This was first published as a six-part serial in Pearson's Magazine (July to December 1901) and then as a book by Methuen in 1902, in the rather startling tomato-red livery above. The first American edition (New York: Appleton 1902) included eight illustrations by Lewis Baumer, some of which are included in this blogpost.
At just 40,000 words it's a short novel, and the story it tells is not complicated. A mermaid comes ashore at Sandgate, near Folkestone, and is adopted by a wealthy English family, the Buntings, who have a holiday home on the coast there. They cover up her fish-tail with a blanket, put her in a bath chair, recruit a maid to attend to her and name her (since originally she has no name) ‘Doris Thalassia Waters’. The Sea Lady herself, charming, polite and well-spoken, becomes a sort of local star.
The opening chapters are pleasant if lightweight comedy-of-manners stuff, and in the story's early stages a reader could be forgiven for thinking the Sea Lady's function is like that of the angel in The Wonderful Visit (1895), that is, to provide an ingenuous outsider perspective on the absurdities of human life. Read on a little further, though, and we begin to realise that's not what the novel is doing at all (it's really nothing like The Wonderful Visit). The Sea Lady knows all the important things about about human life already, and has neither need nor inclination to explore our world. The denizens of the undersea realm are, we discover, all extremely well-read, on account of the many books that end up on the seabed, lost or discarded or dumped in the ocean or else included in the libraries of shipwrecked liners (how the merpeople learned to read, or how they are able to read in the lower ocean depths where no sunlight reaches and the only illumination is marine phosphorescence, is not explained). No: the Sea Lady has another motive for coming onto the land.
The most obvious thing to say about The Sea Lady is that it is a Silver Fork retelling of Undine (1811), the celebrated fairy tale novella by the German Romantic Friedrich de la Motte, Baron Fouqué. Wells is perfectly up-front about this:
“You know it’s most extraordinary and exactly like the German story,” said Mrs. Bunting. “Oom—what is it?”In Freiherr Fouqué's tale, Undine (the name derives from the Latin for wave, unda) craves a soul, something a mermaid can obtain only by loving and being loved by a mortal man. Accordingly she falls in love with a brave and noble knight called Sir Huldbrand, who also falls for her. When they marry, Undine relinquishes her native immortality and gains her soul. At the same time, she warns Huldbrand that should he ever reject her, or send her away, her possessive and capricious water-spirit uncle Kühleborn will reclaim her and she would be lost to him forever. For a while the two live happily in Huldbrand's castle, far from the sea, keeping the jealous water spirits away by blocking up the castle's fountain. But the Lady Bertalda, who had hoped to marry Huldbrand before he fell in love with Undine, suggests that they all take a boat trip together down the Danube to see Vienna. It's a foolish jaunt. Kühleborn haunts the ship, scares the mariners and steals Bertalda's golden necklace. Huldbrand grows angry at Undine's sorcerous kin and repudiates her, and she slips sorrowfully into the water. Huldbrand returns to his castle broken-hearted, but in time he recovers sufficiently to marry Bertalda. But of course Undine is not dead, and this wedding is a bad idea. On her wedding night Bertalda, discovering a freckle on her perfectly fair neck, orders the fountain uncovered so she can wash it away, and through this aperture Undine is able to enter the castle. ‘Silently Undine threw back her veil, and Huldbrand saw her, fair as on the day he had won her for his bride. As he looked upon her, he knew that he had never loved any one in all the wide world as he loved Undine.’ She kisses him, he dies, and she glides away. At his tomb a spring starts up.
“Exactly—yes. And it really seems these poor creatures are Immortal, Mr. Melville—at least within limits—creatures born of the elements and resolved into the elements again—and just as it is in the story—there’s always a something—they have no Souls! No Souls at all! Nothing! And the poor child feels it. She feels it dreadfully. But in order to get souls, Mr. Melville, you know they have to come into the world of men. At least so they believe down there. And so she has come to Folkestone. To get a soul.” [Sea Lady, 48]
Wells's retelling replaces the slightly cloying tone of Fouqué's 1811 original with a much sprightlier vibe, nicely comic and sharply-observed, although the tone does undergo something of a shift towards the end of the novel, turning more opaque and haunted Still: it is always witty. The Huldebrand figure is Harry Chatteris, a handsome young man and friend of the Buntings, who is standing as the Liberal parliamentary candidate in the upcoming elections. On a previous trip to America Chatteris had become engaged to a millionaire's daughter, jilted her, caused a scandal, and returned to England via the South Seas. His planned career as an MP is his way of making amends and resuming his place in respectable life; and the same motivation is behind his betrothal to the eminently respectable Adeline Glendower—our story's Bertalda—beautiful, well-bred and with a strong sense of political duty. The Sea Lady is a more worldly-wise Undine than Fouqué's, and despite presenting herself to the Buntings as an innocent in fact she has been, we might say, stalking Chatteris for some time, having first seen him ‘in the South Seas—near Tonga’. This love-triangle is the meat of the story, and its telling is mediated through the narrator's cousin Melville (the character named, I presume, as a sort of Moby-Dick joke) who is another friend of the Buntings, and interacts with all three parties.
Chatteris is helpless before the immortal seductive powers of the Sea Lady. He breaks the engagement off with Adeline, causing another scandal. Mrs Bunting, belatedly realising that the Sea Lady is not so innocent as she pretends, throws her out (‘I’ve been very much deceived in you, Miss Waters—very much indeed’). The mermaid, independently wealthy on account of a casket filled with gold, jewels and treasure from the sea, is in no way incommoded by this, and takes a suite for herself and her maid in a nearby hotel. Summoned down from London by Mrs Bunting to try and patch things up, Melville has a long talk with the jilted Adeline. She wants to know what this Sea Lady has that she hasn't. He doesn't spare her feelings: ‘you are austere. You are restrained. Life—for a man like Chatteris—is schooling ...You are too much—the agent general of his duty.’ When she presses him, Melville deploys a metaphor with an interesting authorial-biographical resonance, considering that Wells had very recently built himself a lovely new house and installed his wife in it, whilst reserving to himself the option of going off to have sex with other women.
“You see you have defined things—very clearly. You have made it clear to him what you expect him to be, and what you expect him to do. It is like having built a house in which he is to live. For him, to go to her is like going out of a house, a very fine and dignified house, I admit, into something larger, something adventurous and incalculable. She is—she has an air of being—natural. She is as lax and lawless as the sunset, she is as free and familiar as the wind. She doesn’t—if I may put it in this way—she doesn’t love and respect him when he is this, and disapprove of him highly when he is that; she takes him altogether. She has the quality of the open sky, of the flight of birds, of deep tangled places, she has the quality of the high sea. That I think is what she is for him, she is the Great Outside. You—you have the quality—”This is, perhaps, a little too obviously nudging us to take the story as allegorising, in the figures of the two women, the security of marriage and the excitement of extra-marital sex—from, of course, the point-of-view of the man. The novel does at least prevent its (male) readers from having their erotic-fantasy cake and eating it too. At the story's end, Melville has a lengthy conversation with Chatteris, who talks himself into repudiating his scandalous passion. ‘I want a moral cold bath and I mean to take one,’ he tells Melville. ‘This lax dalliance with dreams and desires must end ... I’ve made my choice. I’ve got to be a man, I’ve got to live a man and die a man and carry the burden of my class and time ... I renounce it. I make my choice. Renunciation! Always—renunciation! That is life for all of us.’ You couldn't call this a triumphant conclusion, exactly. ‘We have desires, only to deny them, senses that we all must starve,’ is Chatteris's rather Beckettian summary of things. ‘We can live only as a part of ourselves.’ A little bleak, but at least clear.
“Go on,” she insisted. “Let us get the meaning.”
“Of an edifice.” [Sea Lady, 235-36]
Except that, it turns out it's not. In the story's last twist, Chatteris abruptly breaks his own resolution, goes to the Sea Lady's hotel at midnight and runs off with her, physically carrying her through the lobby and out the front door. ‘And when she see my face,’ the night porter later recalls, ‘she threw her head back laughing at me. As much as to say, got ’im!’ The narrator ponders this:
I stood for a moment conceiving this extraordinary picture. Then a question occurred to me.That's the end of Chatteris. They find the Sea Lady's expensive shawl on the beach. Evidently he carried her into the waters and sank beneath the waves to her world and his death. In sum: Chatteris chooses exotic sexual fantasy over respectable marriage and it kills him.
“Did he laugh?” I asked.
“Gord bless you, sir, laugh? No!” [Sea Lady, 294-5]
The incongruity between these later, rather earnest conversations and the earlier chapters' more jovial tone of polite comic incongruity may explain why people have tended not to rate The Sea Lady. It wasn't a contemporary success, commercially speaking (although neither was it exactly a flop: there were new UK editions in 1907 and 1910, and a second edition in America 1908) and it isn't much liked by Wellsians today: ‘a poor piece of work’ according to Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie. Wells's son Anthony West calls it ‘his least Wellsian book.’ Paul Kincaid says: ‘the novel was not a success and it is easy to see why. Despite the mermaid, it is not really a full-blooded work of the fantastic, and as a social novel it is thin compared to the other mainstream novels Wells was writing at this time.’ There's something in this, although I wonder if it's possible to redeem the incoherence at the book's heart. Maybe I'm fooling myself.
‘My father,’ Anthony West speculates in Aspects of a Life, ‘wrote the book to get something off his chest that he had not been able to admit to himself, or discuss with Jane,’ which puts in play the notion that what makes this an uncharacteristic Wellsian novel is that, this time round, Wells himself wasn't sure what he was doing. He wrote it during the period when he and his wife were negotiating, in person and by letter, the terms on which Wells was to be permitted, or licensed, to pursue sexual relations with other women. West calls this ‘their private treaty’, and he thinks The Sea Lady records his buried sense that such freedom ‘might have hidden costs’ [West, Aspects, 259]. That seems a likely, if perhaps rather over-obvious, thing to say. I think part of the distinctiveness of The Sea Lady as a novel is the way it resists simple decoding, and that this is also part of its unlikeableness. It is a fable that has to do with sex, certainly, but in a frustratingly oblique way—an obliqueness to do with more than simply the restrictions of Edwardian propriety on what can and can't be said in a novel. We might say it's about desire itself as obliqueness.
Wells's own account of the genesis of the novel tries to make it sound more straightforward than, I think, the finished product ends-up being. The germ of the tale was an encounter with a teenager called May Nisbet, the illegitimate daughter of Wells's journalist-friend E F Nisbet. When Nisbet died unexpectedly Wells (always financially generous to his friends) paid May’s school fees, told her to call him ‘Uncle Bertie’ and invited her to his Sandhgate house for holidays. In H G Wells in Love (1984) Wells recalls her as ‘a gawky and rather sullen girl’ of ‘fifteen or sixteen’ who did not attract him, until
... one day upon the beach at Sandgate she came down towards me wearing a close-fitting bathing dress; instantly she seemed the quintessence of sunlit youth to me, and I was overwhelmed with a rush of physical desire.He adds ‘I never gratified that physical desire’, although he seems to have at least tried it on (‘I made love to May Nisbet but quite vaguely and inconclusively’ is how he puts it; made love, of course, in the old nineteenth-century sense, somewhere between ‘courting’ and ‘propositioning’: ‘hitting on’ may be the nearest contemporary equivalent). At any rate, the implication is that the force of this thwarted desire lies behind his portrait of the disruptive energies of the Sea Lady herself. I don’t think it distorts the novel to trace its tonal knight’s-move in terms of these two modes of apprehending sexual desire. Sex can be simple fun, a straightforward pleasure. Sex may be an unreciprocated or impossible yearning. It might even suddenly transition from one to the other, from comedy to transcendental mooning-about. That's surely what we have, in the shape of this novel.
I have to say the comedy is often pretty good. There are moments of almost Wildean wit (Adeline is exasperated that her betrothed doesn't seem to know his own mind, and Melville replies: ‘for a man to know his own mind is to have exhausted one of the chief interests in life’. Which is nicely epigrammatic). And I liked the proto-Wodehousian exchange Melville has with one of Chatteris's aunts, Lady Poynting Mallow, who thinks the solution to the scandal would be for Chatteris simply to marry the Sea Lady. Melville points out several times that she is a mermaid, but Lady Poynting Mallow is unmoved, and indeed thinks it might even advantage Chatteris's political career to have such a wife, since his political opponent ‘makes a lot of capital out of deep-sea cables’. Wells manages some excellent comic business with Melville's uncertainty as to whether this respectable lady is simply too polite to accept the most obvious objection, the Sea Lady's vaginalessness, or whether she genuinely does not understand how married love works. “You understand clearly,” he repeats, yet again, “she is a properly constituted mermaid, with a real physical tail?”
“Well?” said Lady Poynting Mallow.The joke here, at the risk of being reductive, is that Melville thinks ‘like a man’, of marriage as the licensing of sexual intercourse, where Lady Poynting Mallow thinks ‘like a woman’ in terms of social alliance and advantage. We might say that this novel takes its part in that rich tradition of English sex-comedy from Malvolio's letter in Twelfth Night to Carry On; the comic tradition that believes it absolutely hilarious that everybody thinks about sex all the time but nobody is allowed actually to talk about it. That same tradition that believes all communication is double entrendres and all physical action slapstick, because all innocent communication and ordinary behaviour is continually bothered and troubled by bawdy communication and lewd behaviour. I don't mean to sound condescending when I say this: a lot of this stuff is very funny indeed, it's the culture I have grown up in and has shaped who I am. Wells's big joke is the old one about mermaids: I mean, isn't it funny? Don't you think? That these iconic representatives of female sexual allure have fish-tails instead of spreadable legs and fish-scales instead of penetrable genitalia? I mean, what would a red-blooded male even do with such a being? Is that funny? I have to say I'm not sure. It's built, of course, upon an older misogynistic libel that women's vaginas exude an unpleasant fishy odour. Generations of schoolboys have read the footnote explaining Hamlet's joke about Polonius being a ‘fishmonger’ and sniggered at the reference to prostitution. I'm being a little stilted, here, I know; but it's not from prudishness, so much as an uncertainty how far the actual mechanics of sexual intercourse between a man and a mermaid are relevant to The Sea Lady as a novel. It's not that I think the comedy of the novel somehow ‘above’ this consideration. It's just that, well: it's hardly very original, is it?
“I think that such a marriage would be impossible.”
My cousin played round the question. “She’s an immortal, for example, with a past.”
“Simply makes her more interesting.”
Melville tried to enter into her point of view. “You think,” he said, “she would go to London for him, and marry at St. George’s, Hanover Square, and pay for a mansion in Park Lane and visit just anywhere he liked?”
“That’s precisely what she would do. Just now, with a Court that is waking up—”
“She doesn’t even mean to marry him; it doesn’t enter into her code.”
“The hussy! What does she mean?”
My cousin made a gesture seaward. “That!” he said. “She’s a mermaid.”
Lady Poynting Mallow scanned the sea as if it were some curious new object. “It’s an amphibious outlook for the family,” she said after reflection. “But even then—if she doesn’t care for society and it makes Harry happy—and perhaps after they are tired of—rusticating——”
“I don’t think you fully realise that she is a mermaid,” said Melville; “and Chatteris, you know, breathes air.”
“That is a difficulty,” admitted Lady Poynting Mallow, and studied the sunlit offing for a space. “I don’t see why it shouldn’t be managed for all that,” she considered after a pause ... “He could have a yacht and a diving bell,” she suggested; “if she wanted him to visit her people.”
“They are pagan demigods, I believe, and live in some mythological way in the Mediterranean.”
“Dear Harry’s a pagan himself—so that doesn’t matter, and as for being mythological—all good families are. He could even wear a diving dress if one could be found to suit him.”
“I don’t think that anything of the sort is possible for a moment.”
“Simply because you’ve never been a woman in love,” said Lady Poynting Mallow with an air of vast experience. “If it’s sea water she wants it would be quite easy to fit up a tank wherever they lived, and she could easily have a bath chair like a sitz bath on wheels.Really, Mr. Milvain——”
“Mr. Melville, I don’t see where your ‘impossible’ comes in.” [Sea Lady, 252-56]
René Magritte's L'Invention Collective (1934), there, of course. No: on balance I think the big joke of The Sea Lady is not that everybody thinks about sex but nobody is allowed to talk openly about it; I think the joke is the rather different one that everybody thinks about sex all the time, but nobody is actually allowed to have it. All we can ever do is access symbols for sex, stand-ins for sex, with the twist that actual sex (as, for example, between handsome Chatteris and beautiful Adeline) becomes itself only a sort of stand-in for sex, a mere symbol, a sex that doesn't satisfy the yearning that wanting-to-have-sex represents. The Sea Lady is about that search for the other kind of sex, the sex that isn't actual in-the-world sex. A Lacanian would say that the discomforting revelation around which this novel is structured, and which has unendeared it to so many, is the truth that the objet petit a simply doesn't correspond to the grand a, which is The Real, and which it supposedly represents. We repeatedly apprehend the former and in doing so repeatedly fail to apprehend the latter. Chatteris frets, in his conversation with Melville, over why exactly he is so ready to throw over Adeline and go after the Sea Lady. The latter is beautiful, yes, but then so is the former!
Why should her smile be so sweet to me, why should her voice move me! Why her’s and not Adeline’s? Adeline has straight eyes and clear eyes and fine eyes, and all the difference there can be, what is it? An infinitesimal curving of the lid, an infinitesimal difference in the lashes—and it shatters everything—in this way. Who could measure the difference, who could tell the quality that makes me swim in the sound of her voice. The difference? After all, it’s a visible thing, it’s a material thing! It’s in my eyes.” [Sea Lady, 273]This is an acute insight into desire as such (after all, why do we fall so completely for this one person, when this other person, and so many other people beside them, differ in appearance and personality only by infinitesimals?). It's also another of the book's big jokes. Because all this angels-on-a-pinhead worrying away at infinitesimal curvings of eyelids, and infinitesimal differences in eyelashes, very obviously, dances around the most patent difference between the two women, Adeline and the Sea Lady: that one has a vagina and the other doesn't. One might have thought that had some bearing on which of the two possessed more sexual allure. Except that The Sea Lady in effect advances the counter-intuitive thesis that actually men find women without vaginas more attractive than women with.
That's also part of the Carry-On-style joke, of course. When Bernard Bresslaw puts on a dress, other men suddenly find him immensely alluring, begin chucking him under his chin and propositioning him and so on.
We can take this as funny one way, in that these men are clearly stupid, or rather than their lust has made them blind to the reality of things (a related joke is the concept of ‘beer goggles’): ha ha, look what idiots these men are! Can they not see this is not an attractive woman but on the contrary a big ugly man in a dress? Ha ha they must be idiots not to notice such an obvious thing! But we can take it as funny in a rather different way, too: the joke might be, look at these Englishmen, they pretend to desire women but in fact are all homosexuals, and need only the flimsiest and most patent of excuses to reveal their true nature! This is the big joke behind Some Like It Hot (1959), of course, and especially its lovely final line (‘Well, nobody's perfect!’) Indeed, the way that line works, capping-off that whole wonderful final scene in the speedboat, is to reveal that the joke's been on Jack Lemmon's character all along. It is Joe E. Brown's Osgood Fielding III in effect saying: ‘has it really taken you this long to understand that I'm gay? Do I really have to spell it out for you so blatantly?’
In some ways The Sea Lady is really quite Some Like It Hot-esque. As if to say: which of these women would you rather have sex with, Marilyn Monroe or Jack Lemmon? I should warn you that one of them doesn't have a vagina. The answer, as clickbait headlines like to put it, may surprise you. Then again, there are differences too. Some Like It Hot commits to its idea that the stuff it's about is funny stuff throughout. A Sea Lady loses its lightness somewhere around the two-thirds mark, and grows more portentous the closer it gets to its end. Jack Lemmon heads out to sea on a rousing punchline; Harry Chatteris heads out to sea to drown, and the final paragraphs of the novel manage the same sort of doleful music, and use the same imagery (and conceivably even were an actual inspiration for) the famous final paragraph of The Great Gatsby:
For the tailpiece to that, let us put that policeman who in the small hours before dawn came upon the wrap the Sea Lady had been wearing just as the tide overtook it. It was not the sort of garment low people sometimes throw away—it was a soft and costly wrap. I seem to see him perplexed and dubious, wrap in charge over his arm and lantern in hand, scanning first the white beach and black bushes behind him and then staring out to sea. It was the inexplicable abandonment of a thoroughly comfortable and desirable thing.This isn't funny, obviously. It's poignant, with a kind of low-key plangency,and aims for a sort of numinousness (as does Fitzgerald at the end of Gatsby). It is saying that the incongruity and opacity of sexual desire is a haunting rather than a comical thing. It's also forcing the larger shape of the novel, formally speaking, into something like the opposite of a joke. A joke tells an ordinary story until the very end when it jolts into a hilarious punchline; this novel spends most of its time being funny, only to jolt at the end into something unfunny. It's unexpected, but more than that it's unexpected in an unexpected way.
“What were people up to?” one figures him asking, this simple citizen of a plain and observed world. “What do such things mean?
“To throw away such an excellent wrap!”
In all the southward heaven there were only a planet and the sinking moon, and from his feet a path of quivering light must have started and run up to the extreme dark edge before him of the sky. Ever and again the darkness east and west of that glory would be lit by a momentary gleam of phosphorescence; and far out the lights of ships were shining bright and yellow. Across its shimmer a black fishing smack was gliding out of mystery into mystery. Dungeness shone from the west a pin-point of red light, and in the east the tireless glare of that great beacon on Gris-nez wheeled athwart the sky and vanished and came again.
I picture the interrogation of his lantern going out for a little way, a stain of faint pink curiosity upon the mysterious vast serenity of night. [Sea Lady, 299-300]
In the run-up to writing The Sea Lady Wells was reading Henry James's collection of short stories The Soft Side (1900). We know this because he was annoyed enough by a negative review of that volume in The Morning Post write a letter to the editor, defending his friend's work. The story he particularly selects for praise is ‘The Great Good Place’:
His review cuts me the more keenly because “The Great Good Place”, concerning which story he uses this phrase, “a succession of incoherent remarks and its drift quite unascertainable”, has been a source of particular delight to me. I have read and re-read it many times. It seems to me to be just one of those happy, perfect things that come to reward the good artist for many laborious, not quite perfect days. And then—your reviewer's voice is heard. I cannot imagine the lack of imagination that fails to see that restful place Mr James has so happily invented. [‘To the Editor of the Morning Post’, 12 October 190; Smith (ed) Correspondence of H G Wells: Volume 1, 1880-1903 (London: Pickering and Chatto 1998), 362-63]That Wells, author of ‘The Door in the Wall’ and many other things in that vein, found this Jamesian story so very resonant shouldn't surprise us. It's a fantasy in which an under-pressure London writer, George Dane, escapes via a visionary journey to a practical sort of paradise, obliquely told and not without its own flavour of sadness. The fantasy ‘great good place’ to which James's hero goes is not only much more like an luxury country-club or resort than a magical paradise, it is also exclusively male. The haven is a place where men can be with other men. For a closeted gay man, like James, such a sanctuary would have a particular sort of appeal. That is to say, James's story is a dream of escaping the pressures of mundane life that imagines such release as, in effect, a coming out of the closet. Might Wells's Sea Lady embody some similar veiled wish to enjoy sex without the complications of (whisper it) women altogether?
Well, I don't know. And you're not convinced, I can see. It's likely this hinted-at Queer reading of Wells's novel (which stands, I concede, on much less confident ground than the Queer reading of James's ‘The Great Good Place’) is, at least in part, an attempt by me to smooth out some of the misogynist wrinkles in The Sea Lady's representation of women. A fool's task, I daresay. Nonetheless, there are issues with the way the novel handles its gender politics. I don't want to sound too preachy, here, or to lose sight of the fact that the novel is a comedy. Still, the Sea Lady herself is quite straightforwardly a femme fatale, a seductress whose capricious irruption into the settled world of the Buntings and their circle results in danger, scandal and death. Chatteris proves perfectly helpless in the face of her overwhelming erotic power.
Think again about the incident which Wells says prompted the novel: teenage May Nisbet coming out of the sea in her tight-fitting bathing costume. Quite apart from just how, well, icky this image is—a 35-year-old father-of-two lusting so brazenly over a fifteen-year-old girl—there is the question of its mendacity: I mean the way Wells deliberately inverts the power dynamic of the encounter when he writes it up. In The Sea Lady the woman is the one who has all the power. I suppose we could say that in order to convey how potent was the effect this ‘overwhelming rush of physical desire’ was for Wells, he styles the encounter as one where the man is helpless before the overwhelming power of the woman. But I very much doubt it felt that way to young May Nisbet, still a child, financially dependent on Wells, trying to enjoy a summer holiday in the aftermath of her father's death, having this older man panting all over her. And Wells, had he thought about the situation for a moment, would surely have realised that.
This fiction by which men in effect blame women for the fact that they (the men) find the women sexually attractive is a particularly ancient one, deeply toxic and still prevalent today. It is the logic that says: the onus is on women to cover themselves up, to remove themselves from public spaces, to avoid flaunting themselves, because the fact that men desire women sexually is always the women's fault. It styles the object of desire as not only dangerous, even fatally so—as in this novel—but also somehow damaged, broken, or even monstrous. That last statement might look a little counter-intuitive, but it speaks to a common feature of the way such women get parlayed into culture: the spider-woman, the femme-fatale, Poison Ivy, the Undine who can kill with a single kiss. Beautiful and monstrous. Jacqueline Rose discusses this in her Sexuality in the Field of Vision (Verso 1986). When a sexually alluring female is introduced into a story, Rose notes, ‘the woman is by definition troubled because the category of female sexuality has already been constituted as disturbance at this level of narrative form.’ This in turn reflects back upon the (straight male) experience of being shaken by an unexpectedly powerful desire, of the kind Wells was registering with his vision of young May Nisbet. As Rose puts it:
As if desire lights upon its object, finds itself disarmed and then punishes the woman for the upset produced. Only a woman whose charm leaves the onlooker’s own identity intact can escape the weight of a condemnation which has been decided almost before the question has been put. [Rose, 116]The monstrosity of the Sea Lady is physically manifested in her fishy tail, which has to be covered up, but on another level it is, as-it-were existentially, something much more predatory and morbid. And a touch of that ‘I blame you for the effect you have on me’ pathology seeps into the structure of the novel as such, sours much of the humour, and leaves an odd taste in the mouth. If Wells wasn't sure what he was writing, it may have been because it wasn't something he wanted to acknowledge.
But I don't want to leave things on this rather censorious note. I said earlier that The Sea Lady is not much liked by Wellsians. There is, however, a notable exception: the critic John Clute, who thinks very highly of the book indeed.
What is remarkable about this short novel is not the story as such, but its telling. Structurally it is the most complex thing Wells ever wrote, certainly the only novel Wells ever wrote to directly confirm our understanding that he did, indeed, read Henry James. Everything in the book is as it were perused by men and women in the process of being interviewed, after the fact, by The Sea Lady’s actual implied author, a first-person writer not dissimilar to Wells himself, who does not himself appear in the text until page eighty-three, when the Club Story frame of the tale finally becomes clear … up to this point in the text, we have been reading material the implied author had garnered, after this encounter, and has presented to us as more or less connected narrative. [But] from this point, the Club Story frame opens into a series of Jamesian conversations between the narrator and his second cousin Melville, who is a friend of the bewildered Buntings and who … never actually witnesses the mermaid whose story he recounts. [Clute, Pardon This Intrusion (2006), 123]This is so insightful a reading I am compelled to forgive Clute the split-infinitive in his second sentence. He concludes ‘it is clear that Wells uses the Club Story here not to enforce witness, but to abscond.’ That’s surely right.
It also brings-in a second (after Fouqué's, I mean) textual influence, one I suspect though I can't prove. Earlier I quoted from Wells's letter to The Morning Post defending James's short fiction; and at this point the two men were good friends. Wells must have read James's 1901 novel The Sacred Fount, and presumably did so immediately prior to writing The Sea Lady. Perhaps the oddest of James's novels, The Sacred Fount is narrated by an unnamed individual who, staying as a guest at the stately home Newmarch, becomes obsessed by the idea that some of the other guests are being rejuvenated by occult means. Formerly dull Gilbert Long is much wittier and more lively than he used to be; Mrs. Brissenden looks much younger than her husband although in fact she’s ten years older. He begins to spin a theory that boils down to, but (it being James) is never expressed in precisely these terms, that these two are renewing their vitality by feeding, vampire-like, from the “sacred fount” of their sexual partners' energy. He goes around the party trying to identify who the respective sexual partners might be, modifies and complexifies his theory, discusses it with the poet Ford Obert—a name I’ve always assumed combined two of James’s friends, Ford Madox Ford and ‘Bert’ Wells—and the novel ends in a long, baffling conversation at midnight between Mrs. Brissenden in which she rebukes him for the foolishness of his theories. “My poor dear, you are crazy, and I bid you good-night!”
It is a work that left contemporaries nonplussed (Edith Wharton said of it ‘I could cry over the ruins of such a talent!’) and has intrigued and infuriated critics. One problem with it is that the narrator makes such a huge and complicated matter out of something so obvious: that people enjoy sex. Rebecca West famously said the book ‘records how a week-end visitor spends more intellectual force than Kant can have used on The Critique of Pure Reason in an unsuccessful attempt to discover whether there exists between certain of his fellow-guests a relationship not more interesting among these vacuous people than it is among sparrows.’ [Rebecca West, Henry James (1916), 107-08]. It's a novel that achieves the remarkable feat of leaving the reader unsure whether it's saying something deep and elusive, or obvious and banal. At any rate, it does seem to me to be doing similar things to Wells's novel, not in terms of style, or tone, or even form, but just so far as talking about sex as a hidden force or power, via an oblique and un-fleshed-out fabulation: a kind of vampirism in the James, the mermaid femme fatale in the Wells. But it is also, in a way, another version of ‘The Great Good Place’. James's Newmarch is a wonderful haven whose appeal is grounded in its very boringness. Indeed, we might want to read the narrator's crazy theorising as his way of passing the otherwise leisurely and understimulating days.
The day, as it developed, was large and hot, an unstinted splendour of summer; excursions, exercise, organised amusement were things admirably spared us; life became a mere arrested ramble or stimulated lounge, and we profited to the full by the noble freedom of Newmarch, that overarching ease which in nothing was so marked as in the tolerance of talk. The air of the place itself, in such conditions, left one's powers with a sense of play; if one wanted something to play at one simply played at being there. I did this myself. [Sacred Fount, ch 6]But that's not quite right, either. Like The Sea Lady, The Sacred Fount styles sex not so much a secret hidden in plain view, as it is something that must elude not secrecy but simplicity if it is to continue as a pleasure. The idea that there was any depth to the novel is one James himself always denied: ‘that jeu d’esprit was an accident pure and simple,’ he wrote to Morton Fullerton [9 August 1901], ‘and not even an intellectual one; you do it too much honour. It was a mere trade-accident, tout au plus—an incident of technics.’ Technical complexity, as Clute notes, is also part of the narratological game Wells in playing in The Sea Lady. All this surface busy-ness, and opacity beneath. An Undine, properly speaking, should sport amongst the undae, the waves, on the surface; but Wells's mermaid comes from much deeper than that.
“You have that beautiful greenery-blue shimmer I suppose,” said Miss Glendower, “that one catches sometimes ever so faintly in aquaria——”This literalised depth is cancelled out by the depthless, that is, timeless, existence the Sea Lady lives: ‘there are no nights and days, you know,’ she says ‘No time nor anything of that sort.’ This observation puzzles simple-minded Mrs Bunting: ‘but how do you tell when it’s Sunday?’ The merfolk don't, of course, since they don't worship God, and this leads to an embarrassed hiatus in the conversation which Adeline, in an attempt to change the subject, only makes worse:
“One lives deeper than that,” said the Sea Lady. “Everything is phosphorescent, you know, a mile or so down, and it’s like—I hardly know. As towns look at night—only brighter. Like piers and things like that.” [Sea Lady, 66]
Miss Glendower, perceiving that she had been a trifle urgent, tried to cover her error by expressing a general impression.There are no children in the timeless undersea, and no sex, since sex is the means by which mortality engages time to overcome itself. Of course this means that the flat opacity of the Sea Lady's impregnable sexual allure is thrown all the more starkly into relief. But perhaps we're missing the obvious. Return to Fouqué's original Undine: what that mermaid was looking for in the first instance wasn't sex, or even love, but a soul. Wells's Sea Lady has come looking for the same thing. However handsome he is Chatteris is not her object, so much as her means to that end. James's narrator in The Sacred Fount tries to make the reality of social and sexual interaction fit his increasingly complex grid, and keeps failing because he is missing something key. Just so, Wells's puzzling novel frustrates the reader. We're all missing something obvious, but maybe it's not sex, but soul; not fifteen-year-old girls coming out of the sea in close-fitting bathing suits so much as the oceanic feeling itself. That elusive something ...
“I can’t see it,” she said, with a gesture that asked for sympathy. “One wants to see it, one wants to be it. One needs to be born a mer-child.”
“A mer-child?” asked the Sea Lady.
“Yes— Don’t you call your little ones——?”
“What little ones?” asked the Sea Lady.
She regarded them for a moment with a frank wonder, the undying wonder of the Immortals at that perpetual decay and death and replacement which is the gist of human life. Then at the expression of their faces she seemed to recollect. “Of course,” she said, and then with a transition that made pursuit difficult, she agreed with Adeline. “It is different,” she said. [Sea Lady, 68-69]