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One Part Prescient, Five Parts Puerile

David Askew

H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life, by Michael Sherborne, Peter Owen, 405 pp, £25.00, ISBN: 978-0720613513

HG Wells (1866-1946) is best remembered today for his pioneering works of science fiction, especially those novels read in Hollywood, such as The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Worlds (1898), for his Edwardian social novels, particularly Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul (1905), Tono-Bungay (1909), and The History of Mr Polly (1910), and, of his non-fiction work, for his A Short History of the World (1922). In his heyday, he was able to command very large audiences as a writer of both fiction and non-fiction – as TS Eliot said in 1940, he was read widely “in the first class as well as the third class compartment”. However, few modern readers know of his advocacy for eugenics, for a world state that was above petty national interests or for the propagation of a global declaration of human rights that fed into the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights (1948).

A novelist, a journalist, a historian and social critic, a socialist, eugenicist and elitist, Wells had a long and in many ways successful life. He was a prolific writer – from 1895 to 1945, he published at least one book every year, with the exception of 1907, and a total of over a hundred books in his lifetime. In 1895 alone he published four works. This would have been enough for most. Wells however was not just a very hard worker, but also energetic and capable of multi-tasking. On becoming the Saturday Review’s principal fiction reviewer in 1895, he got through almost three hundred books over two and a half years. One cannot but admire the work ethic and drive that lies behind such an output.

At the same time, his very productivity meant that he published far too much. Modern critics are inclined to say that, while obviously talented, his flawed character made him a flawed writer. John Batchelor’s views are representative of this line. “Wells,” he said in 1996, “was bouncy, cocky, amoral, selfish, maddening, an upstart, a gadfly, and a genius. He was a genius who abused and vulgarized his enormous gifts: he wrote too much, he wrote too fast, he wrote carelessly and repetitiously, he was always in the market-place, he was willing – far too often – to prostitute his art for money.”

Such criticisms should not lead us to overlook how influential a writer Wells was in his day. In “Wells, Hitler and the World State” (1941), George Orwell agrees that he has “squandered his talents”. Nevertheless, he reminds us, “how much it is, after all, to have any talents to squander”. He also says that “Thinking people who were born about the beginning of this century are in some sense Wells’s own creation ... I doubt whether anyone who was writing books between 1900 and 1920, at any rate in the English language, influenced the young so much. The minds of all of us ... would be perceptibly different if Wells had never existed.”

Wells was one of a small group of writers ‑ Robert Louis Stevenson (1850-1894), Oscar Wilde (1854-1900), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle (1859-1930) and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936) are others ‑ who were born during the third quarter of the nineteenth century and whose works had a strong impact on popular culture and popular imagination. Orson Welles did a radio adaptation in 1938 of his famous novel The War of the Worlds; in 2005 it was given the Hollywood royal seal of approval when Steven Spielberg directed a version starring Tom Cruise.

A number of biographies of this gifted, prolific, and influential though flawed writer are available. The best include Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie’s The Life of H. G. Wells: The Time Traveller (The Hogarth Press, 1973/1987) and David C Smith’s H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal, A Biography (Yale University Press, 1986). The latest biography is Sherborne’s H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life.

Sherborne is well known in Wellsian circles and, under the pseudonym Michael Draper, has published one of the best short introductions, H. G. Wells (Macmillan, 1987). His biography follows the life, discusses the major and many of the minor works in some detail and provides far too much insight into Wells’s sex life. Of the many women – wives, mistresses, lovers – in his life, some were clearly more significant than others, but Sherborne has perhaps attempted to give all the major players equal billing, and as a result spends too much time on figures such as Odette Keun, who had at best a minor impact on his life and thought, and too little on others such as Rebecca West and Margaret Sanger. Sherborne is strong on Wells in the bedroom, or, for that matter, out of it – he seemed to take pleasure in the thought of being caught in flagrante delicto, and so intercourse often took place in public places and out of doors. But the inclusion of these details mean less space can be devoted to other, more interesting and less sordid, areas. Too little attention is paid to the friendships, including lifelong ones with women like Elizabeth Healey, and to other aspects of Wells’s life, such as his politics.

Sherborne must have devoted decades of his life to Wells and clearly admires him, though he is willing to admit that he had many faults. The picture that emerges is of an unpleasant man who squandered his considerable talent on earning a very good living. Another theme is that of a slow decline in artistic merit. Let us begin with the life.

Wells was born in 1866 in Bromley in Kent, a place soon to be swallowed up by London’s expanding suburbs. His father had been a gardener, his mother a maid. They were now struggling to run a small shop. He began his formal education in the summer of 1874 and left school in June 1880, at the age of thirteen, when his father was forced into bankruptcy. He was apprenticed into a drapery. This was, for him, a completely inappropriate line of work. However, his mother viewed it as a “respectable trade”, and the early years of his life are characterised by a ceaseless effort to escape from what seemed to be his fate. After several false starts, in 1883, he managed to obtain a job as a teaching assistant, which enabled him to return to school, and in 1884 he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science, where he was heavily influenced by “Darwin’s bulldog”, Thomas Henry Huxley. A photograph of him mimicking Huxley taken at this time shows a very emaciated young man clearly suffering from malnourishment. He did not shine at university, preferring to spend his time on literature and writing. “At South Kensington,” Sherborne writes, “he liked to think of himself as an artist among scientists; later, as a famous author, he would claim to be a scientist among artists.” Not unsurprisingly, he failed to take his degree in the summer of 1887, but instead took up teaching, and started to publish. In 1891 he was finally awarded his Bachelor of Science degree and, with the security and income of work with the University Correspondence College, married his cousin, Isabel Wells. However, he soon fell in love with one of his students, Amy Catherine Robbins, and from 1893 lived with her. In 1895, when his divorce with Isabel was finalised, he married Amy. Wells was to prove an incorrigible womaniser throughout his life; Sherborne believes that he was already being unfaithful to Amy soon after their marriage.

In 1891, his “The Rediscovery of the Unique” appeared in the Fortnightly Review, where it was noticed by Oscar Wilde. As Sherborne informs us, over two thousand magazines were in circulation in mid-1890s Britain, and over a thousand novels were published annually. In 1893, Wells published his first book, the co-authored A Text-Book of Biology. He also tried his hand at literary journalism. In 1895, he became both the Pall Mall Gazette’s drama critic and, as we have already seen, the Saturday Review’s principal fiction reviewer. In 1895, he published The Time Machine to much acclaim, and never looked back. He was to live – and to live very well – from his pen for the rest of his life. “If the world does not please you, you can change it,” says Mr Polly, and his chronicler certainly did exactly that, overcoming his humble origins through literary talent and hard work.

Wells’s early work includes The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds – Sherborne thinks that if he had died in 1898 his reputation today “would … probably [be] much higher”. Together with Jules Verne, he helped create a new genre, science fiction. As in his other works, so in his science fiction, Wells reveals a clear political philosophy – a socialism based on Darwin at least as much if not more than Marx. The early Wells was a pessimistic evolutionist to a greater extent than he was an optimistic socialist; an author of dystopia rather than utopia. As socialism came to hold a greater sway over his thought, however, he became more optimistic – and perhaps not unrelatedly, a worse writer. In a clear sign that his powers were slipping away, the 1899 novel When the Sleeper Wakes was an “artistic failure”; it was rewritten in 1910 and republished as The Sleeper Awakes, but, Sherborne says, Wells “failed to improve it”.

In private life, Wells was certainly, in the words of MacKenzie and MacKenzie, a “philandering sybarite”. In his H. G. Wells and the Culminating Ape, Peter Kemp uses the appropriate term “sexual swagger” to describe the tone of the private letters in which he discussed his sexual life with a self-indulgent and quite repellent “gloating cockiness”. Highly promiscuous, he was unfaithful to all his women, and never – quite – managed to love anyone else as much as he loved himself. He was chauvinistic and seemed to have very little respect for women – Rebecca West was informed of her duties “as a custodian of genius” –“You have to take care of me and have me fed and peaceful and comfortable.” West’s description of him “whining and nagging like a spoilt child” rings true. He was puffed up with a sense of importance that his considerable abilities did not quite justify, a pompous and vain character with an unpleasant proclivity to explode into furious rage at the smallest imagined slight – according to Sherborne, he was not only capable of spectacular fits of anger, but “[t]hese outbursts would become more common and less discriminating as the years went by”. Sherborne clearly admires the writer more than the man.

Wells’s public life flourished. At the turn of the century, he could boast immense sales and artistic significance. He was friends with George Gissing and Arnold Bennett, and was also hobnobbing with literary artists such as Ford Madox Heuffer (later Ford Madox Ford), Henry James and Joseph Conrad.

In February 1903 he joined the Fabian Society, and was soon proposing to reorganise it on Wellsian lines. The reader – this reader at least – would have liked to learn more about the development of Wells’s socialist thought at this time. However, still dwelling on the sexual shenanigans rather than the political thought, Sherborne questions whether Wells was genuinely anxious to reform the society at all, given that he seemed to spend so much time seducing the daughters of his Fabian colleagues. “There may also have been an element of revenge,” he says, “demolishing the fathers by deflowering the daughters.” He attempted to take one of these, Rosamund Bland, to the continent (they were stopped by her father at Paddington Station). He eventually resigned from the Fabian Society in 1908, before running off to France in 1909 with another of the daughters, Amber Reeves, who was to bear him a child, Anna-Jane (he later fathered a son with Rebecca West).

His sexual activities, and especially his habit of writing about them (Anne Veronica is based at least in part on Amber Reeves), made Wells an early champion of sexual liberation, which threatened both his reputation, the reputation of socialist thought, and his sales – and so “Wells became embroiled in a lengthy press campaign trying to dissociate himself from the idea of sex outside marriage while industriously practicing it”.

In 1906, he travelled to the USA. His reputation as a writer opened doors, and his journalism flourished. In the USA, he dined with Oliver Wendell Holmes, and interviewed Booker T Washington and President (Theodore) Roosevelt. On later trips to Russia, he was to interview first Lenin in 1920 and then Stalin in 1934. In the same year he also visited the USA and interviewed the other President Roosevelt, FDR. He was lionised by the public, and as a journalist became a global personality who enjoyed access everywhere to the corridors of power. In fact, he was viewed as being so influential that the Soviets seem to have sent a spy, Moura Benckendorf (later Budberg), to become his mistress. If nothing else, his life was full of incident.

Wells remained committed to the idea of a world state in the dark days of the Second World War. He proposed that this new order be based on a global declaration of human rights, and successfully pushed for the Sankey Declaration, which was one of the inspirations of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. He was awarded a doctorate in science in 1943, but never made a Fellow of the Royal Society, despite extensive lobbying. He died a wealthy man. Although he believed in “the collectivisation of wealth”, he was always, Sherborne tells us, very reluctant to pay taxes.

No matter how unpleasant he may have been, however, Wells could write. And it is for his writings that he is remembered. Over a long life, he enjoyed success in a number of genres – spectacularly so in his scientific romances (science fiction), but also in comic writings (works such as The Invisible Man combine the two aspects), novels, journalism and popular history. His first novels – especially The Time Machine and The Island of Doctor Moreau, but also The Invisible Man and The War of the Worlds – established his reputation as one of the great SF novelists. But after this fine start his inspiration failed; whatever had enabled him to produce the wonderful early science fiction works was lost. He continued to work in the genre, publishing When the Sleepers Wakes in 1899, The First Men in the Moon in 1901 and The War in the Air in 1908, but his best science fiction was behind him.

In the first decade of the twentieth century, Wells enjoyed a second success as an Edwardian novelist. Love and Mr Lewisham (1900) and Ann Veronica (1909) are relatively minor works, but Kipps (1905), Tono-Bungay (1909), and The History of Mr Polly (1910) are sometimes seen as his best work by those critics who refuse to treat science fiction as literature. They established his reputation as a mainstream novelist. In these great comedies of the lower middle classes, Wells mined his own experiences – Kipps is apprenticed to a drapery, and Mr Polly too is a draper’s assistant. Whatever the merit of the Edwardian novels, however, he did not manage to establish himself as the preeminent writer in this genre. And again, his work quickly began to decline in quality.

As early as 1915, in his book The World of H.G. Wells, Van Wyck Brooks was drawing lines in the sand, declaring that, since The New Machiavelli (1911), Wells’s best work was behind him. In the early 1920s, Virginia Woolf divided those writers she defined as the older generation, the Edwardians, and those who represented the new generation, the Georgians. Her dividing line was 1910. In addition to Wells, Woolf’s Edwardians included Arnold Bennett and John Galsworthy, while her Georgians included EM Forster, James Joyce, DH Lawrence and TS Eliot. Thus at a relatively early stage of his career Wells found himself being relegated to the ranks of the has-beens. These assessments have stood the test of time. As The Times Literary Supplement put it a few days after his death in 1946, “There was a time when Wells spoke more clearly than any other man to the youth of the world”; but “[t]he magic faded … The world moved on.”

Sherborne struggles to identify strengths in the later fiction, but is forced to label many of the latter works “prig novels”. The World Set Free (1914), he says, is “[o]ne part prescient to five parts puerile” – and that could be said of almost all Wells’s novels after the first decade of the twentieth century. He has an explanation. “Wells’s decline,” he says, “was largely the result of suppressing the comic, subversive side of his literary personality.” He argues that Tono-Bungay, for instance, starts off well, combining two of his aspects – an “opinionated voice” and a “comical inventiveness”. But “the interaction between prophecy and scepticism, earnestness and humour, which had formerly given his work its supple intelligence” disappears, and the novel does not end as well as it starts. Sherborne here indulges in some psychoanalytical surmising, arguing, not implausibly, that Wells internalised the contradictory values of his other-worldly, serious, religious, evangelical mother and his this-worldly, comic, frivolous, subversive, escapist father. He also contends that Wells’s best fiction is created through a dialectic between these conflicting values, which is less persuasive.

The flaws in his writing were noted by his literary acquaintances. While in awe and perhaps even envious of Wells’s commercial success, Henry James was dismayed by his sloppy carelessness, and referred to him in inverted commas as a “literary man”. For his part, Wells resented James’s criticisms. After cruelly satirising James in Boon (1915), Wells wrote in July 1915 that “I have a natural horror of dignity, finish and perfection … To you literature like painting is an end, to me literature like architecture is means, it has a use … I had rather be called a journalist than an artist, that is the essence of it.”

Writing about the late 1920s, Sherborne claims that “Wells wanted to be feted as the author of past masterpieces, yet to evade literary assessment of his present work, just as he wanted to be received on equal terms with creative writers yet to outgun them by evoking the authority of science.”

He was determined to see literature as a “means” to preach to his readers. He attempted to push a political agenda in his novels, to combine the roles of artist and prophet. This can be seen perhaps in particular in his various utopian works, such as A Modern Utopia (1905). In Sherborne’s words, as an ex-Christian he “retained an evangelical belief that salvation could be achieved by struggling to change the world for the better”, but he was also a socialist, so his notion of salvation was not other-worldly. Instead, he proposed that the intellectual elite (the scientists and engineers) should assume power and establish a benevolent dictatorship. And he saw literature as a means, a tool of propaganda, to achieve these political ends. As a consequence, his work degenerated into what GK Chesterton labelled “a pot of message”.

Wells liked to see himself as a significant thinker. Indeed he identified himself as a member of the intellectual elite – and did so, it must be said, to a far greater extent than he was welcomed or accepted by that elite. Anticipations (1901) is of interest today because it demonstrates the virulently racist nature of the biological socialism he propagated. He himself had high hopes for it – Anticipations, he told his friend Elizabeth Healey, was “designed to undermine and destroy the monarch, monogamy, faith in God & respectability – & the British Empire”. Wells argued that the future world state, the “New Republic”, ruled by a class of technocrats, would, in Sherborne’s words, “set up a programme of sex education to get rid of the physically and mentally diseased and the lower classes in general”. This “sexual education” is a euphemism for the genocidal killing and sterilisation of those Wells called the “people of the Abyss”. According to him:

the ethical system of these men of the New Republic, the ethical system which will dominate the world state, will be shaped primarily to favour the procreation of what is fine and efficient and beautiful in humanity ‑ beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds, and a growing body of knowledge ‑ and to check the procreation of base and servile types, of fear-driven and cowardly souls, of all that is mean and ugly and bestial in the souls, bodies, or habits of men.

Wells himself had quite specific ideas about the people of the Abyss; members of the working class, “those swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people”, he wrote, are not good enough to be allowed to propagate – they “will have to go”.

Anticipations marked a new stage of Wells’s career. He was now a social commentator. It was after its publication that the Fabians actively wooed him. Commenting on his New Worlds for Old (1908), a collection of his socialist writings, Sherborne notes that his “rejection of market mechanisms looks wrong-headed, his faith in the supreme competence of the state naïve”. That judgement is not one to quarrel with, but the piece Wells wrote for the Fabians, “This Misery of Boots”, which still reads powerfully, might have been examined in more detail. Again, Sherborne could have devoted more space to Wells’s politics.

Of the social commentary, A Short History of the World (1922) is still surprisingly readable. Indeed, of all his non-fiction, the only works to have survived the test of time are this history and the wonderful Experiment in Autobiography (1934), which is in Sherborne’s view “by far the best of his later books”.

Sherborne is one the leading Wells scholars of today. His biography is well-researched and relatively comprehensive. A few very regrettable sentences such as “a new lover was homing in on him with the resolution of a heat-seeking missile” and several instances of facetious silliness detract from what is otherwise a solid work. Of the latter, one example will suffice. During a tour of Australia over the Australian summer of 1938-39, Wells clashed with the prime minister, Joseph Lyons. In his Travels of a Republican Radical in Search of Hot Water (1939), Wells called Lyons an appeaser, someone suffering “delusions of sagacity”. Sherborne adds the following (it must be a joke): “The controversy that raged in the Australian newspapers may or may not have contributed to Lyons’s death of a heart attack three months later.”

Some of Wells’s novels will continue to be read, while others deserve to be. In his day, even his lesser works influenced other writers, who not infrequently improved their own work by exploiting his fertile imagination. Yevgeny Zamyatin, for instance, who wrote one of the most insightful short essays on Wells, was inspired by When the Sleeper Wakes, and reworked it as We (c 1920); and both When the Sleeper Wakes and We seem to have influenced Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932); all of these works then impacted on Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). These great writers recognised Wells’s achievements, and so should we.


David Askew is an Associate Professor of Law at the Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan. Recent works include David Askew (with P Close and X Xin), The Beijing Olympiad: The Political Economy of a Sporting Mega-Event (Routledge, 2006), and chapters in BT Wakabayashi ed, The Nanking Atrocity, 1937-8: Complicating the Picture (Berghahn, 2007).

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