It can be hard, from this distance, to see what all the fuss was about. In his day (a day that, unfortunately for him, ended a decade or so before his death in 1946, a month short of his 80th birthday), H.G. Wells was one of the world’s leading literary and intellectual celebrities. Hailed as ‘a man of genius’ on the appearance of his breakthrough book, The Time Machine (1895), he went on to publish roughly two books a year for the next five decades. When The Outline of History (a brisk tour d’horizon from protozoa to the present) appeared in book form in 1919, it sold two million copies within a few years in Britain and the US alone. A collected edition of The Works of H.G. Wells was published in 24 volumes in 1927 when there were still some forty titles to come. By the 1930s, at least nineteen different London publishers had titles by Wells in print.
His international standing had been boosted by a scarcely believable frenzy of translation, with foreign language versions being rushed out on the basis of the English serial editions even before publication in book form in Britain. As early as 1906, Wells was in a position to arrange for the simultaneous publication of In the Days of the Comet in English, French, German, Italian and Dutch. But his reception in Russia, both Tsarist and Soviet, puts everything else in the shade: between 1901 and 1966 there were no fewer than seven different multi-volume ‘Collected Works’ published in Russian. In the interwar years, he was more than a literary celebrity: he was an international guru, dispensing his own brand of scientific optimism and preaching the need for a world government. He could command long personal audiences with American presidents and Soviet dictators alike.
It couldn’t last and it didn’t. His reputation, already on a downward curve, dipped further in the postwar years as gurus of the meaning-of-the-universe-plus-popular-science-and-sex-reform type went out of fashion. He kept a loyal following for his early ‘science fiction’ fantasies such as The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds and his novels of lower-middle-class life such as Kipps and The History of Mr Polly, but his always overdrawn account as a sage or oracle was effectively closed. Critical opinion moved more and more in the direction of H.L. Mencken’s early jibe that he was a ‘hawker of sociological liver pills’. It became hard not to be sniffily dismissive of Wells. He published so much, and a lot of his work from the 1920s and 1930s came to be regarded as sonorous tripe.
During his lifetime there was also another kind of ‘fuss’ about Wells that is now bound to seem exaggerated. He was pilloried as an advocate of ‘free love’, and the scandal of the close connection between his own unorthodox love life and that of the sexually emancipated heroines of his novels Ann Veronica (1909) and The New Machiavelli (1911) for a while put him beyond the pale even for some of the more progressive sections of London society. As a result, any biography of Wells is bound to have a lot to say about sex. His sexual career may have started slowly enough, but once he got going he bonked for England – numerous long affairs supplemented by even more numerous casual liaisons. He liked intelligent women and was attentive to them, he flirted readily, he was fun, and latterly he had a reputation for illicit relationships: it’s not surprising, then, that all accounts concur in describing him as ‘very attractive to women’. Being, from quite early on, a famous and wealthy man probably wasn’t a disadvantage. His physical appearance doesn’t seem to have been a handicap either: he was short and stocky veering to plump; he sported the hint of a comb-over from early middle age; and although the best photos suggest he had soulful yet playful bedroom eyes, the worst suggest a seedy groper. In later life he resembled a prosperous small businessman who liked to remind people he had served a term as lord mayor. He talked too much, a failing exacerbated by his reedy, high-pitched voice with lingering hints of cockney. He was, in a word that cannot now be employed with the double layer of irony it could once carry, ‘common’. In short, he was irresistible.
One of the women who was not at all inclined to resist him was Amber Reeves, a twenty-year-old undergraduate just about to take (and to get a First in) the moral sciences Tripos at Cambridge, who appears to have initiated their passionate and riskily public relationship. Her father, William Pember Reeves, a leading Fabian and the recently appointed director of the London School of Economics, was incensed that his daughter had, as he saw it, fallen into the clutches of a philandering seducer more than twice her age, who was, to boot, a fellow Fabian. Reeves took to stalking London drawing-rooms, metaphorical horsewhip at the ready. Perennial founts of sanity and decency such as the Daily Mail and the Spectator denounced Wells’s sexually libertarian views and hounded him for his disgraceful behaviour. He compounded his crime by rather transparently basing the main character in Ann Veronica on Amber and then further fictionalising their situation in The New Machiavelli. The editor of the Spectator, John St Loe Strachey, a pillar of the National Social Purity Crusade (no, really), foamed at the novel’s ‘poisonous and pernicious teaching’, finding it ‘in its essence depraved’ (the book, it should be said, contains no description of sexual activity at all). Beatrice Webb, the Fabian queen bee, thought The New Machiavelli ‘lays bare the tragedy of H.G.’s life – his aptitude for “fine thinking” and even “good feeling” and yet his total incapacity for decent conduct’. The fellow was clearly a cad: in a telling mark of Edwardian social ostracism, he had to resign from his club.
Although we like to congratulate ourselves on having more relaxed views about sex than our Edwardian predecessors, censoriousness can take many forms. The focus of 21st-century disapproval tends to be the position of Wells’s second wife, Amy Catherine Robbins, who came to be known as ‘Jane’. In 1891 Wells had married his cousin Isabel, whom he quickly came to find conventional, unresponsive and boring. Before long, he fell in love with Amy Catherine, a young science student who was capable of sharing in his literary and scientific interests if not of matching his sexual appetite. They married in 1895 and had two sons. This marriage lasted until her death in 1927 and it seems wise not to rush to judgment about it. When Jane died, Wells was distraught and worked out some of his grief by writing a loving extended portrait of her. This wasn’t just piety engendered by loss: he had always appreciated her qualities and had remained committed to her in his way. His way, of course, was not everyone’s way. From 1901 they had an agreement that he should have other sexual relationships if he wished and that these, which were understood to be no threat to her position, should not be hidden from her. (There seems to be no evidence that she had, or even wanted, other relationships of her own.) It’s clear that in practice all was not emotional plain sailing, and that Wells, like many before and since who have found themselves pulled in incompatible directions, did not always behave well. Jane, a thoughtful and resourceful woman, was no doormat, but there are times when it’s hard not to see her as a bit of a hall carpet, muting the sound while enduring the impact of her husband’s many comings and goings.
A test case for where you stand on the question of Wells and women is provided by the book published in 1984 under the title H.G. Wells in Love, edited by his older son. When Wells wrote his two-volume Experiment in Autobiography (1934) he omitted any description of his extra-marital relationships, but he clearly wanted to set the record straight in some way so he drafted an extended account of them with instructions that it was only to be published after his death. (His son seems, perhaps prudently, to have decided that it should come out only after the death in 1983 of his father’s most celebrated lover, Rebecca West.) Wells insisted that his tribute to Jane be prefixed to this memoir of his vie amoureuse to provide the full picture, or, at least, the full picture as he liked to see it.
His account is inevitably selective but also surprisingly frank, especially about his own failings. And he is generous, in retrospect, about his various lovers. His passionate relationship with West, for example, descended into fractious bickering long before she finally ended things between them in 1923, and Wells documents some of this unsparingly, but at the end of the chapter he adds a paragraph beginning ‘I cannot close this chapter on Rebecca without a word or two about her peculiar wit that made her companionship at its best the warmest, liveliest and most irreplaceable of fellowships,’ and then goes on to give some admiring examples. He also provides a lyrical evocation of the early days of his affair with Amber Reeves. He recalled that ‘we had some days of insatiable mutual appreciation’ in temporary lodgings in Southend, ‘and I remember also that, after our luggage had gone down to the waiting cab, we hesitated on the landing, lifted our eyebrows, and went back gleefully for a last cheerful encounter in the room we were leaving.’ In a similar spirit, he recalled that ‘it seemed very fresh and keen to make love among bushes in a windy twilight near Hythe, and a great lark to get a heavy key from the sexton to inspect the belfry of – was it Paddlesworth? – Church, and embrace in the room below the bells. And again in the woods on the way home.’ ‘My memory of all these experiences,’ he added, superfluously, ‘glows still with unregretted exhilaration and happiness.’ More than one kind of egotism is on display here, but it may also be telling that in later life several of his former lovers, including Reeves, retained fond memories of him.
Wells’s egotism, always naturally vigorous, was further nourished by the misfortune of enjoying huge success relatively early in his career. He had scrambled to make a living by writing hack articles for various periodicals for a few years before the publication of The Time Machine suddenly made him famous. He quickly came to command large advances. Here’s a sample – taken from Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie’s Life of H.G. Wells: The Time Traveller (1973) – of his subsequent dealings with publishers, in this case from 1899 to 1901: ‘For When the Sleeper Wakes he had £700 for the serial rights and £500 on account from Harper for the English book edition; the American advance was another £300. The advances on Mr Lewisham came to another £1200. The First Men on the Moon, for which the Strand paid over £800 and Cosmopolitan £300 for the serial versions, secured a further £1000 for the London and New York book editions,’ and so on. Conversion into current values is always hazardous, but a rough multiplier of 120 will give some indication of the remarkable sums being earned by this former draper’s assistant in his early thirties.
Looking back almost forty years later, Wells was alive to the fact that his early literary success had been the product of a fortunate cultural moment: ‘The last decade of the 19th century was an extraordinarily favourable time for new writers and my individual good luck was set in the luck of a whole generation of aspirants. Quite a lot of us from nowhere were “getting on”.’ Wells was a representative product of an era when the market and opportunities to get published had hugely expanded but before print began to be seriously challenged by other media. A number of other figures who roamed promiscuously and, above all, prolifically across literature, journalism and social criticism (Shaw and Chesterton come most readily to mind) also enjoyed a kind of celebrity in this period that they probably could not have attained before or after. As Jonathan Rose has observed about the explosion of print towards the close of the 19th century: ‘Lord Salisbury’s oft-quoted sneer – “Written by office boys for office boys” – accurately summed up a revolutionary social fact: journalism had opened an escape hatch for Board School graduates with a literary flair.’ Wells was quick to climb through the hatch, and he was rewarded by obtaining a large readership among the social stratum Salisbury had in mind. As a result, there has always been an element of snobbery in some of the more dismissive judgments about his writing (by a draper’s assistant for drapers’ assistants, as it were), a put-down compounded by the early modernists’ disdain for what they saw as his crude social realism.
Those who have wished to argue for Wells’s enduring literary status beyond the foundational role of his early scientific romances have tended to base their case principally on Tono-Bungay, his most ambitious and accomplished novel, published in 1909. Arnold Bennett (a damning witness in modernist eyes, of course) greeted its publication with a rave: ‘I do not think that any novelist ever more audaciously tried, or failed with more honour, to render in the limits of one book the enormous and confusing complexity of a nation’s racial existence. The measure of success attained is marvellous.’ Later commentators have concurred: ‘With Tono-Bungay Wells reached the peak of his career as a novelist,’ according to Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie. ‘All the earlier books lead up to it and the later ones away from it.’ Here Wells went beyond his earlier stories of downtrodden little men struggling to escape their cramping circumstances; his canvas was now broader and his palette more varied as he attempted to take the moral temperature of the whole country, charting the corrupting power of crude commercialism. In effect, Tono-Bungay is his Howards End, another nearly contemporary novel that comes over all Condition-of-Englandy, with a house doing the symbolic heavy lifting. But even this impressive book, it must be said, has its longueurs, as nearly all Wells’s work does: his writing could never be described as spare or finely wrought, tending instead to allow itself a more Dickensian amplitude. As Wells made clear in his famous dispute with Henry James, he did not draw a sharp line between ‘literature’ and journalism or social analysis (James memorably articulated the case for Art with a capital A), nor did he worry overmuch about where the line should be drawn between literature and autobiography. Anyone who has read several Wells novels has already picked up a good deal of his biography without necessarily being aware of it.
Whatever other shortages the world may suffer from, accounts of H.G. Wells’s life are not among them. The first biographies were written while he was still alive; many more have appeared since his death. The MacKenzies’ Life was perhaps the first to be based on sustained scholarly research, and although other material has come to light since then, it remains one of the best-proportioned accounts. Anthony West’s H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life (1984) enjoyed a special authority, being written by the offspring of the relationship with Rebecca West. More recently, there have been full-length treatments of different kinds by Michael Sherborne (2010) and Adam Roberts (2019), plus David Lodge’s fictionalised rendering of Wells’s life in A Man of Parts (2011), while four fully annotated volumes of his letters came out in 1998.
Claire Tomalin is one of the most highly acclaimed biographers of our time, with numerous prizes and accolades for her studies of Pepys, Dickens, Hardy and others. Her name on the title-page of a biography serves as a kitemark of quality, though in truth this slight volume may risk disappointing some of her many admirers. It only deals with Wells’s life up to 1911, with no suggestion that there is another volume to come; its brisk narrative pace struggles at times to accommodate descriptive summaries of several of his books; and it is not obvious that it draws on significant new sources, beyond a few letters to Amber Reeves taken from the as yet unpublished fifth volume of his correspondence. Still, it’s a very agreeable read for the most part and conveys Tomalin’s enthusiasm for much of Wells’s fiction without asking too many probing questions. Her concluding tribute is that Wells ‘wanted to reorganise the world so that everyone could enjoy it, and, if he did not succeed in that as well as he had hoped, he gave his superabundant energy to speaking and writing for the cause.’ That may seem a little too easily said: could anyone succeed in a task described in those terms – indeed, what could such ‘success’ possibly look like? The risk is that the judgment damns with flabby praise. Nonetheless, Tomalin is a weighty advocate, and her admiration may help to spark a revival in Wells’s reputation, though perhaps even her noted empathy and artistry still cannot quite re-create for us, now, what all the fuss was about.