January 7, 1996
At the end of the twentieth century, there may not seem to be many reasons for optimism about the human prospect; so it takes some effort to appreciate how promising things looked to our forebears at its outset, at least in the English-speaking world. Both England and the United States were richer and freer than any societies had ever been. In 1888 an American, Edward Bellamy, had published the most popular and influential of all utopian novels, Looking Backward. Late 19th-century London was teeming with literary, scientific, and political visionaries and was a magnet for intellectually ambitious provincials and colonials. William Morris was one such, Bernard Shaw another; there were hundreds more.
One of them was the young Herbert George Wells, soon to become and forever remain “H.G.” Apprenticed by his stern mother to a haberdashery at 14, he ran away a few years later, became a teacher’s assistant, and won a scholarship to a scientific college in London. After graduation he began teaching again, but his health failed. His stories and articles made the rounds unsuccessfully for a while; eventually, with encouragement from (among others) Oscar Wilde, he succeeded in placing a few. In 1895, at age 29, he published The Time Machine and was immediately famous. Over the next half-dozen years he produced several more classics of science fiction: The Island of Dr Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Awakes and The First Men in the Moon. And then he really hit his stride.
In a string of comic novels that no one reads anymore-- except, perhaps, for Tono-Bungay -- Wells laid siege to England’s sexual and commercial mores. At the same time he issued a barrage of futuristic speculation and socialist polemic. He challenged Shaw and the Webbs for the leadership of the Fabian Society, and only narrowly lost. The Outline of History (1920) was an enormous success. In the interwar decades he was, along with Shaw, Gide, Gorky, and a few others, one of those international men of letters whose every pronouncement was news in Europe.
Michael Foot’s biography is an amiable, eccentric, rather lightweight effort. Foot is a former leader of Britain’s Labor Party, an acclaimed biographer of Lord Byron and the working-class socialist Aneurin Bevan, and an ardent lifelong fan of Wells. H.G is something more than an apologia but something less than serious scholarship or criticism. It’s a knowledgeable ramble through Wells’s life and work, good-natured though sometimes defensive, and doubtless highly useful and gratifying to confirmed Wellsians. Others could do worse than begin with H.G., but could also do better.
Every lofty reputation is taken down a peg posthumously. Nowadays there are three common complaints against Wells: he was an authoritarian elitist; a compulsive and callous womanizer; and fundamentally shallow -- more journalist and entertainer than artist and thinker. In each case, at least a partial demurrer is in order.
No one has had a good word for the Fabians in recent years: they are usually written off as doctrinaire collectivists, admirers of Mussolini and Stalin. But they were at bottom democrats, and their willingness to wade into the details of social questions up to their elbows set an excellent example, regrettably unheeded by the New Left. Wells, in any case, criticized the Fabians’ authoritarian strain (as did Shaw). True, Wells wrote some hair-raising sentences about the need for a program of global eugenics; but then, he wrote so very many sentences, and so few of them were specifically (rather than abstractly) bloody-minded -- on the contrary-- that some suspension of judgment seems warranted.
Women mostly adored Wells, and for good reason. Not only was he a great propagandist of sexual liberation, but he was also, it appears, genuinely charming and kind. His autobiographical writings seem admirably frank and full of self-knowledge. And for the most part, he got involved with strong, independent women. The case against Wells usually centers on his stormy relations with the younger, and eventually almost equally famous, Rebecca West. Foot, like a smooth politician, tries to split the difference between the two. I find more persuasive the pro-Wells verdict in the astonishing H.G.Wells: Aspects of a Life by Anthony West, son of Rebecca and H.G.
It is the accusation of shallowness that cuts deepest. Quite a few people now think that Wells’s science fiction was his best work; and from a purely literary point of view, they may be right. But that was not Wells’s point of view. His aesthetic sensibility was impure, even promiscuous: his novels were political and his political writings literary in a way that has become unfashionable, perhaps impossible, since the triumph of modernism in the arts and professionalism in politics and the social sciences. If James and Joyce (with each of whom Wells had some fascinating exchanges, quoted by Foot) were serious artists, then Wells was undeniably an amateur. Yet the wholeness and robustness of Wells’s turn-of-the-century imagination can still seem awfully attractive, at least to some weary fin-de-siecle souls.