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How H.G. Wells’ Lovers Responded to His ‘Feminism’
The author’s praise of liberated women was just another fiction — and the feminists he dated weren’t afraid to say so
The feminism of H.G. Wells, the author best known for science fiction novels like The War of the Worlds (1898) and The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), will come as a surprise to many today, even though it was widely known and publicly debated in the early 20th century.
Imbued with socialism and modernism, Wells’ utopian visions—such as in his 1905 novel A Modern Utopia—garnered both fervent support and intense criticism. His embrace of “the woman question” in favor of women and his avowed feminism — “I confess myself altogether feminist. I have no doubts in the matter,” proclaims the protagonist in his 1911 autobiographical novel The New Machiavelli—made those visions even more schismatic. In The New Machiavelli, he summed up the notions that permeate several of his novels:
I want to see [women] citizens, with a marriage law framed primarily for them and their protection and the good of the race, and not for men’s satisfactions. I want to see them bearing and rearing good children in the State as a generously rewarded public duty and service, choosing their husbands freely and discerningly, and in no way enslaved or subordinated to the men they have chosen.
Although he assured his readers that his modern utopia would be realized “not only for woman’s sake, but for man’s,” it was not lost on his mainstream critics that the freedom Wells envisioned for women was decidedly sexual in nature. As if the rejection of traditional politics, economics, social orders, and morality wasn’t bad enough, his detractors fulminated against his depictions of the sexually liberated women living in his fictional worlds.
Wells’ 1906 utopian science fiction novel In the Days of the Comet was scorned not least because the heroine suggests at one point that she and her two lovers engage in a ménage à trois. Likewise, his 1909 novel Ann Veronica: A Modern Love Story was deemed “poisonous and pernicious” because, a critic wrote in the Spectator, it “is based on the negation of woman’s purity and of man’s good faith in the relations of sex.”
Two radical young women targeted the weaknesses in Wells’ feminist vision.
In T.P.’s Weekly, another critic of Ann Veronica called it “a dangerous novel” because its heroine was “a modern British daughter defying the old morality, and saying it is glorious to do so.”
Wells publicly responded in the Spectator with a frank articulation of his standpoint:
My book was written primarily to express the resentment and distress which many women feel nowadays at their unavoidable practical dependence upon some individual man not of their deliberate choice, and in full sympathy with the natural but perhaps anarchistic and antisocial idea that it is intolerable for a woman to have sexual relations with a man with whom she is not in love, and natural and desirable and admirable for her to want them, and still more so to want children by a man of her own selection.
As Wells sparred with the mainstream in defense of his feminist utopia, he simultaneously faced opposition from another, seemingly unlikely, quarter: feminists.
Rather than effuse gratitude for this valiant male ally who spoke so freely in the name of woman, modernist feminist writers Dorothy Richardson and Rebecca West publicly and unflinchingly deconstructed Wells’ feminism—before, during, and after they had love affairs with him.
While the mainstream criticism centered on issues like morality and social order, these two radical young women targeted the weaknesses in Wells’ feminist vision.
“One hopes for a book where womanhood shall be as well as manhood. So far [Wells] has not achieved the portrayal of a woman…” wrote Dorothy Richardson in her 1906 review of In the Days of the Comet.
Richardson goes on:
His women are all one specimen, carried away from some biological museum of his student days, dressed up in varying trappings, with different shades of hair and proportions of freckles, with neatly tabulated instincts and one vague smile between them all. One hopes he may get rid of this rather irritating dummy and, along with her, of all his stage machinery…
Richardson was a freelance journalist who had known Wells since 1896, when she had met him as a former school friend of his second wife. When she wrote this appraisal of Wells’ women characters, she had not yet made a name for herself as a preeminent modernist author. But she did have an intimate personal knowledge of the opinions and beliefs behind Wells’ fiction, which she had gained both as his friend and lover.
The fate of the majority of Wells’ “feminist” protagonists began with them choosing when and with whom they had sex and ended with them reconciling themselves to traditional domesticity and motherhood.
Though it is without question that Wells was passionate in his pursuit of women and enthusiastically practiced his dedication to free love with them, his confidence in them was as limited as his fictional portrayals. Richardson was well-aware of this, since, as research psychologist Doris B. Wallace noted, the two “differed often, especially about the abilities of women, of which Wells had a low opinion.”
There is ample evidence of this in Wells’ own writings, including in A Modern Utopia:
…women may be free in theory and not in practice, and as long as they suffer from their economic inferiority, from the ability to produce as much value as a man for the same amount of work — and there can be no doubt of this inferiority — so long will their legal and technical equality be a mockery.
For Richardson, who “wanted to attack the still firmly entrenched idea that women were physically and mentally inferior to men,” Wells’ fictional female “specimens” were, understandably, a sham. As for his feminism—namely, his severely limited vision of equality and emancipation—she was even more explicit in articulating its faults.
“Many men, of whom Mr. Wells is the chief spokesman, read the history of women’s past influence in public affairs as one long story of feminine egoism,” she wrote in 1924, long after their short sexual relationship had ended and they returned to a state of friendship.
They regard her advance with mixed feelings, and face her with a neat dilemma. Either, they say, you must go on being Helen [of Troy] or Cinderella, or you must drop all that and play the game, in so far as your disabilities allow, as we play it. They look forward to the emergence of an army of civilized, docile women, following modestly behind the vanguard of males at work upon the business of reducing chaos to order.
Richardson’s assessment accurately depicted the fate of the majority of Wells’ “feminist” protagonists, whose emancipation began with them choosing when and with whom they had sex and ended with them reconciling themselves to traditional domesticity and motherhood. It was a path Wells had clearly set out in A Modern Utopia:
In Utopia a career of wholesome motherhood would be … the normal and remunerative calling for a woman, and a capable woman who has borne, bred, and begun the education of eight or nine well-built, intelligent, and successful sons and daughters would be an extremely prosperous woman, quite irrespective of the economic fortunes of the man she has married.
Wells’ vision of women as sexually liberated domestic goddesses did not sit any better with Rebecca West, who publicly criticized Wells in a review of his 1912 social satire Marriage. The 19-year-old wasn’t impressed with 46-year-old Wells, whom she dubbed “the Old Maid among novelists.” Nor did she find anything noble in his fantasies of sexually liberated women, remarking cuttingly that “even the sex obsession that lay clotted on ‘Ann Veronica’ and ‘The New Machiavelli’ like cold white sauce was merely Old Maids’ mania, the reaction towards the flesh of a mind too long absorbed in airships and colloids.”
Like Richardson, West specifically deconstructed Wells’ depictions of emancipated womanhood and suggested how they reflected his constrained views of emancipation and womanhood themselves. Of his main character in Marriage, West wrote:
For the sake of sideboards and prestige she was willing to give herself to a fool, and transmit folly to her children … And the really fine and encouraging thing about the book is that Mr. Wells sees that Marjorie is a thorough scoundrel. The horror of it is that, confused by her clear eyes and copper hair, he accepts her scoundrelism as the normal condition of women.
Wells was apparently so intrigued by West’s review that he invited her to meet with him, and the two soon embarked on a relationship that lasted 10 years and produced a son. Throughout and following their relationship, West was an outspoken advocate of feminism and achieved international prominence and respect as a writer and social critic.
Though she undoubtedly felt deeply for Wells, and they remained friends after their sexual relationship ended, West was frustrated with and critical of the limitations he placed on women’s emancipation and equality. Professor Bonnie Kime Scott noted that West could “not excuse” Wells for the fact that “few of his [fictional] women find meaningful work aside from motherhood,” and she parodied aspects of his writing in her own.
In 1913, the same year she and Wells began their affair, West wrote the now-famous line: “I myself have never been able to find out precisely what feminism is: I only know that people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat or a prostitute.”
This was precisely the type of binary Wells created within his particular brand of feminism, and both Richardson and West honed in on this in their deconstructions of his work. When they broke down Wells’ feminism into its parts, his thinly-veiled “Whore in the bedroom/Angel in the drawing room” concept of womanhood was its chief structural flaw, even if he—and most others—didn’t recognize it.
Wells, according to Professor Ann Heilmann, considered himself a “New Man” — one of those who “declare[d] themselves ‘altogether feminist’ with ‘no doubts in the matter.’” This was in supposed contrast to “Old men … [who] argued that male dominance and female submission were the prerequisites of a civilized society …” The reality, Heilmann contends, was that both groups “insisted on women’s function as breeders of the nation, felt uneasy about their career aspirations, and punished their women characters for transgressing against social norms. Both constructed their heroines as sex objects to be enjoyed and possessed by the male gaze of the writer.”
Unlike his science fiction, which was creative and forward-thinking, Wells’ feminist fiction presented a dismal alternate reality for women.
The criticisms from both Richardson and West highlight a stark contrast between the “feminist” protagonists in Wells’ novels and the actual feminists he had love affairs with, including Richardson and West themselves. At least in respect to elements such as nationality, age, social class and position, and appearance, Wells’ many lovers did not comprise a homogenous group. Nor did any of them settle down as purposefully resigned baby-makers disguised as men’s equals, though that is exactly what his heroines did.
Clearly, these women saw something worthy in Wells and his beliefs, and he in the way they expressed and conducted themselves. There was merit in his work, after all, and—quite probably—a genuine belief that he wanted the best for women and knew how that could be achieved. Even in her own modern deconstruction of Wells’ feminism, Professor Scott argued, “Wells does have useful liberal feminist and socialist ideas about the inhibitions patriarchy places on women.”
On the other hand, his approach to personal gender relations and his views on women’s equality in real life were as limited as his fiction belies. “It is impossible not to refer to his private life where he always liked to be in control of situations regarding women,” wrote Professor Cliona Murphy. “[H]e generally seems to have disliked the idea of a nation of independent educated women as entities in themselves. Educated women would have control over their own destiny.”
Dorothy Richardson and Rebecca West not only transcended Wells’ limited and subjective interpretation of feminism, they also openly challenged it—accurately striking at its weakest point. Unlike his science fiction, which was creative and forward-thinking, Wells’ feminist fiction presented a dismal alternate reality for women. A utopia where women were valued primarily in terms of sex and reproduction was hardly a departure from reality. Wells’ vision of “the home [as] … the women’s kingdom and the mother the owner and responsible guardian of her children” in The New Machiavelli was simply a new twist on the status quo.
While this version of utopia might have seemed ideal to some women, Richardson and West recognized that it did not represent true sovereignty for women.
Originally published at abitofhistoryblog.com on August 17, 2018.