Ann Veronica: A Modern Love Story (1909) is the first non-Sci-Fi novel by H. G. Wells that I've read and I read it out of curiosity mainly, partly because I loved The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds, and also an essay because I recently read an essay by Virginia Woolf ('Modern Fiction') in which she essentially argues the Edwardian writers (singling out Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and H. G. Wells) perpetually disappoint -
Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy have excited so many hopes and disappointed them so persistently that our gratitude largely takes the form of thanking them for having shown us what they might have done but have not done...
As, by chance, I had read and enjoyed Bennett's The Old Wives' Tale (1908) I thought it would be prudent to make sure I'd read the other Edwardians that had attracted her venom before making my own mind up. Bennett I'll read again, Galsworthy I'll read soon I hope, and Wells - I already love Wells, but it felt a good opportunity to read one of his more realistic novels. So Ann Veronica it was.
Ann Veronica is one of those novels I love, set at a time when the Victorian norms and ideals were waning with a new and more vigorous generation, but modernism was a far way off. The heroine Ann Veronica Stanley is almost twenty-two years old at the beginning of the novel and lives in the fictional Morningside Park, London with her father, a solicitor. She is a biology student at Tredgold Women's College, very serious, independently spirited, and longing to be a 'person in her own right' rather than conform, as the generation before her did, to marriage, motherhood, and living through and belonging to her husband. The novel begins with Ann Veronica, of Vee as she is nicknamed, is determined to go to a ball with her friends despite her father forbidding it:
One Wednesday afternoon in late September, Ann Veronica Stanley came down from London in a state of solemn excitement and quite resolved to have things out with her father that very evening. She had trembled on the verge of such a resolution before, but this time quite definitely she made it. A crisis had been reached, and she was almost glad it had been reached. She made up her mind in the train home that it should be a decisive crisis. It is for that reason that this novel begins with her there, and neither earlier nor later, for it is the history of this crisis and its consequences that this novel has to tell.
"A decisive crisis" is was, and the result is Vee does the unthinkable - she leaves home to live alone and borrows money, a catastrophic move, from the older Mr. Ramage, whilst devoting her time to her studies.
|Illustration from the 1909 edition|
published by Harper & Brothers.
From here we see a variety of odd experiences for a young woman trying to live independently (something she isn't quite able to do being funded by the aforementioned Mr. Ramage). She is for a period involved with the budding suffragette movement (and spends a month in prison), avoiding Ramage who feels he owns her, falling in love with an older married man Mr. Capes, and eventually the disappointment and humiliation of returning home and accepting the proposal of a man she does not love, Hubert Manning. But that is only half the story.
The question is, did Wells disappoint? Well, yes, a little. Wells was named in 1909 (the same year as Ann Veronica was published) by the Men's League for Women's Suffrage as a man in favour of women's suffrage (the list also included Thomas Hardy and E. M. Forster) yet I felt frustrated that Ann Veronica could not realise her dream of independence: it seemed an impossible thing and it was best in the end for Vee to return home and start being realistic. On the other hand her experiences made her who she was and allowed her to pursue the path that was right for her: if she had not have left home she would have ended up marrying the wrong man. This was the early 1900s after all, it was always unlikely that Vee would have lived happily ever after alone, so I cannot hold this against Wells (as it was, at the time The Spectator described it as "capable of poisoning the minds of those who read it", I imagine any more of a 'feminist' ending would have finished Wells' career right off). And Vee - Vee grew to be a little tedious, but Vee was tedious (on the whole I thought) and she didn't remain static against her ever-changing backdrop, so again I can't fault Wells. I loved reading Ann Veronica until roughly the last quarter and I can't quite put my finger on why. It wasn't startling enough, I suppose - Vee wasn't great enough or Wells wasn't quite insightful enough. The idea of Ann Veronica was perfect but it didn't quite follow through. I gave four stars, I did enjoy it after all, but it fell short and left me a touch frustrated. Nevertheless still worth a read and I certainly haven't given up on Wells. I do want to re-read The Island of Doctor Moreau at some point and get to The History of Mr Polly too.