H G Wells turning into the invisible man,
Previously unpublished snap from the 1930's.
Of all the famous writers, whose work I grew up with, for sheer volume and
variety of unfailing interest, H G Wells was easily my foremost entertainer
This was not true after middle age, by which time I'd read most of Wells' books. In later life, another writer was a personal influence on me, with her poetry, knowledge of the country-side and literary criticism.
Wells never wrote verse, apart from a rather good pastiche on Edward Lear, in a letter to 'Jane', his second wife. ( These personal letters were adorned with sketches -- another talent. ) If Orwell is to be believed, he had no time for poets. All the same, he employed readers to summarise the latest books. Wells evidently made use of this information with discrimination. His novels are amazingly up to the minute, in picking-out future classics of twentieth century English literature.
It is one of the misconceptions about Wells that he was a philistine. Allied to this, is the notion that only his earlier novels have lasting value. Certainly, his post-Edwardian out-put remains neglected. Ive come across a few unrepresentative re-prints of later novels.
From Wells' Edwardian period, The War In The Air ( 1908 ) stays in print. Wells dismissed this as 'a pot-boiler'. Such was the abundance of his creative power. In fact, it was his last great science fiction novel or 'scientific romance'. And it is unique in combining comic Cockney low life ( himself ) with the super-human power of science, capable of destroying its own labor-saying inventions, in a morally antiquated civilization. Wells does moralise -- intelligently -- it is part of the book's appeal. But I read and enjoyed it, several times, as an amusement and an adventure story.
Nevertheless, The War In The Air, under-rated even by its author, is lost from the public psyche. Compare Wells' Victorian SF, from the last half-decade of the nineteenth century. These scientific romances were short by the standard of the social novels he was to write up to 1941. But people have heard of them: The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The War Of The Worlds. Rather less known, but still holding its own, is The Island Of Dr Moreau.
The First Men In The Moon ( published in book form in 1901 but serialised the year before ) was remembered along with Jules Verne's story, when men did first land there in 1969. Verne's voyagers only orbit the moon in their ballistic vehicle. He imagines a tank of water cushioning their launch out of the giant gun, as if this would prevent the would-be space-men from being turned into scrambled eggs by the firing.
But Verne still complained about the scientific standing of Wells' moon journey, which did go one up on Verne, allowing landing and departure, by an anti-gravity substance, named 'Cavorite', after its inventor. 'Show me this Cavorite,' Verne demanded of the press, who asked him what he thought of Wells' version.
Verne's Journey To The Moon is told with that humorous lightness of touch that delights the reader of Around The World In Eighty Days. He does make a serious attempt to be 'scientific'. But is limited by the limitations of the science of his day -- just as he tries to play fair with the reader by limiting his imagination to what current technology might conceivably achieve.
Nuclear energy was unsuspected, tho the Curies had begun the road to its discovery. Consequently, Verne discusses the scientists' perplexity with how the sun could burn more than a few thousand years on chemical energy, concluding it must be replenished by matter, such as comets, falling into it.
Verne's moon-projectile follows a trajectory like that of the first real space-men, who orbited the moon, before a manned landing was attempted. He appears to conceive of space as like the sea and the shell, as like a diving bell. Verne's space travelers open a hatch at the base of their vehicle and the air stays in! As they approach the moon, they throw out their rubbish but this stays near the craft, not forgetting the law of conservation of momentum
Arthur C Clarke's 2060, in the series following from 2001, is pure Verne. He treats the SF genre in just the same way, which may be called the classical manner. Like the French Enlightenment, it is sceptical and humorously detached. The main concern is to stay within the bounds of scientific accuracy. Once, Clarke replied to a long-standing SF fan and engineer, who had seen a mistake in his latest story. Clarke agreed but he had hoped no-one would notice it!
Clarke shares Verne's addiction to truthfulness, as Ambrose Bierce called it. When their tales bring them to the unknown, they both adopt a caution, reminiscent of the responsible authors of a scientific report. When Verne's orbiters pass over the side of the moon, that the earth never sees, we are only told as an after-thought that someone saw something that might have been habitation.
Likewise, when Clarke's explorers land on the comet, in its recesses, there only seems to be something unexpected. In these two stories, Verne and Clarke are curiously inhibited, like a child told by elders not to tell tales. Then again, the truth is that no amount of exploring will ever remove all mystery. Pretending to tell all is merely to close ones eyes to the quests and questions that remain.
Of course, even Verne, the pioneer lets himself go, such as in the tale of
traveling round the solar system on an asteroid. Deceptively matter of fact,
Clarke's The City And The Stars played with ( then ) mind-boggling
ideas, albeit based on a scientific intuition.
The unearthed space-ship had a sub-terranean power source that allowed it to maintain itself indefinitely. It traveled round the universe in a single day, not by propulsion, but like an arrow pulling the bow of space.
Where then does Wells stand in relation to the Verne-Clarke tradition of classic SF? He is an admitted classic in the sense of pioneer. But was he just a romancer, suggested by Verne, demanding to hold the Cavorite in his hand? The smoothed-over fancifulness of Verne's own moon enterprise tells us that he was putting on an act as Doubting Thomas, patron saint of science, who wont believe till he sees and touches for himself.
It would only be human of Verne to want to put down his young rival, even if doing so amounted to a certain amount of self-deception about his own 'scientific' plausibility.
The fact is that Wells belongs both to the classic and the romantic traditions. He has the eighteenth century Enlightenment's vision of secular progress thru free scientific enquiry, as well as being steeped in the emotional pessimism of the nineteenth century romantic reaction -- a reaction to excess.
Verne himself is touched by a romantic alienation from the world. In rejecting the human madness of war, his lone heroes inflict that madness on the bearers of arms. Wells' later SF tends to rant about the unredeemed state of humanity. In The Days Of The Comet ( 1906 ) and Men Like Gods ( 1920 ) are examples.
The Wellsian complaint takes itself seriously. But it cannot compare with the somber aloofness of the Vernian hero. Captain Nemo, by his assumed identity is the very negation of egotism, particularly of nationalistic egotism. All his crew have renounced their nationalities. They are humanity first, however misguided their mission of terror on all war-ships.
Not till Things To Come, the movie version of The Shape Of Things To Come ( 1933 ) do we get a Wellsian over-lord of Vernian grandeur ( acted commandingly by Raymond Massey ).
Verne may have influenced Wells in striking an attitude to the world, as a sort of new Moses, and prophet of science. ( Moses himself may not have been above the latest tricks to impress both adversaries and followers. ) But these are generally his later, less successful SF works.
Wells' early poetic power has its source in another contemporary writer. Edgar Allen Poe left an unfinished novel, called The Mystery Of Arthur Gordon Pym. Jules Verne 'finished' this work. That is to say he tagged a typical adventure story, whose speculations on terra incognita would be approved by a right-thinking geographical society.
Whereas, I was impressed that the first chapter of The Island Of Dr Moreau read like a very capable apprentice taking up Poe's last work - this was only Wells' third novel. Moreau headed off to a tropical clime. Nevertheless, I wonder whether Poe's last novel didnt still exert an imaginative influence on Wells' fourth novel, The Invisible Man.
Verne's character can only shrug off tales of the weird phenomena Pym progressed to, in the polar regions. Yet marble-veined ice-rivers, or what have you, may not be so far from the truth. Ice-bergs, for instance, dont have to be merely white. The whaler, explorer and naturalist Scoresby jr. described the colors that could suffuse ice. ( Ive quoted this in my review of Dorothy Cowlin's biography, Greenland Seas. )
Maybe Poe saw the ice-bergs that sail down from Canada past the North-East
American sea-board. And what has this to do with The Invisible Man?
Well, he was a sort of human ice-berg. His albinism was a whiteness like ice.
His invisibility was like the whiteness of ice turned transparent. And in the
transformation, his veins and arteries stand out like the colors of faulted
light in ice.
And as the ice-berg is often an unseen hazard to shipping, the invisible man proves a hidden threat to mankind.
The Edwardian period covers Wells' best remembered social novels, such as
Kipps, Ann Veronica, The History of Mr Polly.
True, Ann Veronica remains in print for being a social history of women's rights in literature, rather than for being literature in its own right. The scandal, it caused, marks it out as a fore-runner of the common-place novel of irregularities in sexual relations.
One of my novelist friends read the story, as a young woman, and laughed at how Ann Veronica was spotted, by a passer-by, escaping from a window. Ann pretended, till he had gone, to be just enjoying the view, with one leg over the sill -- as tho she was riding a horse, a man's way and not side-saddle.
The New Machiavelli ( 1911 ) continued the sexual rebellion. American political scientists admired its 'literary analysis' of the composition of British political parties. I could open the book and appreciate the fluency of style but I wouldnt want to re-read it.
This novel promoted 'the Endowment of Motherhood', which would be introduced about a half century later, as 'child benefits'. Undoubtedly, women should be paid for the labour of child birth and child care. Tho, Wells seemed to believe in 'free love' in the sense that most people believe in free libraries: they are free to use but payed for by taxation.
Yet A Year of Prophesying ( 1923 ) showed Wells was about fifty years ahead of his time on population control; emigration controls and the causes and direction of future war; suitable housing for women to manage, not designed by male architects ignorant of such things -- Wells still keenly felt how his mother, Sarah Wells 'slaved' for them in their domestic hole; the need for 'a new treaty' on women's rights with the new generation of ambitious career women; conservation of endangered species and resources, with European and global controls against their destruction for private profit and national advantage; the nature of democratic voting method.
Bernard Shaw was rebuked as a mid-Victorian moral ass because he tried to make Wells draw in his claws, during his Fabian membership, and the putting into practise theories of free love. This period was when Wells had an illegitimate child by Amber Reeves. He was obliged to endow her motherhood without the help of state benefits. Single parentage no longer has any stigma attached to it. But then it was not tolerated and the young woman had to have a husband found for her, in short order.
Wells wrote of a character, in The World Of William Clissold ( 1926 ), that he had never met anyone with less appetite for life. Wells may have seen this in a real person, who provided a stark contrast with his own appetites. He even wrote a posthumous third volume, to his auto-biography, about his sexual adventures, H G Wells In Love ( 1984 ). And he still wished he could have had more.
Wells was a spoilt mother's boy, with a penchant for tantrums, whose genius, not least for hard work, allowed him full scope for self-indulgence. His secret third volume is obsessed with his current partner, Moura Budberg, rather than any obsession with the sexual act. But it still makes sad reading. He first met her, as Maxim Gorky's interpretor. This was in 1920, seven years before his second wife's death.
Wells lost the haven, his wife had given, and he didnt want his orderly
work life disrupted. He was trying to juggle the Moura relationship with
another lover he had domiciled in France. He offered Moura her freedom in
love, as well he might, but then was jealously suspicious when he found that
he couldnt trust her word. This happened to be in connection with visits to
Soviet Russia, which Wells perhaps felt he should be fair to, but tells her
he doesnt like.
It may be worth remembering that this was the regime of which Solzhenitsyn asked for 'one word of truth.'
H G Wells In Love has its brighter moments. He tells of one
woman, he was suspected of having an affair with, that their 'guilty secret'
was that they just enjoyed each other's company.
The book is certainly not pornography. Despite the censors, that, too, has its place in literature. This is because the decently private act of sexuality is also a universal experience. Besides the natural appetite itself, there is an appetite to talk about it. Better that it should be done with a sense of comradeship and affection, as well as a sense of its ridiculous animality, rather than prohibited as necessarily degrading and shameful.
Wells was the most prolific and diverse of writers. And sure enough there is probably a little erotic classic lurking in his letters to Rebecca West, no mean stylist herself. When their censored version was published, the editor remarked on the endless resourcefulness of Wells' sexual imagery. He depicted Rebecca as 'Panther' and a drawing is reproduced of this animal lying in wait for him, from the branch of a tree.
In The Island Of Doctor Moreau ( 1896 ), the panther also symbolises grace and passion. The surgeon, in the house of pain, finds this animal graceful enough to be made human but at an intolerable suffering that leads to his own downfall.
Wells once said that Gautama Buddha was perhaps the greatest man that ever lived. The Buddha taught independence from pleasure or pain, so that we should not become enslaved by either but retain our freedom. This would be freedom of thought as well as action. Otherwise we must admit David Hume's contention that reason is, and must ever be, the slave of the passions. Carl Jung would say that we cannot be free of our passions, we can only hope to choose which passions we would serve. Ideally we might wish to serve love, recognised as being a better master or god to us than any other. But other passions, tho they may be much less estimable, still are so powerful that they exact a more or less willing tribute from us.
During the first world war, Wells lived a double life with Rebecca West. He mischievously surprised a friend by getting him to meet a 'Mr and Mrs West', at the second home he had set up for Rebecca and their love-child.
The Great War was also Wells' religious period, when he believed in God as a captain of mankind. While practising bigamy, his alter ego was writing The Soul Of A Bishop ( 1917 ). The bishop eventually has to live in privation, endured by his loyal wife, because of his unorthodox views brought about by the war. He refuses the wealthy advances of a woman who wants to recruit him to some dubious religious promotion.
One might almost say of Wells that, in innocent youth, he enjoyed the fantasies of a triumphant career. And in his success, he enjoyed the fantasies of innocent youth. We now know from H G Wells In Love, that when he was about thirty, he went on the prowl for extra-marital sex. This was the age he wrote The Wheels Of Chance( 1896 ). The villain of this piece is indeed just such a bounder, whom the author, speaking in his own voice, affects to detest.
It cast something of a shadow over my enjoyment of this jeu d'esprit, to know that this story was no mere shadow-fight between Wells and his shadow personality. Being two-faced was not so abnormal, considered as a late example of Victorian hypocrisy. The Invisible Woman is Claire Tomalin's research into the covered-up affair of Charles Dickens with Nelly Ternan. She points out that there were plenty of other secret bigamies or affairs.
The cyclist hero, of The Wheels Of Chance, is a simple draper's assistant, the calling Wells' pious mother put him into. He rescues a young woman from the cad who has made her false promises of an independent start in life. She is above her rescuer, etc. But, like a benevolent goddess, she will watch over his progress in getting himself an education and raising himself by his boot-straps out of his lowly estate.
This plot outline does no sort of justice to Wells' humor and holiday spirits. And he notices things, tho the trained biologist carries his learning lightly. For instance, he hears a corncrake in the parson's English garden. These fine birds remain in Ireland and the northern reaches of Scotland.
By 1908, the explanation for the retreat of wild life is already at hand. In the beginning of The War In The Air, Wells' best combination of social comedy and science fiction, urban housing and infrastructure for the growing masses relentlessly advance over the country-side.
Wells once claimed that the loves of his life were his first wife, his second wife, and Moura Budberg ( while tactfully putting in a word for Rebecca and Amber ). In this statement, Wells is no longer the preacher of 'free love' but an adherent of romantic monogamy. This reduces extra-marital affairs to the level of satisfying the sexual appetite and puts love under the monopoly of monogamy.
If 'Mr West' was not a bigamist ( or polygamist, which sounds better ) then Rebecca West was another mistress, left outside the charmed circle of matrimony. Yet she was left with the same office of child-bearing.
'Free love' seems nothing more than sensual self-indulgence. The poor may steal this privilege. But only the rich can afford to set up a mistress, with the security, if not recognition, of a polygamous state. 'Free love' must know its limitations, if it is to be free even for the privileged.
There is no doubt that Wells did love his wives. Love And Mr
Lewisham (1900) means no less than it says, with the name 'Lewisham' a
reflection of 'Wells'. This was his first serious novel of social manners,
which he took much time over. For, it is essentially a memorial to his
meeting his cousin Isabel Wells, to be his first wife.
His autobiography's first volume describes her as 'heart's delight'. However, she suffered from an ignorance and dread of sex inculcated in Victorian women and Wells suffered from his appetites. Moreover, her mind had not been educated or led-out and the narrowness of her views made it impossible for the young student Wells to discuss topics of any seriousness.
Wells, the young teacher, scandalously ran-off with one of his students,
Amy Catherine Wells. He re-christened her 'Jane', perhaps a sign of how much
he took her over. Her posthumous book speaks of her continued belief in free
love, which perhaps was just as well, considering her husband's chronic
'unfaithfulness'. Agreeable, educated and passionate companionship, in his
second wife, did not content him.
Yet, again, there is no doubt that he did love his second wife, also. The affectionate reminiscences and character insights in Wells' Experiment In Autobiography ( 1934 ), the amoosin' 'picshuas' and anecdotes are convincing enough and, indeed, not matched in the secret third volume. Fotos of Mrs Wells show both character and attractive modulation.
Also, there is outside evidence of the happiness and 'flying fun' of the hospitable Wells household, in Frank Swinnerton's Autobiography. 'Jane' was the manager, investor, and orderer of Wells life, so that he could get on with his work, typically writing in his fast long-hand, in the quiet of the night. As Wells remarked of himself: They feeds him and he turns out three or four books a year. Swinnerton says Jane was liable to tease. She probably learned that in retaliation to her husband.At their week-end parties, Wells was always trying to think up games he could win. There was a streak in him, of his sporting father, Joseph, the record-breaking amateur county cricketer. They had everyone playing charades, the fashionable dressing-up game of the inter-war years. Even the most dignified guests were drawn out of their reserve.
Wells had the knack of being able to strike-up a talk with all ranks of society. He was American in his relaxed informality, as if he had been a product of that classless society. This facility fed his novels, which remained prolific, even as his non-fiction burgeoned. The fluency of his conversation was admired to the extent it was thought a pity it didnt go into his books. Others said that, of course, it did.
Wells once summed-up his achievement as that of a man, who had escaped from his class. This was not the modest statement it now seems. Tono-Bungay ( 1908 ) is a celebrated sociological novel that shows how a feudal model of society still imposed on the country. Rising private enterprise, without social conscience, merely seems to enter the old manorial shell, so that new money is moulded by old money.
It would be a mistake to remember Wells only as a womaniser. He had a genuine sympathy and interest in all people, as his novels and other writings reveal. Admittedly, he was accused of not having any well-drawn women characters. This was well before his late novel Apropos Of Doloros ( 1938 ). For me, Doloros is his only really memorable female leading character. And I cant help feeling that suffering, in his old age, at some difficult woman for a companion, has etched her disagreeble character with painful vividness on the author. If so, he gets a literary revenge -- not an advisable practise, considering British libel laws.
All the same, this is one of Wells' best novels, tho biographers and critics usually ignored his later fictions, when he went out of fashion. From the start, its style is assured. This is a man of the world, the encyclopedist, you know has an encyclopedic knowledge even in his novels, because he deploys just what is needed to explain any setting.
While Wells waited apart ( See page top ),
Previously unpublished snap from Stanway, Gloucestershire in the
Two monochrome pictures added on 15 November 2005.
On my Democracy Science web-site, the page "World Peace thru Democracy: H G Wells' neglected third phase." also has a previously unpublished picture of Wells, at the same time.