Big Head, Many Brains

Colin Burrow

  • A Man of Parts by David Lodge
    Harvill, 565 pp, £18.99, March 2011, ISBN 978 1 84655 496 4

In 1892, while H.G. Wells was transforming himself from a draper’s assistant to a student of science, he married his cousin Isabel. He ungallantly described her in his Experiment in Autobiography (1934) as being at the time of their marriage ‘the one human being who was conceivable as an actual lover’. She did not much like having sex with him, however, and when he started teaching in Holborn he rapidly moved his attention to a student, Amy Catherine Robbins, whom he married (having divorced Isabel) in 1895, and whom he came to call ‘Jane’. She did not much like having sex with him either, but stuck with him and endured the affairs, some fleeting and some serious, that he conducted during their more than 30 years of married life (she died in 1927).

By the early 20th century Wells was one of the most fashionable writers in Britain. He rode a bicycle. He looked forward to the formation of a socialist world state. He had many baths (he had en suite bathrooms installed in the house he built for himself at the height of his fame). He was a man of the future. Girls threw themselves at him, and some of them did seem to like having sex with him. He formed an affection for Rosamund Bland, the (apparent) daughter of E. Nesbit, who turned out to be the daughter of Nesbit’s husband, Hubert Bland, and their governess. Caught red-handed by Rosamund’s father as they set off for Paris, Wells dropped her. He then took up with a Cambridge philosophy undergraduate called Amber Reeves, ‘who fell in love with me with great vigour and determination, and stirred me to a storm of responsive passion’. He eloped with her to Le Touquet, where he rapidly discovered that she lacked domestic competence. Since she was pregnant he slipped away to arrange for her to marry a lawyer called Blanco White.

And still they kept coming. In later life Wells was fascinated by Moura Budberg, an interpreter he met in Russia, who he feared was a lover of Maxim Gorky (she denied it, archly). When another woman, Odette Keun, invited him to her hotel room and he found her wearing only ‘a flimsy wrap and an aroma of jasmine’ he took up with her too, although she came to infuriate him. Then there was a year or so with Elizabeth von Arnim, and a woman who tried to kill herself in front of him, and a few (not many) prostitutes. And there was also of course Rebecca West, whom he called his ‘panther’, and by whom he had a son (whose middle name was Panther) in 1914. West was particularly critical of his writing about sex: ‘His prose,’ she wrote, ‘suddenly loses its firmness and begins to shake like blancmange.’ She had a tendency to associate Edwardian male writers with jellied substances: she described being kissed by Ford Madox Ford as ‘like being the toast under a poached egg’.

Wells wrote about himself and his amours with what he thought was exemplary frankness. His Experiment in Autobiography attempts to explain how his brain was built by his life, and as he confessed, ‘the Brain upon which my experiences have been written is not a particularly good one.’ He wrote a supplement to that autobiography which detailed his erotic life. It was eventually published in 1984, a year after West’s death, under the title H.G. Wells in Love.

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[*] Author, Author was reviewed by Terry Eagleton in the LRB of 23 September 2004.