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H.G. Wells wanted to change the world – a new book explores the author’s outsize ambitions

“The Young H.G. Wells” by Claire Tomalin  (Penguin Press)
“The Young H.G. Wells” by Claire Tomalin (Penguin Press)
By Michael Dirda Special to the Washington Post

Claire Tomalin’s latest biography, “The Young H.G. Wells: Changing the World,” is plainly written, packed with incident and justly admiring without being uncritical. In comparison with, say, the prizewinning “Samuel Pepys: The Unequaled Self,” her new book is also quite openly personal: ” ‘The Island of Dr. Moreau,’ ” writes Tomalin, “is an upsetting story and I still hesitate before returning to it, but when I do find that its narrative power holds me again, despite my reluctance.”

Herbert George Wells was born in 1866 to an unsuccessful shopkeeper and a former lady’s maid. At age 14, he was apprenticed in a draper’s shop, a soul-killing job the boy hated. As Tomalin stresses, only through several lucky turns was Wells able to acquire the rudiments of an education and survive severe malnutrition – at 20, he was only 5 feet, 5 inches tall and weighed about 110 pounds. Around this time, though, he performed outstandingly well on a state-sponsored examination, which led to his enrollment in a science program overseen by Charles Darwin’s champion, Thomas Henry Huxley.

Poor health continued to rack Wells’ early life. A serious accident led to a destroyed kidney, followed by a tubercular condition in which he coughed up blood. Until he was older than 40, Wells later wrote, “The sense of physical inferiority was a constant acute distress to me, which no philosophy could mitigate.”

Still, the young man was indomitable, a virtual poster boy for the stirring words of “Invictus”: “I am the master of my fate / I am the captain of my soul.”

Appropriately enough, that poem’s author, William Ernest Henley, would be the magazine editor who serialized Wells’ “The Time Machine.” When its book version appeared in 1895, the struggling 28-year-old science teacher awoke one morning to find himself famous.

To this day, no one fully understands how one man, albeit a genius, was able to write so much and so well during the next two decades, but then, as Tomalin says, “Taking on too much was the way Wells lived his life.” This is the period of the major scientific romances, including “The War of the Worlds,” but also of the semi-realist masterpiece, “Tono-Bungay,” the seriocomic romp “The History of Mr. Polly,” and a score of brilliant short stories, including “The Country of the Blind” and “The Door in the Wall.”

During these same years, Wells also turned out casual essays (“On the Art of Staying at the Seaside”), speculations about the future (published in 1902 as “Anticipations”) and even a stunning political pamphlet for the socialist Fabian Society: In “The Misery of Boots,” he uses the cheap, ill-fitting footwear of the poor to underscore the injustices of the class system. Throughout these same years, Wells corresponded with Henry James and Joseph Conrad (who dedicated “The Secret Agent” to him), helped care for dying novelists Stephen Crane and George Gissing and made an enduring friend of the comparably versatile Arnold Bennett.

Behind all his multifariousness, Wells remained an educator and proselytizer at heart, using his fiction and nonfiction as talking points for, as Tomalin’s subtitle says, “changing the world.” His later books, especially, stressed what he saw as the central message of Plato’s “Republic”: “Most of the social and political ills from which you suffer are under your control, given only the will and courage to change them. You can live in another and a wiser fashion if you choose to think it out and work it out.”

Already during a visit to United States in 1906, he voiced his esteem for Black Americans struggling to live dignified lives within “a civilization they are grudged and denied.” American democracy itself, he contended, was being warped by the rich, undermined by “the anarchic and irresponsible control of private owners.” Not surprisingly, Wells’ final years – he died at 79 in 1946 – were shadowed by an infinite weariness. Instead of the emergence of a rational global society, an unhappy humankind still suffered from the incoherence, hatreds and violence of political and religious sectarianism.

He had failed to change the world. Nonetheless, historian Norman Stone once declared that of all the English writers of the 20th century, Wells is the one he would most like to call back from the dead. And yet, as magnificent as Wells the public-spirited visionary could be, the private man remains more problematic. “He was,” as Tomalin writes, “a bad husband and an unreliable lover.” Eager for sexual experience, the 25-year-old Wells married a beautiful cousin. The wedding night proved disastrous, and he soon took to philandering, eventually hooking up with one of his students, Amy Catherine Robbins.

Wells eventually wed Robbins, whom he insisted on calling Jane, not liking her given name. He also insisted that he be permitted whatever love affairs seemed necessary for his health and well-being. This was, in his view, simply the correct, enlightened attitude toward sex. Many intelligent, independent women, including that formidable intellectual Rebecca West and the Russian translator and spy Moura Budberg, would eventually welcome his embraces. Yet, Jane – Tomalin calls her “the true heroine of this story” – remained the sheet anchor of his life, as well as his typist.

Still, two troubling early relationships involved besotted admirers half his age, starting with 19-year-old Rosamund Bland, with whom Wells nearly ran off to Paris before being intercepted by her outraged father at the train station. Even more scandalous was his liaison with Amber Reeves, a Cambridge undergraduate who would bear him a child. Their affair formed the basis of Wells’ then shocking novel, “Ann Veronica,” in which a young single woman eagerly gives herself to an older married man. Even more shocking, the book has a happy ending.

Three excellent full-length biographies – by Norman and Jeanne Mackenzie, David C. Smith and Michael Sherborne – chronicle Wells’ colorful life in full. But for a compact overview of this endlessly fascinating man and writer, Tomalin’s “The Young H.G. Wells” is difficult to beat, being friendly, astute and a pleasure to read.

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