The Outline of H.G. Wells

‘The Old and the Young Self: Mr. H.G. Wells’; drawing by Max Beerbohm, 1924

A Man of Parts is David Lodge’s second venture into fictionalized biography, which allows him to concentrate on comedy and character. His first was Author, Author, in which he took Henry James as his subject. Lodge is a literary critic as well as a novelist, and James is a writer he particularly admires, but Author, Author is not about James’s success as a writer, it is an affectionate and witty look at the man. It opens with the last months of his life—Lodge writes with special understanding of old age—and then moves back in time to pay particular attention to James’s miserable experience as a playwright, and to his friendships with fellow writers: the tragic Constance Fenimore Woolson and the charming George Du Maurier, the stylish artist and illustrator who turned to writing with surprising results. James had a tender affection for Du Maurier, calling him Kiki, and Kiki’s unexpected and stunning success with his novel Trilby (1894) was a source of pleasure but also mortification to James, whose own book sales were poor. Lodge’s sympathy with awkwardness and embarrassment, and his perception that even the disasters of life can have their comic moments, make something unexpected and touching of James’s experience.

Toward the end of Author, Author, James is shown bicycling across the Romney Marsh to call on a young English writer, H.G. Wells, just then recovering from a severe attack of kidney disease. James was taken by Edmund Gosse, the literary fixer, who wanted to find out whether Wells needed financial help from a fund that assisted writers. It was soon clear that Wells needed no help, and was in fact planning to build a splendid house for himself and his second wife on the south coast. This was in 1898. Wells, then in his thirties, was already well known as a journalist and writer of science fiction. He and James became friends, and James greeted his novel Kipps (1905) as a “gem” for its “brilliancy of true truth.” Their enthusiasm for one another cooled gradually. James produced no more compliments and Wells decided that James wrote for readers who find reality too real, and published a cruel satire. Lodge became interested in the collision of two such different minds and sensibilities, and this led to the present book, which is all about Wells.

Wells’s name is probably less well known among readers today than Henry James’s, although Wells reached a pinnacle of international fame in the course of his long life (1866–1946). His books, fiction and nonfiction, sold in the millions. The science fiction stories quickly became classics: Orson Welles’s radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds, written in 1898, famously sparked a panic in the US forty years later, when listeners believed that Martians had actually landed. The English-language sales…

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