22 September 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: Experiment in Autobiography, Part 4

Hardcover, 718 pages
Published 1934
Acquired December 2010
Read June 2016
Experiment in Autobiography: Discoveries and Conclusions of a Very Ordinary Brain (Since 1866)
by H. G. Wells

This week, my normal rota of blog topics is taking a backseat as I work through a lengthy review of H. G. Wells's autobiography in honor of his 150th birthday yesterday. (Here is yesterday's post.) Today's topic is:

Wells's Personal Life

One of the things I knew going into H. G. Wells's massive autobiography is that it was only part of the whole. Leaving aside that it was published in 1934 and Wells didn't die until 1946, I knew that Wells omitted many of the details of his personal life to prevent scandal, and that they were eventually published in a "postscript" almost fifty years later edited by his son, called H. G. Wells in Love.

I was surprised, then, that sexual matters were discussed pretty frankly, especially for someone born during the mid-Victorian period: Wells mentions his childhood experiences with masturbation, describes a couple affairs he had during his first marriage (including the one that became his second marriage), and even makes it clear that his first-ever sexual experience was with a prostitute! So I couldn't imagine what was held back for the postscript.

Wells and Jane shared tangerines in 1894, and not again for seventeen years. Wells drew this "picshua" in 1911, positing what they would be like when they got to eat tangerines again in another seventeen years, in 1928. Jane died in 1927.
(from Experiment in Autobiography, p. 379)

But as the book went on, I realized a lot was being held back. Not only were there no mentions of his affairs during his second marriage, but there was scarcely any mention of his personal life at all as the book went on. What takes it over was Wells's obsession in the twentieth century, the coming of the World State. The latter chapters of the book are almost entirely about things Wells said and did in support of this endeavor; the death of his second wife is revealed in only a couple passing asides, and his children may as well not even exist for all the role they play in his life once they are born-- all this in strong contrast to how much attention he gives his parents, especially his mother, in the early chapters of the book.

I think two things drive this. The first is that Wells couldn't afford to talk about his personal life with honesty in 1934. Too many of the things he was writing about affected people who were still alive, and would have repercussions. I'm only a couple chapters into H. G. Wells in Love at the time I am writing this, but I can already see this with clarity. The second is that I think, having been a man early in his life and career accustomed to throwing stones at others' glass houses, Wells erected his own. He really, fully, earnestly believed in the necessity of the rise of the World State and felt that to not devote the latter parts of the book to it would be dishonest, as it seems the World State came to be the only thing he thought about that was not sex, in contrast to the young, imaginative, voracious, polymathic thinker and writer he had been.

Wells sort of tries to paper this over with the subtitle of the book: it is ostensibly about the development of his brain. For example, a lot of the experiences of his youth he ties into his adult way of thinking (connecting a childhood interest in war games with his contemporary disgust at the growing power of Hitler, in one case). Thus, his personal life drops out as it becomes less relevant to the development of his brain. When he discusses politics, he supposes some readers will object "that this is political discussion and not autobiography. It is political discussion but it is also autobiography. The more completely life is lived the more political a man becomes" (668). You may or may not buy this as a justification; I didn't. It's an odd sort of autobiography that barely mentions your children, I expect.

"What is this? Why do the people in the tram car shrink from his presence? Why, in this hot weather sit there in a heap together? Can it be-- Satan? Or the Hangman? Or the Whitechapel Murder[er]? No-- it is none of these things. It is simply a young biological demonstrator who has been dissecting with a large class that particular for of life known as the Dog Fish (scylla canicula). HE STINKS."
(from Experiment in Autobiography, pp. 313-4)

That said, the book is considerably enlivened by the inclusion of a number of "picshuas": this was Wells's nicknames for humorous little doodles he would draw his second wife, usually drawing one every day. They're not all comprehensible, but a couple of them are quite charming. Apparently there's a book collecting a significant number of the existing picshuas; I'll have to seek it out.

Be Back Tomorrow: H. G. Wells on the World State!

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