H. G. Wells’ Contrarian Vision

The discussion of H. G. Wells by Anthony West (H. G. Wells, Twentieth Century Views, ed. Bernard Bergonzi, 1976) is interesting on many levels. As the illegitimate son of Wells and Rebecca West, the author offers some rare biographical touches. Rebecca West was an early feminist and a successful journalist who carried on a liaison with the married but libertine Wells. When she became pregnant  her paramour encouraged her to abort the child. She refused and her son Anthony was born in 1914. The son adored his brilliant but aloof, and increasingly paranoid, father (who died in 1946) and became estranged from his mother. For more details, I refer readers to Michael Coren’s study of Wells.

West offers some hitherto under-appreciated nuances about the British novelist. Wells is remembered as a champion of unlimited human progress. When his later works of nonfiction became shrill and despairing it was seen by many as a belated admission that the wonders of science could just as easily be exploited for evil as for good. But West explains that his father was never really a progressive, or else that he was a very reluctant one. His father had “received a scientific education and he never fell into the fallacy of confusing the Darwinian conception of evolution with the idea of progress.”

In this respect, Wells “mechanistic” view of the universe had more in common with the grim social theories of Thomas Hobbes than the idealistic systems of Marx, Shaw and the Webbs. Wells felt forced to adopt the views of the latter when, for a time, he became involved with the Fabian socialist movement. He even authored works in which he tried to present a coherently progressive vision. But West believes that these were strained and unsuccessful. Certainly from an aesthetic point of view this is true. His utopian fantasies have fallen into obscurity.

Looking at Wells’ most famous novels in the early years of his career, his anti-progressive materialism is clearly stated. The Time Machine (1895) paints a dim vision of futurity, in which mankind slowly degenerates over thousands of centuries. Eventually all life comes to an end and the earth is reduced to a frozen rock circling a dying sun. According to West, both The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896) and The Invisible Man (1897) explore the theme of “the liberated human intellect as a destructive element.” The World of the Worlds (1898) and The First Men on the Moon (1901) present us with advanced alien cultures in which highly developed “abstract rational thinking will lead to the growth of cruel and inhuman planned societies which will be utterly indifferent to human values and individual happiness.”

Wells was no conservative, yet he often contradicted his own modernist views. His son recounts being lectured on the virtues of monogamy and fidelity and the perils of divorce, despite Wells’ own “swinging” lifestyle. Likewise, though a public advocate of pacifism, Wells had a very Victorian notion of supporting his country in wartime.

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