At his best when he artfully blends comedy and pathos (Deaf Sentence, 2008, etc.), Lodge returns to the fictional biography genre that didn’t serve him particularly well in Author, Author (2004).
At least, unlike Henry James (the earlier novel’s protagonist), H.G. Wells had an eventful life rife with political controversies and a tangled variety of love affairs, as well as bestselling books ranging from early sci-fi classics such as The War of the Worlds to popular nonfiction like The Outline of History. The books are conscientiously covered; indeed, the novel reminds us just how influential and famous Wells was from the 1890s through World War I. But his romantic life is the main focus here, as the writer looks back from the vantage point of 1944 on his tumultuous relations with a parade of independent young women who worshipped him as a titillating socialist/feminist bad boy. They offered sexual excitement while wife Jane provided domestic comforts at home. His straitlaced comrades at the Fabian Society were appalled by Wells’ open espousal of free love—especially in the several cases where their daughters took him up on it—and resistant to his desire to make the Society more populist and aggressive. He eventually parted ways with the Fabians, just as he did with his youthful lovers, though his turbulent relationship with Rebecca West lasted the longest and produced an understandably neurotic son. The character sketches are sharp, particularly of West and of fellow Fabians George Bernard Shaw and Edith Bland (better known as children’s novelist E. Nesbit), and Wells’ uneasy friendship with Henry James is hilariously expressed in fulsomely insincere letters on both sides. (Its rupture after Wells publishes a cruel satire of James’ baroque style is surprisingly moving.) Yet Lodge’s well-written book doesn’t offer any unusual insights that justify making this straightforward narrative of Wells’ most prominent and productive years a novel rather than a biography.
Readable but ultimately rather pointless.