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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 in Bromley!


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.”


Jerry Dowlen

October 2016


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

Michael Holroyd

Erle Stanley Gardner

John Masefield


Antony Sher: The History Man

Edmund Crispin, Crime Fiction Author

Computer Chess: The Imitation Game

P G Wodehouse

John Betjeman and Candida Lycett Green

Daniel Abse

Sherlock Holmes: The Seven Per Cent Solution

Wilfred Owen

Wolf Mankowitz

Bob Hoskins

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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