H. G. Wells was born in 1866 in Bromley. He claimed to have a very ordinary brain, but in fact he predicted air attacks and atomic bombs long before they existed. He took no pleasure in being right though. Instead it just added to his growing feeling of pessimism. His last book was Mind at the End of its Tether, a work full of despair. In his final year he spent his time painting a mural in his home which showed the process of evolution, ending with the figure of Man. Beneath this figure he wrote ‘Time to Go’.
Wells’ parents were, at various times, shopkeepers and servants. Wells was destined to become a shop assistant, but after suffering an accident as a child he was forced to spend a long time in bed. This period of inactivity gave him a love of reading which developed his imagination. After leaving school he first worked in a curtain shop, then trained as a teacher and biologist, but after this decided to write books for a living. At the age of 27, working by candlelight in a room in Kent (his landlady complained he used too many candles), he wrote the book that made his name, The Time Machine. It is the story of an unnamed time traveller who meets strange people in the future and witnesses the end of the world. It was a great success with Victorian readers.
Wells went on to produce ‘scientific romances’ and short stories which were serialised in publications like the Strand Magazine. Many science fiction themes — aliens coming to earth, planetary disasters and so on — were dealt with in these early stories. Wells’ ability to create such original work was amazing. He turned everyday events into incredible fantasies: a conversation about colonialism became The War of the Worlds and a walk round London was turned into The Invisible Man. Some of the predictions made in his books included the use of aeroplanes and tanks in war, the rise of the middle class, the liberation of women and the need for a world state.
His own background gave him the basic materials for his best novels, which were realistic comedies of lower-middle-class life. In these he was at his peak as an artist. Though he continued to write novels, his talent as a fiction writer was gradually over-whelmed by his enthusiasm for scientific knowledge and social change. His idea was that civilisationwas ‘a race between education and catastrophe’, and though the catastrophe of the First World War damaged his optimism, he continued to fight for social change.
Wells’ most important act is probably his least known. At the start of World War II, Wells produced a statement of human rights and formed a committee to work on this. The Declaration of the Rights of Man was published in many different languages and stimulated discussion worldwide. After the War, this document greatly influenced the wording of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights.
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What type of work was Wells originally destined to do?
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