A Forgotten Classic: H. G. Wells’s The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman

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 Wilfe of Sir Isaac Harman h. g. wells faber findsThe 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.

Wife of Sir Isaac Harman wells (hogarth)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.

World War I Reading: H. G. Wells’s Mr. Britling Sees It Through

An Excellent Book for Those Honoring the Anniversary of World War I.

An excellent anti-war book for the 100th Anniversary of World War I.

Last month a tree fell and smashed our garage in a storm that roared through with 70-mph winds.

This is the third time in 12 years a tree or a neighbor’s tree has fallen in our yard.

It is climate change.  No question.

In the past, if the tornado siren went off, maybe I’d go to the basement, maybe not.  Now when the sky turns dark green and the wind roars, I cower.

I have turned, if not exactly to “light” reading, to favorite authors for solace this summer.  I have especially enjoyed and been taken out of myself by some early 20th-century novels by H. G. Wells and Elizabeth von Arnim (once Wells’ mistress: I have written about her here and here.)

Sexy H. G. Wells had affairs with Elizabeth von Arnim, Rebecca West, Violet Hunt, and Amber Reeves.

H. G. Wells had affairs with Elizabeth von Arnim, Rebecca West, Violet Hunt, and Amber Reeves.  (N.B. He looks kind of sexy.)

If you haven’t read Wells’s almost-great, if neglected (at least in the U.S.), realistic comedies, Ann Veronica, Kipps, The History of Mr. Polly, and Tono-Bungay, you are missing out on some of my most beloved books. (By the way, D. J. Taylor’s Trespass is a contemporary retelling of  Tono-Bungay.)

A few weeks ago I read Mr. Britling Sees It Through.  It has historical value, though it is far from his best.  Published in 1916, this is the quintessential anti-war book exploring the outbreak of World War I.  It is a jumble of narrative about life in Mr. Britling’s village, his dialogues and musings on nationality, letters from the front, and long anti-war essays. Though it is a bit of a mess, it will interest those who are honoring (or mourning) the 100th anniversary of World War I this year.

It starts with the visit of Mr. Direck, an American, to Mr. Britling, a famous writer, in Matching’s Easy, a village in Essex.

Mr. Britling invites Mr. Direck to spend the weekend:  there is an international cast of guests.  Mr.Britling, his wife, Edith, and their three sons enjoy the company of  Herr Heinrich, the German tutor; an Indian gentleman; the English secretary, Teddy;  and Teddy’s wife and sister-in-law.  The Britlings play hockey every Sunday.  Nationalities don’t matter in their teams.

But Mr. Britling also stands for Britain.

He criticized England himself unmercifully, but he hated tho think that in any respect she fell short of perfection; even her defects he liked to imagine were just a subtler kind of power and wisdom.

In the summer of 1914, everybody is thinking about war, but Mr. Britling doesn’t take it very seriously.

I used to be an alarmist about Germany…but I have come to feel more and more confidence in the sound common sense of the mass of the German population, and in the Emperor too if it comes to that.”

When war breaks out, he is shocked that Herr Heinrich is called home to fight; and that his secretary, Teddy, and his beloved son, Hugh, go to war.  The women are at first very much pro-war. Teddy’s wife steps into his secretary job, and Cissie, her sister, who is in love with Mr. Direck, cannot commit to a relationship with him because Americans are not yet in the war.

But then the men begin to die.  Attitudes change.

Hugh’s letters from the front appall and sadden Mr. Britling.

It came with a shock to him, too, that Hugh should see so little else than madness in the war, and have so pitiless a realisation of its essential futility.  the boy forced his father to see–what indeed he had been seeing more and more clearly.  The war, even by the standards of adventure and conquest, had long since become a monstrous absurdity.

Mr. Britling has much in common with Wells.  He is a Socialist, radically anti-war, and feminist.  His relationships with women are warm and sexy.

It is an important, but not a particularly good, novel.  Sometimes the plot is contrived and clumsy, and the long essay-like musings and writings of Mr. Britling slow the narrative down.

But Wells’s prescient, thoughtful novel can be paired with Vera Brittain’s World War I memoir, Testament of Youth, and her novel, Honourable Estate, about the impact of World War I on two generations of men and women.

And, of course, other war novels, poetry, diaries, and histories.