Scandal-on-Sea: H G Wells, his lover and their secret Norfolk hideaway
- Credit: Archant
As we celebrate the 150th anniversary of the birth of H G Wells, Trevor Heaton tells the story of the world-famous author, his lover, and their unlikely love-nest in a Norfolk seaside town.
To the curious residents of Victoria Avenue in Hunstanton in the spring of 1914 the new residents of the smart semi-detached house known as Brig-y-don made for a rather striking pair.
Those peeping out of their curtains would have spotted the man first, a dapper if rather portly individual, with the sort of moustache worn by millions of his fellow countrymen. A closer look might have taken in his piercing blue eyes, and suggested something of the fearsome intelligence which lay behind them.
His companion was much younger, a dark-haired, brown-eyed beauty. She was clearly a very modern woman, one of the 'fast' London set. Sharp eyes might also have spotted that there would be a 'happy event' too before many months had passed.
The couple's new home was at that time at the furthest point north in the town, and well tucked away from the bustle of the seafront.
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More to the point, it was also discreet. And discretion was what had brought the couple to Hunstanton in the first place. For although the woman wore a wedding ring and went under the name of 'Mrs West', she was not married at all. Even worse, her portly companion definitely was – and he was no less than H G Wells, one of the most famous writers in the world. Here, if only the townsfolk had realised it, was one of 1914's juiciest celebrity scandals… right on their doorsteps.
The path that had brought the pair to north-west Norfolk coast was a long one. And their lives, and that of the county, were destined to cross again.
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Actually, the family connection with Norfolk had begun much earlier in Wells' life. Herbert George Wells had born in Bromley in Kent in 1866, the son of Joseph Wells, a laid-back individual whose two passions in life were cricket – he was a professional for Kent from 1857 to 1869 – and a roving eye.
Four years before his son 'Bertie' was born, Joe Wells had astonished the cricket world by becoming the first bowler to take four wickets in four consecutive balls, a feat which he milked for all it was worth in later life.
Wells' biographer Michael Sherborne summarised Joe as 'aggressively humorous and oriented towards pleasure'. He worked as a gardener, fitting in as much cricket as he could manage. And it was cricket which brought about the Wells' family's first interaction with Norfolk, from 1873 to 1875 when Joe was employed as the cricketing coach of Norwich Grammar School (now Norwich School).
Wells' rather dour and hard-working mother Sarah was a complete contrast to her husband, a fact which caused increasing strain in their marriage
Back in Kent, the family continued its slide down the social scale. Young Bertie was apprenticed to be a draper, a fate he rebelled against by eventually becoming a teacher, and then a writer. A voracious reader, he soon developed an affinity with radical and utopian views. That was reflected in his personal relationships, where his views on 'free love' anticipated the Swinging Sixties by decades.
An early marriage to his cousin Isabel unravelled when he fell in love with one of his students, whom he married in 1895. In turn, Jane Wells would find herself having to cope with a string of affairs by her increasingly successful and feted husband, whose 'scientific romances' such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine brought him huge fame.
Wells' lovers included Amber Reeves – an affair which resulted in a daughter, Anna Jane, who lived to be 100, the longest-surviving of his four children – followed by Elizabeth von Arnim ('little e'), who took centre-stage in the now world-famous author's affections from 1910-13. Long-suffering wife Jane preferred the maturer von Arnim to Wells' young conquests, as she perceived her as no threat to their marriage.
But then along came Rebecca West….
Born Cissie Fairfield in 1892, she took her pseudonym from a character in an Ibsen play. After an attempt at a stage career had failed, Rebecca turned her lively and artistic mind into writing, becoming a brilliant and provocative essayist for the feminist magazine 'Freewoman', which outraged polite society (and W H Smith's) for its frank discussion of sexuality.
Wells had by now spread his literary wings to include non-fiction and novels of social comment. It was one of these that was to bring the lovers together. 'Marriage' was published in September 1912, a solid, if undistinguished, piece of work. Wells later described it as the first of his 'prig novels', in which a narrator 'preaches' about the wrongs of the world.
Posterity has judged it harshly (as it has with much of Wells' later full-length fiction). When it was made into a film in 1927, the US critic and journalist Walter Winchell declared - lifting the famous 'Punch' aphorism - 'Advice for those about to try Marriage: don't'.
Back in 1912, Rebecca was one of those critics who were in the 'anti' camp, contributing a waspish review to the feminist journal. Wells was intrigued by her comments, and invited her to tea with himself and Jane. Wells was struck by West's 'dark expressive troubled eyes' and her 'big soft mouth'.
For her part West saw Wells as 'one of the most interesting people I have ever met.' Wells was 46 (almost 30 years older than Rebecca) and although inclined to be short and portly, he had those striking blue eyes. And charm – endless charm.
West was desperate to start an affair, but Wells – still in his relationship with 'little e' – was reluctant. Gradually, however, they became intimate, the pair finally becoming lovers in November 1913. Soon after that, Rebecca realised she was pregnant.
Although neither party had planned a pregnancy, they very quickly adapted to the situation, and Wells was happy to give 'Mrs West' the financial help she needed.
With Wells due to leave England in late January 1914 for a long-planned trip to Russia, they needed a quiet and discreet hideaway for 'Mrs West'. At first Wells suggested Llandudno, but came up with a more convenient choice: Hunstanton.
The town was easily reached by rail from Wells' Essex home, but was far from any prying London eyes. So when Wells returned to England on February 9, the move to the comfortable semi, rented from a Mrs Crown, was quickly concluded.
Victoria Avenue is still a handsome, no-nonsense street, stretching down as straight as a stick of seaside rock from the coast road down to Northgate. These days the lives of post workers and delivery drivers are made much easier by the houses being numbered, but enough house names remain to give a flavour of the late Victorian and Edwardian world in which they were created: solid patriotic reminders of Empire, such as Mafeking, Omdurman, or those inclining to the more whimsical. Brig-y-don – now plain number 28 – fell into the latter category, its name meaning 'crest of the wave' in Welsh.
Rebecca was not on a crest of a wave with Hunstanton, however, describing it as a 'wholly tedious East Coast town'. Wells, though, considered it perfect. For although the lovers – and Jane - were remarkably matter-of-fact about the impending child, the reality was that public exposure would have been calamitous for all concerned.
And so Brig-y-don was duly let to 'Mr and Mrs West', who were careful to travel to Hunstanton on separate trains to their Norfolk love-nest. Wells spent a week with Rebecca there before returning home. That set the pattern for the rest of the pregnancy, Wells visiting his lover for several days before a discreet trip back to Essex. Rebecca's absence from the London literary scene was explained away as her recuperating after an illness.
As the weather warmed up, Wells and Rebecca spent time together in a beach hut, bathing or walking. They would have admired the town's lighthouse, its famous striped cliffs and also seen one of its now long-vanished curiosities - young and old skipping among the rocks using jumping poles known as the 'staves of St Edmund'.
When she was on her own, Rebecca poured her literary firepower into a book about novelist Henry James, which was to be published two years later. She still wasn't impressed with the town - 'the deadliest place on earth,' she called it. 'I've had such a gloomy week,' she sighed in another letter. Physically, though, Rebecca bloomed in the Norfolk resort with the promise of new life, in sharp contrast to the doom-filled columns of the newspapers, filled with dark predictions of civil war in the north of Ireland. And then, calamitously, the latest in the long line of Balkan crises suddenly exploded, with the trip-switches of great alliances being set off to plunge the Continent into war.
As the German invasion of Belgium triggered Great Britain's involvement on August 4, Rebecca was entering the very final day of her pregnancy. She went into labour in early hours of August 5, giving birth to a son, Anthony Panther West. Like everyone else, Rebecca had the war on her mind. 'I must keep this thing safe,' she said, on being handed her baby by the midwife.
That curious second name had its explanation in the lovers' pet names for each other: cat-lover Wells was called 'Jaguar', with Rebecca the 'Panther'. Wells, who was not present at the birth, visited mother and son every few days.
In September – to her great relief - Rebecca and her son moved to Quinbury, a farmhouse near Braughing in Essex, which had the distinct advantage for Wells of only being 15 miles from the family home at Easton.
But that was not the end of the couple's connections with Norfolk. In September 1918, Wells, Rebecca and the four-year-old Anthony stayed at the Sandringham Hotel, alongside the town's railway station. For little Anthony, the melding of steam trains and the seaside must have been a heady mix.
By the following year, however, the cracks were beginning to show in the couple's relationship. Granted, they shared a caustic sense of humour and a piercing intellect, but also a fiercely independent spirit. The good times could still be magical, so magical in fact that West recalled 50 years later in a diary her feelings about an idyllic seaside holiday back in Weybourne in 1921: 'Oh, if only I could have married him. If Jane had died THEN, he was the best I ever got [sic].' She was back in the county in September 1921, where she met screen star Charlie Chaplin (who would later try, unsuccessfully, to bed her)
Perhaps it was the Norfolk air that put Wells and Rebecca in a good mood, because the following year's trip to the West Country was a disaster, collapsing in tears, anger and bitterness. Wells wrote to Rebecca around this time praising her intellect, her wit, and her loving nature, but – and here was the sting - 'none the less I think you are wise to disentangle the rest of your life from me.' A March 23 1922 letter saw Rebecca give Wells an ultimatum: divorce Jane and marry me. Still Wells prevaricated. By October 1923, the relationship had finally broken down. Wells had found a new love, the travel writer Odette Keun, a biddable and exciting mix of Dutch-Italian and Greek. Later in their lives, however, Rebecca and H G Wells were able to find a new friendship.
As for Anthony, well, what springs to mind are those famous Philip Larkin lines about – and, readers, I'll need to paraphrase here – your mum and father messing up your life even though they don't mean to.
And here was a clear example. As he grew up he was left confused by his parentage, calling his father 'Wellsie' and his mother 'Auntie Panther'. The child was dismissed as variously a son, nephew or adopted child. The real state of affairs was only explained to him - very reluctantly – when he was 10.
He later poured out his bitterness and confusion in a 1955 novel, Heritage, about a son born to two high-powered literary figures. Its contents were so raw that Rebecca West reportedly tried to stop it being published in the UK.
Norfolk did, however, provide one happy memory for young Anthony. Confined to the Kelling Sanatorium in 1928 after a diagnosis of TB, he was eventually well enough for his father to take him along the coast for a day out.
Father and son found themselves in a place where the name had a very familiar ring about it. HGW was only too happy to pose by the town sign for Anthony. The county of his birth had given the boy called Panther the perfect end to a perfect day, and one he was to treasure for the rest of his life.
The photograph he'd taken had a perfect synergy about it too: Wells-next-the-sea at Wells-next-the-sea.