“No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” (H. G. Wells)

Happy Valentine’s Day! Whether you are single or romantically attached, I wish you all a day filled with the greatest love of all:

Last year on Valentine’s Day I looked at novels by a famous couple: Vita Sackville-West and Violet Trefusis and I thought I’d do it again this year. I’ve picked Rebecca West and HG Wells, who must have been a formidably intellectual couple; I for one would have been terrified to go to theirs for dinner. They had an affair for ten years (one of many for Wells, done with his wife’s knowledge) and a son together; they were friends until Wells died.

Firstly, The Thinking Reed (1936) by Rebecca West. Set in 1928, Isabelle is two years younger than the century and widowed after her beloved husband Roy dies in a plane crash. She is an American in France:

“Her competent, steely mind never rested. She had not troubled with abstract thought since she left the Sorbonne, but she liked to bring everything that happened to her under the clarifying power of the intellect.”

At the start of the novel she is having an affair with Andre de Verviers “He was an idiot, but his body did not know it”, a shallow man who likes his women to be goddesses to worship, not real in any way. Isabelle knows she must be rid of him:

“the generic woman in her who loved the generic man in him should have endless opportunities to betray the individual woman in her who loathed the individual man in him”

I thought that was a really unflinching summary of the end of their love affair, and West continues with this clearsighted view throughout the novel. Isabelle ends up marrying Marc Sallafranque, in a strange situation which arises from her trying to save face in front of the man she wants to be with, the cold Laurence Vernon. Thankfully these convoluted machinations soon stop, as she realises she does actually love Marc.

“ ‘He looks the funniest thing in the world, but inside he has a lot of the goodness and sweetness of Roy.’ She paused, because she had suddenly felt a click in her brain, as if these words which she had spoken for a false purpose had coincided with the truth.”

What follows is a simply plotted novel which tracks Isabelle and Marc’s marriage from Isabelle’s point of view, over the next few years. That’s not to say it is pedestrian, because West is a sophisticated writer of considerable intellect, and so what she creates is a careful character study of a woman and her relationship, with plenty of opportunity for wider social commentary:

“every inch of a woman’s life as she lived it struck her as astonishing, either because nothing like what she was experiencing had ever been recorded, or because it had been recorded only falsely and superficially, with lacuna where real poignancy lay.”

I love that about the lacuna. There’s centuries of women’s history lost in those places.

For me The Thinking Reed could have been shorter, but then I think that about anything over 200 pages 😊 In fact, I wonder if the fact that it dragged a bit in places was part of West’s art. It was a portrait of a marriage, and Isabelle was bored at times in it, so at times the narrative became a bit pedestrian too. If so, it was an audacious choice for a writer.

There was also plenty of humour in The Thinking Reed, more than I’ve noticed in the other novels by West that I’ve read. This ranged from the witty:

 “ ‘I am not yet twenty-eight, and this man will be my third husband and fourth lover.’ She was aware however, that in making this objection she was insincerely subscribing to the fiction that sexual relations, while obviously offering certain satisfactions, are so inherently disagreeable that persons of fine taste, especially women, are obliged to treat them with the remote precaution which they apply to garlic […] but Isabelle knew quite well that she did not find sexual relations disagreeable.”

To the downright bitchy, especially where fine society is concerned:

“she had in all her life never stopped talking long enough to give anyone time to approach her with any proposition regarding sexual irregularity”

All in all I enjoyed The Thinking Reed. Sadly I don’t think the skewering of the idle rich has dated at all and the two main characters were believable individuals who had a clearly loving but tricky relationship. The ending was surprising and touching, without being sentimental.

Secondly, Ann Veronica by HG Wells (1909) and one of the few male authors published as a Virago Modern Classic. Wells’ titular heroine is 21, beautiful, and feeling utterly stifled at the start of the twentieth century.

“She wanted to live. She was vehemently impatient—she did not clearly know for what—to do, to be, to experience. And experience was slow in coming. All the world about her seemed to be—how can one put it?—in wrappers, like a house when people leave it in the summer. The blinds were all drawn, the sunlight kept out, one could not tell what colours these gray swathings hid. She wanted to know.”

She is the youngest in her family, and lives at home with her aunt and overbearing father. Wells is careful to make her father a monster though; rather he shows that Mr Stanley is as he is because so far the world has never challenged him to be otherwise. But this is a time of first-wave feminism, and he badly needs to catch up:

“He was a man who in all things classified without nuance, and for him there were in the matter of age just two feminine classes and no more—girls and women. The distinction lay chiefly in the right to pat their heads.”

Ann Veronica is friends with the liberal minded Widgett family and they open her mind to ideas of socialism and votes for women. Ann Veronica also wants to study biology at Imperial College, of which her father disapproves.

Early in the novel, she runs away from her suburban home with the help of the Widgetts, and finds lodgings in London. It is her naivety which enables her to do this. She has no idea the real risk she is taking, what is required in practical terms, or how she will be judged as a single woman alone in the city.

Although she learns quickly, she also takes a loan from a man who believes he has bought a right to her body, a fact which Ann Veronica remains oblivious to for an extraordinarily long time. Somehow, she survives in London and carries on her studies, at which point she falls in love with her married instructor, Mr Capes.

Ann Veronica was written at a very specific time. Suffragism was on the rise, World War I was yet to happen. Wells supported the idea of the New Woman, conveying through his young romantic heroine how constricted women are at this moment in time, and the forces for change that are being exerted. As Ann Veronica’s friend Hetty Widgett observes:

“The practical trouble is our ages. They used to marry us off at seventeen, rush us into things before we had time to protest. They don’t now. Heaven knows why! They don’t marry most of us off now until high up in the twenties. And the age gets higher. We have to hang about in the interval. There’s a great gulf opened, and nobody’s got any plans what to do with us. So the world is choked with waste and waiting daughters. Hanging about! And they start thinking and asking questions, and begin to be neither one thing nor the other. We’re partly human beings and partly females in suspense.”

Wells makes Ann Veronica intelligent, but she is not swept along by any one idea. This is a clever approach, because if Ann Veronica became an ardent Fabian, or suffragist, or bohemian, the story would become weighed down by polemic. Instead Wells is able to introduce all these approaches without the novel becoming tediously didactic.

“It did begin to fall into place together. She became more and more alive, not so much to a system of ideas as to a big diffused impulse toward change, to a great discontent with and criticism of life as it is lived, to a clamorous confusion of ideas for reconstruction—reconstruction of the methods of business, of economic development, of the rules of property, of the status of children, of the clothing and feeding and teaching of everyone” 

What Ann Veronica is swept along by – and the reason I think the novel was so scandalous on publication – is sexual desire.

“And as she sat on her bed that night, musing and half-undressed, she began to run one hand down her arm and scrutinize the soft flow of muscle under her skin. She thought of the marvellous beauty of skin, and all the delightfulness of living texture. On the back of her arm she found the faintest down of hair in the world. “Etherialised monkey,” she said. She held out her arm straight before her, and turned her hand this way and that.

‘Why should one pretend?’ she whispered. ‘Why should one pretend?’

‘Think of all the beauty in the world that is covered up and overlaid.’”

Ann Veronica grows up a lot in the course of the novel and begins to understand how her own wants will have to be negotiated within societal constraints. She also learns when she will need to conform and when she will need to go her own way, even when the price is a high one.

“A woman wants a proper alliance with a man, a man who is better stuff than herself. She wants that and needs it more than anything else in the world. It may not be just, it may not be fair, but things are so. It isn’t law, nor custom, nor masculine violence settled that. It is just how things happen to be. She wants to be free—she wants to be legally and economically free, so as not to be subject to the wrong man; but only God, who made the world, can alter things to prevent her being slave to the right one.”

Although the character of Ann Veronica is somewhat idealised, I still really enjoyed the novel. The story flows along and is immensely readable. I’ve actually never read Wells before and on the strength of this I’m encouraged to try his more famous novels, despite not being much of a sci-fi reader.

“Am I becoming reasonable or am I being tamed?

I’m simply discovering that life is many-sided and complex and puzzling. I thought one had only to take it by the throat.

It hasn’t GOT a throat!”

To end, my favourite Prince Charming… well, it *is* Valentine’s Day after all 😊

28 thoughts on ““No passion in the world is equal to the passion to alter someone else’s draft.” (H. G. Wells)

  1. It’s not something we celebrate here in the Verman parts of Switzerland but Happy Valentine‘s Day to you as well.
    Both books sound interesting. I’d never hear if that Wells novel. It’s an entirely new side to me. I’m with you, longer novels often seem to drag.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t know anyone who celebrates it here either Caroline, much as the shops try to convince us otherwise! I think my friends in relationships swop cards but that’s about it. One of my friends asked me to dinner tonight, forgetting it was Valentine’s Day, and I pointed out we’d face restricted menus and inflated prices, so we’re going next week instead 😀

      I always associate Wells with speculative fiction so this was quite a surprise for me, but very readable. I’m an ardent novella fan – so many great ones have been written and longer novels really need to justify the pages for me now!

      Liked by 1 person

      • Same here for the shops. Especially flowers. I saw the most beautiful roses and come tomorrow, I might get some for half-price. 🙂
        I don’t think the restaurants are already catering for the event. Not going to find out.

        Yes, me too. Wells and speculative fiction but that might be unfortunate. One work can overshadow all the others, it seems.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. How timely! I actually stumbled across an old green Virago copy of The Thinking Reed in a charity shop just the other day. After dithering for a while, I ended up buying it, just on a whim. Baggy can be okay every now and again, as long as the characters are engaging.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. That first gif probably sums up where my affections will be today (but don’t tell Mr. Kaggsy…..) :DDD

    But seriously, what an interesting couple to choose! HG is not the obvious choice of heartthrob, but it just goes to show that it’s often the intellect that appeals to women (certainly does in my case most often). I love West and I love Wells’s sci fi books so I’m loving your post too. I could recommend the latter – they’re sci fi in their trappings but very much about how human beings behave.

    And thanks for sharing Adam – love that song! 😀

    Liked by 1 person

    • My lips are sealed Kaggsy – we bookish types must stick together 😀

      They’re such an interesting couple aren’t they? They must have been quite formidable together. I’m definitely going to try Wells’ sci-fi now I enjoyed his writing in Ann veronica so much, and especially as you say they’re about human behaviour as much as anything.

      Always happy to have an excuse for Adam’s presence – I’m glad you enjoyed him 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  4. I had similar feelings about ‘Sunflower’ – a book that drawn heavily on the end of Rebecca West’s relationship with H G Wells and the beginning of her relationship with Lord Beaverbook. The writing and the characterisation were glorious, but it didn’t need to be anything as like as long as it was.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. What an excellent pairing. Both of these sound fascinating in the insights they offer into contemporaneous ideas about gender and, of course, relationships. My fifteen-year-old self believed that Valentine’s Day was a capitalist construct and at least in that respect, I haven’t changed!

    Liked by 1 person

    • They really were interesting to read alongside each other, and definitely a lot to say about gender and women’s roles in particular – sadly, not all of it has dated.

      Your fifteen-year-old self was spot on – the Valentines stuff has been out since Boxing Day and of course, the Easter eggs are on display too 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I have read a couple of books by H G Wells, and I ‘m not a huge fan but I do like Rebecca West. I haven’t read The Thinking Reed yet, it sounds excellent, in fact have only read about four of her novels but do have some others tbr.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I’ve never read HG Wells before as he’s never really appealed, but I bought this as it was a green Virago and I’m glad I did. I hope you like The Thinking Reed, Ali. I’ve still got The Birds Fall Down buried in the TBR somewhere – hopefully I’ll get to it soon!

      Liked by 1 person

  7. What a brilliant idea for a post. Both books sound really interesting, and I had a chuckle at your comment about novels over 200 pages being too long. How marvellous to be able to re-live the Prince Charming fantasy. I had forgotten that it featured the lovely Diana Dors. Great choice!

    Liked by 2 people

  8. I do hope their son had the double-barrelled name of Wells-West! Double-double-U! I also hope he didn’t grow up feeling the pressure to be a genetically awesome writer, as I’m pretty sure school teachers would have had high expectations.
    And perfect choice of video, unattainable men are totally my favourite type of men 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • He missed the opportunity and just went with West, unfortunately – what an error!

      Can you imagine the teachers’ expectations? What a nightmare. He became a writer too though, rather than a welder or something far away from parental comparisons. Brave choice, I would definitely have been running towards the welding torch…

      Glad you enjoyed the video. I don’t know what you mean by unattainable, I still totally plan on marrying Adam 😀

      Liked by 1 person

  9. ‘Her competent and steely mind never rested…’ God, Madame Bibi wish I could say the same. That video – pure bliss. I love the bit where the black toy cat is casually tossed to one side, pure evil panto. Great book reviews as well, of course.

    Liked by 1 person

  10. Pingback: “Men are my hobby—if I ever got married, I’d have to give it up.” (Mae West) | madame bibi lophile recommends

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