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Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939

Chapter One

Excerprt One

H.G. and Jane Wells

"Between the ages of thirty and forty I devoted a considerable amount of mental energy to the general problem of men and women . . ."—H. G. Wells

AUGUST 5, 1914. A few minutes after midnight as Britain was entering the war, an illegitimate baby was born in a conspicuously anonymous redbrick house on the northern coast. His mother, Rebecca West, whose real name, which nobody used, was Cicily Fairfield, held the sleeping bundle in her arms, while her sister and a friend perched on her bed. The baby's father, H. G. Wells, was one hundred miles away, sitting up late in his llama-wool pajamas, in the second-floor study of his large comfortable house in Essex, putting the finishing touches on an essay for the Daily Chronicle, which he was planning to call "The War That Will End War." He poured himself a cup of tea, which he had brewed himself on the small stove nestled in the fireplace, and nibbled a dry biscuit. His wife, Jane, was asleep in the bedroom, her dark blond hair fanned out against the pillow. He loved his wife, and he loved his young mistress. He loved his ivy-covered Georgian house, Easton Glebe, which was a gracious symbol of how far he had come from his hardscrabble origins. Unlike nearly everyone he knew, Wells was feeling optimistic about the war, exhilarated by the possibilities of the world in flux. Through his window he could see the familiar outline of a fig tree in the darkness.

Wells prided himself on the fact that there had been no deception. Jane knew all about the affair. This was not the first one, and it would not be the last. Jane was his anchor, his foundation, his sanity--there was no question of his living without Jane--but he suffered from a sexual restlessness that he had long ago ceased to resist. This particular manifestation of it had been set in motion in September of 1912, in the drawing room of Easton Glebe. Rebecca West was a rising nineteen-year-old journalist who wrote fierce, witty pieces for the suffragette paper The New Freewoman and the Clarion. H. G. Wells was already a world-famous author with influential friends, a classically pretty wife, and two small sons. At this point, Wells was best known for scientific romances like The Time Machine, but he had recently written a series of scandalous novels examining the relations between the sexes, several of which were banned from circulating libraries, denounced from pulpits, and attacked in newspaper editorials for poisoning the minds of young people with their promiscuous morals. In her role as professional provocateur, Rebecca had just written a taunting review of the latest: "Of course, he is the old maid among novelists; even the sex obsession that lay clotted on Ann Veronica and The New Machiavelli like cold white sauce was merely an old maid's mania . . ." Somehow this critique had amused or intrigued him--who was this young woman?--and he invited her to lunch.

As soon as she walked in, she was overwhelmed by his unlikely magnetism: a small, round, middle-aged man, with extraordinary light blue eyes, thickets of eyebrows, and a mustache, he emanated the energetic confidence of a man highly valued by the world. For his part, Wells admired her wide brow, dark expressive eyes, and "splendid disturbed brain." As always, Rebecca arrived looking bright and disheveled, as if to broadcast that there were other, more pressing things on her mind than grooming; it was perhaps this tendency that inspired Virginia Woolf to write rather meanly: "Rebecca is a cross between a charwoman and gypsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes, very shabby, rather dirty nails, immense vitality, bad taste, suspicion of intellectuals and great intelligence." At a certain point in the afternoon, Wells's wife, Jane, discreetly withdrew, leaving the two writers alone, and was, the young feminist noted, "charming, but a little bit effaced." Their lunch lasted for more than five hours.

The next time Rebecca visited Wells at his London house they found themselves kissing in front of his bookshelves. With her usual boldness, Rebecca appears to have asked him to sleep with her and relieve her of her innocence. In this, she may or may not have been influenced by Wells's infamous young heroine, Ann Veronica, who threw herself at a married man, proclaiming in what now seems like an absurd piece of dialogue: "I want you. I want you to be my lover. I want to give myself to you." In any event, Wells wrote to her shortly afterward: "Dear Rebecca, You're a very compelling person. I suppose I shall have to do what you want me to do." But then, entangled with a long-term mistress, Elizabeth Von Arnim, and fearful of the damage yet more scandal would do to his reputation, he changed his mind. He and Rebecca wrangled back and forth over his decision, until he disappeared on a trip abroad. He had told Rebecca that even friendship between them would be impossible. The abrupt break launched Rebecca into great storms of melodrama. She had a theatrical streak, had in fact trained to be an actress before turning to writing. "You've literally ruined me," Rebecca wrote. "I am burned down to my foundations. I may build myself up again or I may not . . . I know you will derive immense satisfaction from thinking of me as an unbalanced young female who flopped about in your drawing room in an unnecessary heart attack." Rebecca emerged from the attenuated flirtation so distraught that her mother whisked her off on a restorative tour through Spain and France.

After reading her published accounts of the trip, Wells wrote to her: "You are writing gorgeously again. Please resume being friends." They began to see a little more of each other, and months later, when Wells quarreled with Elizabeth Von Arnim, whom he called "little e," he and Rebecca became lovers. The leisurely affair that might have ensued was cut short by a moment of carelessness, a rushed afternoon encounter in his London flat during which she conceived a child. By both accounts, it would appear to have been an accident, though Rebecca would later write wildly to her son that H. G. wantonly impregnated her "because he wanted the panache of having a child by the infant prodigy of the day." Given Wells's caution in approaching the affair and his fervor for secrecy this seems highly unlikely, but throughout her life Rebecca remained, on the subject of Wells, partial to colorful distortions and interesting slurs. As soon as he heard the news of her pregnancy, Wells's response was to tell his wife immediately. Wells told his wife everything. That was part of their pact. But for all three of them, the wartime baby would be a test of their forward-thinking ideas.

Wells's unorthodox relation to his wife had already become the subject of much public speculation. The prominent literary hostess Ottoline Morrell would later remember discussing it with Bertrand Russell over lunch in her town house on Gower Street, both expressing their disapproval: not at the adultery, which they had engaged in themselves, but at the openness of it. The scandal was Jane Wells's quiet tolerance of her husband's carryings-on. Beatrice Webb, the founder of the Fabian Society, theorized that Jane couldn't criticize Wells's philandering because of the murky origins of her own relationship with him. When Jane met him he had been married to another woman. In the carnivorous, gossipy circles they moved in, accustomed as they were to dissecting character, Jane's reticence, her grace, some might call it, was maddening. "In all this story," the flamboyant lesbian writer Vernon Lee wrote to Wells, "the really interesting person seems to me to be your wife. . . ." And something about her position did seem to arouse curiosity--who was Jane Wells?

This would not be an easy question to answer. For one thing, Jane wasn't really Jane. In an improbably domineering gesture, Wells had renamed his wife, Amy Catherine Wells, "Jane." When Mrs. Wells was younger she had always gone by Catherine, which she preferred to Amy. But Wells wanted to conjure a competent, sensible helpmate, and the proper name for this admirable and upstanding young woman seemed to be Jane. All of their friends called her Jane, and she herself willingly adopted the plain, serviceable name; but what did she think of a man who took creative liberties with fundamental pillars of her identity? And what did it say about that man that all of his fantasies of uxorious harmony and romantic perfection should converge in the name "Jane"?

There is no doubt that, to the world, Jane presented a composed and contented exterior. There are several photographs of her with her fine profile, her wavy, ash-blond hair swept into a voluminous bun, bent over a Remington typewriter as she typed up her husband's manuscripts, looking, in her striped button-down shirt, the epitome of the dignified secretary. In addition, she managed all of his business affairs, shepherding his significant fortune into prudent investments and corresponding with his legion of agents, translators, and editors. At the same time, she was adept at the more traditionally feminine arts. She was a member of the Royal Horticultural Society and kept an extensive journal to improve her gardening technique. She organized amateur theatricals and games of tennis for their weekend guests with great enthusiasm, altogether creating the pleasing and comfortable environment that made it possible for the fussy and sensitive Wells to sit down and do his work. On a deeper level, Jane answered some chord of self-doubt in him in a way that no one else could. She soothed the fits of rage and melancholy that sometimes paralyzed him, and gave him the constancy and peace he needed. When his self-image faltered, she reflected back a confident, glowing version of who he was. "She stuck to me so sturdily," he put it, "that in the end I stuck to myself." She was his ideal companion, a consummately wifely wife. But there had always been a lack of sexual sympathy at the heart of the marriage. Wells rarely described her without using certain words, like "fragile" or "delicate" or "innocent" or "Dresden china." Though he admired her enormously, she lacked the vitality that attracted him: he couldn't imagine being rough or playful with her in bed.

There was a certain irony to the fact that Jane had become the perfect housewife. When Wells and Jane began their association in the 1890s neither of them believed in the institution of marriage. He was in the process of leaving his first wife, and with fifty pounds between them, the two of them moved into modest rooms together. They had a double bed, and folding doors opening out into a living area with a tin bathtub, and a dining room table that doubled as a desk. Wells was struggling to cobble together a living from articles and reviews, which he produced in enormous volume, and it was only the constant irritant of the reaction of neighbors, landladies, and servants that finally convinced them it wasn't worth expending all of their energy on not being married. In 1895 they went to the registrar's office and became man and wife. In these early years together, Jane had become a ballast to him. He wrote, "It was a good thing for me that behind the folding doors at 12 Mornington Road slept a fine and valiant little being, so delicate and clean and so credulous of my pretensions, that it would have been intolerable to appear before her unshaven or squalid or drunken or base." This valiant little being was the wife of the writer he wanted to be, somehow finer than the rest of the fallen world.

Wells would later look back on this period on Mornington Road as their happiest. Their landlady would bring up coffee on a tray, and Jane would sit in her blue nightdress and long blond braids, buttering her toast, the slate sky framed by large bay windows. The only thing marring the cozy scene was his inchoate sense of sexual disappointment. Something appeared to him to be missing in her responsiveness. As he put it, Jane "regarded my sexual imaginativeness as a sort of constitutional disease; she stood by me patiently waiting for it to subside." During this time he began to draw what he called "pischuas" for her: elaborate cartoons of their life together that seemed in their infantile humor, their odd visual language, to replace a more adult form of intimacy or communication, as if he were a very clever child presenting his imaginative offerings as a frantic and troubled tribute to a mother. This would be his first effort to scribble over the reality of their life together.

In the beginning, when he was struggling with his career, Wells didn't think much about women; but later, after the publication of his scientific romances The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, as he became famous and sought after, the subject appeared to raise itself. Intriguing, intelligent, liberated women seemed to emerge from the chatter of every cocktail party, and the newly celebrated author was interesting to them. He had always had the kind of intellectual arrogance that drew women to him, and now he had the worldly success to back it up. He also emanated an unapologetic hedonism that rarely escaped the notice of the women in a room. He would later offer this extraordinary formulation: "I was not under such prohibitions as we impose upon lawyer, doctor, or schoolmaster. Except in so far as affection put barriers about me, I have done what I pleased; so that every bit of sexual impulse in me has expressed itself."

An early turning point in their marriage was the harrowing birth of their first son, George Philip, whom they called "Gyp," in the summer of 1901. For twenty-four hours, both mother and baby were in serious danger. H.G.'s curious response to the ordeal was to run off to the south for several months, leaving Jane to convalesce with the baby in the care of two doctors, a nurse, and the servants. For at least a few weeks, it seems, she wasn't sure where he was, and their entire relationship was thrown into question. This was one of those rare, fluid moments when a marriage opens itself to change, and the terms begin to define themselves. Instead of responding to her husband's sudden absence with anger, Jane wrote H.G. a warm, understanding letter in which she blamed herself for being too possessive when he left, and set their relationship on its stable new course. In her own way, she conveyed that she was going to allow him the absences he needed. She would even go so far as to understand those absences. She would purvey the perfect, infinitely flexible, unconditional love he craved, and create a stable family home he could leave and return to at will. The arrangement she seemed to be offering was quite extraordinary, and one can only guess at her motivations. Would she have acted differently if he had remained the impoverished biology teacher he was when they met? Was the license she granted him somehow connected in her mind to his literary genius? Was she, as Rebecca and others suspected, interested in the things she had accumulated, and their rising material success? Or was it simply that she loved him so much she couldn't risk losing him? It is hard to say, but we do know that Jane was not unadventurous. After all, she had traded the safety of her mother's home for an ambiguous connection with an impecunious married man. She was willing to give up her chances, as an attractive and educated young woman, for a more stable marriage for the sake of his personal magnetism. Altogether, it seems more likely that she was acting out of love, rather than the grasping materialism or unnatural passion for security that she would later be accused of, but we can't know for certain. We do know that by the time Rebecca came along a decade later, H.G. and Jane had worked out what he called a "modus vivendi" whereby he could have his affairs, which he lightly referred to as "passades," and she could be assured of his highest regard.

Excerpted from Uncommon Arrangements © Copyright 2012 by Katie Roiphe. Reprinted with permission by The Dial Press. All rights reserved.

Uncommon Arrangements: Seven Portraits of Married Life in London Literary Circles 1910-1939
by by Katie Roiphe

  • Genres: Nonfiction
  • paperback: 343 pages
  • Publisher: Dial Press Trade Paperback
  • ISBN-10: 0385339380
  • ISBN-13: 9780385339384