Calling all sceptics

HG:The History of Mr Wells by Michael Foot, Doubleday pounds 20
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The Independent Culture
READING about H G Wells is liable to make one feel very lazy. The man wrote more than a hundred books on every major political and social issue of his age, sometimes turning out three or four volumes a year, many of which were warmly received and feverishly purchased, some of which had grand intellectual ambitions announced in titles like A Short History of the World and The Shape of Things to Come. In between, Wells found time to run for Parliament, meet Lenin and Stalin, befriend Teddy and Franklin Roosevelt, have two wives, four children, three main mistresses and numberless affairs, bicker with Winston Churchill, quarrel with Henry James and tell James Joyce that Ulysses was a boring book.

But if Wells's energy is beyond doubt, his talent is less so. Despite his deep concern with social problems, Wells's many critics find it hard to see that he offered a single useful or coherent diagnosis of the ills afflicting mankind. His work showed wild swings from pessimism to naive utopianism, his concern for his fellow human beings was clouded by crude nationalism, misogyny and anti-Semitism. And in spite of the imagination behind novels like The Time Machine and The Island of Dr Moreau Wells has been branded an incompetent novelist, lacking much understanding of human psychology or appreciation of the modern movement in art (Lenin, after meeting Wells in the Kremlin in 1920, exclaimed, "What a little bourgeois! What a philistine!").

If Wells needs a defender, he could not have wished for a more apt one than Michael Foot. Foot is fully aware of the charges against his subject, but he maintains that Wells is not merely good, he is up with there with Cervantes, Sterne, Swift and Dickens. He is a writer whose Experiment in Autobiography stands as "one of the greatest literary autobiographies ever written", whose Outline in History is "one of the great books of the world", a man who embodied "what Socialism was, and all that Socialism should be", who wasn't anti-Semitic, didn't really insult James Joyce and couldn't possibly have been a bigot.

Foot does not so much recount Wells's life as assault the reader with evidence of its greatness. Wells is portrayed as an irreverent, unconventional man, with a brilliant mind, a big heart and the courage to tackle all uncomfortable but necessary truths: "He remained an incurable cockney who would not be stopped from saying what he thought in any accent or style he might choose."

Foot has nice things to say about nearly every book Wells wrote, though he rarely gives us a persuasive reason for agreeing with him, besides sometimes suggesting that we would be insane if we didn't. Speaking of Well's fictional hero, Mr Polly, Foot asks, "Who does not love Mr Polly? If there are such specimens, they merely acknowledge their own inhumanity." Evaluating Tono-Bungay, Foot feels that its greatness would be apparent to anyone as soon as they began reading it: "Let all sceptics, if there are any left, try the Tono-Bungay remedy themselves."

Wells might have been an unfaithful husband, but how much better, according to Foot, that he actually satisfied the many young women who found him attractive as opposed to "the conduct of that philanderer Bernard Shaw, who would arouse emotions and not bring them to a climax". Moreover, Wells never fell in love with women for mere distraction; he only did so "as a development of his writing which he had not attempted before".

The irony of Foot's biography is that it ultimately does a disservice to Wells's reputation. Only when he is repeatedly compared to Swift or Dickens does Wells stand out as the minor writer of the group. It is only when we are asked to think of Wells as a great intellect that his genuine accomplishments - popularising science and history, writing lively science fiction fantasies, mastering the mass media - are obscured. One wishes that Foot had had more realistic ambitions for his hero. As Boswell noted: "I well remember that Dr Johnson maintained, that 'If a man is to write A Panegyric he may keep vices out of sight; but if he professes to write A Life he must represent it as it was.' "