It was a transformation as outlandish as anything in his fiction. In late Victorian Kent, Herbert George Wells was a shopkeeper’s sickly son threatening to kill himself if he couldn’t study science rather than fester in a hated apprenticeship. By the 1900s, not yet 40 and already with a string of future sci-fi classics to his name (The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The Island of Doctor Moreau), he was en route to global stardom, hobnobbing at the White House and settling into life as a Jaeger-suited serial shagger who, 5ft 8in on his tiptoes, bedded a roll call of contemporary literary talent, from Dorothy Richardson to Rebecca West, all while playing a growing field of publishers and agents eager for a storytelling gift powerful enough to sow panic that Earth was under alien attack, at least among listeners to Orson Welles’s 1938 radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds.
As Claire Tomalin’s sprightly new biography points out, Wells only turned to writing because dodgy lungs forced him to give up teaching, yet cork-lined isolation was never to be his lot. When sex with his first wife, Isabel, proved disappointing, he got divorced, having already set up with a student, Amy, whom, astoundingly, he renamed Jane. Once she was pregnant with their first child, he argued (apparently successfully) that he should be free to sleep around while she kept house, because she was “fragile” and he required a “complete loveliness of bodily response”.
Nor was Wells for monogamy in prose. Initially seen as an English Jules Verne on account of his futuristic early fiction, he soon switched to comic social realism fed by a class-climber’s eye for detail (Kipps, Tono-Bungay), all the while churning out journalism, reviews, historical and scientific textbooks and political tracts. His influence on George Orwell wasn’t only down to his fiction – a germ of Nineteen Eighty-Four lies in Wells’s When the Sleeper Wakes, about a man who rises from a 200-year slumber to find London under fascist rule and ravaged by air war – but also in his persona as a public intellectual ready to hold forth, whatever the issue of the day.
Having cut his teeth during a late Victorian print boom fuelled by the growth of the reading public, he was well placed to take advantage of the era; he even got to know his second wife while commuting on the newly opened District line. A certain shamelessness aided Wells’s rise: who else would have thought to ask the prime minister for a stipend? (Balfour said no, in part because Wells was already earning more than a grand a year, a healthy six-figure sum today.) Most of all, there was Wells’s hunger for work: bashing out 7,000 words a day, he never shook the jobbing writer’s fear of going under, a prospect made stark when a loyal confrère died of pneumonia at 30.
Tomalin wonders aloud how Wells managed, while laying out abundant evidence of how the sausage was made. Witness her paragraph on the death of his mother in June 1905: “She had fallen down the stairs at Easter… Wells went over and found a nurse to help out, but he was too busy to stay and was not there when she died. He arrived soon afterwards and cleared up her affairs. Then back to work. In October 1905, Kipps was published and sold 12,000 copies before Christmas – good news for Wells’s finances.”
Tomalin leans heavily on Wells’s 1934 memoir An Experiment in Autobiography, which sometimes lends a dutiful air to proceedings, particularly during the scene-setting of the early years. A bigger problem is the way paraphrase can slip into endorsement. Comparing Wells with his contemporary George Gissing, Tomalin says that Gissing let himself “be humiliated and defeated – by women and by life – while Wells knew how to work for success, how to enjoy women and the world and how to fight and – usually – to win”. Yet such terms of approval sit ill with Wells’s conduct as portrayed here, not least because one of Tomalin’s coups is to quote from his unpublished letters to Amber Reeves, a midlife lover who was a Cambridge student half his age: “Didn’t I have Isabel because I wanted her and chucked her because I wanted to and have Jane? I never gave up anything I wanted (and I ain’t going to do so now).” When Reeves was pregnant, Wells’s wife bought the baby clothes; when Wells’s stay with Reeves at a French villa didn’t work out – apparently she was no good at keeping house – he made good on his outlay by bringing Jane and his sons there instead.
Tomalin’s decision to restrict herself to the “young” Wells never strikes the reader as anything but pragmatic, despite her explanation that she found herself particularly drawn to the phase of his best-remembered fiction. In any case, Tomalin keeps pace with her subject into midlife, in part, she says, because he continued to behave like a young man, which is rather a polite way to call him immature.
Perhaps the psychic dislocation of rapid celebrity meant he never felt quite secure. The notion, given voice in 1909’s Tono-Bungay, that “every human being had a ‘place’. It belonged to you from your birth like the colour of your eyes”, was one his personal striving – the philandering and politicking as well as the fiction – always sought to undo. During one of the bouts of sickness that pockmarked his youth, he feared he might die a virgin without becoming famous; achievement unlocked, to say the least, but at what cost? Tomalin’s generous reserve lets her reader decide.