Sunday, 14 January 2018

Experiment in Autobiography (1934)




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It seems that writing the closely autobiographical novel The World of William Clissold (1926) put the idea of writing an actual autobiography in Wells's head. There were presumably other factors too: the death of his wife Jane in 1927, and the drawn-out, painful break-up of his long-term relationship with Odette Keun that stretched (the break-up, I mean) through 1932 and 1933, and which is detailed at excruciating length in H G Wells in Love. Not to mention his advanced age, and his diagnosis as a diabetic. These things presumably put him in a mood to take stock of his life.

At any rate, he decided the time was ripe for his life story. This he composed mostly in Bournemouth between 1932 and 1934 (he'd given over his beloved Provençale house, Lou Pidou, to Keun when he ended their nine-year affair). The work quickly sprawled. He wrote to his friend Harold Laski (8 Jan 1933): ‘I have recently been writing an exhaustingly full and intimate account of my early life up to the age of 35. There is a good mass of letters and sketches available.’ The ‘sketches’ are the ‘picshuas’, the little doodles Wells was constantly drawing, and which liberally illustrate the Autobiography, as they do various others of Wells books.



(The picshuas are, I think, a means of mild self-mockery on Wells's part; and I discuss the place of that in the whole below). The letter to Laski goes on to describe the autobiography as ‘a sort of diary in pen and ink caricature that makes it rather specially interesting. But I have not yet set myself to discuss how a large book of 200,000 words with two or three score pages of facsimile pictures and photographs can be published.’ A fifth of a million words just to get him to 35! Since the published Autobiography takes us all the way up to Wells's late 60s, we have to assume the first MS draft was va-a-ast. We don't know exactly how vast, though. Having finished it, Wells took a working holiday in America and left the MS in the hands of his daughter-in-law Marjorie Wells and his old friend (and former lover), the novelist Dorothy Richardson. It seems these two cut the MS down to a more manageable, although still hefty, 290,000 words. When Wells returned to the UK he checked over, and approved, their work.

During this lengthy gestation period word got around publishing circles, and by the time the work was finished there was considerable excitement: Hutchinson offered £3,300 for the book, but Gollancz outbid them with an advance of £4000—roughly a quarter of a million pounds in 2017 money—plus a whopping 20% royalty. I mean, I've been being published by Gollancz for two decades now, and I have to say they've never offered me those kind of terms. Macmillan published it in the States. Excerpts were sold to various papers, and the Daily Mail offered serialisation rights. When Gollancz warned him that serialisation might harm sales of the book edition, Wells replied by suggesting the book be sold in cinema lobbies as well as bookshops. Which is an odd idea. (You don't have to lurk in cinema foyers to read this one, mind you: the whole text is available free online here).

In the event the book was a notable success; a big seller, praised by his friends, widely and positively covered by reviewers. It was hailed by some as one of the great autobiographies of the age. And, although I suppose the truth is that it's little read today, some critics have endorsed this assessment: Michael Sherborne [H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life (2010), 299] thinks it ‘by far the best of his later books,’ and David C. Smith calls it ‘one of the great autobiographies of this century ... one of the best testaments to the human condition and its possibility’ [H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal (1986), 418–19]. Readers in the 30s were especially struck by how candidly revealing the book is, a point to which I'll return in a bit.



And it's not hard to see why Experiment in Autobiography did so well. Despite its length, it is an extremely compelling piece of writing. It is full of engaging and often hilarious detail, helped by the fact that Wells knew everyone worth knowing; it gives an absorbing portrait of its times, especially of what it was like growing up in late-Victorian England, and what being young and hopeful and in-love (and randy) was like in the 1890s. And the central figure, Wells's Wells, is as vividly rendered and engaging a piece of characterization as any in his fiction. I presume this character bears some relationship to the (handling the word with the sugar-tongs of scare-quotes) ‘real’ HG, but one thing to which the Autobiography is constantly and pleasingly alert is how much of fiction there is in any self-assessment or retrospective life-narration, published or not. I'll come back to that in a bit, too.

The contents list (page numbers are to the one-volume US edition, published by Macmillan) gives a sense of the overall shape:
Chapter the First. INTRODUCTORY
§ 1. Prelude (1932) page 1
§ 2. Persona and Personality 8
§ 3. Quality of the Brain and Body Concerned 13

Chapter the Second. ORIGINS
§ 1. 47 High Street, Bromley, Kent 21
§ 2. Sarah Neal (1822-1905) 25
§ 3. Up Park and Joseph Wells (1827-1910) 32
§ 4. Sarah Wells at Atlas House (1855-1880) 42
§ 5. A Broken Leg and Some Books and Pictures (1874) 53

Chapter the Third. SCHOOLBOY
§ 1. Mr. Morley's Commercial Academy (1874-1880) 59
§ 2. Puerile View of the World (1878-79) 69
§ 3. Mrs. Wells, Housekeeper at Up Park (1880-1893) 80
§ 4. First Start in Life—Windsor (Summer 1880) 84
§ 5. Second Start in Life—Wookey (Winter 1880) 96
§ 6. Interlude at Up Park (1880-81) 101
§ 7. Third Start in Life—Midhurst (1881) 107

Chapter the Fourth. EARLY ADOLESCENCE
§ 1. Fourth Start in Life—Southsea (1881-1883) 113
§ 2. The Y.M.C.A., the Freethinker; a Preacher and the Reading Room 124
§ 3. Fifth Start in Life—Midhurst (1883-84) 135
§ 4. First Glimpses of Plato—and Henry George 140
§ 5. Question of Conscience 149
§ 6. Walks with My Father 153

Chapter the Fifth. SCIENCE STUDENT IN LONDON
§ 1. Professor Huxley and the Science of Biology (1884-85) 159
§ 2. Professor Guthrie and the Science of Physics (1885-86) 165
§ 3. Professor Judd and the Science of Geology (1886-87) 183
§ 4. Divagations of a Discontented Student (1884-1887) 188
§ 5. Socialism (without a Competent Receiver) and World Change 196
§ 6. Background of the Student's Life (1884-1887) 217
§ 7. Heart's Desire 229

Chapter the Sixth. STRUGGLE FOR A LIVING
§ 1. Sixth Start in Life or Thereabouts (1887) 237
§ 2. Blood in the Sputum (1887) 244
§ 3. Second Attack on London (1888) 255
§ 4. Henley House School (1889-90) 260
§ 5. The University Correspondence College (1890-1893) 274
§ 6. Collapse into Literary Journalism (1893-94) 290
§ 7. Exhibits in Evidence 311

Chapter the Seventh. DISSECTION
§ 1. Compound Fugue 347
§ 2. Primary Fixation 350
§ 3. Modus Vivendi 361
§ 4. Writings about Sex 392
§ 5. Digression about Novels 410

Chapter the Eighth. FAIRLY LAUNCHED AT LAST
§ 1. Duologue in Lodgings (1894-95) 425
§ 2. Lynton, Station Road, Woking (1895) 450
§ 3. Heatherlea, Worcester Park (1896-97) 471
§ 4. New Romney and Sandgate (1898) 494
§ 5. Edifying Encounters. Some Types of Persona and Temperamental Attitude (1897-1910) 509
§ 6. Building a House (1899-1900) 544

Chapter the Ninth. THE IDEA OF A PLANNED WORLD
§ 1. Anticipations (1900) and the ‘New Republic’ 549
§ 2. The Samurai—in Utopia and in the Fabian Society (1905-1909) 560
§ 3. ‘Planning’ in the Daily Mail (1912) 566
§ 4. The Great War and My Resort to ‘God’ (1914-1916) 568
§ 5. War Experiences of an Outsider 578
§ 6. World State and League of Nations 592
§ 7. World Education 611
§ 8. World Revolution 625
§ 9. Cerebration at Large and Brains in Key Positions 643
§ 10. Envoy

Whether it was Wells's original design, or something Marjorie Wells and Dorothy Richardson sculpted out of more shapeless MS raw material, this is a meaningful structure, avoiding the dull chronological plod without distorting the underlying narrative. I have a theory that it deliberately reshuffles the classic ‘Seven Ages’ template in order to apprehend the Wellsian essence. I can't prove it, but I still hold to it. Jacques' seven ages, I hardly need remind you, were: infant, schoolboy, lover, soldier, justice, the slippered pantaloon, and old age.  Here we have: ‘Origins’ (infancy); ‘Schoolboy’/‘Early Adolescence’ which treat Wells's schooldays; ‘Struggle for a Living’ which details Wells's early experiences as a lover and ‘Science Student in London’ in which he talks of those science teachers, or Jacquesian Justices, who brought him to the bar of science. Then the story pauses for some slippered-pantaloony literary-critical analyses of the state of the Novel and other things in ‘Dissection’. ‘Old Age’ gets frontloaded in the very first section (‘Introduction’) which is specifically dated to the end of Wells life and reduces the whole of him to an inferior brain before breaking the brain down. The actual final section of the Autobiography, ‘The Idea of a Planned World’, details Wells's engagement (not as an actual enlisted man but still) in the Great War, and styles the battle for the coming World State as the struggle to which all must submit. We end, in other words, with Wells as soldier.

Ending with the soldier, the least Wellsian Wells (I would say) is in a sense symptomatic of this exercise in textual selfcreation: as much an attempt at escape from subjectivity as a recreation of that subjectivity. There's interesting stuff in that last section, too: on how the tank was developed, how he liaised with Churchill, toured the trenches, proposed new communications technology and so on. But it's a little po-faced. Much more entertaining are the pantaloon moments of literary gossip scattered throughout, and particularly gathered in chapter 7. I especially love his account of his friendship with Joseph Conrad:
He was rather short and round-shouldered with his head as it were sunken into his body. He had a dark retreating face with a very carefully trimmed and pointed beard, a trouble-wrinkled forehead and very troubled dark eyes, and the gestures of his hands and arms were from the shoulders and very Oriental indeed. He spoke English strangely. Not badly altogether; he would supplement his vocabulary—especially if he were discussing cultural or political matters—with French words; but with certain oddities. He had learnt to read English long before he spoke it and he had formed wrong sound impressions of many familiar words; he had for example acquired an incurable tendency to pronounce the last e in these and those. He would say, ‘Wat shall we do with thesa things?’ And he was always incalculable about the use of ‘shall’ and ‘will.’ [Autobiography, 525]
It is from Wells's account that I discover Conrad wrote Heart of Darkness and The Secret Agent on the same desk that Christina Rossetti had written ‘Goblin Market’ (when Conrad moved to Kent he rented from Ford Madox Heuffer a farm called the Pent at the foot of the Downs above Hythe, which had previously been Rossetti's dwelling and which still contained much of her old furniture). And Conrad's first encounter with George Bernard Shaw makes me chuckle:
When Conrad first met Shaw in my house, Shaw talked with his customary freedoms. ‘You know, my dear fellow, your books won't do’—for some Shavian reason I have forgotten—and so forth.

I went out of the room and suddenly found Conrad on my heels, swift and white-faced. ‘Does that man want to insult me?’ he demanded.

The provocation to say ‘Yes’ and assist at the subsequent duel was very great, but I overcame it. ‘It's humour,’ I said, and took Conrad out into the garden to cool. One could always baffle Conrad by saying ‘humour.’ It was one of our damned English tricks he had never learnt to tackle. [Autobiography, 530]
There's a great deal of stuff like this in the Experiment in Autobiography, and it's very often this charming. Not that the humour is always kindly. Encountering his neighbour G K Chesterton driving a horse and gig in the narrow Kentish lanes, Wells describes how his friend ‘seemed to overhang his one-horse fly’ (‘rather swollen by the sunshine, he descended slowly but firmly; he was moist and steamy but cordial’ [453]). Of Henry James, once his close friend, later estranged and by 1934 (of course) dead, Wells says he was ‘a strange unnatural human being, a sensitive man lost in an immensely abundant brain, which had had neither a scientific nor a philosophical training, but which was by education and natural aptitude alike, formal, formally æsthetic, conscientiously fastidious and delicate. Wrapped about in elaborations of gesture and speech, James regarded his fellow creatures with a face of distress and a remote effort at intercourse, like some victim of enchantment placed in the centre of an immense bladder’ [450]. Bladder is funny, in a cruel sort of way.

Wells is capable of pathos, as with his description of attending his friend George Gissing at his deathbed, and he has a nice line in acid-drops, too, as with his account of Edith Nesbit's husband, the chronically unfaithful and bullying Hubert Bland (‘a thick-set, broad-faced aggressive man, a sort of Tom-cat man, with a tenoring voice and a black ribboned monocle and a general disposition to dress and live up to that’ [513]), whom Wells hated almost as much as he hated Wells. But what redeems all this is Wells's real gift for self-deprecation. He very often captures his own absurd, pompous, petty and comical nature, and does so with a lightness of touch and ingenuousness that makes those stories where he is the butt of the joke some of the best. The picshuas reinforce this. And his literary self-assessment is unforgiving:
Tried by Henry James's standards I doubt if any of my novels can be taken in any other fashion [than failures]. There are flashes and veins of character duly ‘treated’ and living individuals in many of them, but none that satisfy his requirements fully. A lot of Kipps may pass, some of Tono Bungay, Mr Britling Sees It Through and Joan and Peter and let me add, I have a weakness for Lady Harman and for Theodore Bulpington and—— But I will not run on. These are pleas in extenuation. The main indictment is sound, that I sketch out scenes and individuals, often quite crudely, and resort even to conventional types and symbols, in order to get on to a discussion of relationships. [Autobiography, 414]
Here's another of the Experiment's picshuas: Wells waiting anxiously for Jane to give her verdict on something he has written. I'm guessing she's about to say something fairly crushing.



But I have the feeling, with all this, that I'm not conveying the larger flavour of the Autobiography. It is, I have to say, much more than a wittily diverting collection of personal and cultural gossip in the mode of, say (to be anachronistic for a moment) Peter Ustinov's Dear Me. Dates me, that reference, I know; but there you go. Quite apart from all that, the work's most notable literary achievement is its account, in the early chapters, of Wells's childhood at Up Park; of his mother and the two milieus between which she, and therefore he as her son, were strung. That whole ornate and archaic Edwardian world. It is set-up in the book as the ground against which Wells's later achievements can be gauged—in order to be able to measure the distance traveled. But it also stands on its own merits as, simply, a wonderful piece of writing.



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The question that naturally arises, here but also of course with any autobiography, is: what specific relation exists between the character at the heart of this book and the human being Herbert George Wells who lived between 1866 and 1946? It's more than a question about autobiography, actually. It touches on the fundamental structural misprison of writing as such: the priority of representation over actuality. I'm old enough to find something reassuringly deconstructive about this idea, actually: the inescapability of textuality, the counter-intuitive precession of the written version of H G Wells over the irrecoverable (irrecoverable even when he was alive!) biological version of H G Wells. And Wells himself is certainly aware of what he is doing here: crafting himself, unveiling not the echt Wells but the Wellsian persona. That canny self-awareness is one of the great strengths of the Experiment in Autobiography precisely because the persona so created does have value as a way of apprehending what was ‘really’ going on to and in the Wellsian sensorium. As Wells argues, and as I think even Derrida would have conceded, the necessarily manque de hors-texte nature of all discourse, including that discourse we use to construe of our own selves to our own selves, doesn't mean that there is no actual self to talk about. Representation distorts and exaggerates but it doesn't invent out of whole cloth. This is how Wells puts it—how he theorises his own autobiographical praxis, via Jung:
A persona, as Jung uses the word, is the private conception a man has of himself, his idea of what he wants to be and of how he wants other people to take him. It provides therefore, the standard by which he judges what he may do, what he ought to do and what is imperative upon him. Everyone has a persona. Self conduct and self explanation is impossible without one ... So that this presentation of a preoccupied mind devoted to an exalted and spacious task and seeking a maximum of detachment from the cares of this world and from baser needs and urgencies that distract it from that task, is not even the beginning of a statement of what I am, but only of what I most like to think I am. It is the plan to which I work, by which I prefer to work, and by which ultimately I want to judge my performance. But quite a lot of other things have happened to me, quite a lot of other stuff goes with me and it is not for the reader to accept this purely personal criterion.

A persona may be fundamentally false, as is that of many a maniac. It may be a structure of mere compensatory delusions, as is the case with many vain people. But it does not follow that if it is selected by a man out of his moods and motives, it is necessarily a work of self deception. A man who tries to behave as he conceives he should behave, may be satisfactorily honest in restraining, ignoring and disavowing many of his innate motives and dispositions. The mask, the persona, of the Happy Hypocrite became at last his true faces.

... A biography should be a dissection and demonstration of how a particular human being was made and worked; the directive persona system is of leading importance only when it is sufficiently consistent and developed to be the ruling theme of the story. But this is the case with my life. From quite an early age I have been predisposed towards one particular sort of work and one particular system of interests. I have found the attempt to disentangle the possible drift of life in general and of human life in particular from the confused stream of events, and the means of controlling that drift, if such are to be found, more important and interesting by far than anything else. I have had, I believe, an aptitude for it. The study and expression of tendency, has been for me what music is for the musician, or the advancement of his special knowledge is to the scientific investigator. My persona may be an exaggeration of one aspect of my being, but I believe that it is a ruling aspect. It may be a magnification but it is not a fantasy. A voluminous mass of work accomplished attests its reality. [Autobiography, 9-11]
What this means, in practical terms, in this book, is that Wells consistently underplays himself, produces a persona more comically inept than the public record might suggest was ‘actually’ the case. Wells was, let's not forget, someone who, almost entirely on the strength of his own energy, genius and persistence, turned himself from a nobody into one of the world's most famous, influential, and wealthy authors. He went from being a draper's apprentice with literally no prospects to being friends with Jung, Beaverbrook, Roosevelt, Marie Stopes, George Gissing, Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Dorothy Richardson and Bernard Shaw, with Roger Fry and Charlie Chaplin and Booker T Washington, a man who took tea with Prime Ministers, Presidents and Archbishops. He was a man who overcame almost wholly impermeable barriers of class and background in the country and at the time when class and background were greater impediments than almost anywhere in the world, the man who took a congeries of futurist and technological-novum tropes and made them a coherent genre called ‘science fiction’, who made prophesy respectable and helped reconfigure the political landscape of his homeland. But the Wells who writes his Autobiography softpedals all that, and instead repeatedly stresses his inadequacies. What's remarkable is that he manages to do so in a way that doesn't come across as false modesty. His modesty has the sheen of genuineness, even of a kind of baffled ingenuity. How did all this happen to me? he seems to be saying.
The brain upon which my experiences have been written is not a particularly good one. If there were brain-shows, as there are cat and dog shows, I doubt if it would get even a third class prize. Upon quite a number of points it would be marked below the average. In a little private school in a small town on the outskirts of London it seemed good enough, and that gave me a helpful conceit about it in early struggles where confidence was half the battle. It was a precocious brain, so that I was classified with boys older than myself right up to the end of a brief school career which closed before I was fourteen. But compared with the run of the brains I meet nowadays, it seems a poorish instrument. I won't even compare it with such cerebra as the full and subtly simple brain of Einstein, the wary, quick and flexible one of Lloyd George, the abundant and rich grey matter of G. B. Shaw, Julian Huxley's store of knowledge or my own eldest son's fine and precise instrument. But in relation to everyday people with no claim to mental distinction I still find it at a disadvantage. [Autobiography, 13]
He is disarmingly honest about the limitations of his own writing: Mankind in the Making (1902) is ‘extremely sketchy’ and its component elements ‘do not interlock’ [213]; Joan and Peter (1918) ‘is as shamelessly unfinished as a Gothic cathedral’ [420]; What Is Coming (1916) was assembled ‘in a very blind and haphazard fashion’ (he says he would prefer to ‘let this little volume decay and char and disappear and say nothing about it’ [580]) and so on. Of his experience with the Fabians, he notes: ‘on various occasions in my life it has been borne in on me, in spite of a stout internal defence, that I can be quite remarkably silly and inept; but no part of my career rankles so acutely in my memory with the conviction of bad judgment, gusty impulse and real inexcusable vanity, as that storm in the Fabian tea-cup’ [564]. The reader feels that he's being perfectly honest in acknowledging his silliness and ineptitude.

The key to all this is (an English person is liable to say, but of course) class. Wells lives his own life on his own terms, but that life is also to an extent already overwritten by the social class into which he was born. Another way of expressing the quality of silliness or ineptitude, of comical bumptiousness, of his whole small-stature squeaky-voiced Britling-y nature, would be to say: he's a bit vulgar. Which is a thoroughly class-saturated way of putting things. What Wells never had as a person, and what his Autobiography never tries to mimic, are: breeding, refinement, elevation, suavity. Repudiating these things, and insisting on speaking the plain truth as he sees it, is the core of Wells's philosophy of life. The truth is that he wasn't even a parvenu. He was, in the crushingly snobbish English phrase, a counter-jumper. And the great merit of his Autobiography is that he owns that fact, revels in it, and so makes something potent out of it.

And that also speaks to the nature of autobiography as such. Because one of the unspoken truths of the mode is that telling your life story is, inherently, just a rather vulgar thing to be doing—a tad me! me! me!, a touch ungentlemanly or unladylike. And Wells's book owns that truth, mitigating it with wit and charm and pushing it through to suggest that the whole social hierarchy that supports such an attitude is due a bottom-up refit.

Other memoirists tend to tiptoe about this vulgarity. There's a lot more I could say about this, of course, but I'll limit myself here to one, Jamesian counter-example.  Max Saunders [‘“Fusions and Interrelations”: Family Memoirs of Henry James, Edmund Gosse and Others’, in Adam Smyth (ed), A History of English Autobiography (Cambridge 2016), 255-68] reads Henry James's various attempts at life-writing as ‘relational autobiography’, a specific alternative to the mode's more common egoist autonomous individualism. For Saunders, the series of autobiographical texts that James began in 1913 with A Small Boy and Others articulates his recognition that ‘really, universally, relations stop nowhere, and the exquisite problem of the artist is eternally but to draw ... the circle within which they shall happily appear to do so.’

This is certainly suggestive, and a persuasive reading of James, although it doesn't address the risk of outright mendacity in such work, especially where the artist concerned is actually possessed of a prominent ego, as, we can be honest, almost all artists are. Ego doesn't disappear because we drape it in the cloud-of-unknowing of upper-class refinement. Au contraire, in fact. It would certainly have been flatly dishonest for Wells to write a wholly self-effacing autobiographical work. His self-deprecation, though ingenuous, is the next best thing he can do to Jamesian self-abstention.

I don't want to overstress the contrast between James and Wells (although precisely that contrast occupies a goodly portion of the Experiment in Autobiography, actually).  Still, bladder or no, James devoted as much of his art as his life to the quest for a particularly evanescent Holy Grail of English class-determined refinement, where Wells saw much of that social edifice as a sham that needed to be cleared away. It's a differend, I suppose.

In The Spoils of Poynton, Mrs Gereth's impeccable taste and her iron will are iterations of one another. Her dismay that her son will inherit Poynton, upon which she has expended such immaculate beautifying energies, and allow his beautiful, well-bred yet in some unspeakable way nonetheless vulgar fiancée Mona Brigstock to ruin it, is presented by the novel as a genuine grievance, a dismay we should take seriously. Mona, as Owen Gereth's wife, will come into possession of the house, chuck out the perfect furnishing and artworks, add a billiard room and a winter garden and ruin everything. The potential injury done to Mrs Gereth's scrupulous aesthetic tact has Lear-like magnitude in James's vision, although, as in many of his books, exactly what is at stake, what super-refinement of an already wholly refined upper-class world is being outraged, assumes, when you try and pin it down, something of the consistency of melted ice-cream.

Poynton is fiction, but Saunders is quite right that fiction and autobiography overlap for James. And that's the difference. Wells's approach to autobiography is: sure, build that winter garden. Indeed, why stop there? He is Mona Birgstock to James's Mrs Gereth, or Gereth's tasteful young companion Fleda Vetch. It would miss the point of James's aesthetic philosophy to call Wells approach more honest, but it is certainly, and deliberately, more vulgar, and therefore more revealing. And that is a rationale in its own right where autobiography is concerned.



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Which brings me to the unpublished (in his lifetime) third volume of Wells's Experiment in Autobiography.

After he finished drafting the text I've been discussing, Wells went on writing, creating an account of his sexual life:—which is to say a narrative of his many extra-marital affairs. It's not that he is inhibited, or reticent, about discussing his sexual life in the Experiment in Autobiography. On the contrary, his account of his first marriage, the sexual incompatibility between his wife and himself, their breakup and Wells's elopement with Catherine (Jane) is perfectly frank. But the Experiment says nothing about his later many affairs, nor his habit of visiting prostitutes or his other occasional pick-ups. These are the subject of Wells's third testament, which was eventually published quite a long time after his death as edited and abridged by his son Gip: H G Wells in Love (Faber 1984). ‘In the book I have called Experiment in Autobiography,’ is how this work opens,
I have tried to trace out the emotional development of a human brain from the year of my birth in 1866 to the year 1934. It was a rather quick and bold type of brain, as I conceived it, but its general texture was mediocre, and it served rather as a sample of the current movement of thought and purpose during that period of human experience than as anything extraordinary in itself. Some critics said that my assertion of its essential mediocrity was insincere and were inclined to overrate my quality and blame me for a sort of inverted arrogance. But I meant exactly what I said. [H G Wells in Love, 51]
This is to put the premium on honesty as such, I think, howsoever vulgar such honestly may seem; and that in turn means that Wells is troubled by the degree of insincerity involved in an autobiography that omits much of its subject's sex life.
Its one outstanding quality was a disposition to straightforwardness. I told as fully as I could of the sexual awakening of this brain, of its primary emotional and sentimental reactions, and of the play of its instinctive impulses amidst established conventions of behaviour, up to the establishment of what I called a modus vivendi between husband and wife, towards 1900. Thereafter sexual events and personal intimacies had to fall into the background of the story. ... But I regretted the dimming of the easy frankness of the beginning. These later personal affairs were of considerable importance; significant sexual and personal intimacies occurred after 1900, and the omission of any particular discussion of them caused, as it were, an effect of partial blankness within the general outline. [51-52]
Partial blankness, in terms of calculated omission, suggestive ellipses and the like, is the whole Jamesian game, fictionally or autobiographically speaking (can you imagine James laying out all the specifics of his sex life in his writing?) But such blankness is intolerable to Wells's aesthetic. ‘The main reason for the suppression,’ he explains, ‘was, of course, that a number of people who were still living in 1934 were bound to be affected very seriously by a public analysis of the roles they played in my life’ [52]. But eventually posterity would deal with that obstacle. Wells hoped this third testament would ‘be published as soon as that can conveniently be done’ as part of an expanded three-volume edition of the Experiment in Autobiography, ‘so all the main masses of my experiences and reactions will fall into proportion’ [233-34].

The focus in this book is not really sex. H G Wells in Love is actually pretty inexplicit about the mechanics of Wellsian lovemaking, and reads quite differently to, say, Henry Miller or Anaïs Nin. Instead the book adumbrates the premise that a sexless or under-sexed life must need index a superstructure of repression. Personally, I don't think that's necessarily true, actually; but it's Wells's position. ‘I have never been able to discover,’ he says, ‘whether my interest in sex is more than normal. There is no meter yet for that sort of thing.’ Indeed, he thinks he is ‘less obsessed’ with sex ‘than the average man’. But one thing he knows: his sexual impulses ‘have never been suppressed; because my mental constitution is averse from suppression’ [52]. And that's the autobiographical crux, here.

I don't propose to go into H G Wells in Love in any great detail, fascinating and entertaining though that volume is. I've already gone on long enough, and too long by far. But I want to round-off by returning to one thought about the Experiment in Autobiography in the light of what I've been saying. Academic and biographer Philip Furbank doesn't think Wells's Autobiography really works. It's not just its length, for Furbank; it's that he thinks ‘there are vast gaps in Wells’s autobiography’. Writing in 1984 Furbank confesses
a feeling, fed by his Experiment in Autobiography and his newly-published confessions H.G. Wells in Love, that he was fertile in self-criticism, but that ... the self-criticism never caught up with him; it was hardly ever to hand when it was needed. In H.G. Wells in Love (the title is supplied by his son G.P. Wells) he remarks, apropros of his famous affair with Amber Reeves: ‘Voluminous explanations flowed from me—and the more voluminous an explanation is, the less it explains.’ It is a very true remark and pinpoints the prevailing weakness in his autobiographical writings. Page after page, with fatal and increasing fluency as Experiment proceeds, he explains—only to have to admit that, in fact, nothing has been explained. [P.N. Furbank ‘Picshuas’, LRB (18 October 1984), 19-20]
But I don't think this is right, or even fair, actually. It confuses two quite different things: the relationship between two lovers as they break-up, and the relationship between an author and his/her readers. Explanation in the former case, irrespective of volume, can never manage the work it purports to, because explanation has already been negated by the fact of the break-up. If there were salvageable explanatory power in the conversation the couple wouldn't be breaking up in the first place. But in the latter case meaningful explanation is, of course, not only possible but easily achievable, granted only a modicum of candour and self-awareness. I'd say Wells mounts a compelling defence. It is, in the old-fashioned but also the contemporary senses of the word, an apology for a life, and it's crucial to remember than a gentleman never apologies or explains. Wells was no gentleman, and that's his glory.

Taking of break-ups, when the Experiment in Autobiography was published, Odette Keun, fresh from the grazed heart and bruised ego of a protracted, ungainly end-of-the-affair with Wells, expressed in review an ungenerous opinion of it, and its author:
When a really objective biography of Wells will be written, instead of the enormous reel of self-justification which he is still producing, where his very cunning art of feinting, his very subtle trick of inaccuracy in confession, have again succeeded in blinding his audience to the nature of his play, it will be discovered that he has wounded and injured often beyond cure. [Odette Keun, ‘H. G. Wells—The Player’, Time and Tide (13-27 October 1934), 1251]
She means, I think: he has wounded and injured me beyond cure; though she can't say so without sacrificing the pretense of reviewerish objectivity. And no doubt she has a point, although it's (surely) a general point rather than one specific to Wells, except in the sense that she, Odette Keun, has specifically been sleeping with Wells for the previous nine years. But the Experiment in Autobiography never sets out to be a letter of exculpation addressed to an ex-lover. If it's a reel it's a reel around the fountain of Wellsian genius. His origins were low, and his adult manner kept betraying that lowness. But lowness is a good, indeed a vital, quality in a well; and without wells how would we drink?

And this brings me back, as a parting shot, to *clears throat* the work's Ustinovian qualities. Because whatever other kind of reel Experiment in Autobiography dances, it is very often genuinely funny. Earlier I suggested the structure of the whole plays games with Jacques' Seven Ages of Man, and that the mere oblivion/sans everything phase is frontloaded in the ‘Introduction’. From that section, then, I conclude with Wells looking forward to his own death, and very genial he is about it to.
In 1905 my mother slipped and fell downstairs one evening and was hurt internally and died a few weeks later. In her last illness her mind wandered back to Midhurst and she would fuss about laying the table for her father or counting the stitches as she learnt to crochet. She died a little child again. In 1910 my father woke up very briskly one morning, delivered a careful instruction on the proper way to make suet pudding to his housekeeper Mrs. Smith, insisted that it should be chopped small, protested against ‘lumps the size of my thumb,’ glanced over the Daily Chronicle she had brought him and prepared to get up. He put his legs out of bed and slid down by the side of the bed a dead man. There is an irregularity in our family pulse, it misses a beat ever and again and sooner or later it misses more than one and that is the end of us. My grandfather had leant over a gate to admire the sunset and then ceased to live in the same fashion. This last spring as I write (1933) heart stoppage came also to my elder brother and as he got up from his breakfast, he reeled and fell down dead. But this was a little premature; he was only seventy-seven and my father and grandfather were both eighty-two. I shall hate to leave the spectacle of life but go I must at last, and I hope when my time is fulfilled that I too may depart in this apparently hereditary manner. It seems to me that whatever other defects we have, we have an admirable way of dying.

4 comments:

  1. The allusion to The Smiths in the penultimate paragraph of this (very lengthy) piece is probably a bridge too far, and difficult to justify. But still: there it is. There might be something to be written about the working-class-nobody-to-worldspanning-celebrity parallels between Morrissey and Wells, not least in terms of how their ironic or humourous idiom is so often ignored or misconstrued. Although there are some pretty major differences too, of course.

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  2. This is a good write-up. Thanks for sharing.

    My favorite joke in the book is Wells's anecdote about trying to dampen a hat so it would look less ratty when going to an interview with an editor.

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    1. It's a wonderful episode [6:6]:

      I wrote a paper The Rediscovery of the Unique which was printed by Frank Harris in the Fortnightly Review (July 1891). This success whetted my appetite for print and I sent Harris a further article, the Universe Rigid, which he packed off to the printers at once and only read when he got it in proof. He found it incomprehensible and his immediate staff found it incomprehensible. This is not surprising, since it was a laboured and ill-written description of a four dimensional space-time universe, and that sort of thing was still far away from the monthly reviews in 1891. "Great Gahd!" cried Harris, "What's the fellow up to?" and summoned me to the office.

      I found his summons disconcerting. My below-stairs training reinforced the spirit of the times on me, and insisted that I should visit him in proper formal costume. I imagined I must wear a morning coat and a silk hat and carry an umbrella. It was impossible I should enter the presence of a Great Editor in any other guise. My aunt Mary and I inspected these vitally important articles. The umbrella, tightly rolled and with a new elastic band, was not so bad, provided it had not to be opened; but the silk hat was extremely discouraging. It was very fluffy and defaced and, as I now perceived for the first time, a little brownish in places. The summons was urgent and there was no time to get it ironed. We brushed it with a hard brush and then with a soft one and wiped it round again and again with a silk handkerchief. The nap remained unsubdued. Then, against the remonstrances of my aunt Mary, I wetted it with a sponge and then brushed. That seemed to do the trick. My aunt's attempt to restrain me had ruffled and delayed me a little, but I hurried out, damply glossy, to the great encounter, my début in the world of letters.

      Harris kept me waiting in the packing office downstairs for nearly half an hour before he would see me. This ruffled me still more. At last I was shown up to a room that seemed to me enormous, in the midst of which was a long table at which the great man was sitting. At the ends were a young man, whom I was afterwards to know as Blanchamp, and a very refined looking old gentleman named Silk who was Harris's private secretary. Harris silently motioned me to a chair opposite himself.

      He was a square-headed individual with very black hair parted in the middle and brushed fiercely back. His eyes as they met my shabby and shrinking form became intimidatory. He had a blunt nose over a vast black upturned moustache, from beneath which came a deep voice of exceptional power. He seemed to me to be of extraordinary size, though that was a mere illusion; but he was certainly formidable. "And it was you sent me this Universe R-R-Rigid!" he roared.

      I got across to the table somehow, sat down and disposed myself for a conversation. I was depleted and breathless. I placed my umbrella and hat on the table before me and realized then for the first time that my aunt Mary had been right about that wetting. It had become a disgraceful hat, an insult. The damp gloss had gone. The nap was drying irregularly and standing up in little tufts all over. It was not simply a shabby top hat; it was an improper top hat. I stared at it. Harris stared at it. Blanchamp and Silk had evidently never seen such a hat. With an effort we came to the business in hand.

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    2. "You sent me this Universe Gur-R-R-Rigid," said Harris, picking up his cue after the pause.

      He caught up a proof beside him and tossed it across the table. "Dear Gahd! I can't understand six words of it. What do you mean by it? For Gahd's sake tell me what it is all about? What's the sense of it? What are you trying to say?"

      I couldn't stand up to him—and my hat. I couldn't for a moment adopt the tone and style of a bright young man of science. There was my hat tacitly revealing the sort of chap I was. I couldn't find words. Blanchamp and Silk with their chins resting on their hands, turned back from the hat to me, in gloomy silent accusation.

      "Tell me what you think it's about?" roared Harris, growing more merciless with my embarrassment, and rapping the proof with the back of his considerable hand. He was enjoying himself.

      "Well, you see——" I said.

      "I don't see," said Harris. "That's just what I don't do."

      "The idea," I said, "the idea——"

      Harris became menacingly silent, patiently attentive.

      "If you consider time is space like, then—— I mean if you treat it like a fourth dimension like, well then you see...."

      "Gahd the way I've been let in!" injected Harris in an aside to Gahd.

      "I can't use it," said Harris at the culmination of the interview. "We'll have to disperse the type again,"—and the vision I had had of a series of profound but brilliant articles about fundamental ideas, that would make a reputation for me, vanished. My departure from that room has been mercifully obliterated from my memory. But as soon as I got alone with it in my bedroom in Fitzroy Road, I smashed up that hat finally. To the great distress of my aunt Mary. And the effect of that encounter was to prevent my writing anything ambitious again, for a year or more.

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