H. G. Wells: Biography & Literary Contribution

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      His Life. H.G. Wells was born and educated at Bromley in Kent. His father was an unsuccessful shop-keeper and professional cricketer, and already at thirteen Wells was earning a living as an apprentice, first to a chemist, then to a draper. Subsequently he became a teacher, and in 1884 entered the Normal School of Science, South Kensington, where he spent three years and gained much of the scientific knowledge which he was to turn to such good use. On leaving the College he again took up teaching, but in 1893 ill-health compelled him to leave the profession and turn to literature for a livelihood. He began as a journalist and contributed to such periodicals as The Fortnightly Review, Pall Mall Gazette, and Saturday Review. The year 1895 saw the publication of The Time Machine, first of the scientific romances which established him as a popular writer by 1900. In 1903 he joined the Fabian Society, only to leave it some six years later, though his interest in socialist political ideals remained strong for the rest of his life and he was later a keen supporter of the Labour party. He put up as labor candidate for London University, but he was not successful.

      His Works. The most prolific of major modem writers, Wells poured out scientific romances, novels, pamphlets, popular educational works, with incredible speed and regularity. In his writing life of some fifty years, he produced just under a hundred works. The first ten years after The Time Machine (1895) was primarily concerned with the scientific romances on which much of his popularity still rests. Among them we may mention The Stolen Bacillus and Other Stories (1895), The Wonderful Visit (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) revised as The Sleeper Awakes (1911), The First Men in the Moon (1901), The Food of the Gods (1904). In these stories, full of romantic incident and ready invention, Wells exploited the contemporary interest in science, packing them with a wealth of accurate scientific detail which gave them a strong appearance of actuality. Their appeal was immediate and enormous.

      Kipps (1905) marks the next turning-point in his career and was to be followed by the sociological novels in which his true greatness is seen. They include Tono- Bungay (1909), Ann Veronica (1909), The History of Mr. Polly (1910), The New Machiavelli (1911), Mr. Britling sees it through (1916), and, after a lapse of ten years, The World of William Clissold (1926). The forerunner of this phase had been the early Love and Mr. Lewisham (1900). These novels, like his romances, are full of interesting incidents and dramatic scenes, and the good-humored naturalness of their style makes them easy and attractive reading. They present a vivid picture of the contemporary social scene among the lower middle classes, which Wells had studied at first hand with close and detailed observation. In them his interest in problems of social adjustment and distinctions between classes is always apparent, but, kept within bounds, it does not overburden the story.

      Marriage (1912) and The Passionate Friends (1913) begin a series of novels in which Wells’s interest in social problems outweighs considerations of story and, character. The novels which immediately follow these two, The World Set Free (1914), The Wife of Sir Isaac I Larman (1914), The Research Magnificent (1915), Joan and Peter, The Story of an Education (1918), The Undying Fire (1919), The Secret Places of the Heart (1922), are all much inferior to the works of his great period.

      The 1914-18 war stimulated much thought on the problems of world organization and reconstruction, and Wells now chose more regularly the prose treatise as his chief literary form. As early as 1901 Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought had introduced Wells to the public as a popular writer of social treatises, and it had been followed by Mankind in the Making (1903), Socialism and the Family (1906), Worlds for Old (1908). Then with the War came An Englishman Looks at the World The War that will End War (1914), The Elements of Reconstruction (1916), Russia in the Shadows (1920), The Salvaging of Civilization (1921), and Washington and the Hope of Peace (1922). Throughout the thirties Wells steadily produced pamphlets, among them The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1931), After Democracy (1932), The Anatomy of Frustration (1936)—and then the 1939-45 War brought a final burst of activity in this field which had absorbed so much of his attention. Among the many treatises of this period mention should be made of The Fate of Homo Sapiens (1939), The New World order (1940), The Rights of Man (1940), The Common Sense of War and peace (1940), Science and the World-Mind (1942).

      This period of almost thirty years was not, however, devoted entirely to pamphleteering, and, in addition to his popular educational works, The Outline of History (1920) and A Short History of the World (1922), novels continued to flow from his pen. Many of the novels written during the thirties approached the manner of his maturity, and include The Autocracy of Mr. Parham (1930), The Bulpington of Blup (1933), Brynhild (1937), Apropos of Dolores (1938), and The Holy Terror (1939).

      Many of the works of H.G. Wells must go unmentioned, but we must not omit his Experiment in Autobiography (1934).

Features of his Novels.
      (a) Hisldeas. Wells was concerned above all things with contemporary social problems, and he ranks with Shaw as a leader of advanced political thought of his day. As a socialist he was concerned first with the reconstruction of modem society on a more equitable basis, and this he felt to be attainable only through the spread of education. This belief led him to produce not only his many treatises but also the popular educational works on science. Educational opportunities and political equality for women were among the causes he supported, and, though his plans for a world order involved a large degree of socialization and the subordination of the individual will to the communal good, he was a strong advocate of the importance of developing the capacity of each individual to its utmost limits. In pursuit of this ideal of self-development he opposed many of the conventional restrictions of his day. He was very interested in sex relationships and marriage, and his advocacy of free love placed him among advanced thinkers. The problem of the adjustment of the individual to his social environment was his chief interest, and if he was the opponent of class privilege, for the proletariat en masse he had little respect, and he had the strongest suspicions of the methods of contemporary democracy. His sympathy lay with the individual, for whom he had the warmest affection. These views, which gave him such immense influence in his day, are most fully expounded in his eminently readable prose treatises; they also underlie, not only the poorer, over-didactic novels of the 1912-20 period, but also those mature works in which he shows himself a novelist of very considerable standing.

      His Technique as a Novelist. Like Conrad and Hardy, he was a novelist presenting a serious view of life. Unlike his great contemporaries, he often used the novel for didactic purposes, and his stature as a novelist is correspondingly less than theirs. His view of the function of the novel is admirably summed up in the following extract from his article, The Contemporary Novel (1911):

It is to be the social mediator, the vehicle of understanding, the instrument of self-examination, the parade of morals and the exchange of manners, the factory of customs, the criticism of laws and institutions and of social dogmas and ideas. It is to be the home confessional, the initiator of knowledge, the seed of fruitful self-questioning...The novelist is going to be the most potent of artists, because he is going to present conduct, devise beautiful conduct, discuss conduct, analyze conduct, suggest conduct, illuminate it through and through...We are going to deal with political questions and religious questions, and social questions...Before we have, done we will have all life within the scope of the novel.

      At his best Wells succeeds in reconciling these aims with the demands of art, and the great novels have a spontaneous vitality and unfailing good humor, a warmth of human understanding and a naturalness of style which entitle them to a high place in twentieth-century fiction. They present real-life with great accuracy and breadth, and Wells shows himself a master of technique. But his technique is that of an older generation, of the traditional English novel. By the modem theories of the ‘art’ of the novel he was untouched, and his narrative method is always direct and uncomplicated. The air of reality which appears even in his scientific romances is most striking in the mature novels.

      His Characters. In his major novels Wells presents a large gallery of portraits, of which the best are studies of simple, lovable souls like Mr. Polly or Kipps, ordinary men of no particular importance who are pitiful in their attempts to order their lives. For the most part his finest characters are drawn from the lower middle class, which he studied with sympathy and humor.

      His Humour. His humour is one of the most appealing features of his best novels, and of none more than Kipps and The History of Mr. Polly. Quietly and unobtrusively it plays around its subjects, sometimes providing whole scenes or incidents of fun, sometimes resting on a single word, inserted with apparent casualness. Many of his best characters are, indeed, humorous figures.

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