When I first began writing seriously in the early 1990s, I took to reading literary biographies as a way of defining myself as a writer. I was thrilled to find how quickly I recognized my own struggles in the lives of famous authors. I also saw the shared personality traits that prompt certain kinds of people to explore the possibilities of living the artist’s life. Nothing strengthens and focusses an emerging identity more than the chance to identify thoroughly with others who are already there and have blazed the trail, so to speak.
H. G. Wells makes a good role model for the commercially inclined genre writer. (Photo: public domain)
While of limited use to dedicated literary writers, any would-be author who aspires to sell well and achieve wide popularity and respect can profit from studying the life of H. G. Wells. If you wrestle with the common conflict over whether to go literary or commercial with your writing, Wells will prove especially interesting as he wrote, with varying degrees of success, across a number of genres including sci-fi thrillers, novels of ideas, and serious literary novels. The commercial and literary options seemed mutually exclusive to me and trying to decide which way to go affected my writing for years with first one side and then the other gaining ascendancy. In the end, I borrowed a page from Wells’ book. I now wrestle with novels of ideas finding such works to be a satisfying blend of entertaining story and worthwhile philosophical musing.
H. G. Wells was a sensual man whose taste for young women got him into trouble on a number of occasions. His famous and explosive affair with journalist and author Rebecca West is only one of many such adventures. Being an intelligent man, Wells was aware of the price he paid for these extra-marital indiscretions, yet he continued with them throughout his life.
Rebecca West is perhaps H. G. Wells’ most famous lover. Their affair has been described as “explosive.” (Photo: public domain)
Biographer Lovat Dickson writes that Wells’ struggles with sensuality ended up in his novels: “the anguish of the sensual man who has to conform to the hard rigour of life.” Personally, I think that Wells was a bit schizoid about the issue of sensuality. At times he emits, as Dickson puts it when discussing The Sea Lady, “a low passionate cry of distress for beauty lost and pleasures forgone in the line of duty.” Dickson goes on to claim that for Wells, “to withstand the temptation to escape, to turn resolutely aside from desire, not to know the glorious swift rushing imaginative passion — that is the beginning of death in life.” Yet, as Dickson correctly points out, Wells sees only ruin in the pursuit of sensuality: “But the end of the escape is the death of hopes, ambitions, even life itself.” The idea that yielding to sensuality brings disaster originates in Wells’ failure to gain a science degree after falling in love – while still a student – with his cousin Isabel.
We revere Robert Louis Stevenson for his adventure novels, but he was not a genre writer in the modern sense of that term. While Black Arrow, Kidnapped, The Master of Ballantrae, and Treasure Island may seem like straightforward romantic picaresque yarns, Stevenson was always deeply concerned with the moral aspects of his story. Among his fiction, the famous novella, The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde most vividly reveals his other side. The story deals with Stevenson’s understanding of the subconscious mind and the idea that good and evil can reside in the same person. Issues of morality so vexed Stevenson that he called ethics his “veiled mistress.”
Questions of morality so concerned Stevenson that he called ethics his “veiled mistress.” All of his works carry his moral values. (Image: Wikimedia)
He may have acquired a theoretical concern with morality from his fiercely Calvinist nanny, but ethical concerns literally overwhelmed him when his artistic ambitions prompted a serious clash with his conventional and practical father. Unable to sway his obstinate parent, Stevenson had to justify to himself his decision to pursue art rather than a more realistic means of earning a living.