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Rebecca West

Rebecca West is perhaps H. G. Wells’ most famous lover. Their affair has been described as “explosive.”

H. G. Wells was a sensual man whose taste for young women got him into trouble on a number of occasions. His famous and explosive affair with journalist and author Rebecca West is only one of many such adventures. Being an intelligent man, Wells was aware of the price he paid for these extra-marital indiscretions, yet he continued with them throughout his life.

Biographer Lovat Dickson writes that Wells’ struggles with sensuality ended up in his novels: “the anguish of the sensual man who has to conform to the hard rigour of life.” Personally, I think that Wells was a bit schizoid about the issue of sensuality. At times he emits, as Dickson puts it when discussing The Sea Lady, “a low passionate cry of distress for beauty lost and pleasures forgone in the line of duty.” Dickson goes on to claim that for Wells, “to withstand the temptation to escape, to turn resolutely aside from desire, not to know the glorious swift rushing imaginative passion – that is the beginning of death in life.” Yet, as Dickson correctly points out, Wells sees only ruin in the pursuit of sensuality: “But the end of the escape is the death of hopes, ambitions, even life itself.” The idea that yielding to sensuality brings disaster originates in Wells’ failure to gain a science degree after falling in love – while still a student – with his cousin Isabel.

Wells saw life as something of a trap. To turn away from desire means losing beauty and pleasures; to turn away from duty means losing one’s “hopes, ambitions, even life itself.” The situation plagues us all, but is especially acute for those who achieve some degree of success in life. Wells’ problem (as with so many of us) is that he wanted it all. He desired money, fame, and respectability while at the same time craving the disreputable lifestyle of a promiscuous bohemian. Had he been able to resolve the conflict, either by accepting less money and fame in order to be free, or by deciding that the advantages of wealth and fame and respect were worth the discipline required to keep them intact, he would have been a much happier man.

In this respect, Wells highlights an inner conflict that is actually quite common, but usually played out in more humble ways. Many people are torn between savouring the unbridled ways of the bohemian and preserving the pedestrian benefits of the “respectable” life. For most of us, it is not the positive desire for wealth or fame that binds us to the accepted Western way of life, but a negative terror of disapproval if we choose the bohemian way that we may (or think we may) prefer. Deploying the usual strategy of secrecy, Wells tried to walk down both sides of the street; but as we all know, you cannot have everything. It is interesting that, when faced with exposure, Wells felt a reputation as a “ladies’ man” would offer considerable compensation for the embarrassment. Things have not changed much since Wells’ day. Prince Harry comes to mind.

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