How H.G. Wells Predicted the 20th Century


As an apprentice at Hyde’s Drapery Emporium, where he was “the unhappiest and most hopeless period of his entire life,” his youth was plagued by career choices that didn’t match his talents, originality, imagination, and critical intelligence. Despite this, he was able to learn about anatomy, mathematics, chemistry, and biology while working as a student-teacher at the Normal School of Science, where he was awarded a scholarship. There, his natural charisma and sense of humour, as well as his aptitude for debate and writing, all flourished.

We see him at the Normal School of Science “always ready to set off on fresh paths,” as Tomalin puts it. “Wells had a habit of taking on more than he could handle.” At the college Debating Society, he gave talks, one of which was titled “The Past and Future of the Human Race,” which previewed by a decade his vision of things to come in “The Time Machine,” a work originally published in the first issue of New Review by his friend William Henley, known for his poem “Invictus.”

Wells was too fascinating for Tomalin, a biographer who has written about Charles Dickens, Samuel Pepys, and other notable authors, to simply hand him over. All of Wells’s life comes to light here as she meticulously weaves together three overlapping profiles of one of England’s most enduring and widely cited literary artists. Wells has been described as a social activist who vowed to “write, talk, and preach revolution” in his own words. “Scientific romances,” as he called them, were as influential and popular as his groundbreaking science fiction tales.

He was an atheist, a socialist, and the author of scores of books in which he frequently dreamed of a better world. While he was active in the Fabian Society as a progressive thinker, we learn about his complicated relationship with them. As the author of “Anticipations,” he wrote, “I intend to undermine and destroy the monarchy, monogamy and respectability — as well as the British Empire, all under guise of a speculation about motorcars and electrical heating.” That his 1940 book, “The Rights of Man,” was used as “one of the sources” for the United Nations’ 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights is no small feat.

It is true that Wells, in his own life, destroyed monogamy and respectability. The person Tomalin most hurt was his second wife Jane, who was “abandoned for ever longer periods as the years went on, while [he] carried on his love affairs in blazes of publicity,” as we learn from Tomalin’s examination of this sad and unpleasant aspect.

Wells as a prolific, original storyteller is the final profile in this biography that ensnared me as a young reader and solidified my admiration for him as an author. His early literary efforts were impressive, despite the fact that he was frequently ill and self-educated. In the years before he became famous for “The Time Machine,” he worked as a copyist for slides sold to medical students, tutored students, came up with quiz questions for low-cost magazines, and wrote and illustrated two science textbooks for general audiences, all of which he considered to be hackwork.

To his surprise, he made more money from writing articles for The Pall Mall Gazette than he did from teaching. Only a fraction of his literary output can be found here.