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New biography on H.G. Wells focuses on late-life loves

Sharita Forrest, News Editor
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CHAMPAIGN, Ill. — That H.G. Wells' intelligence was rivaled only by his appetite for women has never been a secret.

That he had concurrent clandestine love affairs late in his life with American women 26 to 40 years his junior has been – until now.

A new biography reveals the secrets of the writer’s heart, the desires of his soul and the frustrations of his professional and personal life. It also explores the role of liberated love and self-serving romance among celebrities and the literati in the 1930s.

In "Shadow Lovers: The Last Affairs of H.G. Wells" (Westview Press), Andrea Lynn draws upon hundreds of previously suppressed documents culled from around the globe to explore the private world of the prolific author and of the three exotic women – femmes fatales, all – he wooed in his sunset years.

Using love letters and suppressed pages from Wells' autobiographical love story, Lynn, a writer for the University of Illinois news service, reveals the identities of the two American lovers, concealed for decades by the Wells executors: Constance Coolidge, a Boston Brahmin, American expatriate and French countess, and Martha Gellhorn, a feisty writer and war correspondent who later married Ernest Hemingway.

Lynn also unravels Wells' exasperating relationship with his last lover, the enigmatic Russian Baroness Moura Budberg, a purported spy so masterful at deception she remained a mysterious figure even to her children.

Dubbed "a superman" in his Aug. 14, 1946, obituary in the New York Times, Wells was an influential historian, science fiction writer, social critic and futurist who wrote nearly 100 books and affected world history for decades. But his uncontrollable lust and matters of the heart troubled him most of his adult life.

In "Shadow Lovers," Lynn reviews Wells' private life, including his more public relationships with Rebecca West and Margaret Sanger. She also examines the personal and professional lives of Budberg, Coolidge and Gellhorn, considered to be the most fascinating and intelligent women of their time, and, like Wells, skilled players in the game of love.

Describing the author of "The Time Machine" as "something of a sex machine," Lynn observes that Wells – the proponent of women's liberation, free love and socialism, who dreamed of a Utopian society and also despaired that mankind was doomed to self-destruction – also was a hopeless romantic, with a "fatal attraction for the wrong women."

In her book, Lynn considers various reasons for the bounteous love life of the women and of the improbable lothario, who mockingly described himself as the "Don Juan of the Intelligentsia." She offers Wells up as a man entangled by romantic idealism, who leaped from lover to lover in an obsessive quest to find his better half, his "lover-shadow."

Lynn interprets Wells as a man who was tortured by his working-class origins, who pursued "trophy women" – beautiful, rich and well-bred enchantresses decades younger than he – in a futile attempt to gentrify himself and to make himself whole. But she also turns her lens on the women who, for various reasons, maneuvered to be with him.

In "Shadow Lovers," Lynn observes enormously gifted but flawed people who struggled with their compulsions and their conflicting desires for romantic attachment and unfettered independence. Wells could be very human, indeed: a sometimes petulant, vindictive man who justified his womanizing as retaliation for his lovers’ misdeeds. In the end, "He was incapable of intimacy – even with his intimates," Lynn said.

Still, Lynn sees neither Wells nor his women as victims, maintaining that all were equally capricious and adept at wielding their charms to achieve their objectives.

"I say that there are no victims in these relationships, and I truly believe that," Lynn said. "These people knew what they were getting and giving, knew the rules of the game."

Much of the suppressed material was garnered from the UI Library, which holds the world’s foremost H.G. Wells collection.