By John Champion
The Father of Science Fiction
As the Victorian era came to a close, the intellectual backlash against prudish social mores erupted. Among those envisioning a Utopia, a world based on new, humanistic standards, was H.G. Wells.
Wells achieved success as a science fiction (or "science romances" as he called them) novelist with such classics as The Time Machine and War of the Worlds. After 1906 however, Wells all but abandoned the fantastical genre that would give him eternal fame in favor of writing social and political, if fictional in nature, criticism. It was in this later writing that he expressed some of his own feelings on rather nontraditional models for relationships -- many of which he lived out in his personal life.
Wells married first cousin Isabel Wells in 1891. At 25-years-old, H.G. was only sexually experienced with a prostitute from three years before, and he hoped marriage would satisfy his strong sexual desires. Isabel, being less inclined toward pleasures of the flesh, was a disappointment to him and the two were divorced in 1895. Meanwhile, Wells had started a romance with Amy Catherine Robbins, a student of his from University Tutorial College in London. For reasons unknown, Wells renamed her Jane, and the two were married shortly after the dissolution of his first marriage.
Jane remained married and faithful to H.G. for the rest of her life, but it is this period of Wells' life in which the writer experimented with great abandon with other lovers. Wells was upfront with Jane about his physical dissatisfaction and desire to take on lovers outside their marriage. Sympathetic to his needs, Jane was either the most understanding woman of her time or an unfortunate doormat. Wells welcomed the freedom, keeping photos of his lovers in their home and maintaining an apartment in London for his trysts.
H.G. and Jane produced two children, and he fathered at least two more, possibly up to five, children out of wedlock. The first illegitimate offspring was born in 1908 to Amber Reeves, the 22-year-old daughter of one of London's most prominent families. Jane even bought clothes for the newborn.
Probably H.G.'s greatest love affair was with 20-year-old journalist Rebecca West. West had panned one of Wells' books in a review and the author, then 46, rather than be hurt by the criticism, sought out the brash and witty young writer. The two started an immediate romance finding delight in each others intellect, imagination and banter -- and Wells found in West the beauty and physical love he had wanted from his wives. He said, "She was the only woman who ever made me stop and wonder when she said 'Look.'"
For the remainder of his life, Wells associated with many lovers including Odette Keun, Moura Budberg and birth-control advocate Margaret Sanger. Sanger stayed in and out of Wells life for 26 years until his death, and the two found common ground in their criticism of contemporary morality. It was Wells' strong conviction that women's liberation hinged upon the ready availability of birth-control. The two met for the first time in 1920, but Wells had four years prior signed a letter along with other prominent Englishmen to President Woodrow Wilson decrying the indictments against Sanger for the publication of Woman Rebel.
Sanger says of Wells in her autobiography: "There was no aloofness or coldness in approaching him, no barriers to break down as with most Englishmen; his twinkling eyes were like those of a mischievous boy." The attraction was immediate and intense, and the two would frequently make their plans to revolve around one another. As Wells wrote to her in 1921: "My plans in New York are ruled entirely by the wish to be with you as much as possible -- & as much as possible without other people about. I don't mind paying thousands of dollars if I can get that." On this particular trip to New York, Wells wanted to make special plan for a private meeting in which she would wear "the costume of a tropical island... Everything else is secondary to this."
Sanger and Wells were also kindred spirits in the company they kept, in their dedication to work and the unconventional ways they handled their personal lives. Wells novelized this in the thinly-veiled Secret Places of the Heart. In this story about an Englishman with marital issues and an American woman who happens to be a birth-control advocate, Wells expressed his love for Sanger through the characters and also makes room to continue his discourse on "free love" and the joys of physical pleasure.
Part of Wells' Utopian vision was one in which all codes of sexual behavior had been abolished, and he refers to this as well in Days of the Comet: "The old-time men and women went apart in couples, into defensive little houses, like beasts into little pits, and in these 'homes' they sat down purposing to love, but really coming very soon to jealous watching of this extravagant mutual proprietorship. All freshness passed very speedily out of their love, out of their conversation, all pride out of their common life. To permit each other freedom was blank dishonour." Attacking the backward sensibilities of his time and the dangers of a "Catholic monolith," he saw himself as a great social reformer. Unfortunately for Wells, any attempts to move his reforms from paper to public life were thwarted. The details of his personal life were the one thing which kept him from achieving any political aspirations.