Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Wifely Silence and Speech in Three Marriage Novels by H.G. Wells

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Wifely Silence and Speech in Three Marriage Novels by H.G. Wells

Article excerpt

In Experiment in Autobiography (1934), H. G. Wells predicts that his Edwardian "Writings About Sex" will be the first of his works to be swallowed by the waters of oblivion.(1) "If any survive they will survive as a citation or so ... They had their function in their time but their time has already gone by ... No one will ever read them for delight" (p. 392). Wells' prediction was off on several counts. Certain of those Edwardian writings have survived. In particular, The Hogarth Press reissued a trio of Wells' marriage novels in 1986, Marriage (1912), The Passionate Friends (1913), and The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman (1914), each with a feisty feminist introduction by Victoria Glendinning. To read them is to realize that their time has not gone by, for they still provide the kind of delight one feels in the company of an inquiring mind wrestling with a difficult problem.

Still engaging, still pertinent, still holding their own against oblivion: these are good reasons to look again at Wells' early twentieth-century writings about sex, in this case a trio of his novels on marriage. In a more tentative voice, I would add a further reason. While recognizing that three novels by Wells do not the modern British novel make, in reading them I found myself questioning several recent, and not so recent, critical assessments of modern British fiction's treatment of marriage. That marriage has fared ill in the modern British novel is an opinion of long standing. In "Marriage Questions in Modern Fiction" (1896), Elizabeth Rachel Chapman feared for the very institution, so powerfully in her view were novels of the 1890s representing marriage as a degradation.(2) Some eighty years on, Heilbrun, Gilbert, and Gubar see much the same thing: marriage for death, a site of anger and violence.(3) These critics construct careful arguments; but like any generalization, the one they share regarding modern literature's grim representation of marriage oversimplifies. Mainly, it obscures the liveliness of the debate being conducted in the modern British novel of marriage, a liveliness one sees as well in the legal, medical, and theological discourses of the time. In each arena, the flaws that were being perceived in the institution were set alongside the joys, virtues, and apparent economic necessities, the remedies against potential new sufferings.(4) At the least, the complexity of the conversation about marriage one traces in Wells' trio of novels may urge us to look for a similar complexity--for the sense of genuine debate, of a jury still out--elsewhere in modern British fiction.

In the following essay, I argue that tracing the vision of marriage Wells develops in these novels is best accomplished by emphasizing their sequential character: Marriage (1912) concludes with questions that The Passionate Friends (1913) subsequently attempts but fails to solve; The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman (1914) then turns on both previous novels, fundamentally rescripting both of their plots. Further, I propose that the debate Wells enacts as he writes his way from text to text is reflected in the figure he develops in all three novels to represent marriage, a figure of marital intercourse that calls attention to textual exchange: talking, listening, interrupting, writing, reading.(5)

More specifically, preoccupying Wells in each of these novels is a contradiction that Levi-Strauss comments on at the end of The Elementary Structure of Kinship and that Gayle Rubin and Nelly Furman have explored(6): to wit, the contradiction that arises when conceptualizations of marriage that define women as homogeneous, silent objects of exchange circulated among men within masculine discourse systems are set alongside opposing, often simultaneous conceptualizations that recognize that women have voices, originate signs, and receive their very worth from their individual "talent--before and after marriage--for taking part in a duet" (Levi-Strauss, p. 496). …

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