BOOK REVIEW / Blind side of a one-eyed prophet: 'The Invisible Man: H G Wells'- Michael Coren: Bloomsbury, 20 pounds

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
'THE minds of all of us', wrote George Orwell, 'would be perceptibly different if Wells had never existed'. He meant by this that H G Wells had helped readers of his generation to believe that the future was not going to be run by bishops and businessmen, or by politicians 'who could quote Horace but had never heard of algebra'. Wells brought science to the common reader and he brought it in fantastic dress: 'There you were,' Orwell said, 'in a world of pedants, clergymen and golfers . . . and here was this wonderful man who could tell you about the inhabitants of the planet and the bottom of the sea.'

Orwell delivered his tribute in a spirit of mitigation. His main business, in 1941, was to attack his boyhood hero, to point out that the prophet was now sickeningly out of date and ought to watch his tongue. Wells had called for leaders, samurai, for an elite of scientists and clear-headed thinking types, for a world government managed by cerebral high-achievers like himself. With his schoolmasterish belief in science and reason, he had never taken the measure of his real-life foes, the deep, dark enemy lurking not in outer space but the human psyche: 'Nationalism, religious bigotry and feudal loyalty are far more powerful forces than what he himself would describe as sanity.'

When I was first introduced to Wells, at school in the 1950s, his prophecies were used chiefly as a means of commending the greater potency and relevance of more recent visions of the future, like Orwell's own Nineteen Eighty-Four and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World. Although Wells's predictions, in his last years, were blacker than those of these younger seers, it was his pre-

1914 dream of human perfectibility that was recalled, with condescending fondness, as the stuff of a more innocent and optimistic age.

In the 1950s, Wells's novels were already being shunted off either into science fiction or into social history. His inter-planetary punch-ups, his suburb-blasting Martians, his wild-

eyed vivisectionists were acknowledged as uncannily prescient concoctions, but for the young they had been superseded by Dan Dare. And his 'little men' heroes of self-help, such as Kipps or Mr Polly, although applauded as the forerunners of educational reform, did not rate highly as fictional creations.

In those days, there was passing reverence for the grit that had taken Wells from a china shop in Bromley to the pages of the Pall Mall Gazette, but the overall judgement tended to be cautionary. Wells had indeed improved himself, but he had also overreached himself. In the end, his career could be read as a parable of what happens when you learn too much too quickly: there was the early creativity, too extravagantly praised, the mounting braggadocio, the vanity and greed, the delusions of world-power - all of these peaking at about the time when Wells's intellectual energy began to fail. And finally there were the long, bitter years of being seen as a left-over from a vanished epoch.

Wells died in 1946. It took the biographers some time to get going, but when they did they found rich pickings. The vitriolic anti-Papist, the exuberant prophet of contraception and free love had, it seemed, practised what he preached - or was it that he preached what he had far too often practised? Wells's sexual entanglements, his downtrodden wives, his innumerable affairs, his long and scandalously fruitful union with Rebecca West (who was not slow to tell, or invent, her side of things): these all testified to an insistent libido and a malleable conscience. The verdict: what a brute.

And this seemed a pretty fair assessment as the facts gradually came out. Wells was deeply peculiar about sex: he wanted lots of it but did not seem to like it very much. He admitted this in his autobiography and perhaps acknowledged it also in certain of his Utopian world-orderings: in at least one of these earthly heavens there would be - would have been - compulsory euthanasia for the 'weak and sensual'. John Carey, writing last year, persuasively connected The Time Machine's man-

eating crustacean - its 'hungry, fishy orifice . . . surrounded by what seemed like hair' - with Wells's 'resentful feelings about women'. And Peter Kemp, in his excellent 1986 study of Wells's various obsessions, devoted a whole chapter to his subject's sexual fears and boasts. Kemp also pointed out that Wells wrote warmly about the necessity for genetic engineering only after his wife was expecting a baby.

One might have thought that, all in all, the 20th century had made a pretty good job of putting the old futurist back where he belonged - in the Edwardian epoch, along with all the other madcap forward lookers of that time. As a thinker, Wells is more or less forgotten - none of his instructive or polemical non-fiction is now read, except in order to find out what people used to think. His novels are praised now and then, but most of them were rushed jobs, padded out with coincidence and farce. As he famously told Henry James, he would sooner be seen as a journalist than as a literary artist. And in this, at least, posterity has granted him his wish.

And it has now granted him this biography. The Invisible Man is not the happiest of titles for a life-story that chooses to close its eyes to a mass of Wells material that is already on the record, and which looks but glancingly at incidents of which we would like to know more, not less, than has already been divulged. But then this is a biography with a message, or a bias: Wells was a bad man and had some terrible ideas. Facts that fail to support this point of view are dealt with brusquely, or ignored.

For example, the book says nothing at all about Wells's Christmas Eve rush to the overseas deathbed of George Gissing - an unusual act of spontaneous warm-heartedness, it has been said. Does Michael Coren not believe Wells's own rich account of the event, or does he just not wish us to know that Wells was not always a monster of self-servingness?

A similar question arises when we find Coren accepting without question a damaging Rebecca West anecdote that has already been dismissed as 'phoney' by Anthony, her son by Wells. And why do we get so much about Wells's trouncing by Belloc, and nothing at all about the death of Wells's father, who simply disappears from the narrative on page 29? Joseph Wells died in 1910, and Coren's account of this year tells us merely that Wells 'suffered from a usually mild, though sometimes severe, depression'.

Anthony West was one of Coren's small handful of interviewees for this book, but not much use is made of the son's own writings on his father. These may have been partisan and generally suspect, but West is dead now and we would expect a new biography to set about the detail of his testimony. Coren, however, is not much concerned with detail. He trudges through the known chronology at speed (at an average rate, actually, of three pages for each year of Wells's life) and pauses only when he can catch his subject at a disadvantage. Thus he has lots to say about Wells's racism, as evinced in his 1901 tract, Anticipations - but nothing that was not said with more intelligence and sympathy by John Carey in his Intellectuals and the Masses. Carey both rebukes and places Wells's nastier opinions; Coren fastens on to them with solemn glee.

There is much headshaking also over Wells's sexual escapades. 'Dirty and duplicitous' is a phrase that seems to come from Coren but may well be a quotation - it is not always possible to tell, such is the skimpiness of the book's footnoting. Coren sheds tears on behalf of Wells's wounded women but makes no mention of Odette Keun, the one who seduced Wells in the dark and ended up with a villa in the South of France. She does not quite fit with the portrayal of Wells as a flint-souled exploiter.

Elsewhere, when it comes to Wells's sex-life, a prissy censoriousness dominates an altogether too sketchy resume of the facts, and there is never any attempt to see things from the transgressor's point of view - even though Wells has plenty to say about all this in his Experiment in Autobiography. But then Coren at no point sees it as his duty to let Wells defend himself. He simply wants to do him in.