The Works of H. G. Wells (Atlantic Edition)/A General Introduction to the Atlantic Edition

Volume 1 by H. G. Wells
A General Introduction to the Atlantic Edition


When a firm of publishers has the enterprise to issue a collected edition of a man's writings, and there are subscribers to such a publication, it ill becomes him to question the permanent value of the material so honoured. There is only one graceful response to this compliment, and that is to take himself as seriously as he has been taken, and to set out his writings with as brave a face as possible. "Writings" he will call them, in this preface at least, rather than "Works" as the title has it, because they are so miscellaneous and uneven.

Whatever benefit may accrue to publisher and subscriber through the publication of this edition, on the author at any rate it has inflicted the salutary discipline of rereading himself from the beginning and the necessity of a provisional summing up of his own activities. There is, he finds, a very strong temptation in this occasion to present his display as much more coherent and orderly than it is in reality. Of course, the unity due to personality was inevitable. We have, it is plain, a mind projected here upon the world, amused by the spectacle without, but rather more concerned by the urgency within. But there does also seem to be something more than the mere unity of a developing character throughout these writings; there is a continuous intellectual process. A group of questions shapes itself steadily and progressively; "What is the drive in me?" "What has it got to do with the other drives?" "What has it got to do with the spectacle without?"

Again and again the author returns to this group of inquiries; he takes this or that aspect of the drive in this or that relationship and experiments with possible answers. Since the human mind is a very infirm implement, and abstract and philosophical phraseology still very unsatisfactory, it has perforce to use symbols and help itself out with concrete imaginations. These writings are sometimes stories, sometimes fables and fantasies; sometimes they are discussions posed in relation to an attitude rather deliberately assumed. The idea of producing a "finished work" was never strong at any time in the writer's mind. Some of the earlier books were very carefully written; "Love and Mr. Lewisham," for example, was sedulously polished, and so was "The First Men in the Moon"; "A Modern Utopia" also was planned and written with considerable care; but most of these writings are sketches, some, like "The World Set Free," quite broken-backed sketches, intended to carry an idea or a group of ideas over to an interested reader and lacking any pretension to "finish" or "execution" or any of the implicit claims of the set and deliberate and dignified work of art. These collected writings aim at something in the flatest contrast with—what shall I call it?—the processional dignity of such a collection as that of the works of Henry James. Such works are essentially triumphs of conception and treatment, things in themselves completed, finished, and presented, they stand or fall as that; these, on the contrary, are essentially comments and enhancements of the interest of life itself. Possibly these writings, in whole or in part, are literature, but certainly, with one exception to be noted in its place, they are not Works of Art. It is far truer to call them Journalism than Art.

So the author, putting as brave a face as possible upon the matter, writes of his writings as a whole. Much of this abundant "output" of temporary interest, much that he afterwards rewrote in a more permanent form, he has excluded from this collection and thrust for ever into the waste-paper basket. Still there remains a certain amount of material, he is bound to admit, that fits very questionably into the frame of his general statement. There are things reprinted here which were done almost as casually as the faces one sketches on one's blotting-pad; things that have bubbled up from nothing in the mind, which pleased him to do and which it has pleased him to reprint.

A paragraph or so about the origins and life of the writer seems to be owing to the readers of this edition. His father, Joseph Wells, was originally a gardener, the son of Joseph Wells, the head gardener of Lord de Lisle at Penshurst. By an odd coincidence Joseph Wells, Jr., was gardener to another Joseph Wells, Joseph Wells of Redleaf, a man of considerable wealth and position, but the two families had no blood relationship whatever. The writer's mother was the daughter of George Neal, an inn-keeper at Midhurst in Sussex, and she was maid to Miss Featherstonehaugh of Up Park, Petersfield. But long before he was born (in 1866) his parents had left "service." His father had sunk a small inheritance in an unsuccessful crockery shop at Bromley in Kent, and was staving off bankruptcy by earning money as a professional cricketer. He was a swift and subtle bowler, and made a record at a match between Kent and Sussex at Hove in 1862 by clean bowling four wickets in succession. The writer was the youngest of four children. The home was poverty-struck and shabby but not unhappy; if food was sometimes rather short there was plenty to read, for Joseph Wells had a taste for reading and would go to sales to pick up a cheap lot of books whenever opportunity offered. Moreover Bromley possessed a Literary Institute with a lending library, and there was a small middle-class Academy kept by a teacher of some ability, Mr. Thomas Morley, which the writer attended. Before he was thirteen he had acquired the reading habit and he was filled with curiosity about this world in which he found himself. He read everything but the novels of Sir Walter Scott, which bored him indescribably, though he read and learned by heart much of "Marmion" and "The Lady of the Lake." Books bought haphazard at sales make an uneven library. The contents and omissions of the Bromley book-shelves were equally notable. Washington Irving was much in evidence in a cheap collected edition. Chaucer's works, Grote's "History of Greece," Humboldt's "Cosmos," George Eliot's "Middlemarch," bound volumes of Punch, an old edition of Captain Cook's "Travels," a fascinating middle-eighteenth century Atlas with abounding Terræ Incognitæ, are vivid among the writer's memories. On Sundays mother insisted upon the Bible, but Sturm's "Reflections" and Clarke's New Testament with its footnotes sowed the seeds of an early scepticism. Some Shakespeare he read at school, but not much of him otherwise; all of Dickens that was not at home he found at a cousin's home, and the pictures in a Wood's "Natural History" possessed by that same cousin gave him an inkling of evolution and a nightmare terror of gorillas.

When the writer was ten or eleven his father was disabled by a fall which crippled him, and when he was thirteen the little shop collapsed. His mother returned as housekeeper to her former mistress at Up Park, and his father took refuge in a small, inexpensive cottage. Further education for the writer seemed impossible. There was some trouble in finding him employment, an unhandy boy preoccupied with reading. He was tried over as a draper's apprentice, as a pupil-teacher in an elementary school, as a chemist's apprentice, and again as a draper. After two years with the second draper, a Mr. Hyde of Southsea, he prayed to have his indentures cancelled, and became a sort of pupil-teacher at the Midhurst Grammar-School. In the intervals between these attempts to begin life he took refuge in the housekeeper's room with his mother at Up Park. From the library above stairs he borrowed and read translations of Plutarch's "Lives," Plato's "Republic," and Lucretius, and, most entrancing book! "Vathek"; and he struggled with and partly understood the easy French of some volumes of Voltaire's works. Sir Harry Featherstonehaugh, friend of the Prince Regent, from whom the house had descended to his sister-in-law, my mother's Miss Featherstonehaugh, had been a liberal thinker. Moreover in the attic at Up Park the writer unearthed a Gregorian telescope in its box, put it together with some difficulty, and spent some chilly but wonderful nights looking at the moon, at the phases of Venus, and at Jupiter's satellites.

From Midhurst he won a studentship at what is now the Royal College of Science, South Kensington. He did three years of good work there; his biological professor was Huxley, and a little later, without much difficulty, he was able to take the London Bachelor of Science degree with first-class honours in Zoology. Thereafter came some school teaching and the direction of "cramming" classes for the science examinations in the London medical course. But insufficient food and exercise during his student days, when he had to live in London upon his weekly allowance of a guinea, had left him with an attenuated physique; a football accident close upon his twenty-first birthday crushed and destroyed one kidney, and his body did not readjust itself satisfactorily to the consequences of these misadventures until he was in his middle thirties. He had some years of not so much ill health as unstable health. Each London winter made a sustained attempt to kill him. He was almost driven by these circumstances to live out of London and to indulge his desire to write for a living.

While at the Royal College of Science he had started and edited the student's magazine which, as the Phœnix, still survives. His next published writings were in the educational papers, his first book was a little text-book of biology in two volumes for the use of his cramming-class students. Then he began to write humourous articles and sketches and short stories in the Pall Mall Gazette, the Saturday Review and other publications. Among the students of his cramming classes in London, he met his present wife, Catherine Robbins. To her sympathy, loyalty, cooperation, and capable management of his affairs his success in the world is very largely due. For from three and twenty onward, his life has been one of steadily increasing prosperity with more freedom, more leisure, more travel, and a wider and more various circle of friends every year.

These facts will suffice to give the reader an idea of the angle from which the writings here collected were done. Those ruling questions, "What is the drive in me?" "What has it got to do with the other drives?" "What has it got to do with the spectacle without?" seem to have been almost innate. Before he left the draper's shop the writer, inspired perhaps by Lucretius, Humboldt, and the Gregorian telescope, was jotting down in a little note-book his rudimentary answers to such questions as "What is matter?" and "What is space?" and while he was still a student at the Royal College he schemed a universal history. These were not so much ambitions as attempts to satisfy an overpowering need to know—to know personally, to get hold of the hang of life as one saw it, with that clearness, that sense of achieved possession, which, he found, only writing down could give.

The stories and essays in this collection are arranged in an order roughly chronological. But whenever it has seemed to be more illuminating or interesting to bring things together that did not follow one another closely, the chronological order has been disregarded. Each volume will have a brief introduction placing its contents in relation to the rest of the work. It is the most difficult judgment of all to judge oneself, but the writer believes that the whole effect of the collection upon any one who finds it worth while to look through it, will be one of growth and increasing clearness. Certain ideas appear very early and develop. There is, for example, a profound scepticism about man's knowledge of final reality. While the writer was still a science student he was seized by the idea that time is a dimension of space differing only in the relation of the human consciousness towards it, and that both Newtonian space and syllogistic reasoning are simplifications of a more subtle and intangible reality, simplifications imposed upon us by the limitations and imperfections of our minds. This line of thought leads to the recognition that such ideas as the idea of Right and the idea of God may also prove to be relative and provisional, that they are attempts to simplify and so bring into the compass of human reactions what is otherwise humanly inexpressible.

And another leading idea that grows throughout these writings is the idea of a synthetic Collective Mind, arising out of and using and passing on beyond our individual minds. What we call Science is, in the writer's way of thinking, the knowledge in this Mind; and it develops a will for collective effort and a collective purpose in mankind. A very large proportion of these writings plays about this group of ideas. It is the basis of the writer's socialism and of his international interpretations. The theme of several of the novels is the reaction of the passionate ego-centred individual to the growing consciousness and the gathering imperatives of such a collective mind.

It is the writer's belief that human society is now undergoing changes more rapid and more profound than have ever happened to it before, and that a world community is steadily and swiftly replacing the practically separate national and racial communities of the past. Himself a child of change, born in a home that was broken up by failure in retail trade, and escaping only by very desperate exertions from a life of servitude and frustration, he has been made aware of, and he is still enormously aware of and eager to understand and express, the process of adaptation, destruction, and reconstruction of old moral and intellectual and political and economic formulæ that is going on all about us. Indeed all these volumes are about unrest and change. Even in his novels his characters, like Kipps and Mr. Polly, are either change-driven and unable to understand, or, like Benham of "The Research Magnificent" or Stratton in "The Passionate Friends," they are attempting desperately to understand, and still more desperately attempting to thrust at and interfere with change.

Inseparable from the question "What is the drive in me?" are the questions: "What should one do?" "What ought one to do?" There is no such thing as an impersonal discussion of conduct or absolute detachment in art. Contemporary criticism is too often vitiated by a pretence that such an aloofness is possible. It would be easier to study anatomy without a body to touch and see and dissect, than to discuss conduct without experiences, personalities, and imperatives. For, to be a little franker than he was in his opening paragraphs, the writer confesses his profound disbelief in any perfect or permanent work of art. All art, all science, and still more certainly all writing are experiments in statement. There will come a time for every work of art when it will have served its purpose and be bereft of its last rag of significance. Here in these collected volumes are fantasy, fiction, discussion, and stated case, all openly and deliberately experimental, all in essence sketches and trials. This edition is a diary of imaginations and ideas much more than a set display, the record of a life lived in a time of great readjustment rather than of creative achievement.

Necessarily where the standpoint varies there are many variations in statement. Quite apart from the real blunders, the wanderings into dead alleys, and the slow tentative realisations, step by step, of a limited and fallible man, there must also be many merely apparent inconsistencies in such writings. A man may say one day that Monte Rosa lies to the right of the Matterhorn and another day he may say it lies to the left, and he may be an entirely trustworthy man approaching the mountains one day from Aosta and another from Zermatt. But if he should be drawn into controversies he may find that some hasty and resentful antagonist has seized upon these two statements as an illustration of his mental and moral disorders. He will be asked to stop scrapping his opinions and to make up his mind once for all whether Monte Rosa is the mountain to the left or the mountain to the right. Now at times the writer has ruffled the convictions of others and fallen into disputations, and out of the ensuing controversial give and take there has distilled an accusation that he alters his opinions frequently and completely. The other day, for instance, an amiable contemporary said of the writer that he changed his opinions as he changed his shirt. This is substantially untrue. If it were true these volumes of close upon thirty years of thinking and writing would be a poor bargain for any subscriber. But it is so far true that to the questions, "Do you believe in God?" "Do you believe in nationality?" "Do you believe in individualism, in socialism?" the writer shows himself as often disposed to answer "Yes" as "No." One cannot give precise answers to indefinable questions. In these volumes you will find the writer constantly working at the telling of just the sort of God, just the sort of England, just the sort of individual freedom and just the sort of social service he believes in, and just the sort that he repudiates and denies. Yet reading all these writings over, as this collected edition has at last obliged the writer to do, he is, he is bound to confess, surprised at his own general consistency. There is growth in these writings indeed, but there is continuity. He cannot venture to estimate what he may have done for other people by writing such a quantity of books and stories and articles, but on the whole—lapses due to vanity and indolence and obtuseness notwithstanding—he feels he has done well by himself. He would live and write in rather the same way if he had to live over again. There is, he believes, in the ultimate reckoning something said in these volumes that was not said before, and something shaped that was not shaped before.

H. G. Wells.