As I’ve probably said before, I love books about authors from a unique perspective. All the famous ones have biographies written about them, of course, and I daresay there are several authoritative and scholarly biographies of H.G. Wells that I could have bought – but I’m rather more intrigued by the personal angle. Show me a book that only one person could have written, and I’ll run towards it. My favourite is probably the book about Ivy Compton-Burnett written by her secretary (Cecily Grieg or Cicely Greig or some variant on that – one day I’ll learn which), but I would also recommend H.G. Wells and His Family (1955) to any Wells enthusiasts.
Who was M.M. Meyer? Well, she was the governess to Wells’ children. Her experiences looking after the two boys form the mainstay of this book – even if we first hear of them as ‘Professor G.P. Wells and Mr F.R. Wells’ in her introduction, with a touching pride in their achievements and maturity. As the first paragraph states, though:
Some of the most cherished memories of my long career as a Swiss governess in England take me back to the four and three-quarter years that I spent in the literary household of Mr. and Mrs. H.G. Wells – first t Spade House, Sandgate, then at No. 17 Church Row, Hampstead, and finally at Easton Glebe, near Dunmow, Essex.
As this paragraph might suggest, Meyer isn’t the most sparkling prose stylist in the world. The memoir is quite prosaic in form, relating incidents one after the other, but it is the tone of happy nostalgia – as well as Meyer’s unique placement to observe these moments – that make the book so enjoyable. Whether it’s the family playing a variant of consequences (‘consequences’ is called ‘exquisite corpses’ in American English, I believe? Or was? I read the entirety of Exquisite Corpse by Alfred Chester without knowing that, and it was baffling), or the only time Wells shouted at her, these are stories that nobody else could relate first-hand – and a biographer would flatten, losing the moving enthusiasm that Meyer clearly has about every aspect of the family. She even includes pictures of their consequences and other doodles, having preserved them for years.
What did I know about Wells before I opened up this book? Well, besides a relatively small percentage of his books (sidenote: I bought The Bulpington of Blup by him recently; who knew THAT existed?) and the fact that he was A.A. Milne’s maths teacher, it was mostly his adultery. His serial womanising seems to be the keynote of his personal life in biographers’ eyes. It’s refreshing that Meyer doesn’t mention it – possibly it was not widely known in 1955, but you get the impression that she wouldn’t have talked about it either way. But it does make the reader smile a little guiltily over notes like this, which appears in a section she writes as a diary:
September 27th. Miss Rebecca West arrived to-day. She looks about twenty-two years of age, and is very vivacious. She writes in the Freewoman, and has just reviewed Mr. Wells’s new novel Marriage.
This book is doubtless only a footnote in a literary or biographical analysis of H. G. Wells – but how enjoyable it was. If anybody has any other recommendations for this sort of book – notable authors as known by their friends, employees, or acquaintances – then please do let me know!