H. G. Wells: Another Kind of Life

H. G. Wells: Another Kind of Life


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An unlikely lothario, one of the most successful writers of his time, a figure at the heart of the age's political and artistic debates—H. G. Wells's life is a great story in its own right

When H. G. Wells left school in 1880 at 13 he seemed destined for obscurity—yet he defied expectations, becoming one of the most famous writers in the world. He wrote classic science-fiction tales such as The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, and The War of the Worlds; reinvented the Dickensian novel in Kipps and The History of Mr Polly; pioneered postmodernism in experimental fiction; and harangued his contemporaries in polemics which included two bestselling histories of the world. He brought equal energy to his outrageously promiscuous love life—a series of affairs embraced distinguished authors such as Dorothy Richardson and Rebecca West, the gun-toting travel writer Odette Keun, and Russian spy Moura Budberg. Until his death in 1946 Wells had artistic and ideological confrontations with everyone from Henry James to George Orwell, from Churchill to Stalin. He remains a controversial figure, attacked by some as a philistine, sexist, and racist, praised by others as a great writer, a prophet of globalization, and a pioneer of human rights. Setting the record straight, this authoritative biography is the first full-scale account to include material from the long-suppressed skeleton correspondence with his mistresses and illegitimate daughter.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780720613919
Publisher: Owen, Peter Limited
Publication date: 09/01/2012
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 400
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.50(h) x 1.30(d)

About the Author

Michael Sherborne is the former editor of The Wellsian and chairman of the H. G. Wells Society. Christopher Priest is the award-winning author of such novels as Inverted World, The Islanders, and The Prestige. He has been strongly influenced by the science fiction of H. G. Wells and in 2006 was appointed to the position of vice president of the H. G. Wells Society.

Read an Excerpt

H. G. Wells Another Kind of Life

By Michael Sherborne

Peter Owen Publishers

Copyright © 2010 Michael Sherborne
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7206-1391-9



Night follows day like the flapping of a black wing, the surface of the earth swirls and a series of images races past almost too fast to be registered. A scattering of ashes lifts from a choppy sea, swirls together and dives into an upturned jar. Stalin shakes his head, Roosevelt beams, Lenin points a finger. A fire of wood burns with little blue flickerings of flame. A naked woman smiles menacingly and holds up a razor. A passenger gasps in exhilaration as a primitive aircraft plunges and rises. A figure stands defiantly on a balcony, steeling himself not to flinch as bombs fall all around. Kisses, quarrels, charades, parlour games. Interlocked bodies move to and fro on the floor of a church. A tandem hurtles along a suburban road, carrying a laughing couple. A goddess steps out of a Botticelli painting and into a Thames-side pub. A little boy is flung into the air, lands on a tent peg and lets out a brief yell like a birth cry.

The machine shudders and, with the dial showing a date somewhere in the middle of 1851, we are at the edge of London's Hyde Park. On the face of it this is an unfavourable time and place to seek H.G. Wells – he will not be born for another fifteen years and, when he is born, it will not be in a public park – but something is certainly happening. A huge crowd is converging on a gleaming glass and iron building. Almost lost in the throng, a small, animated woman in her late twenties cranes her neck for a glimpse inside.

With more than a hundred thousand items to see at the Great Exhibition, most visitors prioritized the mechanical exhibits: machines for manufacturing cotton, machines for making cigarettes, locomotives, microscopes, cameras, a Singer sewing machine – even a Colt revolver. Thomas Carlyle, one of the Exhibition's most scathing critics, had declared back in 1829 that the world was being taken over by machinery. Here was cast-iron proof.

The Great Exhibition marked Victorian Britain's confidence about its leading role in what would later be called globalization. Though it may be hard to believe today, in the 1850s Britain owned half the ocean-going ships in the world and half the railway lines; it was producing five times as much iron as the USA, ten times as much as Germany. But its supremacy would not last for ever. The American Colt revolver was designed to be made quickly and cheaply from standard components; British guns were still being made one at a time by craftsmen.

If the writing was on the wall for Britain as the world's dominant power, it was not apparent to the visitors walking the aisles, including at various times Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, the Duke of Wellington, Charles Dickens, Charles Darwin and, less important in the general scheme of things but much more significant for us, the woman we glimpsed as we arrived, a lady's maid named Sarah Neal – later to be Mrs Sarah Wells. We rightly think of her youngest son as a figure of the early twentieth century, but his formative years were Victorian and his life was shaped by many of the forces that the exhibition put on display.

International competition driving the growth of education would give Wells the chance to break out of his servant-class background and equip him with a distinctive, science-based world-view. His imagination would be fired by awareness that the future would be excitingly different from the present but that some aspects of it might be foreseeable. Globalization and its consequences would become a central concern of his thinking. The unprecedented mingling of social classes at the exhibition prefigured the shifting class balance of society, which he would try to match with political and artistic innovations. The existence of the British Empire would shape Wells's vision of a unified world. Even the futuristic appearance of the Crystal Palace prefigured the exotic, utopian settings of some of his stories. Many events had to take place, however – generally highly unwelcome ones for his mother – before Herbert could make his entry into her life.

* * *

Sarah had been born on 10 October 1822 in Chichester, where her parents ran the Fountains Inn. In her late twenties she had worked as a lady's maid to an army officer's wife, travelling around England and Ireland. In 1848 when her younger sister died, she quit to look after her mother, who was suffering from long-term ill health. By then the Neals had moved to Midhurst to run the New Inn and, after a couple of years in this pleasant West Sussex town, Sarah found a new appointment. However, the household was too High Church for her ('almost Roman Catholic') and after three months she moved to Uppark, a country house on the South Downs eight miles from Midhurst. Here she became a trusted upper servant, attending to the needs of Lady Fetherstonhaugh's younger sister, Frances Bullock. In June 1851 the Uppark gardener left and, fatefully, was replaced by one Joseph Wells.

Joe was almost six years younger than Sarah, having been born on 14 July 1828 on the Redleaf estate in Kent, where in 1843 he began his gardening career, though his lifelong passion was not gardening but cricket. He played for the nearby Penshurst club from 1842 to 1847, at which time the owner of Redleaf died and the estate was sold. Over the next four years Joe drifted through a number of gardening jobs. Like many other people in that period of severe economic difficulties, he thought about emigrating to the gold fields of the USA or Australia. Instead he found his way to Uppark.

It was not love at first sight – not for Sarah, at least: 'thought him peculiar', she wrote in her diary. Joe was a restless personality who would occasionally lie at night on the Downs, wondering. He was extrovert, widely read and not afraid to speak up for himself. People tended to recollect him as a large man, though he was actually around five foot eight inches tall. Sarah, in contrast, was small, quiet, tightly self-controlled and conservative in her views. She felt at home kneeling in the church, within whose beliefs and rituals she found reassurance, not sprawled out on the bare ground beneath the stars. But perhaps one thing these two individuals in their twenties did share was a desire to find some personal relation to the cosmos – and some doubt about what that relation might be. It is easy enough to see the differences between Sarah and Joe. Their common assumptions, compatible roles and mutual humour are the kind of information that evaporates from history.

Whatever the details, the two evidently came to enjoy each other's company. There were weekly get-togethers in the Servants' Hall, where the concertina and the fiddle played country dances by candlelight; there were chances to talk in the procession to and from South Harting Church every Sunday. Joe presumably took advantage of these opportunities to overcome Sarah's initial aversion. In a letter written to patch up a quarrel, he baulks at her view of original sin, with its implication that a child might be consigned to Hell for the sins of its parents. Yet he rejects the belief with tact and professions of love and faith, assuring Sarah of his willingness to study the Bible with her in the years to come.

Their prospects as a couple must have seemed promising. While the recent past had been a nightmare of poverty for many people – Dickens's Hard Times, Gaskell's North and South and Mayhew's London Labour and the London Poor all appeared in the first half of the 1850s – Sarah and Joe were not uneducated manual labourers but skilled workers in a prestigious service industry. Moreover, though they could not know it, the economy was about to enter on a quarter-century of general growth. Unfortunately, the secure life on which they seemed to be set at Uppark was about to come to an end.

In April 1853 the health of Sarah's mother again became critical. Sarah resigned from her post and returned home to what seemed likely to be her mother's deathbed. Determined not to lose her, Joe resigned from Uppark a month later, pursued Sarah to Midhurst, confirmed their engagement and secured her father's blessing, before relocating himself to the Gloucestershire farm of his brother Charles.

In the event it was Sarah's father who died. After his sudden collapse in late August, Mrs Neal became deranged. She attacked her daughter and accused her of having her husband imprisoned. Even when her reason returned, she remained terminally ill, and the shocked and bereaved Sarah had to nurse her, waiting miserably for the end, while her father's creditors circled. Mrs Neal died on 5 November. Immediately after her funeral Sarah was informed that all of her family's possessions had been seized. The next day the brewers who owned the inn gave her twenty-four hours to vacate the premises.

It had been Sarah's intention to find another job as a lady's maid, but Joe, supported by one of her aunts, insisted that immediate marriage was the best option. A special licence having been obtained, the ceremony took place on 22 November 1853 at St Stephen's Church, Coleman Street, in the City of London. Sarah's summary of the occasion in her diary, written on the tenth anniversary of the event, recalls a major disaster from which her life had yet to recover:

no preparation ... alone at the Altar ... no bridesmaid ... the sombre dress of black cast off for one hour ... we parted a few hours after ... no more to meet that year ... I in as much confusion as ever. Oh could I have followed and carried out my own plans, how different our lives might have been!!!

Joe had managed to find himself a new gardening job at Trentham, a palatial mansion outside Stoke-on-Trent that boasted one of the largest formal gardens in England but did not run to married quarters. 'Saddie', as he had nicknamed his wife, had to billet herself on various relatives for the next five months, merely paying him occasional visits.

In April 1854 Joe moved on to a well-paid job as head gardener with a staff of ten at Shuckburgh Park, near Warwick, and this time the job came with an attractive tied cottage. Nine months later, on 20 January 1855, Sarah gave birth to a girl whom they named Frances after her former employer but who was known familiarly as Fanny or Possy. Having almost died at birth, Fanny remained prone to illness and was a constant concern to her mother. She was not the family's only worry. The assertive Joe did not get on with his employer, and in July he was dismissed; in August the family had to leave the cottage. While Joe again set off in search of employment, Sarah and her baby daughter were taken in by some of his relatives.

No gardening jobs were forthcoming, so Joe turned his hand to a new line of work in order to support his family. Two of his cousins, Thomas and George Wells, were shopkeepers in Bromley, Kent. Tom ran a grocer's, George a china and crockery shop. George offered to let Joe have his lease and stock for £50 down, plus £100 from his father's inheritance; Tom agreed to help out with the groceries. The family moved in October. 'How sad to be deceived by one's relations,' commented Sarah in her diary only two weeks later. 'They have got their money and we their old stock.' In fairness, even if the shop never prospered, it had stayed open for eleven years and, thanks to the economic upturn, it would remain in business for another thirty-one. After a successful career in service, however, Sarah was never able to reconcile herself to the dull grind that would be her lot as a shopkeeper's wife in Bromley. Her diary is a record of depression and despair, relieved only by love of her children.

The coming of the railway in 1858 would shortly begin Bromley's transformation into an outer suburb of London, but in 1855 it was a small town with a population of around 5,000, where horse-drawn coaches stopped on their way up to the capital. The inns at which they stopped were the White Hart and the Bell, the latter recommended by no less a personage than Lady Catherine de Burgh in Pride and Prejudice. Just over the road from the Bell, in a terrace of tall, brick buildings, was the family's shop, 47 High Street, also known as Atlas House after a lampstand in the form of the Greek god Atlas carrying the globe, displayed in the small right-hand window of the shop.

Behind the shop was a parlour from which a narrow staircase led to the basement. The front of the basement was occupied by the kitchen, which received daylight from a grating at street level; the back was the scullery. As the shop was built on a slope, it was the scullery that gave access to the yard behind the house. This yard measured about thirty feet by forty and contained the well from which the family pumped their water and, disquietingly close to it, the 'closet', a cesspit covered by a brick outhouse. Taking the stairs up instead of down led to two bedrooms and, above these, to two attic rooms, the front one designated the children's bedroom.

As we have seen, Sarah took a dim view of her new home. Shortage of space meant the place was cluttered up with stock. Coal could be got to the hole under the stairs only by lugging it through the building, leaving a trail of gritty black dust; the smelly contents of the brick dustbin in the yard had to make the reverse journey. Lack of money meant dingy, second-hand furniture and bare boards; and there was a constant disgusting battle with cockroaches. This was not the lifestyle Sarah had expected when she agreed to marry Joe. She felt badly betrayed.

While Sarah was trapped in Atlas House, her husband had the opportunity to pursue a more satisfying mode of life. Though he still talked of emigration, this time to New Zealand, his practical strategy was to use the shop as a day job and earn as much as possible from his hobby of cricket. From the 1860s to the 1880s the barbarities of cockfighting, are-knuckle prizefighting and free-for-all football were being superseded by organized modern sport, and, though he could never be among the wealthy gentlemen amateurs who ran the game, Joe was determined to play his part in this cultural crusade. In 1856 he helped revive the Bromley Cricket Club.

The same year he shot off part of a thumb while hunting rabbits, but fortunately the injury did not affect his skills as a round-arm bowler. In 1857–69 he played as a professional for Kent, and in 1862, playing for them against Sussex at Hove, he became the first man in first-class cricket to take four wickets with four successive balls. Encouraged by this moment of glory, he began to sell cricketing equipment from the shop. It was obtained from a cousin whose life Joe had once saved in a swimming incident and who was willing to let him have extended credit.

For Sarah, cricket was 'low, useless, merely for amusement'. It gave her husband an excuse to be away from home for days at a time, leaving her to mind the shop, do the cleaning and the needlework and look after their growing family. In 1857 there came a son, Frank, and in 1862 a second son, Freddy, also known as Fuss or Fussy.

Having escaped his home all day playing cricket, Joe would vanish in the evenings to the Bell or the Duke's Head and play cards. His vow to Sarah during their courtship that they would read the Bible together by the fireside proved so wide of the mark that now he even refused to attend church on Sundays. Sarah's exasperated diary entries show how keenly she felt her husband's neglect and how exploited she felt herself to be ('Still I am not appreciated! What can man expect of woman'), but protest did her little good. William Baxter, local historian and friend of Frank Wells, recalled Joe as 'a dictatorial, over-bearing man, over-awing his delicate lady-like wife'. Joe generally spoke of the world around him with a humorous 'mixture of derision and impatient contempt'. In less humorous moments, his temper was liable to flare out at anyone and everyone, often in language that later, when his geniality returned, he regretted.

At the beginning of 1864 the underlying unhappiness of the Wells's marriage was overtaken by outright tragedy when Fanny developed appendicitis. She suffered three days of agony and died in her mother's arms shortly before her ninth birthday, leaving – in Sarah's painful words – only 'toys & little clothes lying about' as a mark of her unique existence.

Less than two years later, at the age of forty-three, Sarah became pregnant once more, presumably hoping that a new baby might do something to assuage her loss. She may even have been hoping for another daughter. However, on 21 September 1866, around 4 p.m., she gave birth to a boy.

Would Sarah have conceived him so late in life if she had not lost Fanny? It seems unlikely. Looking back in his autobiography, the late arrival's own view of the matter is plain: he had been created to replace his sister. He resented and rejected this role of substitute. Not only had Fanny been a girl, but she was one with a similar temperament to her mother, ready to share Sarah's interests. He, on the other hand, was a high-spirited, self-assertive boy who inherited many of his father's qualities. His mother's attempts to fit him into the terrible void left in her life by Fanny inevitably led to 'a process of severance and estrangement'.

* * *

His official name was Herbert George Wells, but he was more often known as 'Bertie', 'the Buzzwhacker', 'Busswuss' or simply 'Buss'. From the first he seems to have been demanding: 'never had so tiresome a baby as this one', Sarah wearily noted in her diary. On 15 January 1868 he struck out and gave his mother a black eye. On 28 April he fell out of bed on to his glass feeding-bottle and received a cut over the right eye which required stitches and left a permanent scar.

As he grew out of babyhood and began to investigate his surroundings, the newcomer found himself in the kitchen, scullery and yard of Atlas House. Even sixty years later he could recall every detail of the yard, such as the convenient dustbin from which eggshells, tins and boxes could be retrieved and arranged into a miniature world of his own.

Beyond the back fence he could hear, and presumably smell, the premises of John Covell the butcher. It was occasionally possible from the top floor of the house to glimpse pigs rooting about in the carcasses of slaughtered animals. During the night the pigs, sheep and cattle awaiting slaughter could sometimes be heard crying out and struggling to free themselves. Still more alarming than the world beyond the back wall was the world within Bertie himself, which also manifested itself at night. In a recurring 'geometrical nightmare', he later wrote, it seemed 'as if a mad kaleidoscope charged down upon me, and this was accompanied by intense distress'.


Excerpted from H. G. Wells Another Kind of Life by Michael Sherborne. Copyright © 2010 Michael Sherborne. Excerpted by permission of Peter Owen Publishers.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgements 7

Foreword Christopher Priest 9

List of Illustrations 15

Introduction 19

1 Family and Childhood, 1851-1880 21

2 Five False Starts, 1880-1884 38

3 Student, 1884-1887 54

4 'In the Wilderness', 1887-1890 65

5 An Attempt at Conformity, 1890-1893 75

6 Author, 1893-1895 86

7 The Scientific Romances, 1895-1899 107

8 A New Prospectus, 1899-1901 135

9 Annexing the Future, 1902-1905 153

10 Fabianism and Free Love, 1905-1909 170

11 Novelist, 1909-1911 196

12 Journalist, 1911-1916 214

13 Prophet, 1916-1919 236

14 Historian, 1919-1922 251

15 Godfather, 1922-1926 265

16 Life After Jane, 1927-1930 277

17 An Inflated Persona, 1930-1934 291

18 The Man Who Continued to Work Miracles, 1935-1939 309

19 Declarations, 1939-1943 326

20 Exasperations, 1943-1946 339

Notes 351

Bibliography 377

Index 389

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