Review by Sylvia D:
I’d been meaning to read Ann Veronica for some time but have to admit that I found it a little disappointing given it has been cited as a ‘New Woman’ novel. However, one has to remember that it was written at the beginning of the twentieth century (1909) when there was still censorship and that it must be viewed in the context of Wells wanting to get it published! As it was he had difficulties finding a publisher and when the novel did appear many considered it a scandalous work. It seems pretty innocuous though to the modern reader.
Anna Veronica Stanley is nearly twenty-two and lives in the London suburb of Morningside Park with her father and her unmarried aunt, both very conservative with traditional views of how young women should behave. Ann Veronica has been forbidden to apply to Oxbridge and in her father’s view the only suitable training for her is at Tredgold Women’s College. Ann Veronica feels totally stifled by the life she is expected to lead,
‘All the world about her seemed to be – how can one put it? – in wrappers, like a house when people leave it in the summer’ – (p 10). ‘The world, she discovered . . . had no particular place for her at all, nothing for her to do, except a functionless existence varied by calls, tennis, selected novels, walks and dusting in her father’s house – (pp 11-12).
I was reminded of Vera Brittain’s similar feelings in her Testament of Youth.
The final straw comes when Mr Stanley physically prevents her from going with her arty friends to a fancy dress ball. She runs away to London, rather naively hoping to find work. She quickly discovers the seamier side of life and that she is totally unqualified for anything except governessing, being a companion or working in a shop and that ‘nearly all these things were fearfully ill-paid. They carried no more than bare subsistence wages, and they demanded all her time and energy’ – (p 132).
In desperation she borrows £40 from a wealthy older man, Mr Ramage, who is a neighbour in Morningside Park and enrols on a biology course at Imperial College. Perhaps she – and the reader – should suspect that Mr Ramage will expect sexual favours in return for his loan. When he does try to force himself on her, she realises for the first time how women stood in society,
‘the meagre realities of such freedom as [the world] permitted her, the almost unavoidable obligation to some individual man under which she must labour for even a foothold in the world. She had flung away from her father’s support with the finest assumption of personal independence. And here she was – in a mess because it had been impossible for her to avoid leaning upon another man’ – (p 211).
She joins the Women’s Movement and is arrested during a raid on the Palace of Westminster.
There follows a long reflective chapter whilst Ann Veronica serves her time in prison and then returns home. From now on the novel really becomes a love story as Ann Veronica comes to recognise her love for Mr Capes, the demonstrator on her biology course. Capes resists them becoming lovers for some time because he is a married man, separated but not divorced. It is Ann Veronica who forces the issue when she tells him,
‘I want you. I am clear I want you. You are different from all the world for me. You can think all round me. You are the one person I can understand and feel – feel right with’ – (pp 303-304).
Wells has one further surprise for the reader when the two of them elope and spend a kind of idyllic honeymoon in the Alps. Then the come down – four years later they are respectably married, Ann Veronica is pregnant and reconciled with her family.
Whilst the novel is about identity and self-discovery, it also pokes fun at middle-class society. Mr Stanley spends his non-working hours reading ‘healthy, light fiction with chromatic titles, “The Red Sword”, the “Black Helmet”’ – (p 16), his sister, Molly, dressed ‘in lace and work and confused patternings of black and purple and cream’ has a ‘rather old-fashioned conception of life’ – (p 21) whilst Wells has great fun with Miss Miniver, Ann Veronica’s earnest, suffragette friend who saw herself as being ‘manifestly full of that same passion for conflict and self-sacrifice that has given the world martyrs since the beginning of things’ – (p 45).
Nor did he spare the types she met in the socialist and feminist movements who made her wonder why,
‘so many of the people “in the van” were plain people, or faded people, or tired-looking people. It did affect the business that they all argued badly and were egotistical in their manners and inconsistent in their phrases. 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 it own assertions’ – (p146).
There is also a very funny section when a string of people come to Ann Veronica’s bedsit in London to try to persuade her to return home. The relevant chapter is entitled ‘Expostulations’!
Everyone seems to have their own view of the position of women in society, from the traditional position of Mr Stanley who considered his daughter ‘his absolute property, bound to obey him’ – (p 18), to the florid musings of Ann Veronica’s erstwhile suitor, Mr Manning, who felt it was ‘man’s share in life to shield, to protect, to lead and toil’ (p 58) to the extreme views of Miss Miniver with her ‘note of hostility to men’ – (p 42) and the frustrations of Mr Ramage who declares women are all dependents and that ‘men do services for the love of women, and the woman who takes must pay’ – (p208).
Not really, in the end, a ‘New Woman’ novel but an interesting and enjoyable read, particularly if you are interested in the role of single, middle-class women before the First World War.