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.

Wells’s autobiographical writings are fascinating, not just because he met more or less everyone who was anyone (Shaw, the Webbs, Conrad, Ford, E. Nesbit, Teddy Roosevelt, Gissing, Gorky, Stalin), but because they are the product of completely incompatible intellectual influences and ambitions. He was very interested in the mechanics of the human brain. Were he alive today, he would be happy to believe that the mind is the same as the brain, and would present TV programmes in which he wired himself up to a brain-scanner in order to show bits of his cortex lighting up when he thought of Rebecca West. The body was for him a mechanism, and the mind could similarly have its desires mapped and explained. When he wrote about himself, it was almost in the spirit of an anatomist: he wanted to lay bare his emotions and to explain the emergence of his political consciousness. But he also conversed with Freud and read Jung, and was wise enough to realise that an account of a brain written purely from introspection was unlikely to be quite accurate. A person might create a ‘persona’ which was not entirely truthful, and present not a ‘statement of what I am, but only of what I most like to think I am’. He nonetheless believed that ‘the artistic type relative to the systematising type may have a more vigorous innervation of the cortex, rather more volume in the arteries, a richer or more easily oxygenated blood supply.’ In short, much of our nature is determined by our plumbing.

There is no one so deceived as the person who believes that he is undeceived about himself. Wells often sounds like a monster of egoism exactly when he is trying his hardest to be a clear-sighted anatomist of human conduct. When West ‘flamed up into open and declared passion’, he writes, ‘it is easy to understand how strong my appeal to her imagination must have been. She was saturated with literary ambition, and my flagrant successfulness must have had a particular glamour for her.’ It takes a moment to realise that this is not simply a piece of childlike egoism. There is no doubt that in 1913 Wells’s success was indeed flagrant, and he is trying – with a big-headed modesty all his own – to explain why a glorious young person like Rebecca West should have wanted to throw herself at a man with an ageing, scrawny, consumptive body. He describes the mechanics of human relationships in a way that leaves him empty of personal charm, but also generates a suspicion that the self-effacing anatomist of passion might have a monstrously high opinion of himself.

Wells’s autobiographies repeatedly do this kind of thing. At some level, in some corner of his brain, he knew that his readers would find his own descriptions of his behaviour and motives wide of the mark. Early on in H.G. Wells in Love he describes the 15-year-old illegitimate daughter of a friend as she walked towards him on the beach at Sandgate ‘wearing a close-fitting bathing dress’. He was ‘overwhelmed by a rush of physical desire’, but it remained unconsummated because ‘no way opened that was not too mean and ugly; she had no romantic imaginativeness to respond to and develop my advances; she had indeed nothing whatever for me.’ There is no clearer expression of the thwarted dirty old man than the claim that ‘she had indeed nothing whatever for me.’ Wells was a master of the partially self-aware self-deception.

This makes his writings about himself attractive to biographers and indeed novelists. There is such a clear fissure between Wells as he presents himself and Wells as he appears somewhere to have known himself to be that it seems all one has to do is apply a chisel to the right place, and whack it smartly. Bingo. Wells will obligingly split into the man he thought he was and the man he actually was. But writing about self-deceivers, particularly self-deceivers as clear-headed and stylistically direct as he was, is curiously hard. It is easy to sound crass, because Wells seems already to have noticed that his readers won’t believe everything his persona says.

This takes us to David Lodge. A Man of Parts complements his biographical novel about Henry James, Author, Author.[*] The sliding and evanescent ironies of Henry James tended to elicit from Lodge some over-heavy ironies at the Master’s expense, and as a result the book seemed out of sympathy with its subject. Wells is another matter, however. He described James as ‘my old elaborate-minded friend’, and the two, neighbours in Sussex, were exponents of quite different kinds of fiction. James’s involved evocations of the old world, and his artful refashioning of the old novel with its ironies and self-deceptions, were far removed from what Wells thought of as his glistening prophesies of the great human future. The two men had an uneasy but more or less affectionate relationship until Wells printed a clumsy parody of James’s style in Boon (1915). The Master did not forgive.

Wells was not incapable of irony, but political directness was more his thing. This makes him much more congenial to Lodge’s muse, and so this is a much more successful fictional biography than Author, Author. Lodge understands the Edwardian literary and political scene extremely well, and traces Wells’s entanglements with the louche world of Fabians and free lovers with real intimacy. The best part of the book is his description of E. Nesbit’s household and account of what Wells felt as he read her novels, which are so easy to patronise but belong among the greats of Edwardian fiction. Nesbit’s husband was a compulsive seducer, whose erotic energies were feared by his children. The description of the world of the Nesbits in An Experiment in Autobiography brings out the tiny bit of Henry James buried beneath the scientifico-rationalist exterior of H.G. Wells. The Nesbits’ house, he wrote, ‘seemed to be a simple agreeable multitudinousness from which literary buds and flowers sprang abundantly, presided over by this tall, engaging, restless, moody, humorous woman. Then gradually the visitor began to perceive at first unsuspected trends and threads of relationship and scented, as if from the moat, a more disturbing flavour.’ James would never have suggested – the horror! – that there might have been something awry with the house’s plumbing (that smelly moat). But the emergence of threatening ‘trends and threads of relationship’ from a place and a person who seemed at first simply agreeable is Wells’s small tribute to the Jamesian social world, where so often the engaging and the innocent have something sinister beneath.

Lodge is very good on all this. But he can’t match the sophistication of Wells’s autobiographical writings. Indeed he sometimes disastrously rewrites them. Late in H.G. Wells in Love there is a fine description of an awkward lunch meeting in Tallinn with Moura Budberg, the lover Wells believed was having an affair with Gorky. As so often in the autobiographies the style has a plainness which makes you think that everything is visible, almost literally on the table, but also allows a reader to think of Wells in a variety of ways:

We sat over a great dish of crayfish and a bottle of white wine at a table in the shade of big trees. The habit of cheerful association was strong in us. ‘I like this little wine,’ I said, and then remembered our drama. ‘And now, Moura, for your explanation.’

In Lodge’s version this becomes:

They were seated in the shade of an awning like a great sail and served an excellent lunch of grilled crayfish, accompanied by a deliciously crisp white wine. Relaxed and refreshed by these agreeable circumstances they began to chat amicably as if nothing had happened, until he perceived the danger and called the meeting to order. ‘And now, Moura, for your explanation.’

Wells’s description uses plain adjectives (great, white, big, cheerful, strong, little) to make a scene. Lodge piles on the adjectives and participles in the hope of generating a mood (great, excellent, grilled, crisp, white, relaxed, refreshed, agreeable) and slips in a couple of adverbs to make sure we don’t miss the point. He adds a simile to prevent the awning which he has substituted for Wells’s trees from flying off into insubstantiality (‘like a great sail’). His attempt to enrich Wells’s writing weakens its psychology. Wells’s ‘the habit of cheerful association was strong in us’ is a fine phrase for a lunch with a lover, with wine, in which all present awkwardness is lost, yet Lodge removes it. And Wells also seems to know that he sounds like a bully as he forces the scene to become a confrontation and a drama. His ‘I like this little wine’ is so nearly the painfully patronising ‘I like this little woman,’ and the shadow of that phrase provokes the self-conscious pomposity with which Wells turns matters back to ‘our drama’. He cannot like this little woman as much as he likes this little wine. When Lodge rewrites all this and has him ‘call the meeting to order’ he makes Wells just pompous.

This problem goes beyond style. Lodge can’t like Wells as much as Wells liked Wells. As a result he widens the gap between Wells as he thought himself to be and Wells as he was. That’s fine, but Lodge’s view of Wells as he was is often too crude. The bulk of A Man of Parts is occupied with the earlier affairs with much younger women, and the novel suggests that there was a pattern to these relationships. Young woman falls for him. Wells responds enthusiastically. Inseminates. Unthinkingly assumes the child will be a boy. Gets embarrassed. Fears scandal, or horsewhipping, finds young intellectual woman is not as good at devilling his kidneys as dear old Jane, and so does what he can be satisfied is the decent thing, but probably isn’t, and then goes back to Jane. Who has seen it all before and comes up with a very fine breakfast, accompanied by lines like ‘For God’s sake, H.G… . Not again!’ Then the cycle begins all over. One joke recurs every time: the prophet of a socialist state and free love really likes young girls, but he also wants his domestic comforts, and on both sides of this equation of self-interest, the women lose out.

This may be fair enough. But in case we miss the point that Wells was inconsistent in his gender politics, Lodge inserts into Wells’s head the voice of an interviewer, who ‘articulates things [Wells] had forgotten or suppressed’. The questions are printed in bold. ‘So it was a kind of open marriage, but open only on your side.’ Or: ‘You don’t think she might have had a more distinguished career if she hadn’t been led or pushed by you into adultery, motherhood and marriage before she was 24?’ A reader who hopes Wells will respond: ‘Now you come to mention it, old chap, I realise my sexual conduct didn’t quite tally with my vision of a future socialist world state, and I’m jolly sorry about that’ will be disappointed. He replies: ‘She’s had a fulfilling life since then.’ A word of advice to aspiring novelists occurs to me. If there is a danger that you could sound like a bit of a plonker as you draw attention to the self-deceptions of one of your characters, it’s not a good idea to create a fictionalised plonker in order to divert the odium, particularly if he talks in bold. It just doesn’t do the job.

Wells believed that the novel would not survive the social evolution of mankind. As we were transformed into creatures of high-minded self-transparency, he thought, life-writing would become the dominant literary form: ‘I believe we are moving towards a greater freedom of truthful comment upon individuals.’ The novel, he wrote, ‘will dwindle and die altogether and be replaced by more searching and outspoken biography and autobiography.’ Lodge’s bold inquisitor results from this Wellsian thought, ‘searching and outspoken’ as he is, and the whole novel is an experiment in Wells’s fiction of the future, exposing Wells, and giving us his life partly from within but mostly from without. But rendering explicit what is already for the most part semi-explicit in Wells’s autobiographical writings hardly feels like progress in the history of the novel or a new phase in its evolution. And it may be that ‘a greater freedom of truthful comment on individuals’ is not good for fiction. The problem with ‘truthful comment’ on characters is that it invariably generates some measure of resistance in readers, some shadow of deception or self-deception, some discrepancy between the acts described and the motives ascribed to them. Wells the autobiographer sensed that. It was what made him, if not a great, then at least a very good writer. But the inevitable split between how an autobiographer presents himself and how his actions appear to a reader poses a real problem for anyone who tries to turn an autobiography into a biographical fiction. How far should the fictional biographer collude with the fictions and self-deceptions of the autobiographer? And how much of the character of the autobiographer gets lost if you try not to collude at all? There are no simple answers to these questions. One thing I am sure of. If the future of the novel does indeed lie with biographical fiction (and I hope this will turn out to be one of the many things about which Wells was wrong), it will not lie with biographical fiction that first shows us what to think and then tells us what to think, in bold.

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