Claire Tomalin’s latest biography, “The Young HG Wells: Changing the World”, is written simply, full of incident and rightly admiring without being devoid of criticism. In comparison to, say, the winner “Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self”, his new book is also quite overtly personal: “’The Island of Dr Moreau’”, writes Tomalin, “is a shattering story and I still hesitate. before going back, but when I see that its narrative power is holding me back again, despite my reluctance.
Herbert George Wells was born in 1866 to a hapless trader and a former maid. At 14, he apprenticed in a drapery shop, a soul-killing job the boy hated. As Tomalin points out, Wells was only able to acquire the basics of an education and survive severe malnutrition through several lucky turns – at age 20, he was only 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed around 110 pounds. Around this time, however, he achieved excellent results on a state-sponsored exam, which led him to enroll in a science program overseen by Charles Darwin’s champion Thomas Henry Huxley.
Poor health continued to shake Wells’ youth. A serious accident resulted in the destruction of a kidney, followed by tuberculosis disease in which he coughed up blood. Until he was over 40, Wells would later write: “The feeling of physical inferiority was a constant acute distress to me, which no philosophy could alleviate.
Yet the young man was indomitable, a virtual poster for the moving lyrics of “Invictus”: “I am the master of my destiny / I am the captain of my soul.”
Fittingly enough, the author of this poem, William Ernest Henley, would be the editor-in-chief of the magazine that serially published Wells’ The Time Machine. When his book version appeared in 1895, the struggling 28-year-old science professor woke up one morning to find himself famous.
To this day, no one fully understands how a man, albeit a genius, could write so much and so well over the next two decades, but then, as Tomalin puts it, “Taking too much was the way Wells wrote. lived his life. . “It is the period of the great scientific novels, of which” The war of the worlds “, but also of the semi-realistic masterpiece” Tono-Bungay “, of the serocomic terror” The story of Mr. Polly ” and about twenty brilliant short stories, including “The Land of the Blind” and “The Door in the Wall”.
During these same years Wells also produced occasional essays (“On the Art of Staying by the Seaside”), Future Speculations (published in 1902 under the title “Anticipations”) and even an astonishing Political pamphlet for the Socialist Fabian Society: In “The Misery of the Boots” he uses the cheap and ill-fitting shoes of the poor to highlight the injustices of the class system. Throughout those same years, Wells corresponded with Henry James and Joseph Conrad (who dedicated “The Secret Agent” to him), helped care for dying novelists Stephen Crane and George Gissing, and made friends. Durable Arnold Bennett, just as versatile.
Behind all his diversity, Wells has remained an educator and a proselyte at heart, using his fiction and non-fiction as talking points to, as Tomalin’s subtitle says, “change the world.” His later books, in particular, emphasized what he saw as the central message of Plato’s “Republic”: “Most of the social and political evils you suffer from are under your control, given only the will and the courage. to change them. You can live in another wiser way if you choose to think about it and solve it. “
Already during a visit to the United States in 1906, he had expressed his esteem for black Americans struggling to live a life of dignity within a “civilization which they are resentful and denied”. American democracy itself, he argued, was distorted by the rich, undermined by “the anarchic and irresponsible control of private landlords.” Unsurprisingly, Wells’ later years – he died at 79 in 1946 – were clouded by endless weariness. Instead of the emergence of a rational world society, an unhappy humanity still suffers from the inconsistency, hatred and violence of political and religious sectarianism.
He had failed to change the world. Nonetheless, historian Norman Stone once said that of all the English writers of the 20th century, Wells is the one he would most like to remember from the dead. And yet, magnificent as the public-minded visionary Wells may be, the private man remains more problematic. “He was,” as Tomalin writes, “a bad husband and an unreliable lover”. Eager for sexual experiences, Wells, 25, married a beautiful cousin. The wedding night turned out to be disastrous, and he quickly began to hang out, eventually meeting up with one of his students, Amy Catherine Robbins.
Wells eventually married Robbins, whom he insisted on calling Jane, not liking her first name. He also insisted that he be allowed all the romantic adventures that seemed necessary for his health and well-being. It was, in his opinion, simply the correct and enlightened attitude towards sex. Many intelligent and independent women, including formidable intellectual Rebecca West and Russian translator and spy Moura Budberg, would eventually welcome his embraces. Yet Jane – Tomalin calls her “the true heroine of this story” – has remained the leaf anchor of her life, as well as her typist.
Still, two troubling first relationships involved passionate admirers half his age, starting with 19-year-old Rosamund Bland, with whom Wells almost fled to Paris before being intercepted by her indignant father at the train station. Even more scandalous was his affair with Amber Reeves, a Cambridge student who was to give him a child. Their affair forms the basis of Wells’ shocking novel “Ann Veronica,” in which a young, unmarried woman eagerly gives herself to an older married man. Even more shocking, the book has a happy ending.
Three excellent full biographies – by Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, David C. Smith and Michael Sherborne – chronicle the colorful life of Wells in its entirety. But for a compact overview of this infinitely fascinating man and writer, Tomalin’s “The Young HG Wells” is hard to beat, being friendly, astute, and enjoyable to read.