Ann Veronica

I have been reading H.G. Wells’ Ann Veronica through much of this sabbatical. This is not because it’s a long book, but because it’s difficult for me to fit in quiet reading time. Luckily, the novel is interruptible, because the main character is wonderful, so you don’t forget where you left off. Plus there’s the physical pleasure of reading my copy: it’s a small format hardback, published by Newnes, with no printed copyright date and a strange picture on the frontspiece.

In these days of identity politics, and the prevailing belief that only members of a particular group can understand the issues of said group, this is a book revealing in its portrayal of the young female mind. It feels very contemporary: Ann Veronica’s dreams, thoughts, concerns, are the same as in many a young woman, then and now. How to be independent, how to find ones own way instead of the way of ones parents, how to discover what matters in life, how to explore love — none of this is new, but is conveyed beautifully in a novel that happens to have been written by a man. (My copy, obtained second-hand, also may have been read by one. It has the wonderful scent of pipe tobacco.)

Knowing Wells’ life as I do, it is clear that once again (as with Love and Mr. Lewisham and Tono-Bungay) his own life provided the grist for the mill. At first, it didn’t seem so. Ann Veronica as a young woman, growing up with her father and aunt, told she cannot attend a party with friends, appears to have little in common with Wells’ youth in the house attached to the Bromley cricket/china shop. None of the environment evokes West Sussex, either, and the distance between Morningside Park and London is much shorter.

This book was controversial. I thought I understood why early in my reading, when Ann Veronica, fed up with her father’s refusal to let her do anything independent, leaves home for London. She doesn’t have much money, but decides to live on her own and get a job. Although the year is not defined, the book was written in 1909, and its main character has been called a “New Woman”. But she doesn’t necessarily feel new, even in this act of defiance. She is continually questioning what she is doing and why, whether it’s the right thing, and what the alternatives would be. There are men about, since she is a lovely and interesting young lady, honest in her speech and direct in conversation. But she leaves the boy from home at home, and he doesn’t appear much in the rest of the story.

Instead of summarizing the plot, what I found interesting were first, the elements Edwardians would have found shocking, and second, the connections to Wells’ own life. [Spoiler alert!]

While leaving home to live alone in London is, as her aunt keeps repeating, shocking enough, there are further shocks to come. Ann Veronica associates with men whom she thinks are (a) single, and (b) friends. One, the man from which she has agreed to take a loan, takes her to a “private dining room” and physically attacks her (!) When she tries to return half his money, he returns it to her, and she’s so angry she throws it in the fire, leaving her destitute (!). She falls in love with a man she learns is married, but she still loves him (!). Seeking meaning, she becomes a suffragette, is arrested after hitting a police officer, and spends a month in prison (!). Then, she runs off with the married man she loves (!!). And, most shocking at all, they do fine and live quite happily (!!!). Her father and aunt even forgive her.

If it’s true that Nabakov once said that there are two forbidden subjects in modern fiction (a young girl in a sexual relationship with a much older man, and an interracial couple that lives happily ever after), this has got to be a third. Girl leaves home, can’t keep a job, goes to college, survives molestation with aplomb (and a swift chop to her attacker’s throat), conducts an illicit relationship with a married man, and lives happily ever after — in 1909!

I’m pretty sure this is Professor “Russell”

I don’t think I could write a paper on why Ann Veronica was a shocker (I’m sure others have), but I probably could write one about Wells’ mining of his own life to portray emotional depth. Ann Veronica achieves independence of mind and thought, not through a clerical job, but through science laboratory classes at the Central Imperial College. (The Normal School of Science, where Wells studied under T.H. Huxley, had become Imperial College of Science and Technology in 1907.) She borrows the money to go to school, to get her Bachelors Degree. She likes to study (guess what?) biology. Having already matriculated at the University of London, she was attending Tredgold Women’s College with her father’s reluctant permission, before she left home. But she wanted to study at “the fountainhead”, the biologist “Russell”, who had a distinctive mane of hair so familiar to those who’ve ever seen a photograph of Huxley.

We’re continually reminded of Russell’s importance. Ann Veronica’s father studies geology slides in his leisure time, and is into Mendelian theory. He doesn’t like that Ann Veronica wants to study with Russell because he’s a Darwinist. (I recently came upon an article featuring Wells, Darwin, and Mendel that is quite interesting.) He also hints that Russell’s demonstrator is a cad:

“Now look here, Veronica, let us be plain with each other. You are not going to that infidel Russell’s classes. . . . There’s stories, too, about his demonstrator, Capes Something or other. The kind of man who isn’t content with his science, and writes articles in the monthly reviews.. . .” (pp27-28)

Capes, who runs the biology laboratory at the Central Imperial College, will be Ann Veronica’s love interest, and is clearly H.G. Wells.  Although he is not physically described, Ann Veronica notes he has nice, competent hands . She is a student in the lab, and he comes round to check her work. This was the situation at the University Tutorial College’s biology lab, where in 1892 Wells met Catherine Amy Robbins, who was a student. He was indeed, at the time, writing articles in the monthly reviews. He had married his cousin Isabel the previous year, but fell in love with Catherine, who was very like Ann Veronica in her directness. Wells is thus Capes, stuck in a marriage, and setting up house illicitly with his new love. The descriptions of this love are tender and sweet and sensual, a reminder of his feelings toward his wife when they got together:

“I do it–of my own free will,” said Ann Veronica, kissing his hand again. “It’s nothing to what I will do.”
“Oh, well!” he said a little doubtfully, “it’s just a phase,” and bent down and rested his hand on her shoulder for a moment, with his heart beating and his nerves a-quiver. Then as she lay very still, with her hands clenched and her black hair tumbled about her face, he came still closer and softly kissed the nape of her neck. . . .(p299)

The names of the characters are fun, suggestive, and onomatopoetic. The “villain”, who supports Ann Veronica and then wants sex in return, is Ramage, which sounds destructive. The boy back home is Teddy, like the bear. The man she tries to convince herself she should marry is the loyal and manly Manning. Another student who tends to interrupt the lovers (Adeline Roberts in real life, a friend of Catherine’s) is Miss Klegg. And of course, Capes is capable (and nowadays would be a superhero wearing one). Ann Veronica’s last name is Stanley, reminiscent of the great Victorian explorer.

Capes has to quit his biology job because he’s a married man who’s taken up with another woman, so he becomes…you’ll never guess…a writer! Of plays, but still a successful writer who makes their future middle-class life possible. And, part of the tale he tells Ann Veronica about his non-divorce (solved before the last chapter just as in Wells’ own life) involves a familiar incident. Unsatisfied by his wife, Capes became sexually involved with one of her friends, just as recreation, as Wells had himself done with a Miss Kingsmill. What’s fascinating is that as the reader you really like Capes, because he’s so connected with Ann Veronica intellectually, despite his imbroglios.

Now, contemporary feminists won’t like a number of things in the book. It leaves Ann Veronica placid and content, and pregnant, at the end. And the portrayal of the suffragettes, while sympathetic, also allows for some questioning of the cause itself, and its methods. In fact, the only times Wells uses first person is in describing the suffragette attack on Parliament using moving vans to get close to the door (the activity that gets Ann Veronica arrested):

Were I a painter of subject pictures, I would exhaust all my skill in proportion and perspective and atmosphere upon the august seat of empire, I would present it gray and dignified and immense and respectable beyond any mere verbal description, and then, in vivid black and very small, I would put in those valiantly impertinent vans, squatting at the base of its altitudes and pouring out a swift, straggling rush of ominous little black objects, minute figures of determined women at war with the universe. (p208)

It is clear throughout the book that he sides with Ann Veronica herself when it comes to opposing women’s restrictive roles and asserting the need for intellectual excellence. But others won’t see it that way. Literary historian Kate MacDonald writes that Wells, in The Life of Sir Isaac Harman, written a few years after Ann Veronica:

. . . requires us to read yet another fantasy of a young and beautiful woman as the object of a rather older man’s devotion, as if that is all women are for. While the subtext of the novel is that women should not be viewed as solely as sex objects, Wells shows he is incapable of writing a woman who isn’t one.

Wells was six years older than Catherine, although it is ten in the fictionalized version. Neither seems much older to me, but that’s my perspective. MacDonald also sees Wells’ ongoing use of himself and his life in his fiction to be egotistical. Yes, indeed.

I’m just not sure I agree with the argument about how he characterizes women. While Ramage may have treated Ann Veronica as a sex object, none of the other characters do. Manning treats her like a trophy. Teddy treats her like a goddess. Her father treats her like a doll. And the author treats her with respect, and has created characters as foils for her. While the ending may be unsatisfying (you’d prefer Ann Veronica do well without a man, and keep up her scientific studies), I think it’s asking a lot for Wells to exhibit 21st century sensibilities when he was, after all, writing for money in 1909. We ask too much of historical figures sometimes. Wells, from what I can tell, was a believer in both women’s equality and the kind of “free love” that benefited himself. But in Ann Veronica I see not only sympathy with women’s lives, but understanding.

 

 

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