Harvill Secker £18.99

A Man of Parts, By David Lodge

Wells was bohemian, Byronic and – according to this biographical novel, at least – a thoroughly decent chap

Ah, the sexual travails of the literary man! As Byron once said of Claire Clairmont after she got pregnant by him, "a man is a man, and if a girl of 18 comes prancing to you at all hours, there is but one way ...."

Just like Byron, H G Wells was regularly assailed by prancing girls (Dorothy Richardson, Amber Reeves, Rebecca West) who kept getting pregnant in spite of all his efforts. Similarly, he didn't let it get in the way of his literary career. And just like Conan Doyle, Wells believed that his popular works (The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine) would not grant him immortality, but that his serious history volumes would "change the course of history itself". Was he similarly deluded about the women in his life and his behaviour towards them?

Just like Byron ... just like Conan Doyle. It is too much to suggest a historical pattern of male literary behaviour, both private and public, but David Lodge's biographical novel about Wells (as opposed to novelised biography, a description that better suits Kathleen Jones's recent approach to Katherine Mansfield) is very much concerned with legacy. Just as in Lodge's novel about Henry James, Author! Author!, here we meet a great writer at the end of his life – a focus that must point to Lodge's concern about his own legacy, surely.

The author best known for comic novels such as Small World and Nice Work, just as he did with James, a first-rate dinner party guest who kept everyone entertained, maintains an optimistic outlook in A Man of Parts. Wells's relationships with Richardson, Reeves and West are not tragic affairs but jolly good fun; his marriages are not exercises in control (even if he did change his second wife's name), but rather situations that suit everyone. The dark side of Wells's private life, the damage done, is minimised.

All of this is relayed by an authorial voice which ranges from the formally biographical ("The best of his novels about men seeking to understand what was wrong with contemporary society, and to find some useful role for themselves in it, was Tono-Bungay, published in 1909 ...") to the novelistic ("He imagined himself making love to the pretty girl naked under the trees, like Adam and Eve in their nuptial bower ..."), while also managing to be the voice of Wells's conscience and subjecting him to questions about his past behaviour and attitudes ("Did you tell your mother that you were no longer a believer? – No, though she probably guessed"). Crucially, this voice gives Wells a chance to answer critics of his books and his morals. Look, he can say, this is what I meant when I wrote about euthanasia for those who can't live happy, fulfilled lives! This is how much I truly cared about Amber Reeves when I got her pregnant and persuaded her to marry a man she didn't love!

As a technique, it's an interesting experiment and well suited to a subject who does have quite a bit of explaining to do. Lodge focuses much of his novel on Wells's liaison with Reeves, a woman given little coverage in the past. (It is Wells's 10-year relationship with West that attracts most attention.) Wells also has an affair with Rosamund Bland, the daughter of the children's author E Nesbit. Then it turns out, to Wells's shock, that she isn't Nesbit's daughter at all. (Wells's petite bourgeois background permeates his life, no matter how much his bohemian "open marriage" with Jane may seem to counter it.) Next, Wells turns to the more intellectually appealing Amber Reeves, and their affair is described with intimate and practical detail.

Lodge's depiction of Wells as cat-nip to pretty young girls is a little optimistic (he leaves out the older Wells's approaches to a glamorous young Martha Gellhorn, for instance – possibly because these approaches were rejected) and any sense that Wells was a predator in matters of sex (he wasn't called Jaguar by West for nothing, surely) is played down.

So, too, is the sense of his wife, Jane, as a real person. Jane Wells stood as a candidate for elections to the executive committee of the Fabian Society, so she must have had a strong political sense. That marriage is truly intriguing, but is only really glimpsed here. Lodge has given us his Wells, a man made in his image to the extent that he is a decent individual, honest and hard-working. Darkness is banished to the wings and with it, an important aspect of Wells's inner life. As with James, this is the public Wells. All the sexual detail in the world won't give us the private man.

Lesley McDowell is the author of Between the Sheets: The Literary Liaisons of Nine 20th-Century Women Writers (Duckworth £16.99)

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