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Scholarly Editions: H.G. Wells' World Brain - Annotated with an Introduction


Excerpt from the Introduction

H. G. Wells: Early Life

On September 21st in 1866, Herbert George Wells, the fourth child of parents of quite modest means, was born in Bromley, Kent to Joseph and Sarah Wells. His father was an avid cricket player, but a rather unsuccessful tradesman and his mother a devout—nearly fanatical—lady’s maid. Sarah was born of rather humble circumstances herself, and only when she was older and the family had inherited some money was she able to attend a finishing school which focused—Wells tells us—on religiosity and scrubbing. Wells rather derisively claims that the school exacerbated her naturally pious nature:

A natural tendency to Protestant piety already established by her ailing mother, was greatly enhanced. She was given various edifying books to read, but she was warned against worldly novels, the errors and wiles of Rome, French cooking and the insidious treachery of men, she was also prepared for confirmation and confirmed, she took the sacrament of Holy Communion, and so fortified and finished she returned to her home. (Experiment in Autobiography, 27)

Although he seems rather cutting in his description, when Wells tries to imagine his mother’s world before he was born, he describes it as one of ignorance, financial desperation, and perhaps inevitable conformist views:

For the present I am trying to restore my mother’s mental picture of the world, as she saw it awaiting her, thirty years and more before I was born or thought of. It was a world much more like Jane Austen’s than Fanny Burney’s, but at a lower social level. Its chintz was second-hand, and its flowered muslin cheap and easily tired. Still more was it like the English countryside of Dickens’ Bleak House. It was a countryside, for as yet my mother knew nothing of London. Over it all ruled God our Father, in whose natural kindliness my mother had great confidence. He was entirely confused in her mind, because of the mystery of the Holy Trinity, with “Our Saviour” or “Our Lord”—who was rarely mentioned by any other names. The Holy Ghost she ignored almost entirely; I cannot recall any reference to him; he was certainly never “our” Holy Ghost, and the Virgin Mary, in spite of what I should have considered her appeal to feminist proclivities, my mother disregarded even more completely. It may have been simply that there was a papistical flavour about the Virgin; I don’t know. Or a remote suspicion of artistic irregularity about the recorded activities of the Holy Spirit. In the lower sky and the real link between my mother and the god-head, was the Dear Queen, ruling by right divine, and beneath this again, the nobility and gentry, who employed, patronised, directed and commanded the rest of mankind. On every Sunday in the year, one went to church and refreshed one’s sense of this hierarchy between the communion table and the Free Seats. And behind everyone, behind the Free Seats, but alas! by no means confining his wicked activities to them, was Satan, Old Nick, the Devil, who accounted for so much in the world that was otherwise inexplicable. (Experiment, 29)

Wells’ parents met at the estate of Sir Henry Featherstonhaugh, Up Park, and before long they were married. Almost immediately, they were living a precarious existence based on the profit from Joseph’s failing shop—which a family member’s inheritance had allowed them to buy on the unfulfilled promise that it would give them an income—and living in a house that Wells described as a “needy shabby home in a little town called Bromley in Kent” (Experiment, 22). The family spent much of their time in the kitchen close to the coal fire so they could lower their heating costs. The house was unhealthy (the well was twenty feet from the outdoor toilet) and infested with bugs: “They harboured in the wooden bedsteads and lurked between the layers of wallpaper that peeled from the walls. Slain they avenge themselves by a peculiar penetrating disagreeable smell” (Experiment, 25). Although her death was unrelated to their unhealthy living arrangement, his sister Fanny died from an “inflammation of the bowels” (which is now referred to as appendicitis) and his eldest brother was stunted and sickly. Wells himself was relatively healthy as a child, largely due to his mother’s faith in cod liver oil, although food was by times dear and difficult to access.

Wells’ father Joseph preferred to earn his living playing cricket rather than selling “jam pots and preserving jars to the gentlemen’s houses round about, and occasional bedroom sets and tea-sets, table glass and replacements” (Experiment, 42). Wells’ relationship with his father was a distant one. A casual statement by his father on his interest in the heavens made Wells ponder how little he knew about the man: “I hadn’t thought of him before as a star-gazer. His words opened a great gulf of unsuspected states of mind to me” (Experiment, 37).

Wells’ youth, although one of relative privation for him, was a time of great technological change, which—largely because of his penury—he avidly watched as though he were a child at a sweet shop window. Observing and then commenting on the subsequent shifts in British culture, Wells eagerly embraced this rapidly changing world with an enthusiasm that could easily be attributed to his humble and machine-poor upbringing. The train system was rapidly being modernized, sailing ships were replaced with coal-fired boilers, cottage industry with the factory, and the serfdom of peasant farmers was passing away. Although his imagination was attracted to the mechanical delights of the age—as he saw them as a young boy—he had little opportunity to study them. Only when a fortunate accident released his mind temporarily from serving his body, did Wells’ intellectual self blossom.

Wells the Reader, or the Tale of Two Broken Legs

When Wells was “seven or eight” a young cricketer named Sutton threw him into the air on a lark and broke his leg upon landing. For Wells, this event, or rather its fallout in terms of his changing circumstances, was a blessing. The mother of the young Sutton, contrite for her son’s impulsive action, brought Wells anything he wished to eat, and more importantly, anything he wanted to read. Confined to a bedstead or chair for long days, Wells feasted his mind on books that hitherto were difficult to access:

for some weeks I found myself enthroned on the sofa in the parlour as the most important thing in the house, consuming unheard-of jellies, fruits, brawn and chicken sent with endless apologies on behalf of her son by Mrs. Sutton, and I could demand and have a fair chance of getting anything that came into my head, books, paper, pencils, and toys—and particularly books. (Experiment, 54)

His parents didn’t support his interest in reading once he was back on his feet, but for a little while he had the books brought by Mrs. Sutton and encouraged his father to go to the library nearly every day. As the written text began to capture his imagination, Wells came to develop a faith in education that followed him until his death. He entered a small private school, Thomas Morley’s Commercial Academy, and suffered through the erratic teaching and mundane curriculum until 1880. In the meantime, in 1877, his father fractured his thigh. The accident meant the loss of even the meagre amount his father earned through cricket and the family could not survive merely on the income from the shop.

Largely due to this financial exigency, his mother returned to work at Up Park as a lady’s maid, despite the caveat that she could not bring her husband and the children to her lodging. Because their family situation had grown even more tenuous with them living separately, Wells’ personal troubles increased during his apprenticeship with a draper and also, later, his job as a chemist’s assistant. Luckily, Up Park was outfitted with a well-appointed library and he was able to read many classic works when he visited his mother. Is it at this period that he learned a love for Jonathan Swift—Gulliver’s Travels—and to appreciate Voltaire and Plato.

The family’s dire financial straits meant that they eagerly embraced a draper position for the young Wells at the Southsea Drapery Emporium, Hyde’s. There he worked thirteen-hour days and slept in a dormitory, an experience he was to make use of in his novels The Wheels of Chance and Kipps, both of which examine the profession with an eye to declaiming his society’s unequal distribution of wealth. He left his rather dismal attempts at apprenticeships at a dry goods store, and a druggist, and rather like his George Ponderevo from Tono-Bungay, he proclaimed to his mother that he was done with the whole rotten mess of selling his life for money.

When he was sixteen and still gloomily engaged to be an apprentice, Wells was offered an opportunity at Midhurst Grammar School by Horace Byatt who had been impressed by Wells’ abilities as a pupil. Byatt offered him a student assistantship and Wells was soon both a student and a teacher. Within a year Wells had passed examinations and earned an entrance scholarship for the Normal School of Science in South Kensington. There he attended lectures on biology and zoology given by Thomas Henry Huxley, which examined at length the implications of the revolutionary notions of Darwin, among others. Wells said it “was beyond all question, the most educational year of my life. It left me under that urgency for coherence and consistency, that repugnance from haphazard assumptions and arbitrary statements, which is the essential distinction of the educated from the uneducated mind” (Experiment, 161). This concern with orderly thought processes was to inform his attempts to envision the transformation of society and its educational apparatus.

Wells stayed at the Normal School until 1887. Although his weekly allowance was more than most working class families earned as a household, the young Wells wasn’t satisfied with either his caste-oriented society or his own station in life. Before long his dissatisfaction with the classist nature of British society began to inform his scholastic career. He joined the Debating Society of the school where he began to express his interest in political transformation. At first his ideas were heavily indebted to Plato’s Republic, but soon he became interested in contemporary socialism, especially that propounded by the recently formed Fabian Society. Before long he was attending lectures at Kelmscott House, the home of William Morris. Wells was among the founders of The Science School Journal, a school magazine that allowed him to express his views on literature and society, as well as trying his hand at fiction; a precursor to what would be The Time Machine was published in the journal under the title The Chronic Argonauts.

During his heady time in Normal School, Wells took advantage of the library to stray from the strictly scientific reading which had become boring once the details weren’t animated by Huxley’s influence. He spent his time familiarizing himself with writers such as William Blake and Thomas Carlyle. He was also distracted by a growing attraction for his cousin, Isabel Wells. Largely because his focus on his studies was waning, and he was spending more time with Isabel, Wells left Normal School to teach at small private schools which could not afford to be selective about the credentials of their instructors. Unfortunately, while playing soccer at such a school in Wales, his kidney was damaged by one of the players, and that, combined with a diagnosis of tuberculosis, meant that he was periodically an invalid for the next ten years.

Wells spent that time wisely. He began to take his writing more seriously, and with the completion of his Bachelor of Science degree in zoology from the University of London External Programme in 1890, he soon was earning a better income. He became a biology tutor for a correspondence college, did some teaching, edited the in-house journal, and published several educational papers. His first book-length publications came about during this period, when he authored a biology textbook in two volumes and co-authored another on physiography. His restless nature drew him away from the tame life of the teacher lackey, however, and that, combined with his dissatisfaction with his wife, led him to seek elsewhere for both intellectual and emotional satisfaction.

By 1894 he fell in love with one of his students, Amy Catherine Robbins (later known as Jane), who he married in 1895 while he tried to make a living as a professional writer. He began to produce a stream of essays, book and theatre reviews, and articles that speculated about scientific advances.


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