by Anthony Domestico and Pericles Lewis
H.G. Wells (1866-1946) was one of the most prolific, popular, and varied writers of the early twentieth century. His numerous works crossed genres, from science fiction to socialist treatises, from Edwardian satire to sweeping histories, from short stories to Utopian novels. He loomed large in the popular and critical imagination of the time, producing many bestsellers, serving as a target for Virginia Woolf in her 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”, and establishing (and destroying) numerous relationships with key modernist figures like Dorothy Richardson, Rebecca West, George Bernard Shaw, and Henry James. Straddling different genres and eras, Wells remains a complicated and disputed figure.
Born in Kent on September 21, 1866 to a lower-middle-class family, Herbert George Wells led a bookish but unhappy childhood. After shortly attending Thomas Morley’s Commercial Academy, Wells was forced to go to work as an apprentice draper in 1881 after his father, a professional cricket player, broke his leg and could not support his family. The drudgery and cruelty Wells experienced during this period would serve as material for two later novels, Kipps and The Wheels of Chance.
After briefly serving as a teacher, Wells attended the Normal School of Science, where he studied biology under T.H. Huxley and read deeply and widely in political philosophy.
Wells left the Normal School before completing his studies and moved in with his aunt and uncle, serving as a tutor to make ends meet. In 1891, he married his cousin Isabel Mary Wells; the marriage would last only four years. In 1895, he married former student Amy Catherine Robbins with whom he had two sons. While still married, he had numerous affairs with, among others, Margaret Singer, Amber Reeves, Rebecca West, and Dorothy Richardson. Wells would serve as the model for Richardson’s pretentious, overbearing Hypo G. Wells in her 1919 novel The Tunnel.
Soon becoming enamored of socialism, Wells joined the Fabian Society, an intellectual, socialist movement that embraced reason and gradualism. He broke with the organization, which included George Bernard Shaw, after he attempted to radicalize their strategies and philosophy. In particular, Wells encouraged the society to support a resolution rejecting the monogamous family, headed by a man, as a form of private property. Attacked by conservatives and by other socialists as a champion of “free love” and sexual anarchy, Wells failed in his attempts to take over the Fabian Society, in part because of his reputation for having extramarital affairs with young women. (Amber Reeves was the daughter of prominent Fabians).
In 1895, Wells had a series of short stories published, and this would initiate a truly prolific period of production. From 1895 to 1901, he wrote a series of science fiction novels, including The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds, and he is often credited with being a founder of this genre. Churning out oftentimes more than a book a year, Wells wrote on the future of civilization in Anticipations (1901), on the rise of Fascism and its charismatic leaders in The Holy Terror (1939), and on the entire history of the world in the oft-copied Outline of History (1920). His science fiction did predict many of the horrors of the twentieth century, including trench warfare, aerial bombardment, poson gas, the nuclear bomb, and world war. Initially an enthusiastic supporter of the First World War, he wrote a series of prowar articles, collected in late 1914 as The War That Will End War, a title later remembered with bitter irony.
Wells was a true public intellectual, writing on issues like eugenics and his proposed World State, and by the 1920’s he was a world celebrity. Given his constant engagement with science, politics, and contemporary ethical issues, it is easy to lose sight of his fiction, which was accomplished in its own right. In addition to writing some of the seminal novels of the science fiction genre, Wells wrote frankly about sex in his novel Love and Mr. Lewisham (1901), parodied Henry James‘s late style in Boon (1915), and engaged with issues of colonialism in The War of the Worlds (1898) and modern advertising in Tono-Bungay (1909).
Virginia Woolf famously derided Wells as an Edwardian writer interested merely in “the fabric of things,” a writer like his fellow Edwardians, who had “given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there.” Despite Woolf’s depiction of Wells as a standard against which she and other contemporary novelists were rebelling, many characteristics of his fiction – its genre-bending, its incorporation of the discourses of science, its prophetic voice – help define what we understand as modernism. Edwardian and proto-modernist, public intellectual and science fiction writer, Wells, like his novels, blurs rigid distinction and demarcations. More a prophet than a politician, Wells seemed to foresee the radical changes in society that were eventually unleashed by the First World War.