The Visible Man
A century ago H. G. Wells (1866-1946) was probably the best-known and best-paid writer in the English-speaking world. But just a decade later, the star of this most topical and forward-looking of authors—the man who dreamed of tanks, atomic bombs and massive aerial warfare before they were invented—began to fade, to the point that he is now remembered as a modestly gifted, if spectacularly prolific (ca. 100 books), pioneer of science fiction and popular history. Oh, and he also left behind a reputation as an indefatigable womanizer (while proclaiming himself a feminist).
Photos of Wells reveal a rather homely, mustached fellow, only 5 feet 5 inches tall, who might be mistaken for a thoughtful businessman. One can still hear his voice on YouTube in an interview from October 1940 with his American admirer and near-namesake Orson Welles: a polite, squeaky old man’s voice with undertones not of Oxbridge leisure but of up-by-the-bootstraps lower-class misery, met and mastered. Is this the Edwardian Lothario, the forever-controversial public intellectual who had sat at the feet of Thomas Huxley, the socialist, reformer and (by the end of his days) tragic pessimist? Does he still hold any interest for us?
In David Lodge’s novelized biography he certainly does, even if there is no denying that Wells’s stature has shrunk and that psychoanalytically he can seem at times more pathetic than passionate. As for Lodge, a former academic (U. of Birmingham), a fine novelist (twice a finalist for the Man Booker prize), satirist, critic, essayist, playwright and a quirkily self-described “agnostic Catholic,” he combines scenes from Wells’s by now more or less completely documented life story with generous quotations from his books, journalism, letters and the like, and lots of imaginative reconstruction, especially of dialogue. Though absorbed in Wells’s hyperactive public and private existence, he keeps his emotional distance from the man and often serves as a prosecutorial questioner in Wells’s interior dialogues, where H. G. doggedly but honestly tries to explain and justify his problematic behavior—for example, toward his good friend Henry James, whom he savagely mocked and broke with.
In the perspective Lodge provides, it is clear that Wells’s adult life was a protracted (and partly successful) campaign to compensate for the deprivations of his wretched childhood and youth: love, attention, respect and every sort of pleasure. He had a great deal of raw intelligence and all-but-inexhaustible energy. Neither stylistically gifted (he thought writing should above all be useful) nor conventionally attractive (he swore he would have been taller, had it not been for early malnourishment), Wells poured himself out in hectic efforts to win over readers everywhere (pirated copies of his work were a big hit as far away as Soviet Russia) and the beautiful, sometimes quite brilliant, women he kept encountering. His brisk middle-brow prose and unusual plots won him a growing audience, and his erotic magnetism turned heads.
Unhappily married in 1891 to his cousin Isabel, he eloped in 1894 with his student at the Normal School of Science, Amy Catherine (“Jane”) Robbins, who bore him two sons and then settled into the role of secretary, nurse and Griselda-like platonic confidant until her death in 1926. During that time Wells pursued his serial (or simultaneous) adulteries with various, typically younger, loves like fellow writers Amber Reeves, Elizabeth von Arnim, Rebecca West, Dorothy Richardson and Odette Keun. He had an illegitimate daughter by Reeves and a son by West. Then there were the affairs with Margaret Sanger and a Russian woman named Moura Budberg, who may have been a Communist spy, and many brief, unregistered flings (or passades, as he liked to call them) with unnamed partners.
One would like to report that just as Wells’s rough-and-ready fiction showed a serious desire to grapple with the crucial issues of the day, such as war and women’s liberation, so his amatory exploits reflected a burning, quixotic quest for the perfect soul mate; but that does not appear to have been the case. In one of his harsher judgments, Lodge declares that “sex for him was ideally a form of recreation like tennis or badminton, something you did when you had completed a satisfactory bit of work.” On a sadder, more consequential note, Wells himself, in the Postscript (not published till 1984) to his Experiment in Autobiography (1934), summed up “the story of my relations with women” as “mainly a story of greed, foolishness, and great expectation.” It was a karmic irony that the great love of Wells’s last years, Moura Budberg, steadfastly refused his pleas to marry or even move in with him.
Wells was an ornery, self-taught, self-made man. And when one lives as headlong as he did, when everything that one thinks and does finds its way into print, there are bound to be painful contradictions. A thoroughgoing egalitarian, Wells nonetheless proposed, in A Modern Utopia (1904), dividing society up into a veritable caste system of the “poetic,” the “kinetic,” the dull and the base, with philosopher-king “Samurais” (like, say, H.G.W.) in charge. A fervent peace-lover, he spouted jingoistic propaganda throughout the first half of World War I. A champion of hard science, he also supported eugenics. A spirited champion of women’s rights, he demanded from his mistresses a monogamous fidelity that he never practiced himself.
Still, on the whole his heart was in the right place—which was why the ravages of World War II left him so depressed (he had been an early proponent of the League of Nations). He could confess and regret his failings. But there was a vacuum inside him that nothing could altogether fill. As he once wrote to Rebecca West, “I’m almost unendurably lonely and miserable. I’ve done no end of work and good work.… Righteous self applause is not happiness. Russia excited me and kept me going. Now I’m down. I’m alone. I’m tired.… I want love that I can touch and feel. And I don‘t deserve love.” Lodge can fairly claim that despite everything, Wells “had a liberating and enlightening effect on a great many people.” But he knew that from his fan mail: it drove him to write and editorialize nonstop and even busy himself with the time-consuming chores of politics (e.g., as a leading figure of the Fabian Society), which he otherwise hated. Yet it was not enough. So, compulsive overachiever that he was, he went on doing more and more—which, as often happens, wound up equaling less.