Book of the week: The Young H.G. Wells by Claire Tomalin

“Nobody predicted the 21st century better than H.G. Wells,” said Kathryn Hughes in the Daily Mail. Born “when Queen Victoria was still youngish”, he wrote a series of bestselling page-turners about “men on the Moon, environmental disaster, class war” and racial oppression – as well as “Martians invading the Earth”.

He was the product of a “working-class family of limited means”: his father was a shopkeeper in Bromley, his mother a lady’s maid. Wells was a sickly child who essentially educated himself by “reading books in bed while recovering from life-threatening lung infections”. Yet he triumphantly surmounted these obstacles, becoming an astonishingly prolific author, as well as a “passionate socialist” and a relentless erotic adventurer (today, he would probably be branded a “sex addict”). In this “compulsively readable” biography, Claire Tomalin shows how Wells’s early experiences helped turn him into the “great prophet of the modern age”.

Focusing on his first four decades, The Young H.G. Wells gives its “keenest attention” to its subject’s personal relationships, said John Carey in The Sunday Times. Wells didn’t let two marriages (the first to his cousin Isabel, the second to one of his former students, Amy Robbins) stand in the way of his promiscuous nature. Women found him irresistibly attractive – he “smelt deliciously of honey”, one said – and his many lovers included Rebecca West, with whom he fathered a son.

Being his wife can’t have been fun, said Anthony Cummins in The Observer: Robbins – whom Wells insisted on calling Jane – was even cajoled into buying clothes for another lover’s baby. Tomalin sometimes sounds as if she approves of such behaviour: Wells, she writes, “knew how to… enjoy women and the world” – words that “sit ill” with the shabby conduct she skilfully portrays.

I found all the “love stuff” a bit of a drag, said Laura Freeman in The Times. By contrast, “the book stuff soars”. Wells was astonishingly versatile as a writer, churning out novels, short stories and reams of journalism as well as hard-hitting polemics (his anti-poverty tract, The Misery of Boots, can still “send a shiver up the spine”). He mixed with the likes of Henry James, George Gissing and Arnold Bennett.

“To this day, no one fully understands how one man, albeit a genius, was able to write so much and so well,” said Michael Dirda in The Washington Post. For a “compact overview” of this “endlessly fascinating man and writer”, Tomalin’s biography is “hard to beat”.

Viking 256pp £20; The Week Bookshop £15.99

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