Books October 2011

Ladies’ Man

David Lodge’s new novel of H. G. Wells’s very active love life
Felix Man/Picture Post/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

This novel is as scintillating, engaging, and multidimensional as the man whose life and character it faithfully animates. At a time when writers had influence, H. G. Wells was among the most influential—and prolific. Born into circumstances so modest that he later believed nutritional deficiency had stunted his growth, Wells made himself a rich man by writing best sellers, nearly all of which advocated social change, including free love—a cause he pursued with gusto (his feminist novel Ann Veronica, based on his mistress Amber Reeves, is among his most artistically accomplished works). Maintaining that the function of a novel was to be “useful,” Wells was perhaps most famous in his lifetime for his Outline of History, meant to educate a public he hoped could one day come together to form a world government. But his reformist ambitions ultimately foundered because real life was less subject to manipulation than fiction, and he was eventually disillusioned with the inadequacy of all the political movements with which he involved himself, including the Fabians, the League of Nations, and Bolshevism.

Lodge neatly shifts between narrative and probing interview, to reveal the intersections of writer, thinker, and man. Wells wrote a lot of schlock—the ideas (fuzzy as they often were), and sometimes the money, being more important to him than the prose—but he also had literary ambitions, and Lodge, unsurprisingly, provides compelling descriptions of a writer struggling to produce his best work, as well as a painful account of his break with Henry James, essentially over their incompatible aesthetics.

At once shrewd and sympathetic, Lodge divines that Wells was both a decent and a driven man; nowhere was this more evident than in his many extramarital affairs. He left his first wife (reasonably amicably) to marry a second, but although he clearly loved her and treasured her as intellectual companion, mother to his children, and practical support (she typed his manuscripts and kept house; having to make do without her services while living with Reeves, who was as disinclined as he was to cook and clean, he complained that he could get no serious work done), she couldn’t share his “lust.” Ultimately, this novel’s sensitive and lively examination of its protagonist’s relationships with women (including, most famously, Rebecca West)—his appreciation of their charms, his responses to their needs and personalities, the social and emotional difficulties in which his love for them embroils him—is what really fleshes out (so to speak) his attractive character.

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