Herbert George Wells (1866-1946)
English novelist, journalist, sociologist, and historian, whose science
fiction stories have been filmed many times. Wells’s best known works
are THE TIME MACHINE (1895), one of the first modern science fiction
stories, THE INVISIBLE MAN (1897), and THE WAR OF THE WORLDS (1898).
Wells wrote over a hundred of books, about fifty of them novels.
“No one would have believed, in the last years of the nineteenth
century, that human affairs were being watched keenly and closely by
intelligences greater than man’s and yet as mortal as his own; that as
men busied themselves about their affairs they were scrutinized and
studied, perhaps almost as narrowly as a man with a microscope might
scrutinize the transient creatures that swarm and multiply in a drop of
water.” (from War of the Worlds)
Along with George Orwell’s Nineteen-Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley’s
Brave New World, which was a pessimistic answer to scientific optimism,
Wells’s novels are among the classics of science-fiction. Later Wells’s
romantic and enthusiastic conception of technology turned more doubtful.
His bitter side is seen early in the novel BOON (1915), which was a
parody of Henry James.
Herbert George Wells was born in Bromley, Kent. His father was a
shopkeeper and a professional cricketer until he broke his leg. In his
early childhood Wells developed love for literature. His mother served
from time to time as a housekeeper at the nearby estate of Uppark, and
young Wells studied books in the library secretly. When his father’s
business failed, Wells was apprenticed like his brothers to a draper. He
spent the years between 1880 and 1883 in Windsor and Southsea, and later
recorded them in KIPPS (1905). In the story Arthur Kipps is raised by
his aunt and uncle. Kipps is also apprenticed to a draper. After
learning that he has been left a fortune, Kipps enters the upper-class
society, which Wells describes with sharp social criticism.
In 1883 Wells became a teacher/pupil at Midhurst Grammar School. He
obtained a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London and
studied there biology under T.H. Huxley. However, his interest faltered
and in 1887 he left without a degree. He taught in private schools for
four years, not taking his B.S. degree until 1890. Next year he settled
in London, married his cousin Isabel and continued his career as a
teacher in a correspondence college. From 1893 Wells became a full-time
Wells left Isabel for one of his brightest students, Amy Catherine, whom
he married in 1895. As a novelist Wells made his debut with The Time
Machine, a parody of English class division. The narrator is Hillyer,
who discusses with his friends about theories of time travel. A week
later their host has an incredible story to tell – he has returned from
the year 802701. The Time Traveler had found two people: the Eloi, weak
and little, who live above ground in a seemingly Edenic paradise, and
the Morlocks, bestial creatures that live below ground, who eat the
Eloi. The Traveler’s beautiful friend Weena is killed, he flees into the
far future, where he encounters “crab-like creatures” and things “like a
huge white butterfly”, that have taken over the planet. In the year
30,000,000 he finds lichens, blood-red sea and a creature with
tentacles. He returns horrified back to the present. Much of the
realistic atmosphere of the story was achieved by carefully studied
technical details. The basic principles of the machine contained
materials regarding time as the fourth dimension – years later Albert
Einstein published his theory of the four dimensional continuum of
The Time Machine was followed by THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU (1896), in
which a mad scientist transforms animals into human creatures. The story
is told in flashback by a man named Prendick. He travels with a
biologist to a remote island, which is controlled by Dr. Moreau. In his
laboratory he experiments with animals, and has created Beast People.
Moreau is killed by Puma-Woman. Prendick escapes from the island, and
returns to London. He concludes the tale: “Even then it seemed that I,
too, was not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with
some strange disorder in its brain, that sent it to wander alone, like
as sheep stricken with the gid.” Wells, who was a Darwinist, did not
reject the evolutionary theory but attacked optimists and warned that
human progress is not inevitable. In film versions the character of Dr.
Moreau has inspired such actors as Charles Laughton, Burt Lancaster, and
The Invisible Man was a Faustian story of a scientist who has tampered
with nature in pursuit of superhuman powers, and The War of the Worlds,
a novel of an invasion of Martians. The story appeared at a time when
Schiaparell’s discovery of Martian “canals” Percival Lowell’s book Mars
(1895) arose speculations that there could be life on the Red Planet.
The narrator is an unnamed “philosophical writer” who tells about events
that happened six years earlier. Martian cylinders land on earth outside
London and the invaders, who have a “roundish bulk with tentacles” start
to vaporize humans. The Martians build walking tripods which ruin towns.
Panic spreads, London is evacuated. Martians release poisonous black
smoke. However, Martians are slain “by the humblest things that God, in
his wisdom, has put on this earth.” In 1930 Paramount offered the story
to the Soviet director Sergei Eisenstein, but he never attempted an
adaptation. Its later Hollywood version from 1953 reflected Cold War
attitudes. THE FIRST MEN ON THE MOON (1901) was prophetic description of
the methodology of space flight, and THE WAR IN THE AIR (1908) foresaw
the importance of air forces in combat. Although Wells’s novels were
highly entertaining, he also tried to arise debate about the future of
Dissatisfied with his literary work, Wells moved into the novel genre
with LOVE AND MR. LEWISHAM (1900). Kipps strengthened his reputation as
a serous writer. Wells also published critical pamphlets attacking the
Victorian social order, among them ANTICIPATIONS (1901), MANKIND IN THE
MAKING (1903), and A MODERN UTOPIA (1905). In THE HISTORY OF MR. POLLY
(1909) Wells returned to vanished England.
Passionate concern for society led Wells to join in 1903 the socialist
Fabian Society in London. It advocated a fairer society by planning for
a gradual system of reforms. However, he soon quarreled with the
society’s leaders, among them George Bernard Shaw. This experience was
basis for his novel THE NEW MACHIAVELLI (1911), which portrayed the
noted Fabians. At the outbreak of war in 1914, Wells was involved in a
love affair with a young journalist, Rebecca West, 26 years his junior.
West and Wells called themselves “panther” and “jaguar”. Their son
Anthony West later wrote about their difficult relationship in Aspects
of a Life (1984).
In his novels Wells used his two wives, Amber Reeves, Rebecca West,
Odette Keun and all the passing mistresses as models for his characters.
”I was never a great amorist,” Wells wrote in EXPERIMENT IN
AUTOBIOGRAPHY (1934) ”though I have loved several people very deeply.”
Rebecca West became a famous author and married a wealthy banker, Henry
Andrews, who had business interests in Germany. Elizabeth von Arnim
dismissed Wells, and Moura Budberg, Maxim Gorky’s former mistress,
refused to marry him or even be faithful.
“Nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the early
twentieth century than the rapidity with which war was becoming
impossible. And as certainly they did not see it. They did not see it
until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands.” (from The World
Set Free, 1914)
After WW I Wells published several non-fiction works, among them THE
OUTLINE OF HISTORY (1920), THE SCIENCE OF LIFE (1929-39), written in
collaboration with Sir Julian Huxley and George Philip Wells, and
EXPERIMENT IN AUTOBIOGRAPHY (1934). At this time Wells had gained the
status as a popular celebrity, and he continued to write prolifically.
In 1917 he was a member of Research Committee for the League of Nations
and published several books about the world organization. Although Wells
had many reservations about the Soviet system, he understood the broad
aims of the Russian Revolution, and had in 1920 a fairly amiable meeting
with Lenin. In the early 1920s Wells was a labour candidate for
Parliament. Between the years 1924 and 1933 Wells lived mainly in
France. From 1934 to 1946 he was the International president of PEN. In
1934 he had discussions with both Stalin, who left him disillusioned,
and Roosevelt, trying to recruit them without success to his
world-saving schemes. Wells was convinced that Western socialists cannot
compromise with Communism, and that the best hope for the future lay in
Washington. Also one of his mistresses, Moura Budberg, turned out to be
a Soviet agent for years. In THE HOLY TERROR (1939) Wells studied the
psychological development of a modern dictator exemplified in the
careers of Stalin, Mussolini, and Hitler.
“The professional military mind is by necessity an inferior and
unimaginative mind; no man of high intellectual quality would willingly
imprison his gifts in such calling.” (from The Outline of History, 1920)
Orson Welles’ Mercury Theater radio broadcast, based on The War of the
Worlds, caused a panic in the Eastern United States on October 30, 1938.
In Newark, New Jersey, all the occupants of a block of flats left their
homes with wet towels round their heads and in Harlem a congregation
fell to its knees. Welles, who first considered the show silly, was
shaken by the panic he had unleashed and promised that he would never do
anything like it again. Later Welles attempted to claim authorship for
the script, but it was written by Howard Koch, whose inside story of the
whole episode, The panic broadcast; portrait of an event, appeared in
1970. Wells himself was not amused with the radio play. He met the young
director in 1940 at a San Antonio radio station, but was at that time
mellowed and advertised Welles next film, Citizen Kane.
“Those who have not read The War of the Worlds may be surprised to find
that, like much of Wells’s writing, it is full of poetry and contains
passages that catch the throat. Wells tried to pretend that he was not
an artist and stated that “there will come a time for every work of art
when it will have served its purpose and be bereft of its last rag of
significance.” This has not yet happened for the best of Wells’s science
fiction, though it has done so for all but a few of his realistic and
political novels.” (Arthur C. Clarke in Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!,
Wells lived through World War II in his house on Regent’s Park, refusing
to let the blitz drive him out of London. His last book, MIND AT THE END
OF ITS TETHER (1945), expressed pessimism about mankind’s future
prospects. Wells died in London on August 13. 1946. “Human history
becomes more and more a race between education and catastrophe.” (from
The Outline of History, 1920)
For further reading: The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H.G.
Wells by Michael Coren (1993); A Critical Edition of The War of the
Worlds, ed. by David Y. Hughes and Harry M. Geduld (1993); H.G. Wells:
Six Scientific Romances Adapted for Film by Thomas C. Renzi (1992); H.G.
Wells by Brian Murray (1990); H.G. Wells under Revision, ed. by Patrick
Parrinder and Christopher Rolfe (1990); H.G. Wells by Brian Murray
(1990); H.G. Wells: A Comprehensive Bibliography, published by the H.G.
Wells Society (1986); The Time Traveller: Life of H.G. Wells by Norman
and Jean Mackenzie (1973); H.G. Wells: The Critical Heritage, ed. by P.
Parrinder (1972); H.G. Wells by L. Dickson (1969); The Early H.G. Wells
by Bernard Bergonzi (1961); A Companion to Mr. Wells’s “Outline of
History,” by Hilaire Belloc (1926); The World of H.G. Wells by Van Wyck
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