Alvaro Zinos-Amaro Reviews The Young H.G. Wells: Changing the World by Claire Tomalin

The Young H.G. Wells: Changing the World, Claire Tomalin (Penguin Press 978-1984879028, $28.00, 272pp, hc) November 2021.

Our literature on H.G. Wells is fast ap­proaching the volume of Wells’s own output, no small feat considering that the uber-prolific writer published some 50 novels, 70 non-fiction books – including a two-volume autobiography, much-mined by those writing about his life – and around one hundred short stories in dozens of collections. His knotty life has been tempting biographers and critics for decades now, with subtitles like His Turbulent Life and Times (Lovat Dickson), Desperately Mortal (David C. Smith) and Another Kind of Life (Michael Sherborne) suggesting a measure of the man’s refusal to abide by the political, social, and artistic mores of his time. Of recent vintage are Sarah Cole’s Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century and Adam Roberts’ H.G. Wells: A Literary Life, both Lo­cus Award finalists. In his study Roberts points out that much of Wells’s “immense oeuvre has fallen into public neglect.” The reason is a kind of consensual bias (and here I am putting words into Roberts’s mouth) that may go something like this: Wells’s formative years and most famous and influential works merit serious attention, while the subsequent decades, beset by a series of scandals and the diminishing returns of increasingly clan­gorous didacticism, paint a picture of decline best glossed over. Roberts explicitly sets out to redress this imbalance by covering in detail the many books that Wells wrote in the 1920s and beyond, enthusiastically praising their merits. To the growing corpus of works on Wells, we can now add Claire Tomalin’s thoroughly engaging The Young H.G. Wells: Changing the World, which candidly and disarmingly swivels the spotlight back toward orthodoxy by highlighting almost exclusively Wells’s childhood, adolescence, and early maturity. The “young” of the title should be taken with a grain of salt, though: in the book’s final chapter, Tomalin muses, “I see I have fol­lowed him [Wells] into his forties – my excuse being that he still seems and behaves like a young man, and that he was still struggling to achieve the status he felt he had earned.” Indeed, her book, chronologically speaking, captures about half of Wells’s incredibly tumultuous yet productive life, following a structural design essentially anti­thetical to the spirit of Roberts’s more revisionist approach. Tomalin, now 88, is a noted biographer of figures like Mary Wollstonecraft, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Jane Austen, Thomas Hardy, and Charles Dickens. Given the copious coverage of Wells’s life, and Tomalin’s relative inactivity during the last decade, it’s fair to ask what about Wells drew her back into the biographer’s fold. The answer, it turns out, is quite straightforward. In a recent interview, when asked about her choice of sub­ject, Tomalin enthused: “I find the young H.G. Wells so charming, so delightful, and I thought he would be good company, to write about, and he has indeed been good company.” One almost gets the sense that, nearing her ninth decade, Tomalin vicariously supped from the record of Wells’s stupendous outpouring of energy. It’s a sprightliness that she passes on to the reader. The elder Wells, much feted for his early accomplish­ments but somewhat ignored for his late-life endeavors, may not have been, we can intuit, quite so charming or delightful.

Tomalin’s book begins by invok­ing an appraisal by George Orwell that valorizes Wells’s early works and essentially dismisses the latter ones, an assessment that Tomalin herself shares: “Wells produced stories and novels of extraordi­nary brilliance and originality up to the period just before the First World War, and then seems to have stopped trying, with the result that his novels became disappointing.” She continues, “the books of his I most admired were all written in the period starting in 1895, when he published his first story, The Time Machine, at the age of 29, and up to 1911.” Tomalin and Roberts have clearly opposing viewpoints, then; both are worth engaging with. “He [Wells] was a fighter, and very determined,” Tomalin said about Wells in the aforementioned interview, and her evident admiration shines through on the page. We learn of Wells’s birth as the last child of poor parents; we follow his two elder brothers being appren­ticed to drapers, and Wells’s early resistance to submit to this same path; the miseries felt by his mother, and his father’s history of failure. Perhaps most significant in his childhood was an accident that led to a broken tibia: “His father took it on himself to supply him [Wells] with books, fetch­ing them almost daily from the local Literary Institute: geography, history, natural history, and the magazines Punch and Fun – known as the poor man’s Punch – which he read and reread. Read­ing became his passion, and he was also blessed with a good memory for what he read and saw.” A few years later, when Wells was 12 or 13, he produced a book, The Desert Daisy, “handwrit­ten and illustrated on almost every one of its 96 pages.” This is emblematic of his precociousness and pragmatism. Indeed, one of several animating strands in Wells, “a republican, an atheist, and a socialist,” was the utter conviction of his visionary writings about the future combined with his cease­less pursuit of fame and sex in the here-and-now. Wells the utopian, we gather, was always happy, in his fiction and non-fiction, to illuminate the foibles of the modern world and the relativism of its social attitudes, as long as he was paid the highest going rate to do so.

The best of Tomalin’s insights sparkle with deceptive simplicity: “Throughout his life Wells found happiness in sunshine, fresh air, and open spaces.” This is the kind of realization distilled from a deep knowledge of many individual facts and sources. Despite suffering recurrent bouts of illness throughout his life, several of them putting him near death, Wells worked always at a (forgive the pun) fever pitch, as though he was possessed of an iron constitution. And while he often invested a great deal of himself in relation­ships that sometimes proved transient, his work was a permanent commitment. “In life,” Tomalin declaims, “Wells let himself be distracted by nothing.” A further character trait worth citing, which helps to dispel the notion of per­sonal volatility: “He was loyal, and he inspired loyalty.” Another joy of the book’s early chapters, and the result of Wells’s ceaseless literary productivity as a critic, is seeing his response to works we now regard as classics, like Joseph Conrad’s An Outcast of the Islands and Thomas Hardy’s Jude the Obscure. On the flipside, I would have liked more details on other writers’ specific responses to the publication of The Time Machine, which we are told was generally hailed as “an extraordinary achievement and a work of genius.” Every once in a while – as when, for instance, Tomalin says of The Island of Doctor Moreau, “I still hesitate before returning to it, but when I do I find that its narrative power holds me again, in spite of my reluctance” – she writes directly in the first person, and this helps not only to humanize her book but to communicate her ongoing involvement with the work of her subject. Her readings of Wells’s classics, along with a number of his mainstream novels, letters, and autobiographical pieces, are perceptive and born out of a genuine appreciation of his writing.

Tomalin is likewise excellent in her identifi­cation of the authors who influenced the early Wells’s thinking and literary aesthetics, such as Voltaire, Rousseau, Emerson, Spenser, Heine, Keats, Whitman, as well as specific works like Plato’s Republic, Tom Paine’s Rights of Man, Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Samuel Johnson’s Rasselas, Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter, Richard Doddridge Blackmore’s Lorna Doone, and Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island and Jekyll and Hyde. Later chapters explore, in some detail, Wells’s mar­riages, his successful forays into non-fiction of all kinds, his friendships with Maxim Gorky, George Bernard Shaw, George Gissing, and Arnold Ben­nett, as well as his sometimes inconstant or even fraught associations with Beatrice Webb, Joseph Conrad, Winston Churchill, Henry James, Edith Nesbit, and many, many others. An ongoing question, indeed often literally posed as such by Tomalin, is how the devil exactly Wells could have done everything we know he did. “How was it possible for him to have fitted in all these things?” Tomalin inquires. “He kept working at what seems an impossible rate,” she notes, “pro­ducing stories so varied one might easily think they came from a team of writers.” Later: “Did he work through the nights? Did he get up before dawn and write in the early hours of each day?”Again: “This represents a load of work so heavy it is hard to think how he managed to get through it.”

Though short, The Young H.G. Wells contains a few repetitions, sometimes convenient, other times unnecessary. This leads me to a related observation: I can appreciate Tomalin wanting us to have a decent understanding of what the Fabian Society repre­sented, but the chapter in which she leaves Wells behind in order to ground us in the group’s history was, for me, a slight misfire. The book’s closing chapter, however, which presents a panoramic view of Wells’s last decades, as seen through his relation­ships, is understated and touching.

Pondering the Wells that emerges from these pages, I’m fascinated by our glimpses into his inner landscape, specifically how his speculations about the future sometimes informed his behavior or way of expressing himself in the present. One example. “A Modern Utopia,” Tomalin writes, “was par­ticularly popular for its depiction of a future world state: vegetarian, republican, and peaceful, ruled by gentle intellectuals who abjure usury, alcohol, and sex, take cold baths, read new books regularly, and discipline and revitalize themselves by solitary weeks in the wilderness. They are known as samu­rai….” Some readers took it upon themselves to form these so-called Samurai groups. In a personal letter to his lover Amber Reeves, some time later, Wells says: “I believe that together we can work, or if you don’t settle down to work and isolation with me clean and Samurai.” While Tomalin pays Wells the compliment of taking much of what he wrote about himself at face value, this tendency occasion­ally does her an evaluative disservice. For instance, following another letter to Amber in which Wells proposes ideas for which he wasn’t known, Tomalin expresses bafflement. “I find it the most interesting of all his many surviving letters to her, because he is thinking clearly and setting out to be as honest as he can. Its most surprising – indeed, extraordinary – aspect is his insistence that they must practice a strict monogamy and remain permanently faithful to one another. What has happened to the Wells who believed so strongly in sexual freedom, and insisted on it throughout his life?” At the risk of being cyni­cal, my reading of Wells’s letter is that rather than being the result of clear thinking, it is the product of self-deception: he may have earnestly believed every word of it when he wrote it, but if we consider the emotional context and circumstances of his life at the time, perhaps we should not.

One thing is clear. Despite the many obstacles in his path, Wells emerges invariably victorious, if not necessarily content. The first half or so of Tomalin’s volume really brings home the Horatio Alger in Herbert George. The world, or much of it, comes to know and celebrate his genius, and his influence on our genre remains, despite all best efforts at estima­tion, truly incalculable. Wells crams three or four lifetimes into his allotted years, perhaps not traveling through time per se, but somehow, through sheer determination, elasticizing it. “Even when he faced illness, poverty, and unhappiness, his driving will and intelligence kept him from despair,” Tomalin observes. Any kind of lasting contentment seems likewise to have eluded him. His endless, roving quest is a riddle and an inspiration – and, above all else, it is our legacy.

Alvaro Zinos-Amaro, Roundtable Editor, is co-author of a book of interviews with Robert Silverberg, Traveler of Worlds, that was a Hugo and Locus Award finalist in 2017. Alvaro’s more than 30 stories and 100 reviews, essays and interviews have appeared in magazines like Clarkesworld, Asimov’s, Apex, Analog, Lightspeed, Nature, Strange Horizons, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Galaxy’s Edge, Lackington’s, and anthologies such as The Year’s Best Science Fiction & Fantasy 2016, Cyber World, Humanity 2.0, and This Way to the End Times.

This review and more like it in the January 2022 issue of Locus.

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