Presentation for H. G. Wells Society

This morning I had the pleasure of presenting to the H. G. Wells Society for their conference “Experiments in (Auto)biography: H.G. Wells and Life-Writing”. I was asked to talk about the background to my novel and my recent collection of his science teaching writings. It was fun!

For more on the books themselves, see my author website.

5 comments to Presentation for H. G. Wells Society

1927 review in 1926 book

One of the delightful things about buying used or second-hand books is that sometimes there are things inside. People tuck notes into books. They press flowers. They leave bookmarks. And in this book, The World of William Clissold by H.G. Wells (1926), the gentleman who owned the book (I know it was a man because he signed the flyleaf and put the date) left a clipping from a newspaper:

You can see the way the acids from the newspaper have stained the page of the book a darker color. Our reader dated the clipping: Mar 11, ’27. It’s a review of Sinclair Lewis’s Elmer Gantry. Now at the time, there would have been no way to know that this would be a book that someone in 2022 would have heard of, that it would stand the test of time. It has, so I know the story, and was interested to read the review. The reviewer didn’t care for it at all, which I find rather funny.

So we have a bit of history inside a bit of history. Lovely.

Six degrees of Wells

It’s odd how even when one avoids H. G. Wells, it’s hard to get too far. Here’s an obscure connection, just for fun.

I was listening to a half-hour BBC documentary program on the Hollywood Cricket Club, mostly because it mentioned David Niven and Errol Flynn, but also because Jim Carter narrated. It had nothing at all to do with H.G. Wells. I have been taking a break, the pandemic having curtailed much of my research.

Apparently the club was founded by Charles Aubrey Smith, and actor I’ve seen in many movies but whose name I didn’t know.

Look familiar? He was in such films as The Prisoner of Zenda, The Four Feathers, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, and And Then There Were None. Plus dozens more.

Now take a look at him in 1895:

Aha, a cricketer! And this was the year he started acting.

So it turns out it’s less than six degrees of separation to Wells.

He was a bowler for Sussex County between 1882 and 1892, 20 years after Joseph Wells (H.G.’s father) had done his double hat trick for Kent (4 wickets in 4 balls). It’s a small world, cricket — he would have know who Joseph Wells was.

And according to Wikipedia, in 1920 Smith was in a British film called The Bump. It was written by A. A. Milne. If you read this blog, you know that H.G. Wells was Milne’s teacher at Henley House School, which was run by A.A.’s father.

So it could be serendipity. Or perhaps more things are connected to Wells than one would expect.

 

2 comments to Six degrees of Wells

  • Eric Kuniholm

    Years ago I became enamored of Patrick O’Brian’s adventures of Napoleonic era sail. Coincidentally, last year I happened to be Googling one of my old British schoolteachers (Eton House School, 1967), a Nikolai Tolstoy, nephew of Leo, himself a sometime novelist and historian, and what did I find but that Nikolai Tolstoy had been Patrick O’Brian’s step son, and had written a tell-all biography of his stepfather–two degrees of separation therefore from one of my favorite historical novelists. My takeaway from both our examples is that the such coincidences are rendered inevitable by the restricted world of the British upper class and all who come into contact with them.

    • Lisa M Lane

      LOL with the exception that Wells was lower-middle class, I’m with you. Perhaps it’s just in who is connected to them.

Was there really a panic over War of the Worlds?

It has been a standard narrative that America panicked on Halloween eve of 1938. That night, Orson Welles presented his radio program rendition of War of the World’s, H. G. Wells’ 1898 tale of the Martians attacking Earth. Some people believed the broadcast was real news, either having missed the opening and interruptions where Welles clearly said it was fiction, or misinterpreting as they became paralyzed with fear. Those near Grovers Mill, New Jersey, packed to evacuate. Millions, it is said, were terrified.

Articles and books have been written about this phenomenon, the most famous if which is Hadley Catril’s The Invasion from Mars: A Study in the Psychology of Panic , originally published in 1940. It’s the text often used to support the story of the panic, since Catril was a respected social psychologist. It also didn’t hurt that the Martians landed near Princeton, where he taught.

People love telling the story of their stupid fellow Americans who fell for the Halloween trick; it’s used as an example of how gullible the public is, how fearful everyone was of what was happening in Europe at the time, how mass hysteria is created through media. These days, it’s fun to see it as an example of “fake news”.

Trouble is, it didn’t happen that way. Read the first part of Catril’s book, and he’s very clear. Although the publisher says “a million” were infected with terror, and he says “thousands” at the beginning of the book, he is quick to note that his sample size of interviewees was 153, two-thirds of whom were self-selected from people who said they panicked.

Every so often (usually on anniversaries of the radio broadcast), the panic myth is revived. The Library of Congress has an article on how the panic didn’t happen, and there are other places on the web where one can find some debunking. But as the WST article points out, when the tale is kept alive (as with the 2013 PBS documentary) it’s hard to get the truth in there. A current article explores the faith people have in their own trusted sources, in the context of the panic. It’s a good article, but it seems to assume the panic really happened.

Why did the myth take off so fast in the first place? One reason is that Orson Welles was a wonderful publicity hound who encouraged it. Another is that it sold newspapers. Radio competed with print for people’s attention, so the papers were happy to blame the broadcaster and Welles for being irresponsible.

Of more interest is what happened in 1940, when both Orson Welles and H. G. Wells were in San Antonio, and recorded a radio program together. Two years before, when asked about his book and the panic in America, Wells had reportedly been firm that he had not authorized the radio network to change place names. In 1926 in Britain there had been a radio scare when a fictional 12-minute broadcast had caused some to believe that London was being attacked, and Wells didn’t want to be seen to condone the same thing happening in America.

Two years later, he considered the radio show had just been a hoax, but he said that Americans could have their fun because “you haven’t got the war right under your chins”. Although the double interview is awkward at the beginning, by the end both Wells and Welles are clear that alienating Russia, despite its autocratic government under Stalin, would not be a good idea.

There’s an interesting historical pattern to the popularity of both Wells’ novel and Welles’ radio show. In 1898, there were small wars in a number of places, interest in eugenics, and a fascination with space and Mars in particular. In 1938, war was about to begin in Europe, and Germany was on the move. Hollywood made a major motion picture of War of the Worlds in 1953, and Catril’s book was reprinted in 1954, during McCarthyism. The 1970s saw another revival, at a time of hijackings and terrorism. And now again when reality TV, extremism in pop culture, the decline of civil society, and a gullible public are current issues, the story is here again.

War of the Worlds may be timeless; the story of the panic shouldn’t be.

 

2 comments to Was there really a panic over War of the Worlds?

  • This is an interesting post. I didn’t know about this. It reminded me of the more harmless spaghetti tree April’s Fool joke that the BBC broadcast, and which many people believed.

Wells and Doyle in Southsea

In May of 1881, 15-year-old H. G. Wells was an apprentice at Hyde’s Drapery Emporium in Southsea (Portsmouth). It was a large, popular shop at 9 Kings Road, a place for men to get good clothes and other necessities. Wells was miserable there, living in the basement with other indentured lads and doing duties he was completely unsuited for. His experience there was the source of his novel Kipps.

In June of the following year, a 23-year-old named Arthur Conan Doyle arrived in Portsmouth, looking to set up a medical practice. He did so at No.1 Bush Villas, Elm Grove, in Southsea. He had tried to make his way in Plymouth, but according to this fell out with his partner, and came to Southsea with little money and no connections.

Kings Road, where the Drapery Emporium was, turns into Elm Grove as you walk along — they are two branches of the same street. Southsea was not that large in the 1880s. As Doyle’s practice expanded, it is very likely he would have required clothing suiting his station, and thus it is entirely possible he would have met the young clerk at Hyde’s.

In the summer of the following year, Wells finally convinced his mother to let him abandon the apprenticeship and left town, while Doyle remained and became active in public life there.

There is no evidence that Wells and Doyle met in Southsea, and neither mentions having done so to my knowledge. That isn’t surprising since neither was much of anybody yet. Doyle was spending his frequently unoccupied time writing stories.

They did meet later, and even were members together on the Allahakbarries, a literary cricket team founded by J.M. Barrie (author of Peter Pan) in 1890 that wasn’t very good but contained people like G. K. Chesterton and P. G. Wodehouse, and other authors who liked using their initials. (Wells was a member but refused to play, which is odd since his father was a famous bowler.)

On a sideline, it was reading J.M. Barrie’s book When a Man’s Single (1888) that inspired Wells to stop writing articles about science teaching and instead write fiction stories for money.

On another sideline, A. A. Milne was also on the Allahakbarries cricket team. He was the son of J.V. Milne, who had run Henley House School and had employed H. G. Wells as science master in 1889. A. A. Milne was one of Wells’s pupils.

H.G. Wells, Sir Edward Sassoon, and telegraphy

Shortly after attending Alban O’Brien’s excellent talk on the Great War poet Siegfried Sasson, I was reading H.G. Wells’s The Sea Lady (as one does) from 1901 and came upon this dialogue:

“And in the next there’s the Sea Lady.”
“I thought she——”

“She’s a mermaid.”
“It’s no objection. So far as I can see, she’d make an excellent wife for him. And, as a matter of fact, down here she’d be able to help him in just the right way. The member here—he’ll be fighting—this Sassoon man—makes a lot of capital out of deep-sea cables. Couldn’t be better. Harry could dish him easily. That’s all right. Why shouldn’t he have her?”

I had to do some research. The “Sassoon man” must have been Sir Edward, Member of Parliament for Hythe and a promoter of cable telegraphy. Here’s a speech to Parliament in May 1900 demonstrating his enthusiasm.

Sassoon was a supporter of the All Red Line, an informal name for the high-tech communications network connecting the British Empire. A map from a 1903 book about the topic gives an idea of the system:

In his humorous novel, Wells was enjoying the idea that his character could defeat Sassoon for the Hythe seat, not as the better candidate, but as a champion of mermaids against deep-sea telegraphy cables. Surely Sasson’s deep-sea cables would threaten the mermaid habitat, and to have a real mermaid for his wife could garner sympathy and score votes against the opposition!

But there are some who would say that Edward Sassoon was a visionary, even if mermaids would not have liked him. He was rich, certainly. The Sassoons were already a wealthy family, and he had married a Rothschild. But he also seems to have had some concern for the public good. In 1910, he would try to get wireless telegraphy made compulsory on passenger ships. He failed, so it was a good thing the Titanic had a Marconi on board. After the Titanic sunk, Sassoon’s idea was made into law.

But his significance goes beyond using technology to make things happen. In the Journal of the Society of Arts (1900), Sassoon laid out his argument about why the government’s involvement was necessary when it came to the telegraph. Sassoon was able to see the place of telegraph in the history of communications. He argued that in the case of the railways, and then electricity and gas, private enterprise began the venture but then public interest had to be asserted against excessive rates, so why not the telegraph? Private companies had expanded and bought up smaller companies, creating monopolies. The public interest was manifest in the expansion of the technology, so government must step in.

This should sound familiar as today’s internet communications apps, ISPs, and companies effectively create monopolies on today’s communications. Sassoon’s public interest, however, had nothing to do with today’s focus on individual freedom. He saw the government’s involvement in the telegraph as necessary for cementing the British Empire together:

The moral connection of these outlying portions of the empire with the Mother Country has been sealed by and consecrated with blood, the way has been paved for confirming the strong sentiment thus evoked by establishing still firmer the bonds of material and common interests, which, as in this work-a-day world, form the only stable foundations, on which to secure the permanence and solidity of this vast Imperial confederation.

Sassoon would not be a popular figure today because he believed in the Empire, but there is no discounting his understanding of the significance of technology to national and commercial goals.

Edward’s son Philip would succeed him as MP upon his death. Philip served in the Great War as military secretary to Field Marshal Douglas Haig, who led the British Expeditionary Force from 1915. Siegfried was, I think, their cousin (the Sassoon family tree is rather complicated). So it all wraps up nicely!

Midhurst Mystery Solved!

For those who have been following my two “Midhurst Mysteries” about H. G. Wells — Which house was Horace Byatt’s? (2017 and 2018) and Did Mrs Allin help Wells? — I am excited to report that the latter was actually solved in August 2019, although I didn’t know it. (Bad researcher — no book orders for you!)

I only discovered this because of my Midhurst “connection”, Simon Wheeler of Wheeler’s Bookshop. He wrote to tell me that the Midhurst Society had a new website, with a page about South Street that could possibly help solve the mystery of Horace Byatt’s house. This page, part of a wonderful series of pages by the Society, surmised that the house was likely South Pond House, while I believe it was the house next door. But no matter! I was able to reach the Society through the new and beautifully designed website.

And that’s how I found about about Midhurst Magazine #30, published a year ago August. It contains an article by Mrs Allin’s great-granddaughter, Jennifer Chevis.

For those who don’t keep track of this stuff, the mystery was that Vic and Barbara Mitchell’s book, Midhurst Town: Then & Now, mentioned that Mrs Allin, the ironmonger’s wife, helped get Wells his job at Midhurst Grammar School as an assistant teacher. Mr Mitchell was wonderfully kind in responding to my query, but couldn’t recall where he obtained that information.

Who cares? Why is that even important? Because it’s one of the major turning points in Wells’s life. It would be his studies with Byatt, undertaken as independent study, that would enable his scholarship to the Normal School of Science in London. And that would lead to many, many other things.

In the meantime, I had surmised in my novel (fiction, but based on what I know) that Mrs Allin, being a motherly woman, would have taken Wells under her wing and convinced Horace Byatt to hire him with pay and let him return to Midhurst after having been a pupil-teacher at the school. Wells had attended briefly before his mother indentured him to a draper’s in Southsea, where he was miserable.

And now I find that I was absolutely right. Ms Chevis reports that Mrs Allin did indeed do this, taking an active interest in the young man’s life and persuading Byatt to pay him.

I’m delighted with all of this: the Midhurst Society’s accessible content and amiable people, and the generosity of Mrs Allin, and the potential for greater connection to a wonderful local history society. They have even graciously added a link to my Wells studies on their publications page.

Now, about Byatt’s house. . .

1 comment to Midhurst Mystery Solved!

Before the Time Machine: Young H. G. Wells

For those who want to hear me rattle on about my research, here’s the recording from the talk I gave yesterday to the wonderful Victorian Britain group.

Before the Time Machine: Young H. G. Wells from Lisa M Lane on Vimeo.

4 comments to Before the Time Machine: Young H. G. Wells

  • I have really enjoyed listening to your talk Lisa. Although I was familiar with quite a bit of the content, having heard you talk about it before, it is great to see it all pulled together like this, into a comprehensive and coherent story of the first part of Wells’s life. I also very much enjoyed the presentation itself, made up of so many photos of evidence. They really helped me to visualise his journey through this ‘Before the Time Machine’ part of his life.

    • Lisa M Lane

      Thank you, Jenny. I was delighted to have the opportunity to put it all together and review my research, especially since I haven’t even begun putting together the book I was planning on all of this!

  • Julian Greig

    This was wonderful, Lisa. Clear, easy to follow, packed with useful detail and interesting. Thank-you for sharing your work.

Is this Wells’s dad?

I’ve been doing some research on Joseph Wells, H. G. Wells’s father. Why? For a single slide.

My upcoming lecture on Wells for the Victorian Britain group needs slides, and I had little to put on the slide for his father except stuff from his extraordinary cricket career. Well, it wasn’t that extraordinary, but he did bowl for Kent against Sussex in 1862, where he bowled 4 wickets in 4 balls. This was an extraordinary achievement (although I have had a cricket enthusiast explain it to me, I’m afraid I still don’t know why).

So I went looking for the estate where Joseph Wells worked before he came to Uppark, where he would meet Sarah Neal, who would be H. G. Wells’s mother.

According to H.G.’s autobiography, this would be Redleaf. Redleaf was an estate in Penshurst, Kent, where Wells was the gardener. He was born into this, because his father (also Joseph Wells) had been a gardener. And here it gets confusing, because the owner of the estate was also named Joseph Wells, although he was no relation.

This is the place in 1838, under William Wells. I’m sure it wasn’t any easier to garden in the 1860s. Young Joseph used to leave work and go play cricket nearby.

Now there aren’t many pictures I’ve been able to find online of Joseph Wells. In fact, this is the only one that’s reliable:

So looking back at his son’s autobiography, I also find this:

Old Wells was interested in art, and one of his friends and a frequent visitor at Redleaf was Sir Edwin Landseer, the “animal painter,” who could put human souls into almost every sort of animal and who did those grave impassive lions at the base of the Nelson monument in Trafalgar Square. My father served as artist’s model on several occasions, and for many years he was to be seen in the National Gallery, peeping at a milkmaid in a picture called The Maid and the Magpie. Behind him in the sunshine was Penshurst Church. But afterwards the Landseers were all sent to the Tate Gallery at Millbank and there a sudden flood damaged or destroyed most of them and washed away that record of my father altogether.

Googling The Maid and the Magpie, I find a number of items, most an engraving by Samuel Cousins which was based on the original painting. It may have been “Edwin Landseer’s last great work”, but I wouldn’t know that unless I get access to the paywalled British Newspaper Archive (Google only showed me a bit of a teaser).

Is that him, peeking in? Could be. But the church. Wells said it’s Penshurst Church. But Penshurst Church (of St. John the Baptist) doesn’t have a spire, but rather a tower with little corner pinnacles.

Did it ever have a spire? I could find nothing saying it did, except this:

The Topographical Dictionary (of 1848, but close) is available at British History Online. So I looked, but although the church is mentioned, the spire steeple isn’t. And unfortunately, Getty has etchings of the church from 1840, with no steeple. Maybe Landseer took artistic license. A spire balances the picture better.

So is that Joseph Wells?

 

 

 

 

2 comments to Is this Wells’s dad?

H.G. Wells and the biology lab at home

Even if H. G. Wells’s biology students weren’t ordered to stay home, most couldn’t access a biology lab. And yet they had to be prepared for the practical examinations in their field. Wells knew that many of them were working on their own, unable to afford a tutor. How could he best prepare his students?

At the time, Wells was employed by the University Correspondence College, so his students were at a distance, most of them in the UK. Since there were no good biology text-books available for at-home study, Wells wrote one (well, two — part one on vertebrates and part two on invertebrates and plants). Part One was published in 1893, and is his first published full book.

Wells, then 27 and not yet an acclaimed author of science fiction, was also teaching an on-site biology laboratory at Red Lion Square. The University Tutorial College (the UCC’s London branch) had set up excellent facilities. But not everyone could come to London. Some would save up for years just to come for the examinations.

Challenged by this problem, Wells dedicated the last part of his textbook to creating laboratory “practicals” at home. He called it “A Syllabus of Practical Work”.

In it, he explained how to set up ones kitchen table, find the appropriate specimens, and work them in conjunction with the instructional pages and diagrams. In the first edition he had done the diagrams himself, but the reviews had been less than enthusiastic. So in the second edition he asked his former student, now companion, Catherine Robbins, to do them:

 

Students must do the reading first, of course:

We would impress upon the student at the outset the importance of some preliminary reading before dissection is undertaken. No one would dream of attempting to explore a deserted city without some previous study of maps and guide-books, hut we find again and again students undertaking to explore the complicated anatomy of a vertebrated animal without the slightest, or only the slightest, preparatory reading. This is entirely a mistake.

He then provided a list of equipment needed:

For such dissection as the subject-matter of this book requires, the following appliances will be needed :
(a) Two or three scalpels of various sizes.
(b) Scissors, which must taper gradually, have straight

blades, and be pointed at the ends, and which must bite right up to the tips (or they are use- less). Two pairs, small and large, are advisable
(c) Forceps, which must hold firmly, and meet truly at the points.
(d) Two needles set in wooden handles.
(
e) An ordinary watchmaker’s eye-glass is very helpful, but not indispensable.
(f) A dissecting dish—an ordinary pie dish will do—
into which melted paraffin wax has been poured, to the depth of, say, three-quarters of an inch, and allowed to solidify. (This wax may be blackened by mixture with lampblack. If the wax floats up at any time, it can, of course, be remelted. Or it may be loaded with lead.)
(g) A rough table or board (for the rabbit and dog-fish).
(h) Blanket pins, and ordinary pins.
(i) A pickle or other wide-mouthed jar, and some
common methylated spirit.
(j) A microscope, with low power of 1 in. or 1/2 in., and
high power 1/6 in. or 1/4 in. Glass slips and cover glasses, and a bottle of very weak (1 per cent.) solution of salt.

And suggestions of where to obtain them:

Animals for dissection may be obtained from the recognised dealers, who usually advertise in such scientific periodicals as Nature, Natural Science, and Knowledge. Sinel (naturalist, Jersey) is the most satisfactory dealer in dog-fish in our experience; Bolton (Malvern) will supply Amphioxus through the post. Frogs and rabbits may be obtained anywhere. The tame variety of rabbit is quite satisfactory for the purpose of dissection.

And instructions on how to do away with Fluffy:

I know I certainly have chloroform around the house.

But the point is that yes, many things one wouldn’t ordinarily think of as being doable at home, can be achieved with a little money and some ordering by mail. Students at the University Correspondence College had a high success rate in the Matriculation, Intermediate, and Bachelors examinations in Biology.

 

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