24 October 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The Book of Catherine Wells

Hardcover, 323 pages
Published 1971 (originally 1928)
Borrowed from the library
Read July 2016
The Book of Catherine Wells

Reading as much as I have about H. G. Wells and his relationships, I became curious about his second wife, Amy Catherine Robbins, who he nicknamed "Jane" (I think he felt "Amy Catherine" had a little too much flourish for a manager of a household). In his autobiography, H. G. mentions that Jane really liked the writing of Katherine Mansfield while he did not, and as I like Katherine Mansfield, that made me interested to read Jane's own writing-- or, more properly, Catherine Wells's. After she died in 1927, H. G. published a collection of the best of her short stories and poetry, along with an introduction on who she was to him. (This introduction is quite good and a little touching; their son G. P. Wells reprinted it in H. G. Wells in Love.)

(from Book of Catherine Wells, facing p. 24)
Catherine Wells turns out to have been a diverse writer. The first tale here is very funny, a charming modernized fairy tale called "The Last Fairy," about a fairy going on her last trip into the mortal world before retirement; the modern world has been getting a little too cynical and difficult for her: "Another time she had met a bright young Boy Scout who, in the course of business, had helped her across a crowded street, and to whom in return she had given three magic wishes; he had used the third wish to wish for three more and so on, until the poor old fairy had had to retire hastily to fairyland in a bankrupt state, and live very quietly and economically for several years to recover herself" (44). It reminds me of some of the early work of L. Frank Baum, who would have been writing around the same time (I'm not sure when any of the individual stories and poems in The Book of Catherine Wells were originally written or published; H. G. provides no indication). It features an accidental dragon, leaping cheeses, a grandmother transformed into the image of her granddaughter, and a man who runs and talks backward-- all good fun.

Most of the stories aren't this funny; in fact, they range from wistful to downright depressing, most of them in a style I would categorize as early modernist, like Katherine Mansfield or Dubliners-era James Joyce. It's weird suddenly gaining access to the mind of a person you've only encountered at a remove up until this point. In H. G.'s Experiment in Autobiography and its Postscript, we of course only see Catherine/Jane as H. G. presents her to us. Even in the Rinkels' The Picshuas of H. G. Wells, which is about their relationship, our view of Jane is entirely filtered through H. G. Here, suddenly, I feel like I know something about her as a person (inasmuch as you can know anyone through reading their fiction).

I'm always a little skeptical of biographical readings of fiction, but it's hard to resist that sometimes here, when there are several tales of married women in love with other men, or unmarried men in love with married women, all of whom are doomed to never be together: "May Afternoon," "Cyanide," and "In a Walled Garden" all concern such a situation. It's hard not to read what the unhappy wife in "May Afternoon" says to her suitor in light of the many affairs H. G. had: "marriage is a pretty straight bargain for a woman really, it has got no place for this love you bring me [...]. I can't run any risks. I'm married to a man who'd not excuse me-- if he saw you-- holding my hands-- as you did just now. Do understand me, my dear. All this life I have led so long has come to fit me like my skin. If it was torn off me, I should bleed to death" (120-21). Her husband has done something scandalous, described only vaguely, but I assume it involves another woman, and she must accept that yet she cannot embark on an affair herself. Is this how Catherine Wells felt? By all accounts she accepted H. G.'s affairs, yet most of those accounts are from H. G. It's hard not to see in these stories a wife yearning after the same kind of freedom to love that her husband possesses.

Some of her stories are forerunners of the horror genre, though I think like a lot of early horror, I didn't find them particularly frightening. I did like her Renaissance fantasy story "The Draught of Oblivion," about a woman trying to find a love potion but having to settle for a forgetting potion, which has a great twist ending. Her best stories are probably those that capture strange, wistful moments, like "The Dragon-Fly," where a young boy plays with a dragonfly, but the touch of the inattentive adults around him results in its death, or "The Emerald," about a shopkeep who unexpectedly finds a precious stone, which he sells to a young girl for a pittance.

It's interesting what a different writer Catherine was to H. G. She's definitely more interested in character and emotion than he ever was, and though H. G. started his career a master of mood, his science fiction definitely moved away from that as he grew more didactic. But many of Catherine's tales are haunting little vignettes it's impossible to imagine H. G. Wells ever writing. Another of my favorites was "Night in the Garden," about a governess who falls in love with an invalid from the Great War at a dinner party, and their brief imaginings of a future that can never be. H. G. Wells could never have written it-- but of course Catherine Wells was her own person. There's no reason for a husband and wife to write anything alike, but when all we know of a person is entirely filtered through another person's perspective, it's hard to capture what that person's independent existence must have been like. Even if she felt trapped by her husband ("Robe de Boudoir," about a wife daring to buy fancy lingerie, is another story that gives such an impression), she still had a space of her own inside her mind. Many of these stories are about those private spaces wives must cultivate away from their husbands in order to keep going, and The Book of Catherine Wells allows us to see into the private space cultivated by H. G.'s "Jane" when she was "Catherine."

Next Week: I track down another of Wells's women, by reading Rebecca West's The Soldier.

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