Orwell’s row with Wells

H. G. Wells had been George Orwell’s literary hero. But from 1937 he became highly critical of the Wellsian output in novels, essays and pamphlets published after 1920. Their falling out intensified after meeting for the first time in Second World War London. The argument became disrespectful and abusive. In this paper, recent academic debates about how Wells influenced Orwell and who was right and wrong in their argument are analysed. The new perspective presented is that Orwell did not fully understand the complexity and sophistication of the victim of his admitted literary ‘parricide’. It is further argued that they had much more in common than their respective writing and political egos were prepared to acknowledge. This paper adopts a particularly critical approach to Orwell’s behaviour towards H. G. Wells and suggests that, following Wells’s death in 1946, Orwell may have exploited the opportunity to win an argument which had misrepresented Wells’s political position on totalitarian dictatorship and the furtherance of human rights.

[Originally published as ‘The George Orwell and H. G. Wells row: Gain and Loss in the Utopian and Dystopian Feud’ in the George Orwell Studies Journal Vol 5 no 2, 2021 published by Abramis.]

The literary feud

The George Orwell and H. G. Wells narrative fits the genre of dramatic and literary feuds. It has certainly captivated the imagination of biographers and academics, is allocated an entire chapter in Dorian Lynskey’s 2019 The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, was debated at a joint symposium between the Orwell and H. G. Wells societies in the same year, and has merited a full chapter by Columbia University’s Professor Sarah Cole, ‘Wells, Orwell and the dictator’, in The Cambridge Companion To Nineteen Eighty-Four published in 2020. The younger man admired the older one and then became disillusioned with his politics and disappointed with his fiction. There are many ways to characterise the story: a falling out of kindred spirits; a clash of optimism and pessimism in socialist thinking and writing, and a real-life encounter which ended sadly and badly. Maybe in the end it has more to do with their respective temperaments than the rights and wrongs of their political and philosophical dispute.

The row has the frisson of the legend of the apprentice turning on his master. The master may have begun noticing that the apprentice, then a relatively lower division writer of 1930s novels and eccentric documentary travelogues, started taking pop-shots at him with the publication of The Road to Wigan Pier. Orwell writes:

Wells wants to suggest that ‘progress’ might take a wrong turning, but the only evil he cares to imagine is inequality – one class grabbing all the wealth and power and oppressing the others, apparently out of pure spite. … The thought he dare not face is that the machine itself may be the enemy (Orwell 1937: 234-235).

This was the beginning of Orwell’s misrepresentation of the politics in H. G. Wells’s novel writing. At a joint Orwell Society and Wells Society symposium at the Indian YMCA, London, in 2019, Professor Patrick Parrinder quoted this critical passage in The Road to Wigan Pier as an example of the apprentice extrapolating the very opposite of what the master had intended to achieve in his writing:

The Sleeper Awakes … suffers from vast contradictions because of the fact that Wells, as the arch-priest of ‘progress’, cannot write with any conviction against ‘progress’. He draws a picture of a glittering, strangely sinister world in which the privileged classes live a life of shallow gutless hedonism, and the workers, reduced to a state of utter slavery and sub-human ignorance, toil like troglodytes in caverns underground. As soon as one examines this idea – it is further developed in a splendid short story in Stories of Space and Time [sic] – one sees its inconsistency. For in this immensely mechanized world that Wells is imagining, why should the workers have to work harder than at present? … You can have machines doing all the work or human beings doing all the work, but you can’t have both (ibid: 234).

It will not be the first time Orwell, purportedly an admirer of Wellsian literature, makes a mistake in representing the titles of his works. Parrinder says the preface to the 1921 edition of The Sleeper Awakes contradicts Orwell’s accusation:

The great city of this story is a nightmare of Capitalism triumphant, a nightmare that was dreamt nearly a quarter of a century ago. It is a fantastic possibility no longer possible. Much evil may be in store for mankind, but to this immense, grim organization of servitude, our race will never come (Wells 1921: 5).

Orwell had a tendency to fix on an interpretation of Wells and fail to recognise or understand when it changes over time. In the 1921 preface, Wells clearly states that he doubts that the ‘world of base servitude in hypertrophied cities’ (ibid) depicted in the novel when written in 1898 and originally titled When the Sleeper Wakes will ever exist.

After the publication of Homage to Catalonia, Wells describes Orwell as ‘a Trotskyist with big feet’ (Holden 1972: 244). Wells devotes rather less in wordage to Orwell in his 1941 publication of You Can’t Be Too Careful: A Sample of Life 1901-1951 than Orwell has to Wells in The Road to Wigan Pier:

George Orwell, an English Trotskyist writer with enormous feet, who fought very valiantly in Spain, recently made a study of the literature consumed by the English and American young at the close of their tadpole days (Wells 1941: 59).

Their mutual friend, Inez Holden, who will be responsible for bringing them together for the first time in 1941, says: ‘George did not care for this description of himself, although I thought it accurate, if limited’ (Holden 1972: 244).

First encounters of the tense and angry kind

According to Holden’s long letter to The Listener correcting Michael Meyer’s account of what she describes as the bizarre and sad feud, their first encounter occurs after Orwell accepts an invitation from Wells for supper in April 1941: ‘H. G. was a most agreeable host, and he and Orwell seemed to get on well enough at this first meeting, but they never became friends’ (ibid). She explains they only meet on two other occasions – once on the evening of the quarrel and once by chance. Orwell’s first wife, Eileen O’Shaughnessy, had invited Wells to have dinner at their then London flat ‘as a return of hospitality for Orwell’s supper at H. G.’s house’ (ibid).

Unfortunately, between the invitation and the dinner party at 111 Langford Court ‘there fell the shadow’ (ibid) of an essay by Orwell published in Horizon titled ‘Wells, Hitler and the world state’. This is a political assassination in words, or meurtre par la literature. The modern expression ‘passive aggression’ does not do it justice. The tone of the attack is well represented in the line: ‘He has an invincible hatred of the fighting, hunting, swashbuckling side of life, symbolized in all his early books by a violent propaganda against horses’ (1970 [1941]: 169). It is dismissive, patronising, mocking and when he writes: ‘But is it not a sort of parricide for a person of my age (thirty-eight) to find fault with H. G. Wells?’ (ibid: 170) the question is clearly rhetorical and betrays the intention. Orwell concludes that since 1920 Wells has ‘squandered his talents in slaying paper dragons’ (ibid: 172).

Orwell says Wells is a liberal internationalist who weakened British morale in the 1930s by losing all power of action, he is not a real revolutionary, that his world-state ideas will lead to SS men patrolling the London streets, that he is incapable of understanding the power and threat of dictators like Hitler and that he is unable to write with any conviction against progress. These points fuse with his earlier attack in The Road to Wigan Pier when he says Wells cannot face the fact that the machine itself may have been the enemy, that it never occurs to him that it may be the reactionary who will make the fullest use of the machine and that scientists will use their brains chiefly on race-theory and poison gas. Orwell says that the singleness of mind that makes Wells an inspired prophet of the Edwardian age has effectively atrophied and now renders him ‘a shallow inadequate thinker’ (ibid: 171). In short, Wells is a naïve and now a largely irrelevant has-been and, at worst, somebody whose creed and legacy could lose the war.

The Battle of Abbey Road

So in August 1941, a thirty-eight-year-old George Orwell confronts the seventy-five-year-old H. G. Wells and, in the manner of a western, instead of bringing out their six-shooters, while face-to- face across the small dinner table of the Orwells’s mansion flat on Abbey Road, both produce their copies of Horizon (Holden 1972: 244) and battle commences. Holden recalls:

H. G. Wells repeated that he thought that people should not allow themselves to be over-awed by the image of German militarism.

There were, he believed, already signs that the Nazis were wilting. Orwell unhooked a map on the wall— it unrolled itself with a resounding clatter; pointing to the territories overrun by the Germans, Orwell said: ‘They are not wilting. You can see they are everywhere.’ Wells then called Orwell ‘a defeatist’. The poet [William] Empson, who, I had thought, was more or less asleep in an armchair by the window, sat up suddenly and reminded Wells that Orwell had ‘seen a bit of fighting in Spain’. H. G. agreed and withdrew the word ‘defeatist’.

Nevertheless it was not the end of the scene. Wells asked Orwell why he had made this attack on him, adding: ‘I should like to psychoanalyse you’ (ibid, italics in the original).

Holden says she and Eileen sat on the sofa, mute and stunned as the argument raged and then descended into ‘some moments of gloomy silence’ (ibid). Eileen eventually brought out the plum cake and the row seemed to be over. Holden says Orwell and Wells, at this stage, ‘parted on good terms’ (ibid). They were both charming, strong-willed, charismatic, creative and political writers opposed to injustice and inequality. Indeed, they ‘shared a deep love of country, a passionate wish for social reform and a desire for a better and more hopeful world’ (ibid).

Michael Foot, in his biography of H. G. Wells, comments: ‘Wells defended himself, Orwell offered no apologies, each appeared to have profited from the argument. After several hours, they all staggered out into the blackout of wartime London. … Wells had enjoyed the whole evening; he had some reason to believe that any soreness between them had been removed’ (Foot 1996: 290).

There was a curious ambiguity in the feelings and thoughts both men had for each other. Whatever Orwell has to say about Wells’s view on the Second World War and his idealistic plans to bring about world peace, there is so much that is celebratory. In the ‘Wells, Hitler and the world state’ essay, he acknowledges:

Thinking people who were born about the beginning of this century are in some sense Wells’s own creation. How much influence any mere writer has, and especially a ‘popular’ writer whose work takes effect quickly, is unquestionable, but I doubt whether anyone who was writing books between 1900 and 1920, at any rate in the English language, influenced the young so much. The minds of all of us, and therefore the physical world, would be perceptibly different if Wells had never existed (Orwell 1970 [1941]: 170-171).

Dr John S. Partington identifies further tributes in his article ‘The pen as sword: George Orwell, H. G. Wells and journalistic parricide’:

… in the review essay ‘The male Byronic’, Orwell dates the time by which Wells’s Edwardian prophecies had become concrete realities. He writes: ‘If, up to the year 1930, any mere writer could look about him and say: “This is my work. I did this”, that writer was H. G. Wells.’ In the same way that he recognized Wells’s prophetic and political influence before 1920, Orwell also noted Wells’s literary influence, stating that ‘Mr Wells has certainly been the most influential novelist of our time, at any rate in the English-speaking world’, and ‘Because of him the moon seems nearer and the Stone Age more imaginable, and for that we are immeasurably in his debt’ (Partington 2004: 46).

As Holden recalls, the two writers will meet again by chance some weeks later:

H. G. and Orwell were quite friendly at this meeting, as far as I could see, though H. G. told me afterwards that George had annoyed him by mentioning some lifelong friends of Wells’s and speaking somewhat disparagingly of them to prove some point or other. I said I was certain that Orwell would not have done that if he had known they were close friends of Wells. H. G. seemed to accept this explanation, although he may have thought Orwell was ‘sniping at him’ again (Holden 1972: 244).

‘Rediscovery of Europe’

The animus still festers between them. Maybe Orwell simply cannot put out of his mind that the great man of letters has called him a ‘Trotskyist with big feet’ and a defeatist in need of psychoanalysis. In March 1942, Orwell resumes his attack in a talk on the Indian Service of the BBC no less which is also printed in the Listener. In the ‘Rediscovery of Europe’ Wells gets another kicking for being passé, narrow-minded, naïve, redundant and misconceived:

The connecting link is Wells’ belief in science. He is saying all the time, ‘If only that small shopkeeper could acquire a scientific outlook, his troubles would be ended’. And, of course, he believes that this is going to happen, probably in the quite near future. A few more million pounds for scientific research, a few more generations scientifically educated, a few more superstitions shovelled into the dustbin, and the job is done (Orwell 1942a: 371).

It does not stop with Wells being characterised as the dustman of political philosophy. He condemns Wells for science-worship, failing to understand that:

Progress had finally ended in the biggest massacre in history; science was something that created bombing planes and poison gas; civilised man, as it turned out, was ready to behave worse than any savage when the pinch came (ibid).

Later on Orwell concludes that Wells has been an over-confident, innocent writer and part of a swindle in terms of impact and influence. Wells, actually, is not the focus of the article. The main theme is that Wells, along with Bernard Shaw, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, A. E. Houseman and others, have ‘a complete unawareness of anything outside the contemporary English scene’ and ‘are all alike untouched by any European influence’ (ibid: 370). In response, Wells writes to the Listener:

Your contributor, George Orwell, has, I gather, been informing your readers that I belong to a despicable generation of parochially-minded writers who believed that the world would be saved from its gathering distresses by ‘science’. From my very earliest book to the present time I have been reiterating that unless mankind adapted its social and political institutions to the changes invention and discovery were bringing about, mankind would be destroyed. Modesty prevents my giving you a list of titles, but I find it difficult to believe that anyone who has read The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Dr. Moreau (1896), The Land Ironclads (1903), The War in the Air (1908), The Shape of Things to Come (1933), Science and the World Mind (New Europe Publishing Company, 1942), to give only six examples of a multitude, can be guilty of these foolish generalisations (Wells 1942: 469).

‘Read my early works, you shit’

In a pencilled note to Orwell, Wells had been much more angry. According to Inez Holden, he writes: ‘I don’t say that at all. Read my early works, you shit’ (Holden 1972: 244). He also says he never wishes to see him again and that he does not want him to come to the mews where Holden is living rent-free as a result of Wells’s generosity at any time in the future. It meant she had to move out because she wanted her friendship with the Orwells to continue. Holden observes that when they visit her at her new home in Gloucester Place:

George said he wondered why H. G. had been so angry with what had been said about him on the Indian programme. Eileen thought we all, including Wells himself, had believed that H. G. had forgiven George for the Horizon piece but in reality Wells had not been able to forgive it (ibid).

Wells’s biographer Michael Foot judges the BBC talk and Listener article as ‘an even more comprehensive and wounding assault’ (Foot 1996: 290) than the Horizon essay because Orwell says Wells ‘had to rediscover a sense of tragedy, a better awareness of the process of history’ (Orwell 1942a: 170-173)) and has ‘looked at the past with some sort of surprised disgust as a civilized man contemplating a tribe of cannibals’ (ibid). When he says Wells is ‘too sane to understand the modern world’ (ibid) and ‘he could not see or would not see that the barbarian had taken command’ (ibid), this is an accusation of moral and political blindness.

George Orwell, in his wartime diary for 27 March 1942, only notes that he has received an ‘abusive letter from H. G. Wells who addresses me as “You shit”, among other things’ (1970 [1942b]: 469). It is two out of 42 lines of diary entry for the day. He does not keep the letter. It is rather like Winston Smith, in Nineteen Eighty-Four, incinerating an archive of history – though the letter could have been lost by accident or deliberately destroyed out of embarrassment for himself and the correspondent.

The case for H.G. Wells

Was Wells right to take offence? His biographer Michael Foot and John Partington argue that Orwell is unfair and wrong in his attack and woundingly misrepresents what Wells has achieved throughout his writing career and is still seeking to achieve politically. Neither suggests Orwell has been dishonest and malicious, but it is possible to argue that Orwell’s polemical, argumentative and provocative attitude has permanently damaged the credibility and reputation of H. G. Wells since his death in 1946.

Michael Foot says the charge that Wells did not understand the new generation of 20th century writers such as James Joyce must have hurt him particularly when, with his customary generosity of spirit, he ‘had done his supreme best to help Joyce at his most severe hour of need’ (Foot 1996: 291). Foot believes Orwell had been especially harsh on other issues:

How could the reader of The Island of Dr Moreau – Orwell had just been rereading it – convict him of puerile optimism about the future conquests of science? Why should he be told that he was a poor student of history when he had taken as one of his chief instructors the same Gibbon whom Orwell had so justly honoured? Why should he be lumped with those who had presented a rosy view of the rise of Fascism when at each opportunity dating back to Mussolini’s first appearance he had delivered his warnings with such passionate scorn?

He had been quite as consistent an opponent of Fascism in every form, in Italy, Spain, Germany or Britain, as ‘the Trotskyite in the big boots’, as he would call Orwell (ibid).

Foot says they had so much in common. For example, they were both admirers of Edward Gibbon and Jonathan Swift, and ‘Their common heritage in so many fields should have helped preserve the decencies’ (ibid: 292). Partington endeavours to address Orwell’s criticisms point by point in a detailed Journal of Contemporary History article in 2004. He explains that their feud could be explained by the fact they were different socialists. Wells rejected the ideology of nationalist capitalism in favour of socialist cosmopolitanism. Orwell rejected it in favour of a socialist patriotism. Partington’s analysis of Orwell’s criticisms raises serious questions as to whether the younger writer had, in fact, properly read or understood what the older writer had been producing since the end of the First World War.

Partington argues that Orwell is wrong to assume that Wells believed the present and future will automatically be a series of victories won by the scientific man:

Wells professed a belief in human advancement being governed by evolutionary law. Progress was not inevitable but required conscious effort through the direction of science, the protection of law and the accountability of decision-makers. … Wells took up these issues during the Second World War, in such works as The Rights of Man (1940) and Phoenix (1943) … (2004: 49).

Partington debunks Orwell’s claim that Wells ‘gave no thought to how to achieve his world state’ pointing to his many books published during the 1930s and 1940s. But Partington believes the essential problem in their political differences lies in Wells’s anti- nationalism:

Wells’s socialism was cosmopolitan, middle-class orientated and anti-parliamentary, based upon like-minded individuals organising into functional lobbies to create a functional world state incrementally. Orwell’s socialism was patriotic, working class-centred and parliamentary, based upon the mass mobilization of patriots through traditional socialist vehicles such as the Labour Party and the trade union movement to establish socialism through sheer pressure of support at the ballot box and a resolute war effort (ibid: 55).

Orwell and Wells on human rights

It is clear, then, that the two writers had legitimate positions on how to counter tyranny and injustice and they were, as Partington puts it, ‘politically antithetical’ (ibid). But the question remains: why does Orwell seek to attack and ultimately destroy the older man’s political credibility? Partington concludes that he indulges in the ‘parricide’ because, after the Second World War, Wells’s political influence has been ‘negligible whereas Orwell emerged as the great prophet of the Cold War’ (ibid: 56).

What is even more shocking is that there has been a general undervaluing of Wells’s Penguin Special in 1940, The Rights of Man: What are we fighting for? and his subsequent work on redrafting a human rights charter. Indeed, Wells’s text was a significant influence on US President Franklin Roosevelt in committing the world to protecting four key freedoms in 1941, and the formulation of the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights between 1946 and 1948. This is given detailed treatment and analysis by Partington in his 2007 book chapter ‘Human rights and public accountability in H. G. Wells’ functional world state’ and in Michael Sherborne’s biography H. G. Wells: Another Kind of Life, first published in 2010. The ‘Rights of Man’ project sought to check absolute power wherever it was found in the world and give individuals protection against political oppression and the brutalities being meted out by totalitarian states. In 1999, the human rights jurist, Geoffrey Robertson QC, said Wells’s The Rights of Man ‘must be accounted one of the twentieth century’s most influential books’ (Robertson 1999: 22). The director of the UK Human Rights Act research project, Francesca Klug, acknowledged Wells’s place in human rights history and said his book was ‘one of the driving forces behind the Human Rights Act’ of 1998 (Klug 2000: 8).

While George Orwell was over-enthusiastically demonstrating human grenade drills in his home guard unit at Swiss Cottage, H. G. Wells was exhaustively laying down the foundation for human rights and the rule of international law for the twentieth century.

Yet David Dwan makes no mention of Wells when he writes that the UN Declaration was built ‘on the same principles of human dignity, individual freedom, and equal rights … prescriptions against arbitrary arrest and detention’ which ‘Orwell had campaigned for throughout the 1940s’ (Dwan 2020: 64). George Orwell Illustrated, a republication in 2018 of a book first published in 1984, devotes 13 pages to Orwell’s 1946 collaboration with Bertrand Russell and Arthur Koestler in the group ‘Renaissance – A League for the Defence and Development of Democracy’ (Smith and Mosher 2018: 228-241). Orwell drafted the group’s human rights manifesto and, to all intents and purposes, it appears Orwell is seeking to appropriate everything that Wells achieved on this subject between 1939 and his death in August 1946.

Orwell writes an obituary on H. G. Wells for the Manchester Evening News, on 14 August 1946, and the headline ‘The True Pattern of H.G. Wells’ indicates how the apprentice has the last word on his master. The opening paragraph provides no indication of any apology nor significant shift in his attitude:

When a great man dies his career falls into perspective, and one is able to judge as one often cannot while he is still alive which parts of his achievement are the most significant and the likeliest to endure (Orwell 1946).

Orwell says that ‘a creative writer has about fifteen years during which he is at the height of his powers, and Wells is a good illustration of this’ (ibid) because his best work did not endure after 1910. The novels he wrote for the next 36 years were unconvincing and shapeless and he had lost his sureness of touch. On politics, when it came to predicting the direction in which human society would develop he was even less successful:

In most of his Utopias he errs by being too sane. He assumes that progress will be governed mainly by rational impulses, and he does not show much interest in the existing political structure and the concrete methods by which it might be changed. He never, indeed, had any patience with the detail of politics …

Almost everything that he wrote after 1920 was a variation on the same theme – the need for world government and for a radical change in the intellectual habits of mankind – and though he continued to write novels, the old magic was no longer in them (ibid).

New writing on Wells and Orwell

Dorian Lynskey, in The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, published in 2019, explores the influence of Wells on Orwell and how the dystopian resonances and ideas of When the Sleeper Wakes (1899) inevitably seed so many aspects of Nineteen Eighty Four. This is a tale set in a centrally controlled state in 2100 and Lynskey notes (Lynskey 2019: 65) Orwell’s recognition of the novel’s importance in his Manchester Evening News obituary:

In this book, Wells drops all traces of optimism and forecasts a highly organised totalitarian society based quite frankly upon slave labour.

In some ways it comes extremely close to what is actually happening, or appears to be happening in the modern world, and it is in any case an astonishing feat of detailed imaginative construction.

Wells himself, for some reason, never rated ‘The Sleeper Awakes’ highly, and the extent to which it anticipates Aldous Huxley’s ‘Brave New World’ and other pessimistic Utopia books has not been generally recognised (Orwell 1946).

This paragraph may well amount to the closest Orwell will ever come to publicly correcting his framing of Wells in the Horizon and Listener denunciations of 1941 and 1942. Because Orwell appears to have read everything Wells wrote, Lynskey says there had been ‘an Oedipal hue to his irresistible urge to knock down “this wonderful man” who had towered over his youth’ (Lynskey 2019: 61).

Lynskey reminds us of the irony that one of the last things Orwell does for the BBC’s Indian Service in 1943 is to dramatise Wells’s 1896 short story ‘A slip under the microscope’. This is long after the notorious dinner party at Langford Court and the ban on Orwell visiting Hanover Terrace. Lynskey is sympathetic to and understanding of both Orwell and Wells, but emphasises that ‘Orwell was wrong, or at least reductive, when he caricatured the older man as a complacent eminence grise with no idea what democracy was up against’ (ibid: 97). Orwell fails to appreciate that Wells was a depressed and occasionally suicidal-feeling old man struggling with diabetes, living with undiagnosed liver cancer at the time and grieving over the assumed death of his son-in-law following the Japanese invasion of Singapore:

His utopian visions had really been warnings as much as prophecies: ‘humanity could either follow the path of progress (as prescribed by Wells) or slide back into the pit. It appeared to have chosen the pit. … His entire career, he believed, represented ‘the clearest insistence on the insecurity of progress and the possibility of human degeneration and extinctions … I think the odds are against man but it is still worth fighting against them’. How, he thought, could someone as clever as Orwell have missed that crucial point? By the end of the decade, Orwell would discover for himself how it feels to see your fundamental world view misunderstood (ibid: 97-98).

Professor Cole, in ‘Wells, Orwell, and the dictator’, argues that the differences between these writers are not fixed by the simple binary of the older man favouring utopia over a younger man’s penchant for dystopia; some kind of yin and yang of optimism and pessimism. She concentrates her analysis on the ideas of dictatorship and the state:

… the connection is more complicated, in part because Wells himself cannot be reduced to a simple figure for optimism, in part because both writers were deeply engaged with issues around history, the state, and the individual in ways that carry complex meanings and belie an easy opposition of optimist to pessimist. Rather than merely supersede Wells, Orwell pursues an urgent moral agenda in which Wells’s questions are re- asked, his worlds re-written (Cole 2020: 114).

Is it any wonder that they struggled to reach a settled state of mutual understanding? They certainly shared a continuing worry and wonder about ‘authoritarianism in the modern state, whether it follows from the personality and power of a given leader, whether it is a matter purely of forces in the world, social, political and economic’ (ibid: 118).


There is no evidence that Orwell properly recognised the importance and significance of H. G. Wells’s The Rights of Man. The subtitle ‘What are we fighting for?’ should have alerted him to the courage and fortitude of an old man of letters having something morally and politically powerful to fight for and against the nightmare of Hitler’s Nazi hegemony.

Nineteen Eighty Four fights for the same goals and values of The Rights of Man. So Professor Cole is right. This is not a simple matter of mirroring pessimistic dystopia with optimistic utopia. Nineteen Eighty-Four condemns the secret dossier, state spies, covert and overt surveillance, abuse of power through technology, torture, degrading and inhuman treatment, detention without trial, slavery, denial of home and private property, restrictions on movement, censorship and any totalitarian regime of terror characterised by arbitrary injustice and all of the horrors that the positive values in The Rights of Man sought to eradicate.

Orwell and Wells experienced a complete breakdown in inter- generational understanding that the women present at their final meetings certainly found perplexing. The temperaments of these writers were being tested by illness, the stress of total war and their complex personalities. There was something of a farce in two libertarian socialists having so much in common that they effectively repelled each other on what little they had to disagree on even though they both believed it was something fundamental.

It is perhaps consoling to appreciate the extraordinary achievements of The Rights of Man and Nineteen Eighty Four. The former strongly influenced the gestation and development of 1948 UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the 1951 European Convention on Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms. The latter has been the talisman warning novel on what can happen to human society when democracy fails. It is the human conscience novel of the modern age setting out what we must avoid, what we must protect – and what is at stake when freedom, liberty and dignity are sacrificed on the altar of totalitarian power.

Statue of H G Wells, novelist and thinker, by Wesley Harland, Woking by Murgatroyd49   CC BY-SA 4.0 H G Wells.jpg Created: 30 July 2020


Cole, Sarah (2020) Wells, Orwell and the dictator, Waddell, Nathan (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Nineteen Eighty-Four, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Dwan, David (2020) Orwell and humanism, Waddell, Nathan (ed.) The Cambridge Companion to Nineteen Eighty-Four, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press pp 64-80

Foot, Michael (1996) H. G. Wells: The History of Mr Wells, London: Black Swann Holden, Inez (1972) Letters: Orwell or Wells?, The Listener, 24 February pp 244-245

Klug, Francesca (2000) In the footsteps of H. G. Wells: The great author called for a Human Rights Act; 60 years later, we have it, New Statesman, 9 October p. 8

Lynskey, Dorian (2019) The Ministry of Truth: A Biography of George Orwell’s 1984, London: Picador

Orwell, George (1937) The Road to Wigan Pier, London: Victor Gollancz Ltd

Orwell, George (1970 [1941]) Wells, Hitler and the world state, Orwell, Sonia and Angus, Ian (eds) The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Vol. 2: My Country Right or Left, 1940-1942, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin pp 166-172

Orwell, George (1942a) Rediscovery of Europe, The Listener, 19 March pp 370- 373

Orwell, George (1970 [1942b]) Wartime diary, 27 March, Orwell, Sonia and Angus, Ian (eds) The Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters of George Orwell, Vol. 2: My Country Right or Left, 1940-1942, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin

Orwell, George (1946) The true pattern of H. G. Wells, Manchester Evening News, 14 August

Parrinder, Patrick (2019) ‘George Orwell and H. G. Wells’s The Sleeper Awakes’, presentation at Orwell Society/H. G. Wells Society joint symposium, Indian YMCA, Fitzroy Square, London,19 July

Partington, John S. (2004) The pen as sword: George Orwell, H. G. Wells and journalistic parricide, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 39, No. 1 pp 45-56

Partington, John S. (2007) Human rights and public accountability in H. G. Wells’s functional world state, Morgan, Diane and Banham, Gary (eds) Cosmopolitics and the Emergence of a Future, Basingstoke and New York: Palgrave Macmillan

Robertson, Geoffrey (1999) Crimes Against Humanity: The Struggle for Global Justice, London: Lane/Penguin

Sherborne, Michael (2012) H. G. Wells: Another Kind of Life, London and Chicago: Peter Owen

Smith, David and Mosher, Mike (2018 [1984]) George Orwell Illustrated, Chicago, Illinois: Haymarket Books

Wells, H. G. (1921) The Sleeper Awakes, New York City: Harper & Brothers Wells, H. G. (1940) The Rights of Man: What are we fighting for?, Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin Books

Wells, H. G. (1941) You Can’t Be Too Careful: A Sample of Life 1901-1951, London: Secker & Warburg

Wells, H. G. (1942) Points from letter: Rediscovery of Europe, The Listener, 9 April


Make a one-time donation

Make a monthly donation

Make a yearly donation

Choose an amount


Or enter a custom amount


Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

Your contribution is appreciated.

DonateDonate monthlyDonate yearly

Leave a Reply