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The curious case of H. G. Wells

November 3, 2011

The young H.G. Wells. (Image courtesy The Guardian Online.)

A prolific writer with at least a hundred and fifty works to his name, ranging from novels to histories to political pamphlets, Herbert George Wells is best remembered today as the author of “The Time Machine,” “The War of the Worlds”, “The Invisible Man” and many other visionary science fiction classics. He was much more than simply a sci-fi writer, for he was also a passionate Socialist, a political campaigner, a futurist, a historian, a devotee of women’s suffrage and an advocate of free love. He spent much of his energy and time for several decades on this last item, practicing his beliefs with a succession of lovers. These lovers included (twice) the teenage virgin daughters of close associates; both of these episodes turned congenial friends into outraged enemies.

It’s curious that when thinking today back on the sexual pioneers of early-1900s England, one thinks at once of certain members and friends of the Bloomsbury group before one remembers Wells. Is this because we find it difficult to look at the photo of the slight man with the pale blue eyes and the indifferent mustache and imagine him a champion between the bedsheets? or is it because the Bloomsbury group opened the doors to sexual variance whereas Wells was a stauch heterosexual?

The jacket of Lodge's new novel about Wells.

A new novel by David Lodge, “A Man Of Parts,” follows the course of his life in flashbacks as the dying man reviews his own life. It’s fascinating as a story, but less so as a novel. Although Lodge is a leading contemporary British writer, I found the narrative dry and devoid of style, and occasionally (in the sections dealing with committee-work of the Fabian Society) incredibly dull. The thing that kept me riveted to the pages was not the author’s way with words (genuine apologies, Mr. Lodge) but the sheer spell of the story of Wells himself, who slept with more than a hundred women while his devoted wife minded the house for him, set the meals on the table in time, and raised their children. The modern reader puzzles over the incongruity of a man who wanted suffrage for women and equal rights in love, but treated his wife as a necessary part of his bourgeois household, a cog in his machine. This is another thing that differentiates the Bloomsburians: their willingness to form unconventional households.

Wells in his late middle age.

Wells predicted wars in the air before airplanes existed; he foresaw the atomic bomb decades before Hiroshima; he even foretold the Internet in his idea of a huge compendium of information that would be constantly updated by the fastest technology. He predicted the emancipation of women, even though he retained blinders that made him treat women as beings who necessarily existed to serve men’s desires. He moved gradually from a sense of optimism and perfectibility to a sense of despair as the second world war raged and bombs fell from the sky above London. His last years were spent in bitterness and increasing feebleness and he was often lonely. It is indeed a life worthy of a novel. Lodge wisely steers clear of Wells’ unattractive anti-Semitism and his belief in eugenics. The best parts of the novel are the parts describing his relationship with novelist Rebecca West and his friendship with the children’s author Edith Nesbit (destroyed when he dallied with her adoptive daughter).

Wells stood only 5’5″ high, but he was a big man in many other ways. The new novel is as good a way as any to dive into his life and explore what made this man tick.

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