10 October 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: H. G. Wells & Rebecca West

September might be over, but my celebrations of the 150th birthday of H. G. Wells aren't! I continue my investigations of the life of the man with

Hardcover, 215 pages
Published 1974
Acquired March 2009
Read June 2016
H. G. Wells & Rebecca West by Gordon N. Ray

Wells doesn't say a whole lot about the disintegration of his relationship with Rebecca West in H. G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography. West was one of three women who bore him a child (that he knew of). Wells couches the end of their relationship in terms of his concept of "the Lover-Shadow," the ideal lover of whom all actual lovers are only a reflection, and thus one perpetually seeks. After one of their separations, he reports, "I was secretly in intense misery and haunted to an extraordinary extent by the thought of Rebecca. At that time I was feeling too acutely to observe myself. But I see now that Rebecca had become for me the symbol of the Lover-Shadow and that I was unable to conceive of it in any other form than hers-- or exist without it. I began to see her on balconies, away across restaurants. Any dark-haired woman would become Rebecca for me. I felt I must at any cost get her back to me and get back to her. I sent her a telegram [...] suggesting we should [...] make another try at a life together. But Rebecca was now inflexibly in revolt."

Published ten years before Wells's take on the relationship in the Postscript was finally released, Gordon Ray's H. G. Wells & Rebecca West reconstructs the relationship between the two from the existing letters, supplemented by interviews with Dame Rebecca herself. Most of the letters that survive are those from Wells to West, leading to a necessarily incomplete account. Wells's perspective comes from the moment, as expressed in the letters, while West's comes in retrospect, meaning it is more considered. But it is what it is.

My impression is of two very intelligent people, drawn to each other yet unable to coexist for any length of time. I wish we had West's letters, because Wells often comes across as unpleasant and condescending, yet we don't have her words to judge his responses by. As the relationship goes on, things get worse and worse between them, and I feel like Wells wanted something West could never give him. Wells wanted another version of his second wife, Jane, a helpmeet who would help him execute his great work, except this one would also have sex with him. But the very things that drew him to West meant she could never supply him with that; she would never subjugate herself to his desires, even though biology and finances meant that she was the one who had to take care of their child together.

Wells actually uses that child as a weapon against her late in their relationship, alternately threatening to take him away from her and to stop seeing him altogether, depending on his whims. It's hard to blame her for being "inflexibily in revolt" given how much of an asshole he could be, and his reaction to feeling "intense misery" seems to be to make her feel that way, too. Wells was not always an emotionally mature man, to say the least.

Dinner party: H. G. Wells, Thomas Hardy, Rebecca West, Mrs. Hardy
Thomas Hardy is just going on and on about "skellingtons" he found when he built his house; West can only go, "Lovely, lovely" in response. Mrs. Hardy is depressed.
(from H. G. Wells & Rebecca West, p. 95)

It's not all misery. There are cute doodles by Wells (I wonder if he called them "picshuas" as he did the doodles he drew for Jane), and they clearly were two intelligent people enjoying each others' intellectual, emotional, and sexual company when their relationship began. But I feel like the seeds of their relationship's disintegration were planted early, even if took them a while to realize it.

Next Week: I delve into the relationship between H. G. and Jane by unearthing The Picshuas of H. G. Wells!

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