David Y. Hughes
David C. Smith. H.G.
Wells, Desperately Mortal: A Biography. New Haven & London:
Yale UP, 1986. xviii + 634pp. $28.00.
This is a major study based on an unequaled familiarity with H.G. Wells's papers,
correspondence, and unreprinted writings. In a congenial and informal fashion, David
Smith simply knows more about Wells than anyone else, with the possible exception of
Anthony West. Some things this book is not. It is not concerned with Wells's
childhood, which gets a rather cursory chapter, nor, therefore, in any depth with his religious,
psychological, or class foundations. It is devoid of literary criticism or discussion of
literary influences on or by Wells. It affords only a sketchy account of the public figure
of Wells, whether among the Fabians, on early committees working towards the League of
Nations and later the United Nations, or in the presidency of PEN, the literary society.
Smith's method, instead, is to document --very often in their own words--what Wells and
his current and long term associates and friends thought about him and his activities over
the years: about the "desperately mortal" man's marriages, mistresses, houses,
travels, and gargantuan literary, educational, and futurist projects. Of course, Wells is
Smith's hero--no secret from the beginning.
For one trained in literature and accustomed to view Wells from that perspective,
reading Smith has proved rewarding, more than might be expected. It is a snide commonplace
that Wells's later fiction is a transcript of his life. On the other hand, from Smith's
study of the life one cannot help concluding that it was the other way round; that the
life imitated the art. Now, this is not Smith's own message, necessarily, for he says very
little about the art in any case. The late Robert P. Weeks (who may or may not be known to
Smith) pointed out over 30 years ago in "Disentanglement as a Theme in H.G. Wells'[s]
Fiction," that the pattern of a Wells story invariably involves the breaking down of
barriers--social, or economic, or even the natural ones of time and space--a break-out
accompanied by sensations of dizzy exhilaration--followed by the recrudescence of the
status quo, often with deadly ironic force. Weeks went on to suggest that the narrative
nevertheless winds up with the initial optimism not so much dissipated as transformed into
a "tough hopefulness." Finally, Weeks surmised in passing that the likeliest
impulse for this special fictional world was the accident of Wells's birth into the
servant stratum of the rigid Victorian order and then his success against all odds in
beating his way to the top. However, the pattern of exhilaration and frustration exists in
Wells's writing from the beginning, already in The Time Machine (when Wells was
nobody), and his later life turns out to imitate it.
The paradigmatic act of Wells's personal life is sexual revolt. Weeks said that Wells's
fiction "presents us with a unified world that limits its inhabitants, provokes their
rebellion, and then frustrates their flight." In his own story of his life, Wells
recalled his "enterprising promiscuity" in his first marriage and the modus
vivendi that liberated him sexually in his second marriage (Experiment in
Autobiography [hereafter EA] pp. 353, 36192). Some of the names, dates, and
circumstances have been brought out in studies by Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, Gordon Ray,
and Anthony West, and in Wells's own H.G. Wells in Love (1984--hereafter HGL).
Smith, though basing his book "almost entirely on primary sources" (p.
493), adds relatively few names while covering the same ground afresh (but Margaret Sanger
gets more attention than previously). Still, the proportions of Wells's rebellion are
unnerving and bear reviewing. In the first place, then, he occasionally used prostitutes.
Revealingly, he liked to repeat an anecdote that he had had "a reaction" after a
"high level" conversation with Teddy Roosevelt and asked the cabby to take him
to a black whorehouse (HGL, p. 65; Smith, p. 600, n. 85, notes that Wells told
the story at a stag dinner in 1930). Then there was a "passade" or "stroke
of mutual attraction" (EA, p. 391), which according to Anthony West happened
at the rate of "three or four a year" from about 1900 onwards (p. 94). In this
regard, a few names come to light, in Smith and elsewhere--Nell de Boer, Rosamund Bland,
Ella D'Arcy, Violet Hunt (all from Fabian days), Cicely Hamilton, and a certain Hedwig
Verena Gatternigg, who made news by attempting suicide in Wells's quarters--but most
remain anonymous: an "American widow," "a very pleasant red-haired
widow," and so forth (HGL, pp. 108-09, 190-92). All these, though, were
incidental to the major liaisons, those with Dorothy Richardson, Amber Reeves, Elizabeth
von Arnim, Rebecca West, Margaret Sanger, Odette Keun, Moura Budberg, and seemingly one or
two as yet nameless. Reeves and West each bore Wells a child, Richardson apparently
miscarried. Such are his credentials as a sexual rebel.
Weeks noted that Wells's fictional world "limits" and "provokes"
its inhabitants. It is no news that the Victorian proprieties have a long reach, but
Smith's researches are illuminating. When it was put about in 1922 that Wells should stand
down from running for Parliament because he was a "cad," Beatrice Webb said in
her diary: "hardly relevant if it is sexual morality which is to be the test"
(p. 275). Gary Hart might or might not dispute her. But Wells knew the risks as only a
Victorian could. In 1911, at a crisis in his sexual affairs, in this case the uproar over
his daughter by Amber Reeves, he sought advice of his former teacher and father-like
friend, Sir E. Ray Lankester, a distinguished biologist. Lankester thought Wells over,
then wrote him that women fall into two groups, the one "naughty but nice," the
other "angelic" or "angeloid," and commented: "I always placed
the second on a pedestal and should as soon [have] thought of temporary amusement or
passionate outburst with one of them as robbing a bank." Lankester funned with the
first group, avoided even a sexual glance at the anatomy of the second, and held that the
"aberrant angelic female" or "sport" (biologically speaking, of
course) must be educated, gotten to a nunnery, or in the worst case "spayed." As
for Wells, he had unluckily been led off by a "quasi-angelic" into disregarding
"the merits of professional ladies" (pp. 192-94). Thus Lankester, a bachelor, in
this piece of mainline Victorian pleading, exonerated Wells via the virgin/harlot version
of racial purity. By the same token, though, to those unfriendly to Wells, he would be the
cheeky "little cad" in the Fabian Nursery: the one who robbed the bank. Wells
was willing; and, on the other hand, the power structure had "provoked" him.
Weeks further remarked that Wells's fictional world "frustrates" the flight
of its inhabitants but that they emerge with a "tough hopefulness." In life,
Wells emerged far less neatly than that, but resilient always. To begin with, illicit sex makes
entanglement; the escape becomes the trap; each affair fuels the next. As Smith
observes, even the ever-patient Amy Catherine had complicity not just by tolerating the
affairs but by the act of having eloped with Wells from his first wife (p. 195). For Wells
himself the game was always worth the candle. He said two years before he died, "it
is the old men who feel they haven't had their whack of fun who become nasty old boys at
the end" (p. 427). However, it takes two to tango and Wells was--in part--flagrantly
male-chauvinist. For example, the role of the woman in A Modern Utopia (1905) is
to have a state-supported career of Motherhood, her special province, where she will not
suffer because of "her incapacity for great stresses of exertion, her frequent
liability to slight illnesses, her weaker initiative, her inferior invention and
resourcefulness, [and] her relative incapacity for organization and combination" (p.
187); and, equally typical, there is the Miss Minniver caricature of the suffragettes in
Ann Veronica (1909). In the light of such sentiments, it is not surprising that
Wells as late as 1936 claimed to disbelieve in "any male equivalent to menstruation
or to the menopause" or that at various times he found employment for at least three
of his former lovers as his typists and proof readers (p. 596, n. 49; pp. 184, 365, 418).
On the other hand, by his advocacy of birth control and of state provisions for child
care, he played a major part in opening up the fact of the social and economic slavery of
women for frank discussion. Also, on the personal side, the notorious fracas with Odette Keun--his walling their home in two, for which she paid him out in Getting to Know the
English and he returned the favor in Apropos of Dolores--is balanced by the
enduring regard of Amber Reeves, Moura Budberg, and Margaret Sanger. Very moving is
Margaret Sanger's farewell, beginning "so darling H.G. you have gone out to the Great
Beyond," her barely legible, half-incoherent love letter penned on the day she heard
of his death (p. 407). On balance, "tough hopefulness" expresses a truth about
Wells in himself and within his private circles.
Smith himself is somewhat evasive about Wells and women. He claims that Wells was
"a feminist, in the sense that he crusaded for equality for women and believed in an
androgynous life" (p. 178). There is some merit in this claim, but Smith leaves too
many loopholes. The black whorehouse gets a footnote; the Gatternigg episode
gets a mention; proof that Wells was "no Philistine" includes his support of
Violet Hunt (p. 173) among other literary lights (but no mention in the book is made of the
affair they had had); a trip to Hollywood means that among the "nubile young
women," "Wells was close to heaven, one supposes" (p. 394)--so coy, this,
if compared to Wells's words on Peat, his agent, arranging New York for him:
"accommodating young ladies appear at his call, and he is mindful of the needs of his
client" (HGL, p. 224)--and, without denying Wells's opposition to
suffragists, Smith minimizes its virulence, and apparently concurs with Wells in that (in
Smith's paraphrase) "women were not at war with men, but with sexual urges, and he
counseled against 'foolish feminism"' (p. 539, n. 28). On the other hand, Smith
insists, relevantly, upon Wells's long term relationships with women where sex did not
figure. In the case of Enid Bagnold, Wells pursued her, she refused, was later willing,
but by then Rebecca was in the way, and they simply became good friends. All of this
Bagnold preserved, and Smith quotes the letters at some length (pp. 194-95). A close
relationship with Christabel Aberconway followed the same pattern (pp. 394-95). Elizabeth
Healey was another simply good friend, from the 1880s onwards; so, too, was Eileen Power
of Oxford, from about the time she contributed to later editions of The Outline of
History (p. 392). The list goes on. It takes some of the force out of the
Of course, sexual rebellion was only the most proscribed of Wells's break-outs. Another
was the creative act itself: "A scholar may be a gentleman, a novelist may be a
decent citizen, history may be honorable, criticism even respectable, but the true
creative author has a gambling spirit, a taverning temperament, and brawling in his
blood" (Smith, p. 39; quoted from the 1894 essay, "The Disreputableness of
Authorship"). For Wells, the gambling spirit paid off. Smith's seemingly compulsive
recurrence to the details of Wells's transactions with his publishers and agents is simply
a faithful rendering of Wells's aggressive obsession with the pounds and pence, wrung from
his writings, that enabled him to travel, mingle with aristocracy, and underwrite the
multiple households that his love life exacted--an obsession testified to by thousands of
the documents Smith has consulted.
For Smith, however, the overarching "disentanglement" was what Wells famously
phrased (as early as 1902) as "The Discovery of the Future," when, in addressing
the Royal Society, he contrasted the hindward-looking mindset of classical humanists with
the forward-looking mindset of scientists, associating himself with the latter. That is,
for Smith, the merely private defiances become assimilated to a public furtherance of the
potentialities of human freedom, broadening down Wells's long, active life (nearly to the
mid-century mark). Also, for Smith, the unquestioned desirability of Wells's future colors
even the book's dedication: "To Joshua in the heartfelt hope and desire that his
world might turn out to be a Wellsian one." Indeed, so fully does Smith identify with
Wells as maker of the future, that he inscribes the following eccentric credo: the study
of Wells "has convinced me that the end does, did, and will always justify the means.
If art must be sacrificed to truth, so be it" (p. 481).
Given this utilitarian bias, the life Smith writes centers away from Wells's art and
onto his message and example, so that "truth" in Wells is seen as a recipe for action and his "art" as a
shell surrounding it. The very shape of the book makes this emphasis. Quite aside from the
fact that discussion of the SF and novels is limited to brief statements of plot-lines and
ideas, Smiths pragmatist spirit slights Wellss first 35 years and dwells on
the man-of-the-world of the last 45. The ratio is about 75 pages to 410 pages, exclusive
of the 121 total pages of annotation. Thus, telescoping Wellss pre-university years
into the first 7 pages, Smith uses the next 40 to describe Wellss training to be a
science teacher and his concomitant early science journalism and two early textbooks. Then
half a page is given to the importance for Wells of dreams and waking dreams as a pipeline
to the subconscious. Within 50 pages, this arbitrary mix establishes him as a pedagogue
and fractionally a visionary. Two quotations from Wells, out of many others, will give the
drift: "the danger arising to humanity out of invention, the danger of the extreme
complication of life, is only to be met by education"; and: "there are two chief
aspects from which we may survey almost any question of human interest .... We may regard
things as they are, or we may regard things as they might be" (pp. 33, 42). The point
here is the dates, 1899 and 1894 respectively, because they reveal that Wells accompanied
the SF for which he is known in this period with a substantial body of essays that spoke
in the straightforwardly didactic and discursive voice which is commonly associated only
and increasingly with the Wells of the years after 1900. Once this didactic voice has been
established, then in about 35 pages (disproportionately few of them addressed to the major
SF, through The First Men in the Moon), Smith reads this voice, and only this
voice, into all of the SF through The World Set Free at the start of World War I.
Thus, The Time Machine teaches "the view that if we will only anticipate the
future, we can create a world in which the Eloi and Morlocks live in a symbiosis without
the cruel death the Traveler sees"; Moreau and The Invisible Man are
"attacking science run amok"; and the message of The War of the Worlds is "the
need for co-operation" (pp. 60, 61, 67). Smith reserves special acclaim for The
Food of the Gods (1904)ignored or panned by critics from G.K. Chesterton
onwardsfirst, because it shouts its message (Wells later called it, wordily, his
"completest statement of the conception that human beings are now in violent reaction
to a profound change in conditions demanding the most complex and extensive readjustment
in the scope and scale of their ideas"; Smith, p. 69), and then, second, because the
story-line is more or less detachable from the thesis. Smith notes that Wells actually did
two versions of the book, one with more action, including a chapter on giant kangaroos,
for consumption in Pearsons Magazine, and one that omitted this chapter and
instead interpolated lengthy expository reflections, as published in book form (p. 69);
so, in Smiths estimationand the more so the more literate the
audiencethe message is the thing. Of course, these are astounding reductions of the
true achievement of Wellss early SF, yet they undeniably advance the general sense
conveyed by Smith that "disentanglement" was the driving force of Wellss
life and thought. Smith offers equally encapsulated views of Wellss major attempts
at the novel and the utopia during this period of his greatest purely literary fame.
As Wells's fiction later becomes increasingly discursive, topical, and
autobiographical, Smith's methodology looks better and better, and still better with the
"prig" and discussion novels, and soundest of all when Wells shoots clean out of
fiction into the likes of The Outline of History, The Science of Life, and The
Work, Wealth, and Happiness of Mankind. Essentially, what Smith shows is that Wells's
emergent internationalism and growing commitment to the idea of the world-state led him to
broadcast the message through every forum at his disposal and through his actions. Besides
exploiting all major literary genres except poetry and drama (with which he experimented
unsuccessfully), he wrote film scripts, only the most notable of them for Korda's Things
to Come; he authorized frequent dramatizations of his works on the B.B.C. and
personally aired his views in a series of talks on world affairs; he traveled several
times to America and once to Australia on lecture tours; and he undertook lengthy
correspondences and negotiations on behalf of individuals such as Eduard Benes and causes
such as that of birth control, activities culminating when he was in his upper 70s in the
campaign for the Declaration of Human Rights; and he also stood twice for Parliament.
Smith's procedure in organizing these materials is to trace Wells's performance in each
area separately--with the negative outcome that under different heads the same dates and
the same issues recur with monotonous regularity, but with the positive outcome that
Wells's resourcefulness and "tough hopefulness" deliver a cumulative punch. Not
only were Wells's activities concurrent, but any one or two of them would exhaust most
careers. Meanwhile, with each book, each performance, Smith pauses to take stock of its
reception by the public and by an inner circle of friends and colleagues (literary and
non-literary), especially Sir Richard Gregory of Nature, Healey, Tommy Simmons
(all from student days), Lankester, Bennett, Shaw, Beatrice Webb, Graham Wallace, Frank
Swinnerton. These form a sort of chorus to the action (of writing, lecturing, running for
office, and so on), with the effect for the reader that Wells's life, so absorbed in these
enterprises, appears indissolubly part of his work, which was always the prime mover: his
work or his art.
Here a pause for the reviewer's mandatory exhibit of howlers, large and small. Wells
was not at Byatt's school for two years (pp. 9, 499, n. 10), but for one; the Martians are
not "insect-like" (p. 65), but in size like a bear, in form like an octopus, and
in reproduction like a plant; it is not true that "there has been no detailed
analysis" of Wells's short stories (p. 73), quite the opposite, though no exclusive
study exists; it is not true that in "The Rediscovery of the Unique" Wells
"put the point that unique qualities perceived by humans...are illusory" (p.
502), but rather that the classification of uniques is illusory; it is not true
that the fornication on the newspaper bearing Mrs. Humphrey Ward's strictures on sexual
morality involved Elizabeth van Arnim (p. 211), but rather Amber Reeves; either it is not
true that A.M. Davies died in 1943 (pp. 399, 556, n. 14) or it is not true that he
attended Wells's cremation in 1946 (p. 479); and it is not true that Gissing read the
proofs of The War of the Worlds in 1898 or that Conrad read The Time Machine while
traveling in Turkey (pp. 152, 163), as the time and the place are both skewed. So are the
plots of two books. The Rebecca West figure (Martin Leeds) in The Secret Places of the
Heart (1922) is converted into the Amy Catherine figure (Lady Hardy) while the latter
is omitted entirely (p. 397). The Vicar (not a curate) in The Wonderful Visit (1895)
does not "fall somewhat in love" with the Angel (p. 205) because, although (1)
the Angel's androgynous demeanor occasions a scandalous rumor of a woman in the Vicarage,
nevertheless (2) the Angel is unequivocally male, and he (3) loves Delia, the maid.
A larger problem is non sequitur. Near the end of the book, Smith belatedly
contrasts a "dark Wells" with a "more powerful and significant Wells of
light" (pp. 442, 458) and remarks that "from The Time Machine to Mind
at the End of its Tether, Wells had believed it possible [that 'negative ends might
not come'], but thought it very unlikely" (p. 447). This statement seems to say,
curiously, that the "powerful and significant Wells" rejected his own deepest
belief, which was pessimism. In any event, Smith rejects pessimism for him, by simply
suppressing much mention of it up to this point. However, the "dark"
Wells--and Smith's evasion of that aspect-- has already been noted in regard to Wells's
sexual relations and to his SF, in both cases blatant. Indeed, Wells was "desperately
mortal" more than Smith acknowledges, and his tenacity was by so much the greater
than Smith appreciates.
But for all its eccentricities, blind sides, and unlicked redundancies, this book is a
valuable (not so much public as) personal record of Wells, the most personal yet--far more
so than Experiment in Autobiography, which so frankly regards its subject as a
sociological specimen (though H.G. Wells in Love is a more private book within
its limited scope). A good memoirist, Smith brings the reader into the Wells circle, at
first narrow, then enormously expanding. Smith himself is a historian. Thus--in fairness
it must once again be emphasized--Robert P. Weeks and the theme of
"disentanglement" may or may not reflect Smith's intent (there is no telling
whether or not he has read almost any given secondary source); Weeks's
"disentanglement" is merely the organizing principle that best expresses (and sharpens) the
book's direction for the present reviewer.
Once again to point that direction, here--gathered from throughout Smith's notes and
text--are half-a-dozen typical glimpses of the Wellsian spirit of fun, rebellion, or
release, whether for himself or for humankind. Towards the end of his life, Wells
disclaimed a "rungs-of-the-ladder" gloss on his ascent to fame: "I'm not
very attracted to the 'early struggle' business," he wrote in 1936; "I never
wanted to get on. Mostly I wanted to get out of disagreeable things" (p. 577, n. 12).
This had been the personal motive: the past was what one got out of. Then the futurist
fictions about an escaped past (our present)--the first of them The Time Machine--gave
to the fugitive motive the form, substance, and authority of a quasi-historical mode of
action. Reflexively, as suggested above, Wells formed himself upon these fictions, for
which he sought further verification through hoped for action in the public domain aimed
at enlargement of humanity from the bonds of the past. History itself might be prompted to
"break out." Thus, just 10 days into the guns of August, Wells was writing of a
"new period in history": "We have to redraw the map so that there shall be,
for just as far as we can see ahead, as little cause for warfare among us Western nations
as possible....That means we have to redraw it justly. And very extensively" (p.
236). Note the scale of enlargement. Seen large enough, in fact, humankind's common
origins imply a common destiny. In The Outline of History, Ernest Barker saw
"a keen sympathetic imagination driving through history, the sweep of the panorama
makes me almost breathless....It is what I imagine an aeroplane is like in the physical
world" (p. 556, n. 14). But the private and "desperately mortal" face of
Wells is Smith's forte, of which now finally three glimpses: Wells told PEN on his 70th
birthday that he felt like a small boy, Master Bertie, told to put away his toys, saying,
"I hate the thought of leaving" (p. 423); and eight years later as the sole
resident still sticking it out on Hanover Terrace during the buzz bombs, he wrote
Elizabeth Healey that "panic-stricken boors" were fleeing to the country, but
"here I am in the middle of it and only one window cracked by the concussion of an
A.A. gun on Primrose Hill" (p. 473). Perhaps he recalled the Primrose Hill of dead
London in The War of the Worlds? Lastly, reconciled with Beatrice Webb, he wrote
her in 1942 about the old disputes over Fabian tactics: "It's hard to judge, in the
retrospect, because what might have been cannot be produced for comparison"
(p. 472). Alternative pasts formed no part of Wells's "tough hopefulness." One
is grateful for such a life, which Smith helps substantially to illuminate.
Weeks, Robert P. "Disentanglement as a Theme in H.G. Wells's Fiction,"
reprinted in H.G. Wells: A Collection of Critical Essays, Bernard Bergonzi, ed.
(Englewood Cliffs, N1: 1976), pp.25-31.
Wells, H.G. A Modern Utopia. London: Chapman & Hall, 1905.
----------. Experiment in Autobiography. NY: Macmillan, 1934.
----------. H.G. Wells In Love. Boston & Toronto: Little, Brown, 1984.
West, Anthony. H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life. NY: Random House, 1984.
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