H. G. WELLS: HIS TURBULENT LIFE AND TIMES
by Lovat Dickson
by Lovat Dickson
Because he invented the future, H. G. Wells is more important for our age than he was for his own time. Perhaps he will have still more significance for the age ahead—if there is one. This, however, is not a view of Wells that his latest biographer, Lovat Dickson, shares. He impatiently dismisses Wells’s social and political writings as a waste of time that would have been better employed on novels, provided of course they were “clean.” Dickson thinks Wells was without what he calls “moral muscle.” Because of this and his low upbringing, Wells failed to become a novelist of the stature of John Galsworthy or Henry James. It is an astonishing opinion: Wells the little cad, the Cockney outsider, letting down the eminent Victorians.
Another Victorian revival is in progress in England; Galsworthy and Trollope are back in the libraries—and are on the telly. Wells shares in the restored limelight. Kipps was made into a supermusical, and Ann Veronica sells like hot cakes in paperback. This ought to gratify a biographer who happens also to be a publisher, and so presumably has a professional eye to sales. But Dickson seems almost to wish Wells to be excluded, and to feel he deserves Coventry. It is as if the great Victorians were a kind of Supreme Court, with Wells as its Abe Fortas—or, even more appropriate perhaps, its Justice Douglas. The thought is hard to resist that Wells if he were alive today might answer the author of H. G. Wells: His Turbulent Life and Times in about the same terms he used to Bernard Shaw:
The more I think you over the more it comes home to me what an unmitigated middle-Victorian ass you are. You play about witli ideas like a daring garrulous maiden aunt, but when it comes to an affair . . . show the instincts of conscious gentility and the judgment of a hen.
H. G. Wells lived to be almost eighty. He wrote some scores of books, and had from first to last a considerable number of attractive mistresses. They included Rebecca West, and the authoress of Elizabeth and Her German Garden (Elizabeth von Arnim, who later married Bertrand Russell’s brother) . Wells warmed both hands at the fire of life. His sexual adventures have long been known. Wells refused to feel ashamed of them, and paraded them in novels like Ann Veronica. The “affair” referred to in the letter to Bernard Shaw concerned a daughter of Hubert Bland, who was a pillar of the Fabian Society, along with Sidney and Beatrice Webb and Shaw. Bland’s daughter sought to run off with Wells, a married man. She was, says Lovat Dickson, plucked from his side in a railway carriage at Paddington Station only at the last moment. Later she married the first editor of the New Statesman, and Wells went on to fall in love with someone else. But he was not seducing innocents. “If she is innocent,”he wrote Shaw, “it isn’t her parents’ fault anyhow.”
The English firm The Macmillan Company—of which Lovat Dickson was for twenty-two years a director —had published some of Wells’s previous books, but Sir Frederick Macmillan drew the line at Ann Veronica. He rejected it in these words, written to Wells:
When Ann Veronica begins her pursuit of the professor at the international college, offers herself to him as a mistress and almost forces herself into his arms, the story ceases to be amusing and is certainly not edifying.
Macmillan similarly rejected The New Machiavelli, which followed. “The kind of thing we objected to in Ann Veronica is here intensified. . . .” Wells himself struck Sir Frederick as out of place in Macmillan’s, with its broad, polished corridors and portraits in expensive frames of famous and dignified writers. It is a disapproval in which Lovat Dickson seems to concur, possibly out of sheer loyalty to Sir Frederick and Macmillan’s. Wells retorted with spirit to Sir Frederick, bombarding him with letters that were no doubt deemed presumptuous.
Wells could, Lovat Dickson says, be mean, spiteful, and quarrelsome. He was, besides, half-educated and did not know his place; his mother had been a domestic servant, and Wells “was never really at home in the society to which his genius had lifted him.” This is perfectly true, but not in the way Dickson imagines. Wells was right to feel unhappy about the flabby Establishment of his day, and right to feel that Sir Frederick was flabby. However, it is Wells, not Macmillan’s, that Dickson accuses of lack of moral muscle.
Wells thought of himself as a great man, as a rival major prophet to Marx. He rather plainly regarded Sir Frederick Macmillan as a fool, writing him:
You are I think of that type that does not readily perceive that living men are as good as the dead. You are sceptical about me as you would have been sceptical about Coleridge if you had been his contemporary . . . you force me to unbecoming lengths of self-assertion. You don’t believe that literature is still going on.
Lovat Dickson thinks this a bit hard on the publisher of Kipling and Yeats, Hardy and Henry James. Perhaps. But it is certainly very odd that Dickson should praise Rebecca West (born a lady) for appreciating James, while damning Wells (no gentleman) for failing to do so. By Dickson’s own testimony, it was Rebecca West who while living with Wells wrote that James constructed stories “the size of a henhouse” with “sentences as vast as granite blocks of the Pyramids.” When Wells derided his old friend, he merely echoed his young mistress: “His vast paragraphs sweat and struggle . . . it is a magnificent but painful hippopotamus resolved at any cost . . . upon picking up a pea.”
Wells’s impatience with pea-picking derived from his own deep and abiding concern with man’s fate. Long before the furor about a military-industrial complex, he likened human society to a crab with one huge hypertrophied claw fast outgrowing the rest of the beast. Such hypertrophy would sooner or later condemn a species that suffered from it to extinction. After the First World War, therefore, Wells devoted the rest of his long life to what he termed a “race between education and catastrophe.” Lovat Dickson tuts at him for “generating visions” that were “of little practical use in the world of affairs,” but he ingenuously adds, “except to stimulate men to action or to thought.” The immensity of that “except”!
Wells, he feels, ought to have continued producing popular novels instead of drudging at The Outline of History and The Science of Life. And he alleges the drudgery was not even genuinely altruistic. What drove Wells to those latter-day labors, Dickson contends, was not concern for mankind at all; it was Wells’s “burning desire to tidy up the mess he had made of his life.” No evidence props up this assertion. The only person whose life Wells may have felt he messed up was his wife, but his self-imposed task continued many years after her death. If at the end Wells thought he had failed, it was not because he now repented having had mistresses, or having shocked Sir Frederick.
Dickson makes much of Mind at the End of Its Tether, an old man’s cry of despair. But that last sad fragment was a product of the dying Wells’s cancerous liver, not of his alleged “lack of moral balance.” Wells did sometimes despair because he was in his own words “a man lit by a vision of a world still some centuries ahead,” who however knew very clearly there was no certainty that the vision would be realized. Changes in human adjustability absolutely essential for the species’ survival must take centuries, yet there might be only some scores of years left. Since Wells’s death in 1946 the odds have worsened. U Thant now believes that “the members of the United Nations have perhaps ten years left in which to subordinate their ancient quarrels and launch a global partnership.” After ten more years, the arms race, the human environment, the population explosion will be completely out of control. Wells foresaw this. Generally, however, he was hopeful. “Worlds may freeze and suns may perish,” he wrote, “but I believe there stirs something within us now that can never die again.”
But supposing all should in fact be lost? In that case, he wrote in The History of Mr. Polly,
Man comes into life to seek and find his sufficient beauty, to serve it, to win and increase it, to fight for it, to face anything and dare anything for it, counting death as nothing so long as the dying eyes still turn to it.
This is the man whose newest biographer says lacked religion and morality.
Lovat Dickson’s fortunately is not the last word. The formal Life of H. G. Wells is coming, it seems, from Professor Gordon Ray at the University of Illinois, which has all Wells’s papers. The author of The Turbulent Life and Times concedes his own book is neither a full-scale biography of Wells nor “a critical examination of his works.” It is a pity that some of it reads like a Publisher’s Peeve. Wells no doubt offended the House of Macmillan, but that was fully sixty years ago. Can the wound still rankle?