A Man of Parts is David Lodge’s second venture into fictionalized biography, which allows him to concentrate on comedy and character. His first was Author, Author, in which he took Henry James as his subject. Lodge is a literary critic as well as a novelist, and James is a writer he particularly admires, but Author, Author is not about James’s success as a writer, it is an affectionate and witty look at the man. It opens with the last months of his life—Lodge writes with special understanding of old age—and then moves back in time to pay particular attention to James’s miserable experience as a playwright, and to his friendships with fellow writers: the tragic Constance Fenimore Woolson and the charming George Du Maurier, the stylish artist and illustrator who turned to writing with surprising results. James had a tender affection for Du Maurier, calling him Kiki, and Kiki’s unexpected and stunning success with his novel Trilby (1894) was a source of pleasure but also mortification to James, whose own book sales were poor. Lodge’s sympathy with awkwardness and embarrassment, and his perception that even the disasters of life can have their comic moments, make something unexpected and touching of James’s experience.
Toward the end of Author, Author, James is shown bicycling across the Romney Marsh to call on a young English writer, H.G. Wells, just then recovering from a severe attack of kidney disease. James was taken by Edmund Gosse, the literary fixer, who wanted to find out whether Wells needed financial help from a fund that assisted writers. It was soon clear that Wells needed no help, and was in fact planning to build a splendid house for himself and his second wife on the south coast. This was in 1898. Wells, then in his thirties, was already well known as a journalist and writer of science fiction. He and James became friends, and James greeted his novel Kipps (1905) as a “gem” for its “brilliancy of true truth.” Their enthusiasm for one another cooled gradually. James produced no more compliments and Wells decided that James wrote for readers who find reality too real, and published a cruel satire. Lodge became interested in the collision of two such different minds and sensibilities, and this led to the present book, which is all about Wells.
Wells’s name is probably less well known among readers today than Henry James’s, although Wells reached a pinnacle of international fame in the course of his long life (1866–1946). His books, fiction and nonfiction, sold in the millions. The science fiction stories quickly became classics: Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, written in 1898, famously sparked a panic in the US forty years later, when listeners believed that Martians had actually landed. The English-language sales alone of his Outline of History were over two million in ten years; its shorter version is still in print, and praised by modern historians. In the 1930s Wells’s books won the accolade of being judged so dangerous by the Nazis that they were burned in Germany. He enjoyed highly publicized meetings with world leaders, four American presidents, including both Roosevelts, and two Russian leaders, Lenin in 1920 and Stalin in 1934. When he died in 1946, Penguin at once put out new editions of ten of his books—four of science fiction, one of history, and five of his early novels.
Lodge’s interest is in the private rather than the public Wells. He opens A Man of Parts as he opened Author, Author, by introducing us to an old man approaching the end of his life. Seventy-nine-year-old Wells, living alone but comfortably in his house in Hanover Terrace on Regent’s Park in the center of London during World War II, broods over his past, talks to himself, and laughs as he remembers the mock obituary he had once written for himself, in which he dismissed “H.G. Wells” as a prolific literary hack. He is visited by his adult son Anthony—the child he had with the writer Rebecca West—who is going through a marital crisis and asking for sympathy, and there are dramatic scenes with Anthony’s wife, his mistress, and his mother. Rebecca, middle-aged, married, brisk, and inclined to bully, descends on Wells. All this is entertaining and persuasive. Wells advises his son against divorce, to his surprise, pointing out that there are children to be considered.
He is also shown writing love letters to his beloved but uncompliant Russian mistress, Moura Budberg. He hopes she may yet move in with him; but although her flat has its windows blown out by a German V1 missile she will only visit him, tell him to have his own windows boarded up, drink his brandy, flirt a little, and leave again.
Lodge makes Wells interrogate himself: “Didn’t you love Rebecca?” to which he answers, “I was in love with her…. But that’s a different matter.” Then, as Anthony’s problems are sorted out, Wells retreats into himself and embarks on an inner examination of whether his life has been a success or a failure. His questions now are bald: “So when and where were you born?” and “Were you aware that you had talents which were being stifled by this environment?” Throughout the book, sections of Wells interrogating himself alternate with free narrative. This allows changes of pace and tone, and releases Lodge from sitting in judgment on his subject.
There is plenty of material to draw on, given that Wells wrote his own memoir and added an extra volume devoted to sexual reminiscences; and Lodge allows him to present his often outrageous treatment of women, while taking pleasure in recalling the sexual details of the affairs. He also allows him to show curious ignorance for a man so obsessed with sex, asking himself of his second wife, “Did she ever have orgasms?” only to answer, “I don’t think so, no.”
Lodge is partly amused and partly amazed by Wells’s love life, and he goes manfully through affair after affair. But the problem for even the most skillful writer is that there are just too many women, too many seductions, too many scandals, too many rows, too much pain and anger. Wells’s perpetual pursuit of sexual conquest may have been the result of an exceptionally powerful libido, or possibly the payback for his half-starved, sickly, ill-educated, and overworked early years, so that once he had health and money he felt he had earned the right to all the women he wanted.
He was lucky enough to be exceptionally attractive, at any rate when he was famous, and women pressed themselves on him. He was said to smell delicious, of honey, or of walnuts; and Rebecca West wrote, “It is never easy to say why Wells with no personal advantage but a bright eye made everyone else in the room seem a dull dog.” His appetite for love was great, and his blithe disregard of decent behavior greater. One of Lodge’s striking passages is an account of him “eloping” to a villa in Normandy with a supposedly adored young woman pregnant by him; he is soon bored and lured back to London for smart lunch parties, leaving her alone. When she goes disconsolately back to her parents, Wells cheerfully takes his wife and two young sons to the same villa—he had after all paid for it—and spends a thoroughly enjoyable family holiday with them.
When Wells met James in Sussex he was preparing to write his first naturalistic novel, Love and Mr. Lewisham. In it he made his fictional alter ego, Mr. Lewisham, wear a red tie to proclaim his political allegiance. “Blood colour, please,” says young Lewisham to the startled girl behind the counter at which he buys the tie, inspired to become a socialist by the sight of the gaunt and hungry children of London coal workers striking for better conditions, and the indifference of the middle-class ladies only two streets away, frivolously shopping. Wells sets this out in the novel and he had of course witnessed it himself; his sympathy with the poor was all the keener because it came out of his own experience.
In his Experiment in Autobiography (1934) he described the bad and sparse food, the small, dark, damp, bug-infested rooms of his early childhood—the Wells family lived below a failing crockery shop—and his yearning for education, thwarted by his mother’s determination to apprentice him to a draper at thirteen. The meanness, meagerness, dullness, and near slavery of the working conditions at Hyde’s Drapery Emporium in Southsea were so bad that his longing for escape drove him to threaten suicide in order to get away. He had every sort of aptitude, for science, for Latin, for writing, for mathematics, and by winning scholarships he arrived at the age of eighteen at South Kensington Normal School of Science, to be taught biology and zoology by the great Thomas Huxley, friend of Darwin. He was still living on a starvation diet of bread, butter, and tea, because the scholarships did not cover food—there is a photograph of skinny young H.G. posing appropriately next to a skeleton—but it was the turning point in his life. He was at last among intellectuals, he joined the student debating society, he made clever friends, and he discovered socialism.
Harsh as his boyhood was, there had been another thread to it, and he always acknowledged that he owed an important part of his formation to the fact that he had been given the freedom of the library in the great house of a landowning family, Uppark in Sussex, where his mother was employed for a while as housekeeper. At Uppark young Wells had not only been able to see large, well-designed rooms and beautiful furniture, he had been able to read Plato, Swift, Voltaire, Johnson, Tom Paine; to pore over volumes of engravings of the paintings of Michelangelo and Raphael; even to put together the component parts of an old telescope that allowed him to study the moon and planets in the night sky.
Thinking about this experience decades later he became convinced that “modern civilization was begotten and nursed in the households of the…minor nobility, the gentry, and the larger bourgeoisie,” houses in which “men could talk, think and write at their leisure…[in] an atmosphere of unhurried liberal enquiry,…of established aesthetic and intellectual standards.” Out of such houses, the adult Wells came to believe, had come the Royal Society, the first museums, laboratories, and picture galleries, gentle manners, good writing, “and nearly all that is worthwhile in our civilization today.” He went on to say that although “their culture, like the culture of the ancient world, rested on a toiling class,” he envisaged a future in which machinery and economic organization would do away with the need for any toiling class.
Class was a problem he often laughed at in his novels, notably in Kipps, where the suddenly enriched hero finds he prefers his old poverty with its freedoms to the encumbrances of middle-class respectability. Wells himself was, however, not at all embarrassed by becoming rich, and he enjoyed spending his money. The house he was planning when James first met him, Spade House at Sandgate, was a very comfortable one, and far ahead of its time: Wells insisted that every bedroom should have its own lavatory. He liked to write about different, better, and fairer ways of organizing society, but his imagination also led him to horrific visions of the distant future. In The Time Machine (1895) he shows two groups of human beings, the idle and artistic Eloi, living in the sunshine, and the brutish Morlocks, kept working underground, who relate to one another in a peculiarly horrible way.
Women presented another problem. Wells was a feminist. His novel Ann Veronica (1909) gives a wholly sympathetic and remarkably well-informed account of what it was like to be a young woman determined to establish herself as an independent person, defying a conventional father, seeing off men whose kindness is a mask for lechery, learning to live alone in London lodgings, going to prison with fellow suffragettes, dismissing a decent, dull suitor, and inevitably—it seems—falling in love with a married man. Ann Veronica does not last long as an independent being, not surprisingly since she was based on Amber Reeves, daughter of Wells’s political friends in the Fabian Society. Amber was a high-flying student at Cambridge and, as Wells wrote, she was pregnant by him—she was the girl he eloped with to Normandy. “Master,” she called him, fresh from getting her First. In the novel she marries her lover; in life she soon saw that she would have to settle for her dull suitor, who was prepared to bring up the child she bore to Wells. Everyone behaved well, and his wife Jane went so far as to prepare baby clothes for Amber’s daughter.
Reading Shelley had encouraged the young Wells in the hope that he might find “free, ambitious, self-reliant women who would mate with me and go their way, as I desired to go my way.” A brief consideration of Shelley’s experience might have told him that this was a hope unlikely to be fulfilled, and he admitted, “I had never in fact seen or heard of any such women; I had evolved them from my inner consciousness.” In reality he made an early marriage to a cousin that ended in divorce when he left her for Jane, one of his students, who bore him two sons.
This marriage he regarded as binding while giving himself license to conduct as many affairs as he wished. He did not attempt to conceal them from Jane or, in general, from others. He fathered children with other women and spent a great deal of time away from home with them. Jane behaved with dignity and kindness and did not complain, but no one can think that she was very happy with such a way of life. Humiliation and sorrow for her, and a good deal of misery for some of the other women, as Lodge makes plain. Rebecca West hated Jane because Wells would not consider separating from her, and went on hating her long after her death, according to West’s biographer Victoria Glendinning.
Jane died of cancer at the age of fifty-five in 1927, and during the next year Wells wrote to his brother saying that “in a sort of way my life finished last year.” What he meant is hard to fathom, given his behavior, but he always insisted that he had loved Jane, who had shared his life before he became successful, lived in lodgings with him, and seen him write his first fiction; she had given him an anchorage, helped him with his work, shared his intellectual and political interests, entertained his friends, and been a good mother to their sons. He missed her and their common memories, and he remained a restless man for whom multiple love affairs were an essential component of life. And it is noticeable that he always wrote better about disappointing love and sex than about fulfillment.
Moura Budberg, the courageous and intelligent Russian woman who survived the murder of her first husband during the Revolution, and was for a time Gorky’s secretary and mistress, became Wells’s last love. He pressed her to marry him but she would never agree to. In this way she showed herself to be exactly the free, ambitious, self-reliant woman he had dreamed of in his youth. She would not fall in with his wishes, she preserved her independence, and he loved her to the end. Lodge suggests that he was sometimes tormented by the suspicion that she was a spy and that their long love affair was merely a matter of expediency for her. He has Wells ask her, on one of her last visits, “Are you a spy, Moura?” She replies, “Aigee [i.e., H.G.]… That is a silly question. Shall I tell you why? Because if you ask that question of someone and she is not a spy she will say ‘no.’ But if she is a spy she will also say ‘no.’ So there is no point in asking that question.” H.G. smilingly agrees that this is so. True or not, it makes a good scene.
Lodge is also very good on the comedy of Wells’s interaction with the Fabian Society, which he joined in 1903, and his friendships with Bernard Shaw and his wife, with Edith Nesbit and Hubert Bland, with Beatrice and Sidney Webb. And he gives his splendid speech of January 1906, “The Misery of Boots,” in which he called on the Fabians to face the truth that one in five of the population of England was suffering from ill-made, ill-fitting boots, clothes no better, and houses far worse—and that shoddy ideas and misconceptions were all they were offered by way of education. He who had raised himself to be able to afford comfortable boots was unable to enjoy them because he could not forget the misery of those still suffering. He spelled out his political message:
There is enough good leather in the world to make good sightly boots and shoes for all who need them, enough men at leisure and enough power and machinery to do all the work required, enough unemployed intelligence to organize the shoe making and shoe distribution for everybody. What stands in the way?
His answer was private property and private capital, and that only socialists had the remedy. He was applauded, but he did not change the Fabian Society, and he resigned from it in 1908. He remained a socialist, and stood twice for Parliament in the 1920s, but was not elected.
In his early realist novels he mined his own early experiences, laying out the difficulties faced by poor but hopeful young men in late Victorian and Edwardian England, where you might try to look respectable by wearing a waterproof collar scrubbed clean with a toothbrush each night, but still find the class gulf unbridgeable, and the price exacted for getting what you desired, whether higher education or sexual happiness, so high you despaired. Love and Mr. Lewisham, The History of Mr. Polly, and Kipps give you the smell and the taste of England as most of its people knew it, their ill-fitting boots and their uncomfortable houses. Tono-Bungay (1909), the best and cleverest of his novels, starts with poverty and goes on to show success in a bloated, acquisitive society and give a brilliant account of how fraudulent capitalism can work: through advertising, know-how, and confidence, one can make millions from bottles of flavored water. The novel picks off its targets wonderfully and fails only in the love story with the aristocratic Beatrice.
With novels he never did so well again. But in 1934 he published the two-volume Experiment in Autobiography, the first part of which equals and even surpasses his fictional accounts of his early years and the world he grew up in. He also had great success with popularizing works of science and history: A Short History of the World is still a very good read. He was a tireless journalist and his fame grew as his literary reputation sank. The fame was understandable: he was never afraid of controversy, and he was able to predict such things as the tank and the atomic bomb. He wrote political allegories; and in The Shape of Things to Come, first a novel and then a film, he foretold some of the horrors of World War II. Toward the end of his life, in 1940, he published a short book about the rights of man, which was used when the United Nations formulated its declaration of rights in 1946.
Lodge is amused and affectionate toward the old Wells and his circle, and always entertaining. He suggests on the last page of his book that “H.G. was like a comet. He appeared suddenly out of obscurity at the end of the 19th century and blazed in the literary firmament for decades…but now he has passed out of sight.” I’d have liked more about the very early years, when Wells was formed, and almost destroyed in the process, and when he saw everything about him with piercing clarity, and imagined how differently it might develop, technologically and socially. Out of those years came what is still essential reading, the science fiction—The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine probably the best—and, of the novels, Tono-Bungay, a work of apocalyptic pessimism that still has a message for us. Lodge’s last words are, “Perhaps one day he will glow in the firmament once again.”
September 29, 2011
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