Those readers who come to H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life expecting a conventional biography will find both less and more than might have been anticipated. Less, because what Anthony West has written is no literary biography, discussing a writer’s creative efforts, assessing the results and placing them in a literary context. West assumes (no doubt rightly) that the special perspective he offers is that of Wells as a father and as a man. Consequently, many readers may feel that his biography of Wells offers more: a picture of a writer, a defense of a man, and a tribute to a father.
The biography begins unconventionally (as far as its ostensible subject’s life is concerned), not with the birth of Wells, but with the birth of Anthony West on August 5, 1914. The first seven chapters trace Wells’s life from 1914 to the year of his death, 1946, and the last of these closes on a note of depression.
In the summer of 1946, Wells knew that he was dying; Anthony West, then grown and working for the British Broadcasting Corporation, visited him daily. Often he found his father only half-conscious from weakness. Wells, however, would occasionally rally, and it was for those minutes that his son waited. Some time before, the old man had been told (by whom West does not say) that West was secretly a traitor sympathetic to the Nazis. When he learned that his father had cancer of the liver, West thought him too ill to trouble him with his denials. That period was followed by a brief remission, and again West thought the time “seemed wrong to break in on his euphoria with such stuff.” With the second onset of the disease, however, it was clear that West had missed his opportunity. Hence the vigils by his father’s chair, hoping for a lucid moment in which to be reconciled. In a scene of great poignancy, West describes himself in misery close to despair, only to lift his face from his hands and find his father alert and staring at him. Wells said, “I just don’t understand you.” The moment passed, and Wells fell back into semi-consciousness. With that, West knew that his last chance had passed.
Chapter 7 ends with West’s bitterness that his father had died believing lies about him, and with a wrench, chapter 8 takes up the family background, birth, and early life of Herbert George Wells, one of the most prolific and influential writers of the twentieth century.
Many a biography of an upper-class British writer describes a childhood that was a nightmare of cruelty and neglect. Wells’s early life is the lower-class counterpart. Wells’s grandfather was a gardener with a flair for making wrong decisions and his father a shopkeeper with no interest in or talent for business. Worst of all, his mother’s only ambition was to serve as a personal maid to a woman of quality (she was later to abandon her family to return to a former employer); her chief remorse was that the death of her parents had forced her to marry Wells’s father, and her only passion seems to have been a consuming hatred for her husband. After her death, Wells was shaken, on reading her diary, to learn how constantly and carefully she had nurtured that hatred.
In his battle against his mother’s class-consciousness, Wells had luck on his side—such as finding T. H. Huxley, the popularizer of Charles Darwin, as an instructor at one of the schools he attended. Only determination and a constant struggle, however, delivered him from a life as a sales clerk. West recounts these early years with a purpose in mind: Those times filled Wells with a firsthand understanding and an even stronger conviction of what was wrong with society. He saw its effects not only in his own father and mother but also in the largely wasted lives of his two older brothers.
When West begins the story of his father’s career, his subject becomes less sympathetic. In his married life, Wells was not a likable man, but his son hides none of the flaws in his father’s character. While trying to survive by teaching and to gain a reputation as a writer through journalism, Wells left his first wife, moved in with a student with whom he had been having an affair, and later married her. His second wife conceded much, beginning with her name: Although it was Amy Catherine, Wells soon began to call her “Jane,” and Jane she became. More significantly, she gave up any claim on Wells’s constancy; West explicitly describes their understanding as one in which his father would be permitted whatever affairs he desired as long as the appearance of their marriage was preserved and as long as Wells eventually returned to the household. The extent of Jane’s surrender can be gauged by one incident: Shortly after the birth of their first son, Wells disappeared. For two months, his wife had no hint of his whereabouts. When he...
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