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26 August 2020

From the NS archive: HG Wells, the man I knew

17 August 1946: Fellow Fabian George Bernard Shaw marks the death of his friend Herbert George Wells.

By George Bernard Shaw

Herbert George Wells died on 13 August 1946. A few days later this tribute (among others) by George Bernard Shaw was published in the New Statesman. Shaw and Wells, both members of the socialist group the Fabian Society, were united by their skepticism and broad outlook on politics but they disagreed on almost everything else. Their extensive letters, on a range of subjects from history to art to religion, are cantankerous  sometimes downright abusive and Shaw does not mince words in this tribute when he calls him “the most completely spoilt child l have ever known”. But the warmth of Shaw’s feeling is also apparent: Wells was “honest, sober and industrious”  and relentlessly likeable. “There is no end of the things I might say about him had I space or time,” he writes.


So our HG is no more. He has written his own epitaph and his own biography, which is, like most autobiographies, much more candid than any second-hand account of him is likely to be; and I shall not attempt to paraphrase it. But as I knew the man  and he could not have recorded the impression he made on me even if that had been his intention  I record it myself for what it is worth.

HG was not a gentleman. Nobody understood better than he what gentry means: his Clissold novel proves this beyond question. But he could not, or would not, act the part. No conventional social station fitted him. His father was a working gardener and professional cricketer. His mother was a housekeeper, and by his own account not a very competent one. The two kept a china shop in Bromley, from the basement of which the infant HG contemplated the bootsoles of the inhabitants through a grating in the pavement, and noted that they were mostly worn out. Lower middle class, you will say: a father who in the cricket field was denied the title of Mister, and a mother who was a domestic servant, small shopkeepers both: could anything be more petit bourgeois, as Lenin labelled HG? His glimpses of high life were gained in his visits to the country house in which his mother was employed; and there he must have been a bit of a pet, though his references to it in later life were anything but grateful. He began to earn his living as a linen draper’s shopman, this being in his mother’s opinion a high destiny for him. Many years later, when he made his first essay as a public speaker, he kept behind the chairman’s table and addressed the audience leaning across it with his fingers splayed on it in a “What’s the next article” attitude. He rose to be a school master; graduated as a science student, winning a BSc; and presently, like Dickens and Kipling, left it all behind and found himself a great popular story teller, freed for ever from pecuniary pressure, and with every social circle in the kingdom open to him. Thus he became entirely classless; for though Erbert Wells had become HG Wells, Esquire, he never behaved like a gentleman nor like a shop assistant, nor like a schoolmaster, nor like anyone on earth but himself. And what a charmer he was!

In one category, however, I can place him. He was the most completely spoilt child l have ever known, not excepting even Lord Alfred Douglas, who, having been flogged at Eton, had had to bear criticism at least once, though indeed neither of them could bear it at all. This puzzled people who regarded Wells’s youth as one of genius chastened by poverty and obscurity. As a matter of fact it was one of early promotion from the foot of the ladder to the top without a single failure or check. He never missed a meal, never wandered through the streets without a penny in his pocket, never had to wear seedy clothes, never was unemployed, and was always indulged as more or less of an infant prodigy. When he reproached me for being a snob and a ready-made gentleman, I had to tell him that he knew nothing at first hand of the horrors of chronic impecuniosity in the progeny of the younger sons of the feudal class who had the pretensions and obligations of gentility without the means of supporting them. Editors had jumped at his stories and publishers at his novels at the first glance. I wrote five massive novels and had to endure nine years of unrelieved failure, before any considerable publisher would venture on mine. It hardened me until my shell was like iron. HG was pampered into becoming the most sensitive plant in the literary greenhouse. His readers imagined that this man who understood everything could pardon everything. In fact the faintest shadow of disapproval threw him into transports of vituperative fury in which he could not spare his most devoted friends.

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But do not infer from all this that HG was an intolerably unamiable person who made enemies of all his friends. One remembers the saying of Whistler’s wife: “If I die, in twelve months Jimmy will not have a friend left in the world.” Douglas could not live in the same house with his wife, though they lived and died on affectionate terms. Yet HG had not an enemy on earth. He was so amiable that, though he raged against all of us none of us resented it. There was no malice in his attacks: they were soothed and petted like the screams and tears of a hurt child. He warned his friends that he went on like that sometimes and they must not mind it. When Beatrice Webb, whom he consulted as to his filling some public position, told him frankly but authoritatively that he had not the manners for it, which was true, he caricatured, abused, vilified and lampooned her again and again; but I never heard her speak unkindly of him; and they ended as the best of friends. He filled a couple of columns of the Daily Chronicle on one occasion with abuse of me in terms that would have justified me in punching his head; but when we met next day at a sub-committee of the Society of Authors our intercourse was as cordial as before; it never occurred to me that it could be otherwise, though he entered with obvious misgivings as to his reception, which at once gave way to our normally jolly friendliness.

Nothing could abate his likeableness. I once had to lead the case against him in public debate when he joined the Fabian Society and attacked its leaders (ten years older, tougher and more experienced than he), not only challenging their policy but recklessly defaming their characters and imputing disgraceful motives to them. I forced myself on the committee as its spokesman to save him from being slaughtered by sterner bands. That I easily and utterly defeated him was nothing; it was like boxing with a novice who knocked himself out in every exchange; but the Society, though it did not give him a single vote, reproached me for my forensic ruthlessness and gave all its sympathy to HG. If he had been the most tactful and self-controlled of mortals he would not have been half so well beloved.

HG was honest, sober and industrious: qualifications not always associated with genius. He loved to assemble young people and invent new games for them, or referee the old ones, whistle in hand, as became the son of his father. In an age of masters of the art of conversation like Chesterton, Belloc and Oscar Wilde, the Prince of Talkers, he was first-rate company without the least air of giving a performance. Nobody was ever sorry to see him.

His place in literature and in the political movement of his day I must leave to another occasion or other hands. He foresaw the European war, the tank, the plane and the atomic bomb; and he may be said to have created the ideal home and been the father of the pre-fabricated house. To Fabian Socialist doctrine he could add little for he was born ten years too late to be in at its birth pangs: the work bad been done by the Old Gang of the Society as well as it could be done. Finding himself only a fifth wheel in the Fabian coach he cleared out, but not before he had exposed very effectively the obsolescence and absurdity of our old parish and county divisions as boundaries of local government areas.

There is no end of the things I might say about him had I space or time. What I have said here is only what perhaps no one else would have said.

Read more from the NS archive here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as Statesmanship (Weidenfeld & Nicolson)

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