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Wells and Women

In response to:

Sons and Lovers from the December 6, 1984 issue

To the Editors:

I don’t believe that your reviewer of my book H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life is anything like as familiar with its subject matter as she pretends to be. Her lack of any real knowledge of the field is made very evident in the paragraph in which, after making a passing reference to a woman with whom Wells was briefly involved in 1922 and again in 1923, she brings another person onto the scene as “a later discarded mistress.”

The reference is to Dorothy Richardson, who made Wells’ acquaintance in 1896, became sexually involved with him for a short time in 1906–1907, and thereafter reverted to the role of family friend that had been hers from the beginning—she had entered Wells’ life as a former school friend of his second wife’s. The association, such as it was, was only ended by Wells’ death. Having made that little error, Ms. Brophy goes on to another, of a rather different kind. She proceeds to assert that after Wells had had his wicked way with Richardson and tossed her aside, the only thing he did for her was to offer her an introduction to “what Mr. West calls ‘the Barrie formula’ for lucrative journalism.” Wells did indeed offer Richardson an introduction to Barrie’s formula, but that was long before he had enjoyed carnal knowledge of her.

When the young Wellses took Richardson up in 1896 she was working as a receptionist for a Harley Street dental partnership and earning a salary of a pound a week. That meant that when she had put down the seven shillings rent she was paying for her bed-sitter she had just thirteen shillings left to see her through the rest of the week. When the Wellses told her they were worrying about the way she was living she said they were not to—she’d soon be getting started as a writer, and then she’d show them. Four or five years later, when she still hadn’t written anything, and was still pulling in that miserable pound a week, Wells tried to get her going by teaching her to use the Barrie formula that had served him so well when he had been a beginner. Wells didn’t persist with his efforts to get her to try it out, because she proved to be either unwilling or unable to humble herself to the extent necessary to make it work. That is the story of Wells, Richardson, and the Barrie Formula in its entirety.

It was, incidentally, interesting to me to learn that either the obscurity or the eccentricity of my references to the Barrie formula had driven Ms. Brophy to research, and that her researches had been rewarded by discoveries:

I have tracked this down…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…

The truth is that anyone who has read my Aspects of a Life must know, from its page 208, that the formula comes from Barrie’s novel When a Man’s Single, and that it is there attributed to one of Barrie’s characters. I give my description of it in the same place, where I call it “a foolproof formula for writing a saleable short piece for the newspapers.” I am quite simply astounded by Ms. Brophy’s account of what her arduous researches proved it to be. There is nothing in the formula as presented by Barrie that can be twisted into a recommendation for the glamorisation of anything. It is introduced to the reader of When a Man’s Single by Barrie’s character with the informative words “You beginners….” He goes on to warn the aspirant writer off heavy and pretentious treatments of serious subjects and to tell him that until he has learnt his business his best bet is the short flight in the realm of everyday experience. He gives examples of the sort of thing that he has seen rewarded with the three guinea check that was the standard down-market fee for a short piece in those days: reflections on seeing a friend mending his tobacco pipe with sealing wax; on a Chinese umbrella; on a way of learning to play a tune on the piano quickly before you’ve learned to read music properly; on the unforeseen consequences of making a level swap, of old clothing for flower-pots, with a street hawker…that sort of thing. I’m afraid Ms. Brophy pontificates on this issue on a basis of profound ignorance, of Barrie’s world, of Wells’ experiences, and of what the ethics of book reviewing are.

This is rather a serious charge to make against a practicing book reviewer, so I think I should back it up with another instance of critical malpractice on Ms. Brophy’s part. Wells was remarkable, among other things, for his consistently odd and unpredictable behavior when faced with pregnancies and parturitions for which he was responsible. He put on one of his more extraordinary performances for the benefit of Rebecca West. I find Ms. Brophy’s treatment of it both inadequate and—well—dodgy.

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.”

Wells and RW became involved in the course of 1912–1913. RW became pregnant in the last days of 1913. The proposal for a financial settlement that RW initially found unacceptable was put to her in March 1923. It seems rather more likely that this proposal was prompted by the fact that Wells and RW had by that time been quarrelling with increasing frequency and bitterness for five years, than by a delayed reaction on Wells’ part to the failure of his birth control technique of nine years and a bit earlier.

Anthony West

Fisher’s Island, New York

Brigid Brophy replies:

Mr. West does indeed give his account of what he calls the Barrie formula on his page 208, where he calls it “foolproof” and ascribes it to a novel by J.M. Barrie. What Mr. West’s letter does not say is that his account is six lines long and fails to divulge what the formula was.

Anyone who wants an inkling of what the references to the formula in Mr. West’s book mean is therefore obliged to consult either J.M. Barrie or H.G. Wells. The book I was reviewing was about Wells and I consulted Wells, in whose autobiography I found his account of the influence of Barrie’s novel on him.

I did not claim this simple though slightly tedious chore as the “arduous researches” on which Mr. West expends his sarcasm. The notion that I did is an invention by Mr. West with the help of carefully placed dots of omission. In quoting me he substitutes dots for my citation of where I found Wells’s account.

Unlike Mr. West, Wells quotes, at moderate length, from the Barrie novel that gave him what he calls “the hidden secret” of writing saleable free-lance journalism. The fictitious Rorrison recounts examples of how his friend Simms produces articles by transformations of real-life experiences. The only article named in Wells’s quotation from Barrie is “Rorrison’s Oil-Painting.” The origin of this is Rorrison’s request to Simms to look in during Rorrison’s absence on holiday to turn his new cheese. Simms transforms this into a request to turn a newly painted oil painting to preserve it from dust and the cat.

But why,” asks an interlocutor, “did he turn the cheese into an oil-painting?” Rorrison replies: “Ah, there you have the journalistic instinct again. You see a cheese is too plebeian a thing to form the subject of an article in the Scalping Knife.”

This passage, which Wells selected to quote from Barrie, makes nonsense of Mr. West’s objection to my account of the supposed formula and nonsense also of Mr. West’s assertion that “there is nothing in the formula as presented by Barrie that can be twisted into a recommendation for the glamorisation of anything.” It needs no twisting.

On the subject of Dorothy Richardson Mr. West’s fury is difficult to fathom. If the to-and-fro chronology of his book misled me into thinking Wells advised her to earn a living by applying the so-called formula after, instead of before, she was Wells’s mistress, I apologize. If, on the other hand, his objection is to my calling her a discarded mistress, Mr. West’s letter, if it is correct, confirms the description by saying that after being Wells’s mistress she “reverted” to the role of family friend.

Rebecca West would have had no financial claim on H.G. Wells and he no need to offer her a financial settlement had she not borne him a child. There is no justification whatever for Mr. West’s assertion of something “dodgy” in what I said of his account of the matter. I have nothing to dodge.

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