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OHIO literature scholar revives a famous author’s 1909 novel about feminism

Andrea Gibson | Jun 27, 2016
Carey Snyder, Ohio University associate professor of English.
Carey Snyder, Ohio University associate professor of English. Photo credit: Andrea Gibson/Ohio University.

The novel Ann Veronica follows the journey of a young British woman who moves to London to study biology, falls in love with her married laboratory tutor, fends off the advances of an older man, and raids Parliament as part of the suffragette movement.

The story, first published in 1909, created a scandal, says literature scholar Carey Snyder. Ann Veronica’s quest for independence, sexual awakening, and dismissal of Edwardian values prompted some critics to call the novel “poisonous,” she notes.

Although the plot might not ignite the same public reaction today, it might surprise some to learn that the author of this book about feminism and romance was H.G. Wells, better known for his science fiction novels such as The War of the Worlds and The Island of Doctor Moreau.

“He was a celebrity author at the time,” Snyder says.  “Even though he was hugely popular during the period, he is not really studied as part of the modernist canon.”

Readers now have a new opportunity to read Ann Veronica —which has been in and out of print over the last century—with the publication of a new edition of the work. Snyder, an Ohio University associate professor of English, worked with the Broadview Press series to create an introduction, explanatory notes, and eight appendices that offer biographical, historical, and cultural contexts for the novel.

The “New Woman”

Wells didn’t have to look far for source material for the novel. In the 1890s, someone who rejected the domestic sphere to pursue a career, attend college, or join the suffragette movement was dubbed “a new woman,” Snyder says. The social phenomenon inspired the publication of many novels devoted to story lines about women choosing unconventional, independent lifestyles.

Snyder’s research found that some plot points in Ann Veronica were based on current events; suffragettes really did hide in furniture vans to sneak into and raid the British Parliament. The titular character was inspired by Wells’ affair with a 21-year-old student attending Cambridge at a time when few females had stepped through the university’s doors, Snyder notes. The author also had left his first wife to marry a former student. The two affairs formed the basis for the novel’s central romance, the scholar explains.

By 1909, Ann Veronica was a bit late to the “new woman” novel trend, Snyder acknowledges, and isn’t entirely representative of the genre’s conventions. After the character has brushes with higher education, adultery, sexism, and activism, Wells sends her off into domestic bliss with a traditional marriage and promise of a baby.  

Other new woman novels Snyder studied for historical context explored different realities for female protagonists who veered from tradition. George Gissing’s The Odd Women (1893) includes a heroine who eschews marriage to start her own school for girls. The Story of an African Farm (1883), by Olive Schreiner, details the sad fate of a woman who attempts to raise a child on her own.

“Many end tragically and show the difficulty of being the independent woman, bucking social expectations,” Snyder notes.

Ann Veronica was not Wells’ only foray into the new woman genre. It was part of a trio of novels ( The New Machiavelli and Marriage are the other two) published within a decade that explored the issues of monogamy, adultery, the complexities of marriage, and sexual freedom and education. Even Wells’ science fiction during this era dabbled in free love story lines, Snyder notes.

“He thought that the novel, in general, could be a place to have a debate about society, a vehicle for ideas,” she explains.

An Author Revisited

Wells, who was 43 years old at the time of Ann Veronica’s publication, declared in his autobiography that the novel “has made me a friend of youth and tomorrow” through its discussion of changing social mores. Though the author may have been eager to be viewed as a cultural voice of a generation, Snyder notes that some of his female contemporaries saw him as out of step. Katherine Mansfield and Beatrice Hastings penned a parody of Wells’ work, and Virginia Woolf dismissed him as a “traditional and anachronistic figure; she felt him to be passé,” Snyder says.

English literature scholars traditionally have focused on authors such as Woolf, James Joyce, or T.S. Eliot—prized for their innovative stylistic techniques—in the research and teaching of the modern period.

“On the one hand, Wells is an outlier because he didn’t believe in the art novel and wasn’t stylistically experimental,” says Snyder, who is also author of the 2008 book British Fiction and Cross-Cultural Encounters: Ethnographic Modernism from Wells to Woolf. “But he did have his finger on the pulse of changes happening in modern society. Ann Veronica’s dilemmas still feel like dilemmas; her issues feel contemporary.”

Despite the enduring legacy of his science fiction, the author’s more topical novels on social issues didn’t have a long shelf life in the 20 th or 21 st century. Until now.

“There’s a renewed interest in Edwardian literature, so Wells is back on the map,” Snyder notes.

Ann Veronica is cited as the favorite book of many students who take Snyder’s Ohio University course on new woman novels (several of which are out of print). The class offers a guide to the books that may have gripped the masses in earlier eras, but didn’t survive the litmus test for the literary canon.

But like Ann Veronica, the novels may have played an important role in stimulating public debate and changing lives at the time of their publication, Snyder notes. More readers in the Edwardian era were reading the works of Wells than those of his experimental contemporaries.

“Wells’ work was influential,” she says. “He received letters from working class readers and women who felt that he was showing them new worlds. That can be eye-opening for students now.”

This story originally appeared in Perspectives magazine, which covers the research, scholarship and creative work of Ohio University faculty, staff and students.