This is another (tempting to say: yet another) of Wells's consequences-of-adultery novels, although it is a cut above some of the others. The Passionate Friends falls into three discrete storytelling phases. It starts as an aristocratic love triangle, digresses from the rather mannered melodrama of this into a much more interesting novel about a tour of India, China and America as a vehicle for the protagonist's awakening political and spiritual consciousness, before, finally, reverting to the original she-loves-he-loves-she-loves for its tragic, or tragic-ish, denouement.
It's a first-person narration: the life story of Stephen Stratton, the son of a respectable though not particularly wealthy family (his father is rector of Burnmore). As a child his ‘playmate’ is the daughter of local aristocrats, Lady Mary Christian, and as teenagers they fall in love. When he turns nineteen Stephen proposes marriage, but Lady Mary turns him down, for a variety of reasons. Indeed, reading the novel I wasn't sure how sincerely or otherwise we're supposed to take these myriad excuses. So: despite loving him, she says that she won't marry him because (a) what they have together is too special to be sullied by the material day-to-day of married life, (b) she doesn't want to ‘belong’ to any man, since she is determined to ‘belong to herself’ (‘“Why should one have to tie oneself always to one other human being?” she asked. “Why must it be like that?”’ [4:5]), and (c) this last point notwithstanding, she is going to marry somebody else: a super-wealthy financier called Justin. Her rationale for this last decision is twofold: first that Justin has lots of money, where Stephen has very little, and that she doesn't fancy living ‘in some dreadful place ... no money ... worried and desperate. One gets ill in such places’, which I suppose at the least has the virtue of honesty. Her second reason is that that Justin has, it seems, agreed not to trespass on Mary's resolution to ‘own herself’, even agreeing not to press himself on her, sexually: ‘“But,” I choked. “You! He! He will make love to you, Mary .... You will bear him children!” “No. He promises. Stephen,—I am to own myself.”’ [4:5]
Since Mary later has two daughters with Justin, that resolution clearly didn't survive contact with reality.
Anyway: Mary becomes Lady Mary Justin, Stephen is heartbroken and takes himself off to South Africa, where (it being 1899) the Second Boer War has just broken out. Wells writes this war chapter well, conjuring a believable and vivid sense of the South African milieu. Stephen proves a naturally gifted officer, and distinguishes himself in the fighting. He returns to England to discover that his father has, quite unexpectedly, inherited a vast fortune, freeing him up from the need to get a job. Instead he meets up again with Lady Mary Justin and the two of them become lovers, although it's a consummation that doesn't make him particularly happy. ‘From the day,’ he says, ‘that passion carried us and we became in the narrower sense of the word lovers ...’
... I do not think that we even had the real happiness and beauty and delight of one another. Because, I tell you, there is no light upon kiss or embrace that is not done with pride. I do not know why it should be so, but people of our race and quality are a little ashamed of mere gratification in love. Always we seem in my memory to have been whispering with flushed cheeks, and discussing interminably—situation. Had something betrayed us, might something betray, was this or that sufficiently cunning? Had we perhaps left a footmark or failed to burn a note, was the second footman who was detailed as my valet even now pausing astonished in the brushing of my clothes with our crumpled secret in his hand? Between myself and the clear vision of this world about me this infernal net-work of precautions spread like a veil. [Passionate Friends, 6:9]His feelings of shabbiness are intensifed by the fact that he had started courting an eligible, virtuous young woman called Rachel More, and that she has unmistakably fallen in love with him, before this secret affair with Mary happened. The situation stretches out until Mary's husband Justin chances upon Stephen and Mary kissing, and there is a scene. The husband and his allies spirit Mary away to Ireland, and Stephen goes into a sort of frenzy trying to track her down. He lies to his own friends, travels to Ireland, discovers her gone, comes home, and eventually has to accept the inevitable: that the affair is over. To avoid scandal Stephen agrees never to meet with Mary again, and promises to leave England altogether for a period of three years.
That's the end of the first movement of the novel. Chapter Seven (of twelve) is called ‘Beginning Again’, and is as good as its title. Stephen travels, first to Europe, and from there to India. Here his old Imperialist beliefs crumple under the shock of what he sees, and his whole worldview shifts about. The tenor of the novel shifts too, broadening from its claustrophobic focus on a small group of upper-class Englishfolk into something altogether more panoramic:
Before my eyes again as I sit here, the great space before the Jumna Musjid at Delhi reappears, as I saw it in the evening stillness against a glowing sky of gold, and the memory of countless worshippers within, praying with a devotion no European displays. And then comes a memory of that long reef of staircases and temples and buildings, the ghats of Benares, in the blazing morning sun, swarming with a vast multitude of multicolored people and the water also swarming with brown bodies. It has the colors of a bed of extravagantly splendid flowers and the light that is Indian alone. Even as I sit here these places are alive with happening ... the sun sinks in the skies of India, the Jumna Musjid flushes again with the glow of sunset, the smoke of evening fires streams heavenward against its subtle lines, and upon those steps at Benares that come down the hillside between the conquering mosque of Aurangzeb and the shining mirror of the Ganges a thousand silent seated figures fall into meditation. And other memories recur and struggle with one another; the crowded river-streets of Canton, the rafts and houseboats and junks innumerable, riding over inky water, begin now to twinkle with a thousand lights. They are ablaze in Osaka and Yokohama and Tokio, and the swarming staircase streets of Hong Kong glitter with a wicked activity now that night has come. I flash a glimpse of Burmese temples, of villages in Java, of the sombre purple masses of the walls of the Tartar city at Pekin with squat pagoda-guarded gates. How those great outlines lowered at me in the twilight, full of fresh memories and grim anticipations of baseness and violence and bloodshed! I sit here recalling it—feeling it all out beyond the trellised vine-clad wall that bounds my physical vision.... Vast crowded world that I have seen! going from point to point seeking for clues, for generalities, until at last it seems to me that there emerges—something understandable. [Passionate Friends, 8:1]The brute fact of mass poverty convinces him that ‘civilization has never yet existed, it has only continually and obstinately attempted to be. Our Civilization is but the indistinct twilight before the dawn’. From ‘the panther-haunted palaces of Akbar at Fatehpur Sikri’ he travels on to China, and walks ‘the Bruges-like emptinesses of Pekin’, where ‘the vast pretensions of its Forbidden City’ strike him as ‘like a cry, long sustained, that at last dies away in a wail’ [8:3]. The result of all this travel is that Stephen dedicates himself to the echt Wellsian project of facilitating the creation of a utopian World State: ‘a new world-city, a new greater State above your legal States, in which all human life becomes a splendid enterprise, free and beautiful.’
Stephen caps-off his world tour with a trip to America where he makes friends with a US millionaire called Gidding, who shares his beliefs and ambitions: ‘“Say, Stratton,” he said, after a conversation that had seemed to me half fantasy; “Let's do it!”’ [8:10]. Do what? Why, help lay the foundations for the coming World State, that's what.
They set up an international publishing house, ‘Alphabet and Mollentrave’, employing multiple teams of experts to translate the classics of world literature and science into all the major world languages, and making the results cheaply available across the globe. This is one of the most interesting and prescient elements of this novel, I think: ‘a huge international organ of information, and of a kind of gigantic modern Bible of world literature’ [10:1] anticipating our very own, much later, Wikipedia/Google Books et al revolution in knowledge.
Behind our enterprise of translations and reprints we were getting together and putting out a series of guide-books, gazetteers, dictionaries, text-books and books of reference, and we were organizing a revising staff for these, a staff that should be constantly keeping them up to date. It was our intention to make every copy we printed bear the date of its last revision in a conspicuous place, and we hoped to get the whole line of these books ultimately upon an annual basis, and to sell them upon repurchasing terms that would enable us to issue a new copy and take back and send the old one to the pulping mill at a narrow margin of profit. Then we meant to spread our arms wider, and consolidate and offer our whole line of text-books, guide-books and gazetteers, bibliographies, atlases, dictionaries and directories as a new World Encyclopædia, that should also annually or at longest biennially renew its youth. [Passionate Friends, 8:1]It's here Wells first uses the phrase that was to become one of his slogans: Gidding and Stratton's project represents what the latter calls an ‘open conspiracy against potentates and prejudices and all the separating powers of darkness’ [9:10].
As this second movement in the story comes to a close, Stephen has put his life in order. He marries Rachel, confessing to her his previous affair with Lady Mary, but assuring her all that is behind him now. They start a family (the overall conceit of the novel is that Stephen is addressing the whole narrative to his son, for him to read when he comes of age), and he slowly builds a reputation as a campaigner for global justice and the amelioration of the human condition. He pushes ahead with the publishing, gets invited to address peace conferences and so on.
All this sets-up the final portion of the story. Taking a break from the exhausting whirl of work, Stephen goes on a brief walking holiday in the Alps, solus. At a hotel on Engstlen Lake, and quite by chance, he meets Mary again. She is also staying in the hotel with her maid and companion. Both have promised not to see or speak to the other, but since they still love one another they decide Providence has arranged the meeting and make the most of it: spending the day rowing about on the lake, talking old times and generally communing, though not having any sex.
The meeting has disastrous consequences. Word gets back to London, and Mary's husband, the haughty and imperious Justin, announces he will divorce her, with Stephen to be named as co-respondent. Stephen returns to London, hoping to avert the scandal of this. It doesn't look likely, though: Stephen's solicitor reveals that Lady Mary deliberately swapped rooms with her own maid in order to occupy the adjacent room to Stephen's: ‘“You were sleeping with your two heads within a yard of one another anyhow”,’ the lawyer notes. ‘“Thirty-six you had, and she had thirty-seven.” He turned over a paper on his desk. “You didn't know, of course,” he said. “But what I want to have"—and his voice grew wrathful—"is sure evidence that you didn't know. No jury on earth is going to believe you didn't know. No jury!— Why,”—his mask dropped—“no man on earth is going to believe a yarn like that!”’ [11:8]
Things are looking bad for Stephen. His wife Rachel is distraught, struggling and failing to bring herself to believe Stephen's insistence that he did not have sexual relations with that woman, Lady Mary. Stephen knows the coming court case will drag down his public reputation, and so destroy the good he can accomplish with Alphabet and Mollentrave. But Justin is implacable, and there's nothing Stephen can do.
So is set-up the novel's Tale of Two Cities-style final twist. Lady Mary visits Stephen at his London house one last time, telling him that she has made a deal with her husband: he will not go ahead with the divorce and in return she will agree to be sequestered in some secret fastness, ‘a lonely place, my dear—among mountains. High and away. Very beautiful, but lonely’ [11:10]. It occurs to Stephen during their conversation that she might be planning suicide, but the real danger of this only really dawns on him after Mary has left. He hurries round to her London house:
I saw instantly that I was too late when the door opened and showed me the scared face of a young footman whose eyes were red with tears.So Stephen's reputation, and ‘great work’, are saved; but at the cost of Mary's life. It is a far far better thing that she does now, and so on, and so forth—except that sounds pat, and a little snide, and the actual affect of the novel is not so by-the-numbers. If not quite full-on tragic, the conclusion is touching and effective, and it raises as many questions as it answers. The novel closes with a brief twelfth chapter in which Stephen declares ‘I give myself, and if I can I will give you [he's addressing his son], to the destruction of jealousy and of the forms and shelters and instruments of jealousy, both in my own self and in the thought and laws and usage of the world.’ [12:3].
“Are you Doctor—?” he asked of my silence.
“I want—” I said. “I must speak to Lady Mary.”
He was wordless for a moment. “She—she died, sir,” he said. “She's died suddenly.” His face quivered, he was blubbering. He couldn't say anything more; he stood snivelling in the doorway. [Passionate Friends, 11:12]
In my post on his previous novel, Marriage (1912), I noted that Wells bracketed The Passionate Friends with Marriage, The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman and The Research Magnificent as the product of the years of his affair with Elizabeth Von Arnim, claiming that ‘none of them are among my best work.’ That's harsh, I think, although it speaks to Wells's own sense of personal interregnum, between the intensity of his (as he knew in his heart, even as he struggled to deny it) doomed relationship with Amber Reeves and his more equal but just as problematic affair with Rebecca West. Speaking broadly, the novel attempts to perform an effective transition (by ‘effective’ I mean: believable, compelling, but also ideologically or politically persuasive) from love as a narrowly personal to love as an effectively global phenomenon. Stephen is characterised as somebody with a great capacity for love: he loves Mary deeply and without diminution, through all the vicissitudes of their relationship, from the start to the end of the novel; but he also loves his wife Rachel, and his desire to improve the world is motivated by more than just rational calculation. Wells's target in The Passionate Friends, ‘jealousy’, becomes, functionally speaking, the artificial restriction on the whole scope of love as such, the thing that stands in the way of bettering the entire world. And the focus-pull in the novel's middle sections, when Wells opens the narrative convincingly-enough to a more global perspective, is quite an achievement, technically speaking.
But framing this with a heterosexual love-triangle, one man between two women, tends to throws into relief how little women as such figure in Wells's larger conception. Janice Harris may well be right that a key impetus for Wells to write The Passionate Friends was ‘Wells' growing conception of himself as an ally of the feminists, indeed a feminist himself’ (She adds: ‘Like other social activists during the decade, Wells viewed woman suffrage as an obvious necessity but more important was a reconceptualization of men's and women's working, parenting, and sexual lives’ [Harris, ‘Wifely Silence and Speech in Three Marriage Novels by H. G. Wells’, Studies in the Novel, 26:4, (1994), 406]). But where Wells's next novel, The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, manages at least to a degree to situate the female characters in the larger flow, The Passionate Friends styles its women as marginal, passive and ultimately sacrificed to the—I fight shy of this word generally since my students misuse it so egregiously, but in this case it's strictly appropriate—patriarchal logic of the larger work.
So: the novel is a narration by a father addressed to his son. The first chapters concern the narrator's relationship with his own father. His key working relationship is with his male friend, Gidding; his relationship with Mary, the love of his life, is determined by his antagonism with Mary's husband, Justin, of whom Stephen remarks ‘It is a curious thing that in spite of our bitter antagonism and the savage jealousy we were to feel for one another, there has always been, and there remains now in my thought of him, a certain liking, a regret at our opposition, a quality of friendliness’ [6:9], The novel's final conclusion is that the only method for cutting the gordian knot of man's implacable threat to another man's great work is—the death of a woman they have in common. There have been plenty of feminist analyses of the way women figure as objects of exchange circulated between men according to the laws of masculine discursive systems, and some [I'm thinking of, eg Gayle Rubin's ‘The Traffic in Women: Notes on the “Political Economy” of Sex’, in Rayne R. Reiter (ed) Toward an Anthropology of Women (New York: 1975), 157-210] how positing women's value in intermasculine terms creates a tension with the sense of women as valuable in themselves, this latter justifying the exchange in the first place. That's very much at play in The Passionate Friends.
The symbolic economy of this novel requires Mary's Sidney Carton-esque sacrifice in order to square, to ‘make sense of’ the conflicting demands of masculinity: to ‘solve’ the problem of how male desire for women comes into conflict with male duty to other men. Since the oldest of justifications for male jealousy, the exclusivity of marriage, was masculine paternity fears (a woman will likely know who the father of her child is, but a father can never be sure), it is not coincidental that Wells devotes so much of The Passionate Friends to issues of parenthood. The figure of the child provides the copula between the personal drama of Mary, Stephen, and Rachel (who all have children) and Stephen's larger humanitarian project. It is an investigation into the horrors of child labour in India that first reshapes Stephen's consciousness:
I waded deep in labor, in this process of consuming humanity for gain, chasing my facts through throbbing quivering sheds reeking of sweat and excrement under the tall black-smoking chimneys,—chasing them in very truth, because when we came prying into the mills after the hour when child-labor should cease, there would be a shrill whistle, a patter of feet and a cuffing and hiding of the naked little creatures we were trying to rescue. They would be hidden under rugs, in boxes, in the most impossible places, and we dragged them out scared and lying. Many of them were perhaps seven years old at most; and the adults—men and women of fourteen that is to say—we could not touch at all, and they worked in that Indian heat, in a noisome air drenched with steam for fourteen and fifteen hours a day. And essential to that general impression is a memory of a slim Parsi mill-manager luminously explaining the inherited passion for toil in the Indian weaver, and a certain bulky Hindu with a lemon-yellow turban and a strip of plump brown stomach showing between his clothes, who was doing very well, he said, with two wives and five children in the mills. [Passionate Friends, 8:2]That plump Hindu, with his two wives and five children, mentioned briefly here and never again, stands as a sort of rebus for Stephen himself: with his two women, and their aggregated kids (Mary's two, Rachel's three, only the latter biologically Stephen's of course). Which is how the novel understands its protagonist's own complicity in the misery it narrates. It is an oblique sort of knowledge, I suppose; but that may be part of the issue too. Passionate, in the title, speaks both to the intensity of Stephen and Mary's feelings and to its fundamental passivity; they are patients, not agents, in their own emotional interactions; and in the larger sense there is a deliberate sense of things happening to Stephen, rather than Stephen making things happen. When they are discovered together by Justin, Stephen urges Mary to accompany him, the two of them walking away to start a new life together; and he himself storms out of Justin's house. Only when he is outside does he discover that Mary has not come with him. It's a moment almost comic in its crumpling bathos; almost, but not quite. Because the whole novel ultimately replicates the claustrophobia of existential passivity. Maybe that's actually a feature, not a bug, although it tugs the book against its more programmatic ‘open conspiracy’ Wellsian World-State agenda. Reading these novels of the early nineteen-teens, I get the impression Wells believes in this goal intellectually, but can't quite bring himself to believe in it on other levels.
One last, brief, note. Something I noticed with this book, which I haven't noticed with earlier ones, and which is indicative (I think) of a writer straining, rather, for effect, is how often its prose falls into roughly approximate blank verse. So, for example it doesn't take much to turn (picked more-or-less at random) this:
You see, my son, there are two sorts of love; we use one name for very different things. The love that a father bears his children, that a mother feels, that comes sometimes, a strange brightness and tenderness that is half pain, at the revelation of some touching aspect of one long known to one, at the sight of a wife bent with fatigue and unsuspicious of one's presence, at the wretchedness and perplexity of some wrong-doing brother, or at an old servant's unanticipated tears, that is love—like the love God must bear us. That is the love we must spread from those of our marrow until it reaches out to all mankind, that will some day reach out to all mankind. But the love of a young man for a woman takes this quality only in rare moments of illumination and complete assurance. My love for Mary was a demand, it was a wanton claim I scored the more deeply against her for every moment of happiness she gave me. I see now that as I emerged from the first abjection of my admiration and began to feel assured of her affection, I meant nothing by her but to possess her, I did not want her to be happy as I want you to be happy even at the price of my life; I wanted her. I wanted her as barbarians want a hunted enemy, alive or dead. It was a flaming jealousy to have her mine. [Passionate Friends, 4:8]into
You see, my son, there are two sorts of love;and so on. There's quite a lot of this in The Passionate Friends, and I'm not convinced it's a good thing.
We use one name for very different things:
The love a father bears his children, that
A mother feels, that sometimes comes, a strange
Brightness and a tenderness half pain,
Of revelation at some touching aspect
At the sight of a wife bent with fatigue
And unsuspicious of one's presence, at
The wretchedness and the perplexity
Of some wrong-doing brother, or perhaps
A servant's unanticipated tears,
All that is love—like [the] love God must bear us.
That is the love that we must spread from those
Of our own marrow til it reaches out
To all mankind, that will some day reach out
To all mankind.