26 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: H. G. Wells in Love

My celebration of H. G. Wells's 150th birthday continues, with a discussion of the "postscript" to his autobiography that wasn't published until 50 years after the rest of it:

Hardcover, 253 pages
Published 1984
Acquired February 2014
Read June 2016
H. G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography
edited by G. P. Wells

This book covers the details of H. G. Wells's personal life omitted in Experiment in Autobiography, and it contains three main parts. First is Wells's introduction to The Book of Catherine Wells, a compilation of his wife's fiction he edited after her death. Then there are the accounts of his various extramarital love relationships. And then finally there's the diary he kept following the conclusion of the Experiment, keeping things up to date.

In my discussion of Wells's personal life after the Experiment, I commented, "a lot was being held back. Not only were there no mentions of his affairs during his second marriage, but there was scarcely any mention of his personal life at all as the book went on. [...] [T]he death of his second wife is revealed in only a couple passing asides, and his children may as well not even exist for all the role they play in his life once they are born." I had known why his discussion of his affairs was being held back, but I thought it was weird how little he said about the death of his wife, Amy Catherine "Jane" Wells. Well, upon reading the introduction to The Book of Catherine Wells here, it's clear why he said little about her death in the Experiment, as he had already said it, and he had said it beautifully.

The account of her life is good enough, and supplements some material covered in the Experiment, but what truly impresses is the account of her dying days. It's sad to see her dying after all the time I spent with loyal Jane in the Experiment and here, and the very last bit, where Wells takes the advice of George Bernard Shaw and watches the cremation, is a brilliant, moving bit of writing from a man who often skirted around emotion.

The middle section of the book is fascinating, but in a totally different way, as he discusses why he loved so many women, and delves into short descriptions of the more important affairs, with Amber Reeves (who, with Jane, seems part of the model for Ann Veronica), Elizabeth von Arnim (who should have been a friend with benefits but wanted more), Rebecca West (with whom, as with Reeves, he had a child), Odette Keun (with whom he built a villa in France as a symbol of their love, which turned quite tempestuous), and Moura Budberg (a Russian spy, whom he wanted to marry). These accounts are a mix of amusing anecdotes (Wells and Arnim had outdoor sex on an issue of the Times decrying the immorality of the younger generation), heady passion (Wells and Reeves decided to have a child together in a fit of defiance at the world that didn't really pay off), harsh invective (things really didn't do well with Keun), stinginess with money (he seems impressed with his own generosity), and dispassionate analysis (sometimes he understands himself, sometimes he doesn't).

Each of the stories is compelling in its own way; Wells is a good storyteller, and I found myself regaling my family with anecdotes as I read. The stories of Reeves, Keun, and Budberg are probably the most interesting, as those relationships seemed to encounter the most difficulties, both externally and internally imposed. The story of how Wells couldn't quite tear himself away from Budberg even when he was certain she was lying to him is gripping, and I really want to read a biography of her now.

You could probably psychoanalyze Wells a million different ways, but he comes across to me as a man obsessed with sex but rarely emotionally intimate. Or maybe dispassionate about sex, in that he likes it, but isn't attached to how he gets it. (He talks of going to prostitutes, including when he's in Washington D.C. and decides to find out what sex with a black woman is like.) Or maybe a man in search of a connection he can never quite find, possibly because he's dissatisfied with whatever he can actually have. His sexual appetite was as capacious as his intellectual one, and though he portrays himself as pretty egalitarian (he's all for everyone having as much sex as they want), there are times it seems he wants a helpmeet for His Great Work, not an equal partner. Jane was supposedly accepting of all his affairs, as she wanted an emotional connection, not a sexual one, but I'd be curious to get a take on Jane not from Wells's own perspective.

The final section of the book is mostly the "Looseleaf Diary," notes about the progress of his life that Wells would update periodically. Intervals range from a couple months to a couple years, and the diary covers 1935 to 1942 (he died in 1946). After I'd spent around 900 pages in Wells's life between this book and the Experiment, it was melancholy to watch him finish out his days. It comes across as much more unguarded that most of his other personal writings, just jottings every couple months about what he's doing these days and how he's feeling. He kept feeling he'd "really said what I have had in me to say" (222) again and again, convinced that this book is the last, and then writing another. He veers between optimism and pessimism; the Second World War brings out his anger at humanity in general and Britain in particular, and he really begins to doubt in the achievement of the World State. He talks about making films, and Moura flits in and out of his life, as he slowly grows to accept that he can never rid himself of his obsession, no matter her deceptions. But he also seems to grow closer to his family and appreciate them more as his life becomes more memories than predictions.

Even though he felt he had said everything he could, he was ready to do more. Referring to the suicide of a friend and fellow writer, he wrote in April 1942, "I know there is work and urgent and important work I may presently be called upon to do, and that I cannot go like that. I am here with all my books and a loyal household at hand" (228). Indeed, after writing that sentence, he wrote four more books, plus a doctoral thesis in science, irritated that his honorary doctorate had been in letters. He never stopped loving, and he never stopped working.

In Two Weeks: More H. G. Wells! More love! Find out the true story in H. G. Wells & Rebecca West!

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