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H G Wells
Half a Sixpence returns H.G. Wells to the London stage, and The Time Machine lands in his birthplace
Herbert George Wells was born 150 years ago, in 1866. He
died 70 years ago, in 1946. Michael Foot the former Leader of the Labour Party
wrote: “The early twentieth century was an age of great novelists; Wells among
the foremost of the many.”
H.G. Wells wrote more than 80 novels – and innumerable other
written works on multiple topics such as biology, economics, education, invention,
politics, religion and war.
A trick question at a Quiz Night is to ask which book by
H.G. Wells sold the most copies in his lifetime. It would be natural to guess
that his best-selling book was one of his famous, imaginative sci-fi novels
such as The Invisible Man, The Time
Machine, or The War of the Worlds?
But no – the correct answer is The
Outline of History – his prophetic, provocative book about the state of the
world and the future of mankind. It was published in serial parts in 1919 and
1920. It sold more than two million copies.
H.G. Wells and the ‘Novels of Ideas’
Wells was quick to realise the possibilities of the machine
age. In his first novel The Time Machine
(1895) he drew on his scientific knowledge gained from his education and
blended it with fantasy. His career quickly boomed thanks to further mind-stretching
and melodramatic adventure stories such as The
First Men in the Moon (1901) written
in similar vein as the nineteenth-century French author Jules Verne.
Before long, Wells turned his attention to the state of the
nation in economic, political and social terms. British power and trade still
ruled the world. Rudyard Kipling was a revered writer and commentator. But reform
was at hand, sweeping away some of the old Victorian conservatism and morality.
Wells, who would briefly join the Fabian socialist movement and stand for
Parliament as a Labour candidate, became a persistent prophet of a new and
better social order. He preached a constant theme that the world could be
re-planned as a happier and fully inclusive place.
Some of Wells’s later novels were fixated on propagating his
ideas. The storyline was subordinate to his sociological or ideological message.
Examples of these so-called ‘Novels of Ideas’, from the era 1909 to 1911, are Tono-Bungay (business ethics), Ann Veronica (female emancipation) and The New Machiavelli (socialism). The
author and critic Malcolm Bradbury noted that Wells would often choose a hero
or heroine from humble stock such as that of his own family in real-life: as a
young man Wells worked as a shop assistant and as apprentice in the drapery
trade. The fictional hero or heroine would then embrace a ‘big idea’ that would
lead to upward mobility in a modern, fast-developing world filled with bright
prospects and learning.
H.G. Wells on stage and screen - and in stereo!
Today in your local lending library or bookshop you likely
will find that books by H.G. Wells are displayed on the Classic Fiction shelf.
Do people still buy and read his books? Science fiction author Brian Aldiss
wrote in 2005 that modern-day readers might be unconvinced by the books in
which Wells advocated a utopian world. But Aldiss opined that the adventure
stories of H.G. Wells, especially The War
of the Worlds (1898) are eternal works of genius and amazing creativity.
For lighter and even ‘larky’ entertainment, other critics
have celebrated The History of Mr Polly
(1910) as a timelessly charming comedy in which Wells sticks to a favourite
plot of his: the little person overcoming adversity and making good.
Many readers of the post-war ‘baby boom’ generation have
been partly reared on H.G. Wells through the medium of stage and screen. The
hit musical Half a Sixpence, starring
Tommy Steele in the original production of 1963, returns to London theatreland
in November 2016 following a successful revival run at Chichester. The story is
based on Kipps – another H.G. Wells
novel (1905) in which the hero moves up in the world, leaving behind the
drudgery of shop work.
The cinema and television industry eagerly exploited, of
course, the box-office potential of Wells’s fantastical stories of war and exploration
in space, travel through time and miraculous scientific discoveries. Brian
Aldiss noted the difference in English and American temperaments. The English,
he surmised, liked a pinch of melancholy; a note of humility and introspection.
Hollywood preferred triumphant individualism: noise, destruction, heroism …
pulverise those invading Martians!
Adaptations of The War
of the Worlds have proved to be especially sensational in sound … in
stereo! There was the fabled incident on USA radio in 1938 when the story’s narrator
Orson Wells allegedly spread panic in the streets because listeners thought
that the Martians really were invading the country. In 1978 the American
musician Jeff Wayne set The War of the
Worlds to a thrilling suite of music. The icing on that particular cake was
CBS hiring Richard Burton to deliver a spine-chilling voice-over. (“No one
would have believed in the last years of the nineteenth century that human
affairs were being watched from the timeless worlds of space …”)
H.G. Wells and the London Borough of Bromley
H.G. Wells was born in the town of Bromley, Kent that now
gives its name to Greater London’s largest borough.
To mark the 150th anniversary of H.G. Wells’s
birth the big Intu shopping centre in Bromley is displaying a full size replica
of the Time Machine from the MGM film starring Rod Taylor (1960) – a film that
was acclaimed for its visually innovative time-travel special effects. The blue
plaque marking Wells’s birthplace stands high on the wall of the local Primark store.
And in a newly-opened Bromley Borough Museum sited inside the Central Library
naturally enough H.G. Wells is prominently featured (as too is Enid Blyton) in
a display case of famous authors that have resided in the borough.
Charles Darwin the famous naturalist was another eminent
resident of Bromley borough. In a sense, his legacy is inter-twined with that
of H.G. Wells. I will leave the last words with Brian Aldiss:
“Wells’s education included a spell under the great
scientist and humanist, Thomas Huxley who was a vigorous defender of Darwin’s
evolutionary theory. … Wells moved ever
onwards, through over a hundred books, struggling with questions of evolution,
over-population, education, and the betterment of mankind.”
Previous articles by Jerry Dowlen in the Books Monthly Archives include:
Pearls, Pedals and Piers: In praise of the British Seaside!
Girls Just Wanna Have Fun in 1963: Christine Keeler & Nell Dunn
Politicians, Pop Stars and Preachers - John Mortimer's Characters of 1986
Shakespeare's 400th Centenary
Gregory's Girl: Remembering the Hit Film
The Impact and Legacy of Fear of Flying by Erica Jong
A Tribute to Margaret Forster
Remembering Saeed Jaffrey
Old Wine in New Bottles - "new" books by Margery Allingham, Raymond Chandler & Agatha Christie
Remembering Ruth Rendell
Philip Larkin: His Maiden Voyage on The North Ship (1945)
The Catcher in the Rye and Billy Liar
Erle Stanley Gardner
Antony Sher: The History Man
Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author
Computer Chess: The Imitation Game
P G Wodehouse
John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green
Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution
Muriel Spark & Jane Gardam
The Story of Edith Nesbit
Anthony Gilbert and Michael Gilbert
Rebels With A Cause
Inspector Winter: Gwendoline Butler's First Detective
The Carlton, The Commodore, and the Embassy - Orpington's Three Cinemas
The Bergerac Police Adventure Series
It's All In The Mind - Margery Allingham and Graham Greene
Berlin: Cold War Spy Thrillers
The Life and Centenary of Barbara Pym
D H Lawrence: The Sniggering Legacy of Lady Chatterley's Lover...
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