Last reviewed: June 2017
September 21, 1866
Bromley, Kent, England
August 13, 1946
Herbert George Wells, whose parents ran a china shop, was one of England’s most prolific and best-known writers. Although he had to work for a living early in life, he was determined to get an education and rise in the world. After a period as a draper’s apprentice and a chemist’s assistant, he attended Midhurst Middleschool, where he was a teacher and a student. In 1884 he won a scholarship at the Royal College of Science, studying under the biologist and advocate of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, Thomas Henry Huxley, an experience that made a lasting impression on him. Two years later he founded the Science School Journal, combining his interests in teaching and science writing. In 1890 he earned a bachelor of science degree from London University. He began tutoring until tuberculosis forced him to give up teaching. While convalescing, he began to write essays and stories, and in 1891 he published an essay in the Fortnightly Review, marking the beginning of his long and active career. In the same year, Wells married Isabel Mary Wells, a cousin. In 1893 he completed the two-volume work Text-Book of Biology. During this period, he taught in a correspondence school and did various kinds of writing. In 1895 he divorced his wife, after a two-year separation, and married Amy Catherine “Jane” Robbins, a former student, with whom he had two sons.
In 1895 Wells published The Stolen Bacillus and Other Incidents, a collection of short stories; later that year, he published The Time Machine, the first of his “scientific romances,” his term for what became science fiction. An immediate success, this novel was frequently compared to the work of Jules Verne, but Wells protested that he wrote for political ends, while he thought Verne did not. Wells continued his scientific speculations in such books as The Wonderful Visit, The Island of Dr. Moreau, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds. Like many of his works, these novels combined biological and historical projection with Darwinian theory. They also included social satire as well as warnings about the potentials of science, and they earned him the reputation of a visionary. The power and excitement inherent in his fiction were amply demonstrated in 1938, when a radio adaptation of The War of the Worlds created a few hours of panic throughout the United States, with many listeners believing that an invasion from space was actually occurring. H. G. Wells
H. G. Wells
In The Wheels of Chance, Wells wrote the first of his novels dealing with the attempts of the lower middle class to rise in the world; this series includes Kipps, Love and Mr. Lewisham, and The History of Mr. Polly. Like Charles Dickens, Wells described the lives of ordinary people with generosity and sympathy. Around the turn of the twentieth century, he developed friendships with such writers as Joseph Conrad, Arnold Bennett, Henry James, George Bernard Shaw, and Stephen Crane.
From about 1905 to the period of World War I, Wells wrote realistic novels, what he called “social fables,” using social as well as political ideas. He created some highly individualized characters. Examples of his work from this period include Ann Veronica, Mr. Britling Sees It Through, and This Misery of Boots. New Worlds for Old was an explanation of Wells’s own version of socialism. For a time, he belonged to the Fabian Society, a socialist group, but his political utopia came to be more like Plato’s republic than a socialist or communist state. He later renounced socialism as tyranny.
In Tono-Bungay, Wells began a group of novels based on contemporary historical themes and Darwinian theory, including The New Machiavelli, The Passionate Friends, and The Research Magnificent. After World War I, Wells achieved international fame with The Outline of History, a chronological survey of civilization. This book sold more than two million copies. Wells followed it with A Short History of the World. These books, along with his many books of scientific and social speculation, made Wells one of the most influential writers of his time.
In his writings and other activities after World War I, Wells made a bid for political recognition. To this period belongs Russia in the Shadows. In 1922 Wells the man entered politics as a candidate for Parliament on the Labour Party ticket. Defeated, he made a second unsuccessful attempt in 1923. After the death of his second wife in 1927, he lived mostly in London.
From 1929 to 1930, Wells published The Science of Life, a learned and monumental work written in collaboration with his son George and Julian Huxley, the son of Thomas. During the 1930s, Wells showed much interest in the New Deal experiments in the United States; his writing during the decade reflected current economic and political problems. Three years before his death, Wells completed a thesis on personality and was awarded the doctor of science degree from London University. He lived to see the end of World War II, having predicted, and then lamented, the use of the atomic bomb.
H. G. Wells is perhaps best known for his scientific romances, which profoundly influenced the development the science fiction genre. His literary achievements, however, were vast and diverse. Through his eagerness to instruct and to entertain his readers, he produced many kinds of works on politics, history, society, and science. He was an undaunted, independent, iconoclastic, and sometimes impatient idealist. He thought that it was his duty to alert readers to future implications of scientific progress and that he could reconcile his hope for a better world with Darwinian ideas. His works reflect the struggles of his personal life and the intellectual and moral dilemmas of his times.