Wells's "Sleeper" wakes to a new world (source: When the Sleeper Wakes, facing p. 45).
As John Sutherland says, "[o]nly a small portion of Wells's prodigious literary activity is located in the Victorian era. But it represents an achievement equivalent to the whole literary career of lesser authors" (666). His output was truly enormous. Patrick Parrinder talks of "over a hundred books as well as pamphlets and jouranlism" from an author "who attempted to give a complete commentary on the world in which he lived" (1). Naturally, readers have differed in assessing this mass of writing. The young D. H. Lawrence preferred what he thought of as the later work: in a letter of 9 May 1909 he described Tono-Bungay, published earlier that year, as a "great book" (127). Walter Allen, one of the most respected twentieth-century critics of the novel, was also ready to admit Wells's gifts, claiming that he had "greater genius ... than any other novelist of his time in England" (314), but to him Tono-Bungay was, despite some fine comic episodes, an "embarrassing muddle" (371). Besides, said Allen, Wells wasted his talent because he became too politically committed, too journalistic.
That was in the twentieth century. In When the Sleeper Wakes: A Story of Years to Come (1899), Wells's hero returns to consciousness in a whole new world of extraordinary architecture, cantilevers and cables, with people moving around in strange contraptions. What would Wells make of our world now — and what do we make of him now?
To take the latter question first, we might say, perhaps, that in such a body of work there is something for everyone, and certain aspects of it will appeal to any given reader more than others. Wells's magnetic personality certainly went with (and infused) a tremendously fertile and original mind. His influence has cut across boundaries of space as well as time, and he has an international following even today, particularly in one field: despite precedents set by Jules Verne and others, to science fiction aficionados, Wells is a founding father and a prophet without equal. Lacking faith in religion and the power of the inner life to redeem human nature, here was a writer who saw the future more in terms of science, imagining flying machines (which he termed "aeropiles"), apparatus for transmitting moving pictures (which he called a "kinetoscope") and other forms of technology. Few can fail to be impressed by his amazing prescience.
As for what Wells might make of our own age, then: if he could have seen a twenty-first-century child hunched in front of a flickering screen, shooting down enemy aircraft, he would have been entitled to say simply, "I told you so!" The warlike implications of the scene would not have escaped or puzzled him either, nor would the present state of our conflict-riven world. Despite his own terrific mental energy, his commitment to socialist ideals and his global vision, Wells bleakly foretold the problems of modern life as well as many of its inventions. In Chapter 7 of When the Sleeper Wakes, his Rip-Van-Winkle hero watches a kind of early television, looking into an almost incomprehensible "miniature drama" which reveals a world that is "unscrupulous, pleasure-seeking, energetic, subtle, a world too of dire economic struggle," and which includes hints of "altered moral ideals, flashes of dubious enlightenment" (57) — a world, in short, all too like our own.
However, to return to the question of reputation, scholars of the modern novel may be less impressed by Wells's achievement. Another (later) outstanding twentieth-century critic, John Bachelor, introduces his own study of Wells by admitting that although he was considered an important writer by the end of the Victorian period, he then acquired "a second, far more influential, reputation as an educator." This was after the publication of his Outline of History in 1919-20. Characterising his new book as a "work of advocacy," Batchelor sets out to re-establish Wells as a major writer, but the very fact that he says "those of us who enjoy his work need not be ashamed of the pleasure we take in reading him" hints that he is embarking on something of an apologia (ix). It has to be said that Wells's experiments were with subject-matter not style or form; his most memorable characters, like Edward Ponderevo in Tono-Bungay (1909), hark back to Dickens; and, good as he is on youthful fallings-in-love, his characters' relationships are not deeply transformative.
Wells's skills as a writer have been greatly underestimated. He had an enviable flow of words, and a keen sense of the dramatic. There are passages in his books that carry the reader along with him even in the most unlikely scenarios. Ultimately, however, it was not the art or the psychological/emotional depth that mattered to Wells, even as a novelist, but the ideas. As these became still more important to him, his reputation was bound to change. It would be tempting therefore to claim that his youthful Victorian work does indeed represent the best of him as a creative writer. But such favourites as Kipps (1905), Tono-Bungay, and The History of Mr Polly (1910) had yet to come. Moreover, since ideas mattered to him, we might bear in mind not only that he produced so many books, including essays, histories and programmes for a better future, and was a leading light in the founding of PEN International and other important organisations, but that his polemical The Rights of Man, or What are We Fighting For? (1940) helped to pave the way for the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. His relevance to us today must be measured in many ways.
Allen, Walter E. The English Novel: A Short Critical History. London: Dutton, 1954.
Batchelor, John. H. G. Wells. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985.
Lawrence, D. H. The Letters of D. H. Lawrence. Vol. 1: 1901-13. Ed. James T. Bolton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1979.
Sutherland, John. The Longman Companion to Victorian Fiction. London: Longman, 1988.
Wells, H. G. When the Sleeper Wakes. New York & London: Harper & Bros., 1899. Internet Archive. Contributed by Duke University Libraries. Web. 17 January 2016.
Last modified 17 January 2016