Science Fiction Studies

#76 = Volume 25, Part 3 = November 1998


W. Warren Wagar

Letters from Our Father

Wells, H.G. The Correspondence of H.G. Wells. Ed. David C. Smith. London: Pickering & Chatto, 1998. Vol. 1: 1880-1903. liii + 458. Vol. 2: 1904-1918. vii + 574. Vol. 3: 1919-1934. vii + 563. Vol. 4: 1935-1946. vii + 629 pp. $450 cloth. Distributed in the USA by Ashgate (802-276-3162).

In standard reference volumes we read that Jules Verne and H.G. Wells were "the founding fathers of sf" and that Wells alone is "often regarded as the father of modern science fiction" (Stableford 1076; Ashley 1004). Wells’s paternity is attested by that great bellwether of literary fame, Books in Print, which currently lists 109 editions of sf or fantasy novels and stories by the redoubtable Wells, most of them written and first published in the 1890s. Work still going strong after a hundred years and produced decades before the arrival of sf as a self-aware genre has clearly entitled its author to his perch at the top of our family tree.

There are, however, problems. "H.G." (as his friends called him) was not exactly a proud father, nor do most of his multiple offspring know their dad at all well. They know his best sf, of course. They have read and re-read The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898). But for the most part they lose interest in H.G. as soon as he turns his chief attention to the production of mainstream fiction in the early 1900s. They yawn prodigiously if anyone calls attention to his still later career as an encyclopedist and prophet of world order or even to his utopian fiction and sf of the 1920s and 1930s. They may be astonished to learn that he died, with his literary boots still very much on, as late as 1946.

For his part, our father never took his achievements in sf and fantasy too seriously and had almost nothing to do with the sf community for the last 40 years of his life. He did not so much scorn the genre as ignore it. In the preface to his Seven Famous Novels in 1934, he explained that it was pointless to continue writing imaginative tales when the real world was so much more fantastic and terrible. "The world in the presence of cataclysmal realities has no need for fresh cataclysmal fantasies. That game is over" (x).

At about the same time, in his Experiment in Autobiography, Wells looked back on his early sf as "the proper game for the young man, particularly for young men without a natural social setting of their own" (254). Once again H.G. resorted to the word "game," in this case a game suitable for poorly educated, socially disadvantaged youth, to be put aside when one grows rich and famous and worldly. In point of fact, Wells did not put sf aside and continued writing speculative fiction to his last days, but when he looked in his mirror, he did not see an inveterate writer of sf. He would be dismayed to consult the latest Books in Print and find only 29 editions of his more than 100 non-sf titles still in print, many of these in prohibitively expensive reprints available only by special order. If he were alive today, the father of sf, whose influence on the field is surely as great as Pablo Picasso’s on modern art or Igor Stravinsky’s on modern music, might even disinherit his children.

Nonetheless, there was only one H.G. Wells. Admirers of his early sf "classics" cannot hope to understand these now venerable texts unless they know something of the whole man, including his obsession with world affairs and his quixotic adventures as a self-appointed world-savior in his middle and old age. As he noted in the preface to Seven Famous Novels, his early imaginative fictions were just as "polemical" as anything he wrote in later life:

The Time Machine is indeed quite as philosophical and polemical and critical of life and so forth, as Men Like Gods written twenty-eight years later. No more and no less. I have never been able to get away from life in the mass and life in general as distinguished from life in the individual experience, in any book I have ever written. I differ from contemporary criticism in finding them inseparable. (ix)

With "contemporary [i.e., Modernist] criticism" now largely and mercifully played out, it is possible once again to see Wells’s sf classics not only as great literature but also as great social commentary, the product of a mind always teeming with interest in the circumambient world and determined to make that world a better and finer place.

I know of no more painless way of coming to terms with the Wellsian mind than by reading his letters; and here at last is the mother lode, handsomely edited and annotated by Professor David C. Smith. What a treasury! What a banquet! These four fat volumes offer 2,806 letters to and from (mostly from) our father, spanning 66 years and filling 2,131 large pages—not to mention 74 pages of invaluable editorial front matter by the eminent Wellsian Patrick Parrinder and by Smith himself, or the splendid 93-page double index of recipients and subjects. When we recall that this is the same Professor Smith who in 1986 gave us the fullest and most authoritative biography of Wells, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal, any true Wellsian’s joy at the appearance of The Correspondence of H.G. Wells should be complete.

And so it is, at least in my case. Or almost. For Smith has not been able to give us all of Wells’s letters. However many appear in these volumes, as many more are not here. Some of those included are merely representative samples of a voluminous series of letters on the same topic, such as the human rights campaign that Wells launched during World War II. Many routine business letters have been omitted. Some love letters remain locked away from prying eyes. Some letters have not yet surfaced or have disappeared forever. More importantly, Smith has reprinted only a few of the letters by Wells that are readily available in other published collections, such as the Shaw-Wells correspondence edited by J. Percy Smith or the James-Wells correspondence edited by Leon Edel and Gordon N. Ray. Of special concern to sf critics is the correspondence between Wells and Olaf Stapledon, already edited and published by Robert Crossley. In this sense, the definite article in the title of Professor Smith’s four-volume set is misleading. We have here some correspondence of H.G. Wells, quite a formidable mass of it, but not the correspondence.

Still, The Correspondence of H.G. Wells is a great feast, drawing not only on the vast Wells archive at the University of Illinois, but also on the resources of 42 other libraries and fifteen private collections. Smith’s patience and unflagging persistence far exceed anything that I for one could have hoped to muster. Beyond the letters themselves are Smith’s thousands of illuminating footnotes, identifying recipients, explaining odd words and references, and commenting on the texts. He even manages to include quite a few of H.G.’s wonderful "picshuas," the little cartoons with which our father often illustrated his letters and which have long delighted readers of his Experiment in Autobiography.

Before dipping into the volumes themselves, however, I must issue a stern caveat. If one approaches Wells’s letters expecting to find detailed, intimate reflections on his sf or on any of his other published work, he/she will be profoundly disappointed. H.G. was not, in the classic sense, a writer of letters. He did not see the letter as a deep repository for his inmost thoughts. He was not an introvert with a few close friends to whom he poured out his soul. On the contrary. Our father was a garrulous extrovert, with a swarm of friends and lovers. He regarded letters as poor substitutes for talk, serviceable vessels when needed, but not worth time best spent otherwise. As he wrote to his brother Fred: "Life is too short for long letters" (I:399); to Grant Allen: "Life is too short for argument by post" (I:345); and in an irritable chivvying letter to Julian Huxley, when Huxley was Wells’s collaborator in the writing of The Science of Life (1930): "Just look at this letter! If it was an article I would get 1500 dollars for it. Look at the waste of time and attention, Oh my collaborator!" (III:275).

This said, it remains the case that Wells’s letters are great fun and perhaps just as revealing, for all their brevity, as the brooding epistles of more confessional souls. They show us Wells as he was: quick as mercury, full of zest and fight, tender with his womenfolk, empathetic, civil (on the whole), and sane. H.G. was a man who got things done, reeling off published words by the million. He would not have been H.G. if he had toiled for hours over his correspondence. The only exceptions are his letters to the press, which are not so much letters as articles. Here he could and did toil for hours, especially when defending his views against critics who had in his judgment misrepresented them. Professor Smith has furnished us with an ample array of such letters, and they add weight and substance to his collection. But the personal letters rush along breathlessly. The reader must adjust to their pace and take them as they come.

So what light do all these letters, with all their limitations, throw on our father’s sf? On the major stories and novels of the 1890s, they do not throw much. As we already know from other sources, the early scientific romances were written in almost desperate haste to make money and establish their author as an independent man of letters. The Time Machine, Wells told Vernon Lee (a.k.a. Violet Paget) in 1904, "like all my earlier work was written against time, amidst a frantic output of ‘humorous’ journalistic matter. It took perhaps three weeks" (II:40; cf. Wagar 263, n31). Of course we know better; Wells had been writing and rewriting The Time Machine since the mid-1880s. He must have referred here only to the final draft.

Nevertheless, the sense of his letter to Lee is not far off the mark, and after The Time Machine his stories and novels did come along at a furious clip. Those Wellsians who berate him for not lavishing enough time on his later work must explain how his first sf masterpieces, such as The Island of Dr. Moreau and The War of the Worlds, could have been churned out so quickly. Mozart composed his last three (and greatest) symphonies in a grand total of six weeks: would they have been better if he had taken longer?

In any event, The Time Machine did appear, in 1895, and did give Wells his chance to rise in the world, a chance he did not fumble. "It’s my trump card," he wrote to his old college friend Elizabeth Healey, "and if it does not come off very much I shall know my place for the rest of my career. Still we live in hope" (I:226). To his revered mentor at the Royal College of Science, T.H. Huxley, he explained that the "central idea" of The Time Machine was "degeneration following security...the outcome of a certain amount of biological study...[as] one of your pupils" (I:238, also available in Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal 48). Wells’s analysis was pithy and apt—although it scarcely exhausts the messages implicit in this great work.

Other references to the early sf in the letters are equally pithy. To a prospective publisher, J.M. Dent, Wells described The Island of Dr Moreau as "a trifle gruesome" (I:228). To the editor of Saturday Review he sent a scolding letter about the veracity of his claim in Moreau that "the grafting of tissues between animals of different species is possible" (I:275). The notice in Saturday Review had said it was not possible, but H.G. supplied recently published laboratory evidence to show that indeed it was. When The War of the Worlds was published in Boston and New York newspapers with the English place names replaced by American, Wells howled in righteous protest (I:300). Yet not long afterwards in the same year, he wrote to a friend that even in its unretouched form "The War of the Worlds is a clotted mass of fine things spoilt." What spoiled it Wells did not specify, but he noted that personal copies of his books were "black with [penmarked] revision & remorse" (I:333).

In the same letter, he also called When the Sleeper Wakes, just then (1898) beginning to appear as a serial in Graphic, "almost intolerably wrong" and in urgent need of drastic rewriting. "The ways of art are lengthy & austere." In the end, however, despite all the rewriting and even a second edition published in 1910, Wells never succeeded in getting When the Sleeper Wakes right. As the first great modern dystopia, Sleeper bubbled with seminal ideas and visions, influencing Yevgeny Zamiatin’s We (1924), Fritz Lang’s film Metropolis (1926), and probably—although I could not get him to admit it—Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932), as well as George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). But it was not great art.

Still, Wells was not finished with scientific romances. In the first decade of the new century, he published three sf novels that I think seriously rival the best of the 1890s books, The First Men in the Moon (1901), The Food of the Gods (1904), and In the Days of the Comet (1906), along with a rather good—and eminently prophetic—story of the second rank, The War in the Air (1908). Of these four, only In the Days of the Comet receives more than cursory attention in Smith’s collection, because of the controversy that swirled around the novel’s seeming endorsement of free love. In this case Wells took the somewhat cowardly way out, disavowing in several letters to the press any connection between the virtuously superhuman comet-swept heroes and heroines of his novel and the more prosaic realities of our present era. "Who gets filth out of that must first put it in" (II:108). True; but our father, let us be frank, may also have hoped to justify his own numerous infidelities in the present-day world. I do not blame him for this, but he could have spoken with rather more candor. Free love was good not only for some exalted imaginary future age, but also for H.G. in the here and now.

What many aficionados of the early Wells may not appreciate, however, is that he continued to write and publish sf and fantasy novels almost to the end of his days. For various reasons they have not so far stood the terrible test of time. His polemical urges may have overwhelmed his ability to entertain and suspend disbelief. But these latter-day fictions are nonetheless well worth discovering and re-discovering for their own sake: his novel of nuclear war, The World Set Free (1914); his utopia Men Like Gods (1923); his Chaplinesque parody of fascism, The Autocracy of Mr. Parham (1930); his future history The Shape of Things to Come (1933); his parables of world crisis, The Croquet Player (1936) and All Aboard for Ararat (1940); and his scenario of world revolution, The Holy Terror (1939). The Shape of Things to Come, in particular, not only sold well in its own right but also led to Wells’s one significant excursion into the world of sf drama and film, Things to Come (1936), the subject of many letters in Professor Smith’s collection.

There is no want of debate about the merits of Things to Come, directed by William Cameron Menzies and produced by Alexander Korda, with a screenplay written by Wells himself. The film, like the novel on which it was based, depicts a second world war more apocalyptic by far than the first. In the end nothing much is left of civilization except an intrepid elite of aviators who pacify the survivors with their superior technology and establish a Wellsian world state. In the final scene, against the futile protests of a band of reactionary aesthetes, the children of the elite blast off for the moon to assert humankind’s dominion in space. The father of one of them, Cabal, strikes a pose and proclaims: "For Man, no rest and no ending. He must go on. Conquest beyond conquest.... And when he has conquered all the deeps of space and all the mysteries of time—still he will be beginning" (Stover, The Prophetic Soul 296).

No doubt. I would like to think so. But the film itself was pure bathos, Wells dwarfed by his own ineptitude as a dramatist. Wells could not write plays—or screenplays—any more than Bernard Shaw could write novels. Dramaturgy was not one of the cards in his hand, and the letters in Smith’s collection demonstrate that at least he knew a bad film when he saw one. Writing to his friend Constance Coolidge, he admitted:

You are a wise and subtle critic. Things to Come isn’t right. It’s confused, incoherent, hurried at the end, muddled & badly directed. I’m partly to blame but also I was considerably let down in the production. Still it looks like being a box office success, I’ve learned a lot from it & please God (or not) I’ll do better next time. (IV:121)

God, as is His wont, did not please. Wells’s next and only other film, a clumsy adaptation of his 1898 short story "The Man Who Could Work Miracles," was an even greater failure. All the same, Things to Come broke new cinematic ground and is still regarded by many as the archetypical sf film, more so even than Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which, by the by, Wells keenly detested (see IV:271 and n 1).

But nothing ever deterred H.G. from carrying on. For another full decade, until he was almost 80, our father persevered. From 1936 onward, he published hundreds of articles and 27 more books, culminating in one last bitter cry of despair, Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945). Two of his most noteworthy letters from this final period contain refutations of the libel circulated by George Orwell and others that he was ever a believer in the inevitable progress of humankind. Both letters cited the authority of The Time Machine (IV:227-228 and 326). Wells took particular offense at Orwell, who, he surmised, was either "malignant" or "monstrously ignorant." To the Editor of The Listener he complained that "you do me a grave injury in letting him loose at me" (IV:326). Between Orwell the Tory anarchist and Wells the cosmopolitan technocrat there could never have been a meeting of minds, although both men did share a visceral loathing of party-line Soviet Marxism.

But to return to an earlier point, the letters in Smith’s abundant volumes are not primarily concerned with our father’s sf, or for that matter with the substance of any of his books. A great many are simply family letters, to his mother, his brothers, his wife, and various other relatives. Many more are to friends, such as his old college chums A.T. Simmons and Elizabeth Healey, the writers Frank Swinnerton and J.B. Priestley, his one-time Fabian colleague Graham Wallas, and the historian Philip Guedalla. Others are to publishers, often laced with anger and indignation over wrongs done to him. Some are to lovers, although many of these letters are either unavailable or published elsewhere. For the letters to and from Rebecca West, for example, one must consult Gordon Ray’s H.G. Wells & Rebecca West. But Smith does give us a long series of letters to Margaret Sanger and to Constance Coolidge, from which anyone can readily judge Wells’s amorous style. He was, safe to say, pretty good at it.

The best epistolary sources for Wells as a political thinker are the numerous letters to the press that Smith has also reprinted. From these it is almost possible to construct a complete history of the twists and turns of Wells’s thought, including his years as a Fabian socialist, his strong defense of the British and Allied cause in the two World Wars, his mixed feelings about the Soviet Union, his campaigns for world government and human rights, his definitions of liberalism and socialism (both of which he ardently espoused), his support of the public endowment of motherhood and birth control, and much more. Since some of his earlier sf and virtually all of his later sf is saturated with political ideas and political messages, anyone who hopes to make sense of Wells’s fictions must come to grips with this vital dimension of his world-view. The Wells of The Time Machine, When the Sleeper Wakes, In the Days of the Comet, Men Like Gods, and The Shape of Things to Come is fully comprehensible only when studied under a political microscope.

I think it is fair to conclude that The Correspondence of H.G. Wells deserves a place in any research library and on the shelves of everyone who really cares about this remarkable man and his enormous life’s work, sf and non-sf alike. Of course Professor Smith is not infallible. I did spot a few pardonable errors here and there in his notes. For example, the 1910 edition of When the Sleeper Wakes was entitled The Sleeper Awakes, not The Sleeper Wakes, an error Smith never makes in his biography of Wells (I:334, n2; cf. Smith, H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal, 56, 77, 481, 633). Sidney Webb was a founder of the Fabian Society, but not his wife Beatrice, and the Webbs’s political aims were not "generally identical" with H.G.’s (I:408, n1). Letters to the poet Maurice Browne (II:148 and 151) are mistakenly identified as letters to the novelist Lewis Browne. Smith notwithstanding, Wells’s last novel, You Can’t Be Too Careful (1941), did have an American edition, with G.P. Putnam’s Sons in New York (1942) (IV:302, n1).

Actually the only small matter that bothered me is the fair number of typographical errors that appear throughout these volumes. As one instance, Wells’s lengthy letter to the Editor of North Mail in December 1914 contains six typos (II:406-413). No project of this immensity could be free of all such blemishes, but Smith’s may sport a few more than its share. I was also taken aback by one odd lapse of judgment—or perhaps memory. In his commentary on Wells’s letter of September 22, 1940, to Moura Budberg, Smith notes that it contains a slur against Jews, "the only overtly anti-Jewish remark I have seen in Wells’s correspondence" (IV:280, n2). Yet on the very next page, writing again to Budberg on September 26 on board a ship bound for America, Wells comments: "I think the way Germans treat Jews is scandalous but after five days on a mainly Yiddish boat, I realise there is a slight but perceptible strain of Teuton in my composition" (IV:281). Smith does not comment. Although he is quite right in arguing elsewhere that the public Wells was anti-Zionist but not anti-Semitic, there is no way to explain this awful sentence except by admitting that, at a certain (one hopes) superficial level, Wells was indeed a common, garden-variety anti-Semite.

But these are hardly credibility-shattering flaws in this meticulously edited, knowledgeably annotated, and generally superb collection. Wellsians worldwide are very much in the debt of David C. Smith. Our father was an incredibly busy man, who knew everyone, went everywhere, did everything. It takes an incredibly industrious scholar to keep up with him; Professor Smith is just such a scholar. I salute him warmly.


Ashley, Mike. "Herbert George Wells." In The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, eds. John Clute and John Grant. New York: St. Martin’s, 1997. 1004-1005.

Crossley, Robert, ed. "The Letters of Olaf Stapledon and H.G. Wells, 1931-1942." In Science Fiction Dialogues, ed. Gary Wolfe. Chicago: Academy Chicago, 1982. 27-57.

Edel Leon and Gordon N. Ray, eds. Henry James and H.G. Wells. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1958.

Ray, Gordon N. H.G. Wells & Rebecca West. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1974.

Smith, David C. H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1986.

Smith, J. Percy, ed. Bernard Shaw and H.G. Wells. Toronto: U Toronto P, 1995.

Stableford, Brian. "Scientists." In The Encyclopedia of Science Fiction, eds. John Clute and Peter Nicholls. NY: St. Martin’s, 1993. 1076-1078.

Stover, Leon. The Prophetic Soul: A Reading of H.G. Wells’s "Things to Come." Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 1987.

Wagar, W. Warren. H.G. Wells and the World State. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1961.

Wells, H.G. Experiment in Autobiography. NY: Macmillan, 1934.

------. Seven Famous Novels. NY: Knopf, 1934.

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