The History of HG Wells
Friday October 9, 2015 by Guest Blogger
In this series I’ve sought out the great and the good, and this month I check out one of the very best. He’s a personal hero too, so I’m very happy that my research has only reaffirmed to me what a truly Great Briton Herbert George Wells was.
Yes, indeed…once in a long while, a proper human being comes along. And HG Wells (as he’s popularly known) was definitely one such being. So, what made him such a great guy, and what’s he famous for? Let’s delve more deeply into the life of the man they call the Father of Science Fiction.
“Midhurst is one of those places in England which has retained a Catholic congregation from pre-reformation times and a little proselytizing priest flitted about it, very ready to be friendly with any casual young men he might encounter. He had a slightly lewd streak in his conversation that I found repulsive; he pushed his joke at you slily and laughed fatly first, he belonged to that “jolly” school of propagandist which seeks to make it clear that there is none of your damned Kill-Joy Puritanism about the dear old, merry old church…”
Taken from HG’s ’Experiment in Autobiography’…this great quote sure says a lot about the way in which he viewed the world. In fact, HG’s harsh early life would define him in every way and massively effected the way he viewed every aspect of life in his adult years.
So, those formative years
Each morning at 7 o’clock 15 year old HG and his fellow draper’s apprentices were brusquely roused from their dorm beds. Anyone not immediately up had the sheets pulled off them and they’d probably have something taken from their already pathetic wage too.
“We flung on old suits, tucking our nightgowns into our trousers, and were down in the shop in a quarter of an hour, to clean windows, unwrap goods and fixtures, and dust, generally before eight. At eight we raced upstairs to get first go at the wash basins, dressed for the day and at half-past eight partook of a bread and butter breakfast before descending again.”
From then on their day was one of almost unbroken tedium. HG arranged displays, carried dummies from the costume room, refilled the pin bowls, and prepared the dozens of parcels that left the Southsea Drapery Emporium.
“There were a hundred small fussy things to do, straightening up, putting away, fetching and carrying. It was not excessively laborious but it was indescribably tedious. . .the length of those days at Southsea was enormous until closing time; then the last hour fell swiftly past me to “lights out” at half past ten.”
Half past ten!!! After two years of this he couldn’t take it any more, and made his life changing move.
“I had reached a vital crisis of my life. I felt extraordinarily desperate and, faced with binding indentures and maternal remonstrances*, I behaved very much like a hunted rabbit that at last turns and bites.”
So after briefly considering and rejecting suicide as a possible option, HG quit his job and started on the path that was to take him to worldwide fame as a novelist, short story writer and sociologist. And although he wrote more than 100 books, Kipps, which tells the story of a draper’s rise (and which has justly been called the first modern novel), is still possibly one of his best.
HG’s parents had an unhappy marriage and he also grew up under the continual threat of real poverty. His father ran a spectacularly unsuccessful shop that specialized in porcelain and cricket supplies (I know right), but he was a talented cricketer who earned some money playing professionally. When HG came along he was a gifted (precocious) child and learned to read at just five. At seven he was laid low by an accident and during his recuperation he read Wood’s Natural History, The Bible and The Pilgrim’s Progress. Just a bit of light reading then…
At 14, after a very inadequate education, he was apprenticed to a draper in Windsor but his employer soon had to let him go.
He then became assistant to a chemist for a while, and then back to another draper, at the Southsea Drapery Emporium in Portsmouth (see above!)
As we’ve seen already, this was a dark period for Herbert and so it was that with just five pounds to his name, he moved to London (this was in 1888) where he initially made some money by writing about science. In 1889, the Henley House School hired him as a teacher. Strangely, he taught the poet A. A. Milne during this time! Equally strangely, he somehow found the time to simultaneously study at London University, and in 1890, he was awarded his BSc in Zoology. With honours, naturally.
Marriage and infidelity
Following his graduation, he had enough money to marry his cousin (Isabel Mary Wells) and to rent a house. Shortly after this, he began a long series of infidelities. This may sound weird but it was all to do with his strong beliefs based around personal freedoms that he’d developed during his harsh childhood. Of course, his wife was aware of these and had been happy to go ahead with the union regardless.
In 1893, he started an affair with a former student, Amy Catherine Robbins (this ended his marriage, and was a minor scandal at the time), and in 1895 Amy became his second wife. Although this marriage was lasting and produced two sons, HG was an unabashed advocate of free love. Uh, yeah…nice if you can get it! Anyway, he continued to openly have extra-marital liaisons, most famously with American sex educator, writer, and nurse Margaret Sanger, and a ten year relationship with author Rebecca West, who had one of his two out-of-wedlock children. Phew! Busy schedule or what?
Finally, some success
Despite all this upheaval, HG continued writing to supplement his (science) teaching salary and his first published book was a Textbook of Biology. In terms of his (science fiction) writing his very first novel, The Time Machine (1895) was immediately successful.
He then produced a series of science fiction novels that revealed him as a writer of amazing originality: The Island of Doctor Moreau, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds (this novel was made famous by Orson Welles’s 1938 hoax radio adaptation), The First Men in the Moon, and The Food of the Gods were all part of a compendium of works that I read (and loved) as a teenager.
For a time he acquired a reputation as a bit of a prophet of the future, and indeed, in The War in the Air he foresaw some key developments in the use of military aircraft. The Island of Doctor Moreau was very controversial and some readers took offense at cruelties depicted in this story of animals transformed into near humans. The Guardian laid into it as an attempt "to parody the work of the Creator, and cast contempt upon the dealings of God with his creatures." Typically, The pompous Guardian had got it wrong. Because behind his inventiveness lay a passionate concern for man and society.
Despite the controversy however, he was able to become financially secure and this allowed HG and Amy to build Spade House near Folkestone in Kent. HG still craved success outside of the Science Fiction genre and in 1905, he finally achieved it with that book we mentioned - Kipps.
So HG finally decided to abandon science fiction altogether for comic novels of lower middle-class life, in which he drew on memories of his early life, and, through the thoughts of inarticulate yet often ambitious heroes, revealed the hopes and frustrations of clerks, shop assistants and underpaid teachers, who had rarely before been treated in fiction with such sympathetic understanding. This successful transition was most notably achieved in Love and Mr. Lewisham, Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, and The History of Mr. Polly. In these novels he displayed his deep, empathetic understanding of humanity and all of its foibles.
The final chapter
At the beginning of the twentieth century, HG became an active socialist, and in 1903 joined the Fabian Society. At this point he moved away from considering himself a creative writer, wanting to return to journalism. He used his international fame to promote his favorite causes, including the prevention of war, and was received by government officials around the world. Read his famous interview with Stalin here.
In 1933, he returned to London and when World War Two broke out he refused to flee the Blitz and continued to live in the city until his death. He died in 1946, having left his indelible and wonderful mark on the world.
* His mum was on his case.
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Posted by Guest Blogger