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The Review - BOOKS
Published: 10 July 2008
HG Wells rebelled against ‘sexual codes of the day’
HG Wells rebelled against ‘sexual codes of the day’
HG Wells’ time as a sex machine

The writer wanted to detach himself from morality and emotion – and had a string of experimental affairs, writes Gerald Isaaman

Uncommon Arrangements.
By Katie Roiphe. Dial Press £12.99 Order This book

HIS mother was a lady’s maid, his father a gardener. And he was born in a shabby bedroom over a china shop called Atlas House in High Street, Bromley.
Yet, miraculously, HG Wells dramatically altered our attitudes to life with his shattering ideas for scientific invention and social change, as exposed in books such as the Time Machine (1865) and the War of the Worlds (1898), let alone his belief in munificent planned world government.
But, more than that, he had a vision for sexual freedom, let alone vanity, that would, Wells insisted, create a paradise where we could ignore morality, religion, and any kind of discipline or shackles that prevented everyone enjoying total joy and satisfaction.
That was almost a century or so ago. Today we have that breakdown in any form of control that has produced, for the first time, a majority of couples in this country in unlimited, uninhibited open sexual partnership pushing those golden oldies, the permanently married, into a declining minority to be teased and taunted.
Such is the big thrill. And those opposed to the decadence of a laissez-faire existence seem to blame the socialist days of the swinging Sixties for the sad breakdown in stable society. They pick on Hampstead as the heartbeat where all that sex, drugs and rock’n’roll first banged on.
How strange it is then to be reminded of Wells, his long list of lovers and illegitimate children, in Hampstead and other places, by a remarkable book that truly identifies the flame that he ignited with its dissection of seven marriages à la mode.
Even more remarkable is that Wells’ own sexual adventures outside his marriage to Amy Catherine Robbins, whom he called Jane set a pattern that includes love lives of at least three other couples who lived within what is now Camden.
Indeed, the misery the merry-go-round created seems at times a strictly parochial one as you read of the intimate intensity – and agony — of such lovers as Katherine Mansfield for Middleton Murry, Vanessa and Clive Bell, the bohemian backdrop of Ottoline and Philip Morrell and Radclyffe Hall, the lesbian author of The Well of Loneliness.
Wells, points out Katie Roiphe in Uncommon Arrangements, saw himself “in revolt against the definite sexual codes of the day”. Others indulged in unorthodox “semi-detached” marriages. Mansfield, during her days living in East Heath Road, Hampstead, declared: “Whatever happened to married pairs? They are almost extinct.”
And all this happened in a decade when pioneer Marie Stopes, also living in Hampstead, published and opened her first sex clinic.
“There is rottenness and danger in the foundations of the State if many of the marriages are unhappy,” she declaimed, as the cry went up, after the mystification of sex in Queen Victoria’s days, for sexual freedom, honesty and equality, whatever that meant.
Yet someone such as Wells actually believed in rationality at all times and the arrogant power of the intellect to subdue emotion, as he worried more about public scandal infecting his reputation as he cynically took on new lovers.
“They believed in the power of the mind and will to exert influence on the rogue emotions of jealousy, disappointment and rage – and in this their faith is extraordinary,” writes Roiphe.
“They wanted to think their way through the problem of marriage, to impose a new form on the mess of experience. And yet, of course, the heart would do what it would.”
Worse still, the bastard offspring from their dashing and diabolical love affairs became the awful victims, as was the case of Anthony West – son of HG Wells’ infatuation with Rebecca West – who spent his last days in Hampstead.
“The children of these modish marriages are repeatedly shunted off to nurses, and even, in the case of one unlucky little boy (West), to boarding school before the age of four,” adds Roiphe.
“There seems to be remarkably little hand-wringing or guilt surrounding these minor abandonments.”
Yet the stories she tells are compelling and fascinating, far more so than today’s silly soaps and so-called sensational celebrity gossip. The devil indeed is in the fine detail, and this is the real achievement of the book.
There’s the electric moment when Katherine Mansfield audaciously offered to be Middleton Murry’s mistress, only to be turned down, and the time when Vanessa Bell stood naked in the bath as Duncan Grant ignored the Venus-like temptress and continued shaving.
Roiphe brilliantly sets the scene, for instance, of HG Wells and Jane living in Mornington Road, Camden Town, she the rock on which he relied throughout their time together, no matter the upheavals he caused with his hypocritical declarations of love to his latest passion, such as nubile Amber Reeves, another Hampstead mistress, took hold.
“There was a certain irony to the fact that Jane had become the perfect housewife,” writes Roiphe. “When Wells and Jane began their association in the 1890s neither of them believed in the institution of marriage. He was in the process of leaving his first wife, and, with £50 between them, the two of them moved into modest rooms together.
“Wells would later look back on this period in Mornington Road as their happiest.
“Their landlady would bring up coffee on a tray, and Jane would sit in her blue nightdress and long blonde braids buttering her toast, the slate sky framed by large bay windows.
“The only thing marring the cosy scene was his inchoate sense of sexual disappointment. Something appeared to him to be missing in her responsiveness. As he put it, Jane ‘regarded my sexual imaginativeness as a sort of constitutional disease. She stood by me patiently waiting for it to subside’.”

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