The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World by Claire Tomalin
A broken leg, a shattered thigh bone, and a crushed kidney were (in circuitous ways) momentous accidents in the early life of Herbert George (H. G.) Wells. The broken leg came about in 1874 when the seven-year-old Wells was hurled into the air by a rambunctious older boy, who then failed to catch him as he fell to earth. Wells’ subsequent recuperation period was spent voraciously reading whatever books he could lay his hands on, thus opening up a whole new world of literature to the young convalescent. These books were mainly supplied by his father Joseph Wells, a shopkeeper in Bromley who fell and broke his thigh one day whilst pruning a vine, an injury which affected his ability to provide for his family and gave his son an abrupt entrée into the world of the Victorian precariat —a shabby-genteel zone which haunted several of the budding author’s later works. As for the crushed kidney, Wells incurred it as the result of a rugby tackle in 1887 when he was a junior schoolmaster. This nasty injury led to another period of convalescence in which the brush with his own mortality led the young man to take stock of what he wanted from life and where his nascent writing talents might lead him. In Claire Tomalin’s The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World, adversities —whether as the result of physical injury or economic hardship— are shown to be essential determinants in forging her subject’s seemingly indomitable spirit, even if that same spirit could, at times, manifest itself as reckless narcissism.
Although Wells lived to a reasonably ripe old age (he died in 1946 aged seventy-nine), Tomalin’s book focuses on the first forty years of her subject’s life. This approach allows for closer scrutiny of a period in which, in the opinion of such an illustrious admirer as George Orwell, Wells produced his best work. Thereafter, with the passing of the Edwardian era followed by successive global conflicts, Wells (according to Orwell) found himself in the position of being “too sane to understand the modern world.” Long before then, in the latter half of the Victorian age, the young H. G. Wells began to earn a living by taking a succession of apprenticeships in offices and shops, all of which threatened to stifle his literary ambitions. His luck changed somewhat in 1883 when he was offered a pupil-teacher role at Midhurst Grammar School in West Sussex. From here he went on to win a scholarship to study biology under Professor Thomas Huxley at the Normal School of Science (later the Royal College of Science) in South Kensington. Always an assiduous pupil, he excelled at his studies, became a leading member of the Debating Society (notwithstanding his life-long remarkably high-pitched voice), and developed an enthusiasm for socialism fuelled by exposure to the ideas of notable Fabians such as George Bernard Shaw. In 1887 he took up a teaching post at Holt Academy in the Welsh borders, where he sustained his kidney injury. Further teaching posts followed, during which time Wells became engaged to his cousin Isabel. By the time they married in 1891 he had begun to have articles published in several national journals and magazines, but had yet to make a name for himself as a man of letters.
Wells’ marriage to Isabel foreshadows in certain key aspects his relationship with several other women in his life, each of whom who would find themselves subject to the whims of his libertarian principles and considerable libido. From the outset of their marriage a breach seems to have developed between Isabel and Wells, both physically and intellectually. As Tomalin recounts it, when it came to her husband, the more strait-laced Isabel “could not understand why he was always questioning what she regarded as normal attitudes, why he complained about existing institutions and expressed exasperation with conventional views: ‘making a fuss,’ she called it.” Their relationship was put under further strain when Wells met a young student named Amy Robbins to whom he was immediately attracted, and with whom he could talk freely about socialism, the emancipation of women, and other libertarian issues of the day. When things eventually came to a head and his wife insisted that he choose between her and Amy, Wells chose Amy —not least because she shared his inclination to turn accepted moral notions on their heads. Not that this made them equal partners in their new-found free-spirited liaison: Wells, ever the dominant force, decided that he didn’t like Amy’s name and insisted that she henceforth call herself Jane.
It was in the early part of this relationship that Wells achieved his first success with the science fiction novella The Time Machine, published in 1895. It was a bestseller and launched Wells onto the international literary scene. Always an industrious writer and spurred on by his rapid rise to prominence, within a relatively short space of time Wells embarked upon some of his best-loved works such as The War of the Worlds, The Island of Doctor Moreau, and Love and Mr Lewisham. In addition, he was providing articles and reviews for a slew of publications to the (estimated) tune of seven thousand words a day. Meanwhile his stock swiftly rose with fellow authors, so that he could soon count luminaries such as Arnold Bennett, Stephen Crane, and George Gissing as good friends —the latter, in particular, was grateful for Wells’s companionship during his troubled final years. Such were the financial rewards of his literary output that by 1900 Wells was able to commission the celebrated Arts and Crafts architect Charles Voysey to design a new house for him on the clifftops of Sandgate in Kent. A year later his first child George Philip (thereafter known as ‘Gip’) was born, at which point Wells, with a characteristically overbearing sense of self-entitlement, persuaded Jane (whom he had by then married) to agree to sanction her husband’s extra-marital affairs on the grounds that she was “fragile” whilst he, on the other hand, needed “complete loveliness of bodily response,” the quid pro quo being that —so long as she didn’t mind his occasional passades, as he called them— their marriage would never be in danger.
Meanwhile, at the dawn of the twentieth century, Wells’s interest in socialism and in particular the flavour promoted by the Fabian Society drew him to Sydney Webb, along with Webb’s wife and fellow social economist Beatrice. The Webbs were heirs to the brand of patrician socialism developed by William Morris in his later career, after he had relinquished his Pre-Raphaelite daydreams for the cause of proletarian revolution. However, the Fabians did not incline to the kind of tub-thumping activism that saw Morris involved in the so-called Bloody Sunday disturbances of 1887 in Trafalgar Square. Instead, theirs was a much more gradualist and discursive approach to achieving a socialist state, favouring informative pamphlets and committee reports over sabre-rattling. The Fabians could boast among their number some of the leading cultural and political personalities of the day —not only the Webbs, but also Bernard Shaw, Ramsay MacDonald, and Annie Besant (before Theosophy enticed her away). Wells’s introduction to the Webbs and the Fabian Society coincided with the publication in 1901 of his book Anticipations (the full title being Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought) in which he set out his vision of the human race’s future in areas such as transport, social activities, education, and warfare, as well as predictions of the disappearance of God as a fearful, arbitrary divinity and the dissipation of sexual guilt. More disturbing —from our post-eugenics viewpoint— was his prognosis that, ultimately, a higher type of human would arise and the lesser, so-called “people of the Abyss” would be left behind to simply die out. Such was the mostly favourable reception that Anticipations received amongst the portion of his audience interested in sociological theorising that further works of the same ilk followed, such as Mankind in the Making and A Modern Utopia. Even Winston Churchill, who couldn’t agree with Wells’s republican sympathies but was a fan of his novels, expressed admiration for the discursive richness of these books whilst reserving the right to prefer the “jam” of the author’s pleasing story-telling over the “suet” of his radical homiletics.
As Wells was drawn increasingly into the wider circle of public figures, writers, social reformers and philosophers that revolved around the Fabian Society, his relationship with Beatrice Webb gradually changed. Wells claimed that he was “awfully afraid” of Beatrice when he first met her. Tomalin describes her as “the most brilliant young woman of her generation” and also “wellborn and well connected.” In a later fictionalised account of Beatrice, Wells portrayed her as having “much of the vigour and handsomeness of a slender, impudent young man, and an unscrupulousness altogether feminine.” Although she was a strikingly attractive woman, Beatrice’s intellect and vigorous sense of purpose seem to have forestalled Wells’s natural propensity to zero in on another potential conquest. Instead, Beatrice appears to have been the one who took the initiative in their relationship, by treating Wells as her protégé and introducing him to a range of useful contacts in the upper echelons of British political life. Not that theirs was always a harmonious pact —Beatrice was sometimes annoyed at Wells’s attempts to impress in highbrow company with his loquacious sermonising. He, in turn, felt that his soi-disant mentor was the kind of “faceted” person who could suddenly advocate “some palpable absurdity such as the monarchy or the established Church, and produce beautiful upside-down reasons for regarding it as the most perfect of human institutions.” As some light relief from the rigours of his intellectual hobnobbing with Beatrice Webb and her socially-committed confreres, Wells was on friendly terms with another stalwart Fabian (and serial philanderer) Hubert Bland, and enchanted by his wife, the writer E. Nesbit. With an ironic lack of self-awareness, a disapproving Wells described Bland as “a sort of Tom-cat man,” but thought nothing of turning his own amorous attentions to Bland’s teenaged daughter Rosamund. This resulted in Wells attempting to abscond to France with Rosamund, only for her father to turn up at Paddington Station and halt their journey by throwing a punch at the celebrated author. Wells would later sum up his feelings about this incident in a letter to Shaw: “Damn the Blands! All through it’s been that infernal household of lies that has tainted the affair and put me off my game.”
Notwithstanding such episodes of Edwardian lechery, Wells could still master his instincts sufficiently to produce work which not only kept his audience entertained but also troubled their socio-economic complacency. A prime example is his 1905 Fabian tract, This Misery of Boots, wherein Wells ruminates on how uncomfortable ill-fitting or worn-out boots can be. At a time when a good pair of boots —or indeed any half-decent footwear at all— was a luxury item for the working classes, Wells paints a graphic picture of the constant discomfort which often led to lasting physical damage, and the vast difference between the literally ‘well-heeled’ and their agonisingly ill-shod inferiors. Given that “there is enough good leather in the world to make good sightly boots for all who need them,” then surely “the misery of boots is not an unavoidable curse upon mankind.” As for those who think that it is impossible to rectify this and other time-honoured examples of social inequality, Wells’s message is “don’t submit, don’t be humbugged for a moment into believing that this is the dingy lot of all mankind.” When he sees the cracked and misshapen boots of poor people, he also sees a lot of “little phantom land-owners, house-owners, owners of all sorts, swarming over their pinched and weary feet like leeches.” Is there no other way than to let these phantoms “exact their claims, and squeeze comfort, pride, happiness out of the lives of the common run of people?” Wells pointedly enquires. As The Misery of Boots abundantly demonstrates, at his best Wells was a supremely gifted polemicist, able to give palpable immediacy to his socialist beliefs.
In 1906 Wells further reinforced his international literary status with a visit to the USA to collect material for a book on his impressions of that country. During this trip he was fêted by the great and good, such as Mark Twain and President Theodore Roosevelt, and also befriended Maxim Gorky, there to raise funds for the Bolshevik Party. It was during this period that Wells attempted something of an —ultimately unsuccessful— coup in the Fabian Society to transform it into a much more practically effective political force than it had been hitherto. In the course of the networking and manoeuvrings which this involved, Wells was introduced to New Zealand High Commissioner William Pember Reeves and his wife Maud, both of whom were keen Fabians. Perhaps inevitably given his previous form, it was their daughter Amber, a young woman of much more vehement political enthusiasms than her parents, with whom Wells would embark on a tempestuous relationship in 1908 while she was a student activist at Newnham College, Cambridge. When Amber relocated to the London School of Economics to write her thesis, she and Wells spent an idyllic (if clandestine) summer together during which he was energised sufficiently to work on two of his most acclaimed novels, namely Tono-Bungay and The History of Mr Polly. Unfortunately Amber was anything but discreet, and before long her mother, several Cambridge dons, and some of her fellow undergraduates all knew about the affair. Some high-profile acquaintances were also apprised of the situation when Wells and Amber were observed together at the Fabian Summer School, with Beatrice Webb offering the opinion that it was a “somewhat dangerous friendship.” Nevertheless, and seemingly without regard for what anybody else thought of his actions, Wells’s passion for this young girl was unstinting —at least if the several ardent letters that he wrote to her at the time are anything to go by, containing as they do a combination of infatuation and frustration with her sometimes petulant behaviour. However, Wells was also capable of displaying petulance in return, particularly when his right to order his romantic life to his own liking was questioned, or, as he put it, “didn’t I have Isabel because I wanted her and chucked her because I wanted to and have Jane? I never gave up anything I wanted (and I ain’t going to do now).” For Tomalin, this stormy affair can be viewed in different ways depending on which perspective is taken. Was Amber a “starstruck, selfish girl pursuing a famous writer” and in the process “causing a great deal of trouble,” or alternatively was Wells “a self-indulgent and lecherous middle-aged man allowing himself to embark on a love affair with the vulnerable daughter of a family friend” — or were they both just “two recklessly inconsiderate people”? In any case, by 1909 Amber was pregnant with Wells’s child, and although that same year it was arranged that she would marry a solicitor who was also a friend of her family, even by 1930 she was still writing to Wells as “My Darling Master.”
When Tomalin takes leave of her subject, he is in his forties and has already attained a confirmed niche within the pantheon of modern English authors, with further literary achievements to follow. For all his faults, his latest biographer finds Wells “ambitious, hardworking, and astonishingly energetic and original in his thinking.” If Wells’s visits to Russia in 1914, 1920, and 1934 left him with the kind of qualified admiration for Lenin and the Bolsheviks which might make him seem yet another prominent dupe of twentieth century dictatorships, at least at the other end of the totalitarianism spectrum he “had the honour of knowing” that his books were burnt by students in Berlin on the orders of Hitler and Goebbels, and that his Short History of the World (1922) was found in a collection of books hidden by prisoners in Auschwitz. This “Don Juan of the intelligentsia,” as he was once described, was undoubtedly attractive to many women (one factor being that he apparently smelled of honey), and at times he egocentrically manipulated that attraction in callously insensitive ways. Such self-centredness seems to have stemmed from the same restive animus that saw Wells described at his memorial service as “a volcano in perpetual eruption of burning thoughts and luminous images.” As for Tomalin’s biography, it admirably succeeds in steering an illuminating, richly detailed pathway through her subject’s volcanic intellectual passions as well as his peccadilloes.--Mark Jones