Youthful Bertie Wells was understandably depressed in the depths of winter in early 1888. He had escaped the drudgery of being a draper’s apprentice with a scholarship, only to flunk his second-year university exams and lose his funding to the Normal School of Science in Kensington. He had started to teach science in a provincial school only to suffer another collapse of his health. The diagnosis was suspected tuberculosis, which promised him the prospect of prolonged invalidism at best or an early death at worst. His exasperated mother, the head servant at the large house at Uppark, made it clear that her employer would not always tolerate giving free lodgings to the three feckless Wells brothers. Bertie had nowhere to go.
It is a classic London story: he decided on a last throw of the dice and travelled to the Big Smoke with only £5 from his mother in his pocket. He took an attic room in Theobalds Road, struggled to find work, and was down to his last shilling when he began to pick up piecework in the newspapers, writing paragraphs first for A. V. Jennings, then others. He found a job teaching in Kilburn, crammed for his university re-sits (aiming at the cash prizes for top marks—he won £20), marked piles of essays for the University extension programme, and wrote for the Educational Times. He finally gained his University of London degree from that newfangled college of science.
Within a few months, Wells was set for a life as a London science teacher – a new, strange breed, distrusted by school boards so often stuffed with priests anxious to keep the alarming un-Biblical facts of biology and physics off the curriculum. As a new professional man, pulled up by his own boot-straps, he appeared to fit into the category of one of those precarious petit-bourgeois clerks clamouring for respectability that were so brilliantly lampooned in George and Weedon Grossmith’s The Diary of a Nobody (1892).
We owe Wells’s writing career to another haemorrhage in the lungs, and a long bout of influenza. It was clear he could not survive the physical rigours of being a teacher. While recovering, back with his mother again, he polished an essay and sent it speculatively to a leading monthly journal, far above his station in life. Amazingly, the Fortnightly Review published Wells’s first major essay in 1891, “The Rediscovery of the Unique.” It contained one of Wells’s first wonderfully crystalline images of science, which was also an indication of his early, somewhat impish relationship with the enlightenment it promised:
“Science is a match that man has just got alight. He thought he was in a room—in moments of devotion, a temple—and that his light would be reflected from and display walls inscribed with wonderful secrets and pillars carved with philosophical systems wrought into harmony. It is a curious sensation, now that the preliminary splutter is over and the flame burns up clear, to see his hands lit and just a glimpse of himself and the patch he stands on visible, and around him, in place of all that human comfort and beauty he anticipated—darkness still.”
It reads like a manifesto for the fiction to come, which would use the patterning of light and dark to conjure a melodramatic chiaroscuro. However, when Bertie was invited up to town to meet the editor of the Fortnightly, Frank Harris, it was only to be told his second submission was utterly incomprehensible and could never be published in the journal. He had stumbled again.
The complexity of his personal life was also starting to cause problems. He had married his cousin, Isabel, but found her sexually unresponsive and intellectually incompatible. They agreed to separate when Bertie started a relationship with Amy Robbins (a relationship he lightly fictionalized in his later novel Ann Veronica, much to the disgust of that pathological defender of the private life, Henry James). Wells was living in London but also “living in sin,” with an ex-wife and a mistress to support. They could keep up the veneer of petit-bourgeois respectability for landladies, but it was a precarious business. This was now too risqué to appear in Diary of a Nobody; he had the bohemian life of a somebody, but without much work to show for it.
By 1893, however, Wells was writing regular filler pieces for the Pall Mall Gazette, a liberal evening newspaper, and soon picked up other journalistic work. He stomped the streets like Dickens, looking for inspiration. 1894 was his breakthrough year: he sold seventy-five articles, five stories, and had a serial commissioned by the famous poet and editor, W. E. Henley, who plainly saw something of the coming man in the young author. This serial, tried out in loosely connected pieces for the National Observer in the spring of 1894, turned into The Time Machine, serialized (again by Henley) in the New Review in 1895. It would be the first of four books he published in 1895. W. T. Stead, in the influential Review of Reviews, declared Wells a “man of genius.” Wells earned nearly £800 that year, riches beyond the imagining of a draper’s boy. Bertie Wells had finally become the author “H. G. Wells” at the age of 28.
I am always struck by the disjunction between the cramped, restricted details of Wells’s lower middle-class early life, the son of a useless shop-keeper in Bromley and a harsh Puritan working mother, and the scale of the imaginative leaps he made in the emergent genre he called the “scientific romance” in the 1890s. In a few short years, he consolidated some of the key tropes of the genre that would eventually be called Science Fiction.
First, he messed with scale. As Wells revised The Time Machine over seven years, each time he pushed the traveller further into the future, until it was set over eight hundred thousand years ahead, with a further vision of the heat death of the solar system thirty million years hence. A time scale opened by his education in biology under the Darwinian ‘bulldog’ T. H. Huxley in Kensington was combined with a geological and then a truly cosmic temporal schema.
Then, he disturbed perspective. The War of the Worlds (1898) turns on a simple, breathtaking inversion of the telescopic gaze, imagining not us staring out over the solar system, but instead as the meager objects of the ‘envious eyes’ of ‘intellects vast and cool and unsympathetic’ gazing back at us murderously from Mars. The book sets out to dethrone arrogant English mastery at the height of empire. The power of alien swarms was also there in the encounter with the Selenites in The First Men in the Moon (1899).
Here is scale and reversed perspective, but even so the kernel is still in that suburban childhood on the very edges of London. Wells recalled in his autobiography: “I used to walk about Bromley, a small rather undernourished boy, meanly clad and whistling detestably between his teeth, and no one suspected that a phantom staff pranced about me and phantom orderlies galloped at my command, to shift the guns and concentrate the fire on those houses below, to launch the final attack upon yonder distant ridge.” He was blowing up the suburbs and slaughtering his neighbors from a very early age.
He also exploited anxieties about scientific advances. With The Invisible Man (1897) and The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), Wells updated the secretive, amoral figure of the “mad” man of science, unhinged by ambition. The dreams of Mary Shelley’s Victor Frankenstein, however misguided, partake of the Romantic sublime; they have Promethean grandeur. Wells replaces it with something far grubbier and more compromised: Griffin, the man who discovers invisibility, is a petty surburban moral weakling, irrationally angry, unable to cope, driven by meager vision. The vivisectionist Moreau arrogantly dismisses social niceties to carry on splicing his beasts together in a moral vaccum. Here is the interplay of dark and light represented in his image of the match struck in a darkened temple.
Of course, Wells came to be associated in the twentieth century with writing technocratic utopian visions (as in A Modern Utopia or much later in Things to Come), where the problems of democracy can be overcome by an elite of rational engineers—ideas that have had an ambiguous legacy in the last one hundred years to say the least. But in his first five years as a writer of scientific romances, Wells positively relished exploring the cultural disruptions of science, the delight and terror of ideas that put the category of the human continually into question.
It is Wells’s great strength, but also his limit, that he was always bound by the petit-bourgeois world of his upbringing. For many of his literary contemporaries, the hatred of Wells’s journalistic style and the accusation that he embraced anti-humanistic ideas of “efficiency” and “progress” were also expressions of class disdain. You’d expect the Bloomsbury elite to hate him (Forster and Woolf certainly did). Aldous Huxley called Wells a “horrid vulgar little man.” Even the Communists disliked him for his lack of consistent ideological position: in the 1930s, Christopher Caudwell suggested this was a result of Wells’s petit-bourgeois status, caught between the true agents of history, the workers and the capitalists.
Wells acted for a long time as a punch-bag, a straw man of dreary Edwardianism, against whom the cosmopolitan wonders of Modernism came into sharper focus. Leavis, who did so much to define the idea of the Great Tradition, also routinely dismissed Wells. This was a wrong turn, an unhelpful narrowing of literary taste, done explicitly to preserve an elite. At the seventieth anniversary of his death, in another moment of technoscientific revolution and ideological turbulence, overcoming this erasure and re-discovering Wells has never felt more useful or more urgent.
Featured image credit: “Architecture” by Pexels. CC0 Public Domain via Pixabay.