.’
     ‘I’ve had a biological training. I’m a hard young woman.’ (245)
This passage attributes Ann Veronica's refusal to be bounded by the strictures of traditional Edwardian morality to her training as a scientist. Seeing like a scientist has enabled her to see events with a clarity that others lack. Her vision is not mystified by Christianity, but rather she understands the biological imperatives that underlie human interactions in the area of love. Capes cheated on his first wife because she could not satisfy him sexually, and Capes asks her how she classifies sexual relations:
     ‘Do you think of these things – these matters – as belonging to our Higher Nature or our Lower?’
     ‘I don’t deal in Higher Things, I tell you,’ said Ann Veronica, ‘or lower, for the matter of that. I don’t classify.’ She hesitated. ‘Flesh and flowers are all alike to me.’ (246)
Ann Veronica's scientific training hasn’t taught her that sex is all that matters, nor that love doesn't exist. Rather, it has caused her to classify sex and love on the same level, or even as the same thing. She sees nothing improper in sex because it is biological imperative of the flesh, and she sees nothing wrong with her love for Capes because it is tied up in that imperative. Her and Capes's love for one another is no different from her and Capes's sexual desire for one another.

But while it is possible for Ann Veronica to see this aspect of morality outside traditional thinking, it is not possible for her to do so with society more broadly. There is one passage that hints she has a larger capacity; as she learns more about biology, she begins to see that
the influence of the science radiated far beyond its own special field – beyond those beautiful but highly technical problems with which we do not propose for a moment to trouble the naturally terrified reader. Biology is an extraordinarily digestive science.[…] [N]ot only did these tentacular generalizations gather all the facts of natural history and comparative anatomy together, but they always seemed stretching out further and further into a world of interests that lay altogether outside their legitimate bounds.
     It came to Ann Veronica one night[…] that this slowly elaborating biological scheme had something more than an academic interest for herself. And not only so, but that it was, after all, a more systematic and particular method of examining just the same questions that underlay the discussions of the Fabian Society, the West Central Arts Club, the chatter of the studios and the deep[…]. It was the same Bios whose nature and drift and ways and methods and aspects engaged them all. (134-35)
That said, the narrator claims this revelation "was but a momentary gleam of personal application" that she never follows up (135). She is in the process of learning to apply scientific vision to human affairs, but in the end, she is only able to do so for her personal affairs. When self-interest is no longer at stake, she doesn't have the drive to procede.

And besides, society won't let her. Capes and Ann Veronica both have to give up their scientific careers as a result of their running off with one another. They spend some time on the continent, they eventually do get married and return to England, Capes becomes a playwright (they are allowed to be more unconventional than biology demonstrators), and Ann Veronica is about to become a mother when the novel closes. They reappear in Wells's Marriage, which I haven't read, but I'd like to, because Ann Veronica seems to me to have a somewhat bleak ending: what acceptance society has given them seems to derive from the fact that they have conformed more to its expectations. I'd be curious to know if Wells had a more optimistic vision for the unconventional than Ann Veronica indicates.

* Capes is pretty clearly based on Wells himself: Wells was a married biology demonstrator who ran off with and later married one of his students, Amy Catherine Robbins. Capes studied under the fictional biologist Russell, who played a significant role in the Darwinian controversies; Wells studied under Huxley, who played a significant role in the Darwinian controversies. Only instead of working at a university, Wells worked for a test preparation service!

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