BOOK REVIEW : Inside the Heart and Mind of a Writer, Lover and Socialist : H.G.: THE HISTORY OF MR. WELLS by Michael Foot; Counterpoint $29, 344 pages
“I have never read any book by H.G. Wells, early or late,” said the short-story writer and critic V.S. Pritchett, “which did not start off by giving me an exhilarating sense of personal freedom.”
This statement, which Michael Foot happily quotes, could be the motto for his short and jaunty book about his friend and hero. It is hard now to imagine how strong a hold Wells had for so many decades earlier in this century over the minds and hearts of so many English-speaking readers.
Wells burst upon the scene in the 1890s with books and stories such as “The Time Machine” and “The War of the Worlds.” In the early years of the century he joined the Fabian Society and became an ardent propagandist for socialism.
It was English socialism of a particularly benign kind. It was not bureaucratic, like Sidney and Beatrice Webbs’ dry prescriptions for an ordered life. And certainly it was not Karl Marx’s socialism, which Wells seems almost instinctively to have hated and opposed all his life.
His socialism was rather a movement of new opportunities for all people, an end to stuffiness and empire and monarchy and the heavy dead hand of the English class system.
It was a socialism that would have given his parents the education and the chances they never had. He loved them and wrote about them all his life. His father was a gardener, a not very successful shopkeeper and cricketeer; his mother was a maid and housekeeper.
Wells was apprenticed to a draper’s shop when he was 14. He hated it. He escaped when he got a scholarship to a scientific school in London, where he studied under the great scientist T.H. Huxley. He started writing, first about science; then he expanded into science fiction, and plain fiction, a cornucopia of tales and stories and polemical journalism.
He made more money than he had ever thought possible, he met people, he toured the world.
He had a message in his art. Foot quotes him:
“The achievement of the French Encyclopedists has always appealed very strongly to my imagination. Diderot and his associates had scented the onset of change. . . . They did produce a new inspiring conception of a world renewed.”
That, Foot writes, was “no bad summary of H.G.'s own political role.” Wells adored Voltaire and Paine and Jefferson, Byron and Shelley, and above all, Swift.
Foot, now 82, a journalist, historian and former leader of the Labor Party, writes with some diffidence of Wells’ enthusiastic embrace of the war against Germany in the First World War. He seems happier to record that Wells began warning of the danger of the Second World War almost as soon as the first was over.
Wells saw the Italian fascists for who they were and Stalin for what he was. A fervent internationalist, Wells believed in a League of Nations with teeth in it.
Wells, in 1920, published “The Outline of History.” He was astonished at its success. It told the story of mankind’s rise from the ooze to the terrible war just over. It was personal; it was written with zest, and it was, in the end, optimistic. Man could better himself if only he would throw off superstition, notably religion, and follow reason and science.
It was a program of hope for millions who believed the world could be organized in a better way.
The English establishment, as it would be called now, was right to regard Wells as a subversive--not only in electoral politics, but also in the relations between men and women. He did not always acknowledge that he believed in “free love,” but he acted as if he did.
When he was young he left his first wife for his second, and then left his second many times for newer flames. Foot gamely proclaims, and perhaps accurately, that all of them but one still loved him until the day they died. Certainly the most famous of them--the passionate actress, feminist and writer Rebecca West--said she did. He had a child with her, as he did with others.
Foot says Wells loved all his children, both of married and unmarried mothers, and he defends his hero against more recent charges of misogyny. Of the latter I am not persuaded. Protest though he did, Wells seems to me to have neglected the deepest feelings of his partners.
I am persuaded, though, that Foot’s biography is a great success if it entices others, as it lured me, into reading ever more widely in Wells.
His humane and vibrant prose is indeed a tonic for the heart and mind.