I am charmed by H. G. Wells’s comedies, among them Kipps, The History of Mr. Polly, and Ann Veronica. So it is not surprising that I am smitten by one of Wells’s neglected small masterpieces, The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman. Published 100 years ago, surely it is due to be rediscoverd by a small press.
The strong feminist, socialist themes of the book are deftly balanced by a well-constructed plot. The beautiful young heroine, Lady Harman, married in her teens to a middle-aged, cranky millionaire, Sir Isaac Harman, struggles to educate herself after giving birth to four children. Sir Isaac, owner of the International Bread and Cake shops, a monopoly which has put independent bakeries out of business all over England, wants to keep Ellen safely decorative at home, with as few books and newspapers as possible. He doesn’t want her having ideas.
Naturally, this reminded me of Elizabeth von Arnim’s Vera, which is also about a controlling middle-aged husband who prefers his young wife not to see others or read. Elizabeth and Wells were lovers from 1910 to 1913. Was Wells mining her material, or was she mining his? He endearingly tips his hat to von Arnim by giving his heroine, Lady Harman, a copy of Elizabeth’s first novel, Elizabeth and The German Garden.
In Wells’s feminist, socialist comedy, Elizabeth and her German Garden inspires Lady Harman to seek beauty in gardens. The only beauty her husband can see is on his billboards for the International Bread and Cake shops.
A book can change your life.
And about this time she happened on Elizabeth and her German Garden, and was very greatly delighted and stimulated by that little sister of Montaigne. She was charmed by the book’s fresh gaiety, by its gallant resolve to set off all the good things there are in this world, the sunshine and flowers and laughter, against the limitations and thwartings and disappointments of life. For a time it seemed to her that these brave consolations were solutions, and she was stirred by an imitative passion. How stupid had she been to let life and Sir Isaac overcome her? She felt that she must make herself like Elizabeth, exactly like Elizabeth; she tried forthwith, and a certain difficulty she found, a certain deadness, she ascribed to the square modernity of her house and something in the Putney air.
And so she goes looking for a country house, and falls in love with the garden at Black Strands. Mr. Brumley, a writer and the owner of Black Strands, falls in love with Lady Harman. He explains the garden was made by his late wife, but doesn’t let on that he couldn’t care less about it.
Lady Harman must sneak out of the house in Putney to make friends and attend political meetings. Sir Isaac does everything to isolate her, including buying Black Strands without telling her, ruining it with ugly additions, and then moving her out of the house in Putney one morning with no notice so she can’t go to dinner with a friend. He wants her to live in the country, where she can see no people.
Ellen needs to get away: she deliberately smashes a window as part of a suffragist protest so she can go to prison and find time to think. After her release, Sir Isaac gives her a little more freedom, but he perverts every good deed she tries to do. Interested in the waitresses’ strike at the shops, she convinces him to build hostels where the waitresses can live cheaply. He makes the hostels virtual prisons, with absurd rules, and an officious, inhuman matron.
I adore Lady Harman, hate Sir Isaac, and think Mr. Brumley is rather sweet. He, too, becomes a socialist in helping Lady Harman do the research for the Hostels.
I also can’t resist sharing Wells’ little von Arnim joke with you. Sir Isaac does not allow his wife to see anyone, so when Lady Beach-Mandarin comes to visit,
[The butler] stood with a large obstructiveness in the doorway. “Lady ‘Arman, my lady,” he said with a well-trained deliberation, “is not a Tome.”
Now isn’t that priceless?
Is Lady Harman Elizabeth von Arnim?
No, she’s not a tome.
I will certainly be reading more H. G. Wells soon.