The Riviera Loves of H.G. Wells
The English novelist and journalist Herbert George (H. G.) Wells was best known for science fiction novels such as The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds, and for his many social novels such as Kipps and The History of Mr Polly. His long association with the Côte d’Azur centred mostly in the countryside around Grasse between the two world wars.
A serial womaniser, Wells left his wife Catherine and their two sons for long periods while keeping a string of mistresses. His autobiographical H. G. Wells in Love barely mentions the word “love”: it is a catalogue of Wells’s extra-marital dalliances, beginning with “a certain little Miss Kingsmill” shortly after his first son was born in 1901.
He tended to replace his foreground lovers in ten-year cycles. His most famous was the English novelist Rebecca West – who wrote that the Riviera was “the nearest thing to paradise”. In 1923 he began the affair with an Austrian writer which he later called “the vociferous transit of Odette Keun”, and in 1933 Keun was discarded for a Russian Baroness, Moura Budberg, translator and mistress of the Russian poet Gorky.
All this was against a background of transient lovers who included the wife of a New Zealand High Commissioner; the Irish writer Elizabeth Beauchamp; an un-named American widow who lived in the Hôtel Negresco; and the trivial pursuit of “women I had only a brief and simple use for”.
His succession of love-nests on the Grasse verges began in Magagnosc, followed by Lou Bastidon in Malbosc, and a villa that he and Keun built to their own design. They called it Lou Pidou, – Provençal for “The Treasure” – and above the fireplace they carved the words “Two lovers built this house”.
Lou Pidou still stands, sequestered and private: there is no longer a dedication on the chimney wall, but there is a plaque bearing those words – slightly modified – on its terrace.
Wells’s Riviera dream was to have: “hidden away in the sunshine, a home to which I could retreat and work in peace. I wanted a mistress to tranquillise me”.
But life at Lou Pidou was anything but tranquil: Wells described Keun as “addicted to every extremity of emotional exaggeration”. A former Jesuit nurse, she was able to slash her wrists without doing permanent harm, and would make use of this unusual skill when thwarted.
His many works written at Lou Pidou included The Shape of Things to Come and The Book of Catherine Wells, a eulogy of his neglected but faithful wife. He based his novel Meanwhile in the Hanbury Gardens at La Mortola, just across the Italian border.
He also found time to socialise with contemporary Azuréen writers, both at Lou Pidou, where he hosted novelists Aldous Huxley and Arnold Bennett; and as a guest of Somerset Maugham on Cap Ferrat. In 1930 he visited the dying D. H. Lawrence in hospital in Vence.
In an untypically chivalrous gesture, he decreed that his account of his voracious love life should not be seen until the last of his lovers was dead. It was not published until 1984, 38 years after his death.