Tuesday, 20 January 2015

The Passionate Friends by H.G. Wells

Wells like the Sufi Ahmed Ibn Khazruya engaged in doubting interrogations of his soul and found her a sly creature devious and many veiled particularly when most frank. In The Passionate Friends he takes both parts of Animus and Anima and sets them against each other. The Animus is the prig element in himself taken by Stephen Stratton who is a man with a plan for the betterment of the world and the Anima is Lady Mary Christine proponent of the woman question with her own answer to Freud’s - what does woman want.

Most people read Wells for his science fiction and don’t bother with the social stuff. That’s a mistake. Nabokov is a fan and his designation of ‘Friends’ as an overlooked masterpiece sent me to it. One can see how he would like it whereas many contemporaries of Wells found it tiresome. Stratton does not know himself and does not know his femme fatale. . Does that remind you of Pale Fire,Lolita and the bewildered cunning of their characters

The novel is a sort of memoir or account of Stratton’s relationship with Lady Mary written for his young son. He wants to record it before the taciturnity of old age that he experienced in his own father overtakes him. His father was an Anglican priest and the rectory was next door the the demesne of a Lord. Coming within the definition of respectable association he was allowed to regularly visit the Christian family. He is fascinated by those languorous aristocrats particularly Mary who is the same age as himself. All very Brideshead now that I think of it. Lady Mary even has a slight lisp:

My attention is constantly being distracted to note how prettily she moves, to wonder why it is I never noticed the sweet fall, the faint delightful whisper of a lisp in her voice before.

To the dream of service to the Empire is joined service to milady but even a gauche youth must know that this cannot be though she also loves him.

I put all sorts of constructions upon the freedom I was given with her, but I perceive now that we still seemed scarcely more than children to Lady Ladislaw, and that the idea of our marriage was as inconceivable to her as if we had been brother and sister. Matrimonially I was as impossible as one of the stable boys. All the money I could hope to earn for years to come would not have sufficed even to buy Mary clothes. But as yet we thought little of matters so remote, glad in our wonderful new discovery of love, and when at last I went off to Oxford, albeit the parting moved us to much tenderness and vows and embraces, I had no suspicion that never more in all our lives would Mary and I meet freely and gladly without restriction. Yet so it was. From that day came restraints and difficulties; the shadow of furtiveness fell between us; our correspondence had to be concealed.

The great critical heresy is liking only books and authors that reflect one’s own political and ethical outlook. A.R. Orage editor of the influential New Age was repelled by the Empire ideology and conservatism of this book not recognising that the hollowing out of the lives of decent people by ideology occurs amongst the left as well as the right. Lady Mary refuses the love of her life for the vanity of being a personage creating an ambience supported by the plutocrat Justin. This conceit she also justifies by a version of feminism which is still current.

"Dear Stephen," she explained, "if I were to come away with you and marry you, in just a little time I should cease to be your lover, I should be your squaw. I should have to share your worries and make your coffee—and disappoint you, disappoint you and fail you in a hundred ways. Think! Should I be any good as a squaw? How can one love when one knows the coffee isn't what it should be, and one is giving one's lover indigestion? And I don'want to be your squaw. I don't want that at all. It isn't how I feel for you. I don't to be your servant and your possession.

This book was published in 1913. In 1912 he had begun a 10 year long affair with Rebecca West a 20 year old feminist who gave herself the nickname ‘panther’. In the book Stephen Stratton is mauled by a panther in India during a hunt. The great cat had tried to pull him from the tree which he thought a safe vantage point. Clinging to a branch he saved himself from the wounded beast who dragged a claw through his leg as it fell.

I went again to Ceylon to look into the conditions of Coolie importation, and then I was going back into Assam once more, still in the wake of indentured labor, when I chanced upon a misadventure. I had my first and only experience of big game shooting in the Garo Hills, I was clawed out of a tree by a wounded panther, he missed his hold and I got back to my branch, but my shoulder was put out, my thigh was badly torn, and my blood was poisoned by the wound.

Wells described this book as one of his prig novels. The protagonist has a plan for a new world order with a World State government. The passage to this Utopia will be eased by mass education via the enormous publishing firm that he establishes with Gidding an American multi millionaire. Wells could enter into this daft fantasy as it was to a degree his own.

Meanwhile Lady Mary Justin, as she now is, lurks in the ‘shrubbery’ waiting to pounce Stratton as narrator does not twig the arrangement of their meetings by the vain schemer who will have it all if she can. This layered writing would appeal to a deep reader such as Nabokov.

Thank you Vladimir old chum.. I will return to Lolita soon. Ah, the ‘bright elusive butterfly of love’.


*For a long time I had repressed my carnal soul. Then one day a party set out for the wars, and a great desire to accompany them arose within me. My soul reminded me of a number of Traditions concerning the rewards in Heaven for fighting in the cause of God. I was amazed.

“My soul is not always so eager to obey,” I said. “Perhaps this is because I always keep my soul fasting. My soul cannot endure hunger any longer and wishes to break its fast.” So I said.” I do not break my fast on a journey.”
“I quite agree,” replied my soul.
(from Muslim Saints and Mystics by Farid Al-Din Attar)

He goes on thus with his soul continuing to agree to greater asceticism as the Sufi wishes to rob it of some secret benefit. Ahmad is puzzled and has recourse to God.

Reduced to impotence, I had resort to humble petition to God, praying that he might disclose to me the cunning machinations of my soul, or make my soul confess. Then my soul spoke.
“Every day you slay me a hundred times by opposing my desires and other men are not aware. There at least in the wars I shall be killed once and for all and get deliverance, and the report will be noised through all the world, “Bravo,, Ahmad-e-Khazruya! They killed him, and he achieved the martyr’s crown.’”

“Glory to Him,” I cried, “who created a soul to be a hypocrite while alive, and a hypocrite still after death. It will never be a true Muslim, either in this world or the next. I thought you were seeking to obey God, I did not realize you were tying the girdle.”
Thereafter I redoubled my struggle against my soul.

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