Herbert George Wells (1866–1946) was the most important science fiction writer of the two decades before the Great War, in any language, and his voice continued to be significant through both World Wars, until his death in 1946. His most productive period as a science-fiction were the years immediately after 1895: in rapid succession he produced 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), and numerous short stories. Between them they covered most of the themes which would be revisited by science fiction writers over the course of the next century. For a very full discussion of his life and achievement, see the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction.
He was born in Bromley, Kent, the youngest of the four children of Joseph (Joe) Wells, a successful cricketer and an unsuccessful shopkeeper. Young Bertie was taught to read and write by his mother, and then attended schools in Bromley. He was a good pupil, but there was no money to send him anywhere else. He was apprenticed as a draper, at age thirteen. It was not a success, and an attempt to get a post as a pupil teacher fell through too. For a while Wells lived at Uppark, a large house near Midhurst, where his mother had acquired a job as resident housekeeper.
Wells worked in a chemist’s shop briefly, starting to learn Latin (which was necessary for the job), but realised that his family could never afford to train him as a pharmacist. He worked in a drapers’ in Southsea for two years; for the academic year 1883-84 he was a pupil teacher at Midhurst, and then he got a government scholarship to train as a science teacher. He enrolled in T.H. Huxley’s biology class at the Normal School of Science in South Kensington.
Wells got a first in biology, and moved on to take physics and geology. But he was gaining other interests, notably political ones: he started wearing a red tie to indicate his socialist leanings. In 1887 he failed geology. But he did get a job as a teacher in north Wales. He had a football accident there, which initiated an illness that recurred over several years.
In 1888 he took a teaching job in Kilburn (see the page for his one-time pupil A.A. Milne for comment) and then took a BSc at London University. He fell in love with his cousin Isobel Wells, and married in 1891. He tried to sustain himself by teaching and writing, but his health was still not good, and he had to give up teaching for writing and journalism.
His break-through was The Time Machine, which was published first in newspapers and then, in 1895, in book form, and led the way for a succession of highly successful science fiction novels and short stories. However, Wells wanted to be more than just a writer of “scientific romance”, as he called it. In 1900 he published the first of several semi-autobiographical novels: Love and Mr Lewisham (1900), and became a serious thinker about the future with Anticipations (1901). A Modern Utopia (1905) was the first of several attempts to envision a socialist utopia. A number of his novels in the period up to 1914 had some vision of future war: they included In the Days of the Comet (1906), The War in the Air (1908), and The World Set Free (1914). In 1903 he had published “The Land Ironclads”, which Winston Churchill saw as inspiring the First World War tank.
In this period his realistic, semi-autobiographical novels were also very popular: one could mention in particular Kipps (1905), Tono-Bungay (1909) and The History of Mr Polly (1910).
Wells was a bête noire for the right wing press for his socialist views, and his expressed view about sex and feminism (as in his novel Ann Veronica, 1909) did not help. His own private life was fairly chaotic. His marriage to Isobel lasted two years. He then lived with a former pupil, Catherine Robbins, normal known as Jane, and married her after his divorce from Isobel. Before 1914 he had affairs with the novelists Dorothy Richardson and Elizabeth von Arnim, as well as with Amber Reeves and Rebecca West. He had several illegitimate children.
By the time of the Great War, Wells had become a literary giant, who had close friendships with many other literary figures of his day. He was very active during the War (see under War Experiences), and after the war embarked on even more ambitious projects. His The Outline of History (1920) as a great success, and he followed it up with other works designed to intrusive people to a wide range of topics: .A Short History of the World (1922), The Science of Life (1930), and The Work, Wealth and Happiness of Mankind (1931).
He also got more involved in politics, meeting with Lenin in 1920 and in 1934 with both Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. His “Open Conspiracy” project was aimed at bringing about a new world order, and global peace. He was involved in the League of Nations and, during the Second World War, with the origins of the United Nations. He formed a committee to draft a statement on human rights, which became the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. He was also a founder member of the National Council for Civil Liberties; and (because of his own illness) was co-founder of what is now Diabetes UK.
In 1936 he worked with Alexander Korda to bring some of his ideas to a very wide public with the movie Things to Come. This began with a haunting image of the destruction of London by bombers, and the barbarism that replaced civilisation; and it progressed through to a utopian reconstruction of the world through an “open conspiracy” of airmen. His last two books Mind at the End of its Tether and The Happy Turning (1945) together expressed what had been a trope for much of his writing life: his switching between the poles of optimism and despair about the human race. He died just a month short of his 80th birthday, at his London home.
For the above I have relied almost entirely on Patrick Parrinder’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.