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Reviewed by:
  • H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal
  • John Huntington
David Smith. H. G. Wells: Desperately Mortal. New Haven: Yale UP, 1986. 634 pp. $29.95.

David Smith's biography champions H. G. Wells as a public man. It pays long overdue attention to the last half of Wells's career when he exhibits at their purest what Smith sees as his supreme virtues: a steadfast faith in socialism, feminism, peace, and the world state; a generous willingness to contribute name, money, and work to a wide range of progressive causes; a moving loyalty to friends and lovers; and an unfailing optimism. For Smith, Wells's drafting The Declaration of the Rights of Man in the early 1940s constitutes his greatest accomplishment.

Desperately Mortal has a difficult time finding 'fault with Wells. It explains how reasonable were his marriages and his love affairs; it approves of most of his writings; it enjoys his public accomplishments; and it overlooks embarrassing and difficult situations. An hysterically apologetic letter from H. G.'s wife, Jane, written about the time of their first child's birth, begging H. G. to return, calls forth the bland comment that it "indicates [her] depth of feeling." Smith is so protective of his hero that he does not mention that at this same time H. G. had abruptly left home for two months and for the first two weeks had not even told Jane where he was. And yet Smith can also be generous, emphasizing more than previous biographers how much Jane and, after her death, her daughter-in-law, Marjorie Craig Wells, contributed to Wells's intellectual projects.

Though he covers the whole life, Smith treats many familiar episodes, such as the fights with the Fabians or with Henry James, or the long relationship with Rebecca West, rather briefly. And Smith's concern for the public man leads to some odd emphases. A discussion of Moura Budberg is anticipated for much of the book, but she is kept out of sight until, in a chapter on "Women and Fiction," she is given four pages and then ignored. On the other hand, the story of Wells's month-long trip to Australia in January, 1939, with many references to the especially high temperatures that year, takes up twice as many pages as the discussion of Budberg or the disagreement with James.

Although he is careful to summarize almost all of Wells's published work and to describe its sales and its reception by the public press and by H. G.'s friends, Smith does not find the texts themselves in need of interpretation. He [End Page 347] usually takes Wells's statements about his intentions at face value. For instance, he curtly dismisses literary "theories" about The Time Machine: "What Wells was doing in this book was putting evolutionary theory into fictional practice. That was all." To justify this simple explanation, he quotes the shy letter Wells sent to T. H. Huxley with a copy of the book. Such an interpretive practice tends to deny the complexity of Wells's writings and the difficulties—intellectual, political, social, and personal—that they mediate. For Smith, Wells's books are straightforward and unproblematical documents, interesting not in themselves but for the way they contribute to the image of the heroic public man that the biography celebrates.

Those of us who are most interested in Wells as a literary figure may tend to forget how he was seen by his contemporaries. If there are few new facets of the artist revealed in this biography, it is still useful for us to have the picture of the optimistic and public Wells developed in detail. One can imagine that H. G. would enjoy being remembered as the sort of man Smith depicts.

John Huntington
University of Illinois, Chicago


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pp. 347-348
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