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H.G. Wells' cartoons, a window on his second marriage, focus of new book

Andrea Lynn, Humanities Editor
217-333-2177; andreal@uiuc.edu

5/31/2006

Gene Rinkel and Margaret Rinkel
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
Gene Rinkel and Margaret Rinkel have collected, organized and contextualized the masses of
mini-drawings H.G. Wells doodled for his wife in a new book, “The Picshuas of H.G. Wells: A Burlesque Diary.”

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — How does an imaginative but irascible writer – the future author of 100 books and the grandfather of science fiction – thank his literary partner and wife for her steady, selfless and sterling contributions to his career?

How does he ask for forgiveness when he’s behaved badly? How does he diffuse the time bombs of marital tensions that tick endlessly between them?

In the case of H.G. Wells, we now know. A new book shows and tells how the futurist-historian-novelist communicated these and a myriad of other intimate thoughts to Jane, his second wife – as stalwart a sidekick as any fiction-writer could dream up.

Over the course of their open and troubled marriage (1895-1927), Wells squiggled hundreds of enchanting, artful, ingenious, humorous and poignant cartoons for the second Mrs. Wells, and he did so whenever and wherever the mood struck – into the marginalia of drafts, in correspondence, on scraps of paper and on presentation copies of his books to her. Then he tied the diminutive drawings up with ribbons of doggerel and bows of baby talk, cockneyisms and intimate nicknames, known only to them.

Seen through the lens of the cartoons he offered her, the squiggles, curlicues and doodles – some of them quite elaborate – offer an intimate portrait of the Wellses’ relationship, including Jane’s role in her husband’s writings.

The new book, “The Picshuas of H.G. Wells: A Burlesque Diary” (University of Illinois Press), is the first attempt to collect, organize and contextualize the masses of
mini-drawings Wells doodled for Amy Catherine Robbins, whom he later would dub “Jane.”

drawing from "The Picshuas of H.G. Wells: A Burlesque Diary"
Click photo to enlarge
Photo by L. Brian Stauffer
One of the drawings from “The Picshuas of H.G. Wells: A Burlesque Diary.”

The authors Gene Rinkel and Margaret Rinkel – themselves a literary couple – take on 132 such picshuas, a cockneyfied word Wells coined for “little pictures.

They sorted through more than 650 picshuas – a sight-challenging project in itself because of Wells’ minuscule handwriting and artwork – before making the final selection for the book.

Most of the picshuas were drawn from the H.G. Wells Collection at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, one of several special collections Gene Rinkel has curated for many years at Illinois. Margaret Rinkel is a former high school English teacher, who in her retirement has volunteered hundreds of hours to Illinois’ Rare Book & Manuscript Library, home of the Wells Collection, which is considered to be the largest and most important Wells archive in the world.

The picshuas take up many topics, from their domestic routines – gardening, travel, children, home-building, bicycling and book production, to their domestic tribulations – namely, the husband’s bad habits, including abandonment and adultery. What the drawings share in common is their use of humor, an insiders’ humor that only they – and a few dogged scholars – would understand.

According to the Rinkels, the picshuas constituted a “non-confrontational attempt to inject humor into their relationship by creating a world of ‘let’s pretend.’ ”

In this private picshua world, Wells could, among other things, openly and honestly acknowledge the difficulties in his and Jane’s relationship and sometimes even “negotiate his demands in nonsense verse,” the Rinkels wrote. Theoretically, the cartoons offered a vehicle for the Wellses to laugh at themselves and their foibles, but one must wonder if Mrs. Wells was always as amused as her Mr.

The author of “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds” could be irritable, expressive, volatile, and petulant. Jane, on the other hand, was typically calm, reserved, a gentle and kind spirit, who helped her husband ascend to the highest rungs of literary and social success in Edwardian England and the world.

Wells may have resented some of her leadership, for he often drew Jane as a diminutive dictator, always in the lead, her husband in tow, full speed ahead on the job – whatever it was, from selecting wallpaper to editing stacks and stacks of manuscript pages.

“She did run his life,” Margaret Rinkel said, but that was precisely how H.G. wanted it. However, in many areas of that life, Jane had to play by her husband’s rules. Moreover, she also had to put her own literary dreams aside.

Wells also sometimes represented his wife – and the mother of their two sons – as an airship, hovering overhead and ready to drop bombs on her womanizing husband.

While his extracurricular activities were no secret, Wells’ penchant and talent for sketching has been largely unknown outside the world of Wells scholarship. The Rinkels note that Wells was a trained artist. Even earlier, as a sickly child, he wiled away many hours reading Punch, a British weekly humor magazine richly illustrated with cartoons.

Many of the picshuas feature Jane as “Bits,” suggesting her diminutive size, and Wells as “Mr. Binder,” “Binder” or simply “Bins,” shortened forms of “husbinder.” He also called her P.C.B., signifying “Phylum: Companion of the Bath.” Before breaking into writing, Wells studied biology with Thomas Huxley, among others, then later taught it. While married to his first wife, he was Jane’s biology tutor at university, then her lover.

In “Royal Institution Audience” (1902), Wells spoofed himself on the occasion of one of his early career-advancing moments. He is at the podium, and before him is an audience of eminent scientists slouching and reclining in various stages of boredom and sleep. Behind them, a group of women, including Bits, sits politely attentive.

In “The Germ of a Career Watered by the Dear Lady” (1895), a picshua Wells drew in a presentation copy of a first edition of “The Time Machine,” the artist recognizes Jane, a consummate gardener, as “the nurturer of his budding career,” the Rinkels wrote.

Jane, with out-sized sprinkling can in hand, waters a small but thriving plant. The inscription reads: “The Time Machine. The Germ of a Career Watered by the Dear Lady, to whom this is given.”

One of the most poignant picshuas in the book parodies “The Pobble Who Has No Toes,” written by English humorist Edward Lear (1812-1888). In his version, “Fearful Pome to Scare and Improve a Bits” (1900), Wells creates a complex folktale on two pages, with at least a dozen illustrations and 32 lines of verse, heavily edited.

The poem offers not gratitude this time, but a proposal for new domestic bylaws. As long as she is Mrs. Wells, Jane must accept her husband’s romantic liaisons.

“Using a combination of endearing nicknames, doggerel, and picshuas, he attempted to blunt the sting of his demands with ambiguity and humor,” the Rinkels wrote.

Wells later wrote that “Fearful Pome” was one of those “queer endless picshuas” that “turned the physical defects and compromise of my second married life into a fantasy of tolerable affectionate absurdity, and left the large dream-world free for dreams.”

His thinly disguised threat “gently but surely would induce Bits into acquiescing in his sexual irregularities, with or without her knowledge,” the Rinkels wrote.