Herbert George Wells, born in Bromley in 1866, did not have an ideal start in life. His father, Joseph, a one-time county cricketer, tried his hand at shopkeeping but eventually went bankrupt. Sarah, Wells’s mother, had been a lady’s maid and could do hairdressing and dressmaking, but had to devote herself instead to caring for her family.
Wells, her fourth child, was undersized and sickly. His serious health problems — near-fatal lung hemorrhages, an abscessed kidney — recurred for years, and his sense of physical inferiority, he later said, distressed him all his life.
At school, though, he proved exceptionally bright, coming first in all of England in a bookkeeping exam. He was a passionate reader, and his father, useful for once, borrowed books for him from a nearby literary institute. His mother was resolved he should be an apprentice draper, like his older brothers, but he hated it, threatening suicide if she would not relent.
So he became, at 14, an assistant schoolmaster, later moving schools and eventually teaching, among others, AA Milne. He studied at night, and in 1884 won a scholarship to the Normal School (later Royal College) of Science, in South Kensington, where he was taught by “Darwin’s bulldog”, TH Huxley. Looking back at that time he remembers he was shabby and often hungry, weighing barely 7 st, but did not mind “because of the vision of life that was growing in my mind”.
That vision was Huxley’s, scientific and atheistic, and under his influence Wells started writing science-fiction stories based on evolutionary theory. In one, humans have dwindled to hopping heads, all brain, no emotion, and they live underground while above them vegetation and animal life have long since disappeared from the Earth. This was ten years before his sci-fi masterpiece, The Time Machine (1895).
A lucky break came when his mother was appointed housekeeper at Uppark, a West Sussex mansion, where Wells found a fresh supply of books. They included Plato’s Republic, which seems to have stimulated him to invent imaginary civilizations, such as Mankind in the Making (1903).
H. G. Wells’s mother was resolved he should be an apprentice draper, like his older brothers, but he hated it, threatening suicide if she would not relent.
Some of these fantasy commonwealths reveal his capacity for ruthlessness. Anticipations (1901), for example, contemplates reducing overpopulation by genocide, which would eliminate the “swarms of black, and brown, and dirty-white, and yellow people” in China and Africa.
Claire Tomalin’s compact but richly informative book chronicles all of this. As in her other biographies of writers such as Charles Dickens and Thomas Hardy, though, she gives her keenest attention to the analysis of personal relationships. Wells seems to have been promiscuous by nature. In 1888 he wrote to a friend that marriage, which bound two people together for life, was a “perfectly disgusting” idea. However, he needed sex, so in 1891 he married his pretty cousin Isabel.
The wedding night was, Tomalin writes, “a miserable fiasco”, with Isabel “embarrassed and afraid” and Wells “uncontrollably ardent”. His reaction was not to be patient and teach Isabel to enjoy sex, but to embark, as he put it, on a lifetime of “enterprising promiscuity”. This was not difficult, for women found him irresistibly attractive. One lover said that his body “smelt deliciously of honey”. Besides, he became wealthy, which, Tomalin observes, “makes it easier to meet and woo women”. Her narrative itemizes his long and passionate affairs and also his many casual sexual encounters.
His first move was to get rid of Isabel, which proved surprisingly easy. She saw he was attracted to one of his students, Amy Robbins, and said that he must choose between them. So he divorced Isabel and chose Amy. She was 20, almost the first educated woman he had met, and she talked fascinatingly of socialism and the rights of women. Their original arrangement was to remain unmarried lovers. However, they did marry in 1895 and she bore him two sons.
He did not like the name Amy, so he called her Jane — a typically authoritarian decision. Further, he recounts in his autobiography that he persuaded her to accept that he needed to have love affairs with other women. Evidently she agreed. But the scandals, humiliations and loneliness he subjected her to as he set up homes with other women and fathered their children hardly, as Tomalin says, “bear thinking of”.
Among those who admired his intelligence was the pioneering sociologist Fabian Beatrice Webb. A co-founder, with her husband Sidney, of the London School of Economics, she introduced Wells to a wide circle of politicians and philosophers, including Bertrand Russell and the future prime minister Herbert Asquith. What ended their friendship, however, was Wells’s affair with Amber Reeves.
In 1888 Wells wrote to a friend that marriage, which bound two people together for life, was a “perfectly disgusting” idea.
She was the daughter of the high commissioner for New Zealand and, when Wells met her, was 18, strikingly beautiful and about to go up to Newnham to read philosophy. She evidently became besotted with Wells. He says that when they met in Cambridge she flung herself into his arms and begged to have a child by him, and he agreed.
Tomalin quotes extensively from their unpublished love letters, in which Wells shamefully disparages his wife (“Poor little Jane, poor dear, is such a bore…”). Jane, as usual, behaved unselfishly, buying all the baby clothes for the coming child. “Jane,” Tomalin comments, “is the true heroine of this story.”
Yet that is not quite so. Tomalin’s story has a hero, and it is Wells the writer. She notes discerningly the unparalleled range of his fiction, from the idyllic The History of Mr Polly (1910) to the horrors of a short story such as The Cone (1895), in which a jealous lover incinerates his rival in a furnace.
Whereas some have criticized his style as journalistic, Tomalin sees it as his strength. He wrote short books for busy young people, and they read “like reporting of things seen, touched and heard”. She admits that, although she set out to write about the young Wells, she has followed him into his forties because she found him “too interesting to leave”. The same can be said of her book.