Friday, 9 February 2018

David C. Smith, “H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal” (1986). Some Errata



I have been reading through the whole of Wells, and recording my reactions on this blog; and I've been doing that because I've been commissioned to write a ‘Literary Biography’ of the man. Not an actual biography, which would entail years of my life, long stretches in archives all over the world rifling through unpublished letters, invoices, catalogues and so on; but an account of his life that foregrounds his writing, his fiction and non-fiction. That's a big enough task in its own right, because he wrote so very much, but at least it means I can lean, in all decency, on the proper Wells biographies written by proper biographers. There are a dozen or so of these, including one by his son, Anthony West, a fascinating but extremely partial volume called H. G. Wells: Aspects of a Life (London: Hutchinson 1984). There's also Vincent Brome's forceful but broad-brush and swiss-cheese H G Wells: A Biography (London: Longmans 1952) and the best biography I know of, Norman and Jean Mackenzie's The Time Traveller: the Life of H G Wells (London: Weidenfeld, 1973).


The Mackenzies' Life is both the best written and (I think) most psychologically acute account of Wells there is, but David C. Smith's H.G. Wells: Desperately Mortal: A Biography (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1986), imaged at the head of this post, occupies a special place in Wellsian scholarship, simply by virtue of its scope and capaciousness. 496 pages of dense text are followed by a whopping 140 pages of tiny-font endnotes, recording and summarising the prodigies of reading Smith undertook in Wellsian archives from Bromley to Illinois, Boston to the LSE. Thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, of unpublished letters, many recording the intricate to-and-fro of Wells's contract and business dealings. For me Smith's volume has proved, and certainly will continue to prove, absolutely invaluable, as I navigate Wells's literary output.

But although it is an amazing resource, Smith's is not actually a very good biography. It's flatly descriptive, piles up large amounts of data without offering very much by way of steer, is disposed into parallel sections that treat aspects of Wells life in ways that necessitate quite a bit of repetition (‘Student’, ‘Author’, ‘Teacher’, ‘Prophet’, with his relations with women folded away into two discrete chapters ‘Women and Fiction I’ and ‘Women and Fiction II’) rather than simply narrating it all chronologically, and is weakest on the very thing that makes Wells worthy of biography in the first place, his writing. Smith mostly limits himself to brief summaries of the various books Wells published, analyses very little, and reads critically or theorizes not at all. An historian rather than a literary critic by training, perhaps he felt more comfortable with just the facts. But it makes his book something of a Fact Pudding.

Which is fine: there are a lot of facts here, and that's useful to any scholar of Wells. But there are various errors too, and that's a bit more worrying. Below I list a few of those errors, particularly those places where (since it's my brief) Smith's accounts of Wells's books go wrong. Some of these are noted by David Y. Hughes in his (largely positive) review for Science Fiction Studies [14:3 (Nov. 1987), 392-399]; some of them are howlers I spotted myself as I worked through


[9] Wells was at Byatt's school for one year, not (as Smith says) two.

[65] The War of the Worlds (1898). ‘Martians land near London .... the insect-like being  buried in the top layers of the earth, now begin to construct machines in which they can travel in their desire for conquest’. But the Martians are not ‘insect-like’ (Smith is perhaps confusing this novel with First Men in the Moon). They are octopus-like, ‘the size of a bear’ and they glisten ‘like wet leather’.

[68] Smith thinks the descriptions of ‘weightlessness in space’ in First Men in the Moon (1901) are ‘a good description of what travellers later experienced’. They're not, though. When Cavor and Bedford close all the anti-gravity shutters they float, but if they open the one facing Earth they drift down to that window and if they open the one facing the Moon they drift in that direction. Wells has not grasped that the capsule is in free fall and its passengers with it, and that they would be weightless the whole way (as the Apollo astronauts were). I don't much blame Wells for getting this wrong, but I do blame Smith, a little, for thinking he got it right.

[152] Gissing can't have read the proofs of The War of the Worlds, since he stayed with Wells and his sister in Spring 1897 (not 1898 as Smith says) when there were no such proofs to read.

[163] ‘Conrad read The Time Machine in translation while travelling in Turkey’. David Y. Hughes points out that the neither the time and the place for this assertion are correct.

[170] Smith thinks Boon (1915) is ‘clearly set in [Henry] James's garden’. But the novel is very particular as to its setting. It is set in the “Classical Villa” in which Mallock’s New Republic (1877) is also set. Quiet a lot of the early part of this book is given over to the party locating and renting this specific villa. Has Smith not read the book?

[205] ‘The Wonderful Visit (1898) describes the descent to earth of an angel with whom a curate falls in love’. Wrong on two counts: Hilyer is a Vicar, not a curate, and he doesn't fall in love with the (male) angel—in fact the angel falls in love with Delia, the maid.

[247] Smith thinks that Joan and Peter, in Joan and Peter (1918), study science in ‘the South Kensington laboratories’. Not so: they both go to Cambridge.

[301] Of The Autocracy of Mr Parham (1930), Smith says that the character Bussy is a portrait of Winston Churchill. But Bussy, a press baron, is a portrait of Lord Beaverbook. The Winston Churchill character in the novel is called ‘Mr Brimstone Burchell’

[328] Of Star-Begotten (1937), Smith says ‘Joseph, and his wife Mary (although her name is not revealed until the end of the book) ...’ But she is named in the very first chapter!

[329] The Camford Visitation (1937) ‘opens in a common-room’. Not so: it opens in a dining room. Only later does the action move to a common-room.

[355] ‘In the little allegory All Aboard for Ararat (1940), the ark, symbolic of the world at war ...’ But this makes no sense: the flood is the war, the ark is Wells's fragile dreams for a better future (that, really, is the whole point of the novella)

[358] At the end of my blogpost on You Can't Be Too Careful (1943) I note, and give reasons for, my suspicion that Smith has not read this novel with any care.

[397] The Secret Places of the Heart (1922) ‘begins with the leading character, Sir Richmond Hardy, taking a three-week trip with his alienist (the usual word of the period for psychiatrist) ...’ The word alienist is not used in the novel; Dr. Martineau is simply Sir Richmond's regular doctor.

[397] ... and talking of The Secret Places of the Heart: Smith says Sir Richmond goes away ‘to work out his relationship with his wife (Rebecca) ... the book ends with the wife beating on the coffin of her dead husband ...’ This is all wrong: the Rebecca West character in the novel is Miss Martin Leeds, a famous cartoonist (unmentioned by Smith) with whom Sir Richmond is having an affair. Lady Hardy, Sir Richmond's wife, is a portrait of Wells's wife, Jane. And it is Miss Martin Leeds who beats on the coffin at the novel's end, not the wife.

[479] Smith says A. Morley Davies attended Wells's cremation at Golders Green in 1946, which, since Davies himself had died in 1943, must have been quite a shock for the other mourners.

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