Vulpes Libris

A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

The Sea Lady

original illustration

original illustration

I don’t know about you, but the prospect of reading an H G Wells novel often makes me a little nervous. His novels are a bit too obvious a challenge to the society of his day, he has some peculiar ideas about what women really want, and can be such a preacher that he’s a bore. But, too often to be ignored, he can be totally brilliant. He is a terrific side-swipe satirist of how people talk to each other, and what they don’t say. Ann Veronica is a good example of this. In his day he was a most readable writer of science fiction, because he ignored scientific impossibilities, and treated them as if they were normal. The reader was thus obliged to tackle the practical details of invaders of from Mars, or being invisible, without getting bogged down in the hows and wherefores.

The Sea Lady is one of Wells’s least-known novels, first appearing in the monthly Pearson’s Magazine for six months in 1901, and then published properly in 1902. It isn’t in print, I had never heard of it until a year or two ago, through work. I read it with initial suspicion, and dawning delight. What a great story! A mermaid comes to land, having tracked down the man of her choice, whom she had spotted off the South Sea Islands the year before. She inveigles herself into taking up residence with a nice family in Folkestone, on the south coast of England (all paid for with shipwrecked treasure from the sea), and poses as an invalid, her tail neatly covered up with wraps or a bath chair by the most discreet maid in the world. She calls herself Miss Waters, and is a total charmer. She is also a siren, and an immortal, and has no interest in being nice to the girls whose men she snaps up, even temporarily, or to the men whose hearts she devours. She is a most beautiful monster, and nothing will stand in the way of what and who she wants. Imagine the flurries and panic of nice seaside town society on finding such a creature in their midst. Imagine the reaction of the victim’s rich aunts, who have always intended him to be in Parliament, and now find him being lured to the depths of the ocean. And can you feel sorry for Adeline, his very sensible fiancée, the perfect wife for a Parliamentary man, but no match for a sea nymph?

Wells intended this novel to make some social comment, but as he wrote it during the transition from one love affair to another, the most obvious commentary we can see was that people ought to be able to love whom they want, and to wear whatever clothes they want, without public criticism. It is a nice change to find a female predator in a Wells story, and a woman who gets exactly what she wants. It’s a delightful novel, and definitely deserves reprinting. Capuchin Classics, Victorian Secrets, or Michael Walmer: what do you think?

H G Wells, The Sea Lady (1902)

Kate podcasts on books that she really, really likes at

About Kate

Blogger, lecturer, podcaster, writer, critic, reviewer, researcher (in no particular order) in and on British literary history. Preferred occupation while listening to podcasts: cooking or knitting. Preferred soundtrack while reading: the sound of silence.

3 comments on “The Sea Lady

  1. kaggsysbookishramblings
    February 20, 2014

    Fascinating! This is a Wells I’ve not heard of and it sounds like it might have influenced the “Miranda” films!

  2. Jackie
    February 22, 2014

    I like the sound of this! Wells is one of the few sci-fi novelists that I occasionally read, as the genre doesn’t really appeal to me. But this one seems like it may have some sneaky humor and a unique approach to the mermaid idea, which has been Barbie-ized by Hollywood. I’m going to see if my library can special order this one, I’m eager to see how it all plays out.

  3. Truehobbit Monika
    March 13, 2014

    Considering what a big name Wells is in literature I’m fascinated to find there are works of his not currently in print. Sounds fascinating, too.😀

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  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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