The Magazine

The Wells Machine

A novelist reimagines a novelist’s progress.

Nov 28, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 11 • By BRIAN MURRAY
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David Lodge is probably best known for a series of campus novels—Changing Places, Small World, and Nice Work—that, back in the 1970s and ’80s, deftly exposed the pretensions and foibles of academic life. Lodge’s erudition and skills as a parodist have made him popular with highbrow readers. But his novels are also often funny, in a rueful way, making them strong sellers throughout the world.

Photo of H.G. Wells with Orson Welles

Wells and Orson Welles after ‘War of the Worlds’ (1938)

Getty Images

Of course there’s no lack of good novels satirizing academics, and some of the most celebrated examples (Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim and Randall Jarrell’s Pictures from an Institution) belong to the postwar era when higher education in both Great Britain and the United States began its big boom. Lodge, who grew up in a working-class London suburb, is himself a product of that expansion: In the 1950s and ’60s he was the first in his family to attend a university, and to earn a Ph.D. Lodge taught for many years at the University of Birmingham. He has published widely as both a literary scholar and a creative writer. And so he knows the world of professors of literature as Dick Francis knew the world of jockeys—from the inside.

Lodge’s own academic career coincided with the rise of critical theory, which by the end of the 1980s had largely transformed English in the academy. “Theory,” as it was called, reverentially or not, created a slew of critical schools with their own ardent disciples and stars: Deconstructionists, Structuralists, Post-Structuralists, Postcolonialists, Russian Formalists, and New Historicists, among others, all of them eager to confound the uninitiated while blasting away the intellectual assumptions of yore. The cocky American Morris Zapp, who appears in several of Lodge’s campus comedies, is especially good at exploiting the latest critical fashions for his own professional ends.

When he entered the profession, Zapp, a self-described “Jane Austen man,” assumed that the critic’s goal was to “establish the meaning of texts.” But when the new theorists declared “meaning” obsolete, Zapp duly mastered the new lingo and took to writing pieces like “Textuality as Striptease.” For Zapp, the sole point of literary studies is to “uphold the institution of academic literary studies” and the only smart thing a smart guy can do is go with the flow. “There comes a time,” he observes, “when the individual has to yield to the Zeitgeist or drop out of the ball game.” Zapp relishes the game: the professional combat, the collecting of grants, the chance to strut his stuff at professional conferences where his relative celebrity ensures that his chances of seducing a hot post-structuralist are reliably high. “Before I retire,” he declares, “I want to be the highest paid English Professor in the world.”

Herbert George Wells, the subject of A Man of Parts, was neither an academic nor a practicing Ph.D. He attended middling schools and the Normal School of Science in South Kensington, a teacher’s college. H. G. Wells, of course, was also the author of The Time Machine and the Outline of History, among other things; he sold millions of books and became a rich man and a household name. Wells’s circle of acquaintances included Franklin Roosevelt and Joseph Stalin. Even the tallest ivory tower would have been too small for Wells at the height of
his fame.

And yet, in many ways, Wells would fit perfectly into one of Lodge’s campus novels. He, too, was an ambitious intellectual who relished his rivalries and took himself very seriously indeed. He disdained the petite bourgeoisie and saw himself as a great blaster of old-fashioned ideas—a blunt, jaunty, rather shocking writer-prophet whose chief interest, next to sex, was the care and feeding of his own career.

In A Man of Parts, Lodge sometimes uses his “novelist’s license,” as he calls it, to describe the thoughts and conversations of his principal characters. But Lodge also sticks closely to the facts of Wells’s life, making extensive if selective use of a wide range of sources, including Wells’s letters and his 700-page Experiment in Autobiography. Wells, in fact, quite enjoyed writing about Wells, offering thinly veiled and idealized self-portraits in such novels as Ann Veronica, The New Machiavelli, and The Passionate Friends. A later novel, The World of William Clissold, is similarly self-admiring; here Wells assumes the persona of a wealthy industrialist who, when not brooding about his many amours, drones on about Wells’s own most cherished fantasy—the World State where, one day, all will find their happy place in the great human hive.

Lodge retraces Wells’s rise from very modest beginnings in Bromley, the London borough where his muddled father kept a china shop. Wells’s mother, a maid, pushed her book-loving son into training as a draper—a respectable trade, she reckoned, that wouldn’t leave him grimy and worn at the end of the day. Wells, though, tried teaching and journalism before publishing the string of “scientific romances” that made his name. The Time Machine, The Invisible Man, The War of the Worlds, The First Men in the Moon, and In the Days of the Comet all appeared between 1895 and 1906, along with stories, essays, and books of nonfiction. It was a display of ingenuity and industry not seen since the young Dickens first burst upon the scene.

Early on Wells also published Kipps and Tono-Bungay, effective Dickens-like satires targeting phony advertising and greed. But by 1900 he had wearied of being described as a popular entertainer, or a Dickens imitator, or the English Jules Verne. So he wrote Anticipations, a speculative look at life in the year 2000 that Lodge declines to describe in detail. Wells, who was often spot-on with his predictions, offers in Anticipations an engaging picture of a future filled with motorcars, superhighways, and tidy suburbs where houses are centrally heated and filled with all sorts of marvelous appliances like electric stoves and sound machines that deliver the news every hour.

But Wells had also yielded to the zeitgeist, at least as manifested within the intellectual left during the final decades of the 19th century. Anticipations assumes that these civic and technological advances will arrive only after the prevailing social order has been destroyed. Wells, who joined the Fabian Society in 1903, would spend years attacking profit-seeking and private property. With Beatrice and Sidney Webb, the leading Fabians of the day, Wells believed that only socialism could show the way.

The Webbs, however, were a bit too squishy for Wells, better equipped to run an academic conference than set up a proper collectivist state. Wells had hit on the idea of replacing Britain’s rigid class system with—a rigid class system. On top were more virile rulers than the ones that filled the daydreams of Beatrice and Sidney. Wells’s strapping “New Republicans” would, for starters, chuck the old religions, practicing a sort of Muscular Agnosticism instead. Theirs would be a “spacious faith” rooted in science and reason with the books of Darwin and Malthus as guiding texts.

Wells’s leaders will keep a close watch on procreation, ensuring that only “beautiful and strong bodies, clear and powerful minds” will be allowed to flourish; for many others—including “contemptible and silly creatures, fear-driven and helpless and useless”—the “Men of the New Republic will have little pity and benevolence.” Oddballs and others judged not up to speed can stick around, apparently, “on the understanding that they do not propagate.”

In Wellsland, however, Free Love prevails, at least for the “superior peoples.” Having mastered the contraceptive arts, Wells’s enlightened bosses will sort out the “illogical and incoherent” system of codes and prohibitions that have for so long kept people from “leading happy and healthy sexual lives.” For them, “the question of sexual relationships would be entirely on all fours with, and probably very analogous to, the question of golf.” 

In each case it would be for the medical man and the psychologist to decide how far the thing was wholesome and permissible, and how far it was an aggressive bad habit and an absorbing waste of time and energy.

Wells practiced what he preached. Lodge has him insisting that “my temperament is essentially comic—I want life to be enjoyable, I like festive occasions and happy endings, I like sex and games.” Wells looked like a High Street bank manager.  But at least one of his lovers knew him as “Jaguar,” the lusty cat wont to prowl naked “round the room, emitting low-pitched growls” before springing into bed, claws at the ready. Wells, Lodge reports, “acknowledged the animal nature of lust but turned it into a kind of erotic theatre.”

Lodge shows relatively little interest in Wells’s political theories and the way they reappear, with increasing desperation, in a series of books that all seem to be titled The Shape of the World Brain to Come, or something similar. Lodge is mainly interested in Wells’s sexual practices and his more fascinating partners. A list of his better-known lovers would include the birth control advocate Margaret Sanger and the writers Amber Reeves, Elizabeth von Arnim, Violet Hunt, Dorothy Richardson, and Rebecca West, each of whom turns up in
A Man of Parts.

Wells liked to insist that his many affairs and “passades” were quite refreshing, by and large, the “fairly equal” exchange of “two libertines.” But A Man of Parts confirms a more complicated story: West, for example, came to resent playing second fiddle to Wells’s legal wife, the long-suffering Jane. And for years Wells’s son with West, Anthony, nursed an identity crisis of his own. In his 1984 account of life with Wells, West emphatically notes that “I was allowed to call him Wellsie, but expressly forbidden to speak to him or of him as father, papa, or daddy.” Lodge has Wells describe his relationship with Anthony this way:

When he was very young he thought his mother was his aunt and I was his uncle, and then Rebecca told him she was his mother but he should still go on calling her “auntie,” and years later she told him his uncle was really his father.

As the years passed, and Wells’s hopes for the future darkened, his difficulties with the ladies grew. One disgruntled fellow libertine threatened suicide in his flat. Another spied on him, apparently, for the Kremlin. And yet another, Odette Keun, the bane of Wells’s later years, treated him with the same cool mockery Lodge displays in his campus satires. In a series of widely read articles, Keun described Wells as an egoist cranking out half-hearted propaganda—a gifted writer who, in the modern way, grew less interested in the meaning of his words than in his own publicity. For Wells, “it was only a game. He was only a player.”

Poor Wellsie. It’s hard enough remaking mankind. You’re at it seven days a week. Perhaps he should have consulted a medical man to find out if his chief hobby was, in fact, an absorbing waste of time and energy. He might have found a more orderly pastime, like golf, and avoided the gloom he described in a candid memoir marked for posthumous publication: “The story of my relations with women,” he wrote, “is mainly a story of greed, foolishness, and great expectation. I am an insufficient and often quite irritable ‘great man’ with an infantile craving for help.” Keun couldn’t have said it better herself.

Although Lodge tends to describe Wells with a certain ironic detachment, it’s also clear he rather admires his fellow Londoner; both men, after all, had seized their opportunities and built successful literary careers against the odds. Thus Lodge concludes A Man of Parts by noting that Wells was “like a comet,” appearing suddenly “out of obscurity” and then blazing away “in the literary firmament for decades, evoking astonishment and awe and alarm, like the comet of In the Days of the Comet, which threatened to destroy the earth, but in fact transformed it by beneficial effect of its gaseous trail.”

Lodge believes that Wells
also had

a liberating and enlightening effect on a great many people. As time went on his imagination and intellect dwindled in brightness, gradually people ceased to look up and stare in wonder, and now he has passed out of sight. But there are eccentric orbits in literary history. Perhaps one day he will glow in the firmament once again.

It’s a curious remark, for of course Wells’s best books—particularly those great science-fiction novels he dismissed as fluff—have never passed from view, and are probably more widely read today, in more languages, than ever before. But Wells, who was wonderfully imaginative, was neither intellectually nimble nor morally astute. He’d found a formula—science plus socialism minus religion equals Utopia—and banged on about it in book after bloated book.

Wells’s own gaseous trail can be found in titles that, as Lodge himself writes, are “all dead as doornails now. Fodder for the penny tray outside the second-hand bookshop.” And they will still be there, it’s safe to predict, in the world of tomorrow.

Brian Murray teaches writing and literature at Loyola University Maryland.