It wasn’t until H.G. Wells, with his uncanny talent for scientific insight, that she would have anticipated the industrial killings of Treblinka or Auschwitz. Nor the devastating misuse of technology that led to the devastation of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. George Orwell in the 1940s believed Welles was “too sane to understand the modern world”: the terrible events had outpaced Welles’ belief in technology.
Claire Tomalin seems to agree. her new biography, Young HG Wells, focuses on the young Wells who gave us such wonderful works of Victorian science fiction as Time MachineAnd war of the worlds And Dr. Morrow’s Island. These were futuristic musings of “extraordinary brilliance and originality,” says Tomalin, that combined political satire with social concerns, and will continue to be read for generations. Subsequent business does not interest her much. Although Welles continued to write profusely until his death in 1946, he spent much time fiddling and manipulating abroad (he gave interviews to Stalin and Roosevelt). The old spark seems to have disappeared.
From an early age, Wells pursued women with a ravenous sense of entitlement. As a champion of free love (or “free love,” as he called it) he made a poor husband, Tomalin wrote, and was unfaithful even to his mistresses. Wells was also (although Tomalin doesn’t say so) was an anti-Semite and had Islamophobia. Hindi translation of his book A short history of the world He was symbolically cremated by Muslims in East London in 1938 after he was found to be insulting the Prophet as “a man of great vanity, greed, cunning and self-deception”. Wells’ life and work reflect his time, of course, and this short and elegant autobiographical study places the writer within the larger framework of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
Born in southeast London in 1866, H.G. Wells was the son of a sick shopkeeper who knew as a young man that he wanted his share of fame and sex. In well-researched pages, Tomalin portrays Wells as a lifelong socialist who embraced the power of republicanism. He told his novelist friend John Galsworthy in 1900, “I am deeply skeptical, there is no god, no king, no nationality.”
He joined Fabian’s socialist movement, which was led in earnest by the progressive Beatrice and Sidney Webb, but was put off by a strain of self-tortured bigotry in Beatrice, who had remarkably austere food and sexual habits. He later accused her of considering sexual passion “hardly more legitimate than murderous obsession”. (Tomalin argues Welles got it wrong: Beatrice Webb enjoyed brief periods of human intimacy with her husband Sydney.) George Bernard Shaw, himself a Fabian eager to punish social injustice, was a spirit more suited to Welles. His friendship with Wells lasted for half a century.
Wells was married twice. His second wife, Amy Catherine Robbins, tolerated being feminine until her death in 1927. The author’s most turbulent extramarital affair was with Amber Reeves, the intellectually brilliant Fabian and student at Newnham College, Cambridge, with whom he had a child. Despite his “sometimes sharp” voice and unimpressive short stature, Wells was a skilled hand at seduction. His excessive sexual passion led him to seek out a brothel while in Washington, D.C. in 1906, where he solicited a black prostitute.
For all his failures, the young Wells was the owner of a vision that changed the shape of English literature. His technique (almost a lab technique) of taking inspiration directly from scientific data—combined with his interest in elements of philosophical speculation and biology—has had a major influence on J.G. Ballard and other science experts today. Tomalin’s elegant and succinct biography glorifies H.G. Wells as a futurist, his early work continues to inspire and inspire admiration.
Young HG Wells: change the world by Claire Tomalin Viking £20, 256 pages
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