Review: Claire Tomalin has depicted the young H.G. Wells a working writer, away from the ivory tower

HG Wells in New York in 1935. Picture: Getty Images

HG Wells in New York in 1935. Picture: Getty Images

  • The Young H. G. Wells: Changing the World, by Claire Tomalin. Viking, $45.

Renowned biographer Claire Tomalin, now in her late 80s, has produced a lively and vibrant account of the life of the young H. G. Wells, whom she terms an "iconoclastic visionary".

Tomalin summarises Herbert George Wells as follows: "I set out to write a book about the young Wells, covering his formation, the years in which he worked, thought and developed his skills as a writer . . . He saw himself as a working writer, not an artist in an ivory tower; he was rightly proud of his achievements, and expected to be well paid for his work. And he could be unreliable, selfish and even vengeful."

To Tomalin, the essential Wells is early Wells, so she concludes her biography in 1911 when Wells is 45, although there is a final chapter summarising the rest of Wells' life, in which "his celebrity was immense".

Ultimately, Wells had "every social circle in the kingdom open to him", but in his early life he experienced poverty and severe illnesses, some of which continued throughout his life. It was only when his mother became a housekeeper at a great country house, Uppark in West Sussex, that Wells, living in the servants' quarters, benefited through medical treatment and access to a large library.

Wells, after leaving Uppark, where he experienced first-hand wealth and class inequalities, had several unsatisfactory apprenticeships and became a teacher, before winning a scholarship to the London Normal School of Science to study biology. His first publication was a biology textbook.

It is interesting that Wells is probably better known today for his "scientific romances", rather than for his mainstream novels, such as Tono-Bungay, Mr. Polly and Kipps, and his nonfiction, such as The Outline of History. His first bestseller was The Time Machine (1895), and others soon followed, including The War of the Worlds (1897), inspired by events in "Tasmania, and the disaster the arrival of the Europeans had been for its people, who were annihilated".

While largely sympathetic to Wells, Tomalin does not shirk from his faults, noting, "he followed a life of enterprising promiscuity . . . was a bad husband and an unreliable lover". The person who suffered most was his second wife, Jane, who "found herself abandoned for ever longer periods . . . while he carried on his love affairs (with, for example, Dorothy Richardson and Rebecca West) in blazes of publicity".

Tomalin, in conclusion, emphasises "Wells' central passion for social equality and government dedicated to make a better life for all its citizens", issues which are just as important today as when they were reflected at Wells' funeral in 1946.

This story Wells from a distance: a working man for the people first appeared on The Canberra Times.