Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century, by Sarah Cole

Charlotte Jones enjoys an account of a hugely ambitious writer who challenges many of our assumptions about studying literature 

January 16, 2020
Technology
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In an episode of Downton Abbey, Maggie Smith’s character, Violet Crawley, expresses horror at the rapid course of innovation. “First electricity,” she complains, “now telephones; sometimes I feel as if I were living in an H.G. Wells novel.” Attunement to the new technologies of modernity was one of his trademarks. Wells famously foresaw inventions such as television, tanks and air-conditioning, as well as coining the terms “war of the worlds”, “atomic bomb” and “time machine”.

In Inventing Tomorrow, Sarah Cole sets out to reclaim Wells as a visionary radical. Wells produced a prodigious body of work between 1886 and 1946, formidable in variety and originality – novels, stories, pamphlets, textbooks, utopias – addressing nearly every issue from the period. Without denying his flaws (his advocacy of eugenics, for instance, or dubious attitude towards women), Cole’s dense, erudite and wide-ranging account demonstrates the grand sweep of his interests and ambitions.

Cole perhaps overstates the extent of his erstwhile neglect; it’s a stretch to claim that Wells is less well-known in Anglo-American scholarship than Rabindranath Tagore. But she is right to suggest that the legacy of aesthetic values bestowed by modernism does Wells a disservice. Inventing Tomorrow places Wells within and among modernists, as an innovative writer whose style, shaped by a mission to educate, can seem didactic. Where James Joyce explained that he wanted “the reader to understand always through suggestion rather than direct statement”, Wells weaves direct statements about economics, history, politics and more into his novels. He thus forces us to rethink many of the most basic assumptions of literary criticism. Why is it preferable for a novelist to tell us subtly and obliquely what they think rather than simply to argue it? Returning to Wells does more than reconstruct a literary-historical landscape. “We find in Wells”, as Cole puts it, “a path that literary culture chose not to take.”

She succeeds in calling attention to the expansiveness of Wells’ thinking; she is especially enthusiastic about lesser-known novels such as Mr Britling Sees It Through (1916), which describes the impact of conflict on non-combatants, and the philosophical The World of William Clissold (1926). But the book also brims with moral urgency: “To take a cue from Wells”, writes Cole, “is to pressure ourselves to ask what our idea of a better future might be and how, with the tools at our hands, we might seek to create it”. From the “scientific romances” to essays outlining the case for global citizenship and human rights, Wells attempts to conjure forth a planetary consciousness and to insist upon planetary action. The stakes then, as now, were high. After the First World War, especially, to be cosmopolitan was to leave the nation as a site of identity, turning instead to the category of the species and the potential for a unified body of humanity. “This school”, wrote Wells, “thinks not in terms of states and nations but in terms of cosmopolis, the city of mankind”. Such metaphors can be disconcerting, especially since they so closely ally with the rhetoric of fascism. But, for Wells, says Cole, “the ultimate lesson was a simple one” – “the saving value of unity”. Either we are doomed as a species or we are saved.

Some of Wells’ ideas were certainly rebarbative, but he emerges here as a passionate and persistent advocate of “global thinking”, and of literature’s capacity to shape it – driven by the belief that modern life is a “race between education and catastrophe”.

Charlotte Jones teaches English literature at King’s College London.  


Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century
By Sarah Cole
Columbia University Press, 392pp, £27.00
ISBN 9780231193122
Published 22 October 2019

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Print headline: The visionary world of Wells

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