The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World

The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World

by Claire Tomalin
The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World

The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World

by Claire Tomalin


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"Tomalin’s The Young H.G. Wells is hard to beat, being friendly, astute and a pleasure to read.” —Michael Dirda, Washington Post

“Claire Tomalin’s short, engaging biography The Young H.G. Wells is a welcome addition to the conversation. . . Her book makes a strong case for Wells’s enduring importance.”—Heller McAlpin, The Wall Street Journal

From acclaimed literary biographer Claire Tomalin, a complex and fascinating exploration of the early life of the influential writer and public figure H. G. Wells

How did the first forty years of H. G. Wells's life shape the father of science fiction?

From his impoverished childhood in a working-class English family and determination to educate himself at any cost to his complicated marriages, love affair with socialism, and the serious ill health that dominated his twenties and thirties, H. G. Wells's extraordinary early life would set him on a path to become one of the world's most influential writers. The sudden success of The Time Machine and The War of the Worlds transformed his life and catapulted him to international fame; he became the writer who most inspired Orwell and countless others and predicted men walking on the moon seventy years before it happened.

In this remarkable, empathetic biography, Claire Tomalin paints a fascinating portrait of a man like no other, driven by curiosity and desiring reform, a socialist and a futurist whose new and imaginative worlds continue to inspire today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781984879028
Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
Publication date: 11/02/2021
Pages: 272
Sales rank: 518,322
Product dimensions: 9.10(w) x 6.30(h) x 1.00(d)

About the Author

Claire Tomalin is the author of eight highly acclaimed biographies, including Charles Dickens: A Life and Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self, which won the 2002 Whitbread Book of the Year Award, and a memoir A Life of My Own. She has previously won the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for Biography, the Hawthornden Prize, the NCR Book Award for Non-Fiction, and the Whitbread First Book Prize. Educated at Cambridge University, she served as literary editor of the New Statesman and The Sunday Times. Claire Tomalin lives in London and is married to the playwright Michael Frayn.

Read an Excerpt


Two Accidents

Throughout his life Wells found happiness in sunshine, fresh air, and open spaces. He was a mover and a traveler. He tricycled, bicycled, and tandemed through the English countryside in the blessed period when the roads were shared only with horses, carriages, and walkers. He relished long hikes in the Swiss and Italian Alps. He took great pleasure in living beside the Channel for ten years. Wide views and good light pleased him best. He disliked darkness, confinement, and basements. He foretold the airplane and space travel with their extraordinary interest, pleasures, and dangers, before they happened. It seems appropriate that the year of his birth, 1866, was also the year in which the Aeronautical Society of Great Britain was founded.

The love of light came partly from his childhood memories of the small terraced house in which he was born and lived his early years, mostly in the scullery and basement kitchen below the shop run by his father. Atlas House, it was grandly and unsuitably named, and it stood alongside other shops in the High Street of Bromley, a small Kentish town nine miles south of London. Oil lamps gave what light there was, and the whole house smelled of paraffin, which was also used to combat the bed bugs upstairs. His mother, who was forty-four when he was born, was already tired out by trying to clean and cook and look after two sons while his father, Joseph Wells, ran the shop unsuccessfully and spent few evenings at home. Officially he sold a rather odd mixture of crockery and cricket bats-but he cared nothing for the shop. He was an outdoor man, an outstanding cricketer-he had played for Kent, and was the first bowler in county cricket to take four wickets in four successive balls; and he had taught cricket in a Norfolk school. His other skill was as a gardener, and the single beauty of the house was the vine he trained up the back wall. At various times he had thought of emigrating, to Australia, to America, to New Zealand, but had not the willpower to carry through these dreams. He told his third and youngest son, Herbert George, whom he called Buss, that he liked to lie outside at night looking up at the stars.

His wife, Sarah, was the daughter of a Sussex innkeeper, and had been given some education: the Kings and Queens of England, the countries and capitals of Europe, but not the French she longed to learn. She became a pious Christian and deeply devoted to Victoria from the time of the Queen's accession in 1837-Wells describes this as a form of feminism among women who hoped for something better after one dissolute and one undistinguished king. Perhaps so: he also attributes the awakening of his lifelong republicanism to his mother's absurdly exaggerated reverence for the Queen.

Sarah was fifteen in 1837. She was apprenticed to a dressmaker and learned hairdressing well enough to get work as a superior lady's maid. In 1850 she was taken on by Miss Frances Bullock at Uppark, the great house on the top of the West Sussex Downs above Harting. The next year a new gardener, Joseph Wells, arrived and a friendship began and became something more. When Sarah left to nurse hersick mother and was suddenly orphaned, Joe gallantly insisted on marriage. There was a rapid wedding in November 1853, and they moved to Northamptonshire, where he found gardening work on the Shuckburgh Estate. There a daughter, Frances, was born in 1855. But Joe lost his job as a gardener and was persuaded by a cousin to buy his shop in Bromley - and so they were caught in the wretched house and unprofitable business. Neither of them had any idea ofhow to run a shop profitably, and neither made any effort to learn.

Two more children were born, both boys, Frank and Fred. Then Sarah's adored daughter died, age nine, of appendicitis. After that a last male child, Herbert George, appeared. Sarah was worn down by hardship and grief. If she expected her new son to take the place of the departed Frances, she was disappointed. She called him Bertie. He was not to be a comfort to her - not for many years at any rate.

In his earliest memories of her she had already lost several teeth, her hands were distorted by years of housework, and she was always tired - of sewing and mending and keeping up appearances. She cooked but had never learned to make food appetizing. She was often anxious, usually low-spirited, and also deeply religious and devoted to the Church of England. Her faith had been tested by the loss of her first and best-loved child, and her last child's failure to be another daughter was a further blow. She seems to have been a dutiful but never an enthusiastic mother. His brothers Frank and Fred were nine and four years older than him, and his early memories of them were of fighting, throwing a fork at Frank's face, breaking a window when he flung a wooden horse at them, and being half suffocated under pillows when they turned on him. Wells believed his mind developed almost as that of an only child - only later did he make friends with Fred and Frank.

Joseph Wells's failure in the shop was largely due to his having no interest in selling crockery and giving all his attention to the cricket goods. Apart from playing and teaching the game, he had memories of his earlier life as a gardener, and his father had been gardener to Lord de L'Isle at Penshurst Place. Hence the vine planted in a dustbin in the yard. He was knowledgeable about the natural world, pointing out plants and birds and knowing where to find wild mushrooms. He was a reader too, a frequenter of libraries and secondhand bookshops. He came of a large family, so there were uncles, aunts, and cousins aplenty - in fact, Bertie's first wife was the daughter of Joe's brother William Wells, an unsuccessful draper who had died in the workhouse.

Cricketer, reader, dreamer, Joe proved a disappointment as a husband. He was rarely at home in the evening, when he preferred to go out to drink with friends. Keeping up appearances grew more difficult as the shop failed to flourish. Sarah, wanting her sons to have safe and respectable jobs, decided that their best chance would be to become drapers; why she decided this would be good for them is hard to guess. Disregarding her brother-in-law's disastrous failure, she seems to have thought working in a draper's shop was a safe occupation. Drapers were obliged to dress like gentlemen, which may have seemed desirable to her. And to become a draper it was necessary to start work as an apprentice at the age of thirteen and serve long hours, six days a week, for four or five years. Frank began his apprenticeship when Bertie was five, Fred when he was ten. Neither had any wish to become an apprentice, legally bound by contract to serve the draper, but neither had the strength to rebel, and so it was done. It made life easier for their mother, since they were mostly out of the house, and quieter for Bertie.

He was taught his letters by his mother and then sent to a dame school, with an admonishment not to mix with rough or common boys. He learned quickly and soon took pleasure in reading. When he was seven, in the summer of 1874, fooling around the cricket pitch where his father was playing, a friendly older lad picked him up saying, "Whose little kid are you?" and threw him up into the air - only to miss him as he fell. He landed on a tent peg, breaking the tibia in his leg: the tibia is the larger shin bone and walking depends on it. Bertie had his leg strapped between splints and was installed on a sofa at home. The young man responsible happened to be the son of the local publican, and both his parents felt guilty at what had happened, with the result that the publican's wife kept coming round with offerings of delicious food for Bertie for as long as he was immobilized.

Wells would say many years later that the accident changed his life for the better while he was convalescing. He had just become seriously interested in reading, and now his father took it on himself to supply him with books, fetching them almost daily from the local Literary Institute: geography, history, natural history, and the magazines Punch and Fun - known as the poor man's Punch - which he read and reread. Reading became his passion, and he was also blessed with a good memory for what he read and saw. This time of uninterrupted reading was crucial to his mental development.

He remembered too that Britannia, France, and other countries personified in magazines as bare-bosomed and lightly clothed women first aroused sexual desire in him: "When I went to bed I used to pillow my head on their great arms and breasts." Eight seems an early start, but the effects were certainly powerful in his adult life when he pursued sexual encounters energetically and with an unhesitating sense of entitlement.

The tibia set badly and needed to be broken again and reset, an agonizing business-but it also gave him extra time with books. When, in September, he was able to get up and walk to his new school, Morley's Academy in the High Street, he went with a mind crammed with information about the world, and a great readiness to talk about what he knew. The pupils were a mixed lot, half boarders, from London mostly, the others locals. Thomas Morley was sometimes a good teacher - he liked Wells when he saw that he was interested in grammar and mathematical problems - but he was eccentric, often distracted by indigestion or anxiety. Sometimes, in the middle of a lesson, he would decide to shave, at other times he would simply fall asleep. He would hit boys with a ruler, and smack and cane them, but he was not a monster. His job was to turn out competent clerks and bookkeepers, and at this he did pretty well. The only history lessons he gave were about English history, and the French he taught crippled the language for life for Wells - so he said, although he was able to read French as an adult. But at the age of thirteen Wells and a fellow pupil came in joint first in all England for bookkeeping. Wells had developed a strongly competitive spirit. He also accepted his mother's view that theirs was a middle-class family, and he looked down on the common boys who went to the National School as heartily as she expected him to.

Out of school he amused himself by playing war games, imagining himself as Napoleon or Cromwell while he walked the pebbly footpaths, fields, and hills around Bromley, which at that time was still surrounded by unspoiled, open countryside, with a pretty free-flowing meadows, fields and woods. Wells sent his cavalry against enemy armies and slaughtered them with relish - war games he would later encourage his two sons to imitate on a smaller scale in their nurseries. He also formed a secret society with a school friend, inventing a private language and an initiation ceremony that involved burning a finger in a gas jet. And he tells us that he was glad to have blue eyes and fair hair, and that he believed in the natural superiority of the English over all other nations, and expected them to be ruling the whole world presently.

By this time he had also become a nonbeliever in the Almighty. He says he was frightened of Hell as a small child, went through a period of detesting the Devil, and then decided God must be hateful to have set up such a system - and went on to see that the whole story was a lie.

In October 1877 his father, pruning the vine high up on the back of the house, slipped from his ladder. Bertie and his mother found him lying in the backyard when they returned from church. His thigh bone was badly broken. He needed expensive medical care and would never be able to play or teach cricket again.

Bertie was just eleven. For two years the family lived on meager fare - bread and cheese, half a herring for breakfast. Growing fast as he was, he became very thin - it seems quite possible that his growth was stunted. He still went to school but his fees were not paid - evidently Morley thought him too good a pupil to lose. His brother Frank generously gave from his small earnings for new boots for Bertie. Reading and solitary war games remained his chief entertainments, and, amazingly, he also produced, sometime between 1878 and 1880, a book of his own, handwritten and illustrated on almost every one of its ninety-six pages.

This was The Desert Daisy, the story of a war between the King of Spades and the King of Clubs, involving a considerable cast of characters including a prince bishop who steals the crown of his king, a king who becomes a pawnbroker, a youth of noble birth called Lionel Geffory de Thompson Smythe, and the Desert Daisy herself, who digs Smythe out of the sand dune in which he has been trapped and marries him. The illustrations, one to each page, are detailed and funny, showing a ferocious bull, many fights, a sun with an expressive face. His images of the King's counselors were drawn from pictures of current politicians Wells found in magazines - they include a recognizable Disraeli - and there is a donkey sitting comfortably among them. But the most sophisticated part of the book is the introduction, which announces this as a second edition and offers press notices of the first: "The Naily News: Charming book! 'will be read when Shakespeare is forgotten - but not before'"; "The Telephone, 'Magnificent book'"; and another tribute, "Beautiful book - Brought tears into the eyes of the editor's grandma." It also explains that the author, named as "Buss," after completing this work, was "seized with a lingering malady & has been obliged to retire to Colney Hatch [a mental hospital] where he is forbidden to write again." The work is consequently introduced by its editor, H. G. Wells.

Many boys and girls embark on writing stories but few finish them, and for a boy of twelve - or even thirteen - this was a substantial achievement. It shows that he had already a sophisticated sense of humor, real skill as an illustrator, and a surprising range of knowledge about book publication - some of it presumably gained through conversation with his father, who brought him so many books and evidently knew a fair amount about the process of publishing and even publicity.

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