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What the critics liked

The Young HG Wells by Claire Tomalin

The story of Herbert George Wells is one of “insurmountable obstacles”, says Claire Tomalin in her new book, The Young HG Wells (Viking £20). The author of The War of the Worlds was born into a very un-literary family in Kent in 1866. His father was a county cricketer turned unsuccessful shopkeeper, his mother a ladies’ maid. Their house reeked of paraffin – proof against bedbugs – and he grew up on a diet of bread, cheese and half-herrings, which left him short and undernourished.

But Wells had high hopes for himself, says Laura Freeman in The Times. Like lots of children, he wrote stories. Unlike lots of children, he wrote glowing fictional press notices to go with them. One read: “Will be read when Shakespeare is forgotten – but not before.” Another: “Beautiful book – Brought tears into the eyes of the editor’s grandma.” Unfortunately, actual literary success was not so straightforward. In 1888 Wells wrote two novels, decided he hated them, then set fire to the manuscripts. That year he sold just one short story, making his total literary income £1. “Some day I shall succeed, I really believe,” he wrote, “but it is a weary game.” He was right. After publishing his debut, The Time Machine, in 1895, Wells cranked out 50 novels in 46 years. “In his purplest patches he turned out 7,000 words a day.”

He did everything to excess, says Anthony Cummins in The Guardian. A “serial shagger”, Wells bedded hundreds of women, from Dorothy Richardson to Rebecca West. He left his first wife, Isabel, because the sex was disappointing. And he made his second wife, Amy – “whom, astoundingly, he renamed Jane” – keep house while he slept around, because she was “fragile” and he required a “complete loveliness of bodily response”.

Many people have written books about Wells, says Michael Sherborne in the TLS, myself included. But of all his biographers, Tomalin “strikes me as the one most drawn to him as an actual person rather than a verbal construct”. Wells is “the kind of fascinating creative type” Tomalin would kill to meet at a party. The result is a vivid book – unpretentious and human.

Available as an audiobook on Audible.