H. G. Wells – Ann Veronica (London, 1909)

First edition cover of H. G. Wells' Ann Veronica (London, Virago, 1909)

First edition cover of H. G. Wells’ Ann Veronica (London, Virago, 1909)

How does studying biology impact on Ann Veronica’s view of the body?

Ann Veronica, a young girl searching to find independence as a woman in early 20th century London, joins the Central Imperial College to study biology, with hopes of expanding her view of the world. After some exploration, she finds it comforting that science can provide definitive answers about life, whereas feminist groups made only “incoherent cries” (p. 130). She is frustrated that such groups frequently pose controversial questions about life, but fail to answer them (pp. 118-9). The study of biology, on the other hand, “dealt from floor to ceiling with the theory of the forms of life”, and explained the body in a scientific context, providing answers to many of the questions she had about life (p. 130).

At this time, women were discouraged from learning about their bodies. Education was the domain of men; it was feared that if women were educated, they would become male. In Ann Veronica, the concept of an educated woman is clearly threatening to Vee’s father, who tells her that there are “some things I hope you may never know”. This restriction held many women back from achieving their academic potential; even when they were allowed to attend university, often they could not actually receive a degree at the end of it. Physical education in particular was sparse; women were barely taught to understand their own bodies, leaving many to be ignorant of their sexuality. Not only this, but society denied the reality of female sexuality, deeming it a taboo subject.

If Vee hadn’t left home, she would never have been taught about her own body. To even acknowledge the topic of sex is a struggle for her father, who only alludes to it as a “danger”. Female sexual desire was assigned exclusively to prostitutes; healthy middle-class women, apparently, had no libido.

Ann Veronica, however, is able to see through the social stigma attached to female sexuality once she learns that humans are just glorified mammals, or “etherealized monkeys” as she calls it (p. 148). The study of biology helps her to make sense of her own bodily desires as she falls in love with Cape. Sexuality, she discovers, is a natural part of being human; it is not limited to just men and morally corrupt women. She feels confident, therefore, to expose sexual desire as something that everyone feels, but no one talks about.

Vee not only rejects her father’s view that the female body is too pure to be sexual, but also the other extreme offered by the feminists she encounters. Miss Miniver, for example, suggests that sex was something “animal”, a male invention that women are strictly oppressed by. Vee, on the other hand, acknowledges that sex is a part of life, and there is no shame in thinking about it (p. 144). This is influenced by her study of biology, which “makes plainer and plainer the significance of the animal and vegetable structure”. Miss Miniver insists that bodies are “horrible things!” and as human beings, “we are souls” that should deny the body. Vee, however, highlights that there is no reason for the human body to be considered as something above biology, yet people still “pretend bodies are ugly” (pp. 144-5). Essentially, through the study of biology, Vee is able to view the body in a mode that Wells clearly considered to be objective, rather than through the eyes of society.

Emily Richards

2nd Year Undergraduate

Member of the ‘Twentieth Century Literature and Science: Remaking the Body’ module