H. G. Wells was one of the greatest writers of his age. Before the beginning of the twentieth century, he dominated popular fiction with his science-fiction romances. Novels such as The Time Machine (1895), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898) made him a fortune and established a literary reputation that has endured despite changing fashions and his own uneven output as a writer. Trained as a biologist, Wells gives science fiction a new credibility, making it not merely a tale of wonder but also a serious means of posing questions about the future of humanity.
Not content with success in one field of fiction, however, he soon turned toward novels that engaged the social issues of his time while creating unforgettable characters: Kipps (1905), The History of Mr. Polly (1910), and the autobiographical Tono-Bungay (1909), a vivid recollection of his growing up in the great country home of Uppark, where is mother served as housekeeper. Ann Veronica (1909) initiated a series of what he called discussion novels deliberately designed to probe the relationships between men and women and the social conditions that were shaping class structure in Great Britain. Ann Veronica, a science student and an emancipated woman, forsakes her home and family to run away with a middle-aged scientist, defying the conventions of her time and proclaiming the truth of feminism. To Wells’s contemporaries, the novel was a scandalous performance, based as it was on his own illicit affair with Amber Reeves, a young woman more than twenty years his junior and the daughter of prominent Fabian socialists—a group, dominated by Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb, that was intent on gradually transforming the economic and social structure of England. An impatient Wells tried to take over the Fabian Society, rejecting its gradualism and arguing for a much more dynamic assault on the status quo. Thus
in both personal and political terms, he made himself into an outcast and yet a thrilling representation to the younger generation of a man not afraid to speak up and act on his own.
Given his own background—he was the son of a servant and was not expected to rise much above his apprenticeship in a draper’s shop. Wells was keenly aware of how society was organized to thwart radical change. His own mother, Sarah, a religious zealot, was at a loss as to how to treat her precocious son, who read volume after volume in Uppark’s impressive library, including Plato’s Republic, a utopia that was to have a lifelong influence on Wells’s effort to imagine and to promulgate the ideal state. Sarah consented to his career as a teacher only after he ran away from the draper’s shop and seemed incapable of serving a conventional apprenticeship. Toward women and family responsibilities Wells had something of his father Joseph’s carefree attitude. Joseph was an excellent cricketer and a genial mate, but he possessed a hopeless head for practical affairs. Wells compensated for a similar defect in his own character by making his second wife his business partner, ensuring that she handled the details of his career as a writer.
Wells made his way to late nineteenth century London, studying with the famed scientist Thomas H. Huxley, known as “Darwin’s bulldog” because he championed with such vigor the new theory of evolution. Then Wells met his cousin Isabel, with whom he fell in love and to whom he was quickly married. Since he was ignorant about sex and had been tortured by it in his adolescence, marriage seemed a reasonable solution for a young man still bedeviled by the strictures of Victorianism. Yet Wells’s ebullient personality chafed at his wife’s conventional values, and his own maturing mind and tastes contributed to his estrangement from her. He soon began consorting with other women, abandoning a teaching career for writing and running off with Amy Catherine Robbins, a fellow science student who became his second wife.
After the birth of their two sons, Wells and his second wife apparently ceased their sexual relations. Her attitude toward this change in her marital life has never been successfully explained. Even Wells never knew for sure, calling her an elusive personality. At any rate, he embarked on a series of adventurous liaisons, often with important literary figures and social reformers such as Dorothy Richardson, Violet Hunt, and Margaret Sanger. For Wells,...