H. G. Wells Biography

H. G. Wells' influence on the emerging field of science fiction is almost impossible to overstate. Trained in science and as a teacher, Herbert George Wells was also intensely political: he was a socialist, a radical, and a supporter of a planned world state. In his fiction, Wells often combined his pedagogical tendencies with his political concerns, but that in no way affected the creativity and high literary value of his sci-fi writing. Among his genre-defining works are a time travel novel (The Time Machine), a riveting classic about interplanetary warfare (War of the Worlds), and some genuinely creepy novels exploring the social implications of scientific exploration (The Invisible Man and The Island of Doctor Moreau).

Facts and Trivia

  • Wells is a sufficiently intriguing and romantic figure that he has appeared as a character in other people’s stories many times. He’s popped up in episodes of Lois and Clarke and Doctor Who, and he also provided the model for a character in C. S. Lewis’ novel That Hideous Strength. If you look closely enough, you can even see his picture in one scene from the 2002 film version of The Time Machine.
  • Speaking of romantic figures, Wells was married twice and had numerous affairs throughout his life.
  • In 1938, Orson Welles directed a radio adaptation of Wells’ The War of the Worlds. Many listeners took the broadcast as factual and thought Earth had actually been invaded by Martians.
  • In The Time Machine, Wells suggested that classes might actually evolve into different races. The working class became the Morlocks, a name that has been used in comic books (in Marvel’s X-Men series) and music (there’s a garage-punk band called The Morlocks).
  • Wells had no doubts about his talent, his intelligence, and his legacy. Here’s what he thought his epitaph would have to be: “I told you so. You damned fools.” (The italics, by the way, were Orwell’s.)

Biography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2079

Article abstract: Through his writings—both fiction and nonfiction—Wells became a significant shaper of liberal social thought in the first half of the twentieth century.

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Early Life

Herbert George Wells was born into a family struggling to maintain its place in the lower middle class. His father, Joseph, owned a shop but made more money coaching and playing professional cricket. After an injury prevented Joseph from playing cricket, Sarah, Herbert’s mother, worked as a maid and housekeeper. A working wife ended the family’s claim to middle-class status. Wells made much of, perhaps exaggerated, his family’s struggles, and his characters often struggled with the conflicts of social respectability, personal satisfaction, and happiness.

One of the family’s middle-class gestures was to send Wells to a private school, which was socially preferable to state schools even when, as in this case, the instruction was wretched. In 1874 Wells entered Thomas Morley’s Commercial Academy. He learned little, but books supplied by his father during a six-month convalescence with a broken leg and access to the library of the estate where his mother was housekeeper provided him with an extensive, if haphazard, accumulation of knowledge.

In the early 1880’s, Sarah arranged several apprenticeships for her son, twice with drapers and once with a pharmacist. Although his reading continued (at times in preference to his apprenticeship work) and he learned something of science from the pharmacist, Wells ultimately rejected the hopelessness of a career as a clerk. Out of concern that her son have a respectable occupation and to avoid forfeiting the apprenticeship fee, Sarah resisted. Finally, after coercing his mother with hints of suicide, Wells left the draper’s trade and entered, in 1883, Midhurst Grammar School as a teaching scholar. As Wells remembers this time, he was expected to do most of the teaching and win government-sponsored scholarships to bring distinction and money to the school. Preparing for scholarship examinations helped expand his knowledge significantly.

More important, Wells discovered scholarships to study in the new government schools of science and technology. In 1884 he enrolled in the Normal School of Science in South Kensington, where he studied biology under the famous Thomas Henry Huxley, who has sometimes been called “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his vigorous advocacy of evolution. Finally, the first-class intelligence of Wells met with first-class instruction and knowledge. Regrettably, illness kept Huxley from teaching after Wells’s first year, and, not drawn to less inspired substitutes, he gave more and more attention to politics and writing for the Science Schools Journal, which he came to edit. Too late, he crammed for his exams and was forced to leave without a degree.

Life’s Work

To earn a living, Wells began teaching. In 1886 he met his cousin Isabel Mary Wells, whom he was to marry in 1891. Wells’s relations with women were always problematic. His libido was strong, and although short (around 5 feet 6 inches) and a bit pudgy later in life, his chestnut hair and blue eyes were striking. Women were attracted to him, but he found respectable behavior difficult. Within one year of his marriage, he was enthralled by a student, Amy Catherine Robins. In 1895 his marriage ended in divorce, and he married Robins, whom he always called Jane. This marriage lasted until her death in 1927, but Wells had many affairs, most notably with Rebecca West, Moura Budberg, and Odette Keun. These relationships resulted in several illegitimate children. He frequently attacked restrictive sexual mores in his fiction. His novel Ann Veronica (1909), for example, was criticized because the heroine finds unwed bliss with her science teacher. The conventional view was that she should have suffered for such immoral behavior. He addressed this theme repeatedly but perhaps most effectively in The Passionate Friends (1913).

Wells continued to teach and earned a bachelor of science from the University of London in 1890. He also wrote more and more, first stories and articles, then the Text-Book of Biology, which was published in 1893. Wells moved steadily toward being a full-time writer. With four books, 1895 proved to be the breakthrough year. Most important was The Time Machine, which has been compared to Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels (1726) for its satiric treatment of human foibles viewed through the eyes of a traveler. The struggle between the Eloi and Morlocks found by the traveler in the future has also been portrayed as a socialist class struggle. Whatever its ideological focus, it was a good story that sold well and gave Wells and his new bride the beginnings of financial stability. Of the other books published in 1895, The Wonderful Visit, the tale of an angel that appears in a small English village, is the most well known. Its comments about hypocrisy and people’s failings are heavy-handed, and its fame has not lasted.

Over the next three years, Wells published four more novels, three of which are among his most famous works: The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). He was, of course, drawing on his background in science for material, but he was also beginning to develop lifelong themes. He consistently asserted the importance of order and cooperation against individual extremes. He was also much concerned with the problems of class and respectability forcing men and women into socially acceptable but unsatisfying roles. As his fame grew, he began to make friends with prominent writers such as Henry James and Joseph Conrad.

During the first years of the twentieth century, Wells also began to make contact with the British socialist movement, particularly the Fabian Society. He became friends with leaders such as Beatrice Webb and Sidney Webb, and George Bernard Shaw. The Webbs were quite impressed with Anticipations (1902), which launched Wells on a tendency to prophesy for the future. His vision of human cooperation and creativity in the future fit Fabian thinking well. They did, however, think he lacked an understanding of institutions, particularly government, which they expected to be the means of solving society’s problems. Wells joined the Fabian Society in 1903, but the association lasted only five years. Having experienced the frustrations of the British class structure—as detailed in the autobiographical novel Kipps (1905)—Wells found the efforts of the Fabians to work within existing institutions hopelessly dilatory. He wanted action. He criticized the Fabian movement not only indirectly in Kipps but also and more explicitly in This Misery of Boots (1906), in talks, and in shorter writings. He and his erstwhile friends were soon debating angrily. He could no longer, in good conscience, remain a Fabian and went his own way, as he so often did.

The years before World War I saw a flood of works from Wells. There were novels such as Tono-Bungay (1908) and The History of Mr. Polly (1910), and efforts to envision the future, including A Modern Utopia (1905), The Future in America (1906), and The New Machiavelli (1910). In the novels, often listed among his best works, the protagonists, respectively Edward Ponderevo and Alfred Polly, struggle to make their way despite social restrictions and poor education: Ponderevo makes and loses a fortune through sales of a worthless patent medicine called Tono-Bungay, while Polly eventually abandons a loveless, uninspiring marriage and middle-class life to be first a hobo and then to help a paramour run an inn. Like Wells himself, his fictional heroes found contentment outside the traditional bounds of society.

World War I had an enormous impact on England, and Wells was both unusual and lucky that he suffered no direct loss from it. He was, however, able to write one of his most popular books, Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916), about the effects of the war. Hugh Britling, another of Wells’s characters drifting through life looking for love and inspiration, loses his son and has to find ways to make life go on. Critics do not generally regard this as one of Wells’s better efforts, and he expressed some regret at financial success arising from portraying wartime suffering in which he did not share. This led to some ruminations on religion in God, the Invisible King, published in 1917. More important, it motivated Wells to write his most influential book.

Wells resolved to write a survey of human history that would portray the patterns of growth and destruction in the hope that education would allow prevention of future catastrophes similar to the western front during World War I. The result was The Outline of History (1920). The volume was an instant success, with enough sales to make Wells financially secure. Although he sometimes grumbled that the number of buyers was dramatically higher than the number of readers, The Outline of History was a popular university textbook through the middle of the twentieth century and sold well among general readers. Its influence on the popular view of historical development was enormous. Wells’s attempts to expand this influence into biological science with The Science of Life (1929-1930) and sociology with The Work, Wealth, and Happiness of Mankind (1931) proved less successful both commercially and intellectually.

The final two decades of Wells’s life saw little change. He continued to write prolifically, but his production, as he acknowledged himself, was more polemic than literary. His conviction that humankind was blundering toward destroying itself and that life could be improved was overwhelming. He wrote again and again to try to influence the pattern. His best work after the mid-1920’s was his Experiment in Autobiography (1934), an unusually candid autobiography. His had a worldwide reputation, and in 1944 he earned a doctorate from London University. His last novel, You Can’t Be Too Careful, was published in 1941 and his last book, Mind at the End of Its Tether, in 1945. He died on August 13, 1946.

Summary

H. G. Wells’s influence was both literary and political. His early works, called “scientific romances” at the time, helped develop the genre of science fiction. Works such as The Time Machine were not only good stories but they also proved that serious ideas might be conveyed in such a format. Wells was far more successful than most modern science fiction authors at mingling social and political commentary into speculative fiction, which perhaps explains the enduring interest in his books.

Wells was never successful in practical politics. His urgency and idiosyncratic ideas quickly made him uncomfortable in the Fabian Society, the only active political group of which he was ever a significant part. Nonetheless, he was very influential in political thought. His novels portrayed the restrictive British class system and made it clear that success did not depend on talent but social place. He also exposed the gender bias of his era in powerful but popular fiction. His nonfiction commentary was also effective and made the same points more explicitly. The Outline of History was one of the most widely read books of the mid-twentieth century, influencing students and general readers for two generations. Although he could find no place among its practitioners, Wells proved to be one of the true founders of modern British socialism, and the popularity of his works around the world indicates that his influence went far beyond his own nation. Justifiably, he continues to be studied by scholars in literature, political science, philosophy, and history.

Bibliography

Foot, Michael. H. G.: The History of Mr. Wells. Washington, D.C.: Counterpoint, 1995. A wonderfully written, though impressionistic, biography. Foot, a socialist politician himself, is particularly interested in Wells as a founder of British socialism.

MacKenzie, Norman, and Jeanne MacKenzie. The Life of H. G. Wells: The Time Traveler. Revised. London: Hogarth, 1987. The most detailed scholarly biography of Wells. The MacKenzies do an excellent job of covering the entire life.

Murray, Brian. H. G. Wells. New York: Continuum, 1990. Literary criticism effectively set into a biographical framework. Generally insightful but marred by an unfounded assertion that Wells was a racist.

West, Anthony. H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life. New York: Random House, 1984. West, Wells’s illegitimate son by Rebecca West, provides a personal yet balanced and judicious account of his father’s life and career.

Wells, G. P., ed. H. G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984. Edited by Wells’s son, this volume includes writings about his personal and sexual relationships and how they influenced his life and work.

Wells, H. G. Experiment in Autobiography. 2 vols. London: Gollancz, 1934. Like most authors of autobiographies, Wells is sympathetic toward his subject, but these volumes are far more candid than most such works. Any serious study of Wells must start with the autobiography.

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