H.G. Wells's Forgotten Fiction

Herbert George Wells was, in reputational terms, his own worst enemy. He was prolific: 51 novels, dozens of works of non-fiction, scores of short stories and countless newspaper articles. However, much of his output, especially in the second half of his career, was of questionable merit. His science fiction won him an international reputation as England's answer to Jules Verne. His other fiction specialised in satires of lower-middle-class life, laced with elements of autobiography. If, for example, one wants to understand Wells's appalling view of the purpose of women – to provide pleasure for HG Wells – one need only read his 1909 novel Ann Veronica, which draws on his seduction of Amber Reeves, more than 20 years his junior.

He could, though, be thoughtful as well as self-indulgent: three of his wartime novels, Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916), The Soul of a Bishop (1917) and Joan and Peter (1918) explore, respectively, adjusting to war and to bereavement; the problems of religion; and the nature of a proper education. Yet flushed with a sense of his own genius, because of the acclaim a poorly educated reading public gave his early work, Wells poured out philosophical and political tracts of increasingly low quality that, with one or two exceptions, do not bear reading today. The later novels are mediocre; the fires of originality had burned out.

Some critics never felt their warmth in the first place. Once Virginia Woolf had (as she thought) polished off Arnold Bennett in her snobbery-larded 1924 lecture, published as  “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”, her acolytes dragged in Wells (and, for good measure, his and Bennett's contemporary John Galsworthy), and a whole school of English literary criticism wrote these pre-modernists off. This was harsh, because much of Wells gives pleasure; some, notably his science fiction, is stunningly innovative. But the critical sneers have long implied that he was an unsophisticated hack who got above himself and who, above all, could not write. His very success with the newly-expanded reading public, they say, was based on the “fact” that he could not write, because the public was not capable of telling the difference between an author who could and one who couldn't.

 

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