The novel starts with young Lady Harman, driven by a chauffeur who also functions as a chaperone and guard, viewing a house.
The house belongs to the novel's version of Wells himself, George Brumley (Wells's middle name plus a surname that evokes the town where he was born). Brumley is a successful novelist, small, energetic, randy, ‘one of those very natural-minded men with active imaginations who find women the most interesting things in a full and interesting universe’ [1:1]. He has been a widower for three years, and is just starting to get over his wife's death, which is why he's now selling his spacious country house. But Mrs Harman definitely catches his eye, since she is both very young and very beautiful. Indeed she is so young that he is astonished when he discovers she already has four children.
After some pleasant enough, if not exactly rib-tickling, comedy of manners stuff we get her backstory: born Ellen Sawbridge, the daughter of a financially embarrassed middle-class mother, courted by the wealthy Sir Isaac Harman whose self-made fortune is based on selling sub-par loaves (‘Staminal Bread’) to the masses, and running a chain of cheap, sub-par shops and cafés, the ‘International Bread and Cake Stores’. Harman is shallow, acquisitive and gasping, the sort of man who measures his self-worth solely in terms of his possessions. He more-or-less straightforwardly purchases Ellen, installing her in a lavish household that she is not permitted to leave, and fathering four children in quick succession upon her. Indeed, having so many kids so quickly damages her health: after ‘tactful explanation on the part of the elderly and trustworthy family doctor’ Harman is persuaded to leave his wife alone for a bit: ‘there came a less reproductive phase’.
The bulk of the novel traces Lady Harman's growth from thoroughly naïf and timid child-bride, living out an Ibsenian Dolls-House existence, into self-assured young woman who reads suffragette literature, befriends other women, undertakes her own projects in the world and otherwise ‘comes out’. She does all this in the teeth of her husband's implacable opposition. He leaves a copy of The Taming of the Shrew around the house with key passages underlined, and explicitly acts the Petruchio to her Katherina—chapter eight is actually called ‘Sir Isaac as Petruchio’: hectoring her, denying her use of the car to go out and see friends, and at one point abruptly moving her to a house in the country to keep her away from London society. But instead of taming her, Harman's behaviour only strengthens her resolve to achieve some measure of independence.
As this is going on, Brumley is falling deeper in love with Lady Harman. He tries, and fails, to seduce her, and decides instead to style himself as a knight errant dedicated to rescuing her from her misery. Her denial of his sexual advances is polite but firm, determined as she is not simply to pass from one man's ownership to another. They do become friends though, meeting from time to time, and exchanging letters in which Brumley says things like ‘I would rather kiss the hem of your garment than be the lord of any other woman's life’. And this relationship plays its part, as does Ellen's friendship with a group of suffragette women, in bracing her in her struggle for independence.
In David Smith's words, Wells set out in this novel to ‘present a picture of feminists of various kinds, especially suffragettes’, this latter group being broadly criticised for failing the larger aims of female emancipation by ‘defusing and re-focusing the battle for equality, by their attention to side issues’ [Smith, 378]. In the Experiment in Autobiography, Wells says: ‘in The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman I tried to explain to myself and my readers the suppressions and resentments that might lead a gentle woman to smash a plate-glass window. I studied my model carefully and I think the figure lives, but no suffragette saw herself in my mirror.’ Presumably that's because suffragettes saw themselves as committed to equality predicated on specific social reform, where Wells's novel advances the case that the real problem is jealousy, troped in this novel as a function of masculine possessiveness. It's not that he doesn't have a point. It's that he's taking aim at a rather different, less tractable, target.
Lady Harman's involvement in proto-feminism sees her founding a number of hostels for the underpaid and homeless waitresses at her husband's cake shops and cafés, some of whom (their wages being so meagre) are driven to prostitution to supplement their income. I have to say: that's as far as her activism goes, really. Wells's interest in the hostels is that they can act as a piece of plot leverage, with Sir Isaac threatening to take away their funding if his wife leaves him, and so prolonging the conflict and therefore drama in the narrative—rather, that is, than Wells showing any deeper interest in the social questions the hostels, and the need for them, raise. Sir Isaac, generally dyspeptic and nervy, falls into rages when his will is thwarted, and so grows iller.
It's a dialogue-heavy novel, with some pleasant if weak-tea comedy of misunderstanding and deflated pompousness, and a certain amount of period-piece interest for the modern reader. But it's not very good, overall. Part of its problem. I think, is that Sir Isaac is an insufficiently intimidating villain. Wells handles Ellen's Bildungsroman pretty well, and there's something quite clever in the fundamental ineffectiveness of Brumley's character. But the novel as a whole feels underpowered, dawdling along until its rather abrupt mors ex machina ending. Which is: Sir Isaac's doctor instructs him to take a rest cure on the Continent, at a place called Santa Margherita, near Genoa. He has forbidden his wife from seeing Brumley, and to keep her hostels financially solvent she has agreed; but the two still correspond. Sir Isaac discovers some of these letters, has an apoplectic fit and dies.
Now, this development of course frees-up our heroine; but although Brumley proposes marriage, she turns him down. In part this is for practical reasons: Sir Isaac, like Casaubon in Middlemarch, has sought to influence his wife from beyond the grave by a provision in his will that would take the hostels away from her in the event of her remarriage. But her refusal to accept Brumley's suit also reflects her determination not to be owned by another man, and Brumley's anguished sense of emasculation in the face of this fills up quite a lot of the final section of the novel: ‘I am to be your tormented, your emasculated lover to the very end of things,’ he whines. ‘Emasculated by laws I hate and customs I hate and vile foresights that I despise ... Because I'm going to do it. I'm going to do what I can. I'm going to be as you wish me to be, to help you, to serve you. If you can't come to meet me, I'll meet you. I can't help but love you, I can't do without you.’ 
So it seems they'll carry on as friends, and Lady Harman will end the novel a free agent. Ah, but then again, on the very last page, Wells shuffles his two characters into a fragrant hyacinth garden and closes with a big old snog:
She crouched down upon him and, taking his shoulder in her hand, upset him neatly backwards, and, doing nothing by halves, kissed the astonished Mr. Brumley full upon his mouth. [The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, 12]So maybe not.
Wells began writing The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman in 1913, at the tail-end of his affair with Elizabeth Von Arnim, and Wells actually inserts a little tribute to Von Arnim's most famous book:
About this time she happened upon “Elizabeth and her German Garden,” and was very greatly delighted and stimulated by that little sister of Montaigne. She was charmed by the book's fresh gaiety, by its gallant resolve to set off all the good things there are in this world, the sunshine and flowers and laughter, against the limitations and thwartings and disappointments of life. For a time it seemed to her that these brave consolations were solutions, and she was stirred by an imitative passion. How stupid had she not been to let life and Sir Isaac overcome her! She felt that she must make herself like Elizabeth, exactly like Elizabeth; she tried forthwith, and a certain difficulty she found, a certain deadness, she ascribed to the square modernity of her house and something in the Putney air. The house was too large, it dominated the garden and controlled her. [The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, 5:9]But Ellen herself, he later claimed, was based on Agnes Eleanor Williams, a suffragette who married the overbearing W W Jacobs (author of ‘The Monkeys Paw’ and other classics of macabre writing). In his posthumously published supplement to his Experiment in Autobiography, Wells recalls how one woman of his acquaintance, Maud Pember Reeves, had worked her way slowly out from under the dominance of her husband, William Pember Reeves, to become ‘almost before he knew what was happening’ a leading suffragette. Then he adds:
The same way of escape was found by the wife of another tyrannous husband, Mrs W. W. Jacobs, and I made a book out of that type of reaction that I think may survive as a fragment of social history, The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman. [H G Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography (ed G P Wells, 1984), 71]Now the thing here is, despite the surname, W W Jacobs wasn't Jewish. And Wells's Isaac Harman most assuredly is.
And so we come to the elephant in the room of this novel, and it's a big elephant, and it's brought its auntie with it—auntie-Semitism. I shouldn't crack wise, I know. But, still: damn. My guess is that Wells decided from the get-go that he wanted to focus his novel's critique on a certain possessive, materialist, jealous and stubbornly destructively mind-set, one he identified as masculine (which is fair enough), plutocratic and, well, Jewish. And that's obviously a problem. There are anti-Semitic gestures all the way through this novel. They are rarely more than gestures, but when one's culture is steeped in anti-Semitic assumptions a gesture is enough. This is Brumley when, beginning his pursuit of Ellen, he meets her children for the first time.
“Come and be hugged, you dears! Come and be hugged!” Before she knelt down and enveloped their shrinking little persons Mr. Brumley was able to observe that they were pretty little things, but not the beautiful children he could have imagined from Lady Harman. Peeping through their infantile delicacy, hints all too manifest of Sir Isaac's characteristically pointed nose gave Mr. Brumley a peculiar—a eugenic, qualm. [The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, 3:4]A eugenic qualm. Right.
At school Sir Isaac had not been a particularly prominent figure; his disposition at cricket to block and to bowl "sneaks" and "twisters" under-arm had raised his average rather than his reputation; he had evaded fights and dramatic situations, and protected himself upon occasions of unavoidable violence by punching with his white knuckles held in a peculiar and vicious manner. He had always been a little insensitive to those graces of style, in action if not in art, which appeal so strongly to the commoner sort of English mind; he played first for safety, and that assured, for the uttermost advantage. These tendencies became more marked with maturity. When he took up tennis for his health's sake he developed at once an ungracious service that had to be killed like vermin; he developed an instinct for the deadest ball available, and his returns close up to the net were like assassinations. Indeed, he was inherently incapable of any vision beyond the express prohibitions and permissions of the rules of the games he played, or beyond the laws and institutions under which he lived. His idea of generosity was the undocumented and unqualified purchase of a person by payments made in the form of a gift. [The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman, 5:4]This is really quite a nasty piece of writing by Wells: insinuatingly painting Harman as ‘not one of us’, not a proper gentleman, as a man naturally (we might say: racially) a sneak, a cheat and a hoarder of wealth. I mean: killed like vermin? Really? ‘Oh but I'm only talking about his tennis!’ Yeah. Right.
Even blithe young Ellen has her eugenic qualms. Here she is trying to talk herself into sticking with her marriage:
Why, after all, shouldn't she take life as she found it, that is to say, as Sir Isaac was prepared to give it to her? He wasn't really so bad, she told herself. The children—their noses were certainly a little sharp, but there might be worse children. [8:5]Noses crop up more than once:
Just how much she didn't really like her children she presently realized when in the feeble irascibility of their sickness they fell quarrelling. They became—horrid ... insisted upon having every single toy they possessed brought in and put upon their beds; Florence was first disingenuous and then surrendered her loot with passionate howlings. The Teddy Bear was rescued from Baby after a violent struggle in which one furry hind leg was nearly twisted off. It jars upon the philoprogenitive sentiment of our time to tell of these things and still more to record that all four, stirred by possessive passion to the profoundest depths of their beings, betrayed to an unprecedented degree in their little sharp noses, their flushed faces, their earnest eyes, their dutiful likeness to Sir Isaac. [7:3]So there it is: gentile women have sex with Jews, contrary to all the best eugenic ideas, and the next thing the world is full of children with sharp noses ‘stirred by possessive passion to the profoundest depths of their beings.’ Putting the unmistakeably Jewish name of the heroine's husband right there on the title page of the novel can't help but flag this up, I think. And it makes me wonder if the Shakesperian prototype for Wells's novel is not The Taming of the Shrew so much as it is The Merchant of Venice. That's a story about how a clever woman bests a wicked Jew by taking on the habiliments of a man, which is more or less what Wells has written here.
Wells wasn't a dedicated anti-Semite, or at least adult Wells wasn't. There is, it's true, this eye-popping bit in 1934's Experiment in Autobiography about his teenage years: ‘I had ideas about Aryans extraordinarily like Mr. Hitler's. The more I hear of him the more I am convinced that his mind is almost the twin of my thirteen year old mind in 1879; but heard through a megaphone and—implemented.’ Implemented indeed. Wells reminisces in a rather misty-eyed manner: ‘I do not know from what books I caught my first glimpse of the Great Aryan People going to and fro in the middle plains of Europe, spreading east, west, north and south ... and driving the inferior breeds into the mountains.’ Inferior breeds. Right. What's worse is the way he concludes with what he presumably believed was mitigation: ‘I thought Abraham, Isaac, Moses and David loathsome creatures ... but unlike Hitler I had no feelings about the contemporary Jew.’ Ugh!
But, we might say: that was thirteen-year-old Wells. We all have crazy ideas as kids. Adult Wells had plenty of Jewish friends, slept with Jewish women, repudiated Hitlerism and so on. But I'm not sure he ever shook off the shaping assumptions of the immanent, low-level anti-Semitism that characterised nineteenth-century British society. It has, perhaps, something to do with his novelist's impulse not only to diagnose but to personalize and dramatize social problems. Rather than talk about money, greed, unproductive capital acquisition and plutocracy in the abstract, he liked to personify them, and such personifications often took on the lineaments of Der Stürmer-style racial libel—as in this novel.
This touches on an intriguing larger issue: the extent to which our broader cultural determination retains anti-Semitism as a default even in individuals who are consciously and deliberately not anti-Semitic, even sometimes in people who would consider themselves philo-Semites. Think of Proust: À la recherche du temps perdu is amongst other things an extraordinarily sensitive portrait of a Jew, Swann, as well as a potent critique of the reflex anti-Semitism of the France of l'époque de l'affaire Dreyfuss. Marcel loves Swann, and writes about him with deep and abiding insight and tenderness. But there are also passages in the novel like the one in Sodome et Gomorrhe when Marcel visits the dying Swann and is struck by how repulsively Jewish he looks: how ‘enormous, tumid, crimson’ his nose is, ‘fit for a clown or an old Hebrew.’ Proust's letters are full of offhand anti-Semitism, even though he was himself half-Jewish. It's complicated.
Wells never delves into the Jewish Question in as profound a way as Proust, of course; indeed his jaunty denial that there even was such a question is one of the most alarming aspects of his relationship to Jewry more generally. Here he is on his early journalistic days, in the 1890s, and his close friendship with Walter Low, another struggling young writer. Low was Jewish. It's alright though: he didn't look like a Jew:
Low was tall and dark, not the Jew of convention and caricature, the ambitious and not the acquisitive sort, mystical and deliberate. He had an extensive knowledge of foreign languages and contemporary literature. He knew vastly more about current political issues than I did. We argued endlessly about the Jewish question, upon which he sought continually to enlighten me. But I have always refused to be enlightened and sympathetic about the Jewish question. From my cosmopolitan standpoint it is a question that ought not to exist. So, though we never quarrelled, we had some lively passages and if we convinced each other of nothing we considerably instructed each other. [Experiment in Autobiography, 291]I have always refused to be enlightened and sympathetic about the Jewish question is meant, I suppose, to be offhand and funny, a genial wave of the hand. But it strikes a genuinely catastrophic note in a book published only a few short years before the Final Solution to that very Question was put into grisly practice. To repeat myself: ugh.