28 November 2016

H. G. Wells at 150: The Time Traveller by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie

Here now: the end of an era! (in blogging) But first: my last two reviews of series two Torchwood audios, Broken and Made You Look.

Acquired September 2016
Read October 2016
The Life of H. G. Wells: The Time Traveller
by Norman and Jeanne MacKenzie

At last, my long Wellsian journey comes to an end. After reading two different pieces of autobiography by H. G. Wells (the Experiment and the Postscript), as well as myriad other pieces touching on his life, I wanted to read something that integrated them all into a coherent whole. I picked this particular Wells biography because it was the most recent of the two recommended by Patrick Parrinder in his 2005 introduction to the Penguin Classics editions of Wells's novels.

For the first half of the book, I got exactly what I wanted out of it. As I've commented before, Wells gave short shrift to his own emotional life in the Experiment, and though he filled in some of the blanks in the Postscript, I often struggled to contextualize them. Here, you get his personal history laid out alongside his sexual history, you can see what he was thinking at the same time he was feeling. Plus, of course, the MacKenzies are a bit more honest and forthright than he was about himself: Wells's autobiography barely mentions his battle to reshape the Fabian Society that occupies a number of pages here, and they also had access to what others wrote about Wells, so we can get a fuller picture of his friendships with people like George Bernard Shaw and George Gissing and Margaret Sanger and Joseph Conrad. (Conrad once called Wells "O Realist of the Fantastic!" [141], which is probably as apt a description for Wells as there could be.) On the other hand, Shaw's wife gives a very damning account of the funeral of Wells's second wife Catherine/Jane-- and really hates on the Wells-penned eulogy that he reprinted in The Book of Catherine Wells.

I do think the MacKenzie's literary criticism is a little simplistic at times-- they complain that in When the Sleeper Wakes, "Wells seems unsure whether to approve or disapprove of his projection, whether he is writing a utopia or an anti-utopia" (151), whereas in my mind, that's not a bug, it's a feature! In When the Sleeper Wakes, Wells took apart the utopian sleeper novel and exposed the falsity of its conceits. They also occasionally mention the meeting with the artilleryman in The War of the Worlds in such a way that makes me think they believe he's depicted as a positive figure, whereas it's pretty clear to me that Wells is mocking that figure's terrible plan for reinventing the world. Ditto when they call the ending of Ann Veronica "the escapist's daydream fulfilled" (249): I think the ending is much more nuanced and downbeat than that. Neither Ann Veronica nor Capes fulfills their original dreams! On the other hand, I should say these quibbles aside, they do a good job of contextualizing Wells's literary work in both his personal life and the development of his intellect.

It's also nice to get confirmation that Wells was, objectively, a Big Deal. He of course felt so, but the MacKenzies point out that President Franklin Roosevelt wrote Wells a letter complimenting him on his autobiography. He really was an important cultural figure in the early twentieth century, and for reasons other than his science fiction. It's curious to note how little of the book those materials occupy. When you're just over a quarter of the way through this, he's already written all of the works we remember him for now in 2016! But he did a lot after then, and that was what made him famous in his time, even if at the same time, Hugo Gernsback was championing him as a genre forerunner in Amazing. The MacKenzies sprinkle in a lot of comments from other writers, like the Conrad one above, or T. S. Eliot (who liked The First Men in the Moon), or there was a bit about Ford Madox Ford I really liked: when he "found himself in the front line during the First World War, he noted he had been so conditioned to modern warfare by reading the novels of Wells that when he actually experienced it he felt apathetic and resigned" (392). Wells, the MacKenzies argue, was sometimes too good a prophet. (They also bring up that the inventor of the atomic bomb knew how bad it would be because he'd read Wells's fiction.)

Wells's arguments get a bit ridiculous at times. There's more than one account here of him sending off nasty letters to someone who wrote a bad review of one of his books, though apparently he was so charming, folks usually forgave him in the end. He even sued the BBC for claiming someone else had invented the tank. When George Orwell wrote his famous takedown job "Wells, Hitler and the World State," which included the claim that Wells thought science was the solution to all humanity's problems, Wells wrote to Orwell: "I don't say that at all. Read my early works, you shit" (431). There's no indication here that those two made up.

I found the latter part of the book unsatisfying, however. Not much is said of Rebecca West, even though she bore Wells a fourth child. Even less is said of Moura Budberg, who dominated Wells's later emotional life according to the man himself in the Postscript. Eventually I figured out the reason why when reading the book's epilogue: even though this is a 1987 revised edition of a 1973 book, apparently not very many revisions were done to account for details not revealed until the Postscript was published in 1984. This is a little annoying: why bring out a new edition at all if you're not going to do the work that it would imply? It may have been only three years since the Experiment, but it had been over ten since Gordon Ray's H. G. Wells & Rebecca West, which they dismiss as "a curious volume" (450), yet fail to substantively incorporate the revelations of. I should say they do provide a strong account of Wells's own post-Experiment life, something Wells was unable to do himself, for obvious reasons.

A book of two halves, it leaves me wishing I'd disregarded Parrinder's recommendations and sought out a more recent biography that could have incorporated the past thirty years of scholarship on Wells's life. (I can't blame the MacKenzies for it, but it would be nice to read one that could incorporate the discoveries of McDonald and Dronfield's biography of Budberg.) Well, maybe someday, but not now. This is the twelfth Wells or Wells-adjacent book I've read in the past four months, and I'm afraid I need some time off from the man!

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