- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 24, 2002

By Andrea Lynn
Westview, $30, 530 pages, illus.

You've got to hand it to H.G. Wells. Nearing the age of 70 a time when many men, especially in those pre-Viagra days, might have contemplated hanging up their gloves in the sexual arena he was busily engaged in juggling a collection of mistresses, old and new.
There was Russian emigree Moura Budberg, whom he desperately wanted to be the third Mrs. H.G. Wells, but who would remain an unconsecrated companion until his death at age 80 in 1946. Meanwhile, he was involved in a bitter and protracted struggle to extricate himself from the clutches of a lady he no longer found desirable, Odette Keun, whom he was trying to dislodge from the house he had built for her near Grasse on the French Riviera. (Its motto, "Two Lovers Built this House," had been taken down and restored innumerable times and was by now so ironic an adornment as to lack even the slightest capacity to amuse.)
Soon there would be romances with two very different Americans: horseracing-obsessed heiress Constance Coolidge and novelist, pioneering journalist, and foreign correspondent Martha Gellhorn. And still, this man, who famously declared that there came a time each day when his work was done and the evening's entertainments had not begun, when he just had to have sexual intercourse as a simple bodily function, also needed the casual attentions of the occasional lady procured for him by such kinds of friends as Somerset Maugham and his lover Gerald Haxton.
So it is not surprising that the septuagenarian Wells felt the desire to pen an addendum to his successful 1934 autobiography in order to give an account of his sexual history. He knew of course that its frankness and the fact that many of his inamoratas were still very much present made it unpublishable in his lifetime. But ever a man of the future, the author of such science fiction classics as "The Time Machine," he was confident that the day would come when this titillating memoir could see the light of day.
He was correct, for "H.G. Wells in Love: Postscript to An Experiment in Autobiography" duly appeared in 1984 edited by his son G.P. Wells. Even then, however, some names and sections had to be excised. Now, Andrea Lynn, a news and features writer at the News Bureau of the University of Illinois, home of the H.G. Wells papers, has stepped forward to illuminate these hidden chapters. She has produced a massive work, far longer than Wells' "Postscript," to which it is in part a necessary and valuable addition. She has also brought to light a splendid array of letters and other documents recently made public by the Wells estate, which greatly enhance our picture of his complicated amatory and quotidian existences.
It is one thing to read Wells' jocular, perhaps even disingenuous account of his travails with Odette Keun, but when you read some of the letters she wrote him, you begin to understand what he had to contend with:
"If you weren't such an imbecile," she writes, "you would have known that everything you do against me would turn out to be a boomerang. Well, this is your quietus, you stupid stale old man. You are out of this place for good and all. I send you in parting my pious hope that your neuritis, your diabetes, your sclerosed lung and your one kidney will soon combine to put a definitive stop to the diarrhetic deluge of driveling works with which you persist in swamping a long-suffering public and so I end a mortally boring association."
And if her private diatribes were vicious, her public effusions, for example the article she wrote in the English journal Time and Tide in 1934, were perhaps even more devastating: "He can no longer shape minds or inflame devotions… . If he has failed to save us, the fault is in him. He had the brain, he had the vision, he had the ability. He had, at one time, the heart and faith of multitudes with him. But … that thing which is integrity of doctrine and selflessness of idealism; that ultimate genuineness which in the last analysis alone makes for permanent force and influence in life in no form and in no measure has he ever had it at all. It was only a game. He was only a player."
Truly, Odette Keun was a genuine Fury, who pursued Wells and his reputation with a venom probably more bitter than the poor man deserved.
The good news about "Shadow Lovers" is that it contains a great number of juicy anecdotes and all manner of spicy and piquant stuff. The bad news is that, wrapped around these tasty nuggets, is a book that is far too long, badly in need of editing, and endlessly repetitious. Worse still, it lacks a true understanding of the people involved and of their varied milieus.
It is not so much a case of making factual errors Andrea Lynn is a competent researcher and writer but rather a sense that she has painstakingly placed a series of stones across the pond of her subject so that she may safely get across it without a major gaffe. But, whether she is talking about the Fabian Society, the New Deal, or the world of the duke and duchess of Windsor, one cannot escape the feeling that if she stepped off that carefully constructed causeway, she would be lost.
She is also maddeningly loath to render judgment, even when her own narrative cries out for it. On such crucial questions as whether Moura Budberg was a spy (and to which country, if any, her ultimate loyalty was given), or whether Wells and Martha Gellhorn ever even had a consummated affair (he said yes, she insisted not), the author goes round and round the subject, unwilling to commit herself with genuine conviction to a verdict. It's not as if a higher court is going to overrule her: If you write a book like this, you have to go ahead and render judgment. It's a vital part of the job you've undertaken.
On Wells' relationship with Constance Coolidge, the author has, I would judge, vastly over inflated a relatively minor liaison, which was probably little more than a lusty diversion and an attempt on his part to ignite the jealousy of the main object of his desire, Moura Budberg. The Wells-Coolidge correspondence as given in this book does not to my mind support the importance that the writer ascribes to it. Wells' and Coolidge's respective hemispheres never really intersect, intellectually or emotionally.
In the end, I'm not sure how many readers will want to bother to plough through so much stodge to get at what this book has to offer. And those who do will come away disappointed that a surer hand has not woven the necessary web to put it all in context.

Martin Rubin is a writer living in Pasadena, Calif.

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