Shadow Lovers: The Last Affairs of H.G. Wells, by Andrea Lynn

Not so very long ago, in a post where I requested some help regarding some articles, and discussed some of my ongoing readings, I bashed Terry Eagleton’s self-righteous and dismissal of H.G. Wells, in the course of his review of the book I am now reviewing myself, University6 of Illinois scholar Andrea Lynn’s Shadow Lovers: The Last Affairs of H.G. Wells.

Leaving aside Eagleton’s ignorant and sniping attack on Wells as a writer — it’s par for the course when self-appointed cardinals and pontiffs of literature look in any direction that even faintly bears the markings of popular fiction, be it SF, fantasy, the detective novel, the romance — and his snotty description of the man, he does raise a question about whether the enterprise of unpacking a lifetime’s worth of sexual experiences… or, indeed, even just the tail end (no pun intended) of that lifetime’s worth of sexual experiences is worthwhile. As Eagleton correctly notes, there is something of a “cult” in the literary world that, especially towards the end of the twentieth century, became obsessive about the sex lives of authors.

This is ironic, he points out, because

… most writers’ sex lives have precious little to do with their art. Homer may have taken an interest in leather aprons, but if so it doesn’t show. There is no reason to suppose that being the author of Ulysses or Wuthering Heights makes your taste in sexual partners any more momentous than your taste in cheese. Given the comic predictability of human sexual behaviour, what Milton got up to in bed is bound to be less intriguing than what he got up to in Samson Agonistes.

Even so, proposing that Jane Austen was a lesbian or Sophocles a cross-dresser is one way for those who have nothing especially stunning to say about irony or tragic fate to muscle in on the literary scene. It is rather like being praised as an eminent geographer for finding your way to the bathroom.

True, true enough, it is an extremely obnoxious subcult of the academic-literarian faith, one best known for running about proclaiming every great author gay, or bisexual, or lesbian, or a secret, prescient transgendered artist, or some other thing we don’t have a term for yet. Personally, though, I think the cause of this silliness is a much deeper problem in the way literary criticism works as an industry today, and in how it teaches younger scholars to read books. In my comments on the subject (same link as above), I suggested that this trend is

probably the final consequence of how poststructualism has led us away from the text, away from reading literature, to squabbling over how much of our own ideology and anxiety we can inject into anothers’ novel, how much fancy poststructuralist hokey-pokey we can dance around a text, how many mystifying bits of italicized argot we can muscle into the service of obfuscating what the critic means to tell us about the text being discussed.

In other words, the death of the author has led us to the death of the text. That is to say, I think the obsession with authors’ sex lives probably, in the wider sense, proceeds from the effect poststructuralism has had on the interest of English majors in reading fictional texts. Reading, here, means constructing readings of texts which aren’t primarily designed to obfuscate meaning, or repudiate the idea of meaning in texts, but instead to present a sensible and coherent understanding of the text in a number of differing  contexts — to whatever canon can be said to surround it, the society in which it was produced and first read, the society in which it is now read, and more.

I don’t know if this trend is still in effect today, whether academics or others are still busily trying to prove that Chaucer was an unrepentant philanderer, that Shakespeare was “gay,” and so on. Thank goodness, I haven’t really had to keep up with mainstream literary criticism that much, and the few exposures I’ve had have not made me eager to see more of it.

This argument, it would seem, present some problems for Lynn, whose text is, after all, the sexual biography of Wells in his last decade or so of life. But there is good news here for Lynn’s project, I think. Even by Eagleton’s argument above, Wells himself must be considered a special case. Love and sex are major themes in his work, as is evolution — a topic toward which he had a fundamentally anxious attitude, and which he knew all too well is linked to sex and that fate of humanity that concerned him so obsessively. Wells, a trained biologist, knew full well that sex was the engine from which humans had emerged, and was also the engine of human fate in an important way. In certain of his novels — such as the family-story of Star Begotten: A Biological Fantasia and In the Days of the Comet, to name only a few — the having of children, and sex, were directly connected to the destiny of humanity, an issue Wells was compelled constantly to address in his work.

Not only that; Wells invited attention and scrutiny upon his own, personal sex life. And I speak not only of the scandals that surrounded his life, the early divorce and remarriage, the young Fabian woman he got pregnant and married off to another Fabian… no, I mean what he wrote about his own sex life. I discovered this book, with some surprise, while searching for a book by Wells in the library at the university where I now work. What I stumbled upon was the book H.G. Wells in Love, which is not exactly what the title suggests. In those pages, Wells isn’t really often in love, nor is he particularly interested in “love” in the romanticized sense we so often see in use. No, the (partially expurgated) text presented in H.G. Wells in Love — which was originally conceived as a “Postscript” to his Experiment in Autobiography — is more a frank discussion of his psychosexual life, with emotions often entering into it, but mostly in terms of dissatisfactions and frustrations. (At one point he actually invokes Origen, the famous figure in the early Church who castrated himself out of religious zeal; Wells turns to Origen while wishing that his sex drive could simply be sated once and for all.)

So it is that one cannot help but feel that with Wells, some attention to his love life and sex life might actually be in order, if we wish to understand his books. Wells, indeed, seems to suggest that a person cannot be understood, and cannot understand him or her own self, without a frank and honest examination of the person’s sexual life. At the very least, I think we can all agree that Wells himself was an interesting figure, and an important figure, in the early 20th century, and one whose influence is felt on literature even today — that is, if you’re not some snotty professor (or Canadian SF novelist) who refuses to recognize SF as literature.

Andrea Lynn’s work, mind, is not in any way a straightforward tell-all or unfolding of Wells’ sexual life during his so-called “golden years.” It’s important to note that the book is made up of a number of different characters, each with different concerns, differing levels of comfort in the open discussion of sex, different private relationships and personal backgrounds, and more. Their letters — and their affections, and their actions, and their accounts — contradict one another constantly, leaving us with still more questions, though I’d argue in some ways they are better questions than we started out with.

This isn’t merely a text about Wells. His three last affairs — conducted with Moura Budberg, Constance Coolidge, and (according to Wells, though she denied in vehemently) Martha Gellhorn. Lynn, of course, knows that these couples and affairs were not just tied up in the life of the man, but also in the women and their lives, so that much of the text is devoted to the lives of Budberg, Coolidge, and Gellhorn quite apart from whatever relationship they had with Wells. Past and future lovers, childhood, upbringing, and careers all play a part in the stories of these various women, but Lynn also seems out to build a portrait of the world in which Wells and his last lovers lived.

The result is a complicated snapshot of an era where issues of love and sex were not quite so easy to talk about as they are in our world today, where differences were hidden away in private letters, affairs conducted in secret, abroad or for pay in some red-light district — for most of the “straight” world of that era. Eagleton would like us to think that it is a tale of “preppies and poseurs” and “self-indulgent headbangers” who “were chasing each other round the bedroom [while] the world was lurching towards war” and is shocked at how closely the sexual entanglings connect to the political sphere. Personally, this strikes me as a bit silly. It seems he has conveniently, and somewhat puritanically, forgotten how eagerly Wells agitated against war, wrote with all his might against it, railed against it, and attempted to meet heads of state the world over in order to derail what he believed were its fundamental causes… during a long career, by the way, of which Lynn is only looking at the last decade or so.)

This is, more ridiculously, to ignore the relationship that exists between our own Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the earlier Declaration of Human Rights that was penned by Wells during the period discussed — as well as the atmosphere of receptivity Wells created through his publications and personal connections with various heads of state — but then, Wells aside, the left has a long tradition of dismissing legislations of human rights and those who wrote of them — Eagleton’s own ideological benefactor, Karl Marx, dismissed the notion out of hand. Maybe a little of that “gushing idealism and Illinois earnestness” that Eagleton dismisses in Lynn’s writing is exactly what the man needs.

Which reminds me — there was a great deal of complaint in the reviews I read regarding Lynn’s Americanese. This is curious, since she is an American scholar — one lucky enough to live in Illinois and thus have access to the enormous HG Wells archive there, including papers that had only just become available to the archive a few years before the book was written. For my part, I didn’t find Lynn’s American English all that intrusive or disturbing. Perhaps those who criticized it would wish her to attempt a pastiche of British English of Wells’ era, I’m not sure, but I found the very expressions they criticized — such as referring to Christabel Aberconway as an “emotional pit stop” for Wells — amused me. I don’t think Lynn ought to be considered under any obligation to write in one or another tenor, let alone in British English, in the way she tells her version of Wells’ and his lovers’ stories.

As for Lynn’s bookitself — I’m aware I’ve spent more time eviscerating Eagleton than discussing Lynn’s text — it has a lot to offer in terms of filling in a number of blanks in Wells’ original sexual autobiography, including suppressed portions, suppressed characters (Martha Gellhorn vehemently denied any sexual involvement with the man, and all that he wrote of their ostensible affair was suppressed from H.G. Wells in Love by Wells’ son “Gip”), and of a bygone time. It draws for us a picture of the time in which Wells was writing, and of the concerns that troubled him. It also shows us something else very interesting and important, which is that his preaching of the gospel of “free love” was far from mere doctrine: he was, indeed, quite devoted to the idea.

It has not escaped me that the “polyamory” subculture — which has somehow become such a familiar subsect of SF fandom — has its roots not only in the writings of Wells, but also in how he lived his life. “Poly” people  (if you have no idea what this is, see here for example) seem to some degree to be aware of the influence of Heinlein’s writing on their movement, but I wonder how many of them are aware of just how foundational Wells seems to have been.  After all, it is interesting and curious to realize just how much of the utopianism of which Wells wrote was, in some ways, simply the normalization of how he himself lived his life. H.G. Wells in Love doesn’t do much in the way of suggesting how his wife Jane actually felt about his affairs; Lynn assumes that Jane was merely accepting and tolerant of them, a good sport, for there are records of her sending presents to Wells’ lovers and even meeting with them socially. Little is said of whether she willingly accepted these arrangements, the way many Victorian woman knowingly (though they would not acknowledge it) preferred their husbands see prostitutes than trouble them too often with the embarrassment of sex.

Discussions of “free love” often invoke Wells himself, but rarely mention the women with whom he had his free love, beyond perhaps and only occasionally Amy Catherine Wells (that is, Jane); yet it seems that many of the women with whom he was involved were accepting of the reality of their relationship —  that it was temporary, that it was not leading to marriage, that Wells was seeing other women when they were not around. That is to say that the scenario played out in the last section of Wells’ In the Days of the Comet — titled “Love After the Change” — was in fact not just a picture of a post-transfigurative utopian culture, but in fact a picture of what Wells felt the world would look like if his sex life had been universalized… that is to say, it is the globalization of the little, transient, and unofficial “utopian community” that Wells and his lovers built for themselves — but, unlike earlier utopian communities, did so without having to leave their lives in the wider world.

I suspect there’s probably something important and new about that — something that genealogically links polyamory in SF fandom to what we would now call the “lifestyle” embraced by Wells and his lovers. The interesting thing is that, because it was under wraps to some degree, this utopianism was different than the polyamory utopianism as I’ve seen it in the chatter of SF fans at cons. (Only rarely, mind; not being a member of the movement, I find it as bewildering as I do the practice of dressing up as a Trek or Star Wars character. I’m not mocking; I’m just saying I find both subcultures a little bewildering, since neither interests me particularly.)

In any case, I think I’ve gone far from the point of Lynn’s book.Too far, indeed, without mentioning what was for me the one flaw of the thing: the section on Martha Gellhorn. It is, of course, fascinating that Wells wrote of their having an affair, while Gellhorn herself very angrily denied it, all the way to the grave. Gellhorn’s papers are not available to the public, and she claimed most of the letters Wells sent her ended up in the trash, so it will be difficult to know much more about the nature of the disputed relationship. Lynn’s exploration of the letters Gellhorn sent to Wells, and the few carbon-copies remaining of his letters to her, is interesting even as one gets a bit of a sense that she’s trying to connect dots that may not resolve into any sort of image at all. There’s a strange ambiguity to it all, and while it is illustrative of the kind of relationship Wells had with other women — like the Platonic relationship he had with Christabel Aberconway, another fascinating figure in the book — it seems a little less useful to understanding Wells, especially when it delves into Gellhorn’s personal life. I’d rather, indeed, have seen much more about his relationship with Aberconway, to be honest, as she seems to have been as close to the long-sought-for “Lover Shadow” as Wells ever found, either despite or perhaps precisely because of the platonic nature of their relationship. I have a strange feeling that the link between Wells’ mother, Aberconway, and his fictonal work would probably be of greater scholarly use in the deepened understanding of Wells, where in terms of Gellhorn all we have is either more fabulism — we knew Wells had a great imagination already, didn’t we? — or angry denial on Gellhorn’s part. Or, maybe, a puzzling and interesting shadowland between the two… but one that, really, there is little chance of resolving for the present, at least until Gellhorn’s papers are opened to the public, many years from now. It may always remain a he-said/she-said issue, where at least with Christabel, things seem (usefully) both clearer and much better-documented.

The other characters, though — Coolidge with her quaintly bad letter-writing, Budberg with her mysteries and secrets — are drawn much larger than life, more interestingly; Lynn’s research on each is quite remarkable. I came away from the book feeling as if I knew much more about Wells, Coolidge, and Budberg, and while this is particularly useful since I am Wells and Budberg these days, I feel any would-be Wells scholar could benefit from the same.

So, reservations I share with Eagleton aside (regarding the pseudo-scholarship of great authors’ sex lives), there is actually a great deal of food for thought — and a lot which could be fruitfully applied to the deeper understanding of Wells’ utopianism, his futurism, and his approach to depicting love and sex in his writing. It was written of him by another — I can’t remember who, but something makes me want to say it was Somerset Maugham — that he was “the best writer on sex” that they had in his day. If those non-SF works have not aged well according to many modern readers, it may be because of the changes that followed… and it may even be that in some small and unrecognized way, some of those changes proceeded from his very popular and widely-read work.

Don’t come to the book for any direct insight into Wells’ writing — Lynn steers clear of his literary life, quite understandably since the book might otherwise have grown to 1000 pages or, very easily, much more. But if you are acquainted with Wells scholarship, and know his work yourself, this book can be a welcome addition to your library, and can help you in puzzling out just what Wells was up to in so very much of his work.

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