George Wells was a British writer best known for his science fiction
novels such as The War of the Worlds, The Invisible Man, The Island
of Doctor Moreau and The Time Machine. However, he was arguably
one of the most prolific writers in the history of literature, and
wrote works in nearly every genre, including short stories and nonfiction.
He was an outspoken socialist, and most of his works contain some
notable political or social commentary.
Herbert George was the fifth and last child of Joseph Wells, a
former domestic gardener and at the time shopkeeper and cricketer,
and his wife Sarah Neal, a former domestic servant. He was born
at 58 High Street, Bromley, Kent. The family was of the impoverished
lower-middle-class. An inheritance allowed them to purchase a
china shop, though they quickly realised it would never be a prosperous
concern. The stock was old and worn out, the location poor.
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.
defining incident of young H. G.'s life is said to be an accident
he had in 1874 when he was seven years old. He was dropped on
a tent peg at the local sports ground and was left bedridden for
a time 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; they also stimulated his desire to write.
Later that year he entered Thomas Morley's Commercial Academy,
a private school founded in 1849 following the bankruptcy of Morley's
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.
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 H. G. had an unhappy apprenticeship as a draper at the
Southsea Drapery Emporium. His experiences were later used as
inspiration for his novels The Wheels of Chance and Kipps, which
describe the life of a draper's apprentice as well as being a
critique of the world's distribution of wealth.
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 in Sussex) 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. H. G. not only failed
at being a draper, he also failed as a chemist's assistant and
had bad experiences as a teaching assistant, 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 an assistant
teacher at Midhurst Grammar School, in West Sussex, until he won
a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (later the Royal
College of Science, now part of Imperial College, London) 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. H. G. studied in his new school
until 1887 with an allowance of twenty-one shillings a week thanks
to his scholarship.
soon entered the Debating Society of the 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 and free lectures
delivered at Kelmscott House, the home of William Morris.
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 was 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.
was left without a source of income. 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.
In 1891 Wells married his cousin Isabel Mary Wells, but left her
in 1894 for one of his students, Amy Catherine Robbins, whom he
married in 1895. He had two sons by Amy: George Philip (known
as 'Gip') in 1901 and Frank Richard in 1903.1
his marriage to Amy, Wells had liaisons with a number of women,
including American birth control activist Margaret Sanger. He
had a daughter, Anna-Jane, with writer Amber Reeves in 19091 and
in 1914, a son, Anthony West, by novelist and feminist Rebecca
West, twenty-six years his junior. In spite of Amy Catherine's
knowledge of some of these affairs, she remained married to Wells
until her death in 1927.
was never a great amorist," Wells wrote in An Experiment
in Autobiography (1934), "though I have loved several people
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
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 'inefficient' 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").
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
also wrote several dozen short stories and novellas, the best
known of which is "The Country of the Blind" (1911).
Besides being an important occurrence of blindness in literature,
this is Well's commentary on humanity's ability to overcome any
inconvenience after a few generations and think that it is normal.
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
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
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, and two long efforts,
The Science of Life (1930) and The Work, Wealth and Happiness
of Mankind (1931). The 'Outlines' became sufficiently common for
James Thurber to parody the trend in his humorous essay An Outline
of Scientists - indeed, Wells's Outline of History remains in
print with a new 2005 edition while A Short History of the World
has been recently reedited (2006).
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. He also portrayed social reconstruction through the rise
of fascist dictators in The Autocracy of Mr Parham (1930) and
The Holy Terror (1939).
contemplates the ideas of nature vs nurture and questions humanity
in books like The Island of Doctor Moreau. Not all his scientific
romances ended in a happy Utopia, as the dystopian When the Sleeper
Wakes (1899) (rewritten as The Sleeper Awakes, 1910) shows. The
Island of Doctor 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.
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
1927, Florence Deeks sued Wells for plagiarism, claiming that
he had stolen much of the content of The Outline of History from
a work, The Web, she had submitted to the Canadian Macmillan Company,
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.
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.
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. Wells, as president of the International PEN (Poets,
Essayists, Novelists), had already angered the Nazis by overseeing
the expulsion of the German PEN club from the international body
in 1934 following the German PEN's refusal to admit non-Aryan
writers to its membership.
Wells called his political views socialist, but he occasionally
found himself at odds with other socialists. He was for a time
a member of the Fabian Society, but broke with them as he intended
them to be an organization far more radical than they wanted.
He later grew staunchly critical of them as having a poor understanding
of economics and educational reform. He also ran as a Labour Party
candidate for London University in 1922, but even at that point
his faith in that party was weak or uncertain.
most consistent political ideal was the World-State. He stated
in his autobiography that from 1900 onward he considered a world-state
inevitable. The details of this state varied but in general it
would be a planned society that would advance science, end nationalism,
and allow people to advance solely by merit rather than birth.
He also was consistent that it must not be a democracy. He stated
that in the same period he came to realize a world-state was inevitable
he realized that parliamentary democracy as then practiced was
Wells remained fairly consistent in rejection of a world-state
being a parliamentary democracy and therefore during his work
on the United Nations Charter he opposed any mention of democracy.
He feared that the average citizen could never be educated or
aware enough to decide the major issues of the world. Therefore
he favored the vote be limited to scientists, organizers, engineers,
and others of merit. At the same time he strongly believed citizens
should have as much freedom as they could without consequently
restricting the freedom of others. These values came under increasing
criticism from the 1920s and afterwards.4
said he remained confident of the inevitability of a planned world
state well into the 1930s. Lenin's attempts at reconstructing
the shattered Russian economy, as his account of a visit (Russia
in the Shadows; 1920) shows, also related towards that. This is
because at first he believed Lenin might lead to the kind of planned
world he envisioned. This despite the fact that he was a strongly
anti-Marxist socialist who would later state that it would've
been better if Karl Marx was never born.
leadership of Joseph Stalin led to a change in his view of the
Soviet Union even though his initial impression of Stalin himself
was mixed. He disliked what he saw as a narrow orthodoxy and obdurance
to the facts in Stalin. However he did give him some praise saying,
"I have never met a man more fair, candid, and honest"
and making it clear that he felt the "sinister" image
of Stalin was unfair or simply false. Nevertheless he judged Stalin's
rule to be far too rigid, restrictive of independent thought,
and blinkered to lead toward the Cosmopolis he hoped for.5
the end his political importance was almost neglible. His efforts
to help form the League of Nations became a disappointment as
the organization turned out to be a weak one unable to prevent
even World War II. The war itself increased the pessimistic side
of his nature. In his last book Mind at the End of its Tether
(1945) he considered the idea that humanity being replaced by
another species might not be a bad idea.
also came to call the era "The age of frustration."
He spent his final years venting this frustration at various targets
from the Roman Catholic Church to a neighbor who erected a large
sign to a servicemen's club. As he devoted his final decades toward
causes which were never truly realized this caused his literary
reputation to decline. One critic complained: "He sold his
birthright for a pot of message".6. That being said The Happy
Turning, a short book from 1944, contains a great deal of wit
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 a person
who believed in "the most comprehensive central planning"
and could "at the same time, write an ardent defence of the
rights of man".
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 United States House of Representatives 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".
Appearances in other contexts
H. G. Wells has been portrayed as himself in a number of films
and television programmes, including:
Doctor Who serial Timelash.
novel and motion picture Time After Time, where he chases Jack
The Ripper after the latter stole his time machine and escaped
to 1979-era San Francisco.
semi-recurring character in Lois and Clark: The New Adventures
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').
C. S. Lewis' novel That Hideous Strength, the character Jules
is a caricature of Wells, and much of Lewis' science fiction is
written both under the influence of Wells and as an antithesis
to his work.
Sammler, the main character of Saul Bellow's Mr. Sammler's Planet
is portrayed as working on a biography of H. G. Wells. Sammler
is a Holocaust survivor and a self-made philosopher who treasures
his pre-war acquaintance with Wells.