H.G.Wells is known for his works of science fiction, period. To be honest, I wasn’t even really aware that he had written anything of the genre of Love and Mr. Lewisham – more a romantic novel with shades of politics thrown in. Right from his most famous work, The Time Machine (1876), to The Island of Dr.Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of The Worlds (1898), Wells showed his scientific imagination to be almost prophetic. Then, when he did an about-turn and wrote Love and Mr. Lewisham in 1900, it was not unexpected that his readers were surprised.
Love and Mr. Lewisham draws heavily on the author’s personal life. The book introduces Mr. Lewisham, a young and highly ambitious assistant schoolmaster in a small school in Sussex, where he meets and falls in love with Ethel Henderson, a young lady who is visiting friends in the village. However, Ethel soon has to return to work in London, and the two promise to keep in touch. As is wont to happen, the years leave their passing mark on the two lovebirds and their letters lose their way.
A few years later, we are re-introduced to Mr. Lewisham, who is now a student at the Normal School of Science in London. We learn that he searched in vain for Ethel on his arrival and is now back to concentrating in a single-minded manner on his Career (with a capital C, as he refers to it), indulging sometimes in friendly conversations with a fellow student, Alice Heydinger, who starts developing feelings for him. Just as we think things are all set with Alice, he runs into Ethel in a most unexpected manner at a séance that he goes to just to accompany his friends. There he realizes that Ethel is the niece of the spiritualist medium Chaffery. His memories of their time in Sussex wrestle in his mind with his feelings of disgust for all things spiritual. The rest of the book takes us through Lewisham’s life post that meeting and is a commentary on man’s eternal conflict between love and ambition, as well as a sarcastic hint at the spiritualist craze that swept England at the time the book was written. Lewisham is a hard-core Socialist as the book starts off, but his relationship with Ethel forces him to re-think his position on politics – another very interesting dynamic that unspools as the story moves along.
Love and Mr. Lewisham is almost autobiographical – Lewisham was an assistant schoolmaster at Whortley Proprietary School, Sussex, and Wells at Midhurst Grammar School. Both Lewisham and Wells won scholarships to study at the Normal School of Science (which is now Imperial College London). Lewisham had relationships with Ethel Henderson and Alice Heydinger (the nature of these shall not be disclosed to avoid spoiling the plot for other readers!), and Wells with his cousin Isabel and Amy Catherine Robbins, a student of his.
The book starts off as something that, uncannily, someone like Jane Austen would write, but soon diverges and develops its own flavor. H.G. Wells, after all, is no hard-core romantic. Wells writes about the male-female relationships in the book clearly from experience – they are too real to ring untrue and impersonal, and that adds to its authenticity. Love and Mr. Lewisham is not for fans of the pure romance genre. It is for those who are interested in seeing how romance and relationships can mix with politics – and I do not know too many writers who can claim to have successfully written along those lines. Wells’ interest and views on scientific belief and experiment also do not remain hidden, and are appropriately given voice to through the characters of Lewisham, and his classmates Lagune and Smithers. A light and yet thought-provoking reading, Love and Mr. Lewisham shows us Wells at his refreshingly different best.