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1 December 2021

HG Wells and the human animal

The visionary novelist sought to transform the world, but he could not escape its, or his own, dark irrationality.

By John Gray

“Oh, mon Dieu! He is a terrible pessimist.” For many people, DH Lawrence’s verdict on HG Wells, made in a letter to a friend in 1909, will be surprising, even perverse. Wells spent much of his life working to transform the human world into something better ordered, and more beautiful, than it had ever been before. Yet Lawrence’s observation contains a neglected truth. Wells did not really believe in the future of humanity. He could not banish the suspicion that humankind would remain incurably irrational, until eventually it destroyed itself.

Wells’s view of the human animal is expressed in his early masterpieces of speculative fiction. In The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897) and The War of the Worlds (1897), science had opened up vistas of progress wider than any hitherto conceived. Yet the end point of evolution would be a dying planet covered with lichen; trying to turn animals into rational humans would produce a tormented hybrid; the ancient dream of invisibility proved to be a curse; and all the resources of modern civilisation were powerless against invasion by a more advanced species. These visions, which came to Wells as revelations of his innermost doubts, never left him.

There have been many lives of Wells. Claire Tomalin’s gives us a picture of the writer that is vividly compelling and freshly detailed. She captures the young Wells’s vitality, showing him battling against poverty and illness, finding his way in British intellectual life and forming tangled relationships with a wide variety of women.

Wells was born in 1866 in Bromley, Kent, the fourth child of Joseph Wells, shopkeeper and cricketer, and Sarah Wells, a maid and then housekeeper at Uppark, a grand 17th-century house on the South Downs. His schooling was erratic. He learned most when he was bedridden as a result of illness or accident, reading books his father brought from the local library. In 1877 Joseph had a bad fall, ending his cricketing career. With the family finances depleted, Wells was apprenticed in a draper’s shop, then a pharmacy, positions he loathed. In 1883, after briefly contemplating suicide, he persuaded his mother and father he would do better as a pupil-teacher in a grammar school. He gained the post, and without telling his parents applied for a scholarship at the Normal School of Science in South Kensington.

[See also: From the NS archive: HG Wells, the man I knew]

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By September 1884, not yet 18, Wells had become the student of TH Huxley, president of the Royal Society and the world’s leading Darwinist. Living in London on a guinea a week, a gaunt Wells could barely keep body and soul together. He watched as two fellow students fainted from hunger in the laboratory. Failing to get a degree, he took up a position at a boys’ school. Disaster struck when he was injured in a rugby game. He became an invalid, and on more than one occasion nearly died.

He seized the catastrophe as an opportunity, and began writing stories for magazines from his sickbed. At the bottom of a list of his published work showing he had made a grand total of £1, he noted: “Someday I will succeed, but it is a weary game.” He never gave up. For one thing, he had no intention of dying a virgin.

In theory Wells was a radical collectivist. In practice he was an unabashed individualist. Nowhere was this truer than in his relations with women. In the world of the future, everyone would practice “free love”. For Wells, others had to serve as instruments of his needs.

Wells’s sexual career began when he married his cousin Isabel Mary Wells in 1890, but it was not played out within his marriage. After a six-year-long engagement throughout which he had been faithful, their wedding night was a fiasco. Wells launched himself into what he called “an enterprising promiscuity”. In 1894 the couple separated, and Wells moved in with one of his students, Amy Robbins, later known as Jane, who became his wife in October 1895. Wells treated Jane abominably, spending much of his time with lovers. He returned to be with her only when she was dying from cancer, even then leaving regularly to spend a few days in France, where his current lover was living.

“Wells was desired by many clever and interesting women,” Tomalin writes, “for his energy and charm, for his reputation as a lover… as well as his fame, and, for some, his riches.” But as Tomalin goes on to show, his most serious lovers were outstandingly gifted women whose personalities he found compelling. Amber Reeves, with whom Wells fathered a daughter, was a brilliant Cambridge student, founder of the university’s Fabian society and later a feminist author. Rebecca West, with whom he had a son, was a celebrated writer. Elizabeth von Arnim was a bestselling novelist; Odette Keun a prominent Dutch socialist; Margaret Sanger a world leader in the campaign for birth control; and Dorothy Richardson a noted critic and author of the 13-volume Pilgrimage, a modernist classic.

Wells’s last and greatest love was Moura Budberg, the most extraordinary of them all. Tomalin writes:

She had lived a life of spectacular difficulty and danger, and saved herself – and her children – by courage, charm and ruthlessness… Whatever Wells knew or worried about in her past – marriages, love affairs, imprisonment and spying in Russia, Berlin, Estonia and Italy – he did not waver in his determination to keep her.

All of this is true, but hardly does justice to Moura or the pivotal role she played in Wells’s life. Tomalin sets out to present Wells up to the age of 40 but follows him well into his fifth decade, while her book’s final chapter takes us up to his death in August 1946. It is a pity that she fails to explore Wells’s relationship with Moura more fully, for it posed the severest challenge he ever faced to his view of the world and himself.

Many who knew her commented on Moura’s serene fatalism, others on her unyielding determination. Born in 1892 the daughter of a Tsarist nobleman, she faced becoming a “former person” after her husband was shot dead on the family estate in 1919. Many of her papers were destroyed in a fire in Italy, where she died in 1974. Much about her remains obscure.

Wells met Moura when she was Maxim Gorky’s secretary. She was also his lover; a relationship she had been encouraged to develop by the Cheka – the Soviet secret police. She eventually confessed this to Gorky, and years later made a similar confession to Wells when he discovered she was secretly visiting Gorky in Russia. She had been planted on Wells too. Collaborating with the Cheka, she explained, was the price of life in Soviet Russia. In an exchange Tomalin does not mention, reported by Wells’s son Anthony West in HG Wells: Aspects of a Life (1984), Moura mocked Wells’s surprise at what she had done. Had he not studied biology? Did he not know survival was the first law of evolution? For the species, Wells replied, not the conscious individual. Laughing lightly, Moura let the matter go.

Moura’s attraction to Wells may have been real enough – she told Somerset Maugham that Wells’s skin smelt deliciously of honey – but it was intermixed with self-preservation, calculation and deception. When they became lovers in Gorky’s apartment, Wells writes he “believed every word she said to me”. Now he found he could no longer believe in her at all. Yet nor could he live without her. He asked her to marry him, and she calmly declined. He begged her to live with him, and she refused. She remained his companion, a comforting presence in his despairing last years, on her own terms.

In his relationship with Moura, Wells realised he was no more a conscious individual than were the deluded masses. The rational elite to which he imagined he belonged, which could direct the future course of human evolution, did not exist.

Tomalin quotes George Orwell as writing: “Wells is too sane to understand the modern world.” It is a remarkably obtuse judgement: it would be truer to say that Wells was possessed by the madness of his times. His early fictions and the utopias he later promoted are two sides of the same divided mind. If anything, Wells’s schemes of world-transformation are more horrifying than his nightmares of human decline and extinction.

Referring to his non-fiction bestseller Anticipations (1901), Tomalin cites Wells’s assertion that in the New Republic, the coming World-State, those who could not keep up with “higher types” would “have to die out”. She does not share with us what Wells actually wrote:

The new ethics will hold life to be a privilege and a responsibility… and the alternative in right conduct between living fully, beautifully and efficiently will be to die. For a multitude of silly and contemptible creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless, unhappy or hatefully happy in the midst of squalid dishonour, feeble, ugly, inefficient, born of unrestrained lusts, and increasing and multiplying through sheer incompetence and stupidity, [they] will have little pity and less benevolence… The Jew will… cease to be a physically distinct element in human affairs… And for the rest, those swarms of black and brown, and dirty-white and yellow people, who do not come into the new needs of efficiency?… I take it they will have to go… It is their portion to die out and disappear.

Tomalin claims Wells “was soon retreating from this racist position altogether”. But in a talk to a Liberal Summer School in Oxford in 1932, Wells declared, “I am looking for liberal Fascisti, enlightened Nazis.” As late as 1939, in The Fate of Homo Sapiens, Wells felt it necessary to include a chapter on “The Jewish Influence” in which, while condemning the treatment of Jews in Nazi Germany, he managed to convey the impression that it arose from a hostility that was in some ways quite understandable.

Wells was not, of course, a Nazi. His books were burned along with those of Stefan Zweig and Sigmund Freud, and he was near the top of the SS execution list if Britain was invaded. But like much of the progressive intelligentsia of his time, he was gripped by ideas –eugenics, racism, a cult of “efficiency” – that the Nazis took to their genocidal conclusions. George Bernard Shaw, who wrote to Wells thanking him for Anticipations, discussed “an extensive use of the lethal chambers” as “a part of eugenic politics” in a 1910 lecture to the Eugenics Education Society. Some have suggested Shaw was satirising eugenics, but it is interesting that his name does not appear on the Nazi death list.

Like Shaw, Wells was enchanted by tyrants, seeing them as engineers of souls who could remould the wayward human animal. Following an interview with Stalin in 1934 (published in this magazine), Wells wrote: “I have never met a man more candid, fair and honest, and to those qualities it is, and to nothing occult and sinister, that he owes his tremendous undisputed ascendancy in Russia.”

[See also: How HG Wells invented the modern world]

Tomalin passes quickly over Wells’s hideous New Republic, and spends much of two chapters considering his relations with the Fabians. There are moments of interest – Beatrice Webb prissily cutting Wells off because of his racy private life, for example – but on the whole it is a dull tale. She also spends too long on Wells’s novels of social commentary, Love and Mr Lewisham (1899), Kipps (1905), Ann Veronica (1909) and The History of Mr Polly (1910), quaint relics of a world that has faded from memory.

In contrast, Wells’s speculative fictions have become popular myths. The War of the Worlds and The Invisible Man are part of everyone’s imagination. The Time Machine is a potent reminder that Darwinian evolution is not an upward spiral towards ever more conscious forms of life but an aimless process that could end with lichen. The Island of Doctor Moreau – “an upsetting story… I still hesitate before returning to it”, writes Tomalin, who gives it a single paragraph – concerns an experiment in vivisection designed to remake animals as rational beings. What emerged was “not a reasonable creature, but only an animal tormented with some strange disorder in its brain”. The story reads today as a premonition of the attempts to remould the human animal that Wells foresaw, and in some moods supported, in the 20th century.

In his last book, Mind at the End of its Tether, published in December 1945, Wells noted that in the past “there was always the assumption of an ultimate restoration of rationality”, only to conclude: “There is no ‘pattern of things to come’.” By then he was mortally sick with cancer and diabetes. The vitality that had sustained him was gone. His hopes for the future had come to nothing, but the myths he created will endure as long as modern civilisation survives.

John Gray is a New Statesman contributing writer. His most recent book is “Feline Philosophy” (Allen Lane)

The Young HG Wells: Changing the World
Claire Tomalin
Viking, 272pp, £20

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This article appears in the 01 Dec 2021 issue of the New Statesman, The virus strikes back