Herbert George Wells (whose death is announced on page 5) was born at Bromley, in Kent, on September 21, 1866. His father was a professional cricketer in Kent, but he allowed, if he did not encourage, the boy to pick up an education that could be the foundation of a vigorous intellectual life. Young Wells passed through Midhurst Grammar School and touched other larger opportunities of this kind. On the other hand, he spent some time in a draper’s shop, and evidently had a narrow escape from a whole life behind the counter.
He has told us how he found his way out. Looking at himself one day in the glass, he realised that he was thin and narrow-chested and was growing into something less than a presentable man. He fled to Wales and became an assistant master in a school, but his zeal for exercise proved nearly fatal. He sustained a serious accident at football, returned to London, and was an invalid for some time. It was this illness that led him to writing. He was able to take up science, win a first-class with honours in zoology at the Royal College, and become an M.Sc. of London. But his illness shut him out from a regular academic career. He could not face the drudgery and routine of class-teaching or the bustle of a London life. Writing was really the only way out. So Wells, who had married a Miss Robbins, set to with his wife and wrote The Time Machine, finishing it in a few weeks. It was the first of his scientific romances with which he made a name and secured his position financially.
Wells was twenty-nine when his first book was published (1895), but by the time he was forty he had established an international reputation. His powers of assimilation and application were astonishing. He not only wrote fast, but widened his range with equal rapidity. He carried his quick-darting mind into everything, the military art, social and sexual relations, religion, Socialism – in fact, nearly every conceivable phase of this world, the starry world, and the next world. It all made capital reading, and Wells forged out for himself a vigorous, cursive style, not without affectations (those rows of dots are too obvious game for the parodist), but always a clear and lively medium for his teeming thought.
Master of comedy
His work falls into phases and periods with almost mathematical precision. First is the Wells of the scientific romances (1895-1904). The Time Machine was followed swiftly by many others.
The second Wells is the master of comedy. Working on his own vivid experiences of lower middle-class life, he developed an exuberant type of narrative, too kindly to be satire, but far too rich and permanent to be ruled out as the mere “giddy parerga” of a social theorist. The Wheels of Chance (1896) was the first of this type, which was carried to a very high level of accomplishment four years later in Love and Mr. Lewisham. In 1905 came Kipps, which is still held by many to be Wells’s most admirable novel. Its picture of shop-life is unforgettable, and the social criticism never gets on top of the story and upsets the delicate artistic balance of the whole. Mr. Polly (1910) is “crambe repetita,” but it is full of good things – the “funereal baked meats” and the last mad pursuit, which is a “cinema comic” put to paper by a master hand.
The third aspect of the man’s genius, perhaps his greatest and most permanent, is that of the sociologist. Sociology runs all through his novels, lightly and trippingly at first, and finally with a heavy tread that is almost fatal to their fictional value.
His political thought
Just before the war (1914) there was a synthesis of many Wellsian ideas in An Englishman Looks at the World. His Socialism (he spent some years of uneasy Fabianism) was worked out in A Modern Utopia (1905) and New Worlds for Old (1908). The foundation of all Wells’s political thought is his passion for order: he loved law before he loved liberty. Liberalism he did not understand. His novels reveal a contempt for Liberal politicians, and the belittling of Gladstone in his Outline of History is typical not of a personal spite but of a general creed. “It was the function of the nineteenth century to liberate. It will be the function of the twentieth to control.” Wells saw everywhere the dispersion of forces, conflict waste, and curable confusion. So he set to work to preach control – control of the scientific forces of destruction that may yet blow all our civilisation into a cloud of smoke, control of education on a broad international basis, control of political egoism, control of the machines that were devised to be man’s servants and have become his tyrannous masters.
The fourth Wells is the political novelist (1909-19). Ann Veronica is not a story of much consequence but it threw a fierce light on the sex irritations of the day, and some stupid criticism turned it into a succès de scandale. Tono-Bungay, published in the same year, was far bigger writing. It set Wells in the front rank of serious novelists as well as of scientists and sociological thinkers. The success was rapidly followed up. The New Machiavelli aroused resentment by its thinly veiled personalities and bitter attacks on leading political and social figures, but there was an indelible stamp of power which marked it as something more than an explosion of petulance.
The outbreak of the war in 1914 naturally diverted Wells’s energies, Almost immediately he published The War to End War, a brief exposition of the progressive case against Germany. By 1916 his tone was altering. Mr. Britling Sees It Through is shot through with doubts and hints at intellectual reconstruction on international lines being the real guarantee of man’s future peace.
The Outline of History was knocked off in a twelvemonth with the aid of a staff of distinguished collaborators. It is at once a history and a sermon, a study of and a plea for “community.” The unified society of to-morrow, according to Wells, will be based upon a common world religion, very much simplified and universalised.