The War of Wells’s Lives
Michael Sherborne. H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life. London: Peter Owen, 2009. 405pp. £25.00 hc; £14.99 pbk.
H.G. Wells has often been unlucky in his biographers. He told the story of his own life in Experiment in Autobiography (1934), a two-volume work filled with vivid recollections and fascinating detail but weighed down at last by its author’s dedication to “The Idea of a Planned World,” which leads him to assert that his progression “from a backyard to Cosmopolis” has made him “the conscious Common Man of his time and culture” (417-18, 643). Here was a bubble waiting to be pricked, especially as the autobiography was supplemented by an episodic, unpublished “Postscript” containing suppressed details of his tangled love-life. The “Postscript” would make its first appearance fifty years later under the title (chosen by his son, G.P. Wells) H.G. Wells in Love, but by that time its contents had been heavily trailed in biographies stepping delicately around the British libel laws. (Though Wells was dead, most of his lovers were still alive and some, notably Rebecca West and Martha Gellhorn, were highly litigious.) From Vincent Brome’s H.G. Wells (1951) to Gordon N. Ray’s H.G. Wells and Rebecca West (1974), an air of scandal-mongering surrounded Wellsian biography, and to some extent this still remains. Andrea Lynn’s Shadow Lovers (2001) contained new revelations, particularly about Martha Gellhorn, and David Lodge's biographical novel A Man of Parts (2011) revisits Wells's earlier love affairs at great length. Lodge, however, seems to have been unaware of Wells’s unpublished correspondence with Amber Reeves (the mother of his daughter Anna-Jane), which is drawn on in Michael Sherborne’s biography.
In his foreword to Another Kind of Life, sf novelist Christopher Priest calls Wells “a great writer” who “left us dozens of great works.” Moreover, he was “an interesting man, a decent man, and an honest one” (11). This verdict is strikingly different from that given by several of Wells’s earlier biographers, even though they were prepared to admit somewhat grudgingly that he was a great writer, at least of science fiction. Lovat Dickson in H.G. Wells: His Turbulent Life and Times (1969) and Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie in The Time Traveller: The Life of H.G. Wells (1973) found him both indecent and personally dishonest. The Mackenzies in a 1987 epilogue to The Time Traveller wrote of “the personal irresponsibility which so vitiated every aspect of H.G.’s life” (458), while Dickson found in that life “the almost complete absence of any moral values” (315). Still more outspoken was Michael Coren, whose The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H.G. Wells (1993) added political debunking to slanderous personal assessment. Coren’s declared aim was to demonstrate that “Wells’s influence on his own age, and his influence on [the] ages to come, were, taken as a whole, pernicious and destructive” (11). At least he laid his cards on the table at the outset. One might feel that such views disqualified their authors from writing biographies, and particularly biographies making some claim to objectivity and scholarship.
In scholarly terms the worst dereliction, however, was that of Gordon N. Ray, the literature professor who had been responsible for securing Wells’s personal archive for posterity. Not content with founding the splendid Wells Collection at the University of Illinois, Ray kept fellow biographers off his territory for many years with the announcement that he was compiling a definitive Life and Letters.1 All that actually appeared were an edition of the Wells-Henry James correspondence (co-edited with Leon Edel and discreetly biased towards James) and a short book in which, effectively, Ray was employed as a ghostwriter by one of Wells’s surviving partners. H.G. Wells and Rebecca West began, as its author recalled, “in 1970 when Dame Rebecca West allowed me to read more than 800 letters which H.G. Wells had written to her” (xi). Professor Ray had supposedly been working on the Life and Letters for twenty years when the English novelist threw him this lifeline. The dawdling professor was entirely bewitched by the cunning literary lady; he was the fly and she was the spider:
During visits which I paid to London in the summers of 1971, 1972, and 1973 (other work left summer as my main time for writing), Dame Rebecca read the successive drafts of my story with the most scrupulous care. She corrected errors of fact, filled in the inevitable omissions of a narrative based on fragmentary materials, and set down with her accustomed force and wit how she herself regarded this part of her life. This collaboration continued, indeed, until my typescript went to the printer. (xii)
Part of the untold story of this “collaboration” is the selection of the letters that Ray saw fit to reproduce, since more than 700 of Wells’s letters to West remain unpublished and, to my knowledge, untranscribed even today. Ray’s fiercest critic was Wells’s and Rebecca West’s son Anthony West, whom (following, so Anthony maintained, Rebecca’s orders) Ray had never even consulted. Anthony West’s H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life (1984), hurried into print immediately after his mother’s death, is both an act of revenge and an ardent, if eccentric and cantankerous, defence of his father.
Others, too, came to Wells’s defence, a fact that has itself drawn hostile comment. In a 1996 postscript to his study of H.G. Wells and the Culminating Ape (1982), Peter Kemp attacked David C. Smith’s H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal (1986), Michael Foot’s H.G.: The History of Mr Wells (1995), and a critical study by the present writer for seeking “to pass [Wells] off as a paragon of political correctness” (216). Smith’s Desperately Mortal, the work of an academic historian that remains unsurpassed for its coverage of Wells as an educator and public figure, concludes that “He still speaks to us all—and a Wellsian world awaits, as it has always done, for those who are willing to use their brains and their will” (485). Michael Foot, the former British Labor Party leader, ends his book in a similarly generous spirit, quoting W.B. Yeats’s translation of Jonathan Swift’s Latin epitaph: “he/ Served human liberty” (307). (The same epitaph was read out by the British prime minister Gordon Brown at Foot’s own funeral in March 2010.) If, as Kemp insinuated, to express strong admiration for a great man whose life one has chosen to chronicle is some kind of sin, then Foot and Smith were certainly guilty. Other questions should be asked, however, of the novelist’s detractors. If Wells was, as alleged, a moral delinquent, then why have nearly all those who were intimate with him (many of whom he treated with great generosity) remained conspicuously loyal? If his political influence was “pernicious and destructive,” why, at a personal interview, did he stand up to Joseph Stalin and demand respect for basic human rights in Soviet Russia? And if the author of some 150 books and pamphlets is to be pilloried for dissipating his creative energy in repeated love-affairs, why do we not hear similar criticisms of Lord Byron, Ford Madox Ford, Pablo Picasso, and many others?
The answer to the last question is, no doubt, that Wells’s literary output is highly uneven and that many, perhaps a numerical majority, of his books have added nothing to his reputation; but in this he is scarcely unique among artists, including those just mentioned. In any case, bad writing is a human constant and the challenge at least for the literary biographer should be to show why the author was sometimes so brilliantly inspired, not to waste inordinate space in analyzing works where the inspiration was lacking. In Wells’s case we have the difficulty that his best writing came relatively early and, apparently, with such ease that he himself set little store by it. Brian Aldiss’s view in Billion Year Spree that he was the “Shakespeare of science fiction” (132) is something that he himself would have detested. It is revealing that, in 1894, he began writing short stories as a result of a magazine commission, and that, on his own account in The Country of the Blind (1911), they came bubbling out of his subconscious as if without effort:
I found that, taking almost anything as a starting-point and letting my thoughts play about it, there would presently come out of the darkness, in a manner quite inexplicable, some absurd or vivid little incident more or less relevant to that initial nucleus. Little men in canoes upon sunlit oceans would come floating out of nothingness, incubating the eggs of prehistoric monsters unawares; violent conflicts would break out amidst the flower-beds of suburban gardens; I would discover I was peering into remote and mysterious worlds ruled by an order logical indeed but other than our common sanity. (iv)
If such creativity is genuinely inexplicable, then literary biography seems rather pointless. The fact is, however, that Wells was already in his late twenties when he experienced this revelation, and he had made strenuous and largely unsuccessful earlier efforts at writing fiction. Moreover, the stories he produced in 1894 are, for the most part, markedly inferior to those he would write three or four years later. And, even in the 1894 stories, one of the best pieces of literary criticism in Another Kind of Life shows how the placing of a single word can decisively enhance the overall effect.
If, as seems all too clear, biographers may be divided into pro- and anti-Wellsians, then Michael Sherborne belongs in the first category. Some twenty years ago, under the name of Michael Draper, he wrote a critical study of Wells and served as editor of The Wellsian. But he is much more circumspect in his championship of Wells than Foot or Smith, and he may not thank me for reviving memories of the chequered history of previous Wellsian biography. In contrast to its embattled predecessors, this book is indeed “another kind of life”—although the phrase is taken from Tono-Bungay (1909), where it refers to the experience of social mobility as opposed to social inertia. Only very occasionally does Sherborne resort to polemic, notably in his refutation of charges of anti-Semitism brought against his subject, and in his account of the Wells-James quarrel. Refreshingly if quite uncharacteristically, he describes the prevailing view of Wells’s satirical onslaught in Boon (1915) as “a spiteful, unprovoked attack by a best-selling writer who had no interest in issues of style or form on a great artist [James] whose work was too serious to be appreciated by the general public” as “widely syndicated piffle” (231).
Sherborne as an avowedly literary biographer gives much fuller and more illuminating accounts of Wells’s early life and the writing of his sf masterpieces than, for example, Smith did in Desperately Mortal. Yet it is hard for any twenty-first-century scholar to add much to what we already know from Experiment in Autobiography and from the biography that Wells oversaw, Geoffrey West’s H.G. Wells: A Sketch for a Portrait (1930). Sherborne follows the Mackenzies and others in stressing the contrasting temperaments and outlooks of Sarah and Joe Wells, H.G.’s mother and father, and the lifelong influence of Sarah’s evangelical Protestantism. There was, according to Sherborne, a permanent split between the “Sarah” and “Joe” sides of their youngest son’s character, with Sarah standing for self-restraint, conformity, and hard work, and Joe for rebellion, subversion, and humorous detachment. The split personality is even discovered in his two childhood nicknames, respectively Bertie and Buss.
As a basis for literary criticism, this somewhat simplistic dualism can lead to suggestive asides, as in Sherborne’s observation that Wells’s Time Traveller, inventive, aggressive, and somewhat foolhardy, resembles Joe while the “anonymous, self-effacing narrator” of The Time Machine (1895) is like Sarah. When more programmatically applied, the Sarah-Joe dualism can only lead to skewed judgements. Thus Sherborne maintains that, “where Wells’s best work productively balances his ‘Sarah’ and ‘Joe’ sides,” A Modern Utopia (1905) “is 99 per cent evangelical, not only in its mission to save the world but in its reliance on faith and its hostility to alternative opinions and lesser activities” (166). This blatantly overlooks A Modern Utopia’s self-conscious positioning within the utopian tradition and its dialogue with previous utopias. Moreover, Sherborne illustrates A Modern Utopia’s “hostility to alternative opinions and lesser activities” by reference to its “contemptuous dismissal” of cricket, the sport at which Wells’s father excelled (166). But the exchange about cricket in A Modern Utopia is humorous in tone and, more importantly (and, I suspect, uniquely in the utopian tradition), cricket is actually played in Wells’s imagined society.
While he usually avoids such blatant scoring of Wells’s fiction in terms of its proportion of “Sarah” to “Joe” elements, Sherborne follows the consensus of earlier biographers and critics in finding a disastrous loss of tension and conflict in nearly all the books Wells wrote after A Modern Utopia. Just why this may have happened is another matter, on which Sherborne is not always consistent. Was it, as he suggests at one point, that the now world-famous novelist was finally “anchored by wife, children and reputation” (210), or was it, on the contrary, that he lacked the necessary self-discipline to settle down and mature his talent? Wells himself attempted a quasi-psychoanalytical approach along Jungian lines in his Autobiography, and Sherborne interestingly pursues this, showing how the Jungian categories became a plausible medium of self-deception. One aspect of Wells’s development that he rather surprisingly plays down is his subject’s traumatic medical history. The novelist C.P. Snow wrote in a very perceptive biographical essay that Wells had known “struggles much harsher than Dickens’s or Shaw’s or any other nineteenth-century writer’s” (51), adding that in reading Experiment in Autobiography “one feels astonishment at the toughness of the human spirit. This wasn’t a life many of us would have come through intact” (53). There is very little of this feeling in H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life.
Prone to violent internal haemorrhages and wrongly diagnosed as a consumptive, Wells wrote The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The War of the Worlds (1898), and other early works while under a virtual death sentence. As Snow puts it, “he had to claw his way through illness that looked mortal, poverty that didn’t help the illness, the effort just to survive; and, when he was just managing to survive, the strains produced by an abnormally ardent sexual nature” (53). By the time that he wrote A Modern Utopia, however, the poverty, malnutrition, and life-threatening illness were some way behind him and the prosperous, podgy figure of the later Wells was taking shape. Yet what Snow calls the “wound of his childhood” (53) had only superficially been shrugged off. In a passage that Sherborne does cite, Snow recalls Wells at the age of 72 discussing his thoughts of suicide. This was in 1938, but his power of renewing himself was not yet finished. Two years later he would respond to the outbreak of the Second World War with his Penguin Special The Rights of Man, which, as Sherborne reminds us, the historian of human rights Geoffrey Robertson has called “one of the twentieth century’s most influential books” (328).
H.G. Wells: Another Kind of Life is a careful, scholarly work that has been many years in the making. At the same time, it is not without errors and flaws of style that a diligent editor might have corrected. In his description of Uppark, where Sarah Wells was housekeeper, Sherborne slips up over the laws of aristocratic lineage: Lady Fetherstonhaugh’s younger sister took the name Fetherstonhaugh but did not and could not have “inherited the title” (41); he has Wells and Joseph Conrad on a Kent beach watching a boat “passing them on the Solent,” not the Straits of Dover (139); and he shows an occasional weakness for journalistic clichés and muddled metaphors. One may disagree, too, with a number of his critical judgements. In a curious attempt to downgrade the originality of The Island of Doctor Moreau, he describes it as having “obvious debts” to, among other texts, Milton’s Comus (1634), which I would wager that Wells had never read (113); several editors have pointed out that the novel’s single allusion to Comus evokes not the seventeenth-century masque but a popular Victorian painting by Sir Edwin Landseer. There is, too, a failure of empathy in the description of Wells’s student years, where Sherborne rather too obviously takes the side of the teachers who were trying to cope with this troubled, and troublesome, young genius. When Wells fails his final examinations at South Kensington, Sherborne comments that, “Like many students before and since, [he] had managed to convince himself he would scrape through despite his follies. However, he did not” (64). Young readers take note!
Young readers of Wells, however, are unlikely to pay too much attention to his biographer here. Yet it is to those young readers and their teachers that this biography may be particularly recommended; it is a must for academic libraries and reading lists. Those eager for personal information about the author of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds have not always been well served in the past, as we have seen. If Sherborne sounds a little half-hearted on the one occasion when he refers to Wells’s life as “a kind of modern epic” (234), at least he has not turned it into a morality play with the novelist as villain. Another Kind of Life is by far the best literary biography of Wells that we have for the twenty-first century.
1. One potential biographer was John Hammond, the British independent scholar who founded the H.G. Wells Society and who has published in almost every genre of Wellsiana except biography. His Chronology (1999) is indispensable for anyone working in this field.
Aldiss, Brian. Billion Year Spree: The History of Science Fiction. London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973.
Brome, Vincent. H.G. Wells: A Biography. London: Longmans Green, 1951.
Coren, Michael. The Invisible Man: The Life and Liberties of H.G. Wells. London: Bloomsbury, 1993.
Dickson, Lovat. H.G. Wells: His Turbulent Life and Times. London: Macmillan, 1969.
Draper, Michael. H.G. Wells. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1987.
Edel, Leon, and Gordon N. Ray, eds. Henry James and H.G. Wells. London: Hart-Davis, 1958.
Foot, Michael. H.G.: The History of Mr. Wells. London: Doubleday, 1995.
Hammond, J.R. An H.G. Wells Chronology. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1999.
Kemp, Peter. H.G. Wells and the Culminating Ape: Biological Imperatives and Imaginative Obsessions. 2nd ed. Basingstoke, UK: Macmillan, 1996.
Lodge, David. A Man of Parts: A Novel. London: Harvill Secker, 2011.
Lynn, Andrea. Shadow Lovers: The Last Affairs of H.G. Wells. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001.
Mackenzie, Norman, and Jeanne Mackenzie. The Time Traveller: The Life of H.G. Wells. Rev. ed. London: Hogarth, 1987.
Ray, Gordon N. H.G. Wells and Rebecca West. London: Macmillan, 1974.
Smith, David C. H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1986.
Snow, C.P. “H.G. Wells.” Variety of Men. London: Macmillan, 1967. 47-64.
Wells, H.G. The Country of the Blind and Other Stories. London: Thomas Nelson, 1911.
─────. Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866). 2 vols. London: Gollancz and Cresset, 1966.
─────. H.G. Wells in Love: Postscript to an Experiment in Autobiography. Ed. G.P. Wells. London: Faber and Faber, 1984.
West, Anthony. H.G. Wells: Aspects of a Life. London: Hutchinson, 1984.
West, Geoffrey. H.G. Wells: A Sketch for a Portrait. London: Gerald Howe, 1930.
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