Today is the birthday (1866) of Herbert George “H G” Wells an English writer who was prolific in many genres: novels, short stories, and works of social commentary, satire, biography, and autobiography, including even two books on war games. He is now best remembered for his science fiction novels and is often called a “father of science fiction” along with Jules Verne and Hugo Gernsback. During his own lifetime, however, he was most prominent as a forward-looking, even prophetic, social critic who devoted his writing to the development of a progressive vision on a global scale. He wrote a number of utopian works and foresaw the advent of aircraft, tanks, space travel, nuclear weapons, satellite television and something resembling the World Wide Web. His science fiction imagined time travel, alien invasion, invisibility, and biological engineering. His most notable science fiction works include The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898) and The War in the Air (1907). He was nominated for the Nobel Prize in Literature four times.
Wells was born at Atlas House, 162 High Street in Bromley in Kent. He was the fourth and last child of Joseph Wells (a former domestic gardener, and at the time a shopkeeper and professional cricketer) and his wife, Sarah Neal (a former domestic servant). An inheritance had allowed the family to acquire a shop in which they sold china and sporting goods, although it failed to prosper: the stock was old and worn out, and the location was poor. Joseph Wells managed to earn a meagre income, but little of it came from the shop and he received an unsteady amount of money from playing professional cricket for the Kent county team. Payment for skilled bowlers and batsmen came from voluntary donations afterwards, or from small payments from the clubs where matches were played.
A defining incident of young Wells’s life was an accident in 1874 that left him bedridden with a broken leg. To pass the time he began to read books from the local library, brought to him by his father. He 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 earlier school. The teaching was erratic, the curriculum mostly focused, Wells later said, on producing copperplate handwriting and doing the sort of sums useful to tradesmen. Wells continued at Morley’s Academy until 1880. In 1877, his father, Joseph Wells, suffered a fractured thigh. The accident effectively put an end to Joseph’s career as a cricketer, and his subsequent earnings as a shopkeeper were not enough to compensate for the loss of the primary source of family income.
Wells spent the winter of 1887/88 convalescing at Uppark, where his mother, Sarah, was housekeeper. No longer able to support themselves financially, the family instead sought to place their sons as apprentices in various occupations. From 1880 to 1883, Wells had an unhappy apprenticeship as a draper at the Southsea Drapery Emporium, Hyde’s. His experiences at Hyde’s, where he worked a thirteen-hour day and slept in a dormitory with other apprentices, later inspired his novels The Wheels of Chance, The History of Mr Polly, and Kipps, which portray the life of a draper’s apprentice as well as providing a critique of society’s distribution of wealth.
In October 1879, Wells’s mother arranged through a distant relative, Arthur Williams, for him to join the National School at Wookey in Somerset as a pupil–teacher, a senior pupil who acted as a teacher of younger children. In December that year, however, Williams was dismissed for irregularities in his qualifications and Wells was returned to Uppark. After a short apprenticeship at a chemist in nearby Midhurst and an even shorter stay as a boarder at Midhurst Grammar School, he signed his apprenticeship papers at Hyde’s. In 1883, Wells persuaded his parents to release him from the apprenticeship, taking an opportunity offered by Midhurst Grammar School again to become a pupil–teacher; his proficiency in Latin and science during his earlier short stay had been remembered. The years he spent in Southsea had been the most miserable of his life to that point, but his good fortune at securing a position at Midhurst Grammar School meant that Wells could continue his self-education. The following year, Wells won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science (later the Royal College of Science in South Kensington, now part of Imperial College London) in London, studying biology under Thomas Henry 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.
Wells studied in his new school until 1887, with a weekly allowance of one guinea thanks to his scholarship. This ought to have been a comfortable sum of money (1 pound per week was common for entire working class families to live on at the time), yet in his Experiment in Autobiography, Wells speaks of constantly being hungry, and indeed photographs of him at the time show he was thin and undernourished. He 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 Plato’s Republic, he soon turned to contemporary ideas of socialism as expressed by the recently formed Fabian Society and free lectures delivered at Kelmscott House, the home of William Morris. He was also among the founders of The Science School Journal, a school magazine that allowed him to express his views on literature and society, as well as trying his hand at fiction; a precursor to his novel The Time Machine was published in the journal under the title The Chronic Argonauts. The school year 1886–87 was the last year of his studies.
During 1888, Wells stayed in Stoke-on-Trent, living in Basford. The unique environment of The Potteries was inspiring. He wrote in a letter to a friend from the area that “the district made an immense impression on me.” The idea for some of his descriptions in The War of the Worlds is thought to have come from his short time spent here, seeing the iron foundry furnaces burn over the city, shooting huge red light into the skies. His stay in The Potteries also resulted in the macabre short story “The Cone” (1895, contemporaneous with his famous The Time Machine), set in the north of the city.
After teaching for some time, he was briefly on the staff of Holt Academy in Wales. Wells found it necessary to supplement his knowledge relating to educational principles and methodology and entered the College of Preceptors (College of Teachers). He later received his Licentiate and Fellowship FCP diplomas from the College. It was not until 1890 that Wells earned a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology from the University of London External Programme. In 1889–90, he managed to find a post as a teacher at Henley House School, where he taught A. A. Milne. His first published work was a Text-Book of Biology in two volumes (1893).
Upon leaving the Normal School of Science, Wells was left without a source of income. His aunt Mary—his father’s sister-in-law—invited him to stay with her for a while, which solved his immediate problem of accommodation. During his stay at his aunt’s residence, he grew increasingly interested in her daughter, Isabel. He would later go on to court her. To earn money, he began writing short humorous articles for journals such as The Pall Mall Gazette, later collecting these in volume form as Select Conversations with an Uncle (1895) and Certain Personal Matters (1897). His success with these shorter pieces encouraged him to write book-length work, and he published his first novel, The Time Machine, in 1895.
Some of his early novels, called “scientific romances”, invented several themes now classic in science fiction in such works as The Time Machine, The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, When the Sleeper Wakes, and The First Men in the Moon. He also wrote realistic novels that received critical acclaim, including Kipps and a critique of English culture during the Edwardian period, Tono-Bungay. Wells also wrote dozens of short stories and novellas, including, “The Flowering of the Strange Orchid”, which helped bring the full impact of Darwin’s revolutionary botanical ideas to a wider public, and was followed by many later successes such as “The Country of the Blind” (1904).
One of Wells’s major contributions to the science fiction genre was his approach, which he referred to as his “new system of ideas”. In his opinion, the author should always strive to make the story as credible as possible, even if both the writer and the reader knew certain elements are impossible, allowing the reader to accept the ideas as something that could really happen, today referred to as “the plausible impossible” and “suspension of disbelief”. While neither invisibility nor time travel was new in speculative fiction, Wells added a sense of realism to the concepts which the readers were not familiar with. He conceived the idea of using a vehicle that allows an operator to travel purposely and selectively forwards or backwards in time. The term “time machine”, coined by Wells, is now almost universally used to refer to such a vehicle. He explained that while writing The Time Machine, he realized that “the more impossible the story I had to tell, the more ordinary must be the setting, and the circumstances in which I now set the Time Traveller were all that I could imagine of solid upper-class comforts.” In “Wells’s Law”, a science fiction story should contain only a single extraordinary assumption. Being aware that magic as something which people thought of as real had disappeared from society, he used scientific ideas and theories as a substitute for magic to justify the impossible. Wells’s best-known statement of the “law” appears in his introduction to The Scientific Romances of H.G. Wells (1933),
As soon as the magic trick has been done the whole business of the fantasy writer is to keep everything else human and real. Touches of prosaic detail are imperative and a rigorous adherence to the hypothesis. Any extra fantasy outside the cardinal assumption immediately gives a touch of irresponsible silliness to the invention.
Many of Wells’s books have been adapted for film and television either directly or indirectly, and his characters and inventions have had an enduring popularity. Time machines and invisible men pop up all over the place. Wells also wrote non-fiction. His first non-fiction bestseller was Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought (1901). When originally serialized in a magazine it was subtitled, “An Experiment in Prophecy”, and is considered his most explicitly futuristic work. It offered the immediate political message of the privileged sections of society continuing to bar capable people from other classes from advancement until war would force a need to employ those most able, rather than the traditional upper classes, as leaders. Anticipating what the world would be like in the year 2000, the book is interesting both for its hits (trains and cars resulting in the dispersion of populations from cities to suburbs; moral restrictions declining as men and women seek greater sexual freedom; the defeat of German militarism, and the existence of a European Union) and its misses (he did not expect successful aircraft before 1950, and averred that “my imagination refuses to see any sort of submarine doing anything but suffocate its crew and founder at sea”).
His bestselling two-volume work, The Outline of History (1920), began a new era of popularized world history. It received a mixed critical response from professional historians. However, it was very popular amongst the general population and made Wells rich. Many other authors followed with “Outlines” of their own in other subjects. He reprised his Outline in 1922 with a much shorter popular work, A Short History of the World, a history book praised by Albert Einstein, 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.
From quite early in Wells’s career, he sought a better way to organize society and wrote a number of Utopian novels. The first of these was A Modern Utopia (1905), which shows a worldwide utopia with “no imports but meteorites, and no exports at all. Two travelers from our world fall into its alternate history. The others usually begin with the world rushing to catastrophe, until people realize a better way of living: whether by mysterious gases from a comet causing people to behave rationally and abandoning a European war (In the Days of the Comet (1906)), 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 the rise of fascist dictators in The Autocracy of Mr Parham (1930) and The Holy Terror (1939). Men Like Gods (1923) is also a utopian novel. Wells in this period was regarded as an enormously influential figure. The critic Malcolm Cowley stated: “by the time he was forty, his influence was wider than any other living English writer”.
Not all his scientific romances ended in a Utopia, and Wells also wrote a dystopian novel, When the Sleeper Wakes (1899, rewritten as The Sleeper Awakes, 1910), which pictures a future society where the classes have become more and more separated, leading to a revolt of the masses against the rulers. 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 civilized beasts, slowly reverting to their animal natures.
Prior to 1933, Wells’s books were widely read in Germany and Austria, and most of his science fiction works had been translated shortly after publication. By 1933, he had attracted the attention of German officials because of his criticism of the political situation in Germany, and on 10 May 1933, Wells’s books were burned by the Nazi youth in Berlin’s Opernplatz, and his works were banned from libraries and book stores. Near the end of the World War II, Allied forces discovered that the SS had compiled lists of people slated for immediate arrest during the invasion of Britain in the abandoned Operation Sea Lion, with Wells included.
Wells visited Russia three times: 1914, 1920 and 1934. During his second visit, he saw his old friend Maxim Gorky and with Gorky’s help, met Vladimir Lenin. In his book Russia in the Shadows, Wells portrayed Russia as recovering from a total social collapse, “the completest that has ever happened to any modern social organisation.” On 23rd July 1934, after visiting U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Wells went to the Soviet Union and interviewed Joseph Stalin for three hours for the New Statesman magazine, which was extremely rare at that time. He told Stalin how he had seen ‘the happy faces of healthy people’ in contrast with his previous visit to Moscow in 1920. However, he also criticized the lawlessness, class-based discrimination, state violence, and absence of free expression. Stalin enjoyed the conversation and replied accordingly. As the chairman of the London-based PEN Club, which protected the rights of authors to write without being intimidated, Wells hoped by his trip to USSR, he could win Stalin over by force of argument. Before he left, he realized that no reform was to happen in the near future.
Wells’s literary reputation declined as he spent his later years promoting causes that were rejected by most of his contemporaries as well as by younger authors whom he had previously influenced. In this connection, George Orwell described Wells as “too sane to understand the modern world.”
Wells died of unspecified causes on 13th August 1946, aged 79, at his home at 13 Hanover Terrace, overlooking Regent’s Park, London. In his preface to the 1941 edition of The War in the Air, Wells had stated that his epitaph should be: “I told you so. You damned fools”. This is thought to be a reference to the two atomic bombs the United States dropped on Japan the year before to end World War II, the long-ranging effects of which he warned readers about in “The World Set Free”. Wells’ body was cremated at Golders Green Crematorium on 16th August 1946. His ashes were subsequently scattered into the English Channel at “Old Harry Rocks”.
Here’s a suitably Victorian recipe from Beeton:
VENERATION FOR EGGS.—Many of the most learned philosophers held eggs in a kind of respect, approaching to veneration, because they saw in them the emblem of the world and the four elements. The shell, they said, represented the earth; the white, water; the yolk, fire; and air was found under the shell at one end of the egg.
EGGS A LA MAITRE D’HOTEL.
- INGREDIENTS.—1/4 lb. of fresh butter, 1 tablespoonful of flour, 1/2 pint of milk, pepper and salt to taste, 1 tablespoonful of minced parsley, the juice of 1/2 lemon, 6 eggs.
Mode.—Put the flour and half the butter into a stewpan; stir them over the fire until the mixture thickens; pour in the milk, which should be boiling; add a seasoning of pepper and salt, and simmer the whole for 5 minutes. Put the remainder of the butter into the sauce, and add the minced parsley; then boil the eggs hard, strip off the shells, cut the eggs into quarters, and put them on a dish. Bring the sauce to the boiling-point, add the lemon-juice, pour over the eggs, and serve.
Time.—5 minutes to boil the sauce; the eggs, 10 to 15 minutes.