In 2004, while waiting for my novel about Henry James, Author, Author, to come out, I occupied myself by writing the introduction to a Penguin Classics edition of HG Wells's novel Kipps. In April I made this note in my very occasional diary:
Researching Kipps I came across in Wells's Experiment in Autobiography an interesting story of the ménage of Mr and Mrs Hubert Bland at Well Hall, Eltham. He was a Fabian, a philanderer who converted to Catholicism, she was E Nesbit. Possible material for a novel like Author, Author here. Sex, politics, children's literature . . . How much has it been worked over?
Little did I know, but it was probably being worked over at that very moment by AS Byatt, who five years later would publish her novel The Children's Book, the central character of which is a children's author with a philandering husband, recognisably inspired by Nesbit (or so I understand – I have abstained from reading it to date).
The possible novel I glimpsed in those few pages of Wells's autobiography was one in which his involvement with the Blands, and the conjunction of his writings and Edith Nesbit's, would provide a structure similar to the relationship between Henry James and George du Maurier in Author, Author. But I soon discovered from Julia Briggs's excellent 1987 biography of Nesbit, A Woman of Passion, that Edith's interesting story began long before she met Wells, while his own continued long after they became estranged, so their relationship could be only one episode in a novel about him
I already knew something of Wells's life from writing literary criticism about his work, but the more deeply I looked into it the more astonishingly rich in human and historical interest it appeared. Beginning inauspiciously (he was the son of unsuccessful shopkeepers and was apprenticed to the drapery trade at the age of 14), it stretched from 1866 to 1946, a period of global political turmoil, including two world wars, in which he played a public role. The bibliography of his published work contains some 3,000 items, including more than 100 books. He met and conversed with nearly every well-known statesman and writer of his time, and in his science fiction and speculative prose he foresaw the invention of, among other things, television, tanks, aerial warfare and the atom bomb. He made a strenuous effort to direct the Fabian Society towards his own idiosyncratic model of socialism (an updated version of Plato's Republic), nearly destroying it in the process, and worked selflessly if vainly all his life for the cause of world government. His Outline of History, published in 1920, was an ambitious attempt to "teach the peoples of the world . . . that they are all engaged in a common work, that they have sprung from common origins, and all are contributing some special service to the general end". It was a global bestseller.
"Thinking people who were born about the beginning of this century," George Orwell wrote in 1941, "are in some sense Wells's own creation." Between the wars, however, his influence gradually declined, along with the quality of his writing. The triumph of literary modernism in the 1920s made his work look old-fashioned, and the novels that have retained classic status, such as The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, Tono-Bungay and The History of Mr Polly, all belong to the first 15 years of his long literary career. His mind remained fertile with new ideas – in the late 30s, for instance, he proposed something he called the "World Brain", an enormous bank of human knowledge stored on microfilm and transported free to users by aeroplane, which needed only the invention of the microchip to resemble the internet – but the world paid diminishing attention to them. There was pathos in his own sense of this neglect in his last years, and in his deepening pessimism about the fate of the human race, epitomised in the title of his last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether.
Wells was also a prophet of the sexual revolution of our own era. He believed in free love and practised it tirelessly. He was married twice to women he loved, but neither of whom satisfied him sexually, and had several long-term relationships, as well as innumerable briefer affairs, mostly condoned by his second wife, Jane. Of particular interest because of the scandal they aroused were his relationships with three young women half his age: Rosamund Bland, the secretly adopted daughter of Edith and Hubert Bland, who was actually fathered by Bland on Edith's companion and housekeeper, Alice Hoatson; Amber Reeves, a brilliant Cambridge undergraduate, also the daughter of prominent Fabians; and Rebecca West, whom he invited to his Essex country house in 1912 to discuss her witty demolition of his novel Marriage in the feminist journal The Freewoman, a meeting that led in due course to the birth of Anthony West on the first day of the first world war, and a stormy relationship that lasted for some 10 years. Reeves also became pregnant by Wells, by her own desire, with dramatic consequences. There were interesting liaisons with the novelists Dorothy Richardson (who portrayed Wells in her novel sequence Pilgrimage), Violet Hunt and Elizabeth von Arnim. Then there was Moura, Baroness Budberg, a Russian aristocrat who survived the Russian revolution as the secretary and probably mistress of Maxim Gorky and with whom Wells slept when staying in Gorky's flat in Petrograd in 1920. They met again after Jane's death in 1927. Moura was the great love of his later life and his acknowledged mistress, but refused to marry or cohabit with him. Wells has the reputation of being a predatory seducer, but in all the relationships I investigated, with the possible exception of the always inscrutable Moura, he was initially the pursued rather than the pursuer.
Sexuality, the most private and intimate aspect of a person's life, presents a challenge for the writer of a biographical novel. It wasn't a problem for me in the case of Author, Author, because I share the view of most of James's biographers that he was a celibate bachelor who repressed or sublimated his inherent homosexual tendencies. Wells was, in this respect, as in others, the antithesis of James. Fortunately for my purposes, he wrote a secret "Postscript" to his 1934 autobiography, about his sexual life, to be published after he and the women mentioned in it were dead. It eventually appeared, edited by his son Gip, in 1984 under the title Wells in Love. This gave me the essential facts about the major relationships in his life, and a large number of minor ones, as well as invaluable information about his sexual development in childhood and adolescence. It contains only hints of his proclivities as a lover, but these could be supplemented from other sources, especially his letters to West.
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