THE LITERARY establishment of England, a country obsessed with class, has never found it difficult to laugh at H.G. Wells. His mother was a lady's maid and his father an incompetent shopkeeper: with his pouter-pigeon deportment, and his high squeaky lower-orders voice, and his ambition to lay the intellectual groundwork for a world-state, Wells' rise to eminence must have seemed both threatening and inherently comic. Like a woman, he could be damnably clever at times (having somehow managed to get educated), but he was, of course, fundamentally unsound. He was a counter-jumper.

Nor had he the decency to obscure his embarrassing origins in the servant classes. Novels like The History of Mr. Polly (1910) were clearly written with love, and Mr. Polly's sudden flight from the imprisoning muddle of his life surely parodies Wells' own sudden leap into fame and freedom, his own panic lurches from project to project, from hearth to mistress, from despair to elation and back to despair. In his pretensions and ludicrousness, in his clarity and vigor of intellect, in his comical physical presence, Wells shows unforgettably through the fabric of everything he wrote. No one could be more blind to the exigencies of human lives than the world-state Wells: no one could more accurately deflate that Wells than the man himself, as novels like the brilliant forgotten Christinia Alberta's Father (1925) conclusively demonstrate.

But Wells was not only a counter-jumper who wanted, with consummate ingratitude, to change the world he had risen into. He also slept with a rather large number of women, often members of social classes he should have only tugged his forelock to. This was bad enough. What seems to have been very much worse, and to have contributed to his permanent fall from literary grace round about 1910, was his apparent failure to understand that well-bred liaisons should be conducted with discretion, without philosophy, in silence, and without children. His first significant affair, with the Cambridge student Amber Reeves, was conducted very much in the open, served both partners as an occasion to argue the case for free love, which they did quite loudly, and Amber had a child, deliberately.

At the time, a form of decorum ruled. Although it was an open secret that Wells wrote Ann Veronica (1909) about Amber Reeves, he did not of course mention her by name, nor does she appear in Experiment in Autobiography (1934), a massive book of which one half is very fine, the long narrative of Wells' early life, which contains some of the best writing of his long career, and which exposes his origins to an intense, affectionate, searching gaze. The second half of the book, on the unfolding of the Wellsian world-state, is told at the high hectoring castrato pitch endemic to Wells when he was being serious with all his might. A third section of the Experiment was written but not published, because it was about sex, and involved women very much alive in 1934.

THAT THIRD section, H.G. Wells in Love, has now been edited with tact and grace by G.P. Wells, one of the legitimate sons. It is published fairly complete, though substantial passages relating to one love affair (with a woman not named) have been deleted, along with some slighter material. The title is of the son's devising, and is not remarkably apt, as his father generally had sex for pleasure, for companionship, for vanity, and to maintain balance: only rarely did he enter into -- or succumb to -- the hyperactive obsessiveness that marked his relationship with Amber Reeves and, much much later, with Moura Budberg.

Wells married a cousin in 1891. They divorced in 1895 and he married Amy Catherine Robbins. She died in 1927. From the early days of their marriage, both were free to have affairs: there is no evidence Amy ever did. (Her complaisance may or may not have been as untroubled as Wells presents it, and her sexuality may have been repressed rather than marginal. Her story is not told in this book or any other: she may, or may not, have had a different tale to tell.) With what seems an enviable insouciance, Wells was soon sleeping with neighbors and strangers, near and far.

Wells rarely discusses sexual acts, unless to a slightly comic effect. Novelist Dorothy Richardson is "most interestingly hairy on her body, with fine golden hairs," but generally he presents his lovers minus the stigmata of the flesh. Of their characters, he is far more revealing. The long chapters given over to Amber Reeves, Elizabeth von Arnim, Rebecca West, the hilarious Odette Keun and Moura Budberg are telling reminders to the reader of Wells' quite astonishing, though intermittent, acuity. But then his whole life was intermittent.

He was an exorbitant man, Mr. Polly founding the world- state, a balding popinjay most of whose lovers stayed friends with him after the last romp. When he was about to change the world again, he was an extraordinary fool but spoke much sense; when he was about to make love to a woman he seemed eatable, his skin smelled like honey, but the comic flatulence of his persona was always ready to swell risibly into life. Much of H.G. Wells in Love is deliberately funny, some of it unconsciously so. After his wife's death he stayed a widower, and the imbalance of his passion for Moura Budberg may reflect an inner homelessness in a man who had established so many. But even with Moura, there is a saving self-reflective humor. He was a sane man, though a ludicrous one. He is there before us: it will be a foolish reader who can laugh at Wells, for he will be laughing Wells' own laughter.