Science Fiction Studies

#43 = Volume 14, Part 3 = November 1987

David Y. Hughes

Desperately Mortal

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 womanizing.

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, Smith’s pragmatist spirit slights Wells’s 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 Wells’s pre-university years into the first 7 pages, Smith uses the next 40 to describe Wells’s 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 onwards—first, 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 Pearson’s Magazine, and one that omitted this chapter and instead interpolated lengthy expository reflections, as published in book form (p. 69); so, in Smith’s estimation—and the more so the more literate the audience—the message is the thing. Of course, these are astounding reductions of the true achievement of Wells’s early SF, yet they undeniably advance the general sense conveyed by Smith that "disentanglement" was the driving force of Wells’s life and thought. Smith offers equally encapsulated views of Wells’s 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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