H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life
A pseudonym is the briefest form of fiction. Fittingly, some pseudonyms seem to be fighting on fiction’s side against the disparagement and death wishes that have been directed at it at least since Jane Austen was stung into bursting through the conventions of fictional narrative and launching her classic riposte. In demonstrating that fiction, even in miniature form, possesses greater vitality and versatility than its enemies admit, the counterattacking pseudonyms also break conventions, if only those of real life.
The campaign probably began when Colette adopted her father’s surname as her own first and, indeed, only name for literary purposes and then gave the first name Colette to her real-life daughter. I noticed another initiative in the 1970s when I met (and, incidentally, liked) Sonia Orwell. Given that “George Orwell” was a pseudonym, marriage to its owner presumably made her Mrs. Eric Blair. After his death she became Mrs. Someone Else. Yet there Sonia Orwell was, a perfectly palpable phantom on the London literary scene, prudently using her nonexistent surname to announce her guardianship of the Orwell oeuvre and reputation. Sound authority, though not her own, has it that in her phantom name she proposed a writer to receive an Arts Council award and, in the space for the proposer’s status normally filled by “novelist,” “critic,” or what have you, spiritedly entered “veuve distinguée.”
Even that is nothing in comparison with the case of Rebecca West. Whereas Orwell is the real-life name of a town and a river, Rebecca West was a fully fledged fictitious character, in Henrik Ibsen’s play Rosmersholm, a quarter of a century before her name was taken by Cicily Fairfield as her pseudonym. The appropriator had an affair with H.G. Wells, a writer and married man twenty six years her senior, and in 1914, during the very hours when the First World War was breaking out, bore him a son. Grown up, the son followed both his parents into the profession of authorship, which he practices under the name Anthony West—evidence indeed of the staying power of a literary imagination, though whether his mother’s or Ibsen’s is hard to tell.
His new book is, according to the list at its front, his ninth. He calls it “aspects of” his father’s life. That is not all there is to it, but the description is just, although “episodes from” might have even better conveyed his episodic treatment of a life that appears to have been episodic well beyond the book-a-year requirements of popular writing. Mr. West begins with his own birth and works both backward and forward in time from there. The method makes for fluent reading but also makes it difficult for the reader, unless he has perfect arithmetical pitch or reads with one of those gadgets in hand for clocking up the rows in knitting, to keep an eye on where he is in history as he goes through the book. Still, it spares him that variant of the pathetic fallacy which is usually imposed on readers of biographies as the diminishing number of pages left gives notice of the approaching death of the subject. The death of H.G. Wells, which historically took place in 1946, occurs in the middle of the book.
There is, however, no avoiding the painfulness of the suspicion it occasioned in Mr. West, who was working for the BBC in London when, during the Second World War, Wells fell mortally and often half-comatosely ill.
I wanted to have his full attention for just as long as it would take me to clear his mind of an impression—I do not care, even now, to think too much about who had put it into his mind or why—that I had been got hold of by members of a pro-Nazi conspiracy who had somehow or other entrenched themselves in Broadcasting House. These people were, he had been told, blackmailing me in some way and forcing me into some mysteriously discreditable line of conduct for some arcane ulterior purpose, the nature of which I have never been able to discover.
In the fluctuations of Wells’s illness Mr. West never, he records, found the proper moment to disabuse him of that nonsensical belief. No doubt he has, but he does not state, reasons for considering the belief a “nightmare cobweb of lies,” put into Wells’s mind from outside, rather than the spontaneous delusion of a desperately ill man, fabricated, perhaps, from material in Well’s experience, such as his discovery in 1934, which Mr. West discloses, that one of his mistresses, Moura Budberg, was a Soviet agent. Had he delayed publication long enough to revise the text after his mother’s death lifted the danger of libel, Mr. West would probably have been able to write as frankly as in his New York Review of Books article of March 1, 1984, and perhaps thereby more convincingly.
Even as it stands, the book discernibly contains a submerged text, which might be entitled “How I lost sympathy with my mother and found it with my father,” and it must be one of the most remarkable works by a son about a parent since Edmund Gosse’s uncharacteristically perceptive Father and Son of 1907. The sexual permissiveness of the second half of the twentieth century has been largely a matter of parents’ acknowledging children’s sexuality. Mr. West must be, still, a rare being as a child who admits his parents’ right to a sex life.
True, few other parents can have led so much sex life as H.G. Wells. His son estimates that, from 1900 on, Wells averaged three or four affairs a year, which he conducted with the cognizance and acquiescence of his wife, herself a partly pseudonymous person, an Amy whom Wells renamed Jane. She was Wells’s second wife, his first having been an episode that he put behind him by means of divorce. His extramarital liaisons, including the one with Rebecca West, were intended by Wells to be “light” and short-lived. As presented by Mr. West, Wells lived in continual, naif surprise that women who seemed to accept his terms for an affair often turned out rebellious—to the point, in several cases, of threatening suicide.
It is those who declined to be treated as episodes who provide the most vivid episodes in Mr. West’s book, along with Wells’s short-winded excursions into politics, his disastrous friendship with that disastrous man George Gissing, to whose deathbed Wells hurried, intending to introduce order and a heftier diet into his sickroom, only to lose his nerve and retreat, leaving Gissing to die in disorder, and the story of Wells’s mother, which reads like the subplot of a late novel by Anthony Trollope and has, indeed, some of Trollope’s social irony, since she fulfilled a Victorian dream by escaping from domestic service (at the minor stately home of Uppark) into marriage and then came to consider that her only way of escaping from her marriage was to return to domestic service.
Wells might have been less surprised by Rebecca West’s demand that he divorce his wife and marry her instead and, indeed, by her threat of suicide when he did not comply, had he heeded the source of her pseudonym. Ibsen’s Rebecca West is so set on marrying Rosmer that she talks his wife into suicide and him into going through a private and unofficial marriage ceremony with her, which is followed by the shared suicide of both bride and groom. Pseudonymity is inherent in Ibsen’s heroine, who has assumed the surname of her stepfather after being brought up as Rebecca Gamvik. (Had it been the other way about, how differently might literary history have read.) Wells’s publicly expressed opinion, according to Anthony West, was that “sexual intercourse, now that reliable contraceptive devices were readily available, could be looked upon as a pleasant social pastime in a class with golf or cards.” However, the existence of Anthony West demonstrates that the contraceptives (or their users) were not infallibly reliable. Indeed, Mr. ‘West records that five years before his own birth Wells had made another of his pleasant social pastimes pregnant. Perhaps it came naturally to the mind of Wells, as a pioneer writer of science fiction, to set the state of the art of contraception in advance of where it truly was.
Neither did Wells frame much in the way of a contingency plan to use should technology and, with it, his moral argument fail. At the first failure, Wells, an undisguised and proud proletarian, took the age-old seigneurial escape route: before she gave birth to Wells’s daughter, the girl had been encouraged by Wells into marriage with an admirer who happened, happily for Wells though perhaps less so for the other two, to be at hand. By the time of his involvement with Rebecca West, the popular success of his books was making Wells rich and, “to put it,” says Mr. West, “crassly, he tried to buy her off,” though she thought the sum he offered “mingy.”
To others whom he discarded Wells offered only hints and opportunities for earning money themselves. He furnished one with introductions to well-known people whom she might interview for the press. Maladroitly or callously, he included an introduction to Rebecca West. A later discarded mistress was given an introduction only to what Mr. West calls “the Barrie formula” for lucrative journalism, as used by Wells himself in his novice days as a hack. I have tracked this down in Wells’s own Experiment in Autobiography (on which Mr. West’s book is in part an informal commentary). The “formula” turns out to consist of some fictionalized hints by J.M. Barrie on the concoction of topical journalism by transforming mundane into glamorous experiences. Wells describes these as “precious words through which I found salvation,” but it is hard to imagine their providing salvation or a livelihood to anyone else and hard not to suspect that Barrie was making some sardonic joke that Wells missed.
Anthony West was brought up to call his mother “Aunty” and to know H.G. Wells as a visitor, whom he called “Wellsie,” but not, in the first place, as his father. By the time both were young adults and had been told of Wells’s paternity, Wells introduce his illegitimate son to his illegitimate daughter over one of the most excruciating teas that can ever have been served. Anthony West seems to have begun to switch his allegiance between his parents when, in adolescence, he contracted tuberculosis. Rebecca West expected a fatal result. Wells, who had himself recovered from the disease, was cheerful—not, I imagine, through any flair for diagnosis (Mr. West records that he simply did not notice when his wife was dying from cancer) but through invincible optimism. Wells took the invalid Anthony West on a day trip to Wells-next-the-Sea, a tiny resort that cannot always be so gloomy as when I chanced to visit it recently in a downpour, and bade the boy photograph him and thus secure a picture of Wells next the sea.
Mr. West is greatly more lenient toward the errors he detects of fact and interpretation in his father’s autobiographical writing than toward what he condemns as Rebecca West’s attempts to rewrite history and foist her version on biographers. Though not blind he is indulgent to what he considers Wells’s literary blunders. Perhaps sympathy with his father’s vision of the geopolitical future had some part in his decision to transplant himself to the United States, in whose idiom he now writes the English language, writing “overly,” “sanitarium,” “at loose ends” (for which the British idiom is for some reason in the singular), and “England” in contexts where the natives have long been schooled by Celts to write “Britain.” He also commits the ungrammatical vulgarity common to the two idioms of linking “this” or “that” with an adjective (“this vague,” “that close”) and repeatedly punctuates with a comma where his syntax demands a full stop.
Mr. West’s partisanship leads him into manifest injustice only on the subject of Wells’s impolitic attempt, in the first decade of the twentieth century, to take over the Fabian Society. He seems to have been as surprised that such members as the Webbs and Bernard Shaw did not want to be ousted as that some mistresses did not want to be abandoned. Shaw emerges from Mr. West’s hands as “coldly cruel,” “essentially treacherous,” and “more than devious.” That is ill requital for Shaw’s characteristically generous, calm, and amusing account:
How lack of committee training and platform technique disables even the most gifted thinkers was illustrated by the case of H.G. Wells, with whom I had a famous debate when he tried to capture the Fabian Society at one blow. As a speaker and committee man I had the advantage of him by ten years, whilst he was a complete novice. To say that I annihilated him is nothing: he saved me the trouble by annihilating himself. He could only misbehave himself. Fortunately for him he did this so outrageously that the Society very sensibly saw through the situation, and, whilst dismissing him as tactically impossible, thought none the worse of him as a Socialist pioneer, and none the better of me for my superiority as a platform artist.
I met Rebecca West once, during the war and my early adolescence. My father (John Brophy, 1899-1965) was a writer who knew Rebecca West moderately well: well enough to address her as Rebecca but not (did anyone?) as Cicily. During the war he edited a literary magazine and, when she published Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, a long book about Yugoslavia, he devoted a month’s petrol ration to driving my mother and me to see her at the house in the Chilterns she shared with Henry Andrews, a rich man who was by then her husband, in the hope of persuading her to amend, in his paper or elsewhere, the factual errors and political misjudgments he discerned in her book. I had and have no knowledge of Balkan politics and therefore no opinion about which of them was right. Rebecca West received us friendlily and gave us a posh tea, but my father got nowhere with his purpose. He kept putting facts and arguments to her, and she kept repeating the gist of the passages in her book he was taking exception to. On our drive home, my mother, who was much the better driver, took the wheel and my father sat spouting feminist wrath because Henry Andrews had, all afternoon, spoken of Rebecca West’s books as “our” books and of her plans for future books as “our” plans.
Mr. West remarks that the liaison between his parents was an open secret several years before I was born, and indeed I had scarcely been born before my father apprised me of it. My father early spotted the likelihood that I would become a writer and he conscientiously undertook my literary education, bringing to my notice not only books but literary history, including those bits of it he had lived through himself. Two items he told me that Mr. West does not mention I record here for whatever value they may have as literary gossip. Kingsley Martin, the flamboyant editor of the New Statesman, who flits across one episode in Mr. West’s book, and is the subject of one of its illustrations, my father described as the only man he had met on whose head the hair literally stood on end when he was angry. I had no chance to check on this myself, because Kingsley Martin had retired by the time I was contributing to the paper, but my father vouched for its truth and said that he had, with astonishment, witnessed the phenomenon on an occasion when he shared a cab with Martin and a third man the tenor of whose political conversation infuriated Martin.
The other item was that H.G. Wells ascribed his sexual successes with women to a scent of violets naturally exuded by his flesh. This my father considered a delusion on Wells’s part, though I doubt if he ever approached Wells closely enough to put it to the test. Certainly, Wells’s sexual attractiveness is not accounted for by photographs of him, though he was, as the illustrations in Mr. West’s book bear witness, an exhaustively photographed man. Perhaps the violet myth, if it is a myth, was invented to explain the otherwise inexplicable to the unsusceptible. However, to anyone who thinks the smell of violets pretty but no swooning, let alone suicide-threatening, matter, the myth merely explains one mystery by another. Perhaps what truly needs explanation is a change of taste in scents. Victorian and Edwardian women must have had some reason for dousing themselves in the scent of Parma violets.