Herbert George Wells was a novelist, prophet, and gadfly, one of the 20th-century’s most multitalented thinkers. Born on September 21,1866, in modest circumstances in Bromley, Kent, Wells narrowly avoided a life of penury and obscurity in the drapery trade his mother planned for him. He studied at the Normal School of Science at South Kensington (now the Royal College of Science and part of the University of London) under T. H. Huxley, and taught for a while, before being able to earn a living as a writer. His first published writing was a series of what were then known as scientific romances, now known as science fiction. The best of these works, The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897),and The War of the Worlds (1898) remain classics in their field to this day.
Common wisdom says that these works represent Wells at his best, but his writing career lasted another 45 years, and included some very significant books. After the scientific romances, Wells moved on to novels about life, the best of which were Kipps (1905), Ann Veronica, Tono-Bungay (both 1909), The History of Mr. Polly (1910), and The New Machiavelli (1911). These novels can be read as insightful stories about human interaction and for the specific insights into the mores of Edwardian England. Wells then moved on to what he later called his prig novels: Marriage (1912), The Passionate Friends (1913), and The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman (1913). Less successful as novels, these books revolved around ideas of social reform and personal commitment to living one’s life fully and in the public interest.
As it did for most people of his generation, the onset of World War I produced a new range of conflicts that Wells felt the need to explore. While being suspicious of patriotism, Wells deeply loved England, and his wartime books, both fiction and nonfiction, reflected this tension. The best of his wartime works were Mr. Britling Sees it Through (1916) and The Undying Fire (1919). The war also brought on a short phase of quasimystical religiosity, expounded in God the Invisible King (1917), although Wells soon tired of that approach and returned to what he called in his autobiography “the sturdy atheism of my youth.”
After the war, Wells embarked on a series of what have been called textbooks for the world. They were the hugely popular Outline of History (1920), The Science of Life (1931), and The Work, Wealth, and Happiness of Mankind (1932). Each of these was very influential, despite a generally poor reception from the academic community. Wells hoped these books would become tools by which people took control of their destiny and worked cooperatively toward a new planetary humanism.
Largely in the service of this vision Wells produced a steady stream of novels. The most outstanding works from the interwar years were Christina Alberta’s Daughter (1925), a study of the dangers of succumbing to transcendental fantasies; Mr. Blettsworthy on Rampole Island (1928), a black-humored dystopia about the breakdown of the Edwardian consensus about progress; and The Bulpington of Blup (1932), a comic look at human pretensions. Mr. Blettsworthy, in particular, deserves much more recognition than it has received, not least because it anticipated better-known dystopias like Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932).
Wells also became known in his capacity as a prophet of the modern age. He foresaw, for instance, trends such as the abolition of distance, nuclear war, suburbia, committed relationships outside marriage, even the Internet. He was also a strong proponent of the conservation of natural resources half a century before this became part of the cultural mainstream. Against this, as late as 1927, he was oddly unable to see much future for radio.
It is often claimed by Wells’s detractors that he ended his days deeply disillusioned with the scientific rationalism he had spent his life advocating. His last work Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945) is usually cited in this respect. This claim, however, is unjustified, because Wells was never the uncritical rationalist his critics make him out to be. Since his earliest scientific romances, Wells had been ambivalent about the power of science. Indeed, the strength of those works lies largely in his powerful articulation of this tension. Wells’s career was an ongoing reflection about humankind’s capacity to use responsibly the power that science was handing it. This underlies the lasting appeal of his science fiction, and reappears periodically, as in Mr. Blettsworthy. What the reader gets in Mind at the End of Its Tether is Wells’s pessimistic and realistic strands interweaving with each other, with his more optimistic strand playing second fiddle.
There is another important sense in which the charge of Wells as a lapsed rationalist misses the point. Early in his career Wells was influenced by William James and later in his career by Friedrich Nietzsche, both stern critics of uncritical rationalism. Wells never arrived at a settled conclusion about Nietzsche. Earlier works like A Modern Utopia (1905) suggest the influence of Nietzschean ideas of the Overman. But these concepts were later jettisoned in favor of a cautious meliorism. The transition can be seen in Wells’s 1938 novel Star Begotten, which discussed Nietzsche without arriving at any clear conclusion. And in his 1942 work The Conquest of Time, Wells spoke of the After-man, a product of conscious renewal in the service of a nobler future for all.
Wells continued to produce engaging work until the last year of his life, highlights being The Brothers (1938), The Outlook for Homo Sapiens (1939), and You Can’t Be Too Careful (1941), his last novel. During World War II, he was instrumental in composing a Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which exerted an influence on Eleanor Roosevelt’s work to formulate the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights. Wells died on August 13,1946.
- Smith, D. (1986). H. G. Wells: Desperately mortal. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
- Wells, H. G. (1934). Experiment in autobiography. London: Victor Gollancz & Cresset.
- Wells, H. G. (1942). The conquest of time. London: Watts & Co.
- Wells, H. G. (1945). Mind at the end of its tether. London: Heinemann.
- West, G. (1930). H. G. Wells: A sketch for a life. London: Gerald Howe.