H.G. WELLS SEES IT THROUGH
By Charles Keller
Although his name has faded with time, the influence of H.G. Wells is with us to this day. His literary blockbusters The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The Island of Dr. Moreau, and The First Men in the Moon are still practically household names today. Even as I write this, Steven Spielberg's Dreamworks stands ready to release its new version of The Time Machine with H.G. Wells' own great-grandson in the director's chair, and Pendragon Pictures is developing a "dead-on accurate" film adaptation of the original text of The War of the Worlds. In sheer volume, Wells wrote more words in his career than Charles Dickens and William Shakespeare combined. Although his prolific pen did far more than just establish a literary genre in “science fiction;” these “scientific romances” along with several short stories, were actually the very works that launched his career in the mid 1890’s.
The man H.G. Wells was as remarkable as his literature. He believed the keys to mankind’s long-term survival were education and a disciplined application of science to matters that benefited everyone. He was a life-long Socialist who despised Marxism, a devoted humanitarian and a tireless champion of women's rights. His personal friendships ranged from political luminaries like Sir Winston Churchill to cultural icons like George Bernard Shaw and Henry James. His tumultuous private life stood in stark contrast to the almost sentimental attachment he had for the structured - yet by no means privileged - Victorian environment he grew up in.
The perception that he was a prophet is perhaps a bit overstated, but he was indeed very accurate on many counts. He foresaw the decisive use of tanks in modern warfare years before they were developed, and he described in graphic detail the destruction of cities by bombing and gas from aircraft less than five years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight and well before Bleroit made his first flight across the English Channel in 1909. The phrase we still associate with the First World War, The War That Will End War, (often misquoted as "all war") was coined by him as the title of his 1914 pamphlet addressing British anti-war advocates and pacifists. Also that year Wells predicted with eerie accuracy a devastating world war with Germany, and a new weapon he called an “atomic bomb” in his novel The World Set Free. Though pre-dating the real atomic bombs by decades, Wells’ inventions also relied on atomic chain reactions and rendered the target areas uninhabitable for years.
“Don Juan of the Intelligensia”
Wells was well known for his stance on women’s suffrage and was perhaps the most effective male voice for early feminism. His 1909 novel Ann Veronica told the story of a young woman who refused to conform to the narrow role society had defined for her as a woman. She chose her own course for her life, including the pursuit of her lovers. As was the case with many of his novels, it was written in a highly autobiographical style and drew on a rather open affair he was having around that time with Amber Pember Reeves. The original manuscript so scandalized his original publisher Macmillan that he had to turn to T. Fisher Unwin, London, to have it published. But publishers were not the only ones scandalized, either. Britain had been in the middle of a wave of moral renewal when the book was released, and was savaged by many critics including his old Fabian Society colleague George Bernard Shaw. Winston Churchill also commented on it, however he appeared to have taken the novel more at face value; as detailed gossip of the open relationship Wells was having with Reeves. Although the novel no longer seems “exceedingly distasteful” as Macmillan put it, to a generation of young women, Wells was an inspiration and a liberator.
And Wells was no mere ideologue. Part of his fight against the stifling social conventions of his time involved actually living the life he would write about. His tumultuous love life was at times scandalous, and remains to this day, legendary. To say his sexual appetite was insatiable would be putting it mildly. Wells married his cousin Isabel in 1893. Unfortunately the union proved unsatisfying and deeply disappointing to both. About a year into the marriage Wells began seeing one of the students he was tutoring in biology, Amy Catherine and who would eventually become his second wife, affectionately known as “Jane.” The couple would have two children, G.P. (“Gip”) and Frank. Although H.G. realized Jane was just the stabilizing influence he needed for his work and home, their sexual relationship soon showed itself to be unsatisfying to H.G., and his eye began to wander. Thus began a pattern of sexual behavior Wells would indulge in for the rest of his life, and due to the open relationship he had with his wife, almost always with Jane’s full knowledge.
University of Illinois Features Writer Andrea Lynn’s new book Shadow Lovers (published by Westview, 2001) examines the last ten years of H.G.’s life and his three main affairs with the Baroness Moura Budberg, and the Americans Constance Coolidge and Martha Gellhorn. Lynn’s book is remarkable in several ways, not least of which is that it would not have even been possible to write five years ago. The recent acquisition of a massive amount of personal papers and letters to and from H.G. at the H.G. Wells Archive at the University of Illinois, Champaign-Urbana allowed Andrea Lynn a unique glimpse into the private affairs of H.G. Wells, hitherto only hinted at. Lynn successfully makes the case that “in these relationships there were no victims,” and dispels the notion that perhaps it was only Wells’ own overactive libido pursuing his “lover shadow” ideal which led the way to a veritable army of lovers. As a general rule, Wells remained good friends with his ex-lovers, many times supporting them financially long after the leaping flames of physical passion had guttered and died. Even in his amatory life H.G. Wells managed to run with the best the intelligensia had to offer.
Devoted readers of H.G. Wells are used to him destroying the world in one way or another in some of his fiction. However, Wellsians around the world were especially horrified by the attacks on the United States on September 11, 2001, and the total destruction in New York of the World Trade Center. For us the scenario seemed all too familiar. A similar event had already been described by Wells in his 1908 novel The War in the Air in which the destruction of New York was wrought by Prussian airships in a pre-emptive strike against America at the outset of a devastating world war.
Of course the destruction of the world often imagined by H.G. Wells never happened without reason. For him the fictional destruction of civilization was meant as the means to an end. It gave mankind pause to reflect on his failed stewardship of his fellow men and home planet, and provided a precious opportunity to re-organize a new world sanely and equitably. Separate countries didn’t just try to figure ways to defend themselves from each other in the future, Mankind as a whole sought to rework the very fabric of society so as to make war itself impossible.
Wells lived through the carnage of two world wars, and toured the front lines of the Great War personally. The experience had a profound effect on him and caused him to make significant contributions to the Allied cause. He served in a little known cabinet level ministry in charge of creating anti-German propaganda, but finally resigning because of the tight controls placed on their work. Wells was never a follower and left after a time to continue his propaganda campaign on his own terms.
A problem with communications trenches during the Great War was that steady rains would cause them to flood. “Tommies” overloaded with equipment found it nearly impossible to negotiate these death traps under these conditions. Awakened by a thunderstorm one night after his trip to the front lines, Wells envisioned a transportation device called a "Telephrage System." His original system worked essentially like a portable ski lift. It was as mobile as the advancing infantry could carry it, and was powered by a simple truck engine. He turned his ideas over to Winston Churchill who in turn passed it on to the Trench Warfare department of the British army. After decades in obscurity, H.G. Wells Society member Rose Tilley discovered reports on the Telephrage system that were misfiled by army clerks in the Royal Flying Corps files because of the word “aerial” appearing in the title. These official reports confirm the effectiveness of Wells’ basic idea. It had been developed into what was known as the “Leeming Portable Aerial Ropeways” and actually saw combat towards the end of the war.
By 1916 he had published Mr. Britling Sees It Through, a fantastic work that traces the devastating impact of the First World War on a sensitive and common British man, his family and friends. Much of the fiction Wells wrote was autobiographical, and such was the case with Mr. Britling. The novel was immensely popular immediately upon publication and went through numerous reprint editions. Wells had truly touched the soul of a war-weary nation.
It was also during this time that the confirmed atheist H.G. Wells had second thoughts about the notion of God. The unparalleled brutality of modern warfare brought home to him the age-old questions of the meaning of life and of things greater than ourselves. Three works; God: The Invisible King, The Soul of a Bishop, and The Undying Fire represent this period dramatically. Although later repudiating this era and many of these ideas, they mark a fascinating sidelight to his career.
H.G. Wells “thought globally” long before it was fashionable. He once talked about being ‘British by birth, but a citizen of the world.’ In his eyes, nationalism and hyper-patriotism presented the greatest danger to a permanent world peace and mankind’s long-term survival, and he predicted an eventual end to its most visible manifestations; national borders and flags. He was among the first to call for a League of Nations to convene after the First World War, but was quickly disillusioned by the actual League and its old world style structure and attitude. So he continued his own campaign for reforming the world’s governments according to the way he thought things ought to be. To this end he wrote tirelessly and in 1931 produced What Are We To Do With Our Lives?, itself a revised edition of his original 1928 “blueprint for world revolution,” The Open Conspiracy. The entire concept continues to be a viable intellectual force. Late in 2001, Praeger Publishers released a new version of The Open Conspiracy edited by veteran Wells scholar and a Vice President of the H.G. Wells Society, Dr. W. Warren Wagar. This particular version is actually What Are We To Do With Our Lives? re-titled as the original work and including a brilliant and brutally honest introduction by Dr. Wagar.
Wells realized that the type of modern warfare introduced by the First World War depended greatly upon a nation’s industrial capabilities. He led the intellectual charge against the triple entente and decried its industrial base and amoral profiteering attitudes. He was relentless against those who profited from arms and armament in Germany as the “Krupp cum Kaiser dominance,” and attacked the capitalist systems in other countries that supported such an industry of death.
Debacle: The Angels of Death
He struggled to maintain his optimism during the 1930’s as a new wave of nationalism spread from Mussolini’s Fascists in Italy to Weimar Germany where an upstart National Socialist German Worker’s Party was making inroads in the hearts and minds of a Versailles humiliated nation searching for something to be proud of again.
Wells had almost completely ignored Adolf Hitler and the Nazis up to this point, hoping – as everyone else did – that the German people would come to their senses, and turn away from the Hitler’s hysterical speeches and ideals of hate. When they didn’t and he finally felt compelled to speak out about them in the late 1930’s, Wells was viciously critical of Hitler and his party of thugs and criminals. Wells was branded as “degenerate” and “anti-German” by chief Nazi propagandist Dr. P.J. Goebbels, and his books were among those gleefully tossed into the raging bonfires by students at German Universities in the late 1930’s.
Though wealthy enough to live like minor royalty, H.G. Wells was ever the champion of the common man. When war came, his wealthy neighbors in London fled to their distant country estates. Wells, who lived across from Regent’s Park in the heart of the great city, refused to leave during the Blitz. Though well into his seventies by this time, he took his turn on fire watch and managed to draw rather unfavorable attention to his absent neighbors.
At the close of the Second World War it was discovered by the Allies that the SS, had compiled lists of intellectuals and politicians slated for immediate liquidation upon the invasion of England in the abandoned "Operation Sea Lion." The name “H.G. Wells” appeared high on the list along side many of his personal friends and colleagues like Sir Winston Churchill, C.P. Snow, and J.B. Priestly. Had it not been for Hitler’s inexplicable change of plan and violation of the German – Soviet non-aggression pact, against the advice of his most loyal commanders, the final chapter of H.G.’s life, as well as the entire course of human history could very well have been altered in even more tragic proportions.
For H.G. Wells, life and the human endeavor was a race between “education and catastrophe,” and it still is. To this end he was a tireless educator, a sort of self-appointed teacher for all mankind. Even his fiction reflected his obsession with education. Novels like Joan and Peter and The Undying Fire had education as a central theme. His encyclopedic Outline of History of 1920 was a literary and historiographical triumph and remained in print long after his death in 1946, updated even through the 1960's by his son G.P. Wells. Although Wells enlisted an army of researchers for the project, its success was due mainly to Wells’ ability to make history as absorbing a read as a good mystery or adventure novel.
Although his optimism had turned towards pessimism by the end of the Second World War, he remained committed to the idea of creating one world, without war and without senseless competition. Ever the humanitarian, his work on the Sankey Declaration and its subsequent revisions, ultimately found itself adopted as part of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of the United Nations. Although never really acknowledged officially by the United Nations, the well-documented work of H.G. Wells on establishing basic and undeniable human rights in a World Declaration format provided the very foundation upon which the U.N. we know today is based.
He died at home in August 1946.
Clearly H.G. Wells will not be forgotten any time soon. Noises emanating from Hollywood and other quarters of the entertainment world preclude such ideas. Even now, publishers House of Stratus Ltd. are re-issuing forty of Wells most unique works in affordable hardbound formats. From Ann Veronica to The War of the Worlds to Experiment in Autobiography, some of Wells’ greatest contributions to English literature will return to the shelves of popular bookstores everywhere. This is as it should be.
Over the last forty years there has been one organized voice in the world to remind us how much we owe this most remarkable man. With the dawning of a new century and millennium, we in the H.G. Wells Society feel the time is right to focus more effort in America. Thus, with the approval of the Executive Committee of The H.G. Wells Society in England, I am pleased to announce the very first American chapter, The H.G. Wells Society, The Americas.
As our motto states, we are ‘dedicated to promoting and encouraging an active interest in, and appreciation of, the life, work and thought of H.G. Wells in the Americas.’ Working directly with the U.K. Society and The H.G. Wells Archive at the University of Illinois, Urbana, we shall act as a resource center and sounding board for American and international Wellsians as well as an outlet for the media. For members we publish a bi-annual newsletter and a journal named after one of H.G. Wells' most remarkable books, The Undying Fire. We will seek to bring H.G. Wells’ works and ideas into college curriculum and to bring back into print as many of his more neglected works as possible.
Anyone throughout the world, most especially in North, South and Central America, interested in joining with us to celebrate the life, work and thought of this most remarkable man are encouraged to contact us directly for more information.