The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World by Claire Tomalin; Penguin Press, 272 pp., $28
Time travel, interplanetary warfare, corporeal shape-shifting—H. G. Wells invented these wild ideas a century and a quarter ago. His elaborate fascinations mesmerized readers in his time, and they have proved hardy if not quite prophetic. Wells’s alternate realities have been reborn in countless works of otherworldly fiction, in scary radio broadcasts, in thrilling special effects on the screen. It’s a creative legacy that would have staggered him.
But also, perhaps, disappointed him. The poignant paradox of H. G. Wells’s literary life is that these stories—The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man—were the product of just a few of the very earliest years (1895–98) of his gushingly prolific oeuvre. Yet their shocking glimpses into futuristic might-have-beens turned their author into a celebrity sage, a source of wisdom and influence on just about every subject the new 20th century presented.
The prose and plots of these three books, initially serialized in magazines, bear evidence of being written under pressure. They were. At the time of his breakthrough into what we now call science fiction, Wells was an impoverished scribbler (he didn’t own a typewriter until 1899) who earned a living teaching science to the lowest rungs of British boarding-school lads while hustling piecework. Poor nutrition and chronic illness had made him pale and skinny, and nothing could change his slight stature. “Until I was over forty the sense of physical inferiority was a constant acute distress to me which no philosophy could mitigate,” he recalled, at nearly 70, in his Experiment in Autobiography (1934).
But Wells, even when he reached the full plumpness of his renown, always remained under pressure: to be taken seriously, to keep testing the magic of his mind, to be more than a cloistered artist. He continued to write novels, more explicitly prophetic and didactic than the first ones. A few of these, all but forgotten, occupy positions of esteem for scholars and biographers such as Clare Tomalin. Tono-Bungay (1909), for example, she lauds for its intermittent brilliance and its place in the tradition of Dickens and Thackeray. But she deems the book hasty. “Concentrating on perfecting his novels was rarely his way, because he was always ready to be distracted by a new idea that presented itself.”
Wells’s true preoccupations were increasingly political. He leveraged his yarns into manifestoes in such portentously titled nonfiction books as The Discovery of the Future (1902), Mankind in the Making (1903), and A Modern Utopia (1905). He saw himself as a radical social reformer—another kind of conjurer of imaginary worlds. Echoing the themes of his fiction, his essays championed a new world order of rationality and humanism, free of corruption, tribalism, and hypocrisy. Among Wells’s bêtes noires was the British monarchy, “the center of base and vulgar habits, and ideas, the keystone of the real control of the country by fools, fanatics, and society women.”
Herbert George Wells came by his fiery resentments honestly. His father was a dreamy cricketer past his prime and often out of work, his mother the hardworking bedrock of the family. She earned their living as a household servant in a grand English country house, Uppark, that may still be visited. The three Wells boys frequented the place, passing through back stairs to the kitchen and scullery; “Bertie” liked to linger in the library. On his own highly motivated recognizance, the teenaged Wells taught himself out of that way of life. He won competitions that gave him chances to advance and learn alongside the sons of the ruling class even as he built up a head of steam against the very idea of it.
Still, he was a man of his time and place. Those three phantasmagorical novellas are genteel in their ambiance and manners. The whole improbable story of The Time Machine is cast as a long conversation among gentlemen in a Victorian drawing room. The invasion of the Martians in War of the Worlds is experienced in middle-class English villages, including Woking, where the as-yet obscure Wells lived at the time. Of the trio, The Invisible Man, about a deranged scientist coping with his accidental invisibility, has a real message that endures beyond the shtick—about otherness, about metaphorical blindness, about demonizing what we can’t fathom.
In her new account of Wells’s most creative years, Tomalin reminds us that he was counted in his time as the equal of Henry James, Joseph Conrad, Stephen Crane, and George Bernard Shaw, to name only a few of this highly social animal’s circle of friends. One clue to the bonds among these writers was that they looked after one another when they were having financial troubles. Wells was both an early recipient of, and later a generous contributor to, this literary largesse.
Wells’s intellectual comrades included prominent members of the Fabian Society, a now-obscure movement of progressives led by a British couple named Sydney and Beatrice Webb, whose legacy includes the London School of Economics. The Fabians railed against private property and promoted free love. They were pacifists and vegetarians and feminists and, of course, anti-monarchists. As a brand-name promoter of socialist ideas, Wells was a prized recruit to the Fabians, but an ambivalent one, preferring in the end to keep an independent posture rather than get mixed up in messy doctrinal squabbles.
With his success by the early 1900s, Wells, his second wife, Jane, and their two sons were able to move to increasingly spacious and pleasant quarters, including a lovely house he built by the sea, as he churned out two or three books a year. Jane had an essential quality: her chilly endurance of her husband’s serial and overlapping affairs with other women, including several (such as Rebecca West) who bore him children and/or whom he promised to marry.
Wells was obsessed by women, an aggressive philanderer just as given to unfeigned predation and cruel dismissal as he was to mooning serenades and pathetic dependence. Tomalin’s analysis of his amours is particularly keen. She mixes clear empathy for the victimized wife with respect for Wells’s choice of mistresses, “all exceptionally gifted, each of them well able to make her own way in life.”
In 1906, unaccompanied by wife or companion, Wells spent two months on a grand lecture tour of the United States, where his books were hugely popular. Mark Twain, William Dean Howells, and William James paid their respects. Even President Theodore Roosevelt received him for a long palaver at the White House, following which the ever-inquisitive Wells got directions to the nearest Washington brothel to experience interracial coupling.
The distinguished author of ampler biographies of Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Samuel Pepys, and Jane Austen, Tomalin made a wise and, to the reader, generous decision to concentrate on Wells’s early years. As she crisply summarizes all that came after 1911, when he still had 35 years to live, it’s clear that the greater his renown, the more grandiose his vision and the flabbier his work. But in his lifetime Wells never slipped into obscurity, and those little stories that gave him his start remain his immortal offspring.
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