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Herbert George Wells was born on 21st September 1866 in Bromley, Kent. He was the youngest of four siblings and his family affectionately knew him as ‘Bertie’. At the time of his birth his father, Joseph Wells, was a professional cricketer playing for the Kent county team. While this afforded him some income, it was far too little to raise a family and so he and his wife Sarah, a former domestic servant, acquired a shop on Bromley high street selling sporting goods and chinaware. It was above this shop that H. G. Wells was born.
The first few years of his childhood were spent fairly quietly, and Wells didn’t display much literary interest until he broke his leg in 1874 and was left to recover in bed, largely entertained by the library books his father regularly brought him. He found he could escape the boredom and misery of his bed by exploring the new worlds he encountered in these books. This soon gave way to an interest in creating such worlds, and from then on he was motivated to write. Indeed, the same year he began at Thomas Morley’s Commercial Academy where, he later said, the educational focus seemed directed towards trade skills and copperplate handwriting. He spent the next six years at the Academy.
In October 1879 Sarah secured Wells a position through a distant relative as pupil-teacher at the National School at Wookey, Somerset, where, as a senior pupil of the school, he would teach the younger children. Unfortunately, however, in only December that same year the relative, Arthur Williams, was dismissed for “irregularities in his qualifications” and so Wells was concurrently dismissed. He moved to Midhurst Grammar School, though his time there was equally brief. His father had fractured his thigh in 1877, an incident which put him out of cricket for the remainder of his career. For a while the family continued to survive on the shop’s income, but it was in a poor location and even more poorly stocked so profit was scarce. Even though cricket had only been a minor part of the family’s income, the loss of it was eventually enough to encourage Joseph and Sarah to place their sons into apprenticeships, and so in 1880 Wells left Morley’s Academy to take up work as a chemist’s assistant in nearby Midhurst, though his time there was short. Thereafter he took work at the Southsea Drapery Emporium, Hyde’s, as an apprentice draper. The rigours of the thirteen hour day and the experience of the dormitory, sleeping with his fellow apprentices, made a significant impression on him and are integral to the plotting of his earlier novels.
Though still inspired by the books he read, he found he had no time to write as, combined with the hardship of his apprenticeship, the stress of his parents’ difficult marriage distracted him to such an extent that he lost focus on his drapery and failed. The family’s financial situation forced his mother to return to work as a lady’s maid at a country house in Sussex, where only she was to be accommodated, which effectively broke the family up as Joseph and the children were left living at a great distance from one another. Herein, Joseph and Sarah effectively split, though they remained faithful to one another and never legally divorced. After having persuaded his parents to release him from his apprenticeship in 1883, Wells visited his mother at Uppark while arrangements were made for him to recommence as a pupil-teacher, this time back at Midhurst Grammar. While at Uppark, however, Wells found solace in the house’s extensive library, where he read, amongst other pivotal works, More’s Utopia and Plato’s Republic. Failing again at his appointment with the chemist, he returned to Uppark once more, as he said “the bad shilling back again!” where another stint in the library marked the beginning of his literary career.
He spent a year at Midhurst and the following year won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science, which would become the Royal College of Science in South Kensington. He studied biology under the tuition of Thomas Henry Huxley, the famous advocate of the theory of evolution, known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” for his ferocity. The scholarship afforded him twenty-one shillings per week upon which to live, and he remained at the College until 1887. The College had a debating society which quickly piqued Wells’s interest, and he joined it within his first year. Drawing on his learnings from his time in the library at Uppark, he soon became interested and involved with societal matters, including that of reformation and revolution. Though his initial involvement was founded on his understanding of The Republic, it wasn’t long before he began to consider socialist matters from a more contemporary perspective, encouraged by his fellows and recently expressed by the Fabian Society, a newly established socialist organism seeking reform by gradualist means. He attended lectures given at the home of the artist and socialist William Morris, Kelmscott House. Wells numbered amongst the co-founders of The Science School Journal, for which he began to write about his own views on society, and indeed
literature. The journal also provided an environment in which he could relatively safely experiment with fiction writing, and the earliest version of The Time Machine (1895) was published in the journal, under the name The Chronic Argonauts. He lost his scholarship in 1887 when he failed to pass his geology exams, owing to an absence of interest, and despite having successfully passed exams in biology and physics.
Wells lived in Stoke-on-Trent in 1888, staying in both Basford and in Burslem in the Leopard Hotel. In a letter to a friend he wrote that “the district made an immense impression on me”, and it is widely thought that he took inspiration from the Potteries, the furnaces and industry of the area in his imagining of the landscape of The War of the Worlds. While here he wrote The Cone, a macabre short story, which was published in 1895 alongside The Time Machine. It is set in the north of Stoke-on-Trent. He spent some time teaching at Henley House School where he taught A.A. Milne, and after some time decided to further his knowledge of the methodology and principles of the practice of education. In order to do so, he enrolled at the College of Preceptors, now the College of Teachers, and went on to receive his Licentiate and Fellowship FCP diplomas. Two years later, in 1890, Wells finally received a Bachelor of Science degree, in zoology, from the University of London External Programme. Having left London he found himself without accommodation until he moved to his aunt Mary’s house, where he courted his cousin, Isabel Mary Wells, whom he married in 1891.
Wells was still teaching at Henley House School throughout the courtship and marriage, and gradually he became romantically interested with Amy Catherine Robbins, one of his students. Wells separated from Isabel in favour of Amy, who later became known as Jane, and they married in 1895. The same year saw the publication of The Time Machine. Interestingly, Wells was initially expecting to reuse the material from The Chronic Argonauts, the first version he had written for his College journal, in a series of articles for the Pall Mall Gazette. However, upon that magazine’s publisher’s request he instead expanded and serialised the novel on the agreement of a sum of £100 on publication by Heinemann. The sum, equivalent to approximately £10,000 in 2013, was significantly more money than he expected or had, and he readily agreed. It ran from January to May in The New Review, and then was published in its first book edition by Henry Holt and Company in New York on 7th May of the same year. Shortly thereafter Heinemann produced an English book edition, which became available on 29th May. The two editions differ slightly, distinguished by their publishers’ names, and the majority of modern reprints adhere to the Heinemann text. In the book, Wells coins the terms ‘time machine’, and introduces and popularises the concept of purposeful and selective travel through time. Along with the novel’s significance for the genre of science fiction is its importance as a text of social commentary and criticism, exploring Wells’s views of abundance and the industrial revolution.
Buoyed by his success with The Time Machine, Wells proceeded with his next major work, The Wonderful Visit. It was published in the same year, by MacMillan and Co., to critical acclaim. It is purportedly based on a famous quotation from John Ruskin, the painter and critic, who wrote that, were an angel to appear in Victorian England, it would be shot on sight. Wells introduces themes of contemporary fantasy and satire, and was highly praised for the book; Joseph Conrad wrote to him praising his
“imagination so unbounded and so brilliant”. Alongside these two more prominent works of 1895 were two others, Select Conversations With An Uncle and The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents.
In The Island of Doctor Moreau, published by Heinemann, Stone and Kimball in 1896, Wells imagines our narrator, Edward Prendrick, marooned on the island of Doctor Moreau who uses the vivisection of animals to construct macabre representations of human beings. Using this model Wells is able to explore a number of philosophical ideas about morality, ethics and pain. He wrote the book at a time of increasing and vested interest in vivisection across Europe, and in the succeeding few years several interest groups were established, notable amongst which was the British Union for the Abolition of Vivisection. Changing direction somewhat from these more intellectually stimulating and challenging topics, Wells finished 1896 with The Wheels of Chance, a satirical comedy, much in the vein of Jerome K. Jerome’s more famous and celebrated Three Men in a Boat. It was written at the height of the cycling craze in Great Britain, when bicycles became cheap to manufacture and available to the masses, and imagines the escapist holiday of a frustrated draper whose calamitous expedition by bicycle to the South coast to explore new areas of his country.
The next year saw his published work return to its more philosophical grandeur with the publication by C. Arthur Pearson of The Invisible Man. Firmly in his now established vein of early science fiction, it explores the moral and social implications of scientific experiment and the consequences when the experiment malfunctions. In 1897 Wells completed what is arguably his most famous, most influential and most recognisable work, The War of the Worlds. He had been working on the idea since 1895, and when it was published it was classified along with his earlier work The Time Machine as ‘scientific romance’. Considering the events of a martian invasion laying waste to southern England, Wells explores some of the popular superstitions of Victorian society and ideas about British Imperialism. Though it had been serialised the year before in Pearson’s Magazine, for which he was paid £200 on the condition that he tell the publisher how it ends before receipt of payment, it was more successful the following year when it was published in book form by Heinemann. It has never since been out of print.
Part of its success is arguably attributable to the population of invasion literature, a burgeoning genre most prominent between 1871 and 1914. Indeed, between these years there were over 60 works published in the genre. Its focus was largely directed towards the increasing hostilities between the British Empire and her European colonies, and the ramifications of the widespread nature of the British Empire. Most famous and perhaps antecedent of these novels is The Battle of Dorking, written in 1871 by George Tomkyns Chesney, imagining a surprise invasion by the Germans while naval interests were directed towards colonial patrol and the army was away in Ireland. While this novel, and many of the genre, bear various similarities to The War of the Worlds, Wells’s novel is far superior as a criticism of the nature of empire for it deals with, not invasion by a former colony or a rival empire, but exactly the sort of brutal, destructive colonialisation by a hitherto unknown enemy which the Empire itself was guilty of. The Martians, with all their technology, force and exploitative motivation, closely resemble the very people they are invading.
Between 1898 and 1899, Wells serialised a novel entitled When The Sleeper Awakes, concerning a man who, after experimenting with drugs to alleviate his insomnia, enters a sort of coma for 203 years and wakes up in the year 2100 to find that his wealth, with compound interest from the bank, accumulated to such an extent over the course of his coma that he is now the richest man in the world. Meanwhile, a sinister organisation called the White Council has invested his money and used his status as a demi-god to justify their actions in order to establish a plutocracy. Graham awakes and is presented with a dystopian reality over which he effectively has dominion. The novel sought to explore the nature of greed and oppression and, though it was fairly successful in its time, Wells revisited it in 1910 to far greater commercial and critical acclaim with The Sleeper Awakes. Wells followed the first version of this novel with Love and Mr Lewisham, something of a departure from his now established science fiction genre, and a protagonist who bears striking resemblance to Wells in several ways. Mr Lewisham is a teacher at the age of eighteen, he falls in love in circumstances which cause the loss of his teaching post, and he progresses to study at the Normal School of Science, where Wells himself had studied. Wells himself spoke of the differences between this and his earlier work, stating that “the writing was an altogether more serious undertaking than I have ever done before”.
In 1901, and in poor health, Wells moved near Folkestone to Sandgate where he built a large home, which he named Spade House, for his family in anticipation of his first son, George Philip, who was born in the same year on 17th July. Wells had by now established himself as a significant proponent of the scientific romance genre, which would later become known as science fiction as the genre of ‘romance’ in its original medieval definition of adventure, voyage and learning became archaic and was replaced by the contemporary romantic novel. He wrote a novel almost every year until 1941 when he published his last novel, You Can’t Be Too Careful, and in each he explores his various progressive, and progressing, political and social ideas.
Alongside his significant output of serialised novels, Wells was a prolific writer of shorter stories and non-fiction, whether that be social and political commentary or scientific journalism, literary criticism or autobiography. His attendance at the Fabian Society continued, and it was through connections made there that he had several affairs, with Jane’s consent, with writers, political thinkers and most ironically an American birth control activist named Margaret Sanger. Despite these affairs, his marriage to Jane continued and remained strong enough that they had another child, Frank Richard, in 1903, and the marriage continued until 1927 when Jane died. Meanwhile, having met the parents of novelist Amber Reeves at the Fabian Society, he began an affair with her which resulted in a child, born in 1909, named Anna-Jane. Five years later, in 1914, he had a son, Anthony West, with the feminist and novelist Rebecca West, who at the time was twenty-six years younger than him. He remained in fairly regular contact with his lovers and his children.
While continuing to write at his regular pace of one or two novels, short stories or essays per year, Wells became more involved with politics and religion, though he was outspoken in his criticism of the Catholic church in his final years. Having suffered from diabetes throughout his life, in 1934 he decided to set up the charity which became Diabetes UK, the UK’s leading diabetes charity. He died at 13 Hanover Terrace, Regent’s Park, London, his home, in 1946 on 13th August of ‘unspecified causes’. He was 79 years of age.