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Free Love, Fabianism, Fiction .... and more Free Love
on 25 March 2011
The man of parts in question here is HG Wells in this fictionalised biography. He was indeed a man of many talents and interests, although the parts that most exercise the interest of David Lodge are the great author's private parts. You see, not only was HG a prolific writer of fiction that incorporated a staggering amount of visionary ideas (tanks, airborne warfare and atomic bombs) - although admittedly some of his ideas have yet to come to pass such as time machines and Martian invasion - but he was also something of a political philosopher and idealist, being a central figure for a while in the Fabian movement, and an ardent practitioner of the concept of free love.
There are almost as many biographies and collections of correspondence on Wells as there are of HG's own works, and there is no doubt that Lodge has been meticulous in his research. So what then, does a fictionalised biography add to this? Well, the main thing is imagined conversations that make it a much more interesting read than the dryer, factual works. I confess I always have mixed views of this style as it is neither one thing nor the other, but more often than not they are entertaining and interesting and this is no exception.
One trait that the genre tends to have is that there tends to be, as here, a strong indication of life informing the literary works. This is exactly what Sebastian Faulks has railed against in Faulks on Fiction. However, Wells clearly put a lot of autobiographical content into his fiction and frequently used fiction to promote his political ideas of utopia and a socialist, world government. Often you find that the author falls into the literary equivalent of Stockholm syndrome with his subject and is uncritical of the manifest faults. Lodge avoids this skilfully, although with HG it is difficult to defend some of his more unpleasant traits concerning his hypocritical approach to his love life - he felt no compunction about having a myriad of mistresses but would get hopelessly jealous if any of the more serious lovers had the audacity to consider sleeping with anyone but him.
There is plenty of interesting insight into his involvement in the political movements of the early 1900s, but the subject matter that makes the reader's jaw drop deeper and deeper is his love life and how he managed to get away with it. He makes Katie Price look like one of the Waltons.
His first wife was his cousin, but she wasn't intelligent enough or sexually adventurous to keep him interested for long. Then he moved to a student of his who became his long-serving and, presumably, long-suffering wife, Jane. She had intelligence, but also quickly bored Wells in bed. However, she accepted HG having a stream of lovers, some of which she certainly knew about and apparently `approved of', two of whom he managed to have children with (as well as two with Jane). What is most disturbing though is that while there were some of Wells' age, his preference was for virginal students and promising young writers, including daughters of his associates. It's hard to defend this no matter how loyal he remained to his marriage to Jane.
The book starts towards the middle of the Second World War with HG in poor health. The device Lodge uses to get into the history of Wells' life is a little clunky, but the majority of the book is told in chronological order, as Wells recalling his events but told in the third person, interspersed by a few question and answers of an imaginable interviewer talking to Wells in what we are invited to believe is HG summoning his inner Paxman. The interviewer asks the most searching questions and exposes some of the great writer's inconsistent arguments. He could be cruel, not only to his lovers and wife, but also to other writers (notably Henry James). There are also plenty of authentic extracts from HG's novels and correspondences.
For the most part the fictionalised content seems authentic - the only time I rolled my eyes was when HG informs Jane that he is planning on heading off to France with his latest mistress to have a baby. Jane says "You're going to elope with Amber to France and have a baby with her? [...] Is that a good idea HG? Is that going to help the situation?". Then again, Jane's attitude to her husband's infidelities is so bizarre that how else could the conversation have gone?
There's not that much about HG's early life of why he was like he was and it was only in the final pages that I got much sense of his views changing with age. The constant affairs can be a little repetitive, but that of course is the fault of HG rather than Lodge. Wells lived at a time of great ideas and knew some great names and that is always interesting. There's no doubt he was interesting, if infuriating. I didn't like HG, but I certainly liked the book.