Confession time: we don't know exactly when the Martians invade. In The War of the Worlds, people see a great light on Mars in 1894 and then they see something strange again during the next two oppositions with Mars, which is when Mars is closest to Earth. In the real world, the next oppositions after 1894 were 1896 and 1899. If Wells was using the real oppositions, then the Martian invasion occurs after 1899 – but when? No one knows. (Although, for an interesting attempt at pinning down the date, check out this essay.)
Whenever the story takes place, it's clear that the story is about late 19th-century issues, like colonialism and biking.
Well, maybe it's more about colonialism than biking, but biking was important at the end of the 19th century. There were bikes before that, but they were strange and uncomfortable and even a little dangerous. (Do you think a penny-farthing looks fun to ride?) But around 1885, a safer bicycle was getting popular – the unimaginatively named "safety bicycle," which is pretty much like the bicycles we have today. And after that, biking became popular – like really popular.
In War of the Worlds, there are at least two important mentions of bikes: Wells' narrator says that, before the Martian invasion, he spent his time learning how to ride a bike; and his brother gets out of London after stealing a bike from a bike shop (1.1.19 and 1.16.4). To round out this point, here are two bike-related facts about Wells that we love:
You can see how tied up this novel is with bicycling. Which just goes to show how deeply embedded it is in its particular time.
But really, if you were going to argue that this is a book about the 19th century because it features biking, well, that wouldn't quite cut it. You might build a stronger case out of other material. In particular, there's the whole imperialism and colonialism angle we mentioned. You might be asking, "How big a deal was colonialism for Britain in the 19th century?" (Thank you for asking – that's just the question we wanted to hear.) For starters, you could check out the growth of the British Empire in this interactive map. Notice how much the empire grows from 1760 to 1890, especially in Africa.
We're interested in the African colonies because one of England's biggest colonialists was a guy named Cecil Rhodes, and he really wanted colonies in Africa. In fact, he wanted colonies everywhere. He once said:
The world is nearly all parcelled out, and what there is left of it is being divided up, conquered and colonised. To think of these stars that you see overhead at night, these vast worlds which we cannot reach. I would annex the planets if I could; I often think of that. It makes me sad to seem them so clear and yet so far.
Other planets, huh? How interesting.
The idea of colonialism entered into a lot of British art and thought at the time – and even British advertisements, which featured an image of Britain on top of the whole world. (Maybe that offers another explanation of why this book is The War of the Worlds instead of The War of Mars vs. England: if you think your country is really the most important country in the world, it's easy to slip into thinking of your country as the only country in the world.) During the 19th century there was a lot of self-congratulation over how great the Europeans – well, who are we kidding, the English – were. And for most people, colonialism was an accepted practice at the time. The British Empire is way too big a topic to deal with here, though, but you should head over to "Best of the Web" for some useful links.
Also, one last 19th-century issue this book deals with: Mars. Earthlings have always been into Mars, but it seems like the interest in Mars intensified in the late 19th century. The two astronomers who (we think) were most influential on Wells when writing The War of the Worlds were the Italian Giovanni Schiaparelli and the American Percival Lowell, who both published works in the late 1800s that argued for the possible existence of intelligent life on Mars. But they weren't the only ones; there were a lot of other people thinking about Mars then, including Wells, who wrote a few essays on the possibility of life on Mars.
Confession time, again: The first time we read The War of the Worlds, we got a little lost. Not in the plot, but in England. Our brain sounded a bit like this: Wait a minute are they in Chipping Ongar or Barnet? And is East Barnet west of Shoeburyness? And what kind of a name is Shoeburyness? However, through careful study (and a healthy deal of respect for British town names – because, let's be fair, the US has some ridiculous names, too), we've made a Google Map that should help you track where the people (and the Martians) mentioned in the story are.
It might be very confusing to hear about all these little towns and all the fiddly little details that Wells adds to the story (though hopefully now that you have that map that we slaved over, you'll no longer be filled with rage over the geography of England). But thanks to all that fiddly little detail, we can pretty well track the narrator's and his brother's movements through the English countryside. But that's not entirely what all that detail is there for. Wells is assuming we know where all of these places are, so that detail is there to scare the heck out of us. We see this technique all the time in modern disaster movies. Just think about the famous locations in Los Angeles that are destroyed in 2012, or the wreck of the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes.
If that doesn't make sense to you, here's a contemporary review of The War of the Worlds that maybe says it clearer:
[Wells] brings the awful creatures of another sphere to Woking Junction, and places them, with all their abhorred dexterity, in the most homely and familiar surroundings. […] Those who know the valleys of the Wey and the Thames, and to whom Shepperton and Laleham are familiar places, will follow the advance of the Martians upon London with breathless interest. The vividness of the local touches, and the accuracy of the geographical details, enormously enhance the horror of the picture. (source)
Well, we don't know Shepperton from a hole in the ground. (Which is presumably all that's left there anyway after the Martians get through with it. Thanks folks, we'll be here all week.) Still, we can see how having the monsters attack some ordinary towns really drives home the point that the monsters are coming for you. Imagine an alternative scenario: "Oh no, Martians are attacking the British colony in Kenya!" Do you think the people in London would read that story with as much interest as if the monsters were attacking the town next-door?
The attention to details of location in this book is part of the realism. The realism in terms of the location is part of what's so scary – if you're a 19th-century British person, that is. By the way, this also helps explain why just about every film version of this story adapts the place and time. As in, if you're publishing it for a New York audience, you place it in NY.
But, let's give Wells the last word. About the time he was working on The War of the Worlds, Wells wrote to a friend to say that he was working on a new work "in which I completely wreck and destroy Woking – killing my neighbors in painful and eccentric ways, then proceed […] to London, which I sack, selecting South Kensington for feats of peculiar atrocity" (source). Yes, we at Shmoop imagine it would be fun to write about Martians destroying our neighborhood in Mountain View, CA, too, only for the aliens to continue on to San Francisco.