Mr. Wells on Himself
Experiment in Autobiography. Vol. I. By H. G. Wells. (Gollanez and the Cresset Press. 10s. 6d.) WRITING this autobiography cannot have come as quite a new effort to Mr. Wells, for there is a lot of memory besides invention scattered up and down his many novels. Nor will it be wholly new to his admirers. Most of them, probably, even if they have not read Mr. Geoffrey West's biography, are aware of the outline facts—how he was the son of a cricket professional who kept a small shop in Bromley ; how he was reared in want and shortness, and sent originally to be a shop assistant ; how he took to teaching instead ; how he won scholarships and studied science at South Kensington ; how he became a tutor in the University Correspondence College, and expanded into literary jour- nalism, and so eventually found his feet as an author.
He conceives the story as an account of the development of his mind, or more precisely of what Jung would call his persona, defined as "the private conception a man has of himself, his idea of what he wants to be and of how he wants other people to take him." He has told it with great candour and honesty. Nevertheless in some fundamental matters his version is curiously unconvincing.
He opens by discussing the quality of his brain, and insists that it "was not a good brain to begin with," and exhibits now "a loose rather inferior mental texture, inexact reception, bad storage, and uncertain accessibility." And much more to the same effect. Further he keeps harping on the tune that his life has been determined by accidents. If he had not broken his leg in childhood, he would not have formed a keen taste for wide reading ; if his father had not broken his leg later on, he would have been tied to a shop assistant's life till too late, like his brothers ; if he had not had a last terrible haemorrhage in 1893, he would have settled down to a routine of tutoring in the Correspondence College. And, again, more to the same effect.
I doubt whether there are many grains of truth in either view. Obviously he has a good brain, an exceptional brain, a brain whose capacities and facilities helped him over most of his stiles ; and the various defects which he alleges in it seem nearly all explicable either by gaps in his education or by his present age. Obviously, too, the taste for books would have come out soon anyhow ; and the boy who ran away from the drapery shop seventeen miles on foot without break- fast could never have been tethered to the counter, no matter where his home had been. So, too, later on, the decisive thing which took him out of tutoring was the fact that he pos- sessed higher earning-power in his pen, which he was steadily learning how to use. If any special occurrence were needed to make his breach with tutoring final, one might be disposed to find it in the fact—not exactly an accident—that in January, 1894, he ran away with one of his girl pupils and became the respondent in a divorce suit.
There are, moreover, some things which an autobiographist cannot say about himself. In Mr. Wells's case one of the most salient is that he possesses charm and conversational power in a very rare degree. People like him ; they like talking to him. From letters and other indications printed here, one surmises this was always so. He could not tell u.1 that, and does not try to ; yet it must always have greatly influenced the actions and reactions between him and the world.
In some other ways he is perhaps more peculiar than he realizes. For example, in sex matters, which he treats with candour, he makes it quite plain that from an early age he Was never able to resist the impulse towards any sexually suitable woman with whom he was thrown into close contact. He not only was not able to, but had not, and has not, any feeling that he ought. This attitude, perhaps more truly termed a-gamous than polygamous, he seems to think is a normal one, or would be apart from conventions. But in our race and climate I think it is very far from being so. It cer- tainly did a 'good deal to shape the course of his life.
Here we may notice that, unlike most men of genius, he drew, it seems clear, much more from his father's than from his mother's side. He writes of both his parents with a predominant sense of pity ; but in the case of his father it iS flavoured with much admiration and a deep sense of mental kinship, in the case of his mother with contempt. Her physical and mental smallness, her ineflicienev, her enslavement to snobbery and make-believe, are brought out almost to weariness. Yet the bare fact that after twenty-seven years of married life she went back into service for thirteen years to support her husband and family, suggests more pluck and character than she here gets credit for.
One of the barriers between her and him was evidently her religion. It was crude and could easily repel. But Mr. Wells's form of repulsion from Christianity is also crude ; and it is not surprising to find here, that in all his upbringing he never, it would seem, encountered anybody capable of presenting its ideas to him in their more intellectual and defensible forms. In fact while dismissing his notion that he is, to any profound extent, the child of accident, it becomes very plain from his pages how much he is the child of his education. As a boy and young man, he himself felt acutely the injustice, that rich boys could go to college and he could not. But if you try to estimate by contrast the qualities of the education which he got instead, it is a very mixed balance-sheet of debits and credits. It is clear that at certain periods—notably during his teacher-learner grant-earning stages at Midhurst—his circumstances provided much more natural impulse to study and learn things for himself than he would ever normally have got in the pleasant gregarious atmosphere of a great school. Again his year under Huxley at South Kensington was really an immense privilege, such as few young Englishmen at that time enjoyed. On the other hand, his learning was inevitably discursive, unsystem- atized, seldom quite thorough at any point. And there were gaps in it, which for him—not for everyone—it might have been profitable to fill. Suppose, for instance, in addition to a year's biology under Huxley he had done two years' phil- osophy at Oxford or Glasgow under Nettleship or Edward Caird, and had had the experience of reading Kant at an average pace of less than a page an hour, mentally threshing out all its implications. I think it might, merely as dis- cipline, have been extraordinarily good for him ; besides giving him what he has never acquired, a real comprehension of what is, as distinct from the physical, the metaphysical outlook on the universe.
As a picture of the social discontents and intellectual ferments among middle-class and lower-middle-class youth in the 'eighties and early 'nineties, this volume is of course valuable, though rather for its general effect than in details. In practical politics and the ways of politicians the underfed hard-worked insurgents of his type evidently took little interest ; and his concern with Socialism and Socialists was all by way of visions, not of political economy. Here again early surroundings fostered a bias which has lasted. But one may expect to see the maturing of Mr. Wells on his political side dealt with more fully in his second volume. R. C. K. ENSOR.