The Sea Lady

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The Sea Lady
First publication in Pearson's Magazine
AuthorH. G. Wells
Original titleThe Sea Lady: A Tissue of Moonshine
Publication date
July–December 1901
TextThe Sea Lady at Wikisource

The Sea Lady is a fantasy novel by British writer H. G. Wells, including some of the aspects of a fable. It was serialized from July to December 1901 in Pearson's Magazine before being published as a volume by Methuen. The inspiration for the novel was Wells's glimpse of May Nisbet, the daughter of the Times drama critic, in a bathing suit, when she came to visit at Sandgate, Wells having agreed to pay her school fees after her father's death.[1]

In presenting a creature of legend active in the prosaic contemporary genteel English society, the book clearly falls into the definition of contemporary or even urban fantasy, at the time not yet recognized as a distinct subgenre.


The intricately narrated story involves a mermaid who comes ashore on the southern coast of England in 1899. Feigning a desire to become part of genteel society (under the alias "Miss Doris Thalassia Waters"), the mermaid's real design is to seduce Harry Chatteris, a man she saw "some years ago" in "the South Seas—near Tonga," who has taken her fancy.[2] This she reveals in a conversation with the narrator's second cousin Melville, a friend of the family who adopts "Miss Waters". As a supernatural being, she is unimpressed with the fact that Chatteris is engaged to the socially-minded Miss Adeline Glendower and is trying to make amends for his wastrel youth by entering politics. With mere words, the mermaid shakes both Chatteris and Melville's faith in their society's norms and expectations, enigmatically telling them that "there are better dreams". In the end, Chatteris is unable to resist her alluring charms, though succumbing supposedly means his death.


Couched in the language of fantasy and romance that blends with light-hearted social satire, The Sea Lady explores serious themes of nature, sex, the imagination, and the ideal in an Edwardian world in which moral restraints are loosening. Wells wrote in Experiment in Autobiography that The Sea Lady reflected his "craving for some lovelier experience than life had yet given me."[3]

In its narrative structure, The Sea Lady plays cleverly with conventions of historical and journalistic research and verification. According to John Clute, "Structurally it is the most complex thing Wells ever wrote, certainly the only novel Wells ever wrote to directly confirm our understanding that he did, indeed, read Henry James."[4] Adam Roberts has argued that The Sea Lady was written in a kind of dialogue with James's The Sacred Fount (1901).[5]

Cultural references[edit]

Miss Adeline Glendower, the elder of the Glendower half-sisters, is an avid reader of Mary Augusta Ward (Mrs Humphry Ward).[6] Her seaside reading matter is Sir George Tressady[7] and she is compared to the eponymous heroine of Marcella,[8] both novels by Mary Augusta Ward. Marcella (Lady Marcella Maxwell, née Boyce) is a leading character is both novels.

Sarah Grand[9] was a contemporaneous English feminist writer.

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Michael Sherborne, H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life (Peter Owen, 2010), p. 145.
  2. ^ "Symptomatic. § II" . The Sea Lady (1902) . I saw him first," she apologised, "some years ago." "Where?" "In the South Seas—near Tonga.
  3. ^ Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, H.G. Wells: A Biography (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1973), p. 179.
  4. ^ John Clute, Pardon This Intrusion (Beccon Publications 2006), p. 123.
  5. ^ A. Roberts, (2017), 'The Sea Lady', Wells at the World's End
  6. ^ "The Absence and Return of Mr Harry Chatteris" . The Sea Lady (1902) . she was always reading Mrs. Humphry Ward.
  7. ^ "The Coming of the Sea Lady" . The Sea Lady (1902) . having found her place in "Sir George Tressady"—a book of which she was naturally enough at that time inordinately fond
  8. ^ "The Absence and Return of Mr Harry Chatteris" . The Sea Lady (1902) . She was always attempting to be the incarnation of Marcella.
  9. ^ "The Crisis" . The Sea Lady (1902) . She reflected profoundly. "For all women— The child, man! I see now just what Sarah Grand meant by that."

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]