The Skeptoptimist

In The New Yorker, the writer Adam Kirsch refers to Ann Veronica as a “topical” novel, by which he appears to mean a novel that can be summed up in fewer words than one hand has fingers – “about the suffragette movement” – but it is really nothing of the sort.

No matter the paucity of time travel machines and invisible men, Ann Veronica better belongs to that body of scientific romances that Kirsch claims as Wells’s defining contribution to the 20th century canon.

The principal scientist in this story is the title character herself, not because she studies science, though she does, but because she approaches social life and its turbulence with a scientist’s skepticism – the only ‘ism,’ paired with optimism, that she’s ultimately prepared to embrace.

Ann Veronica is, in short, a skeptoptimist, someone who questions all that surrounds her without giving up hope that there is something worth holding out for.

Viewed through the scratched surface of that monocle, the paths that her “well-bred” contemporaries tread so thoughtlessly seem to warp and mutate into an alien landscape, one easily given over to wild visions of, for instance, the primordial past:

Great vistas of history opened, and she and her aunt were near reverting to the primitive and passionate and entirely indecorous arboreal – were swinging from branches by the arms, and really going on quite dread-fully [sic] – when their arrival at the Palsworthys’ happily checked this play of fancy, and brought Ann Veronica back to the exigencies of the wrappered life again.

Freedom within – and not from – that “wrappered” life, in her father’s vocabulary, means only having a bicycle and the ability to go about on it during “reasonable hours.”

“One runs about,” Ann Veronica later observes with the gentle irony of the skeptoptimist, “but it’s on condition one doesn’t do anything.”

What Wells typically refers to as Ann Veronica’s “temperament,” initially prompts her to absent herself from her father’s house by taking long walks on which she contemplates “sometimes quite difficult problems.”

Skeptoptimism soon becomes the vehicle that conveys her to London and beyond the restraining currents of contemporary thought, allowing her to observe people and ideas critically:

There were moments when she doubted whether the whole mass of movements and societies and gatherings and talks was not simply one coherent spectacle of failure protecting itself from abjection by the glamour of its own assertions.

The most forceful challenge to Ann Veronica’s detachment comes not from society, the predictable source, but from her own thoroughly roiled passions, that is her love for her science tutor and the self-denying aspects of that love.

“I will not be the slave to the thought of any man,” she swears, raising one fist heavenward, nor “slave to the customs of any time.” Horrified to find herself in thrall to the emotional equivalent of a tractor beam, she proclaims a radical desire to break free not only from family and society, but gender, culture and time itself – to travel forward in time, even if only in her own mind.

The vow kicks off a chain of events that lead to Ann Veronica’s participating in a suffragette raid on the British parliament that lands her in prison for a month. Thus, the question: Must a novel that treats a real 1908 incident necessarily be a novel “about the suffragette movement”?

To be continued…

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