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Profile of H.G. Wells
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|Also Know As:
|Date of Birth:
||21st September 1866
|Place of Birth:
||Bromley, Kent, England, UK
Herbert George Wells (September 21, 1866 – August 13, 1946) was a British writer best known for his science fiction novels such as The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine.
Herbert George was the fourth and last son born at 58 The High Street, Bromley to Joseph Wells, a former domestic gardener and at the time shopkeeper and cricketer and his wife Sarah Neal, a former domestic servant and occasional housekeeper. Both parents were members of the working class, but aspired to lower-middle-classness. An inheritance allowed them to purchase a china shop, which, after they had bought it, they realized would never be a paying propostion. The stock was old and worn out, the location poor. They managed to earn a meagre income, but little of it came from the shop. Joseph sold cricket bats and balls and other equipment at the matches he played at, and received an unsteady amount of money from the matches, for in those days there were no professional cricketers, and payment for skilled bowlers and batters came from passing the hat afterwards, or from small honoraria from the clubs where matches were played.
A defining incident of young Herbert George's life is said to be an accident he had in 1874 when he was eight years old. The accident left him for a time bedridden with a broken leg. To pass the time, he started reading and soon became devoted to the other worlds and lives to which books gave him access; it also stimulated his desire to write. Later that year he entered the Commercial Academy of Thomas Morley, a Scotsman, who had founded the school in 1849, when an earlier one at which he had taught went bankrupt. The teaching was erratic, the curriculum mostly focused, Wells said later, on producing copper-plate handwriting and doing the sort of sums useful to tradesmen. Wells continued at Morley's Academy until 1880. But in 1877 another accident had affected his life. This time it had happened to his father, leaving Joseph Wells with a fractured thigh. The accident effectively put an end to Joseph's career as a cricketer, and his earnings as a shopkeeper were not enough to compensate for the loss.
No longer able to support themselves financially, they instead sought to place their boys as apprentices to various professions. At the time it was a usual method for young employees to learn their trade working under a more experienced employer. In time they should be able to practise their trade for themselves. From 1881 to 1883 Herbert George had an unhappy apprenticeship as a draper at the Southsea Drapery Emporium. His experiences were later used as inspiration for his novel Kipps, which described the life of a draper's apprentice as well as being a critique of the world's distribution of wealth.
Wells' mother and father had never got along with one another particularly well (she was a pious Protestant, he a hen-pecked freethinker), and when she went back to work as a ladies maid (at Uppark, a country house) one of the conditions of work was that she would not have space for husband or children; thereafter, she and Joseph lived separate lives, though they never divorced and neither ever developed any other liaison. Herbert George not only failed at being a draper, he failed at several other apprenticeships, and each time he would arrive at Uppark – "the bad shilling back again!" as he said – and stay there until a fresh start could be arranged for him. Fortunately for Wells, Uppark had a magnificent library in which he immersed himself.
In 1883 his employer dismissed him, claiming to be dissatisfied with him. The young man was reportedly not displeased with this ending to his apprenticeship. Later that year, he became a teacher at Midhurst Grammar school, until he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (later the Royal College of Science, now part of Imperial College) in London, studying biology under T. H. Huxley. As an alumnus, he later helped to set up the Royal College of Science Association, of which he became the first president in 1909. Herbert George studied in his new school until 1887 with an allowance of 21 shillings a week thanks to his scholarship.
He soon entered the Debating Society of his school. These years mark the beginning of his interest in a possible reformation of society. At first approaching the subject through studying The Republic by Plato, he soon turned to his contemporary ideas of socialism as expressed by the recently formed Fabian Society. He was also among the founders of "The Science School Journal", a school magazine which allowed him to express his views on literature and society. The school year 1886–1887 became the last year of his studies. Having previously successfully passed his exams in both biology and physics, his lack of interest in geology resulted in his failure to pass and the loss of his scholarship.
Herbert George was left without a source of income for a while. His aunt Mary, a cousin of his father, invited him to stay with her for a while, so at least he did not face the problem of housing. During his stay with his aunt, he grew interested in her daughter, Isabel.
Marriage and liaisons
In 1891 Wells married his cousin Isabel Mary Wells, but left her in 1894 for one of his students, Amy Catherine, whom he married in 1895. He had two sons by Amy: George Philip in 1901 and Frank Richard in 1903.1
During his marriage to Amy, Wells had liaisons with a number of women, including American birth control activist Margaret Sanger.2 He had a daughter with writer Amber Reeves in 19091 and in 1914, a son, Anthony West, by novelist and feminist Rebecca West, 26 years his junior.3 In spite of Amy Catherine's knowledge of some of these affairs, she remained married to Wells until her death in 1927.1
"I was never a great amorist," Wells wrote in An Experiment in Autobiography (1934), "though I have loved several people very deeply."
Seeking a more structured way to play war games, H.G. Wells wrote Floor Games (1911) followed by Little Wars (1913). Little Wars is recognised today as the first recreational wargame and Wells is regarded by gamers and hobbyists as "the Father of Miniature Wargaming."
Wells' first bestseller was Anticipations, published in 1901. Perhaps his most explicitly futuristic work, it bore the subtitle "An Experiment in Prophecy" when originally serialised in a magazine. The book is interesting both for its hits (trains and cars resulting in the dispersion of population from cities to suburbs; moral restrictions declining as men and women seek greater sexual freedom) and its misses ("my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea"). He also visualized the elimination of all non-white people to make way for the utopian future ("And how will the New Republic treat the inferior races? ... I take it they will have to go").
His early novels, called "scientific romances", invented a number of themes now classic in science fiction in such works as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds (which have all been made into films) and are often thought of as being influenced by the works of Jules Verne. He also wrote other, non-fantastic novels which have received critical acclaim, including the satire on Edwardian advertising Tono-Bungay and Kipps.
Though not a science-fiction novel, radioactive decay plays a small but consequential role in Tono-Bungay. It plays a much larger role in The World Set Free (1914). This book contains what is surely his biggest prophetic "hit." Scientists of the day were well aware that the natural decay of radium releases energy at a slow rate for thousands of years. The rate of release is too slow to have practical utility, but the total amount released is huge. Wells' novel revolves around an (unspecified) invention that accelerates the process of radioactive decay, producing bombs that explode with no more than the force of ordinary high explosive— but which "continue to explode" for days on end. "Nothing could have been more obvious to the people of the earlier twentieth century," he wrote, "than the rapidity with which war was becoming impossible... [but] they did not see it until the atomic bombs burst in their fumbling hands." Leó Szilárd acknowledged that the book inspired him to theorise the nuclear chain reaction.
Wells also wrote nonfiction. His classic two-volume work The Outline of History (1920) set a new standard and direction for popularised scholarship. Many other authors followed with 'Outlines' of their own in other subjects. Wells followed it in 1922 by a much shorter popular work, A Short History of the World. The 'Outlines' became sufficiently common for James Thurber to parody the trend in his humorous essay An Outline of Scientists.
From quite early in his career, he sought a better way to organise society, and wrote a number of Utopian novels. Usually starting with the world rushing to catastrophe, until people realise a better way of living: whether by mysterious gases from a comet causing people to behave rationally (In the Days of the Comet), or a world council of scientists taking over, as in The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which he later adapted for the 1936 Alexander Korda film, Things to Come. This depicted, all too accurately, the impending World War, with cities being destroyed by aerial bombs.
Wells contemplates the ideas of Nature vs Nurture and questions humanity in books like The Island of Dr. Moreau. Not all his scientific romances ended in a happy Utopia, as the dystopian When the Sleeper Awakes shows. The Island of Dr. Moreau is even darker. The narrator, having been trapped on an island of animals vivisected (unsuccessfully) into human beings, eventually returns to England; like Gulliver on his return from the Houyhnhnms he finds himself unable to shake off the perceptions of his fellow humans as barely civilised beasts, slowly reverting back to their animal natures.
He called his political views socialist, and with his fondness for Utopia, he was at first quite sympathetic to Lenin's attempts at reconstructing the shattered Russian economy, as his account of a visit (Russia in the Shadows 1920) shows. But he grew disillusioned at the doctrinal rigidity of the Bolsheviks, and after meeting Stalin grew convinced the whole enterprise had gone horribly wrong.4
Wells also wrote the preface for the first edition of W. N. P. Barbellion's diaries, The Journal of a Disappointed Man, published in 1919. Since Barbellion was the real author's pen-name, many reviewers believed Wells to have been the true author of the Journal; Wells always denied this, despite being full of praise for the diaries, but the rumours persisted until Barbellion's death later that year.
In 1927, Florence Deeks sued Wells for plagiarism, claiming that he had stolen much of the content of The Outline of History from a work she had submitted to Macmillan & Sons, his North American publisher, but who held onto the manuscript for eight months before rejecting it. Despite numerous similarities in phrasing and factual errors, the court found Wells not guilty.
In 1938, he published a collection of essays on the future organisation of knowledge and education, titled World Brain, including the essay The Idea of a Permanent World Encyclopaedia.
Near the end of the Second World War Allied forces discovered that the SS had compiled lists of intellectuals and politicians slated for immediate liquidation upon the invasion of England in the abandoned Operation Sea Lion. The name “H.G. Wells” appeared high on the list for the "crime" of being a socialist.
In his later years, he grew increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for humanity (mostly because of the Second World War) as the title of his last book, Mind at the End of its Tether suggests. His later books are often thought to do more preaching than storytelling or lack the energy and invention of his earlier works. One critic complained: "He sold his birthright for a pot of message".5
His last words were, "I'm all right".
In his lifetime and after his death, Wells was considered a prominent socialist thinker. In his book The Road to Serfdom, Friedrich Hayek, one of the twentieth century's most famous proponents of laissez-faire capitalism, held up Wells in particular as an example of the idealist intellectuals who believed in "the most comprehensive central planning" and could "at the same time, write an ardent defence of the rights of man".6 In later years, however, Wells image has shifted and he is now thought of simply as one of the pioneers of science fiction; Newt Gingrich, former Speaker of the House and staunch Republican, praised Wells in his book To Renew America, writing "Our generation is still seeking its Jules Verne or H.G. Wells to dazzle our imaginations with hope and optimism".7
Appearances in other contexts
H. G. Wells appears as a character in the Doctor Who serial Timelash.
He also appears as a character in the novel and motion picture Time After Time, where he chases Jack The Ripper after the latter stole his time machine and escaped to 1979 San Francisco.
He also appears as a character in multiple episodes of Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman.
The novel The Time Ships, by British author Stephen Baxter, was designated by the Wells estate as an authorised sequel to The Time Machine, marking the centenary of its publication, and features characters, situations and technobabble from several of Wells' stories, as well as a representation of Wells (unnamed, and referred to as 'my friend, the Author').
A partial listing of his works: (Entries marked with an * are available at the Project Gutenberg website.)
- The Time Machine (1895)*
- The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents (1895)*
- The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896)*
- Red room (1896)*
- The Wheels of Chance (1896)*
- The Invisible Man (1897)*
- The War of the Worlds (1898)*
- When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)*
- Love and Mr. Lewisham (1900)*
- The First Men in the Moon (1901)*
- Mankind in the Making (1903)*
- The Scepticism of the Instrument - A portion of a paper read to the Oxford Philosophical Society, November 8, (1903)
- The Food of the Gods and How It Came to Earth (1904)*
- Kipps (1905)
- A Modern Utopia (1905)*
- In the Days of the Comet (1906)*
- The War in the Air (1908)*
- First and Last Things (1908)*
- Ann Veronica (1909)*
- Tono-Bungay (1909)*
- The History of Mr. Polly (1910)*
- The New Machiavelli (1911)*
- The Country of the Blind and Other Stories (1911)*
- The Sleeper Awakes (1911)* - Revised edition of When the Sleeper Wakes
- Floor Games (1911)*
- Marriage (1912)
- Little Wars (1913)*
- The World Set Free (1914)*
- The Research Magnificent (1915)*
- God the Invisible King (1917)*
- War and the Future (1917)*
- The Soul of a Bishop (1917)*
- The Outline of History I, II 1920, 1931, 1940 (1949, 1956, 1961, 1971)
- A Short History of the World (1922)
- The Secret Places of the Heart (1922)*
- Men Like Gods (1923)
- Christina Alberta's Father (1925)
- The World of William Clissold (1926)
- Meanwhile (1927)
- Mr Blettsworthy on Rampole Island (1928)
- The Open Conspiracy (1928)
- The Shape of Things to Come (1933)
- Star-Begotten (1937)
- Crux Ansata (1943)
His autobiography was published in 1934, as An Experiment in Autobiography.
- Note 1: ThinkQuest Library. H.G. Wells Biography.
- Note 2: New York University. The Passionate Friends: H. G. Wells and Margaret Sanger.
- Note 3: Pegasos - A Literature Related Resource Site. H(erbert) G(eorge) Wells (1866-1946).
- Note 4: For examples of his contemporaries' wilful disregard of the failings of the Soviet Union, see the book Political Pilgrims by Paul Hollander.
- Note 5: The "pot of message" remark comes from a 1948 Theodore Sturgeon short story entitled Unite and Conquer, a character in the story was quoting a "Dr. Pierce".
- Note 6: Hayek, Freidrich. The Road to Serfdom. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1944 (1994 edition). p. 94.
- Note 7: Gingrich, Newt. To Renew America. New York: HarperCollins, 1995. p. 189.
- H. G. Wells crater on the far side of the Moon is named for him.
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