Sour Apple

Jose Harris

  • H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life by Anthony West
    Hutchinson, 405 pp, £12.95, June 1984, ISBN 0 09 134540 5
  • Heritage by Anthony West
    Secker, 305 pp, £8.95, April 1984, ISBN 0 436 56592 7

One of H.G. Wells’s abiding obsessions was the fear that the ‘woman of the future’ would bring about ‘race suicide’ by refusing to bear children: which may be a reason why he embarked on fatherhood so energetically, with a variety of women in addition to his wife. One of Wells’s most famous liaisons was with Rebecca West, mother of the author of the latest Wells biography. They met in 1912 when she was 19, he 45. He was an established novelist and social critic, she an ambitious young feminist author, who was beginning to make a name for herself by tart and witty book reviews in the Freewoman, Clarion and Daily News. Her articles ranged over numerous feminist topics: the ‘rat poison’ of housework, the futility of the current suffrage Bill, the scarcity of women geniuses, ‘honesty’ in sexual relationships and the moral imperative for a free woman to abandon an exhausted marriage. She constantly berated fellow females for their passivity, sentimental piety, and lack of a sense of adventure and ambition. From the start Rebecca West was obsessed by Wells – that plain and portly ladykiller, whose attractions seemed so mysterious to those who never met him. She pursued him vigorously both at his home (under the complaisant chaperonage of Mrs Wells) and by writing deliberately provoking reviews of his books. ‘He is the old maid among novelists,’ she wrote of his book Marriage. ‘Even the sex obsession that lay clotted on Ann Veronica and The New Machiavelli like cold white sauce was merely old maid’s mania, the reaction towards the flesh of a mind too long absorbed in airships and colloids.’ No man of Wells’s temperament could resist such baiting, with the result that he and Rebecca West became lovers. Their son, Anthony West, was born in 1914.

They were, however, a grossly ill-matched pair. Rebecca West always had high-minded ideas about literature, seeing herself and other writers as sacred vessels through which divine inspiration flowed: Wells, for all his interest in prophecy, viewed writing in a much more humdrum way, as the workmanlike expression of personal experience and scientific knowledge. More important, they had totally different ideas about the future of their relationship. Wells at no stage had the slightest intention of abandoning the comfort, good humour and sheer domestic efficiency provided by Jane Wells. Rebecca, however, was convinced that she could persuade him to seek a divorce and marry her. She persisted in this belief for fifteen years, with a great deal of trauma and misery as a consequence. Furthermore, although he had made generous provision for an earlier mistress, Amber Pember Reeves, Wells’s view of what was due to a mistress was in Rebecca’s case drearily inadequate. There was no bijou residence in St John’s Wood, tactfully managed by an understanding duenna. Instead, she was accommodated in furnished lodgings at Hunstanton and then in an abandoned farmhouse on the mud-flats of North Suffolk. Her total lack of domestic skills and her inability to manage servants meant that every time Wells visited her there were scenes over domestic disorders. It may be that for the free woman there is much to be said for chastity and basic competence at housework, after all! This was the context of Anthony West’s childhood. For some years he believed that Rebecca was his aunt – ‘Aunty Panther’ – and that Wells was merely a visiting ‘Mr West’. Unless the camera lies, Anthony West at two was an outstandingly beautiful child, and one might have expected him to be the apple of Rebecca’s eye. Instead he was at best an inconvenience, at worst a pawn in her ritual game with his father.

In such a background there was much to wound a small child. Anthony West has written two books about his parents’ relationship: a novel, Heritage, published in 1955 and now reissued, and his new work, H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life. Both books suggest that he has spent the past seventy years in search of an Oresteian purgation, and has not yet found it. Of the two, Heritage is much the better book, though Aspects of a Life will probably be of more general interest to historians. The novel chronicles the hole-in-the-corner childhood with an erratic and capricious mother, the bundling-off to progressive and conventional schools, a schoolmate’s revelation of who his father was, his mother’s eventual marriage to a monument of boredom, and the unpredictable irruptions of Wells himself – thinly disguised as Max Town, a world-famous novelist draped in furs and mistresses. Resentment against his mother dominates the novel, but there are occasional flashes of tenderness and feeling for her plight.

Such flashes are largely absent from the biography, which is a book written in two parts. Ignoring the customary sequence of biographical events, the first page begins with Anthony West’s own birth, and the next eight chapters reiterate the details of the Wells-West relationship. Its underlying theme is an attempt to prove that current accounts of that relationship are based on evidence ‘planted’ by Rebecca throughout her life but particularly in the Fifties and Sixties: evidence in the form of letters and testimonies that were almost wholly fabrication. Rebecca’s aim, so Anthony West argues, was to doctor her own image for the consumption of history, by suggesting that it was always Wells who made the running in their relationship, that he constantly insulted and degraded her, and that he suffered from a form of psychological instability bordering on madness. Anthony West’s efforts to refute this account so dominate his book that at times they seriously distort its value as a general biography. We are given, for example, a fascinating account of Wells’s attempt to convert Lenin to gradualism and his growing belief that Bolshevism was the only force capable of saving Russia from barbarism, but all the episode comes round to in the end is a further argument against Rebecca: Wells’s visit to Russia is significant first and foremost because, contrary to her account, it shows that in 1917 he was totally sane.

In contrast with the passion of the first eight chapters, the rest of the book is fairly conventional. Chapter Nine returns to Wells’s ancestral origins, and after that we have a fairly straightforward, readable, though episodic account of Wells’s life. There are severe indictments of many of Wells’s contemporaries, suggesting that Anthony West’s penchant for black and white judgments is not confined to his assessment of his parents. William Morris, for example, was a purveyor of ‘bogus archaisms and mock heroics’, Beatrice Webb was an ‘arrogant woman of limited intelligence’, Edmund Gosse was the ‘gentleman’s outfitter’ of English literary culture. West’s scorn for the ‘genteel sub-academic’ Gosse is withering throughout: yet if his own account of his father survives it will surely be as a 20th-century equivalent of Gosse’ Father and Son. It will be of value less as a biography than as a primary source of information about Wells – and as a unique account of parent-child relationships in an age and culture of free love and family disintegration. It is a book with a moral, though it probably wasn’t meant to have one.