H. G. Wells‘ novel Ann Veronica was subtitled ‘a modern love story’ when it was published in 1909. I haven’t read any of his novels before, but, I imagine like most people, always associated him with early science fiction. Ann Veronica is a very different book – the story of a young, clever, restless young woman yearning to escape the narrow confines society has set out for her in Edwardian Britain.
Ann Veronica Stanley is curious about the world, keen to experience things, and reluctant to sit quietly in her suburban home and wait for an offer of marriage. She is determined that her life shall be richer, more interesting, and more vivid. She is studying at a women’s college, but really wants to go to Imperial College London to pursue biology. She also wants to attend a party in London with some friends, which her father forbids. Deciding to take a stand, Ann Veronica runs away, setting herself up in a room in North London. She borrows money from Mr Ramage, an older businessman who lives in the same suburb she has escaped and who appears to sympathise with her plight. Inevitably his motives later turn out to be less egalitarian than she supposed, leading to a sharp lesson in the double standards of Edwardian society when he tells her that by accepting a loan from him she had tacitly agreed to become his mistress.
Disgusted with his behaviour and disillusioned with a world that will not allow women and men to interact as equals, she joins the suffragettes, and promptly gets arrested for a raid on parliament. After a short spell in prison she returns home, talks honestly to her father, and tries to make her situation work. However, over the course of the novel she has fallen in love with her teacher at Imperial College, Capes, who is ten years her senior and separated from his wife. Boldly and very unusually for a woman of he time, Ann Veronica makes the first move and tells him she loves him. Of course, society disapproves so they are forced to elope, and she leaves quiet suburban life behind her once again.
Ann Veronica shocked audiences on publication because of its feminist arguments, its love affairs and perceived moral shortcomings. It also shocked them because at the time H. G. Wells was known to be having an affair with a much younger woman, Amber Reeves, who bore a striking resemblance to Ann Veronica in her attitude and abilities. It seems quite tame now, but I can see why an audience only just emerging from the prudish restraints of the Victorian era would find it controversial.
Ann Veronica is a thoughtful, determined and funny heroine, and she really is a pleasure to get to know throughout the book. She articulates how I think most modern women would feel if they were transported back into the stuffy society in which she lives. She is ahead of her time and pioneers the right of women to live their own lives and have their own views, against the current of a world where everyone is telling her to give up.