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H.G. Wells' cartoons, a
window on his second marriage, focus of new book
Lynn, Humanities Editor
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
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
— 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
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.”
photo to enlarge
by L. Brian Stauffer
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
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 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
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
“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.