G. Wells is remembered today mostly as the author of four visionary science-fiction perennials with premises so simple and strong that they can sustain any amount of retelling: “The War of the Worlds,” “The Invisible Man,” “The Time Machine,” and “The Island of Doctor Moreau.” Social historians recall Wells as one of the brighter technological optimists and left-wing polemicists of the early part of the twentieth century. He is also remembered, among Brits with a taste for evergreen gossip, as perhaps the most erotically adventurous man of his generation, the satyr of the socialists. “I have done what I pleased,” he wrote. “Every bit of sexual impulse in me has expressed itself.” The case is sometimes even made that Wells invented the word “sex”—that he pioneered its modern use, in his 1900 novel, “Love and Mr. Lewisham,” as a shorthand for the totality of the activity. Like most “first use” claims—the number of words that Shakespeare supposedly used first has decreased as Elizabethan data banks have enlarged—this is probably overstated, but Wells certainly made the word, well, sticky. A case can even be made—indeed, to make it you can draw on Claire Tomalin’s new biography, “The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World” (Penguin Press)—that his eroticism was in no small part feminist in its promotion of a woman’s right to choose her own sexual partners, unconstrained by the strictures of a father or a husband.
Wells was a very big deal in his day. Sinclair Lewis, the first American to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature, named his oldest son Wells before he’d ever met the man. But Wells got hit hard by fate. First, after two World Wars, his belief in perpetual progress came to seem fatuous, and then, in the age of Woolf and Joyce, his Victorian style looked baggy and gassy. Even an affectionate fictional portrait by David Lodge, “A Man of Parts” (2011), gives us a Wells who’s more a left-wing Toad of Toad Hall than a coherent artist. In the surviving newsreels that feature him, we see a portly little pundit whose pie-faced, high-pitched, condescending singsong tones make him sound like a “Beyond the Fringe” character. This guy was the Fabio of the Fabians? Apparently so—a reminder that erotic charisma is a spell cast by action, not a collection of enumerable traits.
Yet Wells’s life is so diverting, to use an old-fashioned word, that we can overlook the running current of his literary career. He didn’t just dabble in fantasy; he made the idea of extrapolating the future from the present a foundation of modern sensibility. Though there is a note of strenuous optimism in his political writing—as in the 1920 “The Outline of History,” a standard document of technological boosterism for two generations, or in his 1938 collection, “World Brain,” which eerily anticipates the World Wide Web and Google—he struck a still more strenuous note of pessimism in his early science-fiction books.
The contradictions of materialism was his great theme. He was captivated by the arrival of a completely discontinuous force in the world. He called it “power,” meaning something like industrial energy, and tried to trace its transformation of what had been a manual-labor agricultural planet, with his tiny rain-swept island suddenly emerging as a steam engine pulling other nations behind it. This revolution in power, he realized, would have psychological as much as political effects. In this way, his sexual obsessions, instead of dangling comically around his head like a cap and bells, are part of what makes him an interesting and prescient writer. He saw sex as a humanizing force, not as a bestial one. In Lodge’s novel, Wells plays a kind of Peter Sellers role, moving from one hapless assignation to the next in trains and garden sheds and one-room cottages, stopping to make pious progressive speeches while seeing only the shapely ladies who have gathered to listen. This is funny but not entirely fair. Sex is to Wells what the speed of light was to Einstein, at about the same time: the universal constant that would remain the same no matter how the frame of reference around it altered. A new wave of modernity would burst through barriers; but where others revelled in the sound of breaking glass Wells also saw the sharp shards lying all over the ground.
To read Tomalin’s fine new biography alongside the David Lodge novel is an exercise in overlaid maps: they chart the same journey but with different compass orientations. Add Wells’s 1911 novel, “The New Machiavelli,” a lightly fictionalized account of his rise and early crises, told by an alter ego named Richard Remington, and you have yet a third overlay. (The title of the novel refers not to our usual sense of “Machiavellian,” the use of cunning in pursuit of power, but instead to the condition of writing about politics while in exile, Machiavelli having been banished from Florence, as Remington, who becomes what we now call “cancelled,” is from London.) All three works tell the story of Wells’s ascent to the very top of the political and intellectual establishment in his time, and all three make a special survey of his love affair with the brilliant Amber Reeves.
It was a vertiginous and sudden ascent. Wells, born in 1866, was a lower-middle-class boy who wanted to become someone of the same scale and sort as his sometime friend Bertrand Russell—a university wit, a man of science, a popularizer, a magus of the mind. (And, like Russell, a Don Juan.) Yet he suffered a cruel variety of class prejudice. To go from proletariat or peasant class to popularity is a sound English form of elevation, of the Dick Whittington kind; Wells had a harder climb, from the more despised servant class into the intellectual upper crust. Truly poor people are, for snobs, out of sight, and it’s a nice surprise to see them suddenly successful. But maids and grocers are too much in sight already, so one is only embarrassed by their success. The point of a class system is to make those immediately adjacent to their superiors conscious of their place. (In Shaw’s “Pygmalion,” Higgins never thinks of making one of the servants in the house into a lady—that is for a Cockney flower girl.)
Wells’s parents, as he was acutely aware, were themselves household servants, who then became shopkeepers and apprenticed Wells to a draper when he was fourteen. Through his own exertions, he managed to get into a decent school and begin his adventures. He won a college scholarship to study biology, receiving an education that, though lower in status than the classical kind, proved ultimately more valuable, introducing him to scientific speculation. Early on, he was conscious of how scientific and industrial energy was pulsating through the world, and this was made all the more vivid by being poised against a class system still rooted in premodern prejudices and an educational system still rooted in teaching two dead languages to the upper reaches of that class system. “Something got hold of the world, something that was destined to alter the scale of every human affair,” Remington reflects in “The New Machiavelli.” “That something was machinery and a vague energetic disposition to improve material things. Without warning or preparation, increment involving countless possibilities of further increment was coming to the strength of horses and men. ‘Power,’ all unsuspected, was flowing like a drug into the veins of the social body.”
Wells’s elevation was made easier by the booming press of the time. P. G. Wodehouse, who was, improbably, a good friend of Wells’s, recalled, “There were so many morning papers and evening papers and weekly papers and monthly magazines that you were practically sure of landing your whimsical article on ‘The Language of Flowers’ or your parody of Omar Khayyám somewhere or other after about say thirty-five shots.” Wells, after a stint as a science teacher at a private school in London, was recruited as a book reviewer and a drama critic. It was in the latter capacity that, on the opening night of Henry James’s doomed play “Guy Domville,” in January of 1895, he bumped into the only critic not in evening clothes, a young Irishman named Bernard Shaw, and a friendship began.
It was Shaw who helped introduce Wells to the group that the novelist helped make famous, and that proved the real watershed of his life: the Fabian Society. The Fabians were incrementalist socialists—the name came from a Roman general famous for avoiding pitched battles and defeating his enemy through attrition—and were very much under the sway of the remarkable couple Beatrice and Sidney Webb. Even as Wells became an advocate of their creed, science-fiction classics poured out of him: “The Time Machine,” in 1895; “The Island of Doctor Moreau,” in 1896; “The Invisible Man,” in 1897; “The War of the Worlds,” in 1898; and “The First Men in the Moon,” in 1901. (The sequence was interrupted by the publication of that Dickensian novel of the lower-middle classes “Love and Mr. Lewisham,” in 1900.)
Productivity in literature is more a sleight of hand than a triumph of will. Write only three pages a day, and you will look as industrious as the ant. Once a writer has found a voice, it is a question of finding the daily energy to drill down and make it flow again. Wells, with his fluid but far from meticulous style—Lodge has a funny scene in which one of Wells’s lovers breaks off mid-assignation to complain about his sentences—had plenty of time to write a book a year and still engage in his other preoccupations, love and work within the Fabian circle.
The Fabians had a reputation for self-righteousness and for supporting the rights of working men without knowing any; even understanding the name of the society depended on a classical education. But they recognized in Wells a potent voice. The Webbs were a very odd couple indeed, both compelling and absurd; they had an affectionate, evidently sexless marriage (“It is the head only that I am marrying,” Beatrice confided in her diary), and, a rarer thing, were said to be sexless outside of marriage, too. Wells’s own segments of the Fabian circle carried on in that weird British way in which everybody sleeps with everybody, no one breaks off with anyone else, but nobody seems particularly happy about it all.
His constant affairs with what Tomalin calls “attractive and high-spirited Fabian girls” led to roundelays of misunderstanding. In an episode from 1907, Clifford Sharp, the first editor of The New Statesman, learned that Wells was urging Sharp’s beloved Rosamund Bland to go off on an escapade with him. Sharp then notified Rosamund’s father, Hubert Bland, a newspaper columnist and a fellow-Fabian who shared his suburban house with six children by three women, two of whom he still lived with, including his wife, Edith Nesbit. Sharp and Bland confronted Rosamund and Wells “on the platform at Paddington, poised to take a train on their way to France,” Tomalin writes. “Bland struck Wells a blow and forced Rosamund to go home with him.” Edith then wrote to Wells’s wife, Jane, “complaining of Wells’ behavior. Shaw tried to calm everyone down.”