28 June 2018

Review: Marriage by H. G. Wells

Trade paperback, 376 pages
Published 1986 (originally 1911-12)
Acquired and read June 2017
Marriage by H. G. Wells
He spoke slowly, as though he traced things carefully. "Before I met her I suppose I wasn't half alive. No! Yet I don't remember. I felt particularly incomplete. Women were interesting, of course; they excited me at times, that girl at Yonkers!—H'm. I stuck to my work. It was fine work, I forget half of it now, the half-concealed intimations, I mean—queer how one forgets!—but I know I felt my way to wide, deep things. It was like exploring caves—monstrous, limitless caves. Such caves! . . . Very still—underground. Wonderful and beautiful. . . . They're lying there now for other men to seek. Other men will find them. . . . Then she came, as though she was taking possession. The beauty of her, oh! the life and bright eagerness, and the incompatibility! That's the riddle! I've loved her always. When she came to my arms it seemed to me the crown of life. Caves indeed! Old caves! Nothing else seemed to matter." (342)
I thought the title of this novel was odd from the moment I picked it up, because what made Wells think this novel should be called "Marriage" in particular? Every one of Wells's literary novels I've read could have this title without any dissonance: Ann Veronica, The History of Mr Polly, The New Machiavelli. (And, of course, Wells wrote many other non-sf novels that I haven't read but know also to substantively be about marriage.) But upon reading it, I came to see what sets this book apart from those others-- the three previous "marriage novels" all feature the disintegration of a marriage, a man who throws over his wife for another woman. And since all these novels are by H. G. Wells, who did this to two different wives himself, these men are of course all justified in doing so.

However, Marriage might be about a failing marriage, but it is not about a failed one. The marriage of Richard A.G. Trafford (professor of molecular physics) and Marjorie Pope has some down periods, but no one ever cheats on anyone else, and the marriage is saved by the end of the novel. The title, then, I think originates from a bit of Wellsian prescriptivism at the end: as opposed to his other marriage novels, where the marriages collapsed, this is how marriage ought to work. Unfortunately, to a modern reader (but also, I suspect, to many 1910s ones) the end is profoundly unsatisfying. Having established that part of the problem of contemporary society is that women get educated better than ever before and treated like whole people, but then they get married and are given no outlet for themselves other than purchasing consumer goods, the solution Trafford and Marjorie ("Rag" and "Madge") come up with is that Marjorie will completely devote herself to her husband's intellectual interests!

What had been a pretty enjoyable novel comes crashing down at that point. Wells is usually good with the subtle comedy of social life, and Marriage has that in spades, and his portrayal of how a marriage can both be formed through and disintegrate under social pressures has the verisimilitude you might expect from someone who got married twice and had affairs both times (though Trafford never has an affair, because he never had any premarital sex to give him a taste for sex outside the confines of marriage). The opening third of the novel is the best part, but I also really enjoyed the last sixth or so, where Trafford and Marjorie go to the Canadian wilderness and live in a cabin hundred of miles away from anyone else in order to find themselves. Marjorie turns out to be a total badass, and saves Trafford's life after a botched hunting expedition when he thinks himself doomed.

During his recovery, he finally has the time to think (the passage I've quoted above is part of him working out the principles of a good life and a good marriage), and Marjorie responds to his decision that he needs to bring his scientific vision to solving the problems of society with a decision of her own, about the role of women in marriage: "It isn't that we can make you or guide you—I'm not pretending to be an inspiration—but—but we can release you. We needn't press upon you; we can save you from the instincts and passions that try to waste you altogether on us. . . . Yes, I'm beginning to understand. [...] I've begun to see what it is to be a woman. For the first time in my life. We're the responsible sex" (347). Despite Wells's hopes, I feel like this says more about Wells's marriage in particular (his second wife Jane basically did devote herself to His Great Man's Work), and it is especially underwhelming when you realize what Trafford is going to do is write books with titles like From Realism to Reality and The Limits of Language as a Means of Expression.

I discovered when reading Marriage that Wells's literary novels form a little "shared universe"; I'd known that Ann Veronica of Ann Veronica (now Mrs. Godwin Capes) reappears in Marriage, but there's also a passing reference to the events of The New Machiavelli, and Google shows me there's at least one more connection, with a character shared between Marriage and the later The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman. Victoria Glendinning discusses these connections' significance in the introduction to my Hogarth edition of the novel, but what strikes me is how similar Marriage is to Ann Veronica. Ann Veronica is about a young woman with a scientific education, somewhat interested in suffragism, who marries a science educator, and so is Marriage, though many of the particulars vary. Ann Veronica almost ends where Marriage takes up: in Ann Veronica, we see none of the actual marriage of Ann Veronica and Capes (whose first name, Godwin, is one of Trafford's middle names*), except in a brief epilogue. Ann Veronica has a very ambivalent ending: you feel that Ann Veronica and Capes ought to conquer the world together, but in that epilogue, she's pregnant and he's given up his scientific career as they bow to domestic convention. This ambivalence becomes outright negativity with Ann Veronica's appearance in Marriage, where she's "subsided from an early romance [...] into a markedly correct and exclusive mother of daughters" (294). Capes himself doesn't appear in Marriage, but we're told he cranks out formulaic plays to make money for his family.

Marriage functions as a pseudo-sequel to Ann Veronica, in that it shows how Capes and Ann Veronica could save their marriage, how they could come back from the brink of conventionalism and do the Great Work that Ann Veronica glimpses during Ann Veronica but couldn't realize. Why not then just actually make Ann Veronica and Capes the protagonists of Marriage? My guess is that their romance in Ann Veronica was too much unconventional. They ended up marginalized because Capes got a divorce in order to marry Ann Veronica, limiting both of their career prospects. Marriage shows that you can (mostly) do everything right, but still be trapped in the rut of convention and unable to realize your potential.

Except, of course, if you follow Wells's marriage advice. There's a one-star review of Marriage on Amazon that complains it's not a self-help book:
Before I read the novel I thought this guy got it wrong because Marriage is obviously not a self-help book, it's a novel. Now that I've read it, I know he's wrong because it actually is a self-help book. If I were rating it solely on the basis of the advice it gives, though, I'd also give it one star.

* Actually, Capes doesn't even get a first name until Marriage. Oddly, we end Ann Veronica only knowing that it begins with "G"!

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