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 😊