Today’s book review is brought to you by Beryl Belsky of The Writer’s Drawer.
Synopsis of A Man of Parts, by David Lodge (London, 2011)
A Man Of Passion.
A Man Of The Future.
Sequestered in his blitz-battered Regent’s Park house in 1944, the ailing Herbert George Wells, ‘H.G.’ to his family and friends, looks back on a life crowded with incident, books, and women. Charting his unpromising start as a draper’s assistant to his rapid rise to fame as a writer with a prophetic imagination, his immersion in socialist politics and his belief in and practice of free love, A Man of Parts is an astonishing novel of passion, ambition and controversy.
‘A Man of Parts’ is available from http://www.amazon.co.uk/Man-Parts-David-Lodge/dp/0099556081 and http://www.amazon.com/Man-Parts-David-Lodge/dp/0099556081.
H.G. [Herbert George] Wells (1866-1946) is an author who was part of the compulsory reading curriculum at school several decades ago and I thus remembered little about him when I decided to delve into this volume. What attracted me at first was Lodge’s fluent prose style rather than Wells himself. However, the further I proceeded, the more I became fascinated by this man of many parts (including, as Lodge points out, his very active private parts).
Although a bio-novel rather than a biography, Lodge’s obviously in-depth research and the quotes from Wells’ letters and books brings to life a man with an amazingly prolific and intelligent mind, one whose ideas were far ahead of his time. Moreover, his rise to fame and fortune as a novelist, scientific thinker, socialist and lover came about in spite of his humble and not very promising origins in mid-late nineteenth century England.
The book begins and ends with Wells’ illness and decline toward death in the last years of World War II. In this invalid state, he carries on dialogues with himself − or rather with Lodge as interlocutor − sometimes being confronted with uncomfortable episodes from his life, including his stormy relationship with the novelist and feminist Rebecca West, the mother of one of his sons. Wells’ “alter ego” also relates to some of the scientific inventions he forecast, including tank warfare, as well as the atomic bomb, mentioned in his novel Tono-Bungay (1909) and elaborated on in his science fiction The World Set Free (1914). One of the most amazing ideas Wells recalls is his prophecy of a free world-wide encyclopedia:
… I tried to interest publishers in the idea of an encyclopedia which would include all knowledge… My idea was that it should be free. I imagined an Encyclopedia Organization that would store and continuously update every item of verifiable human knowledge on microfilm and make it universally acceptable – a world wide web of knowledge…
Was Wells the inventor of Wikipedia? It’s hardly likely that he actually used the words “world wide web of knowledge,” but maybe I have misjudged him.
Part of the novel (probably the less interesting part for the general reader and especially those unfamiliar with British politics of that period) is devoted to Wells’ socialist ideas and his mainly unhappy experience with the Fabian Society (unhappy because he was too radical for them). The remainder (the majority) of the book dwells on the women in his life, his two wives and dozens of lovers and mistresses. Wells’ second wife “Jane” (Amy Catherine) is an enigmatic character, deserving of a study of her own. Like his other intelligent, younger lovers, they met while she was still a student. He married her in 1895, but was unsatisfied sexually and they agreed to have an “open” – on his side – marriage, with Wells being frank about the women he was having affairs with. Jane, the mother of two of his children, would care for his creature comforts and manage his professional life. They remained married until her death in 1927.
While he tried to be discreet, he was unable to prevent the scandal some of his affaires du coeure aroused, and particularly that with then Young Fabian, student and later writer Amber Reeves, the daughter of fellow Fabians William and Maud Pember Reeves, with whom he had a daughter in 1909. Well’s novel Anna Veronica, espousing his views on sexual freedom for women and published that same year, was partly based on that relationship and only served to exacerbate feeling against him. Another liaison he had with the young daughter of Fabian members, Rosamund Bland, led to a comic confrontation with her hypocritical father (Herbert Bland was free in his extra-marital relationships but preached adherence to a strict moral code of conduct) on a train as they tried to sneak away together. Many of the women were, or eventually became, prominent figures in their own right, including the abovementioned Rebecca West, the American birth control activist Margaret Sanger and the novelist Elizabeth von Armin. In his defense, and particularly in regard to the young virgins, Wells claimed that he was always the pursued and that he never forced himself on any woman.
Wells frequently expounded his utopian views on a world government. The two world wars he lived through saw him first as a pacifist and then more of an activist who believed that sense would eventually prevail only after a catastrophe, and that after peace the world would be ruled by a council of experts, as he envisaged in The Shape of Things to Come (1933, in which he also predicted World War II and the use of aerial warfare). He was disappointed by the failure of the League of Nations and did not live long enough to see the impotence of the United Nations, organizations whose establishment he supported. To further his cause of world government he felt the British people needed to be educated about other nations and their history. Hence, he wrote the Outline of History (1920), one of the first popular general histories of the world.
The book is peopled with dozens of historical characters with whom Wells was acquainted, some of them well-known to this day, including the playwright and Wells’ occasional foe at the Fabian Society, George Bernard Shaw; the expatriate author American Henry James, the Russian novelist and political activist Maxim Gorky and the French poet and writer Anatole France. He was courted by many of Britain’s senior politicians (such as Churchill) and, in his role as a journalist, gained access to and interviewed world leaders such as Lenin, Stalin and Roosevelt.
Lodge’s subject, while worthy of study, is not of universal interest, and certainly not to the younger generation, who might never have heard of this British genius, let alone many of the historical figures and movements mentioned. However, Lodge’s bio-novel is a convincing and intriguing study of the complexities of Wells’ character, as well as the workings of an amazingly fertile mind.
This review was originally posted on http://www.thewritersdrawer.net/david-lodge.html.
That was fascinating. Thank you, Beryl.
She was born in Eire, grew up in Australia, and currently lives in Israel.
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