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H G Wells was a draper’s assistant with a vivid imagination and literary ambitions

Posted in English Literature, Historical articles, History, Literature, Philosophy, Politics, Space on Tuesday, 17 September 2013

This edited article about H G Wells originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 404 published on 11 October 1969.

Kipps by H G Wells, picture, image, illustration
A scene from 'Kipps' by H G Wells

Each morning at 7 o’clock sharp 15-year-old Herbert George Wells and his fellow draper’s apprentices were brusquely roused from their dormitory beds. Anyone who failed to get up had the sheets pulled from him and was likely to have something docked from his meagre wages. After this rude awakening, the day proper began for the trainee shop assistants.

“We flung on old suits,” said Wells, “tucking our nightgowns into our trousers, and were down in the shop in a quarter of an hour, to clean windows, unwrap goods and fixtures, dust generally before eight.

“At eight we raced upstairs to get first go at the wash basins, dressed for the day and at half-past eight partook of a bread and butter breakfast before descending again.”

From then on the day was one of almost unbroken tedium. Wells had to bring samples to the window-dresser, arrange counter displays, carry headless dummies from the costume room, refill the pin bowls, and prepare the paper and string for the dozens of parcels that left the Southsea Drapery Emporium.

“There were a hundred small fussy things to do, straightening up, putting away, fetching and carrying. It was not excessively laborious but it was indescribably tedious. . . . The length of those days at Southsea was enormous until closing time; then the last hour fell swiftly past me to “lights out” at half-past ten.”

After two years of this drudgery, the unhappy apprentice could stand it no more. “I had reached a vital crisis of my life,” he stated. “I felt extraordinarily desperate and, faced with binding indentures and maternal remonstrances, I behaved very much like a hunted rabbit that at last turns and bites.”

To the distress of his mother, Wells quit his job and started on the path that was to take him to worldwide fame as a novelist, short story writer, and sociologist. But despite his many later triumphs, Wells never forgot or forgave his superiors in the drapery shop.

Twenty-four years later, in 1905, he published his renowned novel, Kipps, the Story of a Simple Soul. In the book Wells appears lightly disguised as Art Kipps, a humble draper’s apprentice. After coming into some money, Art rises in the social scale and falls in love with a girl from a better background than his own.

His adventures in society are both humorous and touching, and it is fascinating to discover whether Kipps will marry “above” himself, or settle for Alice, the housemaid who has always admired him. Although H. G. Wells – who was born in Bromley, Kent, in 1866, and died in 1946 – wrote more than 30 books, none of them can rival Kipps, which has justly been called the first modern novel.

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