H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells; drawing by David Levine

Fifty years ago H. G. Wells strode confidently across the English literary landscape. He was coupled in the same breath with Shaw, he was a celebrity who could command with Arnold Bennett the maximum fee for a newspaper article, he was the hero of the new intelligentsia living in garden cities in the south of England and advocating vegetarianism and progressive schools, a Fabian who soared above blue books and did not scorn dreams and visions, the liberator of several generations of schoolboys, an artist whose vitality seemed to be restoring life to the popular Victorian novel, stretching back to Dickens with Mr. Polly and Mr. Lewisham, or surpassing Stevenson’s romances with the Time Machine and Dr. Moreau. Wells appeared to be the sage of modernism, all the more agreeable because he discarded the robes and stage properties of the prophet, a man inspiring the new generation to sweep away the corrupt, effete, and stupid upper-class elite and replace them with rational rulers able to discover the scientific remedies for social disease.

Today he has virtually disappeared. Even the earlier novels have been elbowed out of the way. Those who are interested in the connection between popular success and art find Kipling more engrossing or admire Bennett’s more solid achievement. Those who study the emergence of working-class novelists writing about their class would have to admit that Wells certainly spoke for the little man who cheeks his way into a life of ease and happiness despite the conventions of class and the barrier of money. But who can doubt that Lawrence, the miner’s son, gave their protest a dignity and depth which the draper’s assistant never possessed?

Wells’s contempt for art and his brash proclamation that the novel is justified by its power as propaganda have bored his readers. He has none of Gorki’s integrity nor could he have written a Darkness at Noon. Wells has lost his name with students of literature. Every student who has majored in English since the revolution in criticism knows by heart the noble answer by Henry James to Wells’s caricature of him in Boon:

It is art that makes life, makes interest, makes importance, for our consideration and application of these things, and I know of no substitute whatever for the force and beauty of its process. If I were Boon I should say that any pretence of such a substitute is helpless and hopeless humbug; but I wouldn’t be Boon for the world, and am only yours faithfully,

Henry James.

Even if by his own wish Wells preferred to be a propagandist rather than a novelist, what did he achieve? He was an impossible political ally and never recovered from his defeat by the Webbs in the Fabian Society. If no cause of the left for thirty years was quite respectable unless Wells backed it, the number who came to regret that he had was quite large. In retrospect his propaganda turns out to be advocacy of a crude kind of positivism whose most remarkable expression is to be found in The Outline of History.

Yet no one with Wells’s vitality dies as quickly as that. Twenty or so years ago Gordon Ray began to negotiate the transfer to the University of Illinois at Urbana of the huge collection of Wells papers, and he has added continually to them since, and Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie have now produced the first full-scale scholarly biography, considerably more comprehensive than that by Lovat Dickson, based on materials in the Illinois archives. Unfortunately, a considerable amount of the most crucial correspondence has been destroyed and the MacKenzies appear to have been denied access to some of the most important private papers, still in private hands. What emerges is a careful piece of research, essential to anyone who wants to carry matters further, but not the brilliant illumination one would like to see of the man who stimulated, amused, and exasperated his sober friends and who fucked so many girls, to those friends’ dismay and to the girls’ pleasure.

Biographers are at the mercy of exasperated oysters—the friends, kinsmen, and literary executors who release documents like bubbles but keep their shells tight shut on just those letters or diaries that are the only sure elixir to bring the dead back to life. The MacKenzies have wheeled out the corpse and we stand round like Professor Tulp’s pupils in Rembrandt’s painting, impressed by the expert dissection. But since the corpse is Wells, we are all half expecting it to sit up and say something irreverent, and the pity is that in this biography it doesn’t.

It doesn’t because biography is—or used to be—an attempt to perform the miracle of resurrection, not a lesson in anatomy. Miracles don’t happen and the dead never can be brought back to life; but some writers are better at creating the illusion than others. The trouble today is that scholarly biographers are obsessed with documents. Victorian biographers suppressed so many: they embalmed and swaddled their dead and buried the evidence with the mummy in the mausoleum.


Lytton Strachey, who genuinely wanted to rescue people from the morticians, unfortunately set about it by tampering with the evidence. In his celebrated introduction to Eminent Victorians he enunciated his two guiding principles. “Human beings are too important to be treated as mere symptoms of the past. They have a value which is independent of any temporal processes—which is eternal and must be felt for its own sake.” The trouble was that this principle conflicted with his second, in which he urged biographers “to row out over the great ocean of material, and lower down into it, here and there, a little bucket which will bring up to the light of day some characteristic specimen, from those far depths, to be examined with a careful curiosity.” Human beings can be regarded either for their own sake or as specimens—not both. Strachey preferred to finger specimens.

Museum research methods are in a sense a protest against the selective, biased, unscrupulous, inaccurate Victorian and early twentieth-century biographies, and today authors parade their huge files and card indexes in the text itself as living proof that they are giving a truthful account of the life of the dead, year by year, sometimes even month by month. The trouble is that as more and more documents these days survive and as the reminiscences of anyone who spent an afternoon with the deceased are on tape before the corpse is cold—and as everyone has his own notion of the essence of the man—the biographer finds that every characteristic is canceled out by another characteristic, every merit reveals an expunging defect, every trait is matched by some habit in the opposite sense. Even when the biographer tries to convey character, the diversity of opinion in the mountainous evidence deters him.

But biographers these days are not much interested in character. Character itself became subjected to allegedly scientific scrutiny through psychoanalysis. The old concepts which writers had used to describe human beings were essentially those Aristotle had used; extended and refined, sometimes containing the relics of a former pseudoscientific theory (e.g., humours which gave rise to—for instance—a “sanguine temperament”). Biographers are interested in the social situation in which their subjects found themselves and dedicated to the accuracy of the chronological and factual sequence of their days. They no longer ask why a man acted or felt as he did or drove to fame or disaster. They prefer to interpret the evidence to establish or disprove an incident or a liaison. The style of the liaison is ignored.

To this there has been recently an honorable exception. Norman MacKenzie’s colleague at the University of Sussex, Quentin Bell, has written a life of Virginia Woolf in which almost every day of her adult life can be accounted for. Her diaries, factually and inferentially highly unreliable but nevertheless life-enhancing, have been used in a discriminating but (rightly) exceedingly selective fashion, and Bell chats to his readers in an uninhibited and unselfconscious way. It is in fact possible to write a scholarly biography yet take a line about the subject’s character and see it as a whole. Of course Bell has certain advantages. He was never a student at a university and any degree which he now sports is totally bogus. He is an artist who has taught in fine art departments; and as a cultivated being has views on painting and considerable knowledge about its history without being a professional historian of art. It is also an advantage—though in another it might have been disabling—to write about one’s aunt.

It is an advantage to have lived for many years reflecting upon the subject of the biography surrounded by the documents, and no one could have absorbed more material than did Gordon Haight in his long preparation for writing the life of George Eliot. Yet if one compares his work with that of Bell and asks which of those formidable women leaps again to life, there can be only one answer: George Eliot is still in her grave in Highgate.

Like Quentin Bell, Norman MacKenzie has an able scholar in his wife, but unlike Bell he lacks a point d’appui. Bell said: “I am going to tell you about an artist, her genius, and struggles as an artist; and since she was on the verge of madness and sometimes went over it, you will see that she was a maddening as well as an enchanting person to her family, friends, and the world.” A biographer has got to decide how to stalk his prey, what should be his approach, how to stylize him. What literary form is most apposite, pastoral-comical, tragical-comical, tragical-comical-historical-pastoral. I wish MacKenzie had recalled that aphorism by Horace Walpole, “The world is a comedy to those that think, a tragedy to those that feel.” Wells’s life should have been treated as a comedy (not a farce)—a comedy into which of course feeling, violent explosive feeling, intrudes, but where the feeling is intense and not profound, where the humor and sense of the ridiculous are always uppermost, either in the eye of the beholder or of the man himself, and where at the end of his life his gloom and despair that what he had taught was meaningless never really impinged upon his belief in himself as prophet and arbiter.


The power to enchant is the most irreproducible of qualities. Wells had a squeaky voice and an accent: but whenever he was around, the temperature of the room rose. His spirits were boisterous, his gaiety and inventions delightful, so that others seemed shabby and ordinary. People revolved naturally about him. Whatever he touched he made interesting: he was in fact an inspired teacher, lucid, adept at simplification, ingenious in interpretation. He was a wonderful relief from the normal run of Fabians precisely because women mattered to him and he understood sensuality. Shaw invented in his plays emotional situations, but it remains doubtful whether he ever had a sexual impulse throughout his life. As for the Webbs, if they had, they disliked it.

But girls who fell for Wells declined to act like Shavian heroines—like Vivie in Mrs. Warren’s Profession. Amber Reeves and, in particular, Rebecca West were far too intelligent and self-possessed not to know what they were doing, and the stereotype of Wells as the heartless seducer which, put about by Beatrice Webb, titillated circles in London, was grotesque. Even further removed from the truth was the stereotype of Wells the heartless gallivanter betraying those whom he had ruined. Rebecca West has observed that it was the girls who left Wells and not vice versa. The strength of his power to fascinate can be measured by the fact that his girls continued to see and like him—and by his propensity to behave in ways which would have led them to abandon in exasperation anyone without his ability to make life fun.

His egoism was gargantuan. The good English working-class mother spoils her sons, waits on them hand and foot, fetches and carries for them, sacrifices herself so that they shall have the best. From his earliest days, Wells dominated his elder brothers and dominated his parents, perennially poverty-stricken as they were. His father didn’t like work: he liked to sit and gossip. Had he been born twenty or thirty years later he might have made the grade as a professional in cricket. As a bowler he got four men out in four consecutive balls, which is something like pitching a no-hitter in each game of a double-header. Wells’s mother, who left him to return as a domestic servant to her old mistress at her country house, was determined to make him respectable. But the draper’s assistant ran off to become a science student under T. H. Huxley—and then dropped out.

The MacKenzies write admirably about these early years, in which Wells stubbornly struggled to be himself, thumbed his nose at every safe alley pointing to genteel sufficiency, and plunged into debt, marriage, divorce, remarriage, all the time becoming more determined to get what he wanted and force his will to prevail. It was this willfulness that made him such a maddening man to live with. For if anything went wrong it was never he that was at fault: there was a conspiracy against him. There was a plot to abandon him, to thwart him, to undermine him, he was a victim of monstrous misfortune and those nearest and dearest to him were callous in their indifference to the obvious truth that his work was of paramount importance to the future of civilization and the salvation of mankind. The lightning crackled, meals would be eaten in a sulphurous silence—and then suddenly the clouds would break and he, much in need of forgiveness, would forgive the others for their folly and, as they gasped for breath, proceed to amuse and enchant them again.

He quarreled with all his friends and no one knew better how to wound. When David Low drew a mildly satirical cartoon of him, the cartoonist received a letter: “Your poor wits have given way under the war strain and you have become a Gawd-saker…. Who has got hold of you, David? Who is pumping stuff into your brain arteries? Sorry to lose you, Low. Regretfully. H.G.” Then the irascible vain dictator vanished and was replaced by the bouncing mischiefmaker, the inventor of games, the impudent deflator of class pretension.

The MacKenzies are at their best in analyzing Wells’s contribution to politics. It is interesting to see in the great Fabian row in which Wells challenged the Webbs and Shaw for the leadership how admirably Shaw comes out of it, amused, friendly, at the very height of the battle warning Wells that he would be walked all over and giving him excellent and unheeded advice on how to extricate himself; and how vilely Beatrice Webb emerges, sanctimonious, spiteful, and supercilious, waging her own little class war against the cocky Cockney. For the rest of his life Wells, reluctantly accepting that his role must be that of prophet rather than king, argued with himself in his novels about the politics of salvation. He pronounced on anything and everything. For thirty years he was an eminent guru of the left.

Anyone who pontificates for thirty years will say things best forgotten. For instance Wells (in company with Noel Coward) was one of those who wanted the Anglo-American air forces to bomb Rome. Chalked up against that was Wells’s refusal, unlike Shaw and the Webbs, to praise Stalin’s tyranny. He began to write when London had nineteen morning and ten evening papers: he was his own Late Night Final. But in the end the game of scoring points for and against becomes meaningless because no two people would ever agree upon the context. A good case could be argued that Bertrand Russell was right on practically every stand he took on a public issue: Yet if the issue is set within its time, almost as convincing a case can be made out that he was nearly as often wrong. Perhaps we ought to ask: What kind of a vision of the world did Wells have and what meaning, if any, does it have for us?

It should have considerable meaning. Behind Wells stretched a century of radical and socialist utopians, but Wells’s utopias belong inescapably to this century.

Wells was the archetypal early twentieth-century progressive. The progressive in England at the turn of the century differed from the aesthete or the avant-garde in having far wider horizons than the arts. He differed from the bohemian, who protested through his life style against the hypocrisy of his neighbors and positively preferred to use the ice box as a potting shed. The progressive lived not spontaneously but by theory. Indeed had he no theory, he would not know how to behave because through theory he made sense of the world of experience. The progressive explained how the world should be governed by expounding theories of how it should be changed.

In this his motive was not ignoble. He burned with rage against injustice and wickedness and sought to leave the world a better place than he found it. If only people brought up their children “rationally”; if only the economy were governed by the principle (say) of social credit; if only mankind would purge itself of its aggression (perhaps through vegetarianism), then “all would be changed.” The favorite implement of the progressive in argument as he sets out to cultivate his fields is the scythe, not the back-breaking hoe. With an easy sweep he cuts down the tares and the weeds. Before his arguments they vanish—and so, unfortunately, does the harvest. For the progressive’s good motives are vitiated by his dislike of unpleasant truths. He indignantly denies that injustice and chaotic social relations are inextinguishable, but his preference for short cuts, which enable him to evade the hard work of political action, spring from a deep-seated intellectual laziness, a failing which he is able always to deny because he is forever busy organizing committees and meeting to give support to general propositions.

Wells is habitually accused of being a naïve positivist. It is true that he believed in the revolution of reason. He argued that if scientific knowledge grew in the shape of more statistics, more education, and more printing the kinship between men would also grow—he believed that this was the way to perpetual peace just as Cobden believed that free trade would stop war. It is true that he believed that a group of disinterested savants would emerge who would lead and govern mankind, just as John Stuart Mill put his faith in the professional civil servants and intelligentsia to which he belonged or Kipling in the empire builders and technologists. It is true that The Outline of History is the most astonishing and substantial memorial to nineteenth-century positivism that any Englishman produced. But Wells also suffered from an appalling hangover and despaired of human rationality. Believing in Mind and not Mechanism, he conceived that an age might dawn (as in The Time Machine) when men stopped thinking and became either drones or slaves.

In The Island of Dr. Moreau the doctor’s victims, liberated from tyranny, prefer to follow their appetites and not their minds. Wells never believed that evolution and technical development will on their own produce a better state of affairs. The vitality of Polly and Kipps, which is always breaking out and smashing tidy plans, is needed: and so is a sense of morality. He condemned the first men on the moon and the Martians for ignoring morality. In this he was again a characteristic progressive. The progressive believes in progress but he leaves himself a loophole on the occasions when, like the rest of us, he suffers from a bout of despair at the follies of mankind and wants to deny that progress is possible. Conrad summed it up: “The difference between us, Wells, is fundamental. You don’t care for humanity but think they are to be improved. I love humanity, but know they are not!”

The disillusionment of progressives with scientists planning economic growth and applying deductive reasoning to social problems may leave Wells stranded on the shores of history. But the MacKenzies are probably right to emphasize his peculiar relation to politics because although part of his message may be old fashioned, the other part—the call to simple morality—has never been more popular. Wells’s politics exactly reflect the position which many people would like to adopt today. They do not want to owe allegiance to any political party on the left. They want to challenge most of the assumptions which the ruling elites make—in particular the need to rely on a powerful bureaucracy. Wells is nearer to the left of today than the Webbs. Or as Durkheim said: “Socialism is not a science, a sociology in miniature: it is a cry of pain….”

Nevertheless, I do not think that Wells’s survival depends on his political status. The New Machiavelli, Ann Veronica, Mr. Britling Sees It Through are interesting to the social historian, but after the war there was virtually no renewal. What matters are the early novels: Kipps, The History of Mr. Polly, and Tono-Bungay. These are the books which best reveal Wells’s determination to score off the upper classes and to rout gentility. They celebrate the most despised class of all, the clerks, the counter-jumpers, the lower-middle-class artisan, the dirty whitecollar worker—an Edwardian class which in the 1920s voted Labour into power in local government in London and then, in its old age, voted Labour into power after the Second World War. (Its foremost representative in politics was Herbert Morrison.)

Tono-Bungay is the only novel in which Wells realized to the full in fictive form his assessment of England’s political state: it is his Howards End, Puck of Pook’s Hill, or Heartbreak House. The three early novels are his memorial, small but gleaming, far more touching and important than all the claims that can be made for him as a representative figure, or a futurist, or a political idealist.

This Issue

November 15, 1973