Claire Tomalin has written a half-biography of HG Wells, taking him to the sage of 49. There is good reason for this: almost all his best work was written before 1914. He lived and continued to write prolifically till he died in 1946, but of his later books only his interesting and eccentric Outline of History and the Experiment in Autobiography are worth reading. But his early work, the science fiction stories and novellas and his comic novels, especially The History of Mr Polly and Tono-Bungay, retain their vitality. In this engaging study, Tomalin tells us that his early success The Time Machine has never been out of print. No wonder. It gripped me when I was 11; it remains fascinating and alarming.
A mid-Victorian, born the same year as Kipling, Wells had had no social advantages, but, educated as a scientist, he had in youth and middle-age an invincible optimism. Orwell, an admirer from schooldays, summarised Wells’s message: “Science can solve all the ills that humanity is heir to, but man is at present too blind to see the possibility of his own powers”. This is still true, although we are now perhaps more aware of the horrors of what Churchill, surprisingly perhaps an admirer and friend of Wells, called “perverted science”. Orwell in the 1940s thought Wells “too sane to understand the modern world”.
The young Wells, fizzing with ideas and optimism, is very attractive. He was extraordinarily energetic, despite suffering wretched health in his twenties, coming near to death a couple of times. He loved the outdoor life and was an early cyclist, walker and hill-climber. But he worked remarkably hard. Tomalin says that when pressed he could write 7,000 words in a day, all in longhand; a daunting thought.
He had many friendships with other writers, though he had no time for the “art novel” – a cause of his falling-out with Joseph Conrad and, painfully, Henry James. Except for comic novels of lower-middle-class life and his extraordinary science fiction, he wrote to educate, influence and form public opinion. He was a materialist, an atheist, a socialist and a republican, an active and turbulent member of the Fabian Society, working, and sometimes sparring, with Shaw and the Webbs. The only weak, or tiresome, chapter in Tomalin’s delightful book, deals with the internal politics of the Fabians.
Wells married twice and had several mistresses, at least two illegitimate children – one, Anthony, the child of his long affair with Rebecca West. His admirable wife, Jane, seems to have accepted his commitment to Free Love. His two long-lasting affairs were with younger women, Amber Reeves and West, less than half his age. Though one photograph of him as a student shows him to have been a pretty boy, his physical attractions in middle life are not immediately apparent. One mistress – I think it was the remarkable Russian Moura Budberg – said his body smelled of honey.
His enthusiastic free-ranging sex-life provoked criticism in his time. Fortunately, Tomalin is of a more tolerant, and matches criticism with understanding. She has sympathy and admiration for Jane Wells, while making it clear that Reeves and West were as keen to get into bed with Wells as he was to have them there. If there was seduction, who was the seducer, who the seduced? Even so, she recognizes that Wells, though a delightful and heroic figure, was indeed “a bad husband and an unreliable lover”.
This is a fine and very enjoyable biography of an extraordinary man and his times. It is particularly good on his background and self-education, much of this acquired in the many months when ill-health confined him to a country house where his mother served as housekeep and the young HG had access, sometimes surreptitious access, to a well-stocked library. Best of all, it catches the spirit of a time when a better world seemed possible. Wells had “a central passion for social equality and government dedicated to making a better life for all its citizens”. We are still waiting. Wells is still relevant, still matters. It’s good that Tomalin reminds us of how remarkable he was.
The Young HG Wells, by Claire Tomalin, Viking, 256pp, £20
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