the History of Mr. Wells
                                                     By Michael Foot

Chapter One: Adam and Eve

I was at war with the world and by no means sure I could win.

-The Book of Catherine Wells, p.8

He was born in Kent, where Socialism was also born, and he was always happy to celebrate the
association. He believed that men and women could learn from a true knowledge of their history
lessons nobler and more efficacious than anything prescribed in the rudimentary exercises of religion
and other myths. He became the boldest prophet of the century; not one who would ever claim
infallibility or anything to be distantly related to that term but still one who never abandoned his
youthful Socialist aspiration of what the human mind might achieve.

The date was 21 September 1866, and the place was 47 (now renumbered 172) High Street,
Bromley. His father, Joseph Wells, and his mother, Sarah, had been married in 1853 and they had
four children. An elder sister, Fanny, had died at the age of 9 two years before HG (Bertie was his
name in the family) was born. Almost from his mother's womb, Bertie had a fight on: he seemed to
be a weakling, and for several years the fear persisted that he might suffer the fate of Fanny. His
father kept the little hardware shop in Bromley which he christened Atlas House, was a gardener of
some ingenuity, but was most distinguished as a professional cricketer of real ability. Wells recorded
that `his was a mind of inappeasible freshness, in the strangest contrast to my mother's'.

Almost everything he wrote about his parents - and he constantly returned to the theme - was deeply
moving. He realized that his father was an imperfect partner for his mother and had often contributed
directly by his thoughtlessness or folly to the failures of the home. He saw that his father had neither
imagination nor sympathy for the woman's side of life. `Later on, he acknowledged, `I was to betray
a similar deficiency.'(*) He had been brought up in a home where the women did all the work
without apparent complaint. But this did not qualify HG's admiration for his father, and, when he
died, he could hardly control his grief:

A rush from my memory of many clumsy kindlinesses, a realisation of the loss of his companionship
came to me. I recalled the happiness of many of my Sunday tramps by his side in springtime, on
golden summer evenings, in winter when the forest had picked out every twig in the downland
hedgerows. I thought of his endless edifying discourses about flowers and rabbits and hillsides and
distant stars. And he was gone. I should never hear his voice again. I should never see again his dear
old eyes magnified to an immense wonder through his spectacles. I should never have a chance of
telling him how I cared for him. And I had never told him I cared for him. Indeed I had never
realised I cared for him until now. He was lying stiff and still and submissive in that coffin, a rejected
man. Life had treated him badly. He had never had a dog's chance. My mind leapt forward beyond
my years and I understood what a tissue of petty humiliations and disappointments and degradations
his life had been. I saw then as clearly as I see now the immense pity of such a life. Sorrow
possessed me. I wept as I stumbled along after him. I had great difficulty in preventing myself from
weeping aloud.(*)

But his sympathy for his mother and the women of that age and what they endured was no less real.

Bearing a child was not the jolly wholesome process we know today;(dagger) in that diseased
society it was an illness, it counted as an illness, for nearly every woman. Which the man her husband
resented - grossly. Five or six children in five or six years and a pretty girl was a cross, worried
wreck of a woman, bereft of any shred of spirit or beauty. My poor scolding, worried mother was
not fifty when she died. And one saw one's exquisite infants grew up into ill-dressed,
under-nourished, ill-educated children. Think of the agony of shamed love that lay beneath my poor
mother's slaps and scoldings! The world has forgotten now the hate and bitterness of disappointed

And his memories of that mother could move him too.

But she was indeed just the creature and victim of that disordered age which had turned her natural
tenacity to a blind intolerance and wasted her moral passion upon ugly and barren ends. If Fanny
and Ernest and I had shown any stourness against the disadvantages of our start in life, if we had
won for ourselves any knowledge or respect, we inherited that much steadfastness from her; such
honesty as we had was hers. If her moral harshness had over-shadowed and embittered our
adolescence, her passionate mothering had sheltered our childhood. Our father would have loved us,
wondered at us and left us about. But early in her life, that fear, that terror-stricken hatred of sex that
overshadowed the Christian centuries, that frantic resort to the suppressions, subjugations and
disciplines of a stereotyped marriage in its harshest form, a marriage as easy to step into and as hard
to leave as a steel trap with its teeth hidden by the most elaborate secrecies and misrepresentations,
had set its pitiless grip upon my mother's imagination, and blackened all the happier impulses in life
for her. She was ready, if necessary, to pass all her children through the fires of that Moloch, if by so
doing their souls might be saved. She did it the more bitterly because she was doing it against the
deeper undeveloped things in her own nature.

The schools he was sent to were, first of all, a dame school at 8 Smith Street, Bromley, and later an
establishment called Morley's Commercial for Young Gentlemen were he remained until the age of
13. Then, in 1880, when his Bromley home came near to complete financial collapse, his mother
took a post as housekeeper at Up Park, a magnificent old country house near Petersfield, a post
which she held until the early 1880s. Amid these shifts and disturbances, HG had two lucky breaks
which started to lift the pressure and tedium of his upbringing. He had been born into a home of
genteel poverty and he learned to hate everything about it except his loving parents, But, when he
was 7 years old, still in Bromley, he broke his leg or his hip and was confined for months to his bed.
His father brought him books, stacks of them: bound copies of Punch and other magazines, Wood's
Natural History, geographical works. Then he turned to books about war, Wellington's war an
Columbus's adventures, and the American Civil War. And then, even more extraordinary, `the
march of tall and lovely feminine figures, Britannia, Erin, Columbria, La France, bare armed, bare
necked, showing beautiful bare bosoms, revealing shining thighs, wearing garments that were a
revelation to an age of flounces and crinolines. My first consciousness of women, my first stirrings of
desire were roused, by these heroic divinities.'

His kinship with his adoring and adorable father was soldered by the treatment each gave the other
as the situation demanded. Bertie's accident at school was a serious one; his fractured hip bone had
to be set and re-broken and reset again. And this was the moment to which HG would trace his
intellectual awakening. But, a few months later, his father slipped an fell while pruning the grapevine
in his back garden one Sunday morning - a judgement upon him, it was agreed in the town, for not
being at church. He could never play cricket again, and the family income was severely cut. The
pressure was on to see whether Bertie could start making his contribution, along with his two
brothers, to the common store. That must mean his apprenticeship in a draper's shop. But, before
and after that disaster, nothing could check the miscellaneous tuition he received from his untutored
father. Either at the Literary Institute in the Bromley Town Hall or at home he was introduced or
made his own introduction to Washington Irving and David Hume, Humboldt's Cosmology, Grote's
History of Greece, Scott's poetry, a little Shakespeare, lots of Dickens; and the pictures of Wood's
Natural History gave him `an inkling of evolution and a nightmare terror of gorillas'.

It was indeed an extraordinary assortment, especially since HG never ceased to rail against the
denial of any decent education to his father, and indeed his mother, too, both `intelligent,
book-reading persons' to whom the great Darwinian discoveries of the previous twenty or thirty
years had never been imparted. `To this day', he wrote later, `I will confess I dislike this restriction
and distortion of knowledge, as I dislike nothing else on earth. In the modern world, it is, I hold,
second only to murder to starve and cripple the mind of a child.'(*) The crippling of his own mother
and father was something he never forgot. `My mind was born anew,' he wrote, a Thomas Paineite
reflection, prompted by another bout of illness; and, profiting still further from that 7-year-old
introduction to the art of reading, he found his way to the library of Up Park which had been partly
furnished through the Enlightenment tastes of its owner, Sir Harry Fetherstonhaugh, who happened
to be an eighteenth-century-style freethinker. Among the volumes which he found on those shelves
was Thomas Paine's Rights of Man and Plato's Republic. Of course, he could not swallow the whole
feast at once. But he himself offered a most persuasive report of the scene years later in
Tono-Bungay. He approached the matter delicately but decisively; he told how he made himself into
one of the great of readers of the century:

Sitting under a dormer window on a shelf above great stores of tea and spices, I became familiar
with much of Hogarth in a big portfolio, with Raphael - there was a great book of engravings from
the stanzas of Raphael in the Vatican - and with most of the capitals of Europe as they had looked
about 1780, by means of several big iron-moulded books of views. There was also a broad
eighteenth-century atlas with huge wandering maps that instructed me mightily. It had splendid
adornments about each map title; Holland showed a fisherman and his boat; Russia a Cossack;
Japan, remarkable people attired in pagodas. I say it deliberately `pagodas'. There were Terrae
Incognitae in every continent then, Poland, Sarmatia, lands since lost; and many a voyage I made
with a blunted pin about that large incorrect and dignified world. The books in that little old closet
had been banished, I suppose, from the saloon during the Vatican revival of good taste and
emasculated orthodoxy, but my mother had no suspicion of their character. So I read and
understood the good sound rhetoric of Tom Paine's Rights of Man and his Common Sense, excellent
books, once praised by bishops and since sedulously tied about. Gulliver was there unexpurgated,
strong meat for a boy perhaps, but not too strong I hold - I have never regretted that I escaped
niceness in these affairs. The satire of Traldragdubh made by blood boil as it was meant to do, but I
hated Swift for the Houyhnhnms and never quite liked a horse afterwards. Then I remembered also a
translation of Voltaire's Candide, and Rasselas; and, vast book though it was, I really believe I read,
in a muzzy sort of way of course, from end to end, and even with some reference now and then to
the Atlas Gibbon in twelve volumes. These readings whetted my taste for more, and surreptitiously I
raided the bookcases in the big saloon. I got through quite a number of books before my sacrilegious
temerity was discovered by Ann, the old head-housemaid. I remember that among others I tried a
translation of Plato's Republic then, and found extraordinarily little interest in it. I was much too
young for that; but `Vathek'. `Vathek' was glorious stuff. That kicking affair! When everybody had
to kick! The thought of `Vathek' always brings back with it my boyish memory of the big saloon at

Of these first mentors, it was Jonathan Swift who left the most indelible impression, and it is
interesting to note how discriminating was his first reading about the Houyhnhnms: some modern
Swiftian scholars have reached the conclusion that Swift intended us to question their perfectibility.
But the whole galaxy together rivets attention. Swift, Hogarth, Voltaire, Gibbon - of course, the
17-year-old or 18-year-old adolescent could not be expected to absorb more than a smattering of
these masters, but nor should anyone doubt the capacity of this reader to read. He folded to his
heart most closely the iconoclasts of the Enlightenment, and one early service they performed for him
was to scatter those fantasies of military adventure first acquired only a few years before in the
sickroom at Atlas House in Bromley.

And how much HG owed - how much a new race of Socialist readers came to owe - to his training
in that Up Park university of all the horrors, dreams, disproportions between giants and dwarfs, with
human cruelty and human pride unmasked by the final Swiftian indictment. How could any other item
weigh in those scales which, whatever their scandalous nature, seemed often to carry his beloved
father's blessing? Even more surely it was through the eyes of his father, the expert gardener, that he
was introduced to another lifelong interest: `There was a slope of bluebells in the broken sunlight
under the newly green beeches in the west wood that is now precious sapphire in my memory; it was
the first time I knowingly met beauty.'(dagger)

Then he turned his mind - or, rather, had it persistently turned for him - to examine the world of the
spirit. His dear mother forced him, and his dear father would not object. `I was indeed a prodigy of
Early Impiety,' he wrote in his autobiography, but it was not any sense an exhibitionist display. He
could recall those events with some vividness until his dying day. These words are quoted from one
of the last articles which HG wrote, and which appeared in Tribune on 28 January 1944. The
vividness with which he could still recall, seventy years later, the injury inflicted upon his young mind
seems to add to the story.

My conflict with the Religious Complex began very early in life, but the internal struggle left its scars
and twinges for many years. I was told there was a `God Almighty' of intricate but essential unity, a
Person, who knew everything, past, present and future; who had made everything just as he liked
and who was, in fact, the absolute monarch of being. But also perceived that life was full of painful
events and frightful possibilities. Why had he made it like that? Quicker-witted people could just
jump that question, leaving it unanswered, but I could not. My fear and distress were very great. I
dared not ask anyone I knew about this overwhelming sadist! Whom we praised and pretended to
adore! My mother took me to Bromley Church on Sunday mornings and to Shortlands Children's
Service in the afternoon, where a great parson, named, very appropriately, Woolley, baa'd at us
about how God loved us. He asked us easy questions of a conventional type, which I steadily
refused to answer in spite of my mother's urgency. She did so want me to be a credit to her.

She had been disappointed in my being born a boy instead of a girl, because I was born, she had
lost an elder sister of mine, also precocious, whose essentially feminine mentality had proved less
resistant than mine. She dilated upon the wonderful and exemplary sayings, and doing of this lost
sister, `Possy', comparing them humiliatingly with my own excess of original sin. If failed to produce
the ready response she hoped for, poor dear! I understand her now but in those days! did not
understand, and so I had no pity. Let every parent and teacher keep in mind that excellent proverb
`Comparisons are odious,' particularly to the young. It was certainly true, I bronded, that this God
Almighty did not love any of us, but although I felt a very natural desire to escape that hell of his, I
found it absolutely impossible to be abject and love him. I prayed for faith. How many poor little
souls have tried the self-abuse of such prayers! I might easily have gone into some crazy religious
mania. One finds every type of that stress among mystical confessions. But I escaped - through a

I was a precocious reader by seven, and in an old number of Chambers' Journal I read an account
of a poor creature being broken on the wheel. I went to bed and had a frightful nightmare in which
my mind took a rational leap. I jumped all the intermediaries in the business. I dreamt it was God
Almighty himself who was breaking that man on the wheel. Because that followed logically upon its
happening at all. The Almighty was responsible for the whole world; the evil in it, therefore, just as
much as the good. That dream was a perfect resolution of my distress. I knew He, that awful He,
was impossible. I was left to struggle with a vast number of minor philosophical issues, but I believed
in God Almighty no more.

What has not been exactly determined, either in his own autobiographical writings or anywhere else,
is when he was introduced to two other writers who helped to shape his mind. One was Laurence
Sterne whose Tristram Shandy became the discursive model for so many of his own novels, and the
other was his Kentish kinsman John Ball. In the latter case, the strong presumption must be that the
introduction was made by William Morris, whose poem The Dream of John Ball was published in
1867 and quickly became a favourite with Socialist readers. HG himself was never so devoted a
disciple of Morris as many others that generation. But John Ball, almost the only Catholic priest ever
to receive Wells's unqualified approval, had the essence of the matter in him.

When Adam delved and Eve span/Who was then the gentleman? All the real work was done by
Adam and Eve; and the gentleman, if he existed at all, was a parasite. And when HG first heard the
couplet, which he would perpetually quote, it is hard to believe that he did not see Adam as his
wayward, unlucky, but still inspirational garden-addicted father and Eve as his broken, shamefully
overworked mother. It was the injustice done to them which made him a Socialist.

                              © 1995 Michael Foot


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