The Skeptoptimist, Part II

On Monday, we left the title character of H.G. Wells’s 1909 novel in prison, after she joined a suffragette raid on the British parliament.

An experience so often characterized in literature as having a radicalizing effect does no such thing for Ann Veronica. Instead she finds herself “in a phase of violent reaction against the suffrage movement” – entirely because of how much she dislikes the girl in the neighboring cell. (Wells does himself credit by never forgetting the personal that undergirds the political.)

Once again, while she’s alone in her cell, skeptoptimism rears up, breaking in on the fearsome discomfort of prison life and a torrent of oppressive thoughts. Ann Veronica acknowledges that the slavery she resisted before has its attractive sides, at which the vital question of the doubt-stricken revolutionary springs to her lips: “Am I becoming reasonable or am I being tamed?”

Neither novel nor character ever quite answers that question on an ideological level, then again, the novel refuses to rest on an ideological stance, because it is no mere intellectual project but a genuine cri de coeur on the part of its author, inspired by an intensely passionate (and doomed) affair with Amber Reeves, the brilliant teenaged daughter of one of Wells’s fellow Fabians.

Wells, in turn, is not a “utopian pessimist” as The New Yorker‘s Adam Kirsch would have him, but a fellow skeptoptimist, uniquely capable of grasping that life (in the words of Jean de La Bruyère) may be a “tragedy for those who feel,” but it is also “a comedy for those who think.”

In his novelization of Wells’s life, A Man of Parts, David Lodge defines the use of “parts” in the title phrase as articulating a man’s “personal abilities or talents” or, more euphemistically, his “private parts.” The phrase does equally well as an expression of Wells’s tendency to inject parts of himself into each of his characters.

In Ann Veronica, he is Capes, of course, the science teacher who deeply respects his first wife but prefers a “hot-blooded marriage” with the protagonist.

But Wells is also Ramage, the successful businessman who unsuccessfully woos Ann Veronica, insisting to her that love is “the chief thing in life, and everything else goes down before it. Everything, my dear, everything!”

Even as he delights in satirizing Ann Veronica’s father, finding in him the embodiment of the reader that would denounce the novel after its publication, Wells peers out from behind the character’s stodgy bluster to wryly observe that his daughter – and by extension, women – have somehow metamorphosed from “all hair and legs” to “all hat and ideas.”

Lastly, Wells is Ann Veronica herself, because the “wrappered life” she describes so vividly and despises so utterly can only have originated in the drapers’ apprenticeship from which the young Wells gratefully escaped.

And also because her author, like her, wanted so much to take life itself “by the throat,” only to discover, as Ann Veronica does from the prison floor, mindful of the humor that forms the keen edge of pathos, that:

“It hasn’t GOT a throat!”

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