- Nancy Steffen-Fluhr. Paper Tiger: Women
and H.G. Wells (H.G. Wells. Experiment
in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866); G.P.
Wells, ed. H.G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography; Gordon
N. Ray. H.G. Wells and Rebecca West; Anthony West. H.G. Wells: Aspects of a
BOOKS IN REVIEW
Paper Tiger: Women and H.G. Wells
H.G. Wells. Experiment
in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866).Boston: Little, Brown, 1984 [rpt. of first US ed.--NY: Macmillan, 1934]. 718pp.
G.P. Wells, ed. H.G.
Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography. Boston:
Little, Brown, 1984. 253pp. $16.95.
Gordon N. Ray. H.G.
Wells and Rebecca West. New Haven: Yale UP, 1974. xxv+215pp. $7.95.
Anthony West. H.G.
Wells: Aspects of a Life. NY: Random House, 1984. 405pp. $22.95.
1.1 H.G. Wells was a master strategist at several peculiarly Victorian
Games of Avoidance: e.g., Using Women to Avoid Women, Using Sex to Avoid Intimacy--and
Using Work to Avoid Being Alone with One's Feelings. It is not entirely surprising then
that Wells's account of his compulsively busy love-life in H.G. Wells in Love reads
a little like the abstract of a chess match--a series of adroit maneuvers designed to
evade a mate. (Wells was particularly adept at a maneuver one might call
"castling," whereby he avoided emotional exposure by immuring himself in a new
house, with a new housekeeper.)
In this sense at least, his title is somewhat misleading. H.G. Wells in Love is
not primarily a book about being in love; it is a book about being unhappy--a book about
permanent, enduring frustration. For Wells, like Alice, it was always "jam
tomorrow...but never jam today."
G.P. Wells has subtitled the volume Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography, and
so H.G. intended it to be. He left instructions that this account of his many love affairs
be joined to his previously-published "Introduction" to The Book of
Catherine Wells and then bound in a single volume with Experiment, "so
all the main masses of my experiences and reactions will fall into proportion" (Postscript,
p. 19). Apparently Wells hoped to achieve posthumously, through the magic of
book-binding, the psychic unity which had so eluded him in his life--to suture the story
of his body to the story of his brain, a bit of psycho-surgery he seems to have learned
from Dr Moreau.
Like most of Wells's Grand Designs (including his blueprint for the World State), the
Unified Autobiography is a piece of projective engineering--a great wall built to hide a
central muddle --and G.P. is wise to have abandoned it as impractical. (A single-volume
autobiography would have run to nearly 1000 pages and, given the shoddy state of our
publishing industry, would undoubtedly have fallen back into fragments halfway through the
first reading.) Besides, a truly unified Wells wouldn't have been Wells at all.
As G.P. Wells has finally arranged it, Postscript (as I will continue to refer
to it) consists of three principal sections: (1) the brief "Prologue" on his
wife "Jane" which Wells wrote in 1928, the year after her death; (2) "On
Loves and the Lover-Shadow," in which Wells chronicles his extra-marital love affairs
from 1901, shortly after the birth of his first son, through 1935; and (3) "The Last
Phase," a collection of musings from the "Looseleaf Diary" Wells kept
during the late 1930s and early '40s.
1.2 Although familiar, in many ways the brief "Prologue" on
"Jane" is still the most interesting of these pieces. It is certainly the most
infuriating--replete with that odd admixture of candor and self-deception so typical of
Wells's bifurcated personality. Even in Victorian terms, which defined the
"companionate marriage" as relatively acceptable, Wells's self-styled modus
vivendi with his second wife was odd, almost perverse. And yet, it is the one
relationship in his life about which he had the fewest conscious regrets. In his
philandering fashion, he remained more faithful to the idea of his marriage to
Jane than he did to any other idea in his life, even the World State. She, and the
succession of houses she maintained for him, were the geographical center of his life,
around which he moved like a ship at anchor. A great part of the paralyzing anxiety he
seems to have experienced in the early 1930s undoubtedly came from the strange sense of
being suddenly cut adrift (see the "Prelude" to EA).
To repeat the familiar story: Wells met "Jane," nee Amy Catherine Robbins,
in the fall of 1892 when she enrolled in his biology lab section. She was 20, "a
grave little figure...dressed in mourning, for her father had been quite recently killed
in a railway accident" (EA 6:6: 298- 99).1
Wells was 26 and a newlywed, having married his cousin Isabel the previous October.
Unfortunately, Isabel was sexually frigid, as well as hopelessly "book-shy," and
soon the hot-blooded Wells turned to "Little Miss Robbins" for conversation and
consolation. In December, 1893, barely a year after they first met, Wells broke with
Isabel and "eloped" with Miss Robbins. They "lived in sin" until
October 1895, when they were at last free to marry.
In this outline form, Wells's relationship with Catherine Robbins sounds
quintessentially romantic, a defiant grand passion, rather like D.H. and Frieda
Lawrence's. In fact, it was quite the opposite, as Wells himself makes clear, first in Experiment
and now again in Postscript.
In both books, Wells presents the relationship, as he does so many other aspects of his
life, in an odd Rashomon-style narration. That is, unable to reconcile his
rational view of reality with his intuitive view of reality, he gives both, ad
seriatum. The first version conforms pretty much to the outline above--the essential
incompatibility of the newlyweds, thrown together by mere "proximity and
isolation" (EA 5:7:231), the appearance of Destiny in the "fragile
figure" of Miss Robbins; then, a few pages later, in a chapter appropriately entitled
"Dissection," Wells suddenly recants: no, it really wasn't like that at all.
What it really was like is rather more difficult for him to say clearly. (His
prose has a peculiar way of going all fuzzy and abstract just as things get interesting.)
But his emotions can be inferred from his text.
The principal emotion at issue in his relationship with Isabel was probably not boredom
but sexual fear. And not merely her sexual fear, but his own as well. Sheer proximity
aside, Wells was deeply attracted to Isabel's "withheld femininity" (EA 6:3:259)--all
the more so, probably, because his mother had modeled that kind of emotional withholding
for him as a child. In wooing the reluctant, prudish Isabel, he was, in effect, trying to
re-edit the story of his emotionally deprived childhood, to make it come out all right at
last. At the same time, he was unconsciously engineering a repetition of those
deprivations. To this end, he gave Isabel what she wanted (a wedding) and then waited to
see whether she, in turn, would give him what he wanted (which was nothing less
than instantaneous emotional recompense for the first 25 years of his life). Of course,
she didn't, couldn't. He responded by pushing her away in a great frustrated rage. (Very
shortly after his wedding night, he had his first extra-marital affair, with "a
certain little Miss Kingsmill" [EA 7:2:352].) (They were all
"little," these women of Wells's, who was himself a very little man indeed, like
In short, not getting what he wanted with Isabel was exactly what he wanted with
Isabel--or at least what he expected. Not surprisingly, then, Isabel's sheer
unresponsiveness continued to obsess Wells for many years. Long after his marriage to
Jane, he still fantasized about a dramatic, healing reunion with his first wife.2
His relationship with Amy Catherine Robbins has to be understood in this context. His
feeling of camaraderie with her was genuine enough, but he was also clearly using her to
get a rise out of Isabel, following the premise that an angry reaction is better than no
reaction at all. There was probably more powerful motivation at work as well. Isolation
and rejection were relatively familiar to Wells; they pained him, but they didn't scare
him. Prolonged emotional and physical intimacy with another person was quite new and
therefore a source of very considerable anxiety (which Wells invariably experienced as
claustrophobia).3 There was nothing unique in Wells's
psychological situation; most new lovers experience some anxiety, some fear of intimacy.
But Wells had no models to reassure him of this, and he did have ample precedent for
dreading any situation in which he felt helpless.4
The connection in Wells's mind between sexual passion and suffocation, between intimate
touch and life-threatening attack, is evident both in the curious metaphors he uses in Experiment
and, even more obviously, in the fight-or-flight imagery which characterizes his SF
during this period (1891-96), including The Time Machine and The Island of
Doctor Moreau. For example, in a section of Experiment on Isabel entitled
"Primary Fixation," he describes his early sexual gropings as "explorations
of my emotional tentacles" (7:2:350 -- a phrase which bridges the gap between the
analytical Wells and the mythopoetic Wells of the SF stories. The tentacles of the
bloodsucking Martians, the tendrils of the suddenly aggressive "Strange Orchid,"
the hairy fingers of the Morlocks that probe the Time Traveler in his sleep--Wells's
early work is full of a fear of being touched. It is also full of Medusas and ambulatory
Vagina Dentatas. And although the oceans of blood which color his writing during this
phase are most obviously attributable to his terrifying tubercular hemorrhages, they may
also in part be images of menstrual messiness and hymenal blood--the literal and
figurative blood-ties between married people.
It was from these disturbing emotions, these blood-ties, that Wells may have been
fleeing when he initiated his relationship with Amy Catherine Robbins. She was a safe
place to hide--safe precisely because Wells felt so little sexual passion for her. She was
a sister, a confidante, an ego-flattering protégée, a child, a pal; she was everything to
him but a lover.
Catherine Robbins was a "symbol" for Wells that his "present life [with
Isabel] was unendurable" (EA 6:6:300). In this new relationship "the
sexual element...was very small" (ibid.). Wells is quite emphatic about
this. The letters which passed between him and Catherine Robbins during their courtship
"are those of two loving friends and allies, who are not and never had been
passionate lovers" (EA 7:2:356).
From the very first to the very last, Wells's relationship with Catherine Robbins was,
in his own telling phrase, an "alliance for escape" (EA 7:3:362). And
not just for him but for her as well-- an escape from family, from penury, from the
pressure of "narrow-scope lives," and, always foremost, an escape from sexual
The Puritan in Wells was always rather proud of this arrangement, demonstrating, as it
did, the essential purity of his purpose. (In choosing Catherine, he was choosing a life
of sublimation in work.) And it is this hideous cheerfulness, not the philandering and the
illegitimate children, which is the real obscenity at the heart of Wells's private life.
In his "Prologue" on "Jane," Wells describes his wife as if she
were a piece of porcelain depicting the Victorian "Angel of the Home": "A
little indefatigable smiling figure" (Postscript, p. 28). "Faithful,
gentle, wise, and self-forgetful. . . she was a noble wife, a happy mother" (ibid.,
p. 44). Most of all, Wells celebrates his wife's absolute honesty: "She never
told a lie" (ibid., P 35).5
That Wells is willfully deceiving himself here is fairly obvious. Jane's entire life
with him was a lie. The charades and costume dramas she compulsively staged for her
weekend guests at Easton Glebe were not merely entertainments; they were practice sessions
for the essential business of her life: play-acting. Indeed, her ability to lie was
probably what Wells liked best about her. She always seemed to be exactly what he wanted
her to be. As she lay dying slowly of cancer, what Wells seems to have feared most was
"the dreadful possibility" that her "smiling mask" might at last slip.
("Increasing poison in the blood poisons the mind so that it is afflicted with
strange fears and unnatural hostilities" [Postscript, p. 39].) "But her
mind never lost its integrity" (ibid.). That is, to the bitter end, she
accepted without apparent resistance the servant's role Wells cast her in and the
denigrating servant's name that went with it, plain "Jane." She was to be a
perfected good-housekeeping version of Wells's own mother, without any of his mother's
domination. (This becomes explicit when, after the birth of their first child, Wells
begins to address Jane as "little Mummy.")
Ironically, of course, this new "little Mummy" managed in the end to dominate
Wells's life fully as much as the original had, and by using many of the same
guilt-inducing tactics. Having made the defiant gesture of running off with him, Jane
seems to have felt she was morally stuck with him for life and to have resolved to bind
him to the relationship by whatever passive aggressive means necessary. Early on she seems
to have discovered that, although Wells simply fled in the face of direct pressure and
ultimatums, he was a sucker for compliant manipulation. She got what she wanted in the
long run by giving in to what he wanted in the short run. Like so many women of the
period, she learned to assert her will by appearing to be will-less.
Perhaps Wells was oblivious to the aggression hidden in Jane's extreme passivity
because it was a behavior pattern so very like his own. (He had learned passive aggression
from his mother and then slyly turned it against her at crucial moments in his
life--getting what he wanted by collapsing and becoming dependent. ) In any case, what is
finally important here is that Jane is not the suffering heroine of this story, as many
commentators have suggested, nor Wells the crude villain. They are fellow victims: of
their upbringing, of their culture, and, most of all, of their own decisions to avoid
1.3 In an often-quoted passage, Wells, in phrases heavy with
unintentional irony, praises Jane for having "stuck" to him, like flypaper:
"She stuck to me so sturdily that in the end I stuck to myself. I do not know what I
should have been without her" (Postscript, p. 35). The line "I do not
know what I should have been without her" is meant to be rhetorical, but, in fact, it
contains a hidden program for action. What would he have been without her? In
1901 or thereabouts, shortly after the birth of his first child, Wells began to look
around in earnest for an answer to that question.
Among his answers during the years 1901-35 were: a 16-year-old girl named May Nisbet;
Violet Hunt; Ella D'Arcy; Dorothy Richardson (who "intoned dull clever things"
and "was most interestingly hairy on her body"); Amber Reeves (whose "fuzz
of soft black hair" attracted him and with whom he had a daughter); "Little
E," the Grafin van Armin; Rebecca West (who bore him a child, Anthony, in 1914);
Moura Budberg (arguably the great love of his life); Odette Keun; and, neither last nor
least, a "Coon" prostitute with whom he spent a memorable afternoon in 1906,
shortly after meeting with Teddy Roosevelt at the White House. Sadly, this brief encounter
is the only one he describes with any sensual tenderness.
And yet Wells's Virgin/Whore Complex, though pronounced, did not apply to all of the
women in his life. He rarely visited prostitutes, and not merely out of fastidiousness but
because he was looking as much for emotional satisfaction as he was for physical relief.
Wells is often at some pains to deny this. Paradoxically, his very Puritanism moves him to
pose as a libertine. ("I wanted, for my own self-respect, to get women"
[Postscript, p. 60].) In Postscript as in Experiment, he
insistently denigrates the psychological importance of his sexual restlessness. The World
State is the "main theme" of his life; the "sexual system" is
secondary (EA 7:1:348). Wells's typical argument is that his philandering is
really a testimony to his devotion to the Work Ethic! "To make love periodically ...
seems to be, for most of us, a necessary condition to efficient working.... I resent the
necessity at times as much as I resent the perpetual recurrence of meal-times and
sleep" (Postscript, p. 67).
Many reviewers have been inclined to take Wells at his word and to dismiss his
antiphonal cry, "It is a mate I have always been after" (Postscript, p.
108), as a sentimental lapse. But, arguably, it is the cynical Wells, not the romantic
Wells, who was something of a macho fraud. Wells's essential emotional urgency, his sheer
love-hunger, comes through clearly in everything he writes. He stayed with Jane; he
compulsively devoted himself to self-improvement schemes projected on a world scale; but
all his Puritanical effort never quite succeeded in convincing the stubborn adolescent
romantic in him that the whole meaning of life was work.
That is one of the more alarming, and disarming, qualities of this present volume: Postscript's
sheer adolescence. For worse, and for better, Wells retained virtually all of his
life his youthful susceptibility and self-absorption. He never stopped looking for the
Great Love; he never stopped getting crushes on women. Indeed, that is the real purpose of
this memoir, to allow him to fuss over the last and most disconcerting of his crushes:
Wells himself was dimly aware that the way he related to women generally and to Moura
in particular had something important to do with the way he related to himself--to his own
emotional needs and capabilities. In the chapter of Postscript called "On
Loves and the Lover-Shadow," he tries to understand this connection.
It is a rather difficult chapter to follow, but it is not, I think, the mere
"windy intellectualizing" that many have taken it for. The prose is unfocussed
because Wells is reaching out for an important psychological insight which lies just
beyond his field of vision. He calls this hazy, Platonic Idea "the
I think that in every human mind, possibly from an extremely early age, there exists a
continually growing and continually more subtle complex of expectation and
hope;...reveries of sensuous delights and ecstasies; reveries of understanding and
reciprocity; which I will call the Lover-Shadow....No human being, I believe, lives or can
live without this vague various protean but very real presence side by side with the
persona, something which says or says in effect, 'Right-O,' or 'Yes' or 'I help' or
'My dear.' That is what I mean by the Lover-Shadow. It is the inseparable correlative to
the persona, in the direction of our lives. It may be deprived of all
recognition; it may be denied; but it is there. (Postscript, pp. 53-54)
Samuel Hynes, in his review of H.G. Wells in Love for the New York Times (March
3, 1985), reads this passage to mean that the "lover-shadow" was merely Wells's
term for his Ideal Woman. However, one could argue that Wells is grasping at a much more
subtle concept, rather like Jung's notion of anima and animus. He is
making the connection between his yearning for intimacy with another person and his more
inchoate yearning for intimacy with the estranged parts of his own personality.
Or, rather, he is almost making that connection. For Wells never really embraces his
own femininity. The Lover-Shadow remains projective, externalized--more a ghost than a
shadow, unconnected to his "unequivocally male" self:6
This great Shadow, so largely feminine, stood over me, beside that expansion of myself,
my persona...even while I walked, as I have described, on a Sunday fifty years
ago, in my shabby top-hat, with Isabel in Regent's Park.... That phantom dwarfed and
dominated us... [a] dream of inaccessible understanding and reciprocating womanliness....
(Postscript, pp. 56-57)
The great phantom which brooded over the whole length of Wells's life was, essentially,
a hypostatization of his own estranged yearnings to be nurtured, to be passive and
dependent-- yearnings which had obviously been unfulfilled in his relationship with his
mother. (The little woman in black cast a big shadow.) He projected these yearnings onto
one woman after another, pursuing his secret shadow-self by pursuing and wooing them.
By very definition, then, these affairs were doomed to failure. Wells was not really
terribly interested in the otherness of other people; he was acting out a
psychomachia--chasing the shadow cast by his own heart. Paradoxically, he was driven by
precisely those feelings which he objected to most in himself, feelings which he regarded
as fundamentally alien and unmasculine. His characteristic
"can't-take-'em--can't-leave-'em-alone" attitude towards women was, thus, a
correlative of his repeated efforts to abandon what he deemed to be the wretched
"womanly" parts of his own personality--his "negative capability."
1.4 Nowhere is Wells's paradoxical pursuit of his own shadow more
apparent than in his peculiar and rather enduring affair with Moura Budberg. It is Moura,
not Rebecca West, who is the real muse of this memoir, the one conquest who justifies the
title H.G. Wells in Love. Indeed, she was not really a conquest at all in the
usual sense, but, rather, a mobile black queen with her own strategies for avoiding
Wells met Budberg in 1914 during his first trip to Russia. On his second trip in 1920,
they met again, and he fell in love with her, "more completely and sincerely than I
had ever done before" (Postscript, p. 109). Wells's willingness to surrender
to his feelings for Budberg may have been aided by the fact that there was so little
danger of "entanglement": she lived very far away and was, Wells assumed, Maxim
Gorky's mistress. He, in turn, had duties toward not one but two families--Jane, Gip, and
Frank and Rebecca West and Anthony.
Significantly, when he finally broke with Rebecca West a few years later (in 1923), he
did not run back to Russia to claim his great love but, rather off-handedly, set up yet
another parallel household, this time in the south of France with Odette Keun, a woman he
vilifies throughout this memoir as a "prostitute-housekeeper" (p. 139). It was
only after the death of Jane--a death which suddenly gave Odette seniority status--that
Wells began to orient his life around his feelings for Budberg. Of their reunion in
Germany in 1929, he writes: "From the moment we met we were lovers, as though there
had never been any separation between us" (p. 141). Even then, Wells did not give
himself over to his feelings; he remained with Odette in the well-ordered home she
maintained for him (Lou Pidou) until 1933.
Wells himself is somewhat at a loss to explain this "long period of shilly-shally" (p. 141). But it is really all rather sweet, in a sad way: the depth of
his feeling for Budberg is never more obvious than in his avoidance and evasions.7 He was simply terrified of getting what he wanted.
In the end, as he had with Isabel, he arranged the scenario so that he would not get
what he wanted, so that his grim expectations would be confirmed. It was a choice of deep
depression over high anxiety, and it set a seal of sorts on his inner life.8
This hidden need to prove Moura "too good to be true" explains Wells's
explosive reaction to "a few unguarded remarks at a party in Moscow in July
1934" (p. 16). He learned then that Moura had gone several times to visit Gorky in
Russia without telling him. ("She did lie. She did cheat" [p. 183].) For Wells,
this was the end of everything:
So in an evening my splendid Moura was smashed to atoms.... I never slept for the rest
of my time in Russia. I was wounded excessively in my pride and hope. I was wounded as I
had never been wounded by any human being before. It was unbelievable. I lay in bed and
wept like a disappointed child. (Postscript, p. 176)
This is a reprise of a scene Wells had acted out some 36 years earlier with Isabel, a
scene which, in turn, reprised the whole sad scene of his childhood. In 1898, three years
after his divorce and remarriage, Wells rode his bicycle out to the farm where his ex-wife
We used our old intimate names for each other. Suddenly I found myself over-come by
the sense of our separation. I wanted fantastically to recover her. I implored her for the
last time in vain....'But how can things like that be, now?' she asked. I gave way to a
wild storm of weeping. I wept in her arms like a disappointed child. . . unable to
understand the peculiar keenness of my unhappiness. I felt like an automaton, I felt as
though all purpose had been drained out of me and nothing remained worth while. The world
was dead and I was dead and I had only just discovered it. (EA 7:2:359)
Wells did not in fact break with Moura as he had broken with Isabel. Moura remained his
companion and his mistress to the end of his life, but on an altered basis. As far as
Wells was concerned, theirs was another modus vivendi. The dream of reunion with
the Lover-Shadow was dead, and, once again, he "felt like an automaton."
After July 1934, Wells entered into a period of suicidal depression which lasted
essentially until his death. His emotional atrophy is painfully obvious in the bleak work
he produced during this period, including The Anatomy of Frustration, The Croquet
Player, and his odd, almost psychotic filmscript for Things to Come.9
Well below the waterline of this suffocating depression there seems to have been a
great reservoir of unresolved sexual fear and quasi-Oedipal jealousy. Over and over again
Wells refers to his anxieties about Moura's love for him as "a sore," "a
canker" on his mind (Postscript, p. 181). He often seems obsessed by her
real or imagined uncleanliness, her messiness (a complaint he had also made about Isabel).10 For Wells, Moura seems to have been a fragment of
ancient myth come to life--an avatar of the large-bodied goddesses who haunted his
adolescent wet-dreams (EA 2:5:56), a Medusa whose steady gaze paralyzed him so that he
could neither move away nor move towards her. The Medusa connection is particularly
evident in Wells's account of "a disagreeable dream" he had in 1934 during the
height of his crisis with Moura:
I dreamt I was wandering late at night in a certain vague strange evil slum grotesque
and yet familiar, which has been a sort of dream background in my mind for years--and I
began to think of her, as I have thought of her so often in so many places, with longing,
with a sort of heart-ache hope for her. Then suddenly, she was before me, my Moura,
carrying that voluminous bag of hers.
'What's in that bag of yours?' said I and seized upon it before she could resist.
And then, after the incoherent fashion of dreams, the bag having vanished, there
appeared her stays wrapped in newspaper. In this slum!
'Who have you been with?' I cried, and forthwith I was beating her furiously. I was
weeping and beating at her. She fell to pieces, not like a human being but like a lay
figure [sic], with hollow pasteboard limbs, and her head was a plaster thing that rolled
away from me. I pounced on it and it was hollow and had no brains in it....
I woke up in a state of pale and dreadful anger and hate. (Postscript, pp. 1
From the very beginning to the very end of his sexual life, Wells's imagination was
haunted by the twin image of the brainless body and the bodiless brain--each a synecdoche
for the uncontrollability of passion. (It is Wells's images, not his vaunted
ideas, which provide the real unity in his life's work.) In 1934, Moura was the focus of
that imagery because she was the most uncontrollable force in his life. As the dream
itself suggests, she was a woman who did pretty much what she wanted to and was not much
inclined either to Puritanical self-sacrifice or to intellectualization of her emotions.
("Darling. Why do you always reason about love?" [Postscript, p.
210].) Wells finally coped with her by turning down the volume on his emotional receiving
set, but the life that remained to him was terribly muted thereby.
2.1 If Moura Budberg was Wells's Lover-Shadow--his missing other
half--who, then, was Rebecca West? The Postscript raises more questions than it
answers on this titillating topic. In particular, it raises questions about the
interpretation of the Wells-West affair given in Gordon N. Ray's rather notorious book H.G.
Wells and Rebecca West.
It is pretty clear that Ray compromised himself as a scholar from the very inception of
his project in 1970 when West "allowed" him to rummage through a suitcase full
of letters Wells had written her over the years. His "Preface," full of unctuous
deference to "Dame Rebecca," reads like a segment of The Aspern Papers.
Ray's initial plan--to reconstruct the Wells-West relationship from their
correspondence--was complicated by the fact that, although there were more than 800
letters from Wells to West, only five of her letters to him had apparently survived, Wells
having allegedly burned the others en masse and she having kept no copies. (A
more cynical investigator might find it odd that West, a professional writer of driving
ambition, should have retained so little documentation of her thoughts and feelings, but
this was an era before Xerox, and Ray, for his part, is utterly trusting.)11 His problem was solved by no less an authority on
Rebecca West than Rebecca West herself, who from 1971 through 1973
"collaborated" with Ray on his book:
Dame Rebecca read the successive drafts of my story with the most scrupulous care. She
corrected errors of fact, filled in the inevitable omissions of a narrative based on
fragmentary materials, and set down with her accustomed force and wit how she herself
regarded this part of her life. This collaboration continued, indeed, until my typescript
went to the printer. Her candor was absolute. (Ray: xii)
Ray apparently sees nothing wrong with this arrangement and his rather passive part in
it--an arrangement which, in effect, demoted him to the status of amanuensis. Indeed, he
regards it as "a great piece of good fortune....I have had the rare opportunity of
submitting my story to the scrutiny of one of its principals" (pp. xii-xiii). It is
the word submitting that is troubling; for in submitting his judgments for West's
approval, Ray has abrogated his principal function as an objective researcher. It is sweet
for him to trust that West's "candor is absolute," but others may require a
little more independent evidence.
And yet, it would be disingenuous not to admit to being rather grateful to have Ray's
book, albeit at the cost of his sacred honor. In his eagerness to insure her co-operation,
he has given West something that few people ever get--the right to edit the tape of her
own life--and it is interesting to guess how she has used her "final cut" to
reshape her experience in retrospect.
The most important bit of reshaping is apparent in the opening line of Ray's
"Introduction." In this telling of the tale, Rebecca West is to be regarded as
"the woman" in H.G. Wells's life (rather like Irene Adler and Sherlock
Holmes). And yet, as I have already suggested, Wells himself did not share this view, at
least by the time he got around to writing his memoirs in 1934. In Postscript (p.
60), he names three women he has "really loved," and Rebecca West is not among
them. She is a footnote of sorts: "I do not know if I loved Rebecca West, though I
was certainly in love with her towards the latter part of our liaison" (pp. 60-61).
Wells is not being cleverly evasive here, I think, although he is certainly capable of
that maneuver. It is simply that it is difficult to summon up emotions of love one no
longer feels. In 1934, Wells was utterly obsessed with Moura Budberg. His relationship
with West had ended more than a decade earlier. Moreover, even at the height of his
involvement with West, he seems to have been deeply ambivalent about her. It is probably
more accurate to regard West, not as the woman, but as one of a sequence of women
whom Wells auditioned for the same role: Lover-Shadows in apprenticeship.
West's desire to portray herself as the Dark Lady in Wells's life is understandable.
After all, she was stuck with the popular conception that he was the man in her
life. Although she was a talented and original writer in her own right, and although she
lived a long and varied life, nothing she ever wrote or did was quite as interesting to
most people as the fact that she had once had an affair with H.G. Wells and had borne his
illegitimate child. How it must have irked her, social shame and sexual guilt aside, to
know that her life had been so significantly determined, not by the power of her
formidable brain or the force of her formidable will, but by a little accident which had
happened to her when she was barely 20 years old.
The precise nature of this little accident is still a hot controversy nearly
three-quarters of a century after the fact. Ray's account of the early stages of the
affair and of Rebecca West's pregnancy differs significantly from Wells's own account. Ray
writes, "In an angry moment, when he feared that Rebecca might leave him, Wells intentionally
omitted his usual precautions in the hope that pregnancy might bind her to
him" (Ray: 32; my italics).
The attribution of motive implicit in the word intentionally can only come
from Dame Rebecca herself, and here, at least, her candor may be something less than
absolute. It is understandable that, eventually, she came to feel "bound"
to Wells against her will and best interests, but that this was Wells's initial intent
seems unlikely. He is quite clear about this in Postscript:
She came to see me at my flat in St James's Court one afternoon when we were in danger
of being interrupted by a valet; it was our second encounter and she became pregnant. It
was entirely unpremeditated. Nothing of the sort was in our intention. She wanted to
write. It should not have happened, and since I was the experienced person, the blame is
wholly mine. (p. 96; my italics)
Of the two accounts, Wells's seems the most plausible, at least at first glance. West
had worked so hard to get Wells, had declared her yearning for him so openly, that it
seems unlikely that he would have been afraid of losing her on only their second tryst.12 And yet, who is to say? Accidents often express hidden
wishes and fears. Moreover, throughout his life, Wells had demonstrated a sure instinct
for painting himself into corners, fleeing in horror from possessiveness in others yet
incapable of distinguishing between loving and controlling when his own feelings were at
stake. He certainly must have sensed that, for all her youth and insecurity, West would
not be as tractable as Jane. Perhaps he did want to tether her to some convenient locale.
On so many other psychological matters in their relationship, West's intuition is more
reliable than Wells's labored analysis. Perhaps she was right after all. (Which, of
course, doesn't excuse Ray for having presented West's version as if it were fact.)
2.2 The only event that is undisputed among the principals is that in
August of 1914, Rebecca West gave birth to a son, Anthony.13
She and Wells gave him the odd middle name of Panther, and therein lies a tale.
Panther (or pander, in babytalk) was Wells's pet name for Rebecca
West. He was Jaguar. Together they were an androgynous beast called the Panguar.
Ray's long discussion of this jungle love-imagery is a good example of the curious
combination of perceptivity and obtuseness which he brings to his subject matter. He
Perhaps the clearest insight into the nature
of the love between Rebecca and Wells comes from the pet names by which they
called each other....They stood for the whole attitude towards life evolved by
Rebecca and Wells....They emphasized the ruthless withdrawal from society that
the relationship entailed, the fact that Rebecca and Wells were not part of
the pack and did not acknowledge its law.... The names implied the free
recognition by Rebecca and Wells of the animal side of their love....(Ray:
This is a clear and persuasive analysis, as far as it goes, but then Ray muddies the
waters by insisting that the Panther/Jaguar imagery belonged primarily to West's creative
imagination (p. 36).
In fact, Wells, too, was fond of cats, and his letters to other women, both before and
after West, often use feline imagery, with special emphasis on fur.14
Like many Victorian men, Wells had something of a hair fetish.15
The threatening coils of serpentine hair which flow from the heads of women in so many
fin de siècle paintings appear also with obsessive regularity in the visual
imagery of Wells's early SF--but in estranged form: the idealized human women of the
Pre-Raphaelites have been transmuted into hairy inhuman beasts (the brainless Morlocks) or
hostile, Medusa-like aliens (the bloodsucking Martians). Flowing female hair has become
literally serpentine--tendrils or tentacles which entangle and suffocate and kill. The
bleeding Beast People in The Island of Doctor Moreau are, among other things,
metaphorical women --both victims and predators. Moreau's experiment, too, is
metaphorical, projective and implicitly sexual: to control the beast within himself by
"taming" the hairy little beasts around him. Appropriately, Moreau is finally
killed by a specifically female and specifically feline Beast Person, the puma.16
Although Gordon Ray surely knows Wells's work as well as anyone, he largely ignores the
connection between the Panfer/Jaguar baby-talk and the powerful gynophobic imagery in
Wells's early fictions. (Clearly, it is Dame Rebecca and her work which fascinate Ray. )
Consequently, his interpretation of the Wells/West affair focuses too much on practical
matters and misses much of the psychological nuance. In particular, Ray misses the
significance of the androgynous term Panguar, which Wells and West coined to
In a sense, the Beast People in The Island of
Doctor Moreau are "panguars" manqué, an early, failed experiment in
androgyny. They are metaphorical mediators who literally fall apart at the seams. The need
for such mediators, the need to create a unified whole out of the disparate, warring
forces in his own psyche, drove Wells all his life, both in his art and in his serial love
affairs. In his relationship with West, at least in the first few years, he seems to have
found a paradigm for a new self-definition. She was a sort of Beast Person he had never
seen before: a brain and a body.
Although West was literally young enough to have been Wells's daughter, it was she, I
sense, who provided the role-model for Wells as a lover during these years. He must have
seen himself in her, in her very youth--like a Ghost of Christmas Past. And that is what
is conveyed in the jungle imagery in letters and, even more poignantly, in the little
"picshuas" which accompany them.17 It wasn't
merely that he metaphorized her as a great cat, but that he imaged himself in the same
furry, feline terms.18 She seems to have brought out the
woman in him.19
Perhaps that's what worried Wells about West, what she brought out in him: perhaps
that's why he arranged to hold her pinioned at a distance. In trying to keep both Rebecca
and Jane, but to keep them separate, in ferrying himself back and forth between them,
Wells was merely acting out in real life the kind of psychomachia that he had previously
used to structure his SF. Wells was ego. Jane and Rebecca played the parts of superego
and id respectively.
This tidy arrangement must have served the needs of all three of them fairly well, for
it endured a decade. If it had been in Wells's power to manage it. it would have endured
far longer. His account in Postscript supports Ray's contention that it was West
who finally ended the affair, just as it was she who had initiated it (see Postscript,
pp. 102-03, 110).
3.1 "A marriage is a miniature civilization," Anthony
Burgess once wrote, "in which there's a culture, in which there are immense subtleties
of language, immense subtleties of communication."20 In
that sense, if in no other, Rebecca West and H.G. Wells seem to have had a marriage. And
when at last it ended, in the fall of 1923, like any collapsing civilization it left a few
ruins to mark the place where it had been. The inheritor of those ruins was Anthony
Panther West, the "cub," and he has been conducting an archeological dig on the
site ever since.
Accidental children can become beloved children, but there is a great deal of evidence
to suggest that Ray has been manipulated by West when he asserts that Anthony "was
dearly loved by both Rebecca and by Wells who did their best to give him a happy
childhood" (Ray: xxvi). Ray's own narrative supports a contrary view, that Anthony
was an inconvenience for both of his parents and that West, in particular, was eager to
unburden herself of him. At the age of three, he was sent away to London for a protracted
period on the not very plausible pretext that he was in danger from German bombs and
machine-gun bullets (West: 79). (Couldn't West have gone with him?) In 1920, she packed
him off to the first of many boarding schools while she went to Italy for a rest. He was
barely six years old (West: 103).
One of the more poignant ironies of Anthony West's story is that the very deprivations
he suffered as a child seem to have bound him to his childhood in perpetuity. In the last
words of his autobiographical novel Heritage (1955), his protagonist Richard
Savage expresses relief that he is at last "at liberty and free" (7:27--see my
note 19). But West himself seems to have been unable to break free from the Sisyphusian
burden of his parents' personalities. He seems compelled to tell the same heavy story over
and over again, as if by retelling it he can somehow make it come out right. His attacks
on his mother, although often persuasive on this point or that, are so bitter as to do him
more harm than they do her. His very obsessiveness testifies to her enduring power over
his imagination. His rage is a kind of pathetic backhanded form of love hunger. Clearly,
he would rather be hated than ignored.
His relationship to his father is less intense and more problematic. He has a
collection of rather warm memories of paternal affection, and yet he can't entirely
disguise the fact that Wells consistently distanced himself from his son's life. A desire
to close that distance, if only in retrospect, is one of the two principal motives which
drives West's narrative in Aspects of a Life. (The other is obviously to get even
with his mother.)
West's psychological strategy becomes apparent in the first few pages of the book. He
proposes to take possession of his father by projecting himself imaginatively into his
father's life story. Appropriately enough, the opening line of his text concerns not his
father's birth, but his own birth and his father's absence from that event (West: 3).
To bridge the gap between his ignored infant self and his absent father, West adopts
the extra-ordinarily unscholarly procedure of "novelizing" various incidents in
his protagonist's life. Setting up an author-omniscient point of view, West often makes us
privy to the solitary actions and private inner thoughts of a whole host of characters,
most of whom West never knew. (The effect is rather like reading one of those ancient
movie magazines in which the fan is made mute witness to the secret heartaches of, say,
Clark Gable and Carole Lombard.)
Presumably West has good evidence to support his reconstructions, but he is extremely
careless about citing his sources. (Although a large proportion of his text is devoted to
a point by point rebuttal of Ray, he rarely deigns to mention either the book or author by
name, referring to Ray obliquely as "an American authority" [p. 58].) His
"Notes and References" section at the end of the book is both non-standard in
format--and therefore very difficult to use--and haphazard in its coverage. Very often, he
relies on undated "oral communications" and hearsay.
The essentially solipsistic nature of West's presentation is nowhere more clear than in
his obsessive use of the phrase "my father" to refer to Wells. The significance
of this locution is all the more obvious when West extends it, in very awkward fashion, to
other members of Wells's family. Thus Sarah Neal Wells becomes "my grandmother"
and Fred Wells, "my uncle." On virtually every page of this text West's
insecurity about who he is and what, if anything, really belongs to him seeps up to
discolor his prose and warp his judgment.
And yet, the personal bias which renders him so unreliable as a scholar gives West a
privileged insight into many of the psychological peculiarities of the principals.
Although he has literally nothing good to say about his mother, he conveys, often by
imitation, a useful impression of her style as a person. (One senses he is rather more
like her than he is willing to admit.) And because he suffered a loveless childhood
himself, he has a special empathy with Wells as a child and a good intuition for how early
deprivations and conflicts shaped Wells's later life. (Most perceptive of all is his
analysis [p. 299] of a pair of extraordinary pictures, not previously published before, I
think. Wells took them himself. They are close-ups of his mother's implacable face--as
she lay embalmed in her coffin! Gone but not forgotten.)
For all its insights, however, West's portrait of Wells is limited by its projectivity.
One always has the uncomfortable sense that when West thinks he is looking at Wells he is
really looking in a mirror. He is sensitive primarily to what they have in common. He has
no real feel for the ways in which Wells was different. In particular, he has no feel for
how Wells's life and creative work are connected. He mentions various novels in passing,
but only to mine them for biographical data. He notes, quite correctly, that Wells was a
"great visualizer," but he is generally oblivious to the emotional significance
of his father's recurrent visual imagery. His comments on The War of the Worlds, for
instance, are extremely superficial (See West: 231, 233).
What is most crippling to West's book is that he can't let go enough of his own
childhood to finish off the story. He begins his book with the annus mirabilis, 1914;
and his first 150 pages focus primarily on "my parents," with desultory comments
on Stalin, Odette Kuhn, Hedwig Verena Gatternigg, and others. Then, on page 155, West
starts his story over again, in chronological order, from the birth of Wells's father in
1827. This biographical fragment ends abruptly on page 334; and there follows, rather
incredibly, a 28-page digression on the many faults (lying, covert lesbianism) of Dorothy
Richardson! Why Dorothy Richardson? On page 362 West finally gets to his real point:
Dorothy Richardson has really been a surrogate target; it is his mother that West has been
stalking all along. He lets her have it, bullet after bullet, right up to the very end of
the book when, suddenly, he remembers he is supposed to be writing about H.G. Wells. And
so, instead of a conclusion, we get a kind of verbal "freeze frame": a
"dream-father" and loyal son walking together along some ancient beach. One is
reminded of the poignant lines which begin the film I Never Sang For My Father: "Death
ends a life, but it does not end a relationship, which struggles on in the survivor's mind
toward some resolution it may never find."
3.2 In the long run, Wells will probably survive all these
biographical butterfly chases-- including his own. His motile personality is difficult to
catch and even harder to pin down. (One thinks of Wells himself hovering over his mother's
coffin with his Kodak, trying to freeze her force forever like a specimen on a slide.)
Even now, 39 years after his death--119 years after his birth--his work still generates
heat. Not because of his Ideas but because of himself. More than virtually any other
writer, he was his work. Everything he touched, he transmuted into
self-expression. (Even the other people in his life served him as avatars of qualities in
In the end, like all solipsists, he seems to have regretted having only himself for
company; in the end, like all workaholics, he seems to have experienced the emptiness of
mere goal-getting. A putative success, he judged himself a secret fraud, an impostor.21
And yet, even in despair, his urge to express himself was absolute and consuming. In
this sense, and in many others, he was the very thing he most denied being: an artist, for
art's own sake. His voice may drone on and on, but it is his voice, not an
imitation of somebody else. It speaks still, this voice, this Talking Brain, as if the
grave itself were mere inconvenience.22
1. Anthony West suggests that Catherine Robbins' father's death
was a suicide, brought on by business failures. In either case, it is reasonable to assume
that in 1892 she was in an extremely insecure state, both economically and emotionally,
and that she may have been looking for a surrogate father in Wells (instead of the
surrogate son she in fact got).
2. The separation and reunion of lovers is a recurring theme in
Wells's fiction--see, e.g., The Dream (1924), esp. chaps. 5-7.
3. For a discussion of the claustrophobic aspect of Wells's early
fiction, see Robert P. Weeks, "Disentanglement as a Theme in H.G. Wells'
Fiction," Papers of the Michigan Academy of Science, Arts and Letters, 39
4. Wells himself raises this interpretation in a series of
artfully evasive rhetorical questions in which he, characteristically, expresses his
emotions by projecting them onto Mankind in general (see EA 7:2:354).
5. The Book of Catherine Wells (London:
Chatto & Windus, 1928--hereafter BCW) suggests that Jane had a more intense
inner life than Wells wished to know. Her stories are rather more accomplished and less
sentimental than one might expect--atmospheric and rich in psychological nuance. Like the
early H.G., Jane "thinks in things"; physical objects (houses, gardens) are
charged with the emotions which the characters themselves often seem to lack. There is a
great deal of suppressed love-hunger; there is also a surprising amount of sadism and
violence and a preoccupation with death and suicide. Like Jane herself, many of her
characters lose their chance for love by being unwilling to take a risk: "I can't run
any risks," says one unhappily married woman, refusing a potential lover. "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" ("May Afternoon," BCW, p. 121). The most
interesting story concerns requited love--between two women. Mary Hastings, a 35-year-old
painter, is content with her virginity, in large measure because she has a satisfying
relationship with a young girl, Sylvia. They live together in an exquisite little cottage
called "Love O' Women." Nothing more explicit than a little intense hand-kissing
goes on, but the homoerotic content of the relationship is clear: "In a hundred
ways then Mary knew what it might be to have a lover" ("The Beautiful
House," BCW, p. 82). Perhaps it was, in part, a fear of her own sexual
orientation that Jane was trying to escape in her alliance with Wells.
6. The culture in which Wells was raised took a profoundly
polarized view of gender and personality.
Moral balance came to be seen not as an approximation of equilibrium between the active
and passive qualities within the person, but as the externalized union of two opposites:
of the active, aggressive, amoral, male principle, and the yielding, moral, female
principle--the union in other words, of the aggressive master and his passive slave. Quite
often a simple transposition of neoclassical values made this an opposition between
active, socially constructive 'reason' and passive (because socially unproductive)
'passion.' (Bram Dijkstra, "The Androgyne in Nineteenth- Century Art and
Literature," Comparative Literature, 26 :66)
Wells was very much influenced by this polarized, patriarchal view of gender and
personality, of course; but he also intuitively rebelled against it, as he did against all
the authoritarian constructs which he consciously admired so much. He probably found the
strongest support for an alternative view of personality, not in his scientific studies,
but in the paintings he saw during his leisure-time strolls in London's museums and
galleries. In the last two decades of the 19th century, just as Wells began to flower as a
writer, androgynous figures begin to appear with more and more frequency in the work of
visual artists who, unconsciously or programmatically, were trying to mediate the
stressful dichotomies implicit in traditional Victorian psychological imagery. The great
progenitor of this movement towards androgyny in the visual arts was the French symbolist
painter Gustave Moreau, particularly in his odd, anxiety-filled renderings of Oedipus and
the Sphinx. Thus it is a lovely coincidence (if, indeed, it is a coincidence) that Wells
gave the name "Moreau" to the one figure in his work whose explicit function is
to create "Sphinxes" (beast + man = beastman= sphinx). Dr Moreau's amorality,
his bloody, mutilating methodology, express Wells's conservative fear of androgyny
(conceived as a loss of masculinity), but the sinuous forms of the cat-people express
his fascination with it.
It is unlikely that Wells saw any of Gustave Moreau's most famous works directly, but
he may well have seen prints and surely knew of Moreau indirectly through J. K. Huysmans,
Oscar Wilde, and other sources--for instance, an article published in The Dial in
1893 in which Charles Ricketts describes in detail a number of Moreau's medusan paintings.
(Interestingly enough, Wells begins The Island of Doctor Moreau by referring
obliquely to another famous painting, "The Raft of the Medusa.")
7. "All this is queer and indecisive to me now. My motives
had got into loose unsystemized packets. Distraction of work and of the bother of my
irritating dispute with the Society of Authors; sheer dread of an upset in my routines;
some lurking insufficiency in my love for Moura; a want of faith that anything so good as
Moura seemed to be could be real; a sub-conscious scepticism; a suppressed criticism of a
certain shiftlessness and vagueness in her and, above all, obscure glandular attacks upon
my will and vigour--I fling these handfuls of suggestions at the reader and I am as
little able as he will be to estimate their relative values" (Postscript, p.
8. In Aspects of a Life (pp. 144-46), West argues that
Budberg was a spy attached to Wells by the Soviet government and that this knowledge is
what shattered H.G. However, Wells's own account (in Postcript, pp. 178, 181)
seems to emphasize his sexual jealousy. His extreme possessiveness and his deep-seated
fear of being loved are evident in many places in Postscript, but especially in
this passage in which he recounts how a well-meaning friend tried to convince him simply
to relax a little about Moura. ("Why doubt that a woman has a heart until you have
torn it out?"):
But I cared too deeply for Moura to keep things at that superficial level. I wanted
her, skin and bones, nerves, and dreams--or it seemed to me that I did not want her at
all. I could not be happy about the things below her masks. I wanted truth and love there.
I could not give her the benefit of the doubt. (Postscript, pp. 183-84)
9. In Things to Come (1936), the tone of hysterical
high-mindedness is almost unrelieved. Only Theotocopulus, an effete artist, mounts any
objection to the compulsive joylessness of Cabal's "great white world": "Is
man never to rest?" He incites the mob to attack the "space gun. . . a symbol of
all that drives us." But the rebellion is brief and ineffectual. The space gun
shoots, sending Cabal's daughter and her lover off to seed the stars. At the end, Wells
has Cabal speak directly to Theotocopulus's rather pertinent question, "Is man never
to rest?": "Rest enough for the individual man,. . ." says Cabal, "but
for Man no rest and no ending. He must go on, conquest after conquest...." "But
we're such little creatures, so fragile, so weak, little animals," his colleague
objects. "If we are no more than little animals, we must snatch each scrap of
happiness and live and suffer and pass, mattering no more than all the other animals do or
have done. It is this or that," rolling his eyes toward the
heavens. "All the universe or nothing. Which shall it be? Which shall it be?"
Artistically, this is pretty sad stuff; but it conveys, perhaps more clearly than the
better work, how much Wells's idea-factory was powered by his existential fears--his
horror of helpless- ness. The extreme helplessness he apparently experienced as a child
seems to have marked him for life, to have made him even more intolerant than most of us
are of the contingent, uncontrollable nature of existence. Any form of passivity, even
normal tranquil contemplation, seems to have been extremely anxiety-provoking for Wells.
10. Significantly, Wells praises Jane for her extreme tidiness.
Even as a corpse, she was "clean."
11. In H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life, Anthony West
implies that copies of West's letters to Wells do indeed exist: "The originals of the
letters that she wrote to my father before their affair had properly begun have not
survived, but the copies of them that she rather remarkably made and kept leave no room
for doubt [that she initiated the affair]" (p. 5). However, West neither cites his
sources nor offers any further comment on this crucial matter, so it remains unclear how
many letters he is talking about and whether he has direct evidence of their existence.
(Perhaps the Ray book itself is his source, and he is merely referring to the five
surviving letters of hers which appear there.) Later in the book, he makes another
reference to the missing letters: "How my mother answered [Wells] isn't altogether
clear, since her side of this prolonged exchange isn't for the time being
available" (pp. 91 -92). Here he is a presumably referring to the restricted
materials in the Beinecke Library's archive of Rebecca West's papers. His coyness whenever
he writes about his mother's letters reflects his belief that she was an inveterate liar
and that she retroactively fabricated letters and other documents in order to manipulate
her biographers, including Ray (see Aspects, pp. 57-58).
12. In an early letter to Wells, one of the five to survive,
Rebecca pours out her love for him and threatens suicide. ("You have done for me
utterly.... I would give my whole life to feel your arms round me again.... Don't leave me
utterly alone"--Ray: 22-23). Part of the peculiar poignancy of this letter now is
that it reminds one so much of Wells's own love-lore obsessions about Isabel and Moura.
Wells and Rebecca both seem to have been wounded children, each looking for a missing
parent in the other.
13. There is dispute about the exact date of Anthony West's
birth. Wells gives it as August 4, "the day of the British declaration of war against
Germany" (Postscript, p. 96), and most authorities, including Ray, have used
this date. However, West himself insists that he was really born "in the first few
minutes of August 5" (Aspects, p. 3).
14. E.g., he equates the "tamed" version of Moura, with
whom he established a modus vivendi, with a "great black cat" he owned
at Lou Pidou (Postscript, p. 209).
15. For an incisive discussion of the Victorian male's obsession
with hair, see Elizabeth G. Giber, "The Power of Women's Hair in the Victorian
Imagination," PMLA, 99 (1984):936-54.
16. See The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896; NY: Berkley,
1964), 17:95. Nor is Moreau's fate unique. Even in Wells's verbose later novels, when his
visual imagination had all but dimmed, jungle imagery recurs obsessively, and his heroes
are often attacked by big cats. For instance, Trafford is wounded by a lynx in Marriage
(1912), a novel written before Wells met West. Benham in The Research
Magnificent is an intellectual driven by a phobia about wild animals, especially
tigers. (For a thorough account of Wells's jungle and cat imagery, see John R. Reed, The
Natural History of H.G. Wells [Athens, OH: 1982], pp. 35-40 et passim.)
17. In Wells's early work, his aesthetic methodology flowed from
an intuitive integration of his mental capabilities: he used words to paint pictures.
In his later work, the words exist for themselves alone, and Wells's great visual
gifts are relegated to turning out little "picshuas," visual captions to his
epistles. (For an exceptionally trenchant discussion of the shift in Wells's style from
"undirected" to "directed thought," see: John Huntington, The
Logic of Fantasy: H.G. Wells and Science Fiction [NY, 1982].)
18. Now as then, cats are generally taken to be
19. Perhaps he brought out the man in her, too. Anthony West
comments on what he deems to be his mother's rather masculine style in her relationships
with other women (see Heritage [NY: Washington Square Press, 1984], 0:viii-ix).
More obviously, Rebecca West seems to have done a lot of projecting onto Wells, and
vice-versa. It is no accident that in the article which first caught his eye, she
described him as an "old maid" and "spinster."
20. Anthony Burgess, "The Private Dialect of Husbands and
Wives." Vogue (June 1968), p. 118.
21. An impostor theme runs throughout the length of Wells's work.
He recognized the Chaffrey in himself. His sense of his own fraudulence may have been
partly a product of his guilt at having risen so far above his parents' station. In any
case, it drove him compulsively to "prove" himself over and over again, and then
to reject the evidence of his adequacy.
22. In both Experiment and Postscript, Wells
uses the word brain as if it were a simple synonym for the word mind. But,
of course, it is not. It is a visual image manqué--a reliquary "talking head"
retrieved from Wells's store of SF props, a shadow-Martian. Moreover, like the Martians,
the "talking brain" is a paradox, an oxymoron--an image of disembodied, almost
god-like intellectual power and, simultaneously, of terrible, skinless vulnerability. What
is more naked and helpless than a "mere brain"? (An "invisible man,"
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