In the Days of the Comet by H.G. Wells (1906)

We live now in these days, when the Great Change has been in most things accomplished, in a time when every one is being educated to a sort of intellectual gentleness, a gentleness that abates nothing from our vigour, and it is hard to understand the stifled and struggling manner in which my generation of common young men did its thinking. (Chapter One)

In his earliest stories Wells stuck to describing localised events witnessed and recounted with feverish, first-person intensity by his astonished protagonists.

As he became famous he branched out. He wrote a series of non-science-fiction love stories (Love and Mr Lewisham, Kipps), often featuring whimsical social comedy satirising Edwardian manners and society.

He also began a series of factual articles and books devoted to predicting the future based on likely scientific and technological advances – Anticipations, A Modern UtopiaThe Shape of Things To Come and so on.

And his science fiction stories became more long-winded and discursive, incorporating these other elements to produce stories which were longer, less focused, and contained all kinds of material extraneous to the main plot. In The Days of The Comet is a classic example of this tendency.

In the Days of the Comet

The central event of In The Days of the Comet is easy to describe. A comet passes close to the earth, trailing a cloud of strange chemicals through the atmosphere, which leads to an abrupt and total revolution in human nature and in human affairs, referred to as The Great Change. Everyone becomes peaceful, kind, forgiving and sensible. Here is the narrator telling his contemporary, post-Change audience, about the bad old days:

You must understand – and every year it becomes increasingly difficult to understand – how entirely different the world was then from what it is now. It was a dark world; it was full of preventable disorder, preventable diseases, and preventable pain, of harshness and stupid unpremeditated cruelties; but yet, it may be even by virtue of the general darkness, there were moments of a rare and evanescent beauty that seem no longer possible in my experience. The Great Change has come for ever more, happiness and beauty are our atmosphere, there is peace on earth and good will to all men. None would dare to dream of returning to the sorrows of the former time…

Wells has bitten off a massive theme – the transformation of the entire human race from a jungle of competing individualists, a system which produces misery and exploitation, into a brotherhood of enlightened and caring citizens who treat each other as equals and set about building the Perfect Society. For the fumes of the comet bring about the great Socialist Transformation of the World which Wells and so many of his contemporaries dreamed of.

But Wells has set himself the same challenge he faced in The Food of the Gods, which is to tell the transformation of the entire human race via the tiny story of a handful of individuals – in this case via the recollections of one particular man, Willie Leadford, now aged 71.

The novel is Willie’s autobiography, or more precisely his memoir, of the months leading up to the Great Change 50 years previously, when he was a hot-tempered young man. The minutely narrow scope of the task is made clear in the book’s first line:

I have set myself to write the story of the Great Change, so far as it has affected my own life and the lives of one or two people closely connected with me, primarily to please myself.

Well, that gets Wells off the hook of having to write some kind of global history of this vast transformation. Instead it’s going to be a book about Willie.

The central thread of the novel is Willie’s mismatched love affair with the beautiful but narrow-minded young woman Nettie Stuart. They are both lower class inhabitants of the Four Towns, a region of the industrial Midlands. Here Willie has grown up in extreme poverty, raised by his mother, a devoted and tireless charlady who has almost literally worked her fingers to the bone. Their wretched hovel of a rented cottage is bitterly described numerous times, not least the leaks in the roof which lets rain into his mother’s bedroom, exacerbating her many illnesses.

Against this backdrop, and in the scenery of this grim northern industrial townscape, Willie grows up into a typical angry young man who loses his religious faith and discovers ‘socialism’. He moves in to share a flat with another young man, Parload, who is, however, more taken by the stars and astronomy than socialism.

Anyway, the central spine of the novel is Willie’s forlorn love affair with Nettie. She is the daughter of the gardener to the local lady of the manor, Lady Verrall, and so she and her family regard themselves as a notch or two above Willie and his mother in the social scale. We know from his biography that at one stage of his own adolescence, Wells’s family fell on hard times and his mother went to work as cleaner to a local landowner and Wells was obliged to give up schooling to work in a local shop in Sussex.

You cannot help feeling that the descriptions of a) his good and long-suffering mother b) his smouldering resentment at the patronising, superior attitude of the local landowners and c) his youthful sense of the crazy injustice of the entire social system, are all strongly derived from his own experiences, which he channels into this story of an earnest young working class man falling in love with a beautiful but unimaginative young woman from just a fraction above his own class.

In the hands of a genius like D.H. Lawrence this kind of thing would have been turned into an entire novel registering every flicker of the sensibilities of both the protagonists, and exquisitely marking the rise and fall of their relationship, recording:

the host of dark distressful memories, of darkened childhood, toilsome youth, embittered adolescence.

But in the hands of bumptious Mr Wells it is a good tale, some passages are intensely felt and written but… but… it always feels that Well’s real focus of attention is elsewhere…

Anyway, young Willie becomes even more embittered when he tries to share his ‘socialist’ convictions with Nettie, as well as his loss of religious faith. Being a shallow conformist, all this alarms Nettie, who not only drops him but, in a scene worthy of a Thomas Hardy novel, rejects him for the rich son of a local landowner, the elegant, drawling, upper-class Edward Verrall –

son of the man who owned not only this great estate but more than half of Rawdon’s pot-bank, and who had interests and possessions, collieries and rents, all over the district of the Four Towns.

They argue. Willie departs. He hears from local gossip that she has taken up with young Verrall. When he goes once again up to the grand house where Nettie lives with her mother and father in the gardeners’ quarters, Willie is devastated to discover that… Nettie and Verrall have eloped!

Willie is consumed with psychotic anger, focusing all his personal frustration – the fact that he’s just been ‘let go’ by his employer, Rawdon – the general misery of the industrial proletariat living in the hovels of the local towns – the injustice of the social system – the sight of his poor downtrodden mother – and the (believe it or not) fact that the country seems to be slipping towards war with Germany – all these things come together to make Willie search high and low until he finds a shop where he buys a revolver.

Willie determines to track the couple down and shoot them both, he is that demented with rage, and the remainder of part one of the book follows his efforts to establish where they’ve gone (Norfolk), tracking them to the coast, and then to a little bohemian ‘artist’s colony’ on the seaside.

The industrial Midlands

Partly I’ve thought of D.H. Lawrence because the story is set in the industrial Midlands – Lawrence’s home turf – and a lot of Willie’s youthful energy goes into being outraged by the wretched poverty of the workers and the luxurious lifestyle of the rich.

Wells can certainly write when he wants to and, as you read on, you realise he has made a big effort to capture the miserable topography and lives of the down-trodden miners and other manual workers in the tight little cluster of Midlands mining towns he takes as his setting. I wonder if he had visited the area and made notes. It reads like it. Here’s a description of Willie and his friend and flatmate, Parload, walking round the dirty industrial town of ‘Clayton’:

Then across the allotments, a wilderness of cabbages and evil-looking sheds, past a gaunt abandoned factory, and so to the high road. The high road ascended in a curve past a few houses and a beerhouse or so, and round until all the valley in which four industrial towns lay crowded and confluent was overlooked.

I will admit that with the twilight there came a spell of weird magnificence over all that land and brooded on it until dawn. The horrible meanness of its details was veiled, the hutches that were homes, the bristling multitudes of chimneys, the ugly patches of unwilling vegetation amidst the makeshift fences of barrel-stave and wire. The rusty scars that framed the opposite ridges where the iron ore was taken and the barren mountains of slag from the blast furnaces were veiled; the reek and boiling smoke and dust from foundry, pot-bank, and furnace, transfigured and assimilated by the night. The dust-laden atmosphere that was grey oppression through the day became at sundown a mystery of deep translucent colours, of blues and purples, of sombre and vivid reds, of strange bright clearnesses of green and yellow athwart the darkling sky. Each upstart furnace, when its monarch sun had gone, crowned itself with flames, the dark cinder heaps began to glow with quivering fires, and each pot-bank squatted rebellious in a volcanic coronet of light. The empire of the day broke into a thousand feudal baronies of burning coal. The minor streets across the valley picked themselves out with gas-lamps of faint yellow, that brightened and mingled at all the principal squares and crossings with the greenish pallor of incandescent mantles and the high cold glare of the electric arc. The interlacing railways lifted bright signal-boxes over their intersections, and signal stars of red and green in rectangular constellations. The trains became articulated black serpents breathing fire.

Dickens wrote a vivid description of the Midlands in The Old Curiosity Shop in 1842, and George Orwell was to describe them again nearly a century later. Wells comes in the middle of that period and is as vivid as either:

You cannot see, as I can see, the dark empty way between the mean houses, the dark empty way lit by a bleary gas-lamp at the corner, you cannot feel the hard checkered pavement under your boots, you cannot mark the dimly lit windows here and there, and the shadows upon the ugly and often patched and crooked blinds of the people cooped within. Nor can you presently pass the beer house with its brighter gas and its queer, screening windows, nor get a whiff of foul air and foul language from its door, nor see the crumpled furtive figure – some rascal child – that slinks past us down the steps.

We crossed the longer street, up which a clumsy steam tram, vomiting smoke and sparks, made its clangorous way, and adown which one saw the greasy brilliance of shop fronts and the naphtha flares of hawkers’ barrows dripping fire into the night. A hazy movement of people swayed along that road, and we heard the voice of an itinerant preacher from a waste place between the houses.

There’s a recession – Leadford and his flatmate squabble about the elementary economic causes of recessions in capitalism – some of the miners have come out on strike, there’s stone throwing and minor riots and Leadford manages to get caught up in scuffles and mobs.

This could have been an interesting novel about industrial relations circa 1905, except that… a comet is hurtling towards the earth.

It’s a bit like getting fifty pages into a promising early novel by D.H. Lawrence when the Tardis suddenly materialises and Dr Who steps out!

You are just getting into it, as a realistic novel, when Willie looks up once again to look at the strange green light of the approaching comet. For weeks now the newspapers and their ‘experts’ have been assuring the public that it will miss the earth and have no effect on all of us.

Part two – after the comet

Except that it does have an effect on all of us – a transformative impact.

The first part of the novel rises to a climax as Willie, one fateful night, tracks down the lovers Verrall and Nettie, to their beach hut hideaway, from a hiding place watches them gallivanting on the sand, then steps out and advances towards them, blindly firing his revolver (missing them both, luckily) and, as they turn and run, running after them, blind with impotent rage, anger, frustration, all the emotions of a trapped, trammelled inhabitant of the squalid little earth of 1906.

Absurdly (I haven’t brought it out enough) in the background throughout the story, we have had tips and hints that Britain is stumbling towards war against Germany. Willie has absent-mindedly been reading the newspaper hoardings at the railways stations and towns he passes through on his vengeful pursuit, and now, here on the beach, his own personal demented rage is counterpointed by a battle which suddenly starts up between huge warships taking place way out at sea, off the coast, the flares and booms of the big guns lighting up the beach as Willie chases the lovers through the dunes. All very cinematic!

And then… the green lights of the comet engulf everything. It is as if a thousand pistols are detonating all over the sky and a great mist, a green fog, sweeps in from the sea, and Willie loses consciousness.

When he awakes some hours later he is struck by the beauty of the grass among the sand. He looks up into the beautiful sky. He feels fulfilled and happy. He looks down at the gun at his feet and doesn’t understand it. He stumbles through the fields till he comes to a lane where a man has fallen and sprained his ankle and so he immediately helps him. It seems like the obvious thing to do.

And all over the world every person is waking with the same thought – feeling whole, purified, happy, content, and so brimming with good humour that they need to give of it, help others, make a better life.

In a throwaway bit of science Willie says that he later learned that chemicals in the comet’s tail reacted with the nitrogen in the earth’s atmosphere to create a new element which, when breathed in, gives new energy to blood corpuscles and gives the brain and nervous system a tremendous sense of life and calm.

Part two of the book describes the Great Change in three ways.

1. Very conveniently, the man Willie has found injured in the road turns out to be Melmount, a senior Cabinet Minister. Willie helps him to his holiday home down the coast where, incapacitated and so unable to go back to London, Melmount calls a cabinet meeting to discuss the new world and, since there aren’t any of the usual civil servant secretariesavailable, Willie finds himself being dragooned into acting as secretary and aide de camp to the Prime Minister during these first few weeks after the Change. This allows Wells:

  • to give us satirical portraits of the members of the cabinet
  • to insert his analysis of the British government of his day (it didn’t, in  his opinion, have a clue what to do with its enormous empire or about the numerous social problems at home)
  • and to convey in broad brush terms how all of its members now look back on their narrow, sheltered, blinkered, privileged upbringings and publicly express regret

The politicians set about making radical changes which begin with Wells’s personal hobby horse, land reform, namely nationalising all land and rebuilding society from scratch.

2. After witnessing all this Willie returns to Clayton, and registers the Great Change in the town, his mother, Nettie’s parents and even old Mrs Verrall the landowner. All are now peaceful and calm. The scales have fallen from their eyes. All are now determined to build the New Jerusalem. Willie describes how they knock down all the disgusting old slums, and hold huge bonfires in which they burn their smelly clothes, disgusting furniture, rubbish decorations. Now all the land is jointly owned by the ‘commune’ as it is now called which plans rationally, establishing new workplaces in the best places, rebuilding convenient railway lines to link them, building new homes which are healthy and hygienic, for everyone. In the mornings they all work together, to build a better world. In the afternoons all take place in further education designed to bring out everyone’s potential – everyone’s life becomes a combination of productive labour and creative self-fulfilment.

3. And finally the love affair. This is dealt with in three parts. In the immediate aftermath of the Great Change, Willie comes across Nettie and Verrall again, and they all apologise to each other. In a rather moving passage both Nettie and Verrall reveal their feelings and motivations for running off together: Nettie admits that to some extent, it was Verrall’s clothes: he just dressed so richly and confidently and ably, compared to Willie’s dismal, dirty, threadbare working class suit, that she was bewitched. And Verrall gives what I thought was a powerful half page or so summary of the sheer irresponsible thrill of having an affair, of running away and abandoning all his parents’ fine hopes that he’d become a politician, spurning all society’s rules about not ‘ruining’ the reputation of a virginal young woman. What larks it was!

Anyway, they all sheepishly look at each other and apologise. Nettie says she wants to remain in love with Willie, who was her earliest adult friend and boyfriend but… still wants to remain with Verrall. The two men agree it cannot be and so, regretfully, she leaves with Verrall, leaving Willie to throw himself with energy into building the New Jerusalem in Clayton.

Back in Clayton, his mother is nearing the end of an exhausting long life of hard work, and the commune (in its new enlightened form) allots her a nurse – stocky young Annie – to be her carer through her last months. Distracted with all his new duties Willie is blissfully ignorant of the fact that this devoted, loyal young woman – rather inevitably – falls in love with him. It is only on the day of his mother’s eventual death, that they burst into tears, find each other in each other’s arms, and then kissing and then passionately kissing. Oops.

They marry and have children. Willie emphasises she was always his best friend and helpmeet. But… But Nettie reappears. Nettie has heard about his mother dying and makes a visit. And here she pursues the theme she had broached back in their parting scene at the seaside resort. Here she suggests… that she can be the lover of two men, that Willie can join her and Verrall. And Annie can join them too. And so it transpires. They become a ménage à quatre.

For the Great Change has overthrown even that old shibboleth, that one man shall cleave to one women, and one woman to one man, and that they shall be each other’s all-in-all and never have any surplus love or affection to give to anybody else.

After all the heady themes the book has covered – socialism, social injustice, the squalor of industrial Britain, the unmerited privilege of the rich, the stupidity of war, the absurdity of empire, the incompetence of politicians – this is how it ends, with a hymn to Free Love, a very fashionable, if scandalous, Edwardian topic.

Anybody who knew about Wells’s own love life (i.e. all of literary and artistic and political London) knew that this was in fact a close reflection of Well’s own situation. He was married to the plain and devoted Jane Wells,who bore him several children and managed the home, but had to put up with Wells’s numerous affairs with an impressive list of younger, sexier women, with several of whom he had illegitimate children.

(Wells’s lovers included American birth control activist Margaret Sanger, writer Odette Keun, Soviet spy Moura Budberg, novelist Elizabeth von Arnim, writer Amber Reeves, novelist and feminist Rebecca West, and many more.)

And there the story ends.

Before and after

The story is a variation on the very Wellsian trope of the sleeper who awakes in the distant future.

There is a ‘before’ (the grimy present day) and an ‘after’ (utopia after the Great Change). And the narrator is able to bear witness to both worlds. Thus the narrator is able to contrast a) the social squalor and b) the psychological and emotional constipation, of Edwardian times, with the a) social harmony and b) the relaxed and open relationships, after ‘the Great Change’.

This gives rise to the odd and distinctive feature of the book which is that you can go for pages reading either a) gritty descriptions of the muddy coal-mining town and its surly inhabitants or b) the sometimes genuinely moving, sometimes rather laughable descriptions of Willie’s love affair with Nettie – and both lull you into a false sense of security that you are reading a standard Edwardian novel…

But then Wells will throw in a sentence or two reminding us that this is all before the Change, the protagonist will look up and see the eerie shape of billowing green flaring in the night sky as the comet approaches day after day, thus inviting the reader to view with ridicule the absurd economic system and social conventions of the time – and you realise you are in a completely different type of book.

Or you are in a D.H. Lawrence social realist novel which has been picked up and photoshopped into a scene from Star Wars.

This before-and-after trope explains the prominence in the text of the direct address to the reader. By which I mean that the first person protagonist, Willie, is continually stopping to address his modern readers, the young readers who have grown up since the Great Change, with phrases like ‘You who have grown up since the Change will scarcely believe the silliness of the society I grew up in…’

My point being that the ‘before and after’ trope isn’t a minor aspect of the book, it is something the narrator and Wells are constantly rubbing in our faces.

You will consider those notions of my youth poor silly violent stuff; particularly if you are of the younger generation born since the Change you will be of that opinion.

When I think of that growing proportion of readers who belong entirely to the new order, who are growing up with only the vaguest early memories of the old world, I find the greatest difficulty in writing down the unintelligible confusions that were matter of fact to their fathers.

You cannot imagine the littleness of those former times; their naive, queer absurdities!

And here again I find myself writing in an unknown language, so far as my younger readers are concerned. You who know only the world that followed the Great Change will find much that I am telling inconceivable…

All that previous life of ours had been an ill-lit marionette show, acted in the twilight. . . .

The whole of that old history becomes more and more foreign, more and more like some queer barbaric drama played in a forgotten tongue…

Thus the novel stands in the tradition which includes all the other ‘before and after’ socialist novels of the era, such as Looking BackwardNews From Nowhere and so on.

Was Wells a socialist – or a nihilist?

Wells joined the socialist Fabian Society in 1903 and wrote numerous articles for newspapers, magazines and so on, supporting socialism. And he certainly writes eloquently about the glaring social injustices of his day, in this book giving lengthy and convincing descriptions of the miserable state of slum-dwellers in a Midland industrial town.

He also makes an effort to analyse their causes, attributing most of it to the idea of private property in land i.e. the tradition that had grown up of letting landowners acquire more land, on which mines and other factories could be built, while swarming millions of the proletariat had no land whatsoever. He is particularly upset that this tradition – the crazy, disorganised and blatantly unfair distribution of land – had continued in America which some people had hoped would be a more rational utopia but with which, by 1906, Wells was thoroughly disillusioned.

The implication of the repeated references to unfair land distribution is that nationalising all land, abolishing the private ownership of land, is the only way to creating the basis for equality.

But if you ask whether Wells was a genuine socialist, I think the answer might well be No. What comes over from all his novels is not a careful analysis of the means of production and distribution and a fictional dramatisation of how these can be seized by the working class.

What comes over from his novels are cosmic visions of vast realms of space and time against which humanity is a mere insect. The point of The Time Machine and of The War of the Worlds is how puny and petty our present-day human concerns are compared to the vastness of the solar system and the knowledge that there are countless other life forms in the universe who are completely indifferent to us, to his visions of a future planet earth on which humanity has ceased to exist, and it doesn’t matter.

I picture to myself this thing happening in space, a planetary moment, the faint smudge, the slender whirl of meteor, drawing nearer to this planet – this planet like a ball, like a shaded rounded ball, floating in the void, with its little, nearly impalpable coat of cloud and air, with its dark pools of ocean, its gleaming ridges of land. And as that midge from the void touches it, the transparent gaseous outer shell clouds in an instant green and then slowly clears again. . . .

The Fabians made sensible proposals about to how to improve the lot of the working classes through better building regulations, hygiene, water and gas and electricity provision, shorter working hours and so on. Wells paid lip service to all this but couldn’t help, wherever he turns his eye, being overwhelmed by the sheer futility of human existence. Futility is a word which rings through all these books. Love is futile. Individuals are futile. War is futile. The whole social order is futile.

The golden earth and sky seemed like a little bubble that floated in the globe of human futility.

In The Time Machine the narrator reflects on the futile effort to create civilisations which have vanished, is afflicted by the futile attempts of the pretty young Eloi he befriends to understand him, calls the entire race of Eloi ‘a mere beautiful futility’.

One of the most powerful results of the sojourn of the narrator on The Island of Dr Moreau is the way it leaves him with a crushing sense of the futility of human endeavour. ‘I lost faith in the sanity of the world when I saw it suffering the painful disorder of this island…’

The net effect of The War of the Worlds is both to make you realise what petty, powerless things human beings are, playthings before the mighty powers of the universe – but also that the Martians themselves are prey to the tiniest enemy, the terrestrial bacteria which kill them.

Wells’s fundamental worldview is the heartless, brutal materialism of Darwin, as passed on to him directly by Darwin’s bulldog, Thomas Henry Huxley, who personally taught Wells at the South Kensington Science Institute in the 1880s.

We have come into being through a tumult of blind forces.

We are made for the struggle for existence – we ARE the struggle for existence; the things that live are the struggle for existence incarnate…

This is Darwinism raw.

In The Food of the Gods, Wells helps the reader come to see the entire present order of things as a mere stepping stone to the next level of evolution, to the coming of the giants, epitomised in the character of the uneducated giant, Caddles, who has no idea why he exists or what anybody is doing. Here he is, straddling Piccadilly, looking down at the multitudes of little people, and afflicted with a sense of complete pointlessness:

None of them seemed to see, as he could do, the drink-sodden wretchedness of the painted women at the corner, the ragged misery that sneaked along the gutters, the infinite futility of all this employment. The infinite futility! (The Food of the Gods Book III, Chapter 3)

At the climax of that novel, as the protagonist Redwood argues with the anti-giant Prime Minister, Caterham, ‘The more he talked the more certain Redwood’s sense of stupendous futility grew.’ (Book III, Chapter 4)

So it should come as no surprise to find the same note sounded again and again in In The Days of The Comet. Here is young Willie’s thoughts as he leaves his childhood home:

It was my native valley, and I was going out of it, I thought never to return, and yet in that last prospect, the group of towns that had borne me and dwarfed and crippled and made me, seemed, in some indefinable manner, strange. I was, perhaps, more used to seeing it from this comprehensive view-point when it was veiled and softened by night; now it came out in all its weekday reek, under a clear afternoon sun. That may account a little for its unfamiliarity. And perhaps, too, there was something in the emotions through which I had been passing for a week and more, to intensify my insight, to enable me to pierce the unusual, to question the accepted. But it came to me then, I am sure, for the first time, how promiscuous, how higgledy-piggledy was the whole of that jumble of mines and homes, collieries and potbanks, railway yards, canals, schools, forges and blast furnaces, churches, chapels, allotment hovels, a vast irregular agglomeration of ugly smoking accidents in which men lived as happy as frogs in a dustbin. Each thing jostled and damaged the other things about it, each thing ignored the other things about it; the smoke of the furnace defiled the potbank clay, the clatter of the railway deafened the worshipers in church, the public-house thrust corruption at the school doors, the dismal homes squeezed miserably amidst the monstrosities of industrialism, with an effect of groping imbecility. Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.

‘Humanity choked amidst its products, and all its energy went in increasing its disorder, like a blind stricken thing that struggles and sinks in a morass.’

That is the true Wellsian note. His vision isn’t of a fair and equal society, to set alongside the utopian views of Edward Bellamy or William Morris. It is of apocalyptic wars, alien invasions, cosmic events and far futurity which make all human effort seem like ‘groping imbecility’.

Poor little angry, miserable creature! Poor little angry, miserable world!

All that said, the second half of the In The Days of the Comet – After the Change – does make a sustained effort to paint a lyrical picture of a socialist paradise in which everyone collaborates to build a better life for everyone else. It is powerfully, forcefully and lyrically described, at length, along with practical aspects of the New World, like the destruction of all the old towns and cities and the building of new, rationally laid out urban centres lined with clean, well-lit, healthy and hygienic dwellings, and the availability of free higher education to all, and the limiting of work to only what is required and only what human beings can enjoyably supply.

The second half of the book does bear comparison with the ‘After’ scenarios painted by Bellamy and Morris in their utopias. But the grip of the book, its bite and punch, come from the narrator’s anger and frustration at the glaring inequality, the poverty and misery, and the million subtle social slights which the poor and lower middle class have to endure from their hoity-toity superiors, which really drive the first half. And then the sense of the vast cosmic transformation which has undertaken mankind.

And the glaring drawback of the book is that, to get to that Ideal Future, the reader has to swallow the notion that the very air we breathe has been transformed by unknown chemicals from a passing comet. Which is not a very practical political policy.

Goodbye Fabians

All of which makes it no surprise to learn that the Fabian Society expelled Wells in 1908.

The other Fabians came to dislike his flashiness, irresponsibility and sexual adventurism. It is typical of his restless magpie mind that a book which was meant to turn into a vision of a socialist utopia instead leads up to a description of the Free Love which very much suited Wells and his philandering ways.

There is always another distraction in a book by Wells, always another shiny new idea or invention which he suddenly wants to share with you, and which leads him wandering away from the book’s ostensible topic.

In response to their criticisms of him, Wells went on to satirise the two leading Fabians, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, in his 1910 novel, The New Machiavelli but, in the event, it was their modest, top-down vision of a soft socialist nanny state which was to triumph – albeit not till after the Second World War.

And although Well’s predictions of worldwide war and disaster did come true, particularly in the inferno of the Second World War, the final verdict on the visionary inconsequentiality of Well’s vast and voluminous writings is the way almost all of them sank into the almost complete obscurity after that war.

He wrote over a hundred books and God knows how many articles. Nowadays only half a dozen of the best sci-fi and four or five of his Edwardian comedies of manners survive.

Relying on comets from outer space to bring about social change turned out not to be a very practical option.


Related links

Other H.G. Wells reviews

1895 The Time Machine – the unnamed inventor and time traveller tells his dinner party guests the story of his adventure among the Eloi and the Morlocks in the year 802,701
1896 The Island of Doctor Moreau – Edward Prendick is stranded on a remote island where he discovers the ‘owner’, Dr Gustave Moreau, is experimentally creating human-animal hybrids
1897 The Invisible Man – an embittered young scientist, Griffin, makes himself invisible, starting with comic capers in a Sussex village, and ending with demented murders
1898 The War of the Worlds – the Martians invade earth
1899 When The Sleeper Wakes/The Sleeper Wakes – Graham awakes in the year 2100 to find himself at the centre of a revolution to overthrow the repressive society of the future
1899 A Story of the Days To Come – set in the same London of the future described in The Sleeper Wakes, Denton and Elizabeth fall in love but descend into poverty, and experience life as serfs in the Underground city run by the sinister Labour Corps

1901 The First Men in the Moon – Mr Bedford and Mr Cavor use the invention of ‘Cavorite’ to fly to the moon and discover the underground civilisation of the Selenites
1904 The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth – two scientists invent a compound which makes plants, animals and humans grow to giant size, leading to a giants’ rebellion against the ‘little people’
1906 In the Days of the Comet – a passing comet trails gasses through earth’s atmosphere which bring about ‘the Great Change’, inaugurating an era of wisdom and fairness, as told by narrator Willie Leadford
1908 The War in the Air – Bert Smallways, a bicycle-repairman from Bun Hill in Kent, manages by accident to be an eye-witness to the outbreak of the war in the air which brings Western civilisation to an end

1914 The World Set Free – A history of the future in which the devastation of an atomic war leads to the creation of a World Government, told via a number of characters who are central to the change

Other science fiction reviews

1888 Looking Backward 2000-1887 by Edward Bellamy – Julian West wakes up in the year 2000 to discover a peaceful revolution has ushered in a society of state planning, equality and contentment
1890 News from Nowhere by William Morris – waking from a long sleep, William Guest is shown round a London transformed into villages of contented craftsmen

1905 With the Night Mail by Rudyard Kipling – it is 2000 and the narrator accompanies a GPO airship across the Atlantic
1909 The Machine Stops by E.M. Foster – people of the future live in underground cells regulated by ‘the Machine’ until one of them rebels

1912 The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle – Professor Challenger leads an expedition to a plateau in the Amazon rainforest where prehistoric animals still exist
1912 As Easy as ABC by Rudyard Kipling – set in 2065 in a world characterised by isolation and privacy, forces from the ABC are sent to suppress an outbreak of ‘crowdism’
1913 The Horror of the Heights by Arthur Conan Doyle – airman Captain Joyce-Armstrong flies higher than anyone before him and discovers the upper atmosphere is inhabited by vast jellyfish-like monsters
1918 The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs – a trilogy of pulp novellas in which all-American heroes battle ape-men and dinosaurs on a lost island in the Antarctic

1921 We by Evgeny Zamyatin – like everyone else in the dystopian future of OneState, D-503 lives life according to the Table of Hours, until I-330 wakens him to the truth
1925 Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov – a Moscow scientist transplants the testicles and pituitary gland of a dead tramp into the body of a stray dog, with disastrous consequences
1927 The Maracot Deep by Arthur Conan Doyle – a scientist, engineer and a hero are trying out a new bathysphere when the wire snaps and they hurtle to the bottom of the sea, there to discover…

1930 Last and First Men by Olaf Stapledon – mind-boggling ‘history’ of the future of mankind over the next two billion years
1938 Out of the Silent Planet by C.S. Lewis – baddies Devine and Weston kidnap Ransom and take him in their spherical spaceship to Malacandra aka Mars,

1943 Perelandra (Voyage to Venus) by C.S. Lewis – Ransom is sent to Perelandra aka Venus, to prevent a second temptation by the Devil and the fall of the planet’s new young inhabitants
1945 That Hideous Strength: A Modern Fairy-Tale for Grown-ups by C.S. Lewis– Ransom assembles a motley crew to combat the rise of an evil corporation which is seeking to overthrow mankind
1949 Nineteen Eighty-Four by George Orwell – after a nuclear war, inhabitants of ruined London are divided into the sheep-like ‘proles’ and members of the Party who are kept under unremitting surveillance

1950 I, Robot by Isaac Asimov – nine short stories about ‘positronic’ robots, which chart their rise from dumb playmates to controllers of humanity’s destiny
1950 The Martian Chronicles – 13 short stories with 13 linking passages loosely describing mankind’s colonisation of Mars, featuring strange, dreamlike encounters with Martians
1951 Foundation by Isaac Asimov – the first five stories telling the rise of the Foundation created by psychohistorian Hari Seldon to preserve civilisation during the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1951 The Illustrated Man – eighteen short stories which use the future, Mars and Venus as settings for what are essentially earth-bound tales of fantasy and horror
1952 Foundation and Empire by Isaac Asimov – two long stories which continue the future history of the Foundation set up by psychohistorian Hari Seldon as it faces down attack by an Imperial general, and then the menace of the mysterious mutant known only as ‘the Mule’
1953 Second Foundation by Isaac Asimov – concluding part of the ‘trilogy’ describing the attempt to preserve civilisation after the collapse of the Galactic Empire
1953 Earthman, Come Home by James Blish – the adventures of New York City, a self-contained space city which wanders the galaxy 2,000 years hence powered by spindizzy technology
1953 Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury – a masterpiece, a terrifying anticipation of a future when books are banned and professional firemen are paid to track down stashes of forbidden books and burn them
1953 Childhood’s End a thrilling narrative involving the ‘Overlords’ who arrive from space to supervise mankind’s transition to the next stage in its evolution
1954 The Caves of Steel by Isaac Asimov – set 3,000 years in the future when humans have separated into ‘Spacers’ who have colonised 50 other planets, and the overpopulated earth whose inhabitants live in enclosed cities or ‘caves of steel’, and introducing detective Elijah Baley to solve a murder mystery
1956 The Naked Sun by Isaac Asimov – 3,000 years in the future detective Elijah Baley returns, with his robot sidekick, R. Daneel Olivaw, to solve a murder mystery on the remote planet of Solaria
1956 They Shall Have Stars by James Blish – explains the invention – in the near future – of the anti-death drugs and the spindizzy technology which allow the human race to colonise the galaxy
1959 The Triumph of Time by James Blish – concluding story of Blish’s Okie tetralogy in which Amalfi and his friends are present at the end of the universe

1961 A Fall of Moondust a pleasure tourbus on the moon is sucked down into a sink of moondust, sparking a race against time to rescue the trapped crew and passengers
1962 A Life For The Stars by James Blish – third in the Okie series about cities which can fly through space, focusing on the coming of age of kidnapped earther, young Crispin DeFord, aboard New York
1968 2001: A Space Odyssey a panoramic narrative which starts with aliens stimulating evolution among the first ape-men and ends with a spaceman being transformed into galactic consciousness

1971 Mutant 59: The Plastic Eater by Kit Pedler and Gerry Davis – a genetically engineered bacterium starts eating the world’s plastic
1973 Rendezvous with Rama a 50-kilometre long object of alien origin enters the solar system so the crew of the spaceship Endeavour are sent to explore it

1980 Russian Hide and Seek by Kingsley Amis – in an England of the future which has been invaded and conquered by the Russians, a hopeless attempt to overthrow the occupiers is easily crushed
1981 The Golden Age of Science Fiction edited by Kingsley Amis – 17 classic sci-fi stories from what Amis considers the Golden Era of the genre, namely the 1950s

Mrs Craddock by Somerset Maugham (1902)

‘Entre deux amants il-y-a toujours un qui aime, et un qui se laisse aimer.’

After the success of his first novel, Liza of Lambeth in 1897, the 23-year-old William Somerset Maugham optimistically abandoned his career as a trainee doctor to become a professional writer. Later in life, Maugham considered this to have been a bad mistake, for literary success came only slowly and he spent nearly a decade churning out ten novels which sold little or poorly.

All the time his real ambition was to be a playwright, but none of his plays were accepted either. It was only in 1907, ten years after Liza, that his play Lady Frederick was finally staged and, to his own surprise, became a runaway success, transforming his reputation and fortunes. Within a year he had four plays running in the West End and had arrived.

Mrs Craddock

Mrs Craddock, from 1902, is a product of his lean early years, and you can see why. It is a long and uneven narrative, sometimes comic, sometimes tragic, covering ten or so years in the life of Bertha Leys:

  • from when she is a head-strong, romantic orphan under the guardianship of her aunt Mary living in the family home, Court Leys in Kent
  • through her infatuation for and marriage to the virile local farmer Edward Craddock
  • her slow realisation that Edward is conventional, unimaginative and boring and cares more about his wretched cows and pet dogs than about Bertha’s feelings
  • (something she starts to suspect on their honeymoon in London where he laughs at crude vaudeville and can’t see the point of the art galleries which Bertha adores)
  • she is mortified when he humiliates her at tennis at a big party of the local gentry
  • she hopes that getting pregnant and having a child will bring them close together again, or at least provide a focus for her thwarted love
  • but, inevitably, she has a long, drawn-out miscarriage and the baby is still-born
  • worse than anything is the calm, sensible way Edward accepts this and its corollary, the doctor’s conclusion that she will never again be able to have children – news at which Bertha is, understandably, distraught (chapter 17)
  • their married life becomes a series of niggling arguments – like the one about whether the farm workmen should chop down some beech trees which overshadow an important field (Edward) or should not, because they are old and beautiful (Bertha)
  • these escalate into flaring rows and, slowly, Bertha is forced to admit that she can no longer stand her husband
  • so she leaves Edward and Kent to go travelling with Aunt Mary on the Continent for months
  • on her return to London she has an ill-advised but madly passionate fling with a distant cousin, Gerald Vaudrey
  • but when, after torments of separation, and even mad thoughts about going with him to the New World, Gerald finally leaves for New York, Bertha’s spirit snaps and she returns to Court Leys emotionally empty

Ironically, throughout the novel, as Bertha’s love for him dwindles and dies, we watch as Edward’s career has gone from strength to strength. He manages the Ley property superbly, making a hefty profit and buying up surrounding land, restoring the house, building a tennis court in the grounds, and becoming the life and soul of local North Kent society.

It’s just a shame that Bertha loathes and detests local North Kent society for its parochialism and small-minded snobbery. In the final chapters of the book Bertha and Edward live together but utterly separate in spirit. Bertha, bored out of her mind, walks the local countryside, watches the changing seasons, goes down to the sea and stares for hours at its endless waves, dreaming of escape, dreaming sometimes of suicide or some kind of painless dissolution, anything to make the dreary routine of morning, noon and night, boring dinners with her husband or dreary visits to the local vicar or other landowners, all go away.

Then Edward, stubborn and confident to the end, goes out riding on a horse which has already thrown him once and broken his collarbone. The horse shies at a fence, falling on top of him and he dies. Stunned, Bertha staggers to her bed and reviews her life. Shocked and dismayed, she realises that she is… free!

On the day of the funeral, there is social comedy about who should get order of precedence in the funeral parade among the various organisations Edward which was a leading member of (the freemasons, the county council, the Conservative Party).

But quite separate from all that, Bertha doesn’t attend the funeral. Remote and isolated from the hurly burly of the entire world, she lies on her sofa, in the beautifully restored house, admiring the fine view to the sea, and picks up a book. The End.

Response

I enjoyed reading Mrs Craddock but was aware of its numerous faults. For a start, there are several odd passages where Maugham is being ‘experimental’ (or giving in to contemporary literary fashion) but which really don’t come off.

One of them occurs half way through, when Bertha, still in her infatuation stage, hears tell that Edward is a little injured, and goes off into a peculiar hallucination of him being brought in dead, her washing the corpse, lowering the coffin into the grave and her throwing herself on top of it, a bizarre stream-of-consciousness hallucination – at the end of which Edward walks in right as rain and wondering why she’s in such a state.

The book is also heavily garlanded with over-ripe, purple prose passages describing the Kent countryside or the romantic air of Italy, which go on for pages.

That said, the book has two obvious virtues or strengths:

One is the effectiveness of the social comedy generated by the stiflingly conventional provincial society of Blackstable (the thinly disguised version of Whitstable where Maugham was himself brought up in the 1880s).

The characterisation of the stiff local vicar, Mr Grove, his well-intentioned sister, the hearty doctor, the dashing local landowner Branderton, the chorus of snobbish local ladies led by Mrs Branderston, with Mrs Mayston Ryle and Mrs Molsons not far behind, the scenes involving this little community – are often very funny.

The vicar’s sister, Miss Glover, is a particularly memorable character, all shiny stiff dress and sincere Christian sympathy. Maugham was always strong on social comedy, and strong on the subtleties and veiled malice of petty snobbery. It would later reappear in his feel for the thousand and one stupid restrictions on colonial life in the Far East, as described in his short stories of the 1920s.

Another is Maugham’s knack for beginning or setting his stories in very mundane settings, and often mundane incidents, but from this base working up passages of tremendous emotional intensity which stay with the reader.

Thus, for example, Bertha’s passionate lust and master-worship of Edward are described with real heat, as is her second great infatuation, the sensuality leading to inflamed lust for young Gerald. You can almost smell the sex. Unusual for its day.

Similarly, Bertha’s anger when she realises that Edward doesn’t much care if she lives or dies or what she does, is vividly described and moving.

And so, again, towards the end, is her prolonged mood of depression as she wanders down to the grey Kent sea and fantasises about drowning in it.

So far so good. But whether all these passages really come together to form a convincing description of a plausible personality, such as literature is meant to, I’m not sure.

I’m not sure and I’m also not sure if I’m qualified to judge. For a start, maybe only a woman reader or critic could really assess whether Bertha is a ‘realistic’ character. Who am I to say?

Secondly, the novel covers a period from the 1880s to the end of the 1890s and… that was so long ago, so far away, in a kind of constipated rural Victorian society which is almost impossible for us to imagine, that I can’t see how any modern reader can make a just assessment of its veracity.

What can be confidently made is the criticism that the number two figure in the story – Edward Craddock – never really comes alive. Tall, strong and good-humoured he remains throughout the novel – admittedly putting on weight and growing red-cheeked as the years pass – an unbendingly good, honest, efficient and utterly boring man, the straight man to Bertha’s fireworks display of emotions.

Maybe it’s the failure to bring the man in this novel fully alive which has contributed to it being more or less forgotten.

But what is good, I think, in the novel, is the slow, slow pace at which Maugham describes Bertha’s slow, slow, slow loss of her infatuation, then loss of her love, then her loss of respect for her husband. The book has to be long because its whole point is to describe the very gradual erosion of her love in great detail. In this respect, in the care with which Maugham has plotted the decay of passionate love, I think the novel works.

Sex and lust

Without much by way of introduction or preparation the book launches us straight into the flustered mind of twenty-one-year-old Bertha – living calmly and respectably with her aunt in the family home Court Leys – and her fiercely physical infatuation with the tall, strong, dark local farmer, Edward Craddock who is a tenant farmer on the Ley family land, at Bewlie’s Farm.

He came nearer, a tall fellow of twenty-seven, massively set together, big boned, with long arms and legs, and a magnificent breadth of chest. Bertha recognised the costume that always pleased her, the knickerbockers and gaiters, the Norfolk-jacket of rough tweed, the white stock and the cap – all redolent of the country which for his sake she was beginning to love, and all vigorously masculine. Even the huge boots which covered his feet gave her by their very size a thrill of pleasure; their dimensions suggested a certain firmness of character, a masterfulness, which were intensely reassuring… His cheeks were flushed and his eyes glistened. His vitality was intense, shining out upon others with almost a material warmth.

Although it’s hard for us now to imagine, a number of later writers, in the 1930s and 1940s, paid tribute to the way Maugham broke free of Victorian silence about sex, and wrote with a new openness and candour about passionate, physical love.

This fierce physicality was there right from the start in Maugham’swork, in the powerful descriptions of Liza’s pulse racing and her body swooning against the tall, strong, masculine figure of Jim Blakeston in his first novel, Liza of Lambeth (1897) – and exactly the same thing is repeated here, as impressionable young Bertha thrills at the touch and swoons against the tall, strong, masculine figure of young Edward.

When he put it round her shoulders, the touch of his hands made her lose the little self-control she had left. A curious spasm passed through her, and she pressed herself closer to him; at the same time his hands sank down, dropping the cloak, and encircled her waist. Then she surrendered herself entirely to his embrace and lifted her face to his. He bent down and kissed her. The kiss was such utter madness that she almost groaned. She could not tell if it was pain or pleasure. She flung her arms round his neck and drew him to her.

When at last he bade her good-bye and shook hands, she blushed again; she was extraordinarily troubled, and as, with his rising, the strong masculine odour of the countryside reached her nostrils, her head whirled.

In a field she saw him, directing some operation. She trembled at the sight, her heart beat very quickly; and when, seeing her, he came forward with a greeting, she turned red and then white in the most compromising fashion. But he was very handsome as, with easy gait, he sauntered to the hedge; above all he was manly, and the pleasing thought passed through Bertha that his strength must be quite herculean. She barely concealed her admiration.

‘I’m rather frightened of you, sometimes,’ she said, laughing. ‘You’re so strong. I feel so utterly weak and helpless beside you.’
‘Are you afraid I shall beat you?’
She looked up at him and then down at the strong hands.
‘I don’t think I should mind if you did. I think I should only love you more.’

‘Let me look at your hands,’ she said. She loved them too. They were large and roughly made, hard with work and exposure, ten times pleasanter, she thought, than the soft hands of the townsman… She stretched out the long, strong fingers. Craddock, knowing her very little, looked with wonder and amusement. She caught his glance, and with a smile bent down to kiss the upturned palms. She wanted to abase herself before the strong man, to be low and humble before him. She would have been his handmaiden, and nothing could have satisfied her so much as to perform for him the most menial services. She knew not how to show the immensity of her passion.

It’s a commonplace enough word but in Maugham’s hands the word ‘thrill’, more nakedly than in other writers of the time, describes the physical impact of sexual arousal and lust.

Even the huge boots which covered his feet gave her by their very size a thrill of pleasure…

Craddock blushed. Bertha noticed it, and a strange little thrill went through her…

He took her hand and the contact thrilled her; her knees were giving way, and she almost tottered.

His letters had caused her an indescribable thrill, the mere sight of his handwriting had made her tremble, and she wanted to see him; she woke up at night with his kisses on her lips.

It gave her a queer thrill to see him turn white when she held his hand, to see him tremble when she leaned on his arm.

It’s a striking paradox that such an externally polite, formal, correctly dressed, well-mannered and self-contained man as Maugham wrote so obsessively and fiercely, throughout his career, of complete sexual abandonment and the heart-stopping power of sheer physical lust.

Never before had she experienced that utter weakness of the knees so that she feared to fall; her breathing was strangely oppressive, and her heart beat almost painfully.

And the candid way he describes the wish to be mastered, dominated, controlled, owned and directed by a powerful strong man.

For the moment Bertha forgot her wayward nature, and wished suddenly to subject herself to his strong guidance. His very strength made her feel curiously weak.

‘Shut your eyes,’ she whispered, and she kissed the closed lids; she passed her lips slowly over his lips, and the soft contact made her shudder and laugh. She buried her face in his clothes, inhaling those masterful scents of the countryside which had always fascinated her.

Later in the book, the same thing happens all over again when she becomes infatuated with Gerald. In the course of that affair there takes place something you don’t usually read about at the period, which is the clearly defined moment when Bertha decides to have sex with Gerald, to give him the great gift of her body, to make their union unique and unforgettable.

You can almost smell the pheromones radiating off the page as Bertha pursues Gerald across London, tracking him down to her aunt’s house, her aunt goes out and they are on the verge of doing something unforgiveable according to Victorian custom (Bertha was still a married woman and keeps telling us that Gerald is almost young enough to be her son) when… there’s a knock at the door and Aunt Mary reappears in the nick of time!

Still. The description of Bertha’s heat and arousal as` she gets so close to her goal is almost pornographic in its blood-heating intensity.

Later, in the 1920s, Maugham met D.H. Lawrence (but then, he met everyone) although they didn’t hit it off. From the limited knowledge I have, I can’t help thinking that this story about a passionate young woman’s lust for a farmer prefigures Lawrence’s novels of love among the haystacks, and I wonder what the younger man thought of the trail Maugham had blazed with his shocking-for-their-time descriptions.

The battle of the sexes

Arguably the central subject of ‘the novel’ since its birth has been the battle of the sexes – to be precise the struggle to find and keep the perfect partner.

The English novel starts in 1748 with Samuel Richardson’s Pamela, a 500-page battle between a man who wants to ravish his servant girl (Pamela) and the said servant girl who insists that they are married before he takes her ‘virtue’. And the rest of ‘serious’ fiction continued to be centred on this theme for at least 150 years – the sly marriage markets of Jane Austen, the earnest character studies of George Eliot, in the American ladies in Europe of Henry James and the Golden Age snobbery of Edith Wharton, through the endless sex war in D.H. Lawrence, eachoed in the love comedies of H.G. Wells or Aldous Huxley, and so on.

Literature which doesn’t address the problem of finding the right partner, and holding onto them i.e. of marriage and adultery, tends not to be thought central to the Great Tradition of the English Novel. Thus ‘serious’ literary critics for a long time refused to admit Sterne, Dickens or Conrad to the ‘canon’.

Love, marriage, infidelity, these are the topics which fill vast warehouses of ‘serious’ literature. Madame Bovary. Anna Karenina.

Mrs Craddock is smack bang in the middle of that tradition for which marriage is the sole interest of human life and, in particular, unhappy marriage. Unhappy, mismatched and ill-fated love turned out to be the central theme of Maugham’s long career.

And Mrs Craddock amounts to an extended early exploration of this theme.

Maugham and women

And at the heart of these mismatched marriages is the women. Maugham throughout his long career had a special sympathy with women. Take imaginative, free-spirited, if naive, Kitty Garstin getting bored of her dull husband in The Painted Veil. Or Mary Panton, unsuitably married to an alcoholic gambler in Up At the Villa and then seriously considering a second (and obviously foolish) marriage to an eminent diplomat twice her age. Or Julia Lambert, famous actress throwing herself away on a worthless young cad in Theatre. Or Liza giving her heart and body to rascally Jim Blakeston instead of decent loyal Tom in Liza of Lambeth. Mismatches, all of them. And women all at the centre of the stories.

In Maugham’s theatrical comedies of manners, there is also a wide array of interesting women characters. There are old and amusingly cynical women (Lady Grayson in Our Betters), younger, powerful women (Constance Middleton in The Constant Woman) and mature, tragic women (Mrs. Tabret in The Sacred Flame).

It is the women, and their often painful emotional journeys, who stick in the reader’s imagination, while the callow young men in these plays are often only dramatic ciphers.

Maugham’s subject is the eternal erring of the human heart, but it is nearly always a woman’s heart which is described, and felt, with greatest intensity.

The New Woman

As if the marriage theme wasn’t already central enough in the literary tradition, the 1890s saw a particular interest in the role and experience of women in contemporary society. It was the era of ‘the New Woman’, and a flurry of novels were published examining the issue of women in society, with narratives and characters being created to explore the rights and wrongs of women.

The term ‘New Woman’ was popularized by British-American writer Henry James, who used it to describe the growth in the number of feminist, educated, independent career women in Europe and the United States. Independence was not simply a matter of the mind: it also involved physical changes in activity and dress, as activities such as bicycling expanded women’s ability to engage with a broader more active world. The New Woman pushed the limits set by a male-dominated society, especially as modeled in the plays of Norwegian Henrik Ibsen (1828–1906). (Wikipedia)

The New Woman was in all the papers, in magazines, in articles, on the stage, discussed in Parliament, aired in a thousand short stories and novels. It even percolated through to the provincial backwater of Blackstable where Mrs Craddock is set, and where clever, cosmopolitan Miss Ley enjoys teasing the hide-bound locals.

‘Which do you think is the predominant partner?’ she asked, smiling drily [referring to Edward and Bertha].
‘The man, as he should be,’ gruffly replied the doctor.
‘Do you think he has more brains?’
‘Ah, you’re a feminist,’ said Dr. Ramsay, with great scorn.

Striking that old fuddy-duddy Dr Ramsay knows what a feminist is and uses the term ‘feminist’ in a story set in the 1880s. Amazing that women were arguing with men about the role of women, and both able to joke and josh about it, some 130 years ago. In that 130 years hundreds of novels, plays, films, thousands of factual books and hundreds of thousands of articles have been written about the New Woman, about feminism, women’s liberation and #metoo.

Quite clearly it is an issue, a real and enormous issue – but one like homelessness and poverty and managing the economy and the North-South divide and how to run the railways, which every generation of intellectuals thinks it has discovered, discusses to death, but which is, somehow, never finally solved.

Boldness about marriage

I mentioned Maugham’s surprising candour in describing the physical characteristics of lust. He makes at least one of his characters be just as scandalously blunt about the broader realities of sex and reproduction. It is Bertha’s aunt, Miss Ley, who is given a speech impatiently telling the dry-as-dust Miss Glover, the vicar’s sister, that the basis of marriage is biological reproduction and nothing more.

‘Yes, I know what you all think in England,’ said Miss Ley, catching the glance and its meaning. ‘You expect people to marry from every reason except the proper, one – and that is the instinct of reproduction.’
‘Miss Ley!’ exclaimed Miss Glover, blushing.
‘Oh, you’re old enough to take a sensible view of the, matter,’ answered Miss Ley, somewhat brutally. ‘Bertha is merely the female attracted to the male, and that is the only decent foundation of marriage – the other way seems to me merely horrid. And what does it matter if the man is not of the same station, the instinct has nothing to do with the walk in life; if I’d ever been in love I shouldn’t have cared if it was a pot-boy, I’d have married him – if he asked me.’
‘Well, upon my word!’ said the doctor.
But Miss Ley was roused now, and interrupted him: ‘The particular function of a woman is to propagate her species; and if she’s wise she’ll choose a strong and healthy man to be the father of her children. I have no patience with those women who marry a man because he’s got brains. What is the good of a husband who can make abstruse mathematical calculations? A woman wants a man with strong arms and the digestion of an ox.’
‘Miss Ley,’ broke in Miss Glover, ‘I’m not clever enough to argue with you, but I know you’re wrong. I don’t think I am right to listen to you; I’m sure Charles wouldn’t like it.’
‘My dear, you’ve been brought up like the majority of English girls – that is, like a fool.’
Poor Miss Glover blushed. ‘At all events I’ve been brought up to regard marriage as a holy institution. We’re here upon earth to mortify the flesh, not to indulge it. I hope I shall never be tempted to think of such matters in the way you’ve suggested. If ever I marry I know that nothing will be further from me than carnal thoughts. I look upon marriage as a spiritual union in which it is my duty to love, honour, and obey my husband, to assist and sustain him, to live with him such a life that when the end comes we may be prepared for it.’
‘Fiddlesticks!’ said Miss Ley.

As with his hot-blooded descriptions of lust, Maugham’s correlation of human reproduction with animal reproduction i.e. as an animal instinct devoid of all moral or religious meaning, strikes me as definitely anticipating D.H. Lawrence.

Boldness about religion

And the same goes for his treatment of traditional religion. After his parents died, Maugham was brought up an orphan in the home of his father’s brother, the unimaginative vicar of Whitstable in the 1880s (hence the accuracy of the social comedy of provincial Kentish society in this novel).

Sometime in his student years, Maugham’s Christian faith just melted away and he experienced a tremendous sense of liberation, liberation (as Selina Hastings’s fabulous biography of Maugham makes crystal clear) to have sex with whoever he wanted, male or female.

Accompanying Miss Ley’s blunt truth-telling about sex, there is a similar passage in which Bertha brutally attacks the Christian faith. Devout, tightly-laced Miss Glover, the vicar’s spinster sister, has come to ‘comfort’ Bertha after she’s lost her baby in childbirth. Bertha demurs.

‘Oh, Bertha, you’re not taking it in the proper spirit – you’re so rebellious, and it’s wrong, it’s utterly wrong.’
‘I can only think of my baby,’ said Bertha, hoarsely.
‘Why don’t you pray to God, dear – shall I offer a short prayer now, Bertha?’
‘No, I don’t want to pray to God – He’s either impotent or cruel.’
‘Bertha,’ cried Miss Glover. ‘You don’t know what you’re saying. Oh, pray to God to melt your stubbornness; pray to God to forgive you.’
‘I don’t want to be forgiven. I’ve done nothing that needs it. It’s God who needs my forgiveness – not I His.’

The attack continues later, when Miss Glover returns with the vicar as back-up. Bertha initially starts off meekly reading the Prayer Book with them, but then breaks down:

‘I have no wish to “give hearty thanks unto God,”‘ she said, looking almost fiercely at the worthy pair. ‘I’m very sorry to offend your prejudices, but it seems to me absurd that I should prostrate myself in gratitude to God.’
‘Oh, Mrs. Craddock, I trust you don’t mean what you say,’ said the Vicar.
‘This is what I told you, Charles,’ said Miss Glover. ‘I don’t think Bertha is well, but still this seems to me dreadfully wicked.’
Bertha frowned, finding it difficult to repress the sarcasm which rose to her lips; her forbearance was sorely tried. But Mr. Glover was a little undecided.
‘We must be as thankful to God for the afflictions He sends as for the benefits,’ he said at last.
‘I am not a worm to crawl upon the ground and give thanks to the foot that crushes me.’
‘I think that is blasphemous, Bertha,’ said Miss Glover.
‘Oh, I have no patience with you, Fanny,’ said Bertha, raising herself, a flush lighting up her face. ‘Can you realise what I’ve gone through, the terrible pain of it? Oh, it was too awful. Even now when I think of it I almost scream.’
‘It is by suffering that we rise to our higher self,’ said Miss Glover. ‘Suffering is a fire that burns away the grossness of our material natures.’
‘What rubbish you talk,’ cried Bertha, passionately. ‘You can say that when you’ve never suffered. People say that suffering ennobles one; it’s a lie, it only makes one brutal…. But I would have borne it – for the sake of my child. It was all useless – utterly useless. Dr. Ramsay told me the child had been dead the whole time. Oh, if God made me suffer like that, it’s infamous. I wonder you’re not ashamed to put it down to God. How can you imagine Him to be so stupid, so cruel! Why, even the vilest beast in the slums wouldn’t cause a woman such frightful and useless agony for the mere pleasure of it.’

This powerful scene should take its place in any anthology describing the collapse of Christian belief in the later 19th century.

What with the Darwinian view of human reproduction, this forthright atheism, and the implicit theme of the New Woman throughout the novel, along with the numerous natural descriptions which I’ve mentioned, Maugham was clearly making an effort to write a Big Serious Novel tackling some of the fashionable Issues of the Day.

It doesn’t work because the central characters aren’t, in the end, really believable enough to support the great weight placed on them. But it’s a valiant attempt.

Miss Ley

All this is to overlook the third major character in the story who is, on one reading, arguably its most successful character – Bertha’s Aunt Mary, or Miss Ley as she’s referred to.

In the opening scenes of the novel, Bertha is still living under Miss Ley’s guardianship, we see them often together, and so she is one of the first characters we get to know and like. Although she then disappears from view for the long stretches which describe Bertha and Edward’s marriage, whenever Miss Ley does reappear – when Bertha goes to stay with her for a short break, and then runs away with her to the continent, and in the prolonged sequence when Bertha is staying with Miss Ley while she has her almost-affair with young Gerald – she was greeted with cheers from this reader. Why? Because she is drily, quietly funny.

Miss Ley sat on the sofa by the fireside, a woman of middle-size, very slight, with a thin and much wrinkled face. Of her features the mouth was the most noticeable, not large, with lips that were a little too thin; it was always so tightly compressed as to give her an air of great determination, but there was about the corners an expressive mobility, contradicting in rather an unusual manner the inferences which might be drawn from the rest of her person. She had a habit of fixing her cold eyes on people with a steadiness that was not a little embarrassing. They said Miss Ley looked as if she thought them great fools, and as a matter of fact that usually was her precise opinion. Her thin grey hair was very plainly done; and the extreme simplicity of her costume gave a certain primness, so that her favourite method of saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner often disconcerted the casual stranger.

‘Saying rather absurd things in the gravest and most decorous manner’. Miss Ley emerges as the vehicle for the best of the book’s sub-Jane Austen sly wit, acting – especially in the first half – as the tart and comic centre of the novel, as drily cynical and Bertha is passionately romantic.

Humanity, Miss Ley took to be a small circle of persons, mostly feminine, middle-aged, unattached, and of independent means, who travelled on the continent, read good literature and abhorred the vast majority of their fellow-creatures.

She asked politely after [the doctor]’s wife, to whom she secretly objected for her meek submission to the doctor. Miss Ley made a practice of avoiding those women who had turned themselves into mere shadows of their lords, more especially when their conversation was of household affairs.

[Miss Ley] had already come to the conclusion that he [Craddock] was a man likely to say on a given occasion the sort of thing which might be expected; and that, in her eyes, was a hideous crime.

Miss Ley was anxious that no altercation should disturb the polite discomfort of the meeting.

Miss Ley revels in the embarrassment of other people, especially the uptight, narrow-minded provincials around her. She spends as much time as she can in London, and even more abroad in Italy (in another anticipation of a more famous novelist, this time E.M. Foster with his nice-girls-and-their-aunts-in-Italy stories). Whenever Miss Lay arrives back in Kent it is hilarious to watch the locals being affronted and outraged and shocked and tutting and twitching the curtains, under fire from Miss Ley’s dry wit and through Miss Ley’s quiet, sardonic gaze.

And she is not only an appealing character in her own right. But at a number of key moments (throughout Bertha’s early infatuation with Edward, then slyly noticing her loss of faith in her husband, and then throughout the Gerald affair) Miss Ley’s role as onlooker and chorus to the main action pushes her closer to the reader’s perspective.

It is as if she was standing next to us in the wings of a theatre, muttering an ironic commentary as we both watch the overwrought romantic heroine fainting and weeping and panting with passion.

Oscar Wilde

Moreover, Miss Ley gets most of the book’s one-liners. Much of the dialogue of Mrs Craddock contains the sub-Wildean cynical wit which was to characterise Maugham’s later string of extremely successful plays, such Oscarisms as:

‘Marriage is always a hopeless idiocy for a woman who has enough money of her own to live upon.’

‘Marriage is an institution of the Church, Miss Ley,’ replied Miss Glover, rather severely.
‘Is it?’ retorted Miss Ley. ‘I always thought it was an arrangement to provide work for the judges in the Divorce Court.’

‘Mr. Branderton has been to Eton and Oxford, but he conceals the fact with great success.’

‘My dear Dr. Ramsay, I have trouble enough in arranging my own life; do not ask me to interfere with other people’s.’

It is madness for a happy pair to pretend to have no secrets from one another: it leads them into so much deception.

‘I make a point of thinking with the majority – it’s the only way to get a reputation for wisdom.’

‘You wouldn’t rob us of our generals,’ said Miss Ley. ‘They’re so useful at tea-parties.’

And the fact that almost all of these lines are given to Miss Ley, and that she emerges as in many ways the most loveable character, explains why Maugham begins the book with a dedication – more precisely, a mock ‘Epistle Dedicatory’ – to her. He obviously liked her best of all the characters in the book, and she is the only one you would want to meet.

A tiny Marxist comment

Having just been to an extensive feminist art exhibition, and read numerous articles about the Judge Kavanaugh affair, and read some feminist articles about Maugham and Women and, given that Bertha is quite clearly a heroine who traditional feminist criticism would see as the oppressed, repressed, stifled, stymied victim of the Patriarchy – it is worth pointing out that Bertha never does a day’s work in her life.

Bertha lives her entire life off the labour of the workers on her father’s farms and estates, as does Miss Ley.

Both women live lives full of books and art and travel and galleries and fine feelings, their meals are cooked and served and cleared away by nameless faceless servants (we never learn the names of any of the Craddocks’ household servants or farm workers), their rooms are cleaned, their laundry is washed, trains run for them, boats sail for them, galleries open for them – without them ever lifting a finger to earn it.

They belong to the rentier class. They are social parasites. Edward works hard and is efficient and effective at transforming the fortunes of the Ley estate, at managing its livestock and agriculture, and joins local bodies like the parish council and freemasons, which he also runs with exemplary honesty and thoroughness. And for this – he is bitterly mocked by his wife:

Bertha soon found that her husband’s mind was not only commonplace, but common. His ignorance no longer seemed touching, but merely shameful; his prejudices no longer amusing but contemptible. She was indignant at having humbled herself so abjectly before a man of such narrowness of mind, of such insignificant character. She could not conceive how she had ever passionately loved him. He was bound in by the stupidest routine. It irritated her beyond measure to see the regularity with which he went through the varying processes of his toilet. She was indignant with his presumption, and self-satisfaction, and conscious rectitude. Edward’s taste was contemptible in books, in pictures, and in music; and his pretentions to judge upon such matters filled Bertha with scorn.

Books, art and music – that is how Bertha judges people, not for their character or dutifulness or patriotism or hard work. All these are rather ridiculous qualities in her eyes.

This scorn is echoed by young Gerald, himself the wastrel son of rich parents, who was kicked out of public school and has got his family’s housemaid pregnant.

On one occasion Edward comes up to see his wife during her stay with Miss Ley. After he has left, Gerald, the good-for-nothing idler, mocks solid, efficient, patriotic Edward Craddock to Miss Ley, who feebly defends him:

‘His locks are somewhat scanty but he has a strong sense of duty.’
‘I know that,’ shouted Gerald. ‘It oozes out of him whenever he gets hot, just like gum.’

This, one cannot help thinking, is all too often the attitude of high-minded writers and artists – regardless of gender or race – to the actual, physical, hard, demanding labour of making and maintaining the world; the smug condescension of the bookish toward those who do the daily necessary labour which makes their luxurious lives of fine feelings and deep thoughts and carefree travel possible.

Maugham pours so much feeling and sentiment and imagination and sympathy into hundreds of pages describing Bertha’s feelings and passions and thoughts and worries and fears and disillusion and unhappiness and despair – that it is easy to forget that she is a leech.


Plus ça change

Reading older literature, I am continually struck at the way that things which bothered the late-Victorians are still bothering us now. The status, roles and rights of women were exercising many of their best minds. Same now. And so was the problem of the poor, the homeless, and the huge inequalities in society. Same now.

But there are other, lesser issues, too, which made me think that some things really never change.

Railways For example, it was only last week that we were hearing about the Labour Party’s plans to renationalise the railways because, in private hands, the level of service given by the railways is shocking, and all the money they raise seems to end up as massive dividends for their shareholders. Well, here is what Maugham thought about British railways in 1902.

Though it was less than thirty miles from Dover to Blackstable the communications were so bad that it was necessary to wait for hours at the port, or take the boat-train to London and then come sixty miles down again. Bertha was exasperated at the delay, forgetting that she was now (thank Heaven!) in a free country, where the railways were not run for the convenience of passengers, but the passengers necessary evils to create dividends for an ill-managed company. (Chapter 23)

Brexit There’s a passage designed to contrast Edward’s narrow-minded Little Englandism and his simple patriotism with Bertha’s cultured cosmopolitanism and loathing of patriotic symbols (in this case, jingoistic late-Victorian music) which anticipates a lot of the rhetoric of Brexit. Manly if thick Edward is talking:

‘I don’t mind confessing that I can’t stand all this foreign music. What I say to Bertha is – why can’t you play English stuff?’
‘If you must play at all,’ interposed his wife.
‘After all’s said and done The Blue Bells of Scotland has got a tune about it that a fellow can get his teeth into.’
‘You see, there’s the difference,’ said Bertha, strumming a few bars of Rule Britannia, ‘it sets mine on edge.’
‘Well, I’m patriotic,’ retorted Edward. ‘I like the good, honest, homely English airs. I like ’em because they’re English. I’m not ashamed to say that for me the best piece of music that’s ever been written is God Save the Queen.’
‘Which was written by a German, dear Edward,’ said Miss Ley, smiling.
‘That’s as it may be,’ said Edward, unabashed, ‘but the sentiment’s English and that’s all I care about.’
‘Hear! hear!’ cried Bertha. ‘I believe Edward has aspirations towards a political career. I know I shall finish up as the wife of the local M.P.’
‘I’m patriotic,’ said Edward, ‘and I’m not ashamed to confess it.’
‘Rule Britannia,’ sang Bertha, ‘Britannia rules the waves, Britons never, never shall be slaves. Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay! Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay!’
‘It’s the same everywhere now,’ proceeded the orator. ‘We’re choke full of foreigners and their goods. I think it’s scandalous. English music isn’t good enough for you – you get it from France and Germany. Where do you get your butter from? Brittany! Where d’you get your meat from? New Zealand!’ This he said with great scorn, and Bertha punctuated the observation with a resounding chord. ‘And as far as the butter goes, it isn’t butter – it’s margarine. Where does your bread come from? America. Your vegetables from Jersey.’
‘Your fish from the sea,’ interposed Bertha.
‘And so it is all along the line – the British farmer hasn’t got a chance!’ (Chapter 12)

Or again, Edward stoutly declares:

‘I’m quite content to be as I am, and I don’t want to know a single foreign language. English is quite good enough for me…. I think English people ought to stick to their own country. I don’t pretend to have read any French books, but I’ve never heard anybody deny, that at all events the great majority are indecent, and not the sort of thing a woman should read… What we want now is purity and reconstitution of the national life. I’m in favour of English morals, and English homes, English mothers, and English habits.’

Cosmopolitan contempt for Britain The cosmopolitan Miss Ley thinks there is something intrinsically pathetic about the English.

‘You’ve never had a London season, have you? On the whole I think it’s amusing: the opera is very good and sometimes you see people who are quite well dressed.’

To this day there is a broad streak of intellectual literary life which despises the English and worships the literature, climate, fashion and landscape of France or Italy.

Tourism When I went to Barcelona recently I couldn’t miss the graffiti everywhere telling tourists to go home and stop ruining their city. I’ve since read articles about other tourist destinations which are struggling to cope with the number of visitors. Back in 1902 Miss Ley shared this feeling that tourism was ruining everywhere, in this case Paris:

We have here a very nice apartment, in the Latin Quarter, away from the rich people and the tourists. I do not know which is more vulgar, the average tripper or the part of Paris which he infests: I must say they become one another to a nicety. I loathe the shoddiness of the boulevards, with their gaudy cafés over-gilt and over-sumptuous, and their crowds of ill-dressed foreigners. But if you come I can show you a different Paris – a restful and old-fashioned Paris, theatres to which tourists do not go; gardens full of pretty children and nursemaids with long ribbons to their caps. I can take you down innumerable grey streets with funny shops, in old churches where you see people actually praying; and it is all very quiet and calming to the nerves. And I can take you to the Louvre at hours when there are few visitors…

Infest! She says tourists infest parts of Paris. If she had been describing immigrants, the book would be banned.

Politicians are idiots In a funny scene Edward stands for election to the local council and makes a speech riddled with pompous expressions, bad jokes, stories which disappointingly taper off, but still manages to end with rousingly jingoistic rhetoric.

Bertha is more ashamed and embarrassed than she’s ever been in her life by its simple-minded idiocy. But the speech is greeted with wild applause and Edward is elected by a landslide. People, Bertha concludes, are idiots. And the biggest idiots of all are running the country.

There is nothing so difficult as to persuade men that they are not omniscient. Bertha, exaggerating the seriousness of the affair, thought it charlatanry [of Edward] to undertake a post without knowledge and without capacity. Fortunately that is not the opinion of the majority, or the government of this enlightened country could not proceed.

Throughout the book the reader finds the same tone, and the same arguments, applied to the same ‘issues’ that we are still discussing and arguing about, 120 years later. Many superficial details change – but arguments about the rights of women, the idiocy of politicians, the rubbish train system, the philistine patriotism and the snooty snobbery of the book and art world – all of this remains the same as ever.


Related links

Somerset Maugham’s books

1897 Liza of Lambeth
1902 Mrs Craddock
1915 Of Human Bondage
1919 The Moon and Sixpence

1921 The Trembling of a Leaf: Little Stories of the South Sea Islands (short story collection)
1921 The Circle (play)
1922 On a Chinese Screen (travel book)
1923 Our Betters (play)
1925 The Painted Veil (novel)
1926 The Casuarina Tree: Six Stories
1927 The Constant Wife (play)
1928 Ashenden: Or the British Agent (short story collection)
1929 The Sacred Flame (play)

1930 Cakes and Ale: or, the Skeleton in the Cupboard
1930 The Gentleman in the Parlour: A Record of a Journey From Rangoon to Haiphong
1931 Six Stories Written in the First Person Singular (short story collection)
1932 The Narrow Corner (novel)
1933 Ah King (short story collection)
1933 Sheppey (play)
1935 Don Fernando (travel book)
1936 Cosmopolitans (29 x two-page-long short stories)
1937 Theatre (novel)
1938 The Summing Up (autobiography)
1939 Christmas Holiday (novel)

1940 The Mixture as Before (short story collection)
1941 Up at the Villa (crime novella)
1942 The Hour Before The Dawn (novel)
1944 The Razor’s Edge (novel)
1946 Then and Now (historical novel)
1947 Creatures of Circumstance (short story collection)
1948 Catalina (historical novel)
1949 A Writer’s Notebook

1963 Collected short stories volume one (30 stories: Rain, The Fall of Edward Barnard, Honolulu, The Luncheon, The Ant and the Grasshopper, Home, The Pool, Mackintosh, Appearance and Reality, The Three Fat Women of Antibes, The Facts of Life, Gigolo and Gigolette, The Happy Couple, The Voice of the Turtle, The Lion’s Skin, The Unconquered, The Escape, The Judgement Seat, Mr. Know-All, The Happy Man, The Romantic Young Lady, The Point of Honour, The Poet, The Mother, A Man from Glasgow, Before the Party, Louise, The Promise, A String of Beads, The Yellow Streak)
1963 Collected short stories volume two (24 stories: The Vessel of Wrath, The Force of Circumstance, Flotsam and Jetsam, The Alien Corn, The Creative Impulse, The Man with the Scar, Virtue, The Closed Shop, The Bum, The Dream, The Treasure, The Colonel’s Lady, Lord Mountdrago, The Social Sense, The Verger, In A Strange Land, The Taipan, The Consul, A Friend in Need, The Round Dozen, The Human Element, Jane, Footprints in the Jungle, The Door of Opportunity)
1963 Collected short stories volume three (17 stories: A Domiciliary Visit, Miss King, The Hairless Mexican, The Dark Woman, The Greek, A Trip to Paris, Giulia Lazzari, The Traitor, Gustav, His Excellency, Behind the Scenes, Mr Harrington’s Washing, A Chance Acquaintance, Love and Russian Literature, Sanatorium)
1963 Collected short stories volume four (30 stories: The Book-Bag, French Joe, German Harry, The Four Dutchmen, The Back Of Beyond, P. & O., Episode, The Kite, A Woman Of Fifty, Mayhew, The Lotus Eater, Salvatore, The Wash-Tub, A Man With A Conscience, An Official Position, Winter Cruise, Mabel, Masterson, Princess September, A Marriage Of Convenience, Mirage, The Letter, The Outstation, The Portrait Of A Gentleman, Raw Material, Straight Flush, The End Of The Flight, A Casual Affair, Red, Neil Macadam)

2009 The Secret Lives of Somerset Maugham by Selina Hastings

Queer British Art 1861-1967 @ Tate Britain

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Female Figure Lying on Her Back

Can you tell whether this painting was done by a man or a woman, lesbian or gay, bisexual or transsexual?

And does it matter?

If by a man, is it a horrible example of the Male Gaze, encouraging male ‘ownership’ and mastery of the female figure, encouraging lascivious thoughts in the male viewer, reducing women to sexualised objects, exploiting women for semi-pornographic purposes?

If by a woman, is it a joyously unashamed celebration of the female body, the lazy posture and yawning stretch of the subject marvellously capturing a moment of real, unvarnished intimacy?

Does knowledge of the painter’s gender or sexual orientation change your ‘reading’ of this picture, your enjoyment of it, your ‘understanding’ of it? And why?

These are just some of the questions raised by this fascinating and thought-provoking exhibition.

Declaration of interest

I was a member of the Campaign for Homosexual Equality back in the 1970s, going on marches, signing petitions, habituating Windsor’s only gay pub, campaigning for gay rights, the central one being getting the age of gay consent brought down in line with the age for straights. In the years since, I’ve supported gay marriage, gay and women priests, and so on. It’s always been obvious to me that LGBT people should be treated absolutely the same as anyone else, and benefit from exactly the same rights and life opportunities. I am not myself gay, but it’s always seemed obvious to me that a) no-one should judge any form of sexual practice among consenting adults b) no-one should be allowed to discriminate in any way against anyone on account of their sexual orientation or sexual practices.

The jargon of desire

In the late 1960s French structuralist literary criticism began to morph into post-structuralist criticism and theory. Reflecting the move from the politicised 1960s into the more narcissistic 1970s, and an ongoing obsession with Freudian psychoanalysis – and also being French and proud of it – a lot of this criticism became more personal, about identity, as constituted in texts and wider society, and a lot more about sex.

The works of literary critics like Roland Barthes (b.1915,  The Pleasure of the Text), the historian Michel Foucault (b.1926 A History of Sexuality), the philosopher Jacques Derrida (b.1930), the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan (b.1901), feminist theorists like Hélène Cixous (b.1937) and Julia Kristeva (b.1941 Desire in language), and the pioneer of Queer Studies, Judith Butler (b.1956, Subjects of desireGender trouble, Undoing gender), plus many others have led to the vast proliferation of the ‘discourse of desire’, to countless books and articles and conferences and degree and postgraduate courses about gender and sexuality, demonstrating how this, that or the other work of art or fiction or film ‘subverts’ or ‘challenges’ or ‘confronts’ gender conventions and ‘transgresses’ gender stereotypes and ‘rewrites’ gender narratives.

With the collapse of communism in the early 1990s, young students wanting to prove how rebellious and subversive they were found themselves bereft of an ideological alternative to consumer capitalism, and so found themselves forced towards the only two games in town, anti-sexism and anti-racism, embodied in Women’s Studies/Gender Studies, and Post-Colonial Studies, respectively.

For at least thirty years humanities departments – literature, art, philosophy – have been teaching courses showing how all Western writing, art, philosophy was riddled with racist/sexist assumptions, and built on evil imperialism and slavery. Many graduates of these courses, imbued with this way of thinking, moved on into the media and press, into film and theatre and the art world, where in the pages of the Guardian or the Huffington Post or the Independent, and in galleries and theatres across the West, they can be seen every day writing scandalised articles, producing documentaries, putting on plays angry about the persistence of sexism and racism and homophobia.

But there are more women than immigrants in this country and, as a result, more Feminist Studies, Women’s Studies, Gender Studies courses than Post-Colonial courses – and so books and articles and films and documentaries about the multiple unfairnesses and injustices perpetrated on women throughout the ages by the ever-present Patriarchy, continue to thrive and proliferate.

On one level this exhibition represents a triumph of this kind of discourse, a discourse a) obsessed by sex, conceived of in a rather dry and boring theoretical way b) driven and animated by a fathomless sense of grievance and injustice. Exhibitions about any aspect of sexuality represent a perfect marriage of victim politics with the high-flown ‘discourse of desire’.

Why use the word ‘queer’?

To quote the curators:

Queer has a mixed history – from the 19th century onwards it has been used both as a term of abuse and as a term by LGBT people to refer to themselves. Our inspiration for using it came from Derek Jarman who said that it used to frighten him but now ‘for me to use the word queer is a liberation’. More recently, of course, it has become reclaimed as a fluid term for people of different sexualities and gender identities. Historians of sexuality have also argued that it is preferable to other terms for sexualities in the past as these often don’t map onto modern sexual identities. In addition to carrying out audience research, we took advice from Stonewall and other LGBT charities and held focus groups with LGBT people. The advice from all of these sources was overwhelmingly that we should use it. While we tried other titles, no other option captured the full diversity of sexualities and gender identities that are represented in the show.

What is a queer work of art?

Does it have to portray a homosexual or lesbian act i.e. be pornographic (as a small number of the works here do, some rude sketches by Keith Vaughan and the super well-known big phalluses of Aubrey Beardsley’s illustrations to Lysistrata)?

Is queer art any  work by an overtly gay or lesbian or bi or trans artist? But how many Victorian and Edwardian and Georgian painters thought of themselves in those terms? Don’t the curators run the risk of – in fact aren’t they running headlong into – defining, naming and limiting people from the past a) by our own modern 2017 categories of sexuality (Yes); and b) of defining people entirely by their ‘sexuality’, whatever that is. I thought that was precisely what CHE and Gay Rights and their successors were trying to escape from: from being tied down, limited, constrained and defined solely in terms of your sexual preferences, as if that were the only important part of your life, as if society is correct to pigeonhole all of us on the basis of this one attribute.

And what if the queer artist’s subject matter is not only not particularly erotic, what if it’s not even of human body? For example, is this queer art?

Hannah Gluckstein, known as Gluck (1895 – 1978) was a lesbian painter. So is her painting of flowers a work of queer art?

Should queer art also include works which just look ‘sort of’ homoerotic or a bit lesbian, either a) in the eyes of contemporary viewers (in which case it might have caused a ‘scandal’ and ‘shocked Victorian society’), or b) in the eyes of modern curators trained to spot the slightest sign of gender stereotypes being ‘subverted’ and gender norms being ‘transgressed’ and narratives of heterosexuality being ‘questioned’ and ‘interrogated’?

Either way, categorising art in terms of the audience’s response to it, is dicey. What constitutes ‘art’ has changed out of all recognition the past 150 years. People’s responses to ‘art’ have become similarly complex and varied.

Tricky questions. In the event, this exhibition includes works chosen by all these criteria, and more.

The drawbacks of telling history through art

This decade Tate Britain has run a series of exhibitions based not around artists or movements, but on broad themes and topics. Thus they’ve staged exhibitions about: folk art, the aesthetic of ruins, the British Empire, Victorian sculpture, the destruction of art works, the depiction of war. Many of them had an amusingly random element, delicate watercolours of Tintern Abbey placed next to vast photos of Nazi war bunkers (Ruin Lust), or some maps of the Empire next to some flags of the Empire next to random artifacts from the Empire (Artist and Empire).

Although they put a brave face on it, the cumulative impression of visiting all these shows raises the suspicion that the curators are under orders to find pretexts to bring out the more obscure and neglected works languishing in Tate’s vast archives, and display them in exhibitions with eye-catching and ‘controversial’ themes.

While the aim of rotating their (doubtless huge) collection for us to view is laudable, the pretexts the curators come up with are sometimes ambitiously wide-ranging and grand-sounding, while the collection of artifacts actually on display often turns out to be rather patchy and random. The history of the British Empire is an enormous subject: the Tate exhibition about it amounted to a jumble sale of odds and sods from across the huge geographic reach and vast periods of time involved: the Empire used maps, here’s some maps; the Empire had flags, here’s half a dozen flags; the Empire allowed botanists and naturalists to travel the world and see exotic species so here’s a painting of tiger; here’s some native spears; and so on.

Although Tate calls in plentiful loans from other collections to create the exhibitions, the core of these shows tends to be focused on dusting off and displaying many of it hidden assets, themselves bought at various times for various reasons, hence the feeling they give of a patchwork quilt made from odds and ends. Sometimes it feels as if they’re trying do a vast jigsaw without most of the pieces.

Written histories can conjure up anything with words, creating continuities, linking themes and ideas at will: in words, anything is possible. Histories told through objects, however, immediately limit which areas can be covered, and which stories can be told, by virtue of what is available, what has survived. And histories told through works of ‘art’ are even more limited by the random nature of any particular art collection, as well as biases intrinsic in what kind of subjects get turned into ‘art’ and what don’t (the experiences of most ‘ordinary’ people, for example, or the entire world of work, especially housework).

All these limitations apply to this exhibition, with the additional challenge that sex, sexuality, gender, desire – call it what you will – is, by and large, quite a private part of most people’s lives. Artists and performers, by the nature of their work and output, are a kind of exception to the rule that most people keep their sex lives pretty private. And forms of sexuality which were banned by law and subject to harsh punishments are all the more likely to be hidden and suppressed, to not leave traces in the written – and especially the painted – record.

In other words, even more than Tate’s other wide-ranging historical exhibitions, this one feels haunted by gaps and absences.

The dates

In 1861 the death penalty for sodomy was abolished; in 1967 sex between men was (partially) decriminalised. These provide handy end dates.

The exhibition is in eight rooms

Coded desires covers the later Victorian period. This was dominated by the Aesthetic Movement and the group of painters known as the Olympians, who specialised in sensuous paintings of lightly-clad women lounging around in a dreamy ancient Roman baths or terraces. Just thinking about either of these interlinked movements brings to mind the extraordinary sensuality present in so much art of this period, along with a worship of the classical world, in pictures and in words, which stretched towards a feel for the same-sex relationships present in, especially, the writings of the Greeks, where a sexual relationship between an older man and a younger man or boy was socially acceptable. This may or may not be present in the works here, But the bigger story about most late Victorian art is the remarkable extent to which ‘desire’, physical sensuousness, in all shapes and forms, was more openly depicted than ever before in this period.

The exhibition has some striking works by the king of the Olympians, Frederick Leighton, on the basis that he sometimes depicted sensual male nudes – although many of his works are characterised by sensuality for men or women.

Leighton was rumoured to be gay, but then again it’s thought he had an affair with one of his female models. Tricky, therefore, to shoehorn him into modern categories of straight, gay, bi etc. One of the liberating things about studying history, past lives, is they did things differently, thought, wrote, spoke, painted, perceived, differently to us. Don’t fit into our modern categories.

The bulk of works in the room are by Simeon Solomon, who was unfortunate enough to be arrested in a public lavatory off Oxford Street, charged with attempting to commit sodomy and fined £100, then a year later arrested in Paris and sentenced to three months in prison. This makes him a bona fide gay hero. To the viewer, however, his works seem mostly sub-standard examples of the Olympian style done much more smoothly by the likes of Alma-Tadema or Albert Moore.

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

Sappho and Erinna in a Garden at Mytilene (1864) by Simeon Solomon (Watercolour) Tate

William Blake Richmond (1842-1921) is a painter you don’t hear about much. He also painted supremely sensual paintings on sunny classical themes, e.g. Hera in the House of Hephaistos or just sumptuous late-Victorian portraits e.g. Mrs Luke Ionides. Nothing particularly ‘transgressive’ about these, in the way our curators want to see ‘gender norms’ being ‘transgressed’, but they’ve included one big painting The Bowlers.

Apparently, this scandalised the Victorians (didn’t everything ‘scandalise’ the Victorians?) for its inclusion of naked women (you can see some breasts) and naked men in the same scene. And some of the men have their arms round each other. Shock horror. Richmond was married and wasn’t arrested in any toilets, so not a transgressive hero per se. After looking at it for a while I noticed the way a line drawn along the top of the heads of the figures on the right forms a diagonal going down towards the centre of the composition, while the heads of the women on the left line up as a mirror diagonal heading down towards the centre: at the very centre is a black vase against a thick central pillar, to the left of which is a woman in a see-through toga and on the right the zigzagging black trunk of a wisteria tree. Which means or symbolises? Who knows.

My favourite things in this room were the three paintings by the marvellous Henry Scott Tuke (1858-1929). Tuke was one of a group of artists who settled in Newlyn in Cornwall and painted en plein air. Almost all are of young men, nude or half-undressed, by the sparkling sea in the sunshine. In the permanent gallery upstairs they display August Blue (1893), a wonderful composition in terms of the draughtsmanship of the figures, also the figurative accuracy of the rowboat and the ships on the horizon, and also of course the wonderfully clear blues and greens – you can smell the sea, you can feel the sun on your skin. There are three of his paintings here alongside a cabinet showing some of the many photographs he took of gorgeous-looking young men.

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

The Critics (1927) by Henry Scott Tuke. Warwick District Council (Leamington Spa, UK)

Public indecency ‘looks at ways in which sexuality and gender identity did – and did not – go public from the 1880s to the 1920s.’

Thus we have the trial of Oscar Wilde (who has not heard of the trial of Oscar Wilde? How many films have been made of it?) the prosecution of Radclyffe Hall for her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness (1928), and we get some of Aubrey Beardsley’s ‘scandalous’ illustrations for the Greek play Lysistrata thrown in.

This is the kind of thing you should learn in 6th form and certainly early in an English or humanities degree course, so that you can tut and fret and criticise horrible dead white men for repressing ‘transgressive’ sexualities. But it’s worth remembering that this period also saw the persecution of male heterosexual artists as well – James Joyce’s Ulysses went on trial in 1921 because of its description of a man masturbating, the police raided an exhibition of paintings by D.H. Lawrence and (admittedly not in England) the Austrian artist Egon Schiele was arrested and 100 of his art works were confiscated – one of them was burned by the judge in court in front of the artist -for their sexual explicitness.

It was an era when many artists of all persuasions were pushing at the boundaries of what society thought was acceptable depiction of sexuality, and many artists, gay, straight or what-have-you – fell foul of the authorities.

Alongside the Wilde and Beardsley are testaments to the work of the sexologists Richard von Krafft-Ebbing and Havelock Ellis, who collaborated with the gay writer John Addington Symonds on his book Sexual Inversion (1896). These ‘scientific’ works can either be seen (optimistically) as the start of a ‘modern’ liberal attitude to a wide range of sexual practices or (pessimistically) as ‘science’ and the State beginning to move into areas of private life, with a view to defining and categorising all possible practices (or perversions as they’d have been called) and the human ‘types’ which engage in them.

You don’t have to be Michel Foucault to suspect that the ‘liberating’ effects of writing about varieties of sexuality can be accompanied by new types of definition, surveillance and control.

Theatrical types The theatre and performing arts have long offered a refuge for exhibitionists, people who like to dress up, fantasise, play act and generally behave in ways which would not be acceptable in everyday life. So the theatre has long attracted gay men and this room features photos of famous performers who were gay, photographers who were gay, with a special case devoted to cross-dressing entertainers.

There’s a lot of photos by Angus McBean (1904-90) the fabulous b&w photographer, who did lots of semi-surreal fashion shots before the war (his ‘surrealised portraits’), was arrested in 1942 for homosexual acts and served two years in gaol, before emerging to resume his career post-war in a rather more traditional vision. But everything he did is touched by class and style. The show includes a typically weird portrait of the now-forgotten actor Robert Helpmann as Hamlet, though I know him for his appearances in Powell and Pressburger’s two extraordinary films, The Red Shoes and The Tales of Hoffmann.

The British have a problem with sex, full stop, whether straight or gay, and have long had a reputation for gross hypocrisy, with the ‘respectable’ classes enforcing repressive laws at home then vacationing in Paris where they could sleep with countless courtesans (as squeaky clean Charles Dickens was reputed to do and the heir to the throne, Prince Albert certainly did) or swanning off to North Africa, to Algeria or Morocco where there was an endless supply of boys for sex.

This nervousness, shame and embarrassment may be part of what lies behind the long tradition of men dressing up as women for vaudeville entertainment, a tradition which goes back a long way, but is certainly present in the Victorian music hall, through the pre-war years and was still going strong in my boyhood in figures like Danny La Rue, Dick Emery (‘Oh you are awful… but I like you!’), Kenny Everett (‘and then all my clothes fell off!’), Dame Edna Everage, Lily Savage. And that’s without mentioning the vast tradition of English pantomime with its Widow Twanky and Ugly Sisters, traditionally played by men and a huge opportunity for all kinds of blue, risqué and ‘transgender’ comedy.

A display case here presents a dozen or so photos and posters illustrating some of the cross-dressing stars of yore, most of which I’d never heard of simply because they were before the days of TV. Here, as elsewhere in the show (and as often in the Tate ‘history’ exhibitions) you feel this is an absolutely vast subject which has been only briefly sketched and hinted at, and possibly not one which is necessarily best approached through the medium of ‘art’ at all.

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Douglas Byng (1934) by Paul Tanqueray. Vintage bromide print © Estate of Paul Tanqueray

Bloomsbury and beyond I am prejudiced against Bloomsbury because of their snobbery and their smug, self-congratulatory elitism. They all slept with each other and described each other, in private letters and public reviews, as geniuses. What’s lasted has tended to be the writings of figures on the periphery – the economics of John Maynard Keynes, the novels of E.M. Forster, the novels of Virginia Woolf, though she was a core member. The art work of figures like Dora Carrington, Vanessa Bell (recently featured in a handsome exhibition at the Dulwich Picture House), Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, hasn’t really stood the test of time.

The catalogue says this room is meant to represent:

a generation of artists and sitters exploring, confronting and coming to terms with themselves and their desires.

Which makes it sound much more exciting and dynamic than most of their sleepy decorative pictures. Ethel Sands’s Tea with Sickert symbolises everything pretty, decorative and forgettable which I tend not to like about Bloomsbury art. Perhaps I just can’t slow myself down to this atmosphere of coma-like inaction. The commentary on the other hand, because Sands was in a queer relationship with fellow painter Nan Hudson, claims it is a ‘quietly subversive’ work, with ‘queer undercurrents’. Can you spot the queer undercurrents?

The commentary makes the case that, although not overtly sexual in the least, these tranquil interiors are a) painted by queer artists and b) if you look closely, very closely, you can see small hints and traces of ‘queer lives’ which ‘history has long neglected’. Maybe…

That said, I did find myself, on repeated viewings and to my surprise, warming to the selection of works by Duncan Grant on show here. These ranged from small, explicitly gay pornographic sketches to a vast mural, commissioned to decorate the dining room of the new Borough Polytechnic in 1911.

It’s a huge work – and the more I looked at it the more I admired the mix of abstract and figurative elements to achieve an overall decorative effect, and came to understand that it follows the action of a single diver from standing poised on the shore, at right, through diving in, and swimming to the boat which he clambers into at top left.

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Bathing (1911) by Duncan Grant © Tate

Similarly, I was impressed by the sheer size of the massive Excursion of Nausicaa by Dame Ethel Walker. It’s 18 metres wide by almost 4 high and makes a dramatic impact. It’s just as well a bench is provided for you to sit and take it all in. Although, when you look closer, it seems an uncomfortable mix of Gauguin-style primitivism with Art Deco style neo-classical figures, it is still at first sight, an enormous and confident composition.

There is a vibrant portrait by Glyn Warren Philpot (1884–1937) of his servant, Henry Thomas (1935). Note: his servant. In fact there were half a dozen Philpots scattered through the show, though this is the most vivid.

Similarly, the South African artist Edward Wolfe is represented by a portrait of Pat Nelson, his model and thought to be his gay lover.

The Bloomsburyites’ pursuit of ‘unconventional’ sexual arrangements (i.e. being bisexual, living with several lovers at once etc) through the Great War and into the twenties, led in to the cultural dominance of gay writers, poets and artists during the 1930s, given extra bite by the availability of the ‘decadent’ Weimar Republic in post-war Germany, whither trekked a generation of young gay men like Auden, Christopher Isherwood and so on.

Defying convention This room shows how early 20th century British artists ‘challenged gender norms’ i.e. by being lesbians, living with other women, having ‘open marriages’ and so on. For example, Laura Knight, the curators claim, in this picture is laying ‘claim to traditional masculine sources of artistic authority by depicting [herself] in the act of painting nude female models’. It’s another very big painting and very red.

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

Self portrait and Nude (1913) by Laura Knight. National Portrait Gallery

There is a factual background to the image in that Knight was prevented from attending the life classes at Nottingham Art College because she was a woman; only when she moved to Newlyn was she able to hire life models, and so this composition is a sort of act of defiance. That changes our attitude to the image. Still, in and of itself, would you know that it lays claims to masculine sources of artistic authority, if it hadn’t been carefully explained. Maybe…

Anyway, on pretexts solid or flimsy, a number of big, colourful and attractive works are on show in this room, especially of the phenomenally posh women who populated early 20th century feminism.

  • Lady with a Red Hat (1918) by William Strang – the lady being the lesbian and gardening writer Vita Sackville-West, the Honourable Mrs Harold Nicholson, Companion of Honour, daughter of the third Baron Sackville. She is holding her recently published book of poems – Poems of West and East – showing the influence of Tennyson’s world-weariness, A.E. Housman’s lad poems, and the childlike orientalism of John Masefield and other Georgians.  They’re sweet and melancholy.
  • Dame Edith Sitwell (1916) by Alberto Guevara – daughter of Sir George Sitwell, 4th Baronet, of Renishaw Hall, and Lady Ida Emily Augusta (née Denison), a daughter of the Earl of Londesborough and a granddaughter of Henry Somerset, 7th Duke of Beaufort.
  • Romance (1920) by Cecile Walton – Walton doesn’t appear to have been gay, having had two marriages (to men) but this self-portrait is ‘challenging’ and ‘subverting’ ‘gender norms’ surrounding birth. Having been present at the birth of my daughter, I can testify that it certainly challenges the reality of childbirth which is a lot less calm and dignified than this static scenario.

Arcadia and Soho ‘London was a magnet for queer artists’.

The most striking works here are by the neglected surrealist artist Edward Burra (1905-76). According to a review of his biography, his sensibility was gay, and his closest friend was a male ballet dancer, ‘but they were never lovers’. Am I alone in finding this modern inquisitiveness about the exact nature of other people’s sexuality, and the precise borders of their sexual activity, prurient and controlling? Who cares? His art is weird and extra, a really stunning, outlandish vision.

  • Soldiers at Rye (1941) Burra incorporates masks from Venetian carnival, fabric from Spanish baroque, with a kind of sado-military hugeness to create this monstrous surreal panorama.
  • Izzy Orts (1937) Burra was introduced to the portside bars of Charleston, with their mix of jazz musicians, pimps and dealers, and sailors in tight-fitting uniforms. Perfect!

The opposite wall is devoted to a trio of gay artists – John Craxton, John Minton and Keith Vaughan – who were loosely described as ‘neo-romantics’ in the 1940s. They were certainly gay. There’s a display case of overtly gay and pornographic pencil sketches by Vaughan, as well as a handful of photos he took of gorgeous young men.

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

Drawing of two men kissing (1958–73) by Keith Vaughan © DACS, The Estate of Keith Vaughan

At an exhibition years ago I saw a whole stand of the b&w photos Vaughan took of beautiful young men lounging around classic 1930s lidos, at Hampstead Pools or the Serpentine, and have been haunted by them ever since.

Next to the figurative sketches are his much more abstract paintings:

In these Vaughan seems to me to have developed a new and exciting way of depicting the (mostly male) figure. Alongside Vaughan are some lighter, more ‘naive’ works by John Craxton.

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Head of a Greek Sailor (1940) by John Craxton © Estate of John Craxton. All rights reserved, DACS 2016. Photo credit: London Borough of Camden

Craxton, Minton and Vaughan are three interesting figures, maybe worthy of a joint exhibition some time.

Public/private lives In the decade leading up to the 1967 Sexual Offences Act gay men lived a strange twilight life. In many places gay relationships among the famous, especially the arty, were permitted – the eminent actor John Gielgud was arrested for indecency in a public toilet in 1953, was fined, released and was roundly applauded the next time he took to the stage. Maybe the most famous example was the close ‘friendship’ between England’s leading composer Benjamin Britten and the singer Peter Pears. The fuzz couldn’t go arresting the nation’s premier composer. But they did continue to arrest and imprison a steady stream of less well-known gay men, creating the trickle of protest which grew louder and more widespread for the law to be repealed or abolished.

This room goes heavy on the lurid relationship of gay playwright Joe Orton and his jealous lover Kenneth Halliwell, because it ended in a garish tragedy. But in the whole room the most powerful image for me was a still from the 1961 movie Victim, a genuinely taboo-breaking work starring Dirk Bogarde as an impeccably upper-middle class lawyer married to the fragrant Sylvia Sims, but who is photographed in a compromising situation with good-looking young Peter McEnery, and blackmailed. I saw this film as a boy and it left a lasting impression of the needless pain and suffering caused by bigots and criminals given license by a stupidly interfering state. It influenced me to join the Campaign for Homosexual Equality.

Francis Bacon and David Hockney I think we all know about these bad boys. This final room gives us the opportunity to marvel again at the bleak power of Bacon’s nihilistic paintings and the scratchy undergraduate humour of Hockney’s early Pop style.

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Life Painting for a Diploma (1962) by David Hockney © Yageo Foundation

Scholarship or prurient gossip?

As I progressed through the exhibition, reading every wall label carefully, a theme began to emerge (above and beyond the obvious ones about ‘gender fluidity’ and ‘same-sex desire’):

  • ‘De Morgan’s repeated images of Hales have encouraged speculation about the nature of their relationship…’
  • ‘There is some evidence that Henry Bishop was attracted to men…’
  • ‘Beardsley does not seem to have had relationships with men…’
  • ‘There has been much speculation about Tuke’s relationships with his Cornish models although nothing has been substantiated…’
  • ‘Little is known about Meteyard’s sexuality, other than the fact that he was married…’
  • ‘Leighton’s sexuality has been the subject of much speculation from his own times to the present, but he guarded his privacy closely…’
  • ‘Glen Byam Shaw had almost certainly been the lover of the poet Siegfried Sassoon…’
  • ‘The exact nature of Thomas and Philpot’s relationship is unknown…’
  • Duncan Grant’s ‘close friend and possible lover Paul Roche…’
  • ‘There has been a lot of speculation about the nature of Walker’s relationship with the painter Clara Christian with whom she lived and worked in the 1880s although little evidence survives…’
  • ‘The poet Edith Sitwell does not seem to have had sexual relationships…’

What does it matter to an appreciation of their work what an artist did or did not do with their penis or vagina, or to someone else’s penis or vagina? Why do scholars obsess about the sexual act being a vital threshold in a relationship? On one level, this breathless fascination with the precise nature of people’s relationships, and whether they ever did the deed together, is just a highbrow form of gutter gossip, an educated equivalent to who’s shagging who in The Only Way Is Essex or Celebrity Big Brother, little different to the tittle-tattle of the tabloid press.

On a more disturbing level, this intrusion of scholarly enquiry into the heart of people’s private lives is because modern art critics and curators need to know precisely who had sex with who and when, so that they can categorise and define artists, writers, poets, photographers, performers and so on according to their tidy definitions. So that artists can be neatly arranged into canons and genres and books and essays and exhibitions about straight or gay or queer or whatever art.

  • ‘[Dirk Bogarde] never publicly affirmed a sexual identity and his personal life has to be inferred from his long relationship with his manager Tony Forwood (1915-88) with whom he shared his home.’

Has to be? Who says it has to be? Why this compulsion? Why must everyone’s sexuality be nailed down and defined?

To be a bit fierce, you could say that modern art scholars and curators talk the talk about gender fluidity and multiple narratives and transgressing this, that or the other – but in practice, it is they more than any other group in British society who are obsessed with tracking down their subjects’ every sexual act and desire in order to categorise, limit, define and control both artists and their works.

I found the obsessive probing into these dead people’s private lives unpleasant and disturbing.

Conclusion

The repetition over and again, in the introductions to each room and on labels for individual works, of the phrases ‘same-sex desire’ and ‘gender norms’, all of which are ‘challenged’ and ‘confronted’ and ‘transgressed’, of artists ‘fearlessly stripping away’ convention and ‘pushing the boundaries’ – all this gets pretty monotonous after a while.

Luckily, the art itself is much more varied, stimulating and unexpected than the ideological monomania of the commentary would suggest. If the downside of these historically-themed Tate exhibitions is that they take on vast subjects which they then struggle to adequately cover, the upside is that they turn up all sorts of unexpected treasures by relatively unknown figures, and make you want to see more.

For example, I’d love to see an exhibition devoted to Craxton, Minton and Vaughan, exploring that strange sensibility of the 1940s, surely the most overlooked of 20th century decades. An exhibition devoted to the late Victorian ‘Olympian’ artists would not only be a feast of sensuality but could explore in more detail the complex areas of sexuality and sensuality which were so present in Victorian art, yet so repressed in Victorian life.

Edward Burra, can we have a show dedicated to him, please, his last retrospective was in 1973. How about a show devoted to Tuke and the Newlyn School, what a wonderful treat that would be for the dark English winter. The more I looked at the Angus McBean photos, the more wonderful they seemed – how about an exhibition of him – or a broader exhibition about Theatre and Photography? Or, as simple an idea as ‘Neglected Women Artists 1860-1960’, showcasing the work of less well-known women artists (Laura Knight, Cecile Walton, Ethel Walker) from this era, gay, straight or whatever.

In conclusion, I was irritated by the curator-speak but I thought it was a wonderful show, went back to see it twice, bought the catalogue, and am still being pleasantly beguiled by many of the wonderful paintings, large and small, brash or quiet. What an extraordinary, and huge, contribution gay/lesbian/queer artists have made to every aspect of British culture.


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