Here's some H.G. Wells history that will hit you for six

Here’s a good question for a pub quiz: Which well-known 20th century writer was the son of a professional cricketer?

The answer of course is H. G. Wells whose father Joseph played for Kent in the middle of the 19th century.  When we think of professional cricketers images of Kevin Petersen or Joe Root arriving at the ground in their sports cars tend to jump into the mind.  But it wasn’t like that for Joseph.  He and his wife kept a shop in Bromley high street where you could buy crockery and cricket gear (including the `Duke’ ball manufactured by a cousin of that name, and still in use today).

But it never made money and Joseph’s sporting ability was one way of trying to balance the books.  As his statistics suggest, this did not mean that he was regularly employed.  It seems that he played only eight times for Kent, otherwise finding work at other, lesser clubs or as a coach at Norwich grammar school.  Yet he has nonetheless left his mark in sporting history as the first bowler in the county game to dismiss four batsmen in successive balls.  This was in 1862 and the victims were from Sussex.  It’s a feat which has remained so unusual that, as far as I am aware, no word has been coined to accompany `hat-trick’ in the cricketing lexicon.

When Joseph Wells took the field for Kent it would have been as a player in a bevy of accompanying gents.  Anyone who doubts the importance of class in the history of English social life might be surprised to learn that this  distinction lasted until after the Second World War, when several counties still felt their captain had to be an amateur, and that the famous `players versus gentlemen’ fixture went on until 1962.  As Joseph’s son made his way as a hugely successful novelist and writer he became a role model for aspiring writers with a similarly disadvantaged background.

One of these was D. H. Lawrence (who like H. G. Wells was also always called Bert by his family).  When Lawrence was still a schoolteacher in Croydon and had been introduced to a number of authors by Ford Madox Ford, he told his friend Jessie Chambers that he would one day make £2,000 a year.  It’s likely that in saying this he had in mind Wells whom he did in fact meet a couple of times while he remained in England.  It’s striking that in the second version of Lady Chatterley’s Lover, where the gamekeeper is not yet called Mellors but `Parkin’, he is described as being a son of a professional cricketer.  Lawrence had no interest in sport and it is as certain as these things can be that, in giving Parkin this unusual parentage, he was remembering what he had heard or read about Wells.

Lady Chatterley is the novel in which Lawrence’s class feelings resurface, often in a virulent form and through the figure of the gamekeeper.  He himself would probably have felt that his own background was more authentically working-class that that of Wells whose father had spent a good deal of his life as a gardener on a country estate, and whose mother was trained as ladies’ maid.  Being `in service’ would have been regarded as demeaning by many miners who were after all the aristocrats of the working poor.  Yet important though these discriminations may have been for those involved, they hardly mattered to the people who were (as it were) looking down.  Against those lookers on from above, Lawrence could identify strongly with Wells whose early work he greatly admired, especially Tono Bungay.  But the First World War shattered whatever faith he had had in the older writer’s espousal of science, and belief in human progress, and when in 1926 Wells published the first volume of a semi-autobiographical novel in which both these aspects of his writing personality were on prominent display (The World of William Clissold), Lawrence, more in sorrow than in anger, reviewed it harshly.  At the end of the review, he did however say that he hoped for better things from volume 2 since in the past `Mr. Wells has given us such brilliant and such very genuine novels’.

Wells made enough money to spend a good deal of time on the French Riviera not far from other successful English writers, like Somerset Maugham.  Lawrence never earned anything like the sums they did so that when he was involved in the one publishing enterprise which, rather too late in the day, was to bring him some financial security — the publication by private subscription of Lady Chatterley — he must have been grateful that Wells was one of the subscribers.  When he received his copy of the novel however, Wells thought it ridiculous but that did not prevent him leaving his villa in the aptly named town of Grasse in order to pay a visit to Lawrence who, in 1930, had finally agreed to go into a sanatorium in nearby Venice.

Although tuberculous had by then brought Lawrence’s weight down to under seven stones (he was about five foot nine), Wells concluded that his younger contemporary’s troubles could mainly be put down to hysteria, a diagnosis which Lawrence could be said to have invalidated by dying only a few weeks later.

By David Ellis

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