There is an anecdote concerning H.G. Wells which has escaped all biographies of the man, and yet exemplifies his character with more vibrancy and verisimilitude than a dozen Fabian memories. The scene: the bar of a London theater in the 1920s. Herbert George Wells, a literary doyen of the greatest celebrity, at a time when authorial fame was genuinely important, sips a blended brandy. A breathless young student approaches Wells, holds out his greeting hand and exclaims, “Mr. Wells, you probably don’t remember me—” “Yes, I bloody do!” replies Wells, and runs from the theater.
Why has the tale not seen the light of biographical revelation in the twenty or so works on Wells and the Wellsians since his death in 1946? The sham and shame of the story is that H.G. Wells has been served very well indeed by his Boswells, and the subjective school of history has sold itself, at a pathetically low price, to the anti-Semitism, galloping misogyny, racial pomposity and emetic social engineering policies of a plump, gifted writer from Kent. Biography and authenticity deserve better; H.G. Wells deserves worse.
Writers such as G.K. Chesterton choke in a miasma of misconception and sheer inaccuracy — Chesterton’s alleged antipathy towards the Jews was mostly the stuff of canard, and was expunged by his early passion against Nazi anti-Semitism, yet he suffers still from the accusation; Wells’s constant and consistent polemics against the Jewish people, for which he never made amends, are virtually ignored — while the privileged Wells bathes in the glow of hagiography and the triumph of reputation over reality.
That reputation is solid: a radical, avuncular advocate of free love, female emancipation, social justice, and rational progress, who wrote scientific fantasies and delightful, autobiographical novels of coastal romance and oracular morality. A munificent parvenu. A diminutive man of gigantic stature. A man on the side of the angels. “Multiply the total by ten; square the result,” George Bernard Shaw wrote of Wells’s petulance and selfish irresponsibility. “Raise it again to the millionth power and square it again; and you will still fall short of the truth about Wells — yet the worse he behaved the more he was indulged; and the more he was indulged the worse he behaved.” Shaw, however, was a friend who killed with kindness. Hilaire Belloc, that deliciously extreme knight errant of Catholicism, possessed no qualms about fraternity. “Mr. Wells means to say all that is in him,” he shouted during one of his crippling bouts of vituperation, “and, if there is not very much in him, that is not his fault.”
The inexorable hostility of Belloc is hardly surprising; the inexorable admiration of contemporary and later feminists is extremely so. Wells’s ostensible championing of the emancipation movement in the Edwardian years and the 1920s manifested itself in his novels such as Ann Veronica, in pamphlets and political struttings. This was not a banal case of a man preaching liberalism while privately performing reaction and parading behind literature. Wells’s personal and private actions reached far beyond the realm of hypocrisy.
“The thing to do is to go out into the world; leave everything behind, wife and child, and things; go all over the world and come back experienced,” he announced to a gathering of friends one bucolic summer evening. What would happen to the said wives? an incredulous critic enquired. “The wives,” he replied, “will go to heaven when they die.” The statement echoes Wells’s own domestic arrangements. When Amy Catherine Robbins married Herbert George Wells, convention and decade demanded that she change her family name to that of her husband. But this was insufficient. Neither Amy nor Catherine was acceptable to the author, and it was decided his wife would be known as Jane.
Acquiescence was tinged with the instinct of survival. Jane Wells was conscious of her husband’s promiscuity and acutely aware that demands for monogamy would provoke separation. She became a factotum, a perverse hybrid of secretary, homemaker, occasional lover, and the sometime referee between rivals for the position of her husband’s official mistress. She represented stability, a port of succor and security when the fires of extra-marital romance became untidy and invariably unpleasant cinders. Even when Wells returned to his first wife, and pleaded with her to run away with him and rekindle their former love, the long-suffering Amy Catherine remained taciturn and resigned. She was a martyr for her gender. Wells could, and would, criticize morality from the standpoint of the libertarian, condemn immorality from the point of view of the puritan, and continue to have and eat his proverbial confectionery.
Wells mistresses fared little better. The celebrated Rebecca West was a sufficiently purposeful character to inflict as much anguish on Wells as he did on her; not so the wretched Hedwig Verena Gatternigg, who attempted suicide by slashing at her throat and wrists, or the flaccid Amber Reeves, or the coterie of young women with whom Wells conducted affairs. The children of these encounters were seldom treated with anything approaching paternal devotion — a reflection of the statement in Wells’s hubristic but candid autobiography in which he explained, “For all my desire to be interested I have to confess that for most things and people I don’t care a damn.”
He did care about the “problem” of the Jews. “I met a Jewish friend of mine the other day,” wrote Wells, “and he asked me, ‘What is going to happen to the Jews?’ I told him I had rather he had asked me a different question, What is going to happen to mankind? ‘But my people—’ he began. ‘That,’ said I, ‘is exactly what is the matter with them.'” The anecdote is soaked in suburban smugness. At no time did Wells make the leap of empathy towards understanding Jewish anxieties — which proved so tragically correct during his lifetime — and instead compounded ignorance with aggression. “Throughout those tragic and almost fruitless four years of war, the Jewish spokesmen were most elaborately and energetically demonstrating that they cared not a rap for the troubles and dangers of English, French, Germans, Russians, Americans, or of any other people but their own. They kept their eyes steadfastly upon the restoration of the Jews.”
It was pointed out to Wells that the first volunteer for the American forces in Europe was Jewish, that there were numerous German-Jewish winners of the Iron Cross, and that Jews died for every combatant nation in the war. His response was sullen dismissal, followed by further attack. “There was never a promise; they were never chosen; their distinctive observances, their Sabbath, their Passover, their queer calendar, are mere traditional oddities of no present significance whatsoever.” Jew and Gentile responded with noble alacrity. Eleanor Roosevelt scolded Wells as a naive, tedious gamin; Leon Gelman, President of the Mizrachi Organization of America, alleged that “H.G. Wells is brazenly spreading notorious lies about the Jews. His violent language betrays a streak of sadism that is revolting. If any man who professes to be an enlightened human being can preach such heinous distortions, then mankind is doomed to utter darkness.”
The irony of the scenario is that Wells was obsessed with the fate of mankind and claimed to understand the roads towards light and darkness with a monomaniacal clarity, where others could only perceive compromise, doubt, ambivalence. His philosophy was embedded in structure and certainty. The world was improving, morally and intellectually. The inevitability of socialism was not in question, and the men of the early twentieth century were immeasurably more able and suited to introduce it than were the men of the eighteenth and seventeenth; similarly, those of the twenty-first century would be still more qualified and redoubtable.
This dictatorship of chronology left no room for variation, possessed no defense against the genius of medievalism’s Aquinas, or the pellucid ethical superiority of a past age over a recent one. Wells propounded his theories in A Modern Utopia and Anticipations. The existing structure, social and economic, would collapse, and from the violent catharsis a new order would be established, the denizens of which would be “people throughout the world whose minds were adapted to the demands of the big-scale conditions of the new time … a naturally and informally organized educated class, an unprecedented sort of people.”
The perverse recipe of Calvinistic claptrap and Marxian confusion went further. There were those who would be dissident, unacceptable to the revolutionary system. For the “base,” the class at the bottom of the scale, “people who had given evidence of a strong anti-social disposition,” fate would be unkind. “This thing, this euthanasia of the weak and the sensual, is possible.” wrote Wells. “I have little or no doubt that in the future it will be planned and achieved.” He took pride and comfort in the image of “boys and girls and youth and maidens, full of zest and new life, full of an abundant joyful receptivity . . . helpers behind us in the struggle.” The manic sting at the end of the tale and tail was as predictable as Wells’s later breakdown and mental instability. “And for the rest, these swarms of black and brown and dingy white and yellow people who do not come into the needs of efficiency . . . I take it they will have to go.”
In the light of Wells’s attitudes towards social engineering it is hardly surprising that Stalin extended an interview to the British thinker. George Orwell saw through the facade, particularly after Wells had accused him of attempted poisoning. New Statesman editor Kinsley Martin sheltered doubts, pained at being addressed as “Dear Judas Martin” following a lambasting review of one of Wells’s volumes in his magazine. Wells should have expected negative criticism because in spite of comic masterpieces such as Kipps and The History of Mr. Polly, or perceptive literary caveats including The War of the Worlds and The Time Machine, a combination of financial necessity and tendentious logorrhea did produce a pack of mediocre works.
Indifferent product from a man of occasional genius may be forgiven; dishonest and parasitic scholarship mayn’t be dismissed. Wells’s The Outline of History, a massively successful and lucrative enterprise, was researched by a team of amanuenses working out of Wells’s Essex home. During the composition of the history Wells delivered a public lecture to a group of young people. One of them inquired about a folder of papers in Wells’s car. “Today I’ve motored from Stonehenge, and you may care to know that I polished that off in forty minutes.” The neophyte expressed skepticism, arguing that the druidic marvel had perplexed antiquaries for a thousand years. “Very likely, but anyhow I’ve settled it to my satisfaction,” responded the splenetic Wells. “I’ve left a couple of experts behind, they have a fussy kind of knowledge that looks well in a footnote.”
It is that very fussy knowledge that shapes and excoriates figures of the past. H.G. Wells successfully blackened the white sepulchers of pre-war England; since his death his own legacy and life has been transformed into another variety of shrine, apparently immune from the mud and dirt of accusation.