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). Wellss 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
Picassos on modern art or Igor Stravinskys 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
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
Wellss 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 pagesnot 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 Wellsians 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 Wellss 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 Smiths
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.
Smiths patience and unflagging persistence far exceed anything that I for one could
have hoped to muster. Beyond the letters themselves are Smiths 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 Wellss 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
Wellss 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 Wellss
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 fathers 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.
"Its 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). Wellss analysis was pithy and aptalthough
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 Zamiatins We (1924),
Fritz Langs film Metropolis (1926), and probablyalthough I could not
get him to admit itAldous Huxleys Brave New World (1932), as well as
George Orwells 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 goodand eminently propheticstory 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 Smiths collection, because of the controversy that
swirled around the novels 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 Wellss one significant excursion into the world of sf drama
and film, Things to Come (1936), the subject of many letters in Professor
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 humankinds 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 timestill he will be beginning" (Stover, The Prophetic
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 playsor screenplaysany more than Bernard Shaw could write novels.
Dramaturgy was not one of the cards in his hand, and the letters in Smiths
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 isnt right. Its confused, incoherent, hurried at the end, muddled
& badly directed. Im partly to blame but also I was considerably let down in the
production. Still it looks like being a box office success, Ive learned a lot from
it & please God (or not) Ill do better next time. (IV:121)
God, as is His wont, did not please. Wellss
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 Langs 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
Smiths abundant volumes are not primarily concerned with our fathers 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 Rays 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 Wellss 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 Wellss 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 Wellss 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
lifes 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 Webbss 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, Wellss last novel, You Cant Be Too Careful
(1941), did have an American edition, with G.P. Putnams Sons in New York (1942)
Actually the only small matter that bothered me
is the fair number of typographical errors that appear throughout these volumes. As one
instance, Wellss 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 Smiths may sport a few more than its share. I was also taken aback by
one odd lapse of judgmentor perhaps memory. In his commentary on Wellss 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 Wellss 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
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.
Martins, 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.
Martins, 1993. 1076-1078.
Stover, Leon. The Prophetic Soul: A Reading of
H.G. Wellss "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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