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H. G. Wells




United Kingdom

Herbert George Wells was born in Bromley, Kent, England, on Sept. 21, 1866. His father was a shopkeeper in a small way and a professional cricketer; his mother served from time to time as housekeeper at the nearby estate of Uppark ("Bladesover" in Tono-Bungay). Though Wells attended Morley's School in Bromley, his real education came from omnivorous reading, a habit formed in 1874 while he was laid up for some months with a broken leg. Between 1880 and 1883 he spent most of his time as a draper's apprentice in Windsor and Southsea, a way of life for which he later recorded his profound detestation in Kipps. After a year as a teacher in a private school, he won a scholarship to the Normal School of Science in South Kensington in 1884. There he made a promising start as a student under Thomas Henry Huxley, but his interest faltered in the following year, and he left without a degree in 1887. He then taught in private schools for four years, not taking his B.S. degree until 1890.

The year 1891 saw Wells established in London, teaching in a correspondence college, married to his cousin Isabel, and the author of a remarkable article on "The Rediscovery of the Unique" in the Fortnightly Review. After much writing on educational subjects, he began his sensational literary career with The Time Machine in 1895. Meanwhile, he had given up teaching and had left Isabel for one of his brightest students, Amy Catherine ("Jane") Robbins, whom he married in 1895. There followed a series of scientific romances (most notably The Island of Dr. Moreau, 1896; The Invisible Man, 1897; The War of the Worlds, 1898; The First Men in the Moon, 1901; and The War in the Air, 1908), which form the most familiar part of his work to modern readers. But he grew dissatisfied with the limitations imposed by this kind of writing, and in 1900 he moved into the novel proper with Love and Mr. Lewisham, a story of his student days at South Kensington. On this and particularly on Kipps (1905), Tono-Bungay (1909), and The History of Mr. Polly (1910), his serious literary reputation primarily depends.

Biography written by Gordon N. Ray in the Encyclopedia Americana. For more information on this online reference, visit Grolier.Online .

Though these books are novels, they are informed by a spirit of profound hostility to the Victorian social order and to the body of orthodox opinion that supported it. Desiring to make explicit his criticism of the past and his hopes for the future, Wells embarked on his career as a "prophet" with Anticipations (1901), Mankind in the Making (1903), and A Modern Utopia (1905). He thereby came to know George Bernard Shaw, who claimed that he and Wells between them had "changed the mind of Europe," and the other leaders of the Fabian Society. Joining this organization in 1903, he tried in 1906 and 1907 to turn it into a large-scale operation devoted to mass propaganda and political action. He was defeated in this effort by the "Old Gang" under Shaw's leadership, however, and he resigned in 1908. This experience inspired his last novel of literary importance, The New Machiavelli (1911), into which he introduced brilliant portraits of noted Fabians. In 1912 Wells began a ten-year relationship with the writer Rebecca West, who became the mother of their son, Anthony West, in 1914.

Beginning in 1898, Henry James, who saw in Wells the most gifted writer of the age, had sought to make him a disciplined artist in fiction. For a time Wells tried to learn the lesson of the master, but after The New Machiavelli he turned frankly to the "dialogue novel" in which he could freely and rapidly give expression to his current preoccupations. He sealed his repudiation of James by a devastating parody in Boon (1915). During World War I, Wells proved himself to be an expert propagandist, particularly in Mr. Britling Sees It Through (1916).

Having coined the hopeful phrase "the war that will end war" in 1914, Wells was thoroughly disillusioned by the peace settlement at which the Allies actually arrived. In the conviction that the future would be "a race between education and catastrophe," he endeavored to make the essentials of knowledge available to the great public through three massive works: the best-selling Outline of History (1920); The Science of Life (1931), in which he collaborated with his oldest son, George Philip Wells, and Sir Julian Huxley; and The Work, Wealth, and Happiness (1932). Meanwhile he had emerged as a popular celebrity, living the life of "telegrams and anger" in the great world, with each new shift in his opinions announced through syndicated articles. His key work of this period is The Open Conspiracy: Blue Prints for a World Revolution (1928), in which he urged the case for an integrated global civilization.

Wells's last book of enduring value was his Experiment in Autobiography (1934). But he continued to average two titles a year: some widely influential, such as The Shape of Things to Come (1933), which did much to awaken a large audience to the dangers threatening the West; and some vastly entertaining, such as Apropos of Dolores (1938), his hilarious tribute to an ex-mistress. He lived through World War II in his house on Regent's Park, abusing the current objects of his disfavor, large and small. In his last book, a brief essay entitled Mind at the End of Its Tether (1945), he expressed the blankest pessimism about humankind's future prospects. Wells died in London on Aug. 13, 1946.

Susan Cheyney

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