Bring on the Girls

Book review of A Man of Parts by David Lodge

Books Literature
Words that woo: the smooth-writing H.G. Wells

Thin partitions divide fact and fiction, biography (or history) and the novel. Fiction is made from imagination, observation, experience and memory, but all these play a role in the writing of biography and history too. Books are made from life, but also from other books, the reading of which is of course part of life and of the author’s experience. For a long time novelists were reluctant, or perhaps disdained, to acknowledge their sources, though Scott was an exception, frequently providing footnotes to bolster the authenticity of his fiction. His practice was however rarely followed by writers of self-consciously literary novels. Recently the fashion has changed: novelists now buttress their work with acknowledgements of their debts to the books which have contributed to the making.

So it comes as no surprise to find David Lodge listing more than sixty books and articles on which he has drawn in writing A Man of Parts, his lightly fictionalised account of the life and importance of H.G. Wells. It is a sort of hybrid. Lodge employs the techniques of the novel: dialogue, free indirect style, and dramatic scenes, for instance. Yet he has invented very little — a few letters, some of the conversations, though these too are almost always derived from what has been recorded elsewhere. So one might call it a non-fiction novel. Just how it should be described will probably bother few readers, for the book is consistently absorbing and enjoyable. I doubt whether a better way could have been found to bring the phenomenon that was H.G. Wells to life.
“Back to life” might be the way to put it. The star which shone so brightly for half a century has long been dim. Most of his books are out of print, many deservedly. This would not have surprised, though it might have dismayed, him. He was a writer for his own time. The scientific romances are still read, the Edwardian comic novels also perhaps, but little else. He was a back-number before he died, despairing of the foolishness of humanity, in 1946. His last work was Mind at the End of its Tether, which was where he found himself. “Read my early works, you shit” was his response to Orwell’s essay Hitler, Wells and the World State. He believed in reason and survived into a world where reason slept and monsters ruled.

Lodge begins with Wells in old age, a question-and-answer debate with voices in his head. Orwell had written: “I doubt whether anyone who was writing books between 1900 and 1920, at any rate in the English language, influenced the young so much.” This was a fair judgment. Wells did seem “an inspired prophet” then. He challenged orthodoxies, opened windows which disclosed possibilities of a new freedom and a rational organisation of society. The intelligent application of science would transform the world, eradicating poverty and bringing an end to war. He envisaged the disinterested government of a world ruled by scientifically-trained experts.

Meanwhile he joined the Fabian Society and was soon seeking to broaden its base and impart new energy to its somewhat complacent discussions. The society took its name from the Roman general, Fabius Maximus Cunctator, whose strategy of avoiding pitched battles in the Second Punic War was held to have worn down Hannibal and paved the way for Rome’s eventual victory. Yet, as Lodge has Wells remarking, Fabius hadn’t himself won anything; it was Scipio who did not shrink from battle and defeated Hannibal at Zama. But the Fabians, marshalled with characteristically feline ambiguity by Shaw, saw Wells off. This was his first notable failure, a discovery that good arguments don’t necessarily convince doubters.

There were other reasons for his failure in this struggle. He carelessly provided his enemies with live ammunition to be used against him. Leading Fabians like Shaw and the Webbs were low-sexed, if not asexual; Wells was a compulsive womaniser. Lodge suggests he may have had as many as a hundred women in his life. These days he might have been regarded as  a sex-pest. He was held to be an advocate of Free Love; this shocked the respectable. Some found his success not only reprehensible but inexplicable. He was small and unprepossessing in appearance, and his squeaky voice never lost its lower-middle-class accent, part rural Kent, part Cockney; he may have talked what is now known as “Estuary English”. Yet he knocked over women and young girls like skittles. Many, especially the eager and intelligent undergraduates, picked themselves up and ran after him. One of his mistresses explained the attraction to a puzzled Somerset Maugham; Wells smelled, she said, of honey. For these young women , an affair with Wells was a liberating and exciting experience.

The most notable and durable of them was Rebecca West. Born Cecily (later changed to Cicily) Fairfield, she took her pen-name from an Ibsen heroine. Beautiful, intelligent and fiercely opinionated, she came to Wells’s notice with a sharp review of his novel Marriage: “Of course,” wrote the young woman, eagerly seeking to make her reputation by savaging an established author, “he is the old maid among novelists; even the sex-obsession that lay clotted on Ann Veronica and The New Macchiavelli like cold white sauce was merely old maid’s reaction towards the flesh of a mind too long absorbed in airships and colloids.” Some might react with fury to such a review; Wells bedded its author.

Their love-affair was intense and stormy. West failed in her principal aim: to persuade Wells to leave his wife for her. That was never going to happen. H.G. and Jane Wells had a happy relationship. They had early come to an agreement that he could have mistresses so long as he didn’t keep them secret from her. Indeed, with kindly good sense, Jane Wells had made friends of several of them and was happy to offer them hospitality when they became pregnant. In this respect at least, Wells ordered his life to his almost complete satisfaction. It should be said that if he pursued women, they were usually willing to be caught and in some cases it was the women who made the running, none more determinedly than Rebecca West. The casualty of their relationship was their son, Anthony, who grew up believing that Rebecca was his aunt and H.G. his uncle. He came to revere and love his father, but was bitterly at odds with his mother. H.G. won again.

Lodge recounts the roller-coaster of H.G.’s love-life with relish — some might say too indulgent a relish. But he treats it consistently with good sense and good humour.

If Wells’s optimism faded in old age, as his mind came to the end of its tether, there had always been a streak of pessimism in his work. His imagination was darker than his reason and sometimes stronger. Lodge has Anthony West suggest that his father’s best work “was essentially pessimistic. It was inspired by ideas like entropy, the randomness of evolution, the innate folly and vanity of mankind, the possible ways in which the world could end or  human civilisation be wiped out […] I think it all became too much for H.G. in the end, the evidence of the power of evil in the world, mocking his belief in Progress”. The folly and vanity of mankind: Original Sin?

We come back to the famous quarrel with Henry James, whom Wells lampooned in his novel Boon. This is as it should be, not only because Lodge has already written a novel in similar style about James. Essentially each came to believe, after years of friendship, that the other had followed the wrong track. For Wells, James had retreated from the world into the Ivory Tower of Art, writing books of refined subtlety about very little; he was like an elephant hunting out and catching what proved to be only a pea. For James, Wells had betrayed his remarkable talent by abandoning Art for what was essentially journalism. There was some justice in each man’s argument, but James survives while much of Wells’s vast output is withered and of at best historical interest. Art is news that stays news; journalism news that is dead tomorrow. The old tag holds good: ars longa, vita brevis.