H G Wells
A Literary Life
By Adam Roberts
This is the first new complete literary biography of H G Wells for thirty years, and the first to encompass his entire career as a writer, from the science fiction of the 1890s through his fiction and non-fiction writing all the way up to his last publication in 1946. Adam Roberts provides a comprehensive reassessment of Wells’ importance as a novelist, short-story writer, a theorist of social prophecy and utopia, journalist and commentator, offering a nuanced portrait of the man who coined the phrases ‘atom bomb’, ‘League of Nations’ ‘the war to end war’ and ‘time machine’, who wrote the world’s first comprehensive global history and invented the idea of the tank. In these twenty-six chapters, Roberts covers the entirety of Wells’ life and discusses every book and short story he produced, delivering a complete vision of this enduring figure.
By Becky Hinshelwood
Reading this book was a bit like going back to University. I’ve not actually read any H G Wells, familiar though I am with adaptations of titles like The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man. Since my student days I’ve also not read in depth criticism because… well, I haven’t had to. So actually, it was nice to feel like I was learning again!
Adam Roberts’ book is informative and accessible. It’s is far more readable than many texts from my student life. But that’s not to say it’s a walk in the park. And there’s no need for reading to be simple in order to enjoy it. This is a good example of that: a book that takes effort and concentration to read, but it’s worth it.
So, do you have to know the work of H G Wells to appreciate this book? In short, no. Adam Roberts looks at Wells’s life through his work; it’s a fairly chronological literary biography. You’ll be guided through Wells’s massive body of work so that by the end, you’ll feel like you not only know something of the man, but also have a working knowledge of his literature. You’ll certainly be able to bluff your way in a pub quiz!
What really struck me about this tour of Wells’s literary life was how much the man wrote. He was the original content creator! Adam Roberts outlines this in his introduction, but as you go through the stories, articles, analyses and and memoirs it’s still impressively prolific! Roberts clearly admires him, and really loves a lot of his work. But he’s not afraid to be critical when he thinks a piece comes below par. Similarly when Wells’s views, as they seem to have regularly been expressed, were racist and sexist. So as my guide to H G Wells, I found myself pretty amenable to Adam Roberts.
Then there’s all the sex. From the outset, Roberts takes pains to highlight H G Wells’s vivacity. Which I originally thought was a bit farfetched… but then as you move through the works and the biography it all makes a bit more sense. With 2 marriages, 5 long term affairs and numerous dalliances influencing the work, if you’ve absorbed the whole Wells canon it would be hard not to look at each with with a bit of an erotic eye.
Even after this book, though, I struggle with H G Wells the lothario. Mainly because he is such a figurehead of Science Fiction. He’s a God of the Geeks – the man helped to spread the popularity of wargaming for goodness sake! Nowadays a comic-book version of H G Wells crops up often in graphic novels as an alien-fighting superhero. And on the twee side of life, one of his novels, Kipps, supplied the basics for cheesy 60’s musical ‘Half a Sixpence’.
But, of course H G Wells was a man and writer of contradictions. And according to Roberts a trailblazer of contradictory characters, of symbolism and unreliable narrators (including himself). Roberts’s analyses are pretty in depth. He’s actively seeking expressions of Wells’s subconscious and motivations. But that’s the point of analysing literature – it’s about finding layers of meaning.
And if one thing is clear from this book, Wells is rich in meaning! Even his eulogy to his late wife, the ‘Book of Catherine Wells’, is not as straightforward as it may appear. Roberts is critical of the narcissistic and frankly rude tone of Wells’s description of his late wife (‘sturdy’). I appreciated Roberts’s calling out of Wells’s treatment of his wife. Of course he’s balanced, which is fair – we don’t ever know what goes on behind closed doors. When Roberts takes us through Wells’s final major love affair with Moura Budberg and how her infidelities pained him, I thought “good – what goes around…”!
By tracing his work, Roberts adds yet another story to H G Wells’s portfolio. It’s a story with multitudes of meaning, most of which involve knowledge in some form. Maybe his story is essentially a journey from the optimism of future progression to pessimism with how humanity used their knowledge. I can certainly thank Adam Roberts for kick starting my brain again!
If Becky’s review has inspired you to read more, then you can buy your copy HERE