I came to A Lady and Her Husband via H. G. Wells, which is all the wrong way round. I’d been seeking suffragettes. I wanted some fictional feminists in my life. Already on my team I had Mira Ward, from Marilyn French’s consciousness-raising epic The Women’s Room, and Erica Jong’s Fear of Flying sexual adventuress Isadora Wing. But the Seventies feminists were so bleak. And post-feminists were so muddled. I wanted inspiration. I wanted clarity. I thought about the suffragettes. They’d had clear battle lines and actual victories; might their novels be more heartening?
Disconcertingly, the first suffragette novel I read was written by a man. Wells’s Ann Veronica was such a smash hit in 1909 that emancipated women got called ‘Ann Veronicas’. Ann is a 21-year-old bluestocking who runs away from home to study biology, gets swept up in politics, storms Parliament and spends a month in prison. So far, so thrilling. But then at the end, seemingly out of nowhere, she elopes with her older teacher, and becomes cringingly submissive.
It doesn’t ring true. Because it isn’t. Margaret Drabble’s introduction to a reissue of the book explains that Wells based Ann on Amber Reeves, a young woman he had seduced (according to other, shocked members of the Fabian Society) within the very walls of Newnham College, Cambridge, where she was studying moral sciences. She was uncompromising and brilliant; he nicknamed her ‘Dusa’, short for ‘Medusa’. But when Wells got her pregnant she had to rush into marriage to a man who would bring up her child.
In Ann Veronica, Wells didn’t just whitewash the truth; he also doused Reeves’s spark. Ann ends up dull and surrendered, gushing at her teacher/husband, ‘I say, you are rather the master, you know.’ I found this galling. So did Elizabeth Robins, the feminist, actress and writer of the barnstorming 1907 play Votes for Women! She was so outraged
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