No. 16: H G Wells at 40

H_G__Wells_by_BeresfordBorn in 1866, H G Wells turned 40 in 1906. By this time some of his most famous works of science fiction had been written, but rather than rest on his laurels Wells was working hard at a wider range of literature and social commentary.

Well’s fame was still relatively new; his great works for which we now remember him had been written mostly in the preceding decade: The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898), The First Men in the Moon (1901). He was now a popular author both at home and abroad, and readily compared to Jules Verne. Though he continued to write science fiction, the adventure stories began to evolve into a higher purpose of observation of society and prophecies or warnings of the future as he approaches and passed 40: When The Sleeper Awakes (1899), The Food of the Gods (1904), In the Days of the Comet (1906), and The War in the Air (1908) all talk of possible worlds to come in which he discusses what could happen in the future.

At the same time that Wells was directing his science fiction towards social commentary, he was also trying to show his versatility with comedies set in the present day: Kipps (1905) had appeared the previous year, while he was only a few years away from writing The History of Mr Polly (1910).  Thus Wells at 40 was a man with an established reputation who was seeking to expand rather than retread old steps.

But while he was seeking to expand his literary reputation, his personal reputation was frequently the centre of great controversy. Wells was living at this time with his second wife Catherine, but famously had a number of affairs, including, around this time, with the novelists Dorothy Miller and Amber Reeves with whom he would have a daughter in 1909; but there were many more such affairs to follow. Most surprising perhaps is Wells’ tendency to write about his personal affairs in novels – with Reeves appearing at the heroine of Ann Veronica, published the same year their daughter was born.

The blessing and curse of Wells life is that today he is remembered, of course, for his science fiction above all else, masking the dubious nature of his personal life, but belying his own ambition to be remembered for a greater number of works (though they were received well enough in his lifetime, and are still critically admired today). Ultimately the reaction of the 40-year-old Wells to move beyond his adventure stories has been undone with the enduring popularity of those stories with which he will be forever associated by the general reader.




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