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The Beginning of Wisdom

On reading H.G. Wells

Vivian Gornick

8 I’ve been re-reading H.G. Wells’s Experiment in Autobiography once a year now for the past few years. When I’m asked why (which is often) I’m tempted to answer by quoting my mother. When she was in her 80s and living alone, I gave her a copy of the memoir of an Englishwoman, older than herself, who had written many novels and lived a life as different from hers as any life could be. A week later I found her reading the book as though in a trance. “How are you liking it?” I asked. She looked up at me, remained silent for a moment, and then said, “I feel as though she’s in the room with me.” And then she said, “When I finish this book I’m going to be lonely.”

My feeling exactly about Wells’s Experiment.

H.G. Wells sat down in 1932, at the age of 65, to write his autobiography, in order, he said, that he might find the peace necessary to go on trying to write the major book that would make up for all his less than major ones (by now close to 60 volumes of novels, stories, and nonfiction). At this late date he still felt that he had not fully served his lifelong passion: scientific socialism and the hope of a world state. The thought of outliving this devotion without having achieved ultimate clarity haunted him. “The conception of a worker concentrated on the perfection and completion of a work,” he said, was a “primary idea. Either the toad which is struggling to express itself here, has engendered a jewel in its head or it is nothing worth troubling about in the way of toads . . . This work [is the] jewel in my head for which I take myself seriously enough to be self-scrutinizing.”

Like many other writers of his time, Wells thought of himself as a Man of the Future, but his style of self-presentation remained Victorian. His was a life, he insisted, no different in its beginnings or potential than millions of others. He wished only to put his “personal origins into the frame of human history and show how the phases and forces of education that shaped me . . . were related to the great change in human conditions” that had been gathering force for three centuries “to disperse the aristocratic estate system . . . promote industrial co-ordination . . . necessitate new and better informed classes . . . break down political boundaries everywhere and bring all men into one planetary community.” To see his own life in this light—as the exemplar of an ordinary, representative brain alive at a telling moment in social history—was to understand the times in which he and his readers were living.

Yet within a few paragraphs, Wells also tells us that he has never entirely loved any one person, place, or thing. It was not in him, he observes. Now that he is looking more closely at himself, he perceives something odd in his own make-up. “I am,” he confesses, “rarely vivid to myself.” That is, “not wholly or continuously interested, prone to be indolent and cold-hearted. I am readily bored.” When he tries to make up for what he takes to be a character flaw, he inevitably finds himself acting a part. He becomes falsely charming and feels as though he is hiding out inside. “You will discover a great deal of evasion and refusal in my story,” he forewarns the reader.

I take all this to mean that Wells unknowingly suffered from low-grade depression most of his life. Now, there is nothing more interesting or rewarding in a memoir than the narrative of a life made dramatic by conscious worldliness in struggle with unconscious melancholia. In the case of such superior examples as De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater and Loren Eiseley’s All The Strange Hours, the result is stirring. In the case of Experiment in Autobiography the result is more moving than can perhaps be said.

Herbert George Wells was born in 1866 in a small town in England, the third son of a gardener and a lady’s maid who, upon marriage, bought a crockery shop that did not succeed and did not quite fail. Consequently, the entire family lived for more than two decades in a dank basement apartment below the shop, the memory of which made Wells shudder well into middle age. When Bertie (as he was called) was 14 years old he, like his brothers before him, and like nearly every boy in the British lower and lower-middle classes of the time, was apprenticed—in his case to a draper: “ ‘put to a trade’ and bound, before we could exercise any choice in the matter.” Unlike his brothers, however, Bertie rebelled—“I would not, I could not, give myself satisfactorily to this strange restricted life”—and the draper let him go. His parents were appalled. One wretched attempt to apprentice him followed another, and finally he battled his way to school, where, of course, he instantly shone.

In no time at all, Wells got himself a provincial education, developed a love of science, made his way to London, became a student and then a teacher at the Normal School for Science, married a cousin who’d been his childhood friend, discovered that sexual unhappiness was unbearable to him, ran off with one of his students (who became the second Mrs. Wells), was moved to write a tale of scientific fantasy (The Time Machine), and the rest was history. In fairly short order he rose to become H.G. Wells, the rich and famous author of innumerable tales and works of nonfiction influenced by the utopian prospect of a future world community wherein internal freedom would blossom and thrive in each and every human being. Soon, he was living one of the most sophisticated lives in Europe. He traveled constantly, occupied residences both in London and in the country, knew everyone worth knowing, was guest of and host to the great and the near great: artists, industrialists, heads of state; delighting as well in exotics, eccentrics, and 30-minute wonders. He enjoyed it all, and he had it all.

It is impossible to over-emphasize what loving the physical sciences did for Wells. Like any true writer, he instantly turned his passion into a metaphor. “I did not at first link the idea of science with the socialist idea, the idea, that is, of a planned inter-co-ordinated society,” but very soon he saw that a synthesis of the sciences led to a visionary interpretation of a new world based on the socialist’s blueprint for a rational society; one in which, after socialism came, “life would be valiant and spacious and there would be no more shabbiness or darkness in the world.”

This vision required another element necessary for human fulfillment: sexual liberation, pleasure freely sought and freely taken. (“To the very great dismay of the [Fabians], and to the immense embarrassment of the Labour Party socialists, I began to . . . sexualise socialism.”) As a teenager Wells had resented, even more than being forced into the apprenticeship, the proscription of sexual gratification. The puritanism of Victorian society seemed even more cruel to him than being “jammed for life into laborious, tedious, uninteresting and hopeless employments,” and before he had come of age, his thinking on the subject had helped give him the broad outlines of the ideas that would dominate his adult life.

In practice this meant that Wells, espousing the doctrine of free love, pursued women steadily and relentlessly for the whole of his adult life; the intensity of sexual renewal was his necessity, and he thought that neither he nor anyone else should do without it. Convinced that he was serving a principled article of faith, he conducted his many affairs with the knowledge and apparent consent of the sexually faint-hearted wife whom he had persuaded that his sleeping with other women need not disturb their firmly anchored family life. In fact, Wells kept Jane Wells apprised of his every amorous adventure; she, in turn, often sent gifts and invitations to the mistress of the moment.

In treating this distinctly odd turn of events, Wells writes, “I was following a road along which at variable paces a large section of the intelligentsia of my generation was moving in England, towards religious scepticism, socialism and sexual rationalism . . . . Ultimately, I was to come to a vision of a possible state of human affairs in which scarcely one familiar landmark would remain.”

This passage says much about how Wells the writer and ideologue helped Wells the man describe himself to himself; it also sheds light on the virtues and shortcomings of certain of his imaginative works. Although Wells wrote many tales of science-fiction fantasy along with his many books of serious nonfiction on history, politics, and economics, he also wrote realistic novels. In the novels, not a single character has an inner life independent of a position, an attitude, a social point of view. In the celebrated quarrel between Wells and Henry James over the art of the novel, James held to the conviction that the characters were the story, and the world the frame around them, while Wells said, Nonsense. We are living in a world that intrudes itself everywhere: the frame is getting into the picture. The outcome: James made art, Wells made polemics. The best thing in his novels is the naked delight that he—and thus the reader—takes in the lucid style of description-informed-by-analysis that he developed as an intellectually gifted journalist best equipped for social criticism.

Yet somewhere inside himself, Wells knew that the emotional reality beneath the social issues is complex, not simple, and Experiment is most illuminating when, for a moment here and there, he makes himself see and feel the cost of his “principled experimentation” with open marriage. Wells’s “compromise” with his wife began five years after their marriage in 1895, when she proved to be companionate but no longer sexually responsive. Even as he is rehearsing this history in his most reasonable tone of voice, this is how he reflects on the actuality of the situation:

The modus vivendi we contrived was sound enough to hold us together to the end, but it was by no means a perfect arrangement . . . it was an experiment in adjustment, but there was nothing exemplary about it . . . We [both] supposed . . . there were restless spirits with a craving for variety. What could be more rational than for such super-animated men and women to find out and assuage one another?

And everything else would remain as it was before.

But as a matter of fact, short of some rare miracle of flatness, nothing does remain as it was before. Two worlds are altered every time a man and woman associate.

Three or four, actually, if the association includes adultery.

Wells continued writing his autobiography long after Experiment was published in 1934. The additions—which he called Postscript to Experiment—were published in 1984, nearly 40 years after his death in 1946, in a single volume edited by his son and entitled H.G. Wells in Love. The book is a full account of the love life he did not feel free to discuss in print during his own lifetime, and it is remarkable for what it reveals, both wittingly and unwittingly, but especially unwittingly.

The opening section consists of an introduction Wells wrote to a publication called The Book of Catherine Wells, a gathering of stories and literary fragments that Jane Wells left behind when she died in 1927. The title alone is thought-provoking, since during her marriage to Wells she was known only as Jane, never as Catharine (her birth name was Amy Catherine). Wells explains that soon after their marriage he proposed to his wife that “for everyday use and our common purposes” he rename her Jane, and she agreed. Wells had written in Experiment, “Catharine Wells was indeed not quite one of us, not quite one with Jane and me, I mean; she was a quiet, fine spirited stranger in our household . . . Our union had never incorporated her. I had glimpses of her at times; she would look at me out of Jane’s brown eyes, and vanish.” Now in the Postscript he continues,

Jane was a person of much greater practical ability than Catherine. . . . Jane ordered a house well and was an able ‘shopper’; she helped people in difficulties and stood no nonsense from the plumber. Her medicine cupboard at home was prepared for all occasions. She had gone through a Red Cross course so as to be competent in domestic emergencies. She had a file of shop addresses where things needed could be bought. Her garden was a continually glowing success.

She also typed Wells’s manuscripts, paid his bills, listened to him talk his way into his next book, accompanied him on formal occasions, and, above all, made it impossible for him to marry any one of his many mistresses as he always made it abundantly clear that under no circumstances would he divorce Jane. Eventually, it was Catherine and not Jane who took rooms of her own in Bloomsbury, where she went on occasion to write and be alone with herself: rooms that H.G. never laid eyes on.

It is painful to realize that he seems never to have reflected on the meaning of his actions: having pushed another human being out of shape entirely for the sake of his own comfort. He, who spilled a river of words in defiance of the mental and emotional straitjacket that was Victorian marriage, did not ever consider that he had condemned the expressive life of his dearest relative to internal exile.

On the other hand, Wells puts all that he himself cannot see down for us to see. He wanted the two books of autobiography to be published together, since he rightly felt that it was only as a whole that his life could be accurately reviewed. Taken as an attempt—sometimes genuine, sometimes not—to understand his own sexual drives and the part they played in his inner development, H.G. Wells in Love can only be experienced as a remarkable document in the history of literary self-examination.

Beginning with an open admission of proud male randiness—“Even now I smirk if anyone suggests that I have been a gay lad in these matters”—Wells moves seamlessly to another admission of his lifelong fantasy of an ideal of romantic love he calls the Lover-Shadow. He never perceives that these are two sides of the same coin, but he does see the instrumental nature of most of the adventuring he has done with women for whom he too was only a means to an end: “I was loved as I loved,” he says flatly. “The exchanges were fairly equal—two libertines met—and when I got a woman, a woman got a man.”

Along the way, there were a number of major affairs. Amber Reeves: “She aroused a storm of sexual obsession in me.” Rebecca West: “We loved each other in bright flashes; we were mutually abusive; we were fundamentally incompatible.” Odette Keun: “A thoroughly nasty and detestable person; vain, noisy and weakly outrageous . . . She excited me a great deal.” Moura Budberg: more important than all the others put together. It was through his feeling for her—feeling that would not die even when his vanity was wounded by it—that Wells, in his final years, was forced into the prolonged reflection on romantic love that truly deepened his understanding of self and world, and made of him the sympathetic figure whose company this reader has a yen for at least once a year.

Wells met Moura Budberg in Russia in 1920 when he was interviewing Maxim Gorky and she, a woman of 27, was the writer’s secretary. They had a brief but intense encounter at that time, and did not meet again for some ten years, by which time Jane Wells was dead. When Moura—by all accounts a woman of great appeal—moved to London, she became a figure in Russian émigré society as well as in the many circles that Wells frequented. They both fell seriously in love, and soon enough he proposed that they marry. To his amazement she turned him down. It suited her to go on as they were, joined in an intimacy that allowed each of them the freedom to be themselves. She prized her independence, her separate world of Russian émigrés, her need to come and go without accountability.

Wells was shocked—he could hardly believe that Moura did not wish to merge her life with his—to become, as he put it, “a world-interested woman to my world-interested man”—and he felt bitter toward her. Then, when he discovered that she often lied to him—it has since been established that Moura Budberg did some spying for the Soviets—and he was forced to understand that she really had a life to which he was not privy, he was stunned; stunned and outraged; even frightened; but above all, jealous; not of other men, but of her life apart. Yet he could not separate from her. She delighted and compelled him. She was, he said, a creature of impulse who had moments of extraordinary wisdom that could “illuminate a question suddenly like a burst of sunshine on a wet February day.” He adored sleeping with her. Then, as ever, he could not do without.

They quarreled and parted repeatedly, and repeatedly they came together again. The most interesting and admirable pages in the Postscript are those wherein Wells grapples daily, sometimes hourly, with the difficulty of understanding this relationship that brings neither peace nor fulfillment, yet remains magnetizing. When he takes in the fact that she is “fundamentally indifferent to my dream” and still he cannot break with her, that is the beginning of wisdom for him. It is then that he starts to ponder the reality of being attached to a person who is as complicated as he, one whose inner needs are as articulated as his own, and are different from his own. It precludes the fantasy of “two shall be as one” and forces on him the realization that Moura is first and foremost not a woman but a separate being. The information transmutes into knowledge that is not unwelcome, but it saps the connection of exhilaration. There was no longer any question of not staying together, “But we were no longer the happy and confident lovers we had been.”

Time passes. He drifts, has brief affairs, travels alone. “I doubt if we shall ever have quite done with each other,” he writes.

There is an irrational gravitation between us . . . .We seem destined to remain in this state of loose association, like double stars that rotate about each other but never coalesce. Our very looseness now averts a conclusive rupture . . . It is absurd to say I am still in love. And yet I love . . . I doubt if we love each other very much, continuously and steadily . . . . Our affection, our pity for each other, may have deepened, our helpfulness maybe, and our mutual toleration. But to get to know each other [as] intimately [as we have], has been rather to lay bare our immense incompatibilities and console rather than compensate each other for them.

This was written in the summer of 1935. In November of that same year Wells writes, “The fact remains . . . that when all is said and done, she is the woman I really love. I love her voice, her presence, her strength and her weaknesses. I am glad whenever she comes to me. She is the thing I like best in life . . . my nearest intimate . . . the dearest thing in my affections. And so she will remain to the end.” Which she did.

When I first read Experiment in Autobiography I loved Wells for the extraordinary directness of his voice (I felt him as a friend speaking openly and without reserve), and I envied him, that he could have lived almost an entire life within the embrace of an unaltered belief in the coming of the world state, while I have had to wander in the wilderness, seeing all such hopes repeatedly smashed underfoot. But as I have re-read the book over the years I have come to cherish him, not only because he grew wise but because until the very end of his life he was still trying to make sense of things.

It was the jealousy that had done it. He hadn’t counted on that. The irrationality of it; the disruptive power of the suffering it caused. Now, he was something like the doctor in Chekhov’s novella Ward No. 6, the one who couldn’t understand what it meant to be bodily confined until he himself was so confined. Had Jane suffered jealousy? Or any of the other women he’d made care for him, and then been flagrantly unfaithful to? Whenever one of them had complained he’d simply considered her an irrational hysteric. Now, however . . . he began to see that scientific socialism would not be as easy to achieve as he had originally thought. There were all these intangibles in the human make-up, the drives that reason could not influence, the ones that would always subvert rational needs in a rational society.

It is the silent, wondering feel of this kind of speculativeness, running just beneath the surface of the prose, that makes me cherish Wells more each time I read his autobiography. To find oneself in the presence of an articulated human being who, in his ’60s and ’70s, is alive to the ongoing task of thinking hard about his experience—nothing gets consigned to the written-off past—what a gift! The depth of such reflectiveness is precious. It tells of a man struggling not only to understand how he came to be but to puzzle out where he is now, right now, in the ever-accumulating now. Ultimately, this is what makes him a trustworthy narrator: that we feel him alone with himself in the presence of the reader. More one cannot ask of a memoirist.

Wells’s final years were spent in a richly sustaining loneliness. He was alive in his head more completely than ever before. He had the recognition of Moura Budberg’s full humanity not only to keep him company, but to guide his thought still further. <

Vivian Gornick lives and works in New York. Her most recent book is The Solitude of Self: Thinking About Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

Originally published in the January/February 2007 issue of Boston Review.



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