Reference > Fiction > Nonfiction > Warner, et al., eds. > The Library

C.D. Warner, et al., comp.  The Library of the World’s Best Literature.
An Anthology in Thirty Volumes.  1917.
H. G. Wells (1866–1946)
Critical and Biographical Introduction by Ernest Hunter Wright (1882–1968)
THE READER of Wells’s novels may infer from them a good deal about the author’s life, for in general terms Wells is assuredly one of the most autobiographical of novelists. Herbert George Wells was born September 21st, 1866, at Bromley, Kent—evidently the “Brompton” of ‘Tono-Bungay.’ His father was a famous cricketer, and kept, or rather failed to keep, a small general shop. His mother had been a lady’s maid before marriage, and after the failure of the shop returned to service as a housekeeper, in which capacity she doubtless provided for her son the ample experience that is recorded in ‘Tono-Bungay’ and in ‘Bealby’ of the gulf between the folk in drawing-rooms and those below stairs. The boy was apprenticed to a draper, first at Windsor and then at Southsea, and this short experience left its direct impress on at least three of the novels. ‘The Wheels of Chance,’ ‘Kipps,’ and ‘The History of Mr. Polly’—three stories that stand apart from most of the novels because in them the author mainly evades the larger social problems in order to tell the tale of a middle-class life for its own sake—take a draper’s assistant for hero. At sixteen Wells left the shop to become assistant in the Midhurst Grammar School. Then he became a scholar in the Normal School of Science, South Kensington, and in time proceeded to the degree of Bachelor of Science, with first-class honors in zoölogy. He served for a time as Assistant Master at Henley House School, St. John’s Wood, produced a textbook and certain papers on educational topics, and kept up an interest in experimentation. But by 1893 his main interest is in journalism, and he advances through the composition of a number of sketches, essays, and short stories, to the publication of his first romance in 1895.  1
  The bearing of these facts upon his work is of importance. If they do not account for his talent, they are at least exceptionally adequate to explain the kinds of work to which he has devoted it. Boyhood experience of social inequality might naturally arouse an acute mind to the challenge of social conventions, superficial or deep-seated, and to the desire to remold the scheme of things more reasonably; nor would service in a draper’s shop, instead of a career at Eton, blunt the point of such challenge and such aspiration. That challenge and aspiration lie near the base of nearly every book that Wells has written, in whichever of his several styles. But on the whole they are most insistent, or at least most serious, not in the earlier books, when the experiences mentioned were most recent, but in the later works. And this is because of the strong interest in natural science that intervened with his transition from the draper’s shop, through schoolmastering, to the study of biology and chemistry in London. For the next twenty years or so his mind deals mainly with scientific matter, and in his first period of authorship he is writing principally the romance of science. He displays the marvels that chemistry and mechanics might achieve. But even here the social interest is much alive. For though the main emphasis in these romances may rest on the mere miracles that experiment might work, the underlying purpose is nearly always to contrast the present wayward world with such a world as science might create, to prophesy the changes toward justice and reason that science will bring about. From romances of this sort the step is easy to the series of treatises and prophecies beginning with ‘Anticipations’ in 1901, and running through what we may call the middle period of the author’s work—a series in which natural science plays gradually a smaller part, and social speculation gradually a larger one. Even in these works the element of fiction is often strong; and the transition from them is again easy to the realistic novels, each coping with one or more complex problems of the social order, to which the author has chiefly devoted himself since 1909. Such is, roughly, the history of the author’s work. The shifts from scientific romance to sociological treatise, and from this to realistic novel, are not abrupt, nor is the chronology perfect. Works of all three kinds appear, in fact, in all three decades of his career. But the great preponderance of interest is as here indicated.  2
  In the romance of science, his earliest species of fiction, the interest in what research and invention may accomplish in sheer wonder is combined with an interest as to how they may transform the individual and ameliorate the social structure. In ‘The Time Machine,’ for instance, the first extended romance which (in 1895) followed the early sketches and short stories in this vein, we meet with an invention that transports one back into past times or forward into future ages, and naturally its most interesting revelation is a vision of society as it will be in centuries to come. In ‘The Wonderful Visit’ (1895) an angel, winged by a charge from the shot-gun of the vicar of Siddermouth, is brought to earth for the purpose of perplexing the clergyman with questions as to why things in this world should be so irrational. In the next three stories there is somewhat less of the reformer. ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau’ (1896) deals with the marvels that surgery might do in imitating and outrunning evolution. ‘The Invisible Man’ (1897) is a thrilling and, in its own way, realistic story of the performances of a man who could live unseen of the people around him. ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1898) tells of our invasion by an army of superior warriors from Mars.  3
  In ‘When the Sleeper Wakes’ (1899) the social interest is dominant again. A man goes into a trance and wakes up in the year 2100 to find the world much changed but with many of its problems yet unsolved. In particular, the struggle between capital and labor has grown more embittered than at present, and forms the main theme of the book. ‘The First Men in the Moon’ (1901) is all but pure fantasy, telling of the wonders that the visitors found on the satellite, especially the insect-like but highly intelligent creatures that lived within its hollow sphere. ‘The Sea Lady’ (1902) is a mermaid who came out of the sea at Folkstone to ask perplexing questions about this perplexing world. ‘The Food of the Gods’ (1904) tells of a dish concocted to produce enormous growth in plants and animals, with remarkable results. In the latest three romances, coming from a period when the author is writing chiefly in other veins, social theory and prophecy are much more prominent—so much so, indeed, as to make it doubtful whether we should include the last two under this title. ‘In the Days of the Comet’ (1906) tells of the quickening and clarifying of the human intelligence by the gas caught from the comet, and of the solution of problems and the making over of human institutions that ensued. ‘The War in the Air’ (1908) foretells much that has come upon us earlier than was predicted in the book. And ‘The World Set Free’ (1914) predicts the war that will end war and the reconstruction that will follow.  4
  A tribute to the exciting novelty of most of these romances—and at his best Wells will bear comparison with any modern author in this field—should be accompanied by a recognition that in the less fantastic of them he has proved an exceptionally true prophet. Though in many guesses he has naturally been wide of his mark, it is doubtful whether in our day any other scientist turned prophet has scored as many hits as he. This is still truer of some of the treatises that mainly occupy his second period. These begin with ‘Anticipations’ in 1901, and continue, with lessening insistence on the more mechanical, and growing attention to the psychological and social forces that make for reconstruction, through ‘Mankind in the Making’ (1903), ‘A Modern Utopia’ (1905), ‘The Future in America’ (1906), ‘First and Last Things’ (1907), ‘New Worlds for Old’ (1908), and ‘Social Forces in England and America’ (1914), to, finally, the prophecies of rearrangement to follow the war in ‘What is Coming?’ (1916) and in ‘The War and the Future’ (1917). No single formula is applicable to all of these works, for the good reason that the author’s opinions have grown and varied during the years they represent. Critical from first to last of the present order of things, and attacking now one and now another problem in the social system, they all look forward to the reconstruction of our institutions through the progress of invention and the growth of reason. But there are few dogmas that hold throughout the list, and the moment one tries to label the author as a member of a party, socialist or other, one encounters contradictions. At one time he was nearer to socialism than he has been to any other creed, but a rupture with the socialists followed. It is possibly the highest praise of these treatises to say that, always speaking the speech of liberalism, they yet show a mind too quick to settle into dogma.  5
  Most of the novels of Wells, and all those of the more ambitious kind now considered typical, are of recent date. Before ‘Tono-Bungay’ in 1909, however, he had published three novels in lighter though by no means less delightful vein. ‘The Wheels of Chance,’ in 1896, carries an imaginative but ineffectual draper’s assistant through a brief holiday of romantic experience. In ‘Love and Mr. Lewisham’ (1900) we meet an abler hero of essentially similar type, into whose life enters that conflict between love and work that lies at the base of so many of the author’s novels. In ‘Kipps’ (1905) we find an altered re-incarnation of the hero of ‘The Wheels of Chance’ in the person of another draper’s assistant who is lovable in spite of his stupidity; and in ‘Mr. Polly’ (1910) we meet finally that most interesting of draper’s boys who, always the sport of his own inertia, at last brings himself to one real decision only to have this decision, of suicide, frustrated because he is too anxious to put out the fire on his trousers before finishing the job of cutting his throat. To pass these stories with the remark that they are capital studies of middle-class life is to do them the slenderest justice possible. If not the best, they are at least the most amusing work that Wells has done. But the chief word should be reserved for that series of novels which begins with ‘Tono-Bungay’ in 1909 and to which ‘Mr. Britling’ is the latest contribution.  6
  Time will probably decide that ‘Tono-Bungay’ is the best of these. With the story of the colossal swindle that Ponderevo operates there goes naturally some comment on the kind of society in which that swindle is possible, and in the love affairs of his nephew there arise certain problems of sex. But these do not bulk largely. Nor do reflections upon sex and feminism, though involved, unduly interrupt the story of the scientific young woman who runs away from an illiberal father in ‘Ann Veronica’ (1909) and later falls in love with a married man. These stories are told mainly for their own sake. But while it would be unfair to say that in certain later works Wells uses the novel for the purpose of a sermon, it is evident that the habit of didacticism, however palliated, has grown in him. He has selected heroes who illustrate a theory and plots that set a problem for solution. And the two chief problems, entangled with each other in the novels that follow, are those of society and those of sex. In ‘The New Machiavelli’ (1910) that of society is uppermost, but barely so; the statesman’s career is cut short at the discovery of his sexual irregularity. In ‘Marriage’ (1912) sex is perhaps foremost (though there is no irregularity), but the great work that matrimony spoils is of almost parallel importance in the story. In ‘The Passionate Friends’ (1913) the hero, beaten in the game of sex, takes refuge in the game of world politics, only to have sex intrude again and overthrow him. In ‘The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman’ (1914), the most baldly didactic of the novels, the heroine breaks from the tyranny of a husband in order to accomplish something for society, and after his death gives up the man who loves her in order that she may carry on her work unhindered. In ‘The Research Magnificent’ (1915) the hero is looking for a formula to ameliorate society and is more or less hampered by an unappreciating matrimonial partner. There is little justice to the author, of course, in extracting thus the mere core of his novels and serving that in one dry sentence. But this is at least the core. For in the world of these novels there are two things of importance, Work and Sex; or if the term be used of both its natural and its social branches, Science and Sex. To science Wells is true to the last. In each novel we face not only the problems that challenge science and those that arise from sex, but also the clash between the two. And in some measure the formula holds, finally, for ‘Mr. Britling Sees It Through’ (1916), his latest novel and the one that in the end may rival ‘Tono-Bungay’ for the first place in his works.  7

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