Michael Coren claims to have written an iconoclastic biography overturning the positive judgments about Wells usually made in conventional literary and political history. If his claim seems exaggerated, it is because other biographers have taken note of Wells’s dictatorial side but have not made it the focus of their work.
The trouble with Coren’s thesis is that Wells was not consistent. Indeed, toward the end of his life he backed away from his more confident beliefs in a world government dominated by an aristocracy of intellects. Yet Coren has a point, for in many of Wells’s novels, a distaste for the masses and a skepticism of democratic government is apparent.
Coren is best at conveying the essentials of Wells’s life in a shrewd and concise fashion, providing well-balanced accounts of Wells’s marriages and affairs. The chapter on Wells and Rebecca West, for example, treats a controversial subject with considerable sensitivity. Author of a biography of G.K. Chesterton, one of Wells’s contemporary opponents, Coren is well informed on how Wells stood in relation to his literary and political critics. More than any other recent biographer, Coren sees Wells’s flaws as a man influencing his views of woman and of race. Contemporary sensitivity to the latter seems to have driven Coren to label Wells an anti-Semite.
Those who have read the standard Wells biographies will find little that is new, and they will be dismayed by the rather shoddy scholarship, especially in the inadequate notes. The book’s polemical nature makes it unreliable as an introduction to Wells, although it can be selected as a third choice after reading the standard biographies by Norman and Jean Mackenzie (1973) and David C. Smith (1986).