- The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H.G. Wells by Michael Coren
Bloomsbury, 240 pp, £20.00, January 1993, ISBN 0 7475 1158 6
Late in 1900 H.G. Wells sat down to draft the series of articles which were to make his reputation as the foremost prophet of the new century. His working title was ‘Speculations’ or ‘The New Prospectus’, and the essays were later published as Anticipations. His friend Arnold Bennett referred to them mockingly as ‘Uncle’s-dissipations’, but for Wells futurology was anything but a sideline. In fact he was tempted to regard the scientific romances and humorous journalism with which he had made his mark in the Nineties as little more than dissipations.
1900 was not a peaceful year. From his new house on the cliffs at Sandgate, Wells would have been able to see British troopships heading for South Africa. Elsewhere the great powers were preoccupied with slaughter in the Belgian Congo and the Philippines and with the Boxer Rebellion in China. Part of Wells’s originality was to see these scattered conflicts of the old century as harbingers of a new epoch of world wars. The nightmarish weaponry of a technological age was grotesquely foreshadowed in The War of the Worlds, which had been published two years earlier; in another story of the near future, When the Sleeper Wakes, he had invented the fighter pilot as hero. The Time Machine, with its visionary glimpses of a degenerate far future, contained graphic scenes of primitive hand-to-hand fighting. The author of Anticipations was the same Wells who a few years earlier had shown his Time Traveller smashing the heads of the future descendants of humanity to pulp with a crowbar.
When Wells’s imagination was at its most vivid it was also at its most violent. Nothing in his later writing shocks us like the Martians’ sucking the blood of their human victims, or the bath of pain in which the vivisectionist Dr Moreau transforms wild animals into sham human beings. The violence in the early scientific romances nearly always has a luridly comic side, which is part of the effect: The Island of Doctor Moreau, for example, parodies Kipling’s Jungle Book. For the sociological essayist that Wells (or part of him) was to become after 1900, it was an explosive mixture.
Bernard Bergonzi once explained what happened to Wells at the turn of the century by saying that his acceptance of a collectivist ideology destroyed the autonomy of his imagination. In other words, Wells would have been a better artist if he had not meddled with socialism. This is nonsense, of course; neither the Fabians nor anyone else ever succeeded in telling him what to write. His mistakes, and he admitted a few, were all his own. Genius with its flarings and gutterings is mysterious at best, but there might be a clue in his curious medical history. Throughout the Nineties, the author of the scientific romances was all too familiar with the taste of blood – his own. A footballing accident in 1887 had left him with a damaged lung and a damaged kidney, and on several occasions his doctors gave him only a few months to live. After 1900, however, this supposed consumptive healed of his own accord, and lived on at a frenetic pace until after the Second World War. Some of the desperation that fuelled his early writings may be thought to have gone out of him once it became obvious that he was not going to die young.
Wells’s most famous imaginative device, the time machine, is relevant to this, since the Time Traveller is in effect cheating death by voyaging forward in another dimension. Did Wells himself make some such jump into hyperdrive, becoming a prophet of the future in order to outwit his body’s infirmity? If so, the Traveller encounters the return of the repressed in the form of a terminal vision of global destruction, beyond which he cannot go. Wells, in the wake of Darwin and Huxley, was trained as a biologist and geologist, so his model for imagining the future was inevitably the prehistoric past. The fossil record of extinct species suggested a trail of innumerable deaths leading up to and beyond the present state of the species, which was moulded by natural selection. The triumph of human intelligence and civilisation had been bought at the cost of unremitting sacrifice and wastage: not merely a martyrdom of man, as the Victorian rationalist Winwood Reade had called it, but a remorseless winnowing of nature.
Faced with such a bleakly romantic picture of the universe, Darwin and Huxley refused to capitulate to its underlying pessimism. Darwin relied on vague theological hopes, and Huxley on the human ‘ethical process’ which, he believed, could deflect the cosmic process. Wells, too, sought grounds for optimism. He was much more politically minded than Darwin or Huxley and came to believe that human extinction could be averted if men could only be educated into renouncing their national, class and ethnic divisions and becoming world citizens. The world community could be achieved by means of visionary institutions such as an Open Conspiracy or an Air Dictatorship, or through real and fallible ones such as the UN and the League of Nations.
In 1900, however, humanity’s self-destructive tendencies were symbolised by the conflict between the British imperial military machine and the rebellious farmers of the Transvaal. The Boer War had started with the usual catalogue of military disasters, which to Wells (and many others) reflected the inefficiency of the British Establishment. ‘Efficiency’ was one of the buzz-words of Anticipations, which culminated with the argument that the world’s peoples would be tested against the ‘new needs of efficiency’ and that some were destined to fail and disappear. The concept of efficiency was double-edged. In his first attempt at futurology Wells saw efficiency as military rather than economic, and as racial or biological rather than military. Greater efficiency entailed measures of selective breeding, including enforced abortion and infanticide.
The theory of selective breeding is as old as Plato, who took his ideas from Lycurgus of Sparta. In the post-Darwinian period the advocates of selective breeding were concerned not merely to make the best of imperfect human nature but to improve on it, and to prevent what was seen as the imminent threat of degeneration and regression. Darwin’s cousin Francis Galton invented the term ‘eugenics’ in 1883, and with his student Karl Pearson, campaigned for eugenic legislation not unlike that eventually adopted in the Third Reich. The alternative, he and his supporters warned, was the ‘rapid multiplication of the unfit’. Progressives like Havelock Ellis, Bernard Shaw and Sidney Webb were swayed by these arguments, at least for a time; and Ellis (while condemning the Nazis’ racism and anti-semitism) defended Hitler’s ideas on compulsory sterilisation as late as 1937.
The coming world state in Anticipations was called the New Republic, and here and in A Modern Utopia (1905) Wells was conscious of his debt to Plato, whom he had first read as a teenager. He found Plato’s eugenics intellectually attractive, but soon began to doubt the scientific claims of Galton and Pearson. In 1903 he outspokenly condemned eugenic measures as wholly impractical (though not, G.K. Chesterton pointed out, as evil), but Anticipations spoke of the need to improve mankind physically and mentally, and of the New Republicans’ readiness to kill to achieve these ends. The coloured races, the ‘swarms of black and brown’, were unlikely to meet the ‘new needs of efficiency’, he argued, and he equivocated embarrassingly about the Jews. The eventual disappearance of separate races would be the outcome of a gradual process of assimilation and attrition. This has not prevented some recent critics from accusing the author of Anticipations of preaching genocide.
Anticipations was designed, he wrote to a friend, ‘to undermine and destroy the monarch, monogamy and respectability – and the British Empire, all under the guise of a speculation about motor cars and electrical heating. One has to go quietly in the earlier papers, but the last will be a buster.’ It is this last chapter, containing opinions that Wells had no sooner expressed than he began to retract, which is quoted by those who want to paint Wells as a racist. Eugenics and racism are not of course co-terminous, though they often overlap. In fact, very soon after Anticipations Wells took steps to expunge both tendencies from his thought. Eugenic legislation does remain in force in A Modern Utopia, guided (we must suppose) by an accurate science of genetics far in advance of the knowledge available to the Victorians and Edwardians. But Wells adds that ‘there would be no killing, no lethal chambers’. Peter Morton in The Vital Science (1984) shows how Wells, following such precursors as Alfred Russel Wallace and Grant Allen, soon became the champion of a ‘social reformist eugenics’, looking to female emancipation, birth control and the Welfare State to improve the species, and rejecting the policies of the human stud-farm.
In his general view of the race question, Wells (however equivocal in 1900) is firmly unequivocal in A Modern Utopia and for the remainder of his life. All races found in the contemporary world are present in his Utopia, which is a world state based on a ‘synthesis of all nations, tongues and peoples’. There are, he says, no superior or inferior races and no insurmountable differences between races. Without a cosmopolitan synthesis of ethnic identities, racial prejudice will lead to a continuing danger of war and genocide. Wells sometimes gave offence because of the pugnacity with which he put forward this creed of racial synthesis. In America in 1906 he went out of his way to meet Booker T. Washington and to attend a black people’s congress in Chicago. He then offended some of his white hosts by calling for a mingling of the races and an end to segregation. More than thirty years later his commitment to removing social and racial inequalities was underlined by his membership of the Sankey Committee on Human Rights and by his 1940 Penguin Special, The Rights of Man.
As a social thinker Wells can fairly be charged with occasional naivety, superficiality, inconsistency and ruthlessness; but his record of opposition to Fascism and Stalinism is a perfectly honourable one, and J.B. Priestley was not exaggerating when he said in a funeral oration that the ‘prophet of this age of transition’ was mourned by men and women of all races. Yet to Michael Coren (who, to do him justice, quotes Priestley in full) Wells’s influence on his age and his legacy to the future were ‘pernicious and destructive’. The mediocre scholarship, factual howlers and slipshod style of this much-publicised biography have been amply illustrated by its other reviewers, but Coren’s exaggerations have to some extent achieved their objective of giving common currency to the picture of Wells as a racist and anti-semite. ‘See that the mud flies, my boy,’ as Wells admonishes a fictitious biographer in that curious late text ‘The Betterave Papers’: ‘You will have a market for it and some of it will stick.’
Some reviewers of Coren’s biography have compared Wells to Philip Larkin. The comparison is misleading, however, since in Wells’s case we are not concerned with the relevance or irrelevance of private opinions. It is not quite true that he had no private opinions, but (especially since the publication of his posthumous third volume of autobiography) there are no dark secrets hidden in his letters or papers. If selective quotation, wilful misinterpretation and uncorroborated gossip can be used against him then the same must be true for any vigorous and provocative writer of argumentative prose. His reputation has nothing to fear from readers willing to tackle his journalistic writings – which are so extensive that no list of them has yet been published – in sufficiently large doses. The problem is that although these once popular articles and books are now little read, they still carry a powerful ideological charge. We diminish Wells if we pay no attention to them.
Michael Coren’s earlier book, a life of G.K. Chesterton, is a pleasant contrast to his Wells biography. Chesterton and Wells were, as he nicely says, ‘fellow contrarians’, but they were usually on opposite sides – Chesterton the Cavalier conservative, and Wells the revolutionary Roundhead. They were friends, and enjoyed quite a cosy relationship. Wells wrote to Chesterton in 1933 that ‘if after all my Atheology turns out wrong and your Theology right, I feel I shall always be able to pass into Heaven (if I want to) as a friend of G.K.C.’s.’ Chesterton responded that ‘if I turn out to be right, you will triumph, not by being a friend of mine but a friend of Man.’ This anecdote is not to be found in Coren’s work, and its generosity passes him by. With Wells as his subject his pen as often as not is steeped in vitriol; writing of Chesterton, he dips it in treacle. The Invisible Man begins with a meditation on the problems of writing ‘the lives of the Hitlers, Stalins and other evil-doers’. In Gilbert, Coren’s earlier book, Chesterton’s death is described as follows: ‘Gilbert’s soul passed gently from this earth ... The long sleep began. It was so deserved, so full of peace and grace.’ Maybe Coren would feel happier if he could be certain that Wells had been condemned to eternal torment.
In Gilbert we are told that Chesterton would now have a much wider readership ‘if his cause had been socialism or the pursuit of a permissive age’. Coren’s claim in his latest book that he has uncovered new facts and revealed a hitherto invisible Wells is mostly vacuous: his major allegations have all been discussed by earlier writers, and he tends to repeat the work of other recent scholars while denying their existence. Much the most telling chapter of The Invisible Man concerns the sparring matches in the Twenties between Wells and the other half of Bernard Shaw’s notorious two-headed monster, Hilaire Belloc. Wells himself had discussed the Chesterbelloc in a 1912 essay, distinguishing between Chesterton’s geniality and Belloc’s partisan viciousness. The account of the Catholic Church in Wells’s Outline of History brought Belloc’s vituperativeness down on his head. The duel has its comic side: Wells responded to his antagonist with a slim volume entitled Mr Belloc Objects; Belloc came roaring back with Mr Belloc Still Objects. Coren, as is his habit, gets some of the details wrong, but he is one of the very few modern writers capable of taking their debate seriously.
His reasons for doing so must be judged from the glowing epithets he uses for Belloc, ‘the deliciously extreme knight errant of Catholicism’, the ‘master strategist’ and the ‘Catholic champion’. Belloc’s ‘crippling’ arguments, he pretends to think, ‘brought Wells to his knees’, so that ‘in the remaining twenty years of his life he never fully recovered.’ Wells appealed to Chesterton to act as mediator during the debate, but Chesterton (as we learn from Gilbert) had his own crippling blow in store. The Everlasting Man (1925) – ‘Gilbert’s masterpiece’, according to Coren – is a Roman Catholic riposte to The Outline of History, telling the story of mankind with the life of Jesus and the growth of the Church as its focal points. That really must have felled H.G. Wells. Outgunned as we are told he was by the spiritual, intellectual and rhetorical strength of Belloc – let alone Chesterton – the controversy between theological and rational history can now be revealed in its true colours, as a rerun of the biblical story in which Goliath gives David a well-deserved beating.
In both Gilbert and The Invisible Man Coren confronts the question of anti-semitism, and once again there is an instructive contrast. Chesterton and Belloc were notorious anti-semites, while Wells has only rarely been put in this category. If Coren’s aim is a long overdue redressing of the balance the argument is vitiated by his blatantly inquisitorial prosecution of Wells and his wily defending counsel’s tactics towards Chesterton and Belloc. Chesterton’s fault, it seems, was not so much racism as ‘inconsiderateness towards other people’s feelings’: he expected them to be as thick-skinned in the heat of controversy as he himself was. That claim would do very well to defend Wells’s sallies against the spokesmen of Zionism and Orthodox Jewry in the late Thirties. Coren and his publishers misleadingly announce that he has discovered long-suppressed evidence of Wells’s anti-semitism, but the evidence was never suppressed in the first place. It consists of attacks on him by American Zionists to which Wells himself gave the widest possible circulation, reprinting them in his 1939 Penguin In Search of Hot Water. His own remarks were doubtless tactless and ill-timed, but no harsher than he was accustomed to be at the expense of British Conservatives, Fascists, Roman Catholics, or anyone else who seemed to be opposed to his ideal of a cosmopolitan world state.
We are left with the paradoxes that numerous other biographers have explored, of Wells in his later years as the belligerent pacifist, the irascible world citizen, and self-indulgent preacher of puritanical restraint. He continued to call himself a revolutionary, and the violence of his early works became less vivid, but did not disappear. Things to Come, the movie he made with Alexander Korda, ends (unnoticed by Coren) with a scene of mass destruction of the enemies of progress which recalls the worst Old Testament slaughters. Wells’s stern, Cromwellian heroes endanger a horde of protesters by firing the space-gun much as Milton’s Samson brings down the temple. At the time of his death Wells was planning a new version of Things to Come incorporating atomic weapons. He will always be a problematic great writer, but that he was one seems now to be widely admitted. So long as he is read, the Chestertonian objections to his work are likely to remain current. Chesterton once accused Wells, with a modicum of truth, of retelling the story of Jack the Giant-Killer from the point of view of the giants. Yet in the age of the giant dictators Wells was for liberal democracy against Mussolini and Hitler, and for Roosevelt against Stalin. He was no devil, far from it, though there were times in the 20th century when he had the best tunes.