Science Fiction Studies

#23 = Volume 8, Part 1 = March 1981

H.G. Wells

Woman and Primitive Culture

[The following piece, though never previously attributed to Wells, is identifiable as his on grounds of style and content. Under the same heading as above, it appeared in the Saturday Review, 79 (June 22, 1895):815.

Wells had been contributing speculative essays on scientific subjects and the occasional review of scientific--or pseudo-scientific--books to SR ever since Frank Harris had taken over its editorship late in the preceding year: and three months before this review-article on Woman's Share in Primitive Culture was published, he assumed the post of SR's principal reviewer of fiction with a sardonic assault on the sexual morality of Grant Allen's The Woman Who Did (see note 3). Here he turns a skeptical eye on one of the principal works of the American ethnologist Otis Tulton Mason (1878-1908) and debunks, in typically Wellsian fashion, its ideological presuppositions--in particular, its pretensions to scientific objectivity.--RMP]

It is almost impossible to find any one with the capacity for writing sanely about women at the present day. If a man writes about women, in nine cases out of ten he ends by being sentimental, and in the tenth case he becomes hysterical. If a women writes about women, in nine cases out of ten it is because, being unhappy with her own male-folk, she sees only the intolerable side of existing sexual relationships: thus her work is vitiated by an unnatural and distorted view not only of man but of woman's absolute need of man, if she is to enjoy life to the full of its possibilities. The tenth woman, like the tenth man, grows hysterical, because she has never had any healthy everyday relations with men at all. A foreigner attempting to form some estimate of English character from the current English literature would reach some strange conclusions. He would find the following female types: (1) The woman who "submits": she is generally depicted with an overbearing husband and ten to fourteen children. (2) The woman who "rebels": she is spoken of as emancipated and generally as highly educated. In the excitement of a ballroom she accepts a nincompoop for a husband, or in handing a cup of tea falls into the arms of a good-looking and tall-talking blackguard. The tortures of the rest of her life are entirely attributed to the wickedness of the man, or to the absurdities of our social system. Lastly, we have (3) the small anaemic type, who alternates between loathing and embracing the egotistic male--we presume according to the degree of poverty of blood in her veins. The male types correspond: (1) the aforesaid nincompoop without education and with unlimited prejudice: (2) the good-looking egotist and blackguard, who, according to modern literature, must form nine-tenths of the male population of modern England: and lastly (3) the "good" man, generally educated but endowed with insufficient virility to save the female type (2) from the male type (2): he stands in the background as hanger-on guardian angel and consummate prig. This must be the impression of our chief English types which the aforesaid foreigner would form did he search our modern literature from Meredith to George Egertom from Gissing to Mona Caird.1 And yet how absolutely untrue! There are thousands of Englishwomen who are neither anaemic nor neurotic, and whose physical nature does not throw them into the arms of the first muscular egotist who comes in their way: there are thousands of men who are neither sentimental nor hysterical, nor purely animal in their relations to women. The fact is that a large proportion of modern literature is neither the product of those who have studied and thought upon the development of sex-relations nor of those of sound intellectual powers and healthy physique: it is too often the output of men or women who have found sex a curse owing to the want of these very essentials of a rational all-round life.

We should be slow to deny that a great chance is taking place in the position and activities of women, but we believe in treating that change from a sane standpoint, and neither growing sentimental nor hysterical about it. Nothing can he more helpful in this direction than a purely objective, historical study of woman's work in the world from the earliest stages of barbarism: nothing can show more clearly that change of status and change of activity have always been going on, and that the moral and the immoral in sexual matters are questions of social expediency, and have adjusted and will adjust themselves with changing status so that society as a whole emerges stable and reproductive.

The work of woman in prehistoric communities, when carefully analyzed from the fossils with which archaeology, folklore, and philology provide us, assumes somewhat large proportions as compared with the work of men. Nor is the explanation far to seek: the dependence of the child largely, in many cases entirely, on the mother, led to the development of her powers of invention. The physical facts of motherhood differentiated woman from the hunter and fighter: and man comes only at a later date to share in the comforts and activities which developed round the maternal relationship. Agriculture, weaving, the potter's craft, cooking, the elements of medicine, take their origin from the relation of mother to child, and are essentially part of woman's contribution to civilization. This is not demonstrated by Dr. Mason--he may he said to really demonstrate nothing--but it will he shown to he true when a full history of woman and her activities comes to he written. What Dr. Mason gives us are but facts of woman's present or recent activities among the primitive races of America. There is no evidence in his hook that he has sufficient knowledge of comparative folk-lore or philology to see why women came to exert these special activities, or the social or sexual evolution which took place during their development. He has merely stated facts, which will, properly interpreted, he of use to future scientific historians of, women's development. Of evolution and development he appears to have no grasp. Otherwise how are we to understand such passages as these?

How comfortless, however, was the first woman who stood upon this planet! How economical her dowry! Her body was singularly devoid of comfortable hair .... As yet she had no tools of peaceful industry, nor experience .... But even this poorly equipped woman had more brain than was sufficient to meet the demands of bodily existence, and in this fact lay the promise of her future achievement. The maternal instinct, the strong back, the deft hand, the aversion to aggressive employment, the conservative spirit were there in flower.

The scraper is the oldest implement of any craft in the world. The Indian women of Montana still receive their trade from their mothers, and they, in turn, were taught by theirs, in unbroken succession, since the birth of the human species. These passages, were they not self-contradictory, would be more than sufficient to show that the author is no believer in evolution by natural selection. This suspicion is fully borne out, however, by a paragraph on p. 275, wherein the law of the survival of the fittest is directly repudiated as applied to man, in tribe or nation. From such a standpoint, then, we must not expect any real insight into women's history. What Dr Mason does give us are: first, some very interesting facts as to woman's work in weaving, pottery, and agriculture, drawn, however, from a rather narrow field; secondly, some rather less valuable statements as to woman as "founder of society," "patron of religion," and linguist (comparative study, especially of early Aryan institutions, would have led to far more luminous chapters on these topics); and lastly, especially in the concluding chapter, a quantity of false sentiment,2 which is, perhaps, directed "to my fair reader." The man who writes a book intended to be of historical value, and addresses some remark "to my fair reader," is in a hopeless condition. We expect him to tell us that "the exaltation of women is the synonym of progress," and to talk of "the aroma from her [woman's] fragrant life." We are not surprised when we read: "if in allegory and metaphor and painting and sculpture the highest ideals are women it is because they have a right to be there." This almost reaches that pinnacle of absurdity touched by the editor of a woman's paper, who "believes that the grand procession through which each individual soul passes in its earthly development culminates in woman, sex being one stage, and the feminine the highest and last."

But enough: Dr. Mason does not view woman's development from the objective standpoint of science and history. He does not understand that the exaltation of either sex is absurd, and that those who sanely and healthily await the changes taking place in woman's status and activity at the present day are hoping for honest comradeship with no false sentiment, no mystery, and no repression, mental or physical. However, Dr. Mason has given us facts, and some few illustrations of value, and for these we are glad indeed, as we turn to him from the wilderness of modern literature and its views on women.3 


1. "George Egerton" was the pseudonym of Mary Chavelita Dunne (1860-1945), two of whose books Wells had reviewed in SR on Mar. 30, 1895 (79:416-17). Mona Caird (d. 1932), a novelist and short-story writer, also published articles in the 1890s on marriage and the position of women. For Wells's (re)views of George Meredith and George Gissing, see H. G. Wells's Literary Criticism. ed. Patrick Parrinder and Robert M. Philmus (Brighton, UK: Harvester Press & Totawa. NJ: Barnes & Noble, 1980). pp. 63-66. 134-37, 141-60 et passim.

2. In regard to his charge of sentimentalism against Mason for ignoring Darwinian realities, compare Wells's censure of Edith Carrington's Workers Without Wage, which he reviewed for the Pall Mall Gazette on Feb. 9, 1894. (An abstract of his remarks can be found in David Y. Hughes and Robert M. Philmus's "The Early Science Journalism of H.G. Wells: A Chronological Survey," SFS I [1973]:105 [item no. 19] and in the same authors H.G. Wells: Early Writings in Science and Science Fiction [Berkeley, Los Angeles, & London: California UP, 1975], pp. 234-35.)

3. Wells clearly has in mind Grant Allen and the imitators of Allen's best-selling The Woman Who Did. See H.G. Wells's Literary Criticism. pp. 59 and 82. note I.

moonbut.gif (4466 bytes) Back to Home