Monday, June 13, 2005

At the age of 17, Bert Wells was in his second year as an apprentice at a drapier shop. He had failed two previous apprenticeships, and was likely to fail this one. He lived in a dormitory above the shop with other boys similarly apprenticed---their parents had paid substantial sums for them to spend four years learning the trade. He worked thirteen hours a day, six days a week.

On Sundays he was free to stare into the blackness of the sea, determined that if he could not escape this life, he would end it.

Wells was in a provincial town called Southsea. (Ironically, the new doctor in the town was another future writer, Arthur Conan Doyle. Though the owner of the shop where Wells worked was his patient, Doyle and Wells did not meet and become friends until years later.) Wells' work there was petty and wearying, yet he was harried and harassed to move from task to task quickly, efficiently and cheerfully. "The unendurable thing about it was that I was never master of my own attention," he remembered later. The mind-bludgeoning tedium, the chatter and noise, the lack of anything to "touch my imagination and sustain my self-respect," the feelings of being a trapped alien with a foreordained future of more of the same, drove Wells to consider suicide.

To his mother, the apprenticeship was the key to his future. To HG, it was doom. He was a poor apprentice but even if he succeeded, his life would still be precarious.

Wells' son Anthony West outlined what was at stake. "It wasn't just a matter of wanting to have his own way, it was the much graver one of not wanting to be thrown aside and wasted...However liberal that vanished [19th century] order may have been in rewarding the successful, it had no pity on those who fell behind in the struggle to get on. My father was in real danger of being trapped in the worst of all social niches, that of the white-collar worker who had to keep up the appearances of gentility while earning a day-labourer's wage....He knew that he would be as good as finished before he'd begun if he gave way and accepted the role that had been assigned him."

But what was a 17 year old boy going to do to change his future? Wells thought about it all the time, and appealed to his few better-off relatives, with no success. As he thought desperately, he kept remembering his last happy time. Between failed apprenticeships, he had managed a few years of school. Just two years earlier, he'd been a stand-out student at Midhurst Middle School, where he'd begun learning science.

He found the moons of Jupiter through a telescope, and was amazed to stand on land that had once been at the bottom of a Cretaceous sea. He was a debater and ringleader of the imagination---he made up stories that his schoolmates helped him enact. He had a satirical eye in the comics he drew and a sardonic sense of humor in his writing. He was popular and successful. But he had to leave to begin his time at the drapier shop in another town.

So he decided to write to the headmaster at Midhurst and ask for a job. There was new funding from the national government for schools, and he proposed that he be a student teacher. At first the headmaster, who had no doubt about HG's brilliance, didn't think it could be done. Then he relented, but said he couldn't pay much more than room and board. Months later, when he found himself able to make a better offer, Wells was finally able to persuade his parents to let him go. It was the moment that changed his life.

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