Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Some bone she chews in secret

Stefanie posted Virginia Woolf's description of H.G. Wells and his wife Amy (who he preferred to call Jane) last night:

I could see from the plaintive watery look on Mrs. Wells' face (she has widely spaced teeth & in repose looks very worried, at the same time vacant) that he is arrogant lustful & bullying in private life.

Based on what I've read about Wells in Victoria Glendinning's bio of Rebecca West and in Gordon N. Ray's H.G. Wells and Rebecca West that sounds awfully insightful. But after the birth of their two sons Wells turned his lustfulness outside the marriage, depending on Jane to keep the home and manage the books while he focused on more important matters. He had a string of lovers (he kept Jane well-informed on his conquests; she only pretended to be in the dark about his philandering), and a ten-year relationship and a son with West (early in their relationship, in a moment of anger, afraid that Rebecca might leave him, he "intentionally omitted his usual precautions in the hope that pregnancy might bind her to him").

The Slaves of Golconda will be discussing Wells' The Island of Doctor Moreau tomorrow; today I want to provide Woolf's impression of West (Wells' name comes up a time or two).

According to Glendinning, Woolf and West first met in Chelsea at a lunch in the home of Dorothy Todd and Madge Garland in 1928 (West and Wells had separated for the last time five years earlier; she'd marry banker Henry Andrews in 1930). Writing to sister Vanessa Bell, Woolf said

Rebecca was much the most interesting, though as hard as nails, very distrustful, and no beauty. She is a cross between a charwoman and a gipsy, but as tenacious as a terrier, with flashing eyes, very shabby, rather dirty nails, immense vitality, bad taste, suspicion of intellectuals, and great intelligence.

After a second meeting, Woolf described West as looking as if she "has some bone she chews in secret, perhaps about having a child by Wells." Still later, in a letter to Lady Ottoline Morrell at the end of 1933, Woolf said

R's great point is her tenacious and muscular mind, and all her difficulty comes from the wheals [sic] and scars left by the hoofmarks of Wells.

Woolf didn't much care for West's husband --"such dead, though excellent, mutton," she said--and disliked elegant Orchard Court, their home, complaining to Anne Oliver Bell of "the formality, the social strata they live on--appearances." West, who'd been humiliated by and exiled from respectable society for too long due to her relationship with Wells, often gave dinner parties strictly for Henry's friends in the business world. She didn't want a life limited to only a Bloomsbury group.

Although the women never developed a close personal connection, West contributed an essay, Letters to a Grandfather, to the Hogarth Letters series of pamphlets that Virginia and Leonard Woolf published in the Thirties. West reviewed Woolf's Orlando in the New York Herald Tribune, calling it "a poetic masterpiece of the first rank."


  1. Thanks for those wonderful pieces of information!

  2. Fascinating information. Victoria Griffin's excellent book, The Mistress, also has a very interesting chapter on Wells and his troubled love life. He couldn't have made it more disastrous if he had actively tried, I think.

  3. Great stuff -- it's very interesting praise Woolf offers of West.


"I don't believe in ghosts, but I see them all the time."

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