1. Preliminary contexts
After the public scandal and personal heartbreak of Wells's affair with Amber Reeves (fictionalised in The New Machiavelli, amongst other books), Wells moved on to a rather different woman: Elizabeth von Arnim, née Mary Annette Beauchamp. She and Wells were lovers 1911-13, or more probably just from 1912-13. In H G Wells in Love, Wells recalls her as ‘a very bright and original little lady’ a successful author in her own right (the ‘Elizabeth’ was the name under which she wrote a string of popular novels, beginning with Elizabeth and her German Garden in 1898, which fictionalised her marriage to the German Count from whom she acquired her surname). Indeed, ‘little’ is the frankly condescending watchword for the whole of Wells's account of the affair: ‘The Episode of Little e’ is how he styles it, Elizabeth not even, it seems, meriting a capital letter. ‘She was incapable of philosophical thought or political ideas,’ he tells us; although she had her native Irish ‘passion for absurdity and laughter’ and was ‘insincerely sentimental’ [Wells in Love, 87].
Wells's whole account is really rather offputtingly self-regarding: ‘I attracted her,’ he says, laconically, adding that ‘she had found love-making with Von Arnim a serious and disagreeable business, but she was aware that it might be far less onerous and more agreeable’, thereby creating the self-serving impression that he was the man who gave her the practical experience to confirm that awareness. Not so: she'd had plenty of other lovers before him. Wells goes on: ‘we made love very brightly, but I cannot imagine a relationship more free from passion than ours ... we carried on the liaison with an impudent impunity. We flitted off abroad and had amusing times in Amsterdam, Bruges, Ypres, Arras, Paris, Locarno, Orta, Florence—and no one was a bit the wiser.’
David Smith's account of the affair is considerably more friction-ful, and rather more plausible, taking as it does evidence from Von Arnim's own fictionalised version of her liaison, as well as her own autobiographical writings and letters. After her marriage irretrievably broke down in the 1890s (the husband himself died in 1910) Von Arnim took a string of lovers, mostly from among her impressive coterie of devoted, younger followers: her children's tutors, Hugh Walpole, even, improbably enough, E M Forster. ‘She attracted and was attracted to younger men’ is how Smith puts it.
Wells met her in 1910 or 1911 and persisted with his advances despite her initial coolness towards him. At the time he was competing for her affections with the (much younger and better looking) C S Stuart, and though he did eventually win her round, or perhaps did eventually wear her down, it was not plain sailing. ‘Eventually (and it is difficult to say how much Elizabeth resisted, as her fiction usually gives her the better of the situations portrayed) the two older people planned a romantic interlude in Ireland’ [David C Smith, Wells: Desperately Mortal, 371]. She seems to have changed her mind and gone off instead to Switzerland on her own: ‘Wells, now very importunate, followed her to Switzerland, after “reproachful” letters and amid scenes “of quite surprising violence”’ (Von Arnim's words in the double-quotation marks). They did become lovers, but, if you believe Von Arnim, it was not the happy-go-lucky fling implied by Wells's account:
The romantic interlude planned in Ireland finally took place in northern Italy, and although Elizabeth [Von Arnim, that is] informed her daughter than ‘his excessively trying behaviour’ broke up the affair, it was an affair conducted at the best of times under difficulty. She liked younger and more adoring men, and did not especially care for the rough and tumble manner in which Wells conducted the early part of his romantic escapades. After this trip they broke off the affair, but remained close friends. [David C Smith, Wells: Desperately Mortal (1986), 372]Wells version, read in this context, looks like a kind of wishful-nostalgia rather than a true account. He can't keep out the tone of unconvincing retro-brag: ‘twice we broke a bed—not very strong beds they were but still we broke them—and it was a cheerful thing to hear Little e explaining in pretty but perfect German why her bed had gone to pieces under her in the night’. There's also Wells's anecdote about the two of them reading in the Times a disapproving letter by Mrs Humphrey Ward ‘denouncing the moral tone of the younger generation’ of writers, and demonstrating their contempt by stripping naked—outdoors though they were—and ‘[making] love all over Mrs Humphrey Ward’: which might have more point if the two of them actually were writers of the younger generation. They weren't, though: Von Arnim, born in 1866, was the same age as Wells, though she looked younger than her years.
Indeed, if a detail from Von Arnim's fictionalised version of the affair, The Pastor's Wife (1914), is to be believed, when the two of them booked into their hotel together, the hall porter referred to H.G. as ‘Monsieur votre père’, which can't have pleased him. In the novel, Von Arnim says of her fictional version of herself at this juncture: ‘with the easy tactlessness of one who has not yet learned to be afraid, she looked at him and laughed.’ Uh-oh!
Incidentally, here's the Wells of that period (specifically, from April 1914):
Very like a père. At any rate, all this is in a very general way contextual to Wells next big novel, Marriage (1912), and relevant only obliquely, since that book doesn't in any way fictionalise Wells's affair with Von Arnim. I go into all this in detail here partly because I'm entertained by the mild Rashomon-effect of juxtaposing their two accounts, and partly because it became important to Wells to characterise the whole thing as a pleasant bit of fun sandwiched between his two much more significant love-affairs: Amber Reeves and Rebecca West. If I'm honest, I suspect it mattered rather more to him in the moment than he later admitted, but since my concern is with Wells's writing and not with his willy I am really only discussing it because Wells so specifically linked it to a decline in the quality of the fiction he wrote 1910-13.
The period in my life between 1910 and 1913 when Little e was my mistress corresponds with several novels that were naturally published a little later than the writing. These are Marriage, The Passionate Friends, The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman and The Research Magnificent. None of them are among my best work ... they have less sincerity and depth than anything else that I have written. [H. G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography (ed G P Wells; Faber 1984), 93]Doesn't that look, even if only a smidgeon, as if Wells is somehow blaming Von Arnim for his dip in quality? Hardly gentlemanly. More to the point: hardly credible.
To return to the novel under discussion: Marriage has a particular role to play in this interregum, functioning as a specific copula between Wells prior deep love for Amber Reeves and his to-come deep love for Rebecca West. It was West's swingeing review of the novel in the shortlived feminist magazine The Freewoman that led to Wells inviting her to meet him, from which developed the second great extra-marital passion of Well's life.
It's quite the hatchet-job, that review. You could do worse than click the link [to pdf] and check it out.
2. Marriage and Kenosis.
The novel isn't as bad as West's review suggests. I'm sure you'd expect me to say as much, but it's true. The worst to be said of it, I think, is that it feels like a second-thoughts, refried beans, sort of project. Wells's original plans for Ann Veronica (1909) had been for a novel twice as long as the one that was actually published. He had wanted to trace at novel-length his heroine's early life and her falling in love (with, you'll remember Godwin Capes, her tutor in science at Imperial College), and then to follow-through with a second half, just as long, detailing the heroine's life as ‘Mrs Godwin Capes’ not in terms of Anna Karenina-style misery, conflict and tragedy, but true to the smaller-scale bumps and lumps, the little anticlimaxes and more settled pleasures of actual married life. In the end he decided that this second half would unbalance the novel, which, I have to say, I think was the right call.
But the idea evidently wouldn't let him go, so he returned to it in Marriage. In this novel, Marjorie Pope, the daughter of an affluent Edwardian bourgeois family ruled by her crotchety, bumptious father, accepts a proposal of marriage from Mr Magnet: a fortysomethng writer of comic prose, wealthy, balding, earnest (Wells includes several examples of his painfully strenuous ‘wit’). She does this partly under family pressure, and partly because she has run up debts as an undergraduate at ‘Oxbridge’: £50 or so, not much in the larger scheme, but more than she had admitted to her father, and something that preys on her mind.
Wells draws the milieu of upper-middle-class Edwardian summertime life well, and when a plane crashes in the middle of the Pope's lawn tennis party it strikes a nice note of romantic disruption. The plane belongs to the super-wealthy Sir Rupert Solomonson (‘he was,’ Wells writes in what must have struck a jaunty note in 1912 but which reads today as heartsinkingly ill-judged, ‘manifestly a Jew, a square-rigged Jew—you have remarked of course that there are square-rigged Jews, whose noses are within bounds, and fore-and-aft Jews, whose noses aren't’ ). The co-pilot is the not-wealthy-at-all-but-very-handsome R.A.G. ‘Rag’ Trafford, a university tutor in science specializing in crystallography. Marjorie falls in love, breaks it off with poor old Magnet, and marries Rag.
The first half of the novel ends, as Ann Veronica had done before it, on this high note. Indeed, Ann Veronica herself even has a cameo in Marriage, when, late in the novel, she is part of a dinner party which Marjorie and Trafford also attend—‘Mrs. Godwin Capes, the dark-eyed, quiet-mannered wife of the dramatist, a woman of impulsive speech and long silences, who had subsided from an early romance (Capes had been divorced for her while she was still a mere girl) into a markedly correct and exclusive mother of daughters.’  So that's the after-story of Ann Veronica. A little disappointing, really.
In Marriage Wells does what he wanted to do with the earlier novel but couldn't: that is to say, he carries the novel on for as long again with an account of how ‘Mag and Rag’ fare as a married couple as he had with their courtship. We get their day-to-day in some detail. He works, she keeps house and spends his money. They have four children. There are no great traumas or dramas, no infidelities or flaming rows, but as the book goes on there grows an increasing sense of dissatisfaction on both sides. Trafford grows quite rich with a form of synthetic rubber he invents; signing an agreement with Solomonson to use the latter's wealth as investment and, over seven years, leveraging his skill as a chemist into a commercial success. But Marjorie has bigger plans for him. She wants him to be a great scientist and to use that position to go into politics. She sees herself as a great society hostess, with the ear of statesmen and eminences. Indeed one of the most interesting things about the second half of the novel is the way Wells portrays Marjorie filling her lack of sense of purpose with shopping: fitting out their house, buying herself things, then insisting they move to a bigger house and fitting that out too. She wants to move to an even bigger house, and matters come to a mild sort of crisis:
This darkling mood of his had only become manifest to her during the last three or four years of their life. Previously, of course, he had been irritable at times. Were they less happy now than they had been in the little house in Chelsea? It had really been a horrible little house. And yet there had been a brightness then—a nearness....Marjorie's insistence that he has ‘a sort of power’ and ‘could make things noble’ provokes Rag to, in effect, throw in his towel:
She found her mind wandering away upon a sort of stock-taking expedition. How much of real happiness had she and Trafford had together? They ought by every standard to be so happy....
“Rag,” she said, “something's the matter?”
Marjorie considered through a little interval.
... “I want to open out. I want you to take your place in the world, the place you deserve.”
“A four-footman place?”
“Oh! the house is only a means.”
He thought upon that. “A means,” he asked, “to what? Look here, Marjorie, what do you think you are up to with me and yourself? What do you see me doing—in the years ahead?”
She gave him a silent and thoughtful profile for a second or so.
“At first I suppose you are going on with your researches.”
“Then——I must tell you what I think of you, Rag. Politics——”
“Good Lord!” [Marriage, 419]
“I can't go on with my researches,” he explained. “That's what you don't understand. I'm not able to get back to work. I shall never do any good research again. That's the real trouble, Marjorie, and it makes all the difference. As for politics——I can't touch politics. I despise politics. I think this empire and the monarchy and Lords and Commons and patriotism and social reform and all the rest of it, silly, silly beyond words; temporary, accidental, foolish, a mere stop-gap—like a gipsey's roundabout in a place where one will presently build a house.... You don't help make the house by riding on the roundabout.... There's no clear knowledge—no clear purpose.... Only research matters—and expression perhaps—I suppose expression is a sort of research—until we get that—that sufficient knowledge. And you see, I can't take up my work again. I've lost something....” She waited. “I've got into this stupid struggle for winning money,” he went on, “and I feel like a woman must feel who's made a success of prostitution. I've been prostituted. I feel like some one fallen and diseased.... Business and prostitution; they're the same thing. All business is a sort of prostitution, all prostitution is a sort of business. Why should one sell one's brains any more than one sells one's body?... It's so easy to succeed if one has good brains and cares to do it, and doesn't let one's attention or imagination wander—and it's so degrading. Hopelessly degrading.... I'm sick of this life, Marjorie. I don't want to buy things. I'm sick of buying. I'm at an end. I'm clean at an end. It's exactly as though suddenly in walking through a great house one came on a passage that ended abruptly in a door, which opened—on nothing! Nothing!” “This is a mood,” she whispered to his pause. “It isn't a mood, it's a fact.... I've got nothing ahead, and I don't know how to get back. My life's no good to me any more. I've spent myself.” She looked at him with dismayed eyes. “But,” she said, “this is a mood.” [Marriage, 420-21]After this, Rag scoots off to Labrador to, in effect, have a long hard think about things: ‘he wanted intensely to think, and London and Marjorie would not let him think. He wanted, he felt, to go away alone and face God, and clear things up in his mind’ . Persuaded by his mother, he takes Marjorie with him, and the two hike off together into the Canadian wilderness:
Their journey lasted altogether a month. Never once did they come upon any human being save themselves, though in one place they passed the poles—for the most part overthrown—of an old Indian encampment. But this desolation was by no means lifeless. They saw great quantities of waterbirds, geese, divers, Arctic partridge and the like, they became familiar with the banshee cry of the loon. They lived very largely on geese and partridge. ...They live alone for a while, and talk about things. On a hunting trip Rag's face gets savaged by a lynx; he falls into a crack in the rocks, badly breaking his leg. Though he urges Marjorie to leave him, take their supplies and go home, she manages to retrieve him. Then she lugs him for three days on a makeshift shed back to their hut and nurses him back to health. They discuss metaphysics (‘we ought to partake of immortality,’ Rag argues: ‘I mean we're like the little elements in a magnet; ought not to lie higgledy-piggledy, ought to point the same way, be polarized’ ); and Marjorie comes to a conclusion about her own gender responsibility:
And at last it seemed fit to Trafford to halt and choose his winter quarters. He chose a place on the side of a low, razor-hacked rocky mountain ridge, about fifty feet above the river—which had now dwindled to a thirty-foot stream. His site was near a tributary rivulet that gave convenient water, in a kind of lap that sheltered between two rocky knees, each bearing thickets of willow and balsam. Not a dozen miles away from them now they reckoned was the Height of Land, the low watershed between the waters that go to the Atlantic and those that go to Hudson's Bay. Close beside the site he had chosen a shelf of rock ran out and gave a glimpse up the narrow rocky valley of the Green River's upper waters and a broad prospect of hill and tarn towards the south-east. North and north-east of them the country rose to a line of low crests, with here and there a yellowing patch of last year's snow, and across the valley were slopes covered in places by woods of stunted pine. It had an empty spaciousness of effect; the one continually living thing seemed to be the Green River, hurrying headlong, noisily, perpetually, in an eternal flight from this high desolation. Birds were rare here, and the insects that buzzed and shrilled and tormented among the rocks and willows in the gorge came but sparingly up the slopes to them. [Marriage, 440-42]
My dear, I've been a fool, selfish, ill-trained and greedy. We've both been floundering about, but I've been the mischief of it. Yes, I've been the trouble. Oh, it's had to be so. What are we women—half savages, half pets, unemployed things of greed and desire—and suddenly we want all the rights and respect of souls! I've had your life in my hands from the moment we met together. If I had known.... It isn't that we can make you or guide you—I'm not pretending to be an inspiration—but—but we can release you. We needn't press upon you; we can save you from the instincts and passions that try to waste you altogether on us.... Yes, I'm beginning to understand. Oh, my child, my husband, my man! You talked of your wasted life!... I've been thinking—since first we left the Mersey. I've begun to see what it is to be a woman. For the first time in my life. We're the responsible sex. And we've forgotten it. We think we've done a wonder if we've borne men into the world and smiled a little, but indeed we've got to bear them all our lives.... A woman has to be steadier than a man and more self-sacrificing than a man, because when she plunges she does more harm than a man.... And what does she achieve if she does plunge? Nothing—nothing worth counting. Dresses and carpets and hangings and pretty arrangements, excitements and satisfactions and competition and more excitements. We can't do things. We don't bring things off! And you, you Monster! you Dream! you want to stick your hand out of all that is and make something that isn't, begin to be! That's the man—— [Marriage, 488-89; ellipses all Wells's]After this, Rag ‘discovers’ a new Marjorie: ‘all the host of Marjories he had known, the shining, delightful, seductive, wilful, perplexing aspects that had so filled her life, gave place altogether for a time to this steady-eyed woman, lean and warm-wrapped with the valiant heart and the frost-roughened skin. What a fine, strong, ruddy thing she was!’  The path from a particularly gendered sort of decadence of consumerism, of over-refined civilisation, to this mutual, and philosophised, strength closes the novel on what Wells, we have to assume, considered a high note. As for me, I am specifically resisting the temptation to explore all the parallels between Wells's philosophy of strength in this novel and echt fascism, except to note that by 1912 Mussolini's La Filosofia della Forza had been out for four years. That which does not kill us makes our marriage stronger.
Anyhow, Mag and Rag resolve return to England, with Rag declaring he will give up his research in order to write a book called From Realism to Reality, ‘a huge criticism and cleaning up of the existing methods of formulation, as a preliminary to the wider and freer discussion of those religious and social issues our generation still shrinks from’ . The two of them trek for weeks back towards civilisation, and the novel leaves them waiting for the steamer that will return them over the sea to their home.
This final portion of the novel, and its explicit turn to the classic Sublime (as landscape, but also as a kind of activated theology, a religious kenosis: ‘if God chooses to be silent—you must pray to the silence’ says Trafford. ‘If he chooses to live in darkness, you must pray to the night’ ) sorts strangely with the book's first two thirds, which are pointedly, even over-determinedly, domestic and bourgeois. But strange is not dispraise in my critical lexicon, and I take it that this is part of what Wells wants to do with the (for want of a better term) traditional lineaments of the novel. Indeed, to refer back to Wells's own assessment, mentioned above, that Marriage represents a decline in his fictional powers: might his 1930s perspective (when H G Wells in Love was written) reflect a reaction against his drift through the first half of the nineteen-teens towards, well, God? One of the last images of the novel is this one, as the reborn lovers hurry home again: ‘the snow blazed under the sun, out to sea beyond the ice the water glittered, and it wasn't so much air they breathed as a sort of joyous hunger’ . Later Wells came to dislike the hunger, I think. But it makes for a strangely creatively-dislocating and therefore memorable fictional experience.
That Marriage is one of Wells's longest novels shouldn't surprise us. After all, it is actually two novels, welded together, after the manner of dodgy used-car dealers: a novel of courtship leading up to marriage, and a novel of how a marriage pans out.
Now: there's a case to be made for saying that the former of these two archetypes is the major mode of The Novel as such: Ian Watt's The Rise of the Novel (1957) is still essential in its account of how the novel came into being, as, basically, a bourgeois entertainment refracting and ideologically self-justifying the new economic and social dynamics of emergent capitalist Europe in the 18th- and 19th-centuries via domestic narratives of courtship ending in (the right) marriage. Not all early novels are like this, of course: but Watt frontloads this particular tradition, from Richardson through Austen and into the nineteenth-century, as the major one.
For Watt, the point of the marriage-plot is to allow the artform to address larger social concerns, and it is those larger concerns that really matter. Indeed, he specifically praises Defoe (who almost never wrote those sorts of bourgeois courtship stories) precisely because ‘he seems long ago to have called the great bluff of the novel—its suggestion that personal relations really are the be-all and end-all of life; portentous because he, and only he, among the great writers of the past, has presented the struggle for survival in the bleak perspectives which recent history has brought back to a commanding position on the human stage.’ [Watt, Rise of the Novel (1957), 133-34]. Nonetheless Watt considers Austen the first great genius of the form, and she never wrote anything other than bourgeois courtship narratives.
Of earlier writers like Fielding and Smollett Watt argues ‘it cannot be claimed that either completely achieved that interpenetration of plot, character, and emergent moral theme which is found in the highest examples of the art of the novel’ [Watt, 15]. It's Austen who transmogrifies her predecessors:
Jane Austen faces more squarely than Defoe, for example, the social and moral problems raised by economic individualism and the middle class quest for improved status; she follows Richardson in basing her novels on marriage and especially on the proper feminine role in the matter; and her ultimate picture of the proper norms of the social system is similar to that of Fielding although its application to the characters and their situation is in general more serious and discriminating. [Watt, Rise of the Novel (1957), 298]A great many courtship-leading-up-to-marriage novels have been and continue to be published, of course, and very few of them manifest Austen's extraordinary technical panache. But it means that the form has its own logic, which boils down to: heroine is on course to marry Mr Wrong until Mr Right appears in an unexpected manner and she ends up marrying him. Or perhaps, heroine initially believes Mr Right to be Mr Wrong (as with Elizabeth Bennett and Darcy) and only slowly comes to realise her mistake. It's a needful narrative kink to make the story dramatically interesting: the course of true love not running smooth until the end. That's the template Wells applies to the first half of Marriage, with poor old Mr Magnet as Mr Wrong, and Trafford dropping in literally from the sky to bring the narrative back to its proper conclusion.
But the second kind of story, novels about married life, are much fewer and further between, and such examples as come to mind—Middlemarch, Anna Karenina and so on—tell stories of unhappy marriages, since a happy marriage lacks conflict, and therefore drama. All happy families are alike, after all. Or so it is reputed.
Indeed, I finished Wells's Marriage wondering if he was the first person ever to do this specific thing: to write a Jane-Austen-y bourgeois courtship narrative and then carry-through on the marriage for as long a space as the courtship narrative. What are the priors? There's David Copperfield, with its portrait of David and Dora's married life (but think about it: isn't Copperfield really the courtship-narrative of David and Agnes, with the twist that David happens actually to marry Ms Wrong? Such that Dickens, rather cruelly, has to kill of Dora in order to make it clear that she's a plot-point and not the terminus of David's romantic journey?). On Twitter, my friend and colleague James Smith drew my attention to Pamela, which, provided we take both Parts 1 and Part 2, does exactly what I'm suggesting Wells was the first to do in Marriage: it shows the lead up to the wedding and then follows-through on a happy, rather than a tragically doomed, marriage. I take the point, although the first part of Pamela is a pretty twisted version of the bourgeois courtship narrative, what with all the kidnap, violence, sexual harassment and threats of rape and so on. I don't know: I'm tempted to say that Wells was indeed doing something new in this novel. I could be wrong.