I am a devout lover of literary biographies and have read a great many over the years. My introduction to H. G. Wells came by way of Lovat Dickson’s book H. G. Wells; His Turbulent Life and Times. Dickson, a Canadian, lived for many years in London where he worked for the prestigious publishers Macmillan & Company. His job brought him into Wells’ circle and the two men became well acquainted. This publishing relationship allows Dickson to present Wells as a writer vividly.
Wells’ early days as a would-be author are a fascinating portrait of a young ambitious writer of limited means. Like many other lower-class writers of the late 19th century, Wells faced early poverty and waged long struggles with his family as he tried to break free of their limited worldview and escape from his lowly origins. Even now, it is still true that most families cannot conceive of writing as a legitimate career. Today’s young writers are still fighting the battles Wells had to fight.
All struggling authors seem to think along the same lines. This must be a product of common sense and personality type. Wells tried to live on the cheap in order to spin out his funds and thus buy himself time to produce saleable work. I sense the same longing in him that formed such a large part of my own youthful psychology. He longed to be free of the regimented lifestyle that accompanies working at a salaried job (as a science teacher in his case). He yearned to work at something satisfying and creative, with no one telling him what to do. These are common emotional themes in our own time, but in Wells’ day, few individuals possessed the education even to consider such possibilities.
Wells is one of writing’s many famous sufferers of tuberculosis. At one point Wells became very ill, yet Dickson writes, “It was a night when, fevered and coughing up blood, his spirits should have been at their lowest ebb. But instead of feeling depressed, he confesses that he felt a subdued state of excitement. He believed this to be because he knew that if he survived this attack he would not be able to go on teaching, and that now he would have to depend on his pen for a living.” I know exactly what Wells was going through at that moment. Like many aspiring authors, he must have felt conflicted or guilty about his desire to devote himself to writing. His illness gave him a legitimate reason to do what he really wanted without having to make excuses or explain his apparently irrational behaviour to his disapproving family.
According to Dickson, Wells struggled with his origins even in his writing. Because of his humble birth, he adopted a stilted writing style whenever he became self-conscious. At these times, he strove clumsily to emulate the well-educated elite. The embarrassing problem surfaced when he found himself corresponding with members of the upper classes. Sadly, class-consciousness drove him away from his genius in writing easy, free-flowing English with lots of innovative imagery, light humour, and wit.
Wells had his first successes when he discovered that people like to read about themselves. He realized that average readers have trouble relating to characters that are not like them. However exotic the story may be, the people in it must be ordinary folk with whom the reader can identify. Employing this strategy in his early science fiction novels, Wells’ was able to develop a huge following among England’s lower middle class. Through Wells’ cleverly chosen characters, the average decent person could vicariously share in some of the most outlandish adventures ever penned.
Dickson notes that Wells wrote his early science fiction novels in a desperate bid to earn some much-needed money. Most young writers will inevitably find themselves in the same boat: short of funds while attempting to write their way out of the jam. Interestingly, Wells made a lot of money from his thrillers, but earned very little when he turned his hand to more serious literary efforts, even though these later works received critical acclaim. Would publishers have eagerly accepted those later books had Wells not already earned himself a reputation as a strong-selling author? In other words, how long would it have taken Wells to publish if he had begun with his literary novels?
In a modern example of the split between genre and literary writing, English mystery novelist P. D. James has said she chose the detective genre because its popularity increased her chances of gaining acceptance. All but the most dedicated literary writers will face this issue. If writing is to become a career, there is a need for quick success. Choosing the genre path seems the obvious answer, yet writers who gain acceptance in popular categories are usually shunned by the buying public when they try to move into deeper waters, something even the talented H. G. Wells could not overcome.