I recently checked out a copy of Michael Coren’s The Invisible Man: Life and Liberties of H.G. Wells. It is one of the best modern literary biographies (though unfortunately out of print) and was the basis of an article I wrote some years ago. A big part of Coren’s study is Wells’ treatment of women, which he describes as crassly exploitative. The book presents an interesting contrast to the English author’s oft-professed, and oft-lauded, pro-feminist beliefs. Wells was quite a shameless rake, and admitted to frequent hormonal rampages in his autobiography. It was easy for him to excuse such behavior on environmental or biological grounds. A life-long advocate of free love, romance was no more than “sex and physical contact”; the sort of intermittent “refreshment” Wells proposed for his Samurai ruling class in The Modern Utopia.
Journalist Rebecca West was one of Wells’ best known paramours, yet she differed from most of his fawning companions. She once asked her lover who benefited most from birth control, men or women? Taken aback, Wells admitted he had never tried to answer the question. Miss West had a sneaking suspicion that it was less a matter of female liberation than acquiescence to unrestrained male desire. For the socialist intellectual, contraception was the only way to deal with lax sexual relations and the supposed need to control population. Wells ignored both the moral and psychological pitfalls of such a dubious solution.
The writer struggled through middle age with the messy facts of human nature and that implacable nemesis known as conscience, never to be adequately explained away by Darwinian excuses. No doubt it came as a shock to Wells when his mistress, pregnant with his child, resisted pressure to have an abortion despite the fact that childbirth would interrupt her promising journalistic career. Meanwhile, his much neglected wife Jane died in 1927, leaving Wells with pangs of guilt for the ill-treatment of the women in his life, though he could never bring himself to abandon his dearly held ideals, and a lifetime of philandering was only cut short by old age.
Libertine though he was, Wells was still a child of late Victorian culture, and therefore cloaked his private obscenity in a public garment of gentility. He would have been dismayed by the coarseness of modern marketing and culture. Yet it is obvious that our present society is the logical consequence of the Wellsian attitude, which was always asking “why not?” and pushing the moral envelope as far as it could go.
For related commentary, see Mr. Wells Predicts the Future.