Herbert George Wells (21 September
1866 – 13 August 1946), better known as H. G. Wells, was an English writer
most famous today for his science fiction novels The Time Machine, The War of
the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The First Men in the Moon and The Island of Dr
Moreau. He was a prolific writer of both fiction and non-fiction, and produced
works in many genres, including contemporary novels, history, and social
commentary. He was an outspoken socialist, his later works becoming
increasingly political and didactic. Only his early science fiction novels are
widely read today. Wells and Jules Verne are each sometimes referred to as
"The Father of Science Fiction".
George Wells, fourth and last child of Joseph Wells (a former domestic
gardener, and at the time shopkeeper and cricketer) and his wife Sarah Neal (a
former domestic servant), was born at Atlas House, 47 High Street, Bromley, in
the county of Kent. The family was of the impoverished lower-middle-class.
An inheritance had allowed them to purchase a china shop, though they quickly
realised it would never be a prosperous concern: the stock was old and worn
out, and the location was poor. They managed to earn a meagre income, but
little of it came from the shop. Joseph sold cricket bats and balls and other
equipment at the matches he played at, and received an unsteady amount of money
from the matches, since at that time there were no professional cricketers, and
payment for skilled bowlers and batters came from voluntary donations
afterwards, or from small payments from the clubs where matches were played.
A defining incident of young Wells's
life was an accident he had in 1874, when he was seven years old, which left
him bedridden with a broken leg. To pass the time he started reading books
from the local library, brought to him by his father. He soon became devoted to
the other worlds and lives to which books gave him access; they also stimulated
his desire to write. Later that year he entered Thomas Morley's Commercial
Academy, a private school founded in 1849 following the bankruptcy of Morley's
earlier school. The teaching was erratic, the curriculum mostly focused, Wells
later said, on producing copperplate handwriting and doing the sort of sums
useful to tradesmen. Wells continued at Morley's Academy until 1880. In 1877
another accident affected his life, when his father, Joseph Wells, fractured
his thigh. The accident effectively put an end to Joseph's career as a
cricketer, and his earnings as a shopkeeper were not enough to compensate for
No longer able to support themselves
financially, the family instead sought to place their boys as apprentices to
various occupations. From 1881 to 1883 Wells had an unhappy apprenticeship as a
draper at the Southsea Drapery Emporium. His experiences were later used as inspiration
for his novels The Wheels of Chance and Kipps, which describe the life of a
draper's apprentice as well as being critiques of the world's distribution of
Wells's mother and father had never
got along with one another particularly well (she was a Protestant, he a
freethinker), and when she went back to work as a lady's maid (at Uppark, a
country house in Sussex) one of the conditions of work was that she would not
have space for husband or children. Thereafter, she and Joseph lived separate lives,
though they never divorced and neither ever developed any other liaison. Wells
not only failed at being a draper, he also failed as a chemist's assistant and
had bad experiences as a teaching assistant. After each failure, he would
arrive at Uppark -- "the bad shilling back again!" as he said -- and
stay there until a fresh start could be arranged for him. Fortunately for
Wells, Uppark had a magnificent library in which he immersed himself.
H. G. Wells in 1908 at the door of
his house at Sandgate
In 1883, Wells's employer dismissed
him, claiming to be dissatisfied with his work (a verdict with which Wells
later came to agree) and the young man was far from displeased with this ending
to his apprenticeship. Later that year, he became an assistant teacher at
Midhurst Grammar School, in West Sussex (teaching students such as A.A.
Milne), until he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (later
the Royal College of Science, now part of Imperial College London) in London, studying
biology under T. H. Huxley. As an alumnus, he later helped to set up the Royal
College of Science Association, of which he became the first president in 1909.
Wells studied in his new school until 1887 with a weekly allowance of
twenty-one shillings (a guinea) thanks to his scholarship. This was a
comfortable sum of money: at the time many working class families had
"round about a pound a week" as their entire household income.
He soon entered the Debating Society
of the school. These years mark the beginning of his interest in a possible
reformation of society. At first approaching the subject through studying The
Republic by Plato, he soon turned to contemporary ideas of socialism as
expressed by the recently formed Fabian Society and free lectures delivered at
Kelmscott House, the home of William Morris. He was also among the founders of
The Science School Journal, a school magazine which allowed him to express his
views on literature and society. The school year 1886-1887 was the last year of
his studies. In spite of having previously successfully passed his exams in
both biology and physics, his lack of interest in geology resulted in his
failure to pass and the loss of his scholarship. It was not until 1890 that
Wells earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Zoology from the University of
London External Programme.
Upon leaving the Normal School of
Science, Wells was left without a source of income. His aunt Mary, a cousin of
his father, invited him to stay with her for a while, so at least he did not
face the problem of housing. During his stay with his aunt, he grew interested
in her daughter, Isabel.
In 1891 Wells married his cousin
Isabel Mary Wells, but left her in 1894 for one of his students, Amy Catherine
Robbins, whom he married in 1895. He had two sons by Amy: George Philip (known
as 'Gip') in 1901 and Frank Richard in 1903.
During his marriage to Amy, Wells
had liaisons with a number of women, including the American birth-control
activist and eugenicist Margaret Sanger and novelist Elizabeth von Arnim. In
1909 he had a daughter, Anna-Jane, with the writer Amber Reeves, whose
parents, William and Maud Pember Reeves, he had met through the Fabian Society;
and in 1914, a son, Anthony West, by the novelist and feminist Rebecca West,
twenty-six years his junior. In spite of Amy Catherine's knowledge of some
of these affairs, she remained married to Wells until her death in 1927.
Wells also had liaisons with Odette Keun and Moura Budberg.
"I was never a great
amorist," Wells wrote in Experiment in Autobiography (1934), "though
I have loved several people very deeply."
As one method of self-expression,
Wells tended to sketch a lot. One common location for these sketches was the
endpapers and title pages of his own diaries, and they covered a wide variety
of topics, from political commentary to his feelings toward his literary
contemporaries and his current romantic interests. During his marriage to Amy
Catherine, whom he nicknamed Jane, he sketched a considerable number of
pictures, many of them being overt comments on their marriage. It was during
this period, and this period only, that he called his sketches
"picshuas." These picshuas have been the topic of study by Wells scholars
for many years, and recently a book was published on the subject.
Seeking a more structured way to
play war games, Wells wrote Floor Games (1911) followed by Little Wars (1913).
Little Wars is recognised today as the first recreational wargame and Wells is
regarded by gamers and hobbyists as "the Father of Miniature War
Wells's first bestseller was
Anticipations (1901). When originally serialised in a magazine it was
subtitled, "An Experiment in Prophecy", and is considered his most
explicitly futuristic work. Anticipating what the world would be like in the
year 2000, the book is interesting both for its hits (trains and cars resulting
in the dispersion of population from cities to suburbs; moral restrictions
declining as men and women seek greater sexual freedom; the defeat of German
militarism, and the existence of a European Union) and its misses (he did not
expect successful aircraft before 1950, and averred that "my imagination
refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and
founder at sea").
His early novels, called
"scientific romances", invented a number of themes now classic in
science fiction in such works as The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau,
The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds and The First Men in the Moon (which
have all been made into films). He also wrote other, non-fantastic novels which
have received critical acclaim, including Kipps and the satire on Edwardian
Wells also wrote several dozen short
stories and novellas, the best known of which is "The Country of the
Blind" (1904). Besides being an important occurrence of blindness in
literature, this is Wells's commentary on humanity's ability to overcome any
inconvenience after a few generations and think that it is normal.
His short story "The New
Accelerator" was the inspiration for the Star Trek episode Wink of an
Though Tono-Bungay was not a
science-fiction novel, radioactive decay plays a small but consequential role
in it. Radioactive decay plays a much larger role in The World Set Free (1914).
This book contains what is surely his biggest prophetic "hit."
Scientists of the day were well aware that the natural decay of radium releases
energy at a slow rate over thousands of years. The rate of release is too slow
to have practical utility, but the total amount released is huge. Wells's novel
revolves around an (unspecified) invention that accelerates the process of
radioactive decay, producing bombs that explode with no more than the force of
ordinary high explosive— but which "continue to explode" for days on
end. "Nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the earlier
twentieth century," he wrote, "than the rapidity with which war was
becoming impossible... [but] they did not see it until the atomic bombs burst
in their fumbling hands." Leó Szilárd acknowledged that the
book inspired him to theorise the nuclear chain reaction.
Wells also wrote nonfiction. His
bestselling two-volume work, The Outline of History (1920), began a new era of
popularised world history. It received a mixed critical response from
professional historians, but was praised by Arnold J. Toynbee as the best
introductory history available. Many other authors followed with 'Outlines'
of their own in other subjects. Wells reprised his Outline in 1922 with a much
shorter popular work, A Short History of the World, and two long efforts,
The Science of Life (1930) and The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind
(1931). The 'Outlines' became sufficiently common for James Thurber to parody
the trend in his humorous essay, "An Outline of Scientists" — indeed,
Wells's Outline of History remains in print with a new 2005 edition, while A
Short History of the World has been recently reedited (2006).
From quite early in his career, he
sought a better way to organise society, and wrote a number of Utopian novels.
Usually starting with the world rushing to catastrophe, until people realise a
better way of living: whether by mysterious gases from a comet causing people
to behave rationally (In the Days of the Comet), or a world council of
scientists taking over, as in The Shape of Things to Come (1933, which he later
adapted for the 1936 Alexander Korda film, Things to Come). This depicted, all
too accurately, the impending World War, with cities being destroyed by aerial
bombs. He also portrayed social reconstruction through the rise of fascist
dictators in The Autocracy of Mr Parham (1930) and The Holy Terror (1939).
Wells contemplates the ideas of
nature vs. nurture and questions humanity in books like The Island of Doctor
Moreau. Not all his scientific romances ended in a happy Utopia, as the
dystopian When the Sleeper Wakes (1899, rewritten as The Sleeper Awakes, 1910)
shows. The Island of Doctor Moreau is even darker. The narrator, having been
trapped on an island of animals vivisected (unsuccessfully) into human beings,
eventually returns to England; like Gulliver on his return from the Houyhnhnms,
he finds himself unable to shake off the perceptions of his fellow humans as
barely civilised beasts, slowly reverting back to their animal natures.
Wells also wrote the preface for the
first edition of W. N. P. Barbellion's diaries, The Journal of a Disappointed
Man, published in 1919. Since "Barbellion" was the real author's
pen-name, many reviewers believed Wells to have been the true author of the
Journal; Wells always denied this, despite being full of praise for the
diaries, but the rumours persisted until Barbellion's death later that year.
In 1927, Florence Deeks sued Wells
for plagiarism, claiming that he had stolen much of the content of The Outline
of History from a work, The Web, she had submitted to the Canadian Macmillan
Company, but who held onto the manuscript for eight months before rejecting it.
Despite numerous similarities in phrasing and factual errors, the court found
Wells not guilty.
In 1934 Wells predicted that another
world war would begin in 1940, a prediction which ultimately came true.
In 1936, before the Royal
Institution of Great Britain, Wells called for the compilation of a constantly
growing and changing World Encyclopaedia, to be reviewed by outstanding
authorities and made accessible to every human being. In 1938, he published a
collection of essays on the future organisation of knowledge and education,
World Brain, including the essay, "The Idea of a Permanent World
Near the end of the Second World
War, Allied forces discovered that the SS had compiled lists of intellectuals
and politicians slated for immediate liquidation upon the invasion of England
in the abandoned Operation Sea Lion. The name "H. G. Wells" appeared
high on the list for the "crime" of being a socialist. Wells, as
president of the International PEN (Poets, Essayists, Novelists), had already
angered the Nazis by overseeing the expulsion of the German PEN club from the
international body in 1934 following the German PEN's refusal to admit
non-Aryan writers to its membership.
Wells called his political views
socialist. He was for a time a member of the socialist Fabian Society, but
broke with them as he intended them to be an organisation far more radical than
they wanted. He later grew staunchly critical of them as having a poor understanding
of economics and educational reform. He ran as a Labour Party candidate for
London University in the 1922 and 1923 general elections after the death of his
friend W.H.R Rivers, but at that point his faith in the party was weak or
His most consistent political ideal
was the World State. He stated in his autobiography that from 1900 onward he
considered a world-state inevitable. He envisioned the state to be a planned
society that will advance science, end nationalism, and allow people to advance
by merit rather than birth. During his work on the United Nations Charter, he
opposed any mention of democracy. He feared the average citizen could never be
educated or aware enough to decide major world issues. Therefore he favoured
suffrage to be limited to scientists, organisers, engineers, and others of
merit. On the other hand, he strongly believed citizens should have as much
freedom as possible without restricting the freedom of others. These values
came under increasing criticism from the 1920s and afterwards.
Lenin's attempts at reconstructing
the shattered Russian economy, as his account of a visit (Russia in the
Shadows; 1920) shows, also related towards that. This is because at first he
believed Lenin might lead to the kind of planned world he envisioned. This was
in spite of the fact that he was a strongly anti-Marxist socialist who would
later state that it would've been better if Karl Marx was never born.
The leadership of Joseph Stalin led
to a change in his view of the Soviet Union even though his initial impression
of Stalin himself was mixed. He disliked what he saw as a narrow orthodoxy and
obdurance to the facts in Stalin. However he did give him some praise saying in
an article in the left-leaning New Statesman magazine, "I have never met a
man more fair, candid, and honest" and making it clear that he felt the
"sinister" image of Stalin was unfair or simply false. Nevertheless
he judged Stalin's rule to be far too rigid, restrictive of independent
thought, and blinkered to lead toward the Cosmopolis he hoped for.
In the end his contemporary
political impact was limited. His efforts to help form the League of Nations
became a disappointment as the organisation turned out to be a weak one unable
to prevent World War II. The war itself increased the pessimistic side of his
nature. In his last book Mind at the End of its Tether (1945) he considered the
idea that humanity being replaced by another species might not be a bad idea.
He also came to call the era "The age of frustration." He spent his
final years venting this frustration at various targets which included a
neighbour who erected a large sign to a servicemen's club. As he devoted his
final decades toward causes which were largely rejected by contemporaries, this
caused his literary reputation to decline. One critic said, "Mr. Wells is
a born storyteller who has sold his birthright for a pot of message."
Wells, like many in his time,
believed in the theory of eugenics. In 1904 he discussed a survey paper by
Francis Galton, co-founder of eugenics, saying "I believe .. It is in the
sterilisation of failure, and not in the selection of successes for breeding,
that the possibility of an improvement of the human stock lies." Some
contemporary supporters even suggested connections between the
"degenerate" man-creatures portrayed in The Time Machine and Wells's
eugenic beliefs. For example, this is what Irving Fisher, the economist, said
in his 1912 presidential address to the Eugenics Research Association: "The
Nordic race will... vanish or lose its dominance if, in fact, the whole human
race does not sink so low as to become the prey, as H. G. Wells images, of some
less degenerate animal!"
Wells, a diabetic, died of
unspecified causes on 13 August 1946 at his home at 13 Hanover Terrace,
Regent's Park, London, although some reports indicate the cause of death was
diabetes or liver cancer. In his preface to the 1941 edition of The War in
the Air, Wells had stated that his epitaph should be: "I told you so. You
damned fools." but his wish was not granted as he was cremated on 16
August 1946 and his ashes later scattered at sea. A commemorative blue
plaque in his honour was installed at his home in Regent's Park.
In his lifetime and after his death,
Wells was considered a prominent socialist thinker. In later years, however,
Wells's image has shifted and he is now regarded as one of the pioneers of
science fiction. Wells was a co-founder in 1934 of what is now Diabetes UK, the
leading charity for people living with diabetes in the UK.
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