The Works of H. G. Wells (Atlantic Edition)/Preface to Volume I


In this first volume are some of the author's earliest imaginative writings. The idea of "The Time Machine" itself, a rather forced development of the idea that time is a direction in space, came when he was still a student at the Royal College of Science. He tried to make a story of it in the students' magazine. If the old numbers of that publication for the years 1889 and 1890, or thereabouts, still exist, the curious may read there that first essay, written obviously under the influence of Hawthorne and smeared with that miscellaneous allusiveness that Carlyle and many other of the great Victorians had made the fashion. "Time Travellers" were not to be written of in those days of the twopence coloured style; the story was called, rather deliciously, "The Chronic Argonauts" and the Time Traveller was "Mr. Nebo-gipfel." Similar pigments prevailed throughout. A cleansing course of Swift and Sterne intervened before the idea was written again for Henley's National Observer in 1894, and his later New Review in 1895, and published as a book in the spring of the latter year. That version stands here unaltered. There was a slight struggle between the writer and W. E. Henley who wanted, he said, to put a little "writing" into the tale. But the writer was in reaction from that sort of thing, the Henley interpolations were cut out again, and he had his own way with his text.

And now the writer reads this book, "The Time Machine," and can no more touch it or change it than if it were the work of an entirely different person. He reads it again after a long interval, he does not believe he has opened its pages for twenty years, and finds it hard and "clever" and youthful. And—what is rather odd, he thinks—a little unsympathetic. He is left doubting—rather irrelevantly to the general business of this Preface—whether if the Time Machine were a sufficiently practicable method of transport for such a meeting, the H. G. Wells of 1894 and the H. G. Wells of 1922 would get on very well together. But he has found a copy of the book in which, somewhen about 1898 or 1899, he marked out a few modifications in arrangement and improvements in expression. Almost all these suggested changes he has accepted, so that what the reader gets here is a revised definitive version a quarter of a century old.

"The Jilting of Jane" and "The Cone" are also very "young" things. "The Jilting of Jane" is the sort of little deliberately pleasant and sympathetic sketch that every young journalist was doing in those days. "The Cone" is the last surviving relic of what might have been a considerable lark to write; it was to have been a vast melodrama, all at that same level of high sensation. These two were done some time before the first rewriting of "The Time Machine" but before its final revision. After them comes a string of irresponsible stories. They are just inventions that were written for magazines, and there is hardly anything more to be said for them. "The Wonderful Visit" was published as a book very soon after "The Time Machine," and it develops the method of quite a number of the writer's short stories, the method of bringing some fantastically possible or impossible thing into a commonplace group of people, and working out their reactions with the completest gravity and reasonableness. Perhaps the best and reallest of all this group of stories is the one called "The Purple Pileus," which completes this first volume.

H. G. W.