4 minute read

H. G. Wells (Herbert George Wells) Biography

(1866–1946), (Herbert George Wells), The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man

English novelist, social critic, and educator, born in Bromley, Kent, the third son of Joseph Wells, an unsuccessful small shopkeeper, and his wife Sarah, a former lady's maid. In 1880 Wells's mother left home to become resident housekeeper at Uppark, a large country house in Sussex, while her son began a series of apprenticeships, including two years at a drapery emporium. He had to work a thirteen-hour day, and slept in a dormitory above the shop. At 16 he managed to escape from the drapery trade and became a student assistant at Midhurst Grammar School, and a year later he won a government scholarship to the Normal School of Science, South Kensington, where he studied biology under T. H. Huxley. He spent three years as a science student, failing his final examinations, though he eventually took his BSc in 1890. From 1887 he worked as a science teacher and correspondence tutor, until chronic ill-health forced him to give up teaching for a precarious life as a literary journalist. His first marriage, to his cousin Isabel, broke down in 1893; two years later he married his former student Amy Catherine Robbins. In 1895 he burst on the literary scene with The Time Machine and with the first of several volumes of short stories. There followed in quick succession The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), and The First Men in the Moon (1901). These ‘scientific romances’, arguably his finest works, have had an incalculable influence on modern literature and popular culture; their cosmic sweep and haunting pessimism have influenced most subsequent science fiction. By the turn of the century Wells had produced his first semi-autobiographical novel, Love and Mr Lewisham (1900), while his reputation as a social and political prophet was nurtured by Anticipations (1901), The Discovery of the Future (1902), and A Modern Utopia (1905; see Utopia and Anti-Utopia). His growing international fame and his friendships and correspondence with Arnold Bennett, Joseph Conrad, George Gissing, Henry James, and Bernard Shaw made him a central figure in Edwardian literature. His membership of, and spectacular quarrel with, the Fabian Society influenced the development of modern socialism. He drew on his experiences as a draper in his comic novels Kipps (1905) and The History of Mr Polly (1910). In 1909 he published Tono-Bungay, a panoramic critique of Edwardian plutocracy, and his controversial ‘suffrage novel’ Ann Veronica. The New Machiavelli (1911), set in the world of high politics, reflects the atmosphere of scandal surrounding his numerous extra-marital liaisons (including his long relationship with Rebecca West, with whom he had a son, Anthony West). In later life his main fictional vehicle was the ‘discussion novel’ or novel of ideas, a form most successfully deployed in his best-selling war novel Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916). Wells had anticipated the First World War in futuristic romances such as The War in the Air (1908). In 1914 he published The World Set Free with its prophecy of the atomic bomb; Winston S. Churchill, remembering Wells's story ‘The Land Ironclads’ (1903), also credited him with the invention of the tank. He lived to regret the slogan he coined in August 1914—‘The War that Will End War’—and became increasingly concerned with peace-making and propaganda for world government. The Outline of History (1920) gives his view of universal history, ending characteristically with a plea for world peace. Here Wells summed up the human outlook as a ‘race between education and catastrophe’. During the next two decades he pursued global political influence through his meetings with Lenin, Roosevelt, and Stalin. He reacted sharply against the rise of fascism, and was the leading spirit behind the Sankey Declaration of the Rights of Man. Artistically, however, he was widely regarded as a spent force; his later novels were ridiculed by younger rivals such as D. H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf. In some respects the heir of the great Victorian cultural prophets, Wells's writing, like Thomas Carlyle's, became prolix, repetitive, and, at times, Cassandra-like. (His Experiment in Autobiography, 1934, and his short fable The Croquet Player, 1936, are exceptions to this.) He collaborated with Alexander Korda to produce the epic future-war movie Things to Come (1936). He stayed in London throughout the Second World War, and died there shortly after the founding of the United Nations and the onset of the nuclear age at Hiroshima—two events which sum up Wells's hopes and fears for humanity. See H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal (1986), by David C. Smith, H. G. Wells (1987), by Michael Draper, The History of Mr. Wells (1995), by Michael Foot, and H. G. Wells: The Critical Heritage (1972), edited by Patrick Parrinder.

Additional topics

Literature Reference: American Literature, English Literature, Classics & Modern FictionEncyclopedia of Literature: Robert Penn Warren Biography to Kenneth White Biography