From the hindsight of 1934's Experiment in Autobiography Wells judged that the prodigious success of The Outline of History (1920) completely eclipsed him as a novelist so far as the reading public was concerned. I think he overstates things, although there's probably a germ of truth in his self-assessment. And here is The Secret Places of the Heart: the first work of fiction he published after the enormous commercial and reputational success of his History, and it's fair to say a novel wholly forgotten today. I, for one, had not so much as heard the title, let alone read it, before cracking the covers for this read-through.
It is, in essence, a road-trip novel. Sir Richmond Hardy, a government bigwig and head of The Fuel Commission, is close to a nervous breakdown, partly because of the strain of his job and the pressures of reconstruction, partly a delayed reaction to the horrors of the war, but mostly because of the stresses of his love life. Hardy is married to the watery Lady Hardy, but has not been faithful to her. He comes, with some reluctance, to the offices of a Harley Street doctor, the dapper little Dr. Martineau. ‘Face the accepted facts,’ admonishes the doctor:
‘Here is a creature not ten thousand generations from the ape, his ancestor. Not ten thousand. And that ape again, not a score of thousands from the monkey, his forebear. A man’s body, his bodily powers, are just the body and powers of an ape, a little improved, a little adapted to novel needs. That brings me to my point. Can his mind and will be anything better? For a few generations, a few hundreds at most, knowledge and wide thought have flared out on the darknesses of life.... But the substance of man is ape still. He may carry a light in his brain, but his instincts move in the darkness. Out of that darkness he draws his motives.’ [Secret Places, 1.4; ellipsis in original]Dr Martineau dilates upon this idea, a version of the subconscious closer to the Jungian species-memory than the Freudian personal cellar (though in the novel neither figure is name-checked):
‘You are like someone who awakens out of an immemorial sleep to find himself in a vast chamber, in a great and ancient house, a great and ancient house high amidst frozen and lifeless mountains—in a sunless universe. You are not alone in it. You are not lord of all you survey. Your leadership is disputed. The darkness even of the room you are in is full of ancient and discarded but quite unsubjugated powers and purposes. They thrust ambiguous limbs and claws suddenly out of the darkness into the light of your attention. They snatch things out of your hand, they trip your feet and jog your elbow. They crowd and cluster behind you. Wherever your shadow falls, they creep right up to you, creep upon you and struggle to take possession of you. The souls of apes, monkeys, reptiles and creeping things haunt the passages and attics and cellars of this living house in which your consciousness has awakened’ [1.4]At the doctor's suggestion, the two men agree to take a three-week holiday together to get to the bottom of Sir Richmond's problems. They drive first to Maidenhead in Hardy's car. It breaks down at Taplow and, unable to restart it, Hardy resorts to beating the dumb machine with a Basil Fawlty-esque fury. Whilst they wait for the R.A.C man to tow them the rest of the way Hardy expatiates to Martineau on the closeness of anger to the human essence: ‘“Isn’t that after all what we really are?” he asked the doctor. “Essentially—Rage. A rage in dead matter, making it alive.”’ [3.2] He's presumably excusing his behaviour in smashing the car's bonnet with a hammer; but that doesn't mean we have to find his exculpation convincing.
In Maidenhead the two book into a hotel and begin the business of attempting to excvate the subterranean spaces of the Hardy's neuroses. As we might expect, sex proves to be the nub of the matter. Hardy talks the doctor through his vie sexuelle: his first erotic attachment as a boy to ‘Britannia as depicted by Tenniel in the cartoons in Punch’ [4.2]; then a young girl in a bathing costume seen on the beach at Dymchurch one day and never seen since (‘my first human love. And I love that girl still. I doubt sometimes whether I have ever loved anyone else’). Hardy married ‘a wonderfully intelligent and understanding woman’ who ‘has made a home for me—a delightful home ... I owe my home and all the comfort and dignity of my life to her ability’. They had three children and Hardy built a glittering career. But he has not known sexual satisfaction: ‘all the time, I’ve been—about women—like a thirsty beast looking for water ... I was unfaithful to my wife within four years of my marriage.’ Since then he has been a philanderer: ‘all the time, hidden away from the public eye, my life has been laced by the thread of these—what can one call them?—love adventures’ [4.3.] The rest of the novel is, really, Hardy trying to work out why he is like this.
It's Wells, of course: wife Jane the expert homemaker, Wells himself off philandering like a thirsty beast looking for water. Hardy's specific troubles are connected to the fact that a breach has occurred between him and his current mistress, the novel's Rebecca West, with whom he has a son. This individual is a cartoonist for the newspapers, her art ‘a peculiar sort of humorous illustrations’ of ‘considerable genius’ [5.2], who works under the name Martin Leeds (the novel doesn't disclose her actual name). As with Wells and West, Hardy and this Miss Martin Leeds are in the grip of mutual sexual fascination despite the fact that ‘they jarred upon and annoyed each other extremely’ [5.3].
Once Hardy's car is repaired the two men motor west, staying first at Avebury and then visiting Stonehenge where they discuss the vanished civilisation that raised the monumental circle. In case we miss the point of the digression Wells knocks it home (‘“Archaeology is very like remembering,” said Sir Richmond’ [5.4]). At Stonehenge they pick-up two young American tourists, ‘V.V.’ Grammont and Belinda Seyffert—Grammont is based on the birth-control activist Margaret Sanger, with whom, in real life, Wells had an affair—and the four of them drive on to Salisbury together. When it becomes unmistakable that Hardy is planning a relationship with the free-spirited Miss Grammont, Dr Martineau (a more sexually conventional man) bails on their road-trip, and takes the train to Bournemouth to stay with friends. Pretty soon Hardy is smitten with V.V.: ‘I am head over heels in love with her. I have never been so much in love or so truly in love with anyone before’ [7:10]. It is a passion Grammont reciprocates. They have sex on a hill overlooking the moonlit ruins of Tintern Abbey (of all places). Meanwhile, Grammont's father and her fiancé are travelling to England, from different directions, to put an end to her gallivanting.
After the flush of consummation, Hardy changes his mind. He decides that, after all, he loves Martin Leeds and wants to return to her. By way of breaking things off, he urges Grammont to ‘sublimate’ their affair: ‘put this relationship upon a Higher Plane’ [8.2.]. She's not happy about this, but there's nothing she can do, so he takes her to Falmouth, where her father is disembarking, and they part forever.
Back in London Hardy discovers a new vigour. He dominates the Fuel Commission by sheer force of personality. And then, abruptly, Wells kills him off, of pneumonia. His widow thanks Doctor Martineau for the trip the two men had taken (‘“That holiday did him a world of good,” she said. “He came back to his work like a giant. I feel very grateful to you”’ [9.1]). Dead, though, as a door-nail.
The novel's final scene involves Miss Martin Leeds outing herself to Hardy's widow as her late husband's mistress, and asking permission to see his body one last time. Lady Hardy allows this: and Leeds, accompanied by Dr Martineau, is let into the drawing room where the coffin is.
“But all my days now I shall mourn for him and long for him....”Martineau is mostly worried that ‘the servants might hear and wonder what it was all about’. The last line of the novel is: ‘Always he had feared love for the cruel thing it was, but now it seemed to him for the first time that he realized its monstrous cruelty’ [9.8]
She turned back to the coffin. Suddenly she lost every vestige of self-control. She sank down on her knees beside the trestle. “Why have you left me!” she cried.
“Oh! Speak to me, my darling! Speak to me, I tell you! Speak to me!”
It was a storm of passion, monstrously childish and dreadful. She beat her hands upon the coffin. She wept loudly and fiercely as a child does....
Dr. Martineau drifted feebly to the window. [Secret Places, 9.8; ellipses in original]
Contemporaries weren't quite sure what to make of all this. The characters ‘conceal nothing either very sacred, very subtle, or even very interesting’ complained the English Journal. ‘Who cares about the secret places of the heart of Sir Richmond Hardy, the chairman of the fuel commission, the egotistical husband, the libertine?’ [English Journal, 11:8 (Oct 1922), 522]. This review calls the story ‘cold’, and thinks Wells ‘a cold writer’, which touches on something true of this novel, I think. From its moonlight lovemaking to its relentless intellectualising of erotic desire, even unto the psychiatrist's rather Lovecraftian vision of modern humanity waking from its animal heritage to find itself in ‘a great and ancient house high amidst frozen and lifeless mountains—in a sunless universe’ [1.4] (quoted above), this is a novel about illicit sexual passion that tropes it as, in some core sense, chilly.
It's a counter-intuitive move, but an aesthetically interesting one. Counter-intuitive not only because actual sex, what with its shared body-heat, frottage and so on, tends to be actually warm (as of course it does); but because the new-for-the-1920s sexual frankness of writers like D H Lawrence tended to talk about sex as heat, a ‘hot’ liberating escape from intellectual life: ‘I believe especially in being warm-hearted in love, in fucking with a warm heart,’ is how Mellors puts it in 1928, as he and Lady Chatterley make love before a roaring fire. ‘I believe if men could fuck with warm hearts, and the women take it warm-heartedly, everything would come all right. It's all the cold-hearted fucking that is death and idiocy.’ But there is something strangely cold-hearted about the various sexual infidelities of The Secret Places of the Heart. Hardy seduces V.V. with his coolly intellectual conversation, makes love to her outside by moonlight, and immediately afterwards freezes her out: even his rages, as when he smashes up his own car, are a mode of cold fury. It's not coincidental I think that it is a cold that kills him in the end: ‘he had worked to the pitch of exhaustion. He neglected a cold that settled on his chest’ [9.1]
Wells in this novel marks the distance between the warm bestial sex-past and the cooler, more intellectual sex-present. He, or his avatar Hardy, can't just let himself go, sexually speaking. His kink (as it were) is not just the excitement of extramarital sex, it is extramarital sex with an intellectual equal. Secret Places reads like Wells trying to work through, to his own satisfaction, why he is so drawn to this particular sort of interaction. Now, some of this veers a little clumsily towards self-exculpatory mendacity of the we-artists-just-need-to-shag-a-lot-alright sort (‘was it really true that the companionship of women was necessary to these energetic creative types? Was it the fact that the drive of life towards action, as distinguished from contemplation, arose out of sex and needed to be refreshed by the reiteration of that motive?’ [4.6] and so on). But I think the, if you'll excuse the phrase, main thrust of the novel isn't actually persuaded by that. This cold rebellion of his own will against his ageing libido puzzles the mature Wells, and he's trying to get of the bottom of it.
David Y. Hughes notes that ‘the paradigmatic act of Wells's personal life is sexual revolt’ and then quotes Robert P. Weeks to the effect that ‘Wells's fiction presents us with a unified world that limits its inhabitants, provokes their rebellion, and then frustrates their flight’, adding shrewdly: ‘illicit sex makes entanglement; the escape becomes the trap; each affair fuels the next ... even the ever-patient Amy Catherine [Jane Wells] had complicity not just by tolerating the affairs but by the act of having eloped with Wells from his first wife’ [Hughes, ‘Desperately Mortal’, Science Fiction Studies 14:3 (1987), 393-94]. Wells's fantasy is a short-circuit, sex as escape from entanglement that is itself entanglement. In Secret Places Hardy begins to cool on his ardour for V.V. the very next morning after their moonlit tryst. Wells's previous novels about extramarital sex had largely concerned themselves with practical consequences and with human jealousy. In the Experiment in Autobiography (1934) Wells summarises The Secret Places of the Heart (1922) as a work in which ‘I was thinking not so much of the problem of jealousy, as of love-making considered as a source of waste of energy’, so perhaps the way to think of all this is as a realisation of the entropic nature of sexual energy. H G wasn't getting any younger, after all.
In the final analysis Secret Places isn't a very satisfying novel. Wells worries away at his problem, but the images that most stand out in this text are of all human passions and vital drives as, in effect, black boxes, malfunctioning or stopping altogether but for wholly mysterious reasons. The novel gives the impression of having been made out of a series of loosely assembled conversations on various topics stitched together with some travel-writerish observations on the English southlands; but actually I see fingerprints of Wells the Conscious Artist in the way the whole is disposed. In particular I'm struck by what I take to be the deliberate parallel between the scene at the beginning, where Hardy (Wells) beats his unresponsive automobile, denting the bonnet and cracking the windshield—and the scene at the end where Miss Martin Leeds (Rebecca West) beats her fists on the coffin containing the unresponsive body of her lover. Mysterious containers, hiding the death of drive. Hearts that hold their secrets to the end. And in between, the deadlands of the past, marked only by the huge pagan ruins of Avebury and Stonehenge, or the newer Catholic ruins of Tintern Abbey. Death is the mystery inside this novel's secret places, I fear.