© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

The Renaissance and the Birth of the Modern

The “birth” of the modern was a protracted one. In one sense, cultural historians use the term “modern” to describe the period that began with the dramatic social, economic, and cultural transformation that swept the Western world during the first decades of the twentieth century and that continues as a global transformation today—though many would describe today’s period of globalization as “postmodern.” But this specific notion of modernity did not emerge without a long gestation period of historical change that prepared the way for its entry into the world. Indeed, many historians use the notion of the “modern” in a larger sense, to encompass the long slow process of cultural revolution through which the structure of medieval society in Europe (dominated by the twin—and closely aligned—institutions of the Catholic Church and the feudal aristocracy) was swept away, gradually replaced by a new order, dominated by the emergent bourgeois[1] class. This cultural revolution was centrally informed by the Protestant reformation, the rapid transition of the European economic system from a feudal to a capitalist one, and the growing hegemony of modern ideas concerning democracy, humanism, scientific rationalism, and individualism. With key events such as the French Revolution of the late nineteenth century serving as landmarks, this cultural revolution would eventually lead to today’s globalized world.

In this larger sense, the Renaissance period might be said to contain the birth of the modern. In England, the Renaissance began roughly with the beginning of the Tudor dynasty after the end of the War of the Roses in 1485. Tudor rule quickly led to the reign of Henry VIII, who was King of England from 1509 to 1547. A key moment in the birth of modernity occurred when Henry VIII officially announced the coming of the English Reformation by banning the Roman Catholic Church from England and establishing himself as head of the new Protestant Church of England in the early 1530s. Indeed, as Hilary Mantel’s magisterial historical novel Wolf Hall (2009) recognizes, capitalism was already on the rise during the reign of Henry VIII. Thus, Thomas Cromwell, one of Henry’s key ministers, thinks to himself as he confronts a recalcitrant noblemen in the novel: “The world is not run from where he thinks. Not from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall. The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun. Not from castle walls, but from countinghouses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechanism of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.”

Most accounts locate the end of the Renaissance period as corresponding roughly with the end of the rule of King James I in 1625, which was followed by a period of unrest and instability that culminated in the 1688 “Glorious Revolution,” an event that stabilized English politics and society, partly by considerably curtailing the power of the monarchy. In this “revolution,” William III, a Dutch prince, ascended to the British throne, unseating King James II with the support of Parliament. No subsequent British monarch would rule without Parliamentary support, while the Glorious Revolution also led to such documents as the Declaration of Right and the Bill of Rights in 1689 providing key guarantees of democratic freedoms with a distinctively modern tinge.

The Renaissance has long been regarded as a sort of Golden Age for English literature, with Elizabethan and Jacobean drama in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries serving as a centerpiece. By this conventional view, William Shakespeare (1564–1616) has typically emerged as the greatest writer of the English Renaissance. It is certainly the case that Shakespeare’s work can be taken as an early milestone in the growth of a modern mindset in literature, with characters such as Hamlet—who has “that within which passes show”—displaying an interiority and sharply delineated individuality that set them apart from literary characters of earlier periods. We should always remember, however, that the very concept of a “Renaissance” as a rebirth of the cultural energies of classical Greece and Rome was invented largely by bourgeois historians who sought to depict the rise of their class as a positive step forward and as a re-emergence of culture and enlightenment from the Catholic-dominated “Dark Ages” between the fall of Rome and the rise of the Renaissance.[2]

Other literary works of the seventeenth century also stand as key markers of the English road to modernity, including John Milton’s (1608–1674) strongly Protestant Paradise Lost (first published in 1667, then revised in 1674). Of lesser literary magnitude—but perhaps of greater significance as a sign of modernization—is Aphra Behn’s (1640–1689) Oronooko, which was appropriately published in 1688, the year of the Glorious Revolution. Oronooko is important because it marked a significant step toward the evolution of the novel, a genre that, in the eighteenth century, would develop into the most important genre in British literature, partly because it was the genre that most effectively expressed the worldview of the bourgeois class that, by this time, had become for all intents and purposes the ruling class in England.

The Birth of the Novel

The increasing acknowledgement of works such as Oronooko as predecessors to the eighteenth-century novels that had previously been seen as the founding works of the novel as a genre is part of a widespread project of revisionist literary history that has sought, in recent decades, to give due credit to forces outside the conventional narrative of the rise of the novel. Nevertheless, the fundamental importance of eighteenth-century novelists such as Daniel Defoe, Samuel Richardson, and Henry Fielding to the development of the novel is beyond dispute, and the pioneering work of Ian Watt in The Rise of the Novel (1957) remains a crucial starting point for understanding the crucial interrelationship between the evolution of the novel and the growth of bourgeois power (i.e., capitalist modernization) in England.

Focusing on Defoe, Fielding, and Richardson as the founding authors of the English novel, Watt’s basic goal is to determine the underlying historical conditions that would cause three such pioneering figures to appear all at essentially the same time:

Assuming that the appearance of our first three novelists within a single generation was probably not sheer accident, and that their geniuses could not have created the new form unless the conditions of the time had also been favourable, it attempts to discover what these favourable conditions in the literary and social situation were. (9)

Those conditions, of course, involved the rise of capitalism and the associated rise of scientific ways of observing and describing reality.[3] Watt in particular regards realism as the defining mode of the novel, arguing that “modern realism, of course, begins from the position that truth can be discovered by the individual through his senses” (12). In other words, realism is a literary expression of the epistemological assumptions of the Enlightenment rise of science, based on the notion that the world makes sense and that it can be understood through observation and rational analysis.

Among other things, Watt describes the basic characteristics of the realist novel, demonstrating that the development of these characteristics was driven by the modern capitalist context in which the novel arose in the eighteenth century. These characteristics include the following:

1. The beginnings of an emphasis on originality (a by-product of individualism) that led early novelists to “invent” nontraditional plots rather than simply retelling existing stories (myth, history, legend, or previous literature) as most of their immediate predecessors had done.

2. Plot (i.e. narrative) thus received unprecedented emphasis, accompanied by new ways of perceiving time, accompanied by the rise of notions of historicity as background to novelistic plots.[4]

3. Characters became far more individualized, described in detail both physically and psychologically and acting in the plot as independent agents. The new novel emphasized authentic-sounding accounts of the experience of individuals.

4. The novel featured more detailed and realistic treatments of place than did previous literary forms. The action in novels generally occurs either in real places or in imaginary places that are very much like real places.

5. The novel featured a turn to more referential conceptions of language, including a turn from verse to prose—though the language was also relatively straightforward and journalistic, enabling writers to write more quickly and readers to read more quickly. The simple style of the new novel thus made it possible for novels to be produced and consumed more quickly, leading to greater profits for the new publishing industry.[5]

Watt also usefully discusses the relationship between the birth of the novel and increases in literacy that enabled the rise of a new reading public. Similarly, improvements in printing technology made texts cheaper to produce, making wider distribution of texts possible. Indeed, increases in literacy and increases in print technology reinforced one another, each leading to further increases in the other. Meanwhile, certain sectors of the reading public—especially well-to-do women, who formed a crucial part of the readership of the early novel—had more leisure time available for reading. Indeed, even certain less well-to-do groups (such as servants) began to have more time for reading and higher rates of literacy.

The Business of Literature

It is important to recognize, however, that the reading public in the eighteenth century was still relatively small by modern standards, though large relative to earlier periods when essentially only the aristocracy (and before that only the priesthood) could read. Still, Edmund Burke (1730–1797) estimated that there were only about 80,000 readers in England in the 1790s, out of a population of 6,000,000, making the literacy rate only a bit over 1%. This rate would grow throughout the nineteenth century but would undergo particularly rapid expansion at the end of the century, largely due to educational reforms at that time, reforms that would play an important role in the subsequent evolution of British literature.

Due to the fact that literacy rates remained so low (and purchase prices still remained relatively high), few works sold more than 10,000 copies in the eighteenth century—and most of those were topical pamphlets rather than full-length books. More than half the population of England lived in poverty, short of the bare necessities of life, and books were still somewhat of a luxury, though the growth of capitalism also produced a larger class of wealthy citizens who could afford such luxuries. The novel was thus not really a mass form in the modern sense, though cheaper forms of literature (chapbooks, pamphlets, broadsheets, etc. containing ballads, stories, etc.) were available to a broader audience and helped to contribute to growing literacy rates. Indeed, while the novel remained a thoroughly bourgeois form, it is important to the cultural history of England that the English working class, as outlined by E. P. Thompson in his important work The Making of the English Working Class (1966), had its own vibrant cultural traditions in the nineteenth century.

All-in-all, overall readership was gradually expanding in nineteenth-century England, including expansion into non-traditional groups (women, servants, apprentices), who were more interested in being entertained than in adherence to traditional literary conventions. The need to build this readership—this market—meant that innovations in literature leading up to the twentieth century were not just a matter of artistry and creativity but also a matter of growing a business. For example, by the early nineteenth century, subscription libraries—somewhat like the Netflix model for DVD rentals—were beginning to make books available to more and more people who could not afford to buy them, thus creating an additional income stream for publishers (and, indirectly, authors). Even as late as the end of the nineteenth century, novels were read more by patrons of lending libraries than by purchasers. Subscribers could typically borrow one book at a time per subscription but could simultaneously borrow multiple books by purchasing multiple subscriptions. This led to an industry trend (and to pressure on authors by publishers) to produce longer books that could be published in multiple volumes. Thus, if one wanted to borrow all volumes of the typical Victorian three-part novel at once (to ensure uninterrupted reading of the whole novel), one would have to purchase three subscriptions. And, of course, many nineteenth-century novels were initially published in serial form in relatively inexpensive magazines, further expanding the customer base for the novel. For example, Charles Dickens (1812–1870), the most commercially successful of all Victorian novelists, was so partly due to his frequent publication in magazines: from 1850 to 1859, he even edited his own magazine, Household Words, which reached an extremely wide audience—partly because of its low price.

Realism and Romanticism

Literacy rates would remain far from 100% until new public education programs initiated near the end of the nineteenth century led to dramatic increases in literacy in a relatively short time, just as other dramatic changes were beginning to occur in British society as a whole.[6] Those changes are a crucial part of the story of twentieth-century British literature and culture and will be dealt with in the next chapter. But those changes, while seemingly sudden, had a long background. They were, in fact, the culmination of the transformation in English society that had been underway since the late fifteenth century and that had already gained considerable traction by the time Victoria ascended the throne as Queen of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland in 1835. This ascension, the beginning of the Victorian era in England, can also roughly be regarded as the point at which the realist novel had been established as the most important literary genre in England, which was a crucial moment in the modernization of England and of English literature. Indeed, if the flowering of Romantic poetry in the earlier part of the nineteenth century can be regarded as one last attempt of poetry to assert its primacy over fiction, Romantic poetry can also be taken as a last-ditch literary effort to resist the onward march of modernization—an effort that was doomed both because poetry was increasingly out of step with the spirit of the times and because Romanticism itself, however much it was couched as a valiant defense against the dehumanizing consequences of the growth of scientific rationalism and technological industrialization, was thoroughly permeated by an individualist ideology that was perfectly in tune with the capitalist spirit that drove the growth of science and industry. Romanticism, one might say, was an attack on modernity that was already thoroughly modern itself.

Romanticism, with its glorification and mystification of nature and its emphasis on poets as remarkable individuals overflowing with creative genius[7], was best suited for the production of poetry, though it produced fiction as well, including at least one novel that is still widely taught and read today. That novel would be Frankenstein (1818), by Mary Shelley (1797–1851)—whose husband, Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822), was one of the most important Romantic poets. Among other things, Frankenstein is now widely considered to be the first modern science fiction novel, thus giving it an influential place in literary history—though it is, of course, by now impossible to separate the influence of the original novel from that of the numerous pop cultural adaptations it inspired, beginning with James Whale’s 1931 film version. In general, while Romanticism continues to exert a lasting influence (especially in the value we continue to place on artistic originality and creativity), it was never a dominant paradigm, and the mainstream course of British literature continued to be dominated by realism.

That the Renaissance can be taken as the beginning of the modern period is acknowledged by the fact that scholars of Renaissance literature and art have recently begun referring to the Renaissance, not as a separate period, but as the first part of the “Early Modern” period, which extends roughly until the French Revolution ushered in a period of full-blown modernity, followed by the Napoleonic campaigns that brought the modern French ideas that had propelled the revolution to most of the rest of Europe. While generally viewed negatively in Britain at the time, the French Revolution also exerted an important influence on Romanticism, including English Romanticism.

In terms of English literature, the new scheme of periodization now prevalent in academic accounts of literary history would essentially bookend the Early Modern period with the rise of what was formerly called the Renaissance on one end and the eighteenth-century rise of the English novel (and of realism) on the other. In terms of English political history, the Early Modern period might be described as the era in which the bourgeoisie rose to become the dominant class in England and then to consolidate that domination—something that would not occur in much of the rest of Western Europe until the middle of the nineteenth century, with the failed working-class revolutions of 1848 marking the moment of fully-achieved bourgeois dominance in Western Europe—a moment that observers such as Georg Lukács (1885–1971), in his authoritative The Historical Novel, has also seen as a sign that the European bourgeoisie had lost the vitality and zeal for innovation that had driven its rise to power, sending it into a period of conservatism, stodgy conformism, and decline into decadence.[8] Lukács, who was, in his work in the 1930s, one of the first critics to describe the fundamentally bourgeois nature of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century novel, predictably sees the rise of the novel as driven by the energy of an emergent bourgeois class of merchants and industrialists, while arguing that the subsequent decline of bourgeois vitality was accompanied by a decline in the dynamism of the novel as a genre.

The Country and the City

I will return to Lukács’s narrative of the rise and fall of the bourgeois realist novel later in this volume. For now, I would like to turn to another narrative of literary history that focuses more specifically on nineteenth-century British literature and on the ways in which the evolution of that literature over the course of the century helps to tell the story of the modernization of England during that period. The narrative I have in mind is Raymond Williams’ (1921–1988) The Country and the City (1973), a sweeping history of nineteenth-century British literature (especially the novel) based on the central insight that the evolution of British literature in this century traces the evolution of British society as a whole from a largely agrarian society at the beginning of the century to a modern, urban, industrial society at the end of the century.

One of Williams’ main points is that the notion of a radical twentieth-century modernization sweeping away traditional agrarian forms of life that had held sway for hundreds of years ignores the fact that the demise of these traditional forms was already underway as the nineteenth century began and was quite advanced by the beginning of the twentieth. For example, the shift from the country to the city as a center of both population and power that has been seen as crucial to the transformations of life in the twentieth century was already quite advanced before the twentieth century even began. Perhaps more importantly, for Williams, transformations were underway in every aspect of English life throughout the nineteenth century. Thus, merely to see these changes as a shift from the country to the city is a gross oversimplification that ignores the fact that country life itself was transformed in the course of the century, including a shift in the mode of production from family-based farming to agrarian capitalism. The older gentry that had dominated life through the nineteenth century were also gradually replaced by an agrarian bourgeoisie whose fortunes were not connected to inherited land so much as to the business and commerce of cities such as London, including a growing web of commercial connections that extended around the globe, even in the early parts of the nineteenth century.

In this sense, a crucial early figure in Williams’ history is Jane Austen (1775–1817), whose novels take place almost entirely inside the elegant country homes of the landed gentry and are conventionally thought to be cut off from the currents of history in the outside world. But, as Williams points out, history occurs on country estates as well, and Austen’s world is not a timeless pastoral realm divorced from history. Austen’s novels do not take place in a land of changeless tradition but in a land where change is an integral fact of life, a land of confusion and contradiction and continual appearance of the new within the matrix of the old. The society described in Austen’s novels is, according to Williams, a complex hybrid, “an acquisitive, high bourgeois society at the point of its most evident interlocking with an agrarian capitalism that is itself mediated by inherited titles and by the making of family names” (115).

Of course, the incursion of the modern capitalist world into the English countryside is sometimes dramatized more overtly in the nineteenth-century British novel than in Austen. Thus, both Charlotte Brontë’s (1816–1855) Jane Eyre (1847) and Emily Brontë’s (1818–1848) Wuthering Heights (1847) are set primarily in English country estates. But the plot of Jane Eyre is centrally informed by the presence of Mr. Rochester’s “mad” wife, locked away in the attic after having been brought back to England on one of Rochester’s business trips to the Caribbean. And Wuthering Heights—itself a particularly effective hybrid of realism and Romanticism—is dominated by the dark and mysterious presence of the character Heathcliff, who has come to the country from the shipping city of Liverpool, with its connections to a worldwide web of commerce. And, at one point, Heathcliff disappears back into the larger world, where he makes a fortune within the emerging capitalist system of which he henceforth stands as a glaring reminder in the text.

Explaining Fredric Jameson’s (1934– ) reading in The Political Unconscious of Heathcliff as a “protocapitalist” whose presence in the novel marks the rise of capitalism to dominance in England (128), Adam Roberts notes that, for Jameson,

a reading of Wuthering Heights needs to look at the socioeconomic forces that shaped its composition: in this case the economic dynamic of the early nineteenth century, when industrial and trading capitalism was rising and replacing (disrupting) the older land-based agricultural order” (86–87).

This reading, of course, is entirely in line with the narrative of nineteenth-century English literary history proposed by Williams.

Charles Dickens, Novelist of the City

In other novelists of the nineteenth century (and Williams focuses almost exclusively on the novel as the form that most accurately reflects events in society as a whole), the transformation of life in nineteenth-century Britain is much more obvious than in Austen or the Brontës. For example, Dickens, that great chronicler of London life, is perhaps the most important marker of the urbanization of life in nineteenth-century England, even if he is not particularly good at describing historical change directly. And Dickens is also a chronicler (though a more limited one) of nineteenth-century capitalism. Much commerce occurs within the pages of his novels and numerous characters are shown at work struggling to make their ways in a rapidly expanding (but still precarious) capitalist system within which fortunes can be made or lost in the blink of an eye.

Many critics of Dickens have emphasized his critique of the capitalist system in nineteenth-century England, especially in his sympathetic portrayal of the difficult plight of the working class under that system—which stands out partly because workers are largely absent in so many of the most important British novels of the nineteenth century. Indeed, I is only in nonfiction works—such as Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844—that we can get a truly accurate picture of what life was like for the working poor of England in the mid-nineteenth century. At times, this aspect of Dickens’ work involves a mere acknowledgement of the hardships of the poor. At other times, however, especially in his “industrial novel” Hard Times (1854), he takes a more systemic view of the hardships visited upon the working class in the fictional Coketown by the economic inequalities produced by the emergent capitalist system, as well as by the grim conditions that prevailed in the dark and looming factories that were the key monuments to this system in the Victorian era. But Dickens’ critique of Victorian capitalism went beyond this sympathy for the working class to include explorations of the hazards encountered by the capitalists themselves, as when the losses suffered by Paul Dombey in Dombey and Sons (1948) suggest the tenuous nature of capitalist wealth, while also warning that an excessive concern with profit and wealth can lead to a distortion in human values. Dickens’ concerns about his contemporary society go well beyond the economic, however. For example, his fiction is well-known for its almost obsessive concern with crime and legality, and his critique of the Byzantine complexities of the Victorian legal system is a central element of his work. In Bleak House (1852–53), for example, Dickens produces a vigorous satire on the abuses of the old court of Chancery, centering on the experiences of an ordinary couple, the futile young man Richard Carstone and his amiable and somewhat saintly cousin Ada Clare. Wards of the court as part of a ludicrously interminable estate case, they fall in love and secretly marry. Carstone hopes for a dream life built on a huge inheritance but declines and dies while he waits to receive it. Legal costs, in any case, ultimately absorb the entire estate. Bleak House features a number of other key motifs as well, as when the incessant boredom of Lady Dedlock speaks not just to the idleness of her social group but, in a larger sense, to the mind-numbing boredom created by an entrenched bourgeois society, with its never-ending rules and obsessive concern with morality.[9]

One can perhaps detect here—or, similarly, in the way lawyers, law offices, courtrooms, prisons, and so on pervade the text of Dickens’ later Great Expectations (1860–1861)—a sort of nostalgia for the simpler (and less codified) world of the eighteenth century. But it is also important to note that Dickens’ critique of Victorian bourgeois society, its values, and its institutions is conducted within an extremely limited range. Dickens was a reformer, not a revolutionary. Thus, when the masses attempt to take potentially revolutionary collective action to improve their lot in Dickens’ Barnaby Rudge (1841, largely set during the Gordon Riots of 1780) and A Tale of Two Cities (1859, set before and during the French Revolution), he depicts them essentially as debased savages devoid of human feeling and driven to hysteria and violence by a mob mentality.

Similarly, Franco Moretti comments on the crucial role played by the law in Great Expectations: “The London section of Great Expectations takes place entirely in the realm of the law and ends with the legal confiscation of Pip’s assets” (208). Moretti argues that, in this novel, the legal system reigns supreme over the individual and Dickens essentially endorses this supremacy in a way that is typical of the conservative orientation of the nineteenth-century British novel as a whole: “Due to a unique historical conjunction, the novel was born in England precisely when the ideology of the law reigned supreme. The result was the worst novel of the West, and the boldest culture of justice” (214). For Moretti, then, much like for Lukács, the nineteenth-century British novel loses energy because the capitalist system and its supporting ideology have become so firmly entrenched that the bourgeoisie as a class has lost the dynamic energy that carried it to power, while the authors of the novels have almost completely lost the ability to think beyond that ideology.

It is certainly the case that, whatever their surface content, Dickens’ novels are fundamentally informed by the same bourgeois ideology that drives capitalism, which means that they are by definition incapable of mounting a truly damaging critique of the capitalist system. In her excellent reading of the ideological underpinnings of the nineteenth-century British and Russian realist novels, Isra Daraiseh (concentrating especially on Hard Times) has detailed the ways in which Dickens’ work reflects a powerfully individualist ideology of the kind that is crucial to the bourgeois ideology of capitalism. Overall, Daraiseh is surely right when she concludes that Dickens’ sympathies are ultimately with the bourgeois class and that his warnings about the abuses heaped upon the poor by the capitalist system were not intended to stir the working class to revolution but to improve their condition just enough that no revolution would occur and the capitalist system would thus be preserved.

Dickens is certainly an important figure in the mainstream, canonical history of British literature, perhaps exceeded in his talents as a literary artist only by the towering achievements of George Eliot (1819–1880). But his immense popularity and his close attention to the business and marketing aspects of the publishing enterprise also mark him as a crucial forerunner of another strain in British literary history that began to emerge in the second half of the nineteenth century, a strain of popular literature that was less concerned with artistic merit and more concerned with constructing compelling characters and narratives that would appeal to the tastes of an expanding public audience. This new popular strain in Victorian literature was marked by the growing popularity of genre forms (such as science fiction and detective fiction) that have continued to attract a broad audience into the twenty-first century. Dickens’ own Bleak House is a sort of detective novel, for example, while Wilkie Collins (1824–1889) firmly established the detective novel in the English literary market with the success of The Moonstone (1868). Collins was a protegé of Dickens, the latter of whom published detective stories of his own (as well as by other authors) in Household Words. Later, the Sherlock Holmes stories and novels of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle became some of the best-known works of detective fiction of all time, beginning with A Study in Scarlet in 1887. The Holmes stories, like Frankenstein, have remained relevant and well-known, largely because of their pop cultural adaptations in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, including the extremely popular BBC television series Sherlock (running since 2010) and its American counterpart, Elementary (running since 2012).

Another popular genre that came to the fore in the Victorian era (and that has remained popular to this day) was science fiction. Though Frankenstein might be considered the first science fiction novel, the genre as we know it today was really born in the remarkable string of “scientific romances” written by H. G. Welles (1866–1946) in the second half of the 1890s, including The Time Machine (1895), The Island of Doctor Moreau (1896), The Invisible Man (1897), and The War of the Worlds (1898). In the twentieth century, Wells became an important writer of realist novels, as well as an influential historian and utopian thinker. But his greatest importance will always lie in the impetus he gave to what later became the genre of science fiction.

Interestingly, though, the popular genre that had the most commercial success in Victorian England was the colonial adventure story, which featured the high-action exploits of British heroes in various colonial settings throughout the British Empire. And the most successful of the writers of colonial adventures was H. Rider Haggard (1856–1925). Especially well-known for his contributions to the “Lost World” genre (in which adventurers in remote colonial locales discovered previously unknown worlds populated by strange, exotic people and weird animals, previously unknown or thought to be extinct. With much of Africa still largely unexplored, this genre was particularly suited for African settings, as in the hugely popular King Solomon’s Mines (1885), the founding work of the genre (and the first English adventure novel set in Africa). Haggard’s African adventure She (1887), meanwhile, was even more popular, selling 83 million copies, making it one of the best-selling books of all time.

The colonial adventure was particularly suited for the Victorian era, when the British Empire was rapidly expanding. It predictably declined in importance in conjunction with the twentieth-century decline of the empire, though novels such as She and King Solomon’s Mines have had their own twentieth-century film adaptations. Haggard’s most importance presence beyond the nineteenth century, however, has been in the work of others. For example, his novels were an important inspiration for the Tarzan novels of American writer Edgar Rice Burroughs, some of the most successful examples of the emergent popular literature of the early twentieth century and the works—together with their film adaptations—that stand as the best-known examples of American colonial adventure stories. In addition, Allan Quartermain, the protagonist of King Solomon’s Mines, was reportedly the model for Indiana Jones, one of the most popular film characters of all time.

Thomas Hardy and the Death of Rural Tradition

Williams’ narrative of the development of the British novel in conjunction with the evolution of capitalist modernity throughout the nineteenth century concentrates mostly on canonical texts, though he does bring in relevant associated texts, such as Friedrich Engels’ The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844 and he does ultimately give more attention than most literary histories to working-class novelists such as the Scotsman Lewis Grassic Gibbon (1901–1935), whose trilogy A Scots Quair (1932–1934) is a sort of epic of modernization and urbanization in Scotland. In terms of nineteenth-century British literature, Williams inevitably caps his story with a discussion of the novels of Thomas Hardy (1840–1928), which so effectively dramatizes the passing away of traditional modes of rural life in the course of the nineteenth century. Hardy’s novels were all published between 1871 and 1895, though they are set at various times throughout the nineteenth century. Moreover, while Hardy abandoned novel-writing after Jude the Obscure in 1895 (possibly influenced partly by the harsh criticism this novel received from some circles), he continued writing important poetry essentially until the end of his life. He thus has the distinction of being one of England’s greatest nineteenth-century novelists, while also being one of England’s greatest twentieth-century poets.

But, even in his nineteenth-century novels, Hardy shows a sensibility that is essentially modern. As Daraiseh puts it, noting the deterministic tendencies that so many critics have seen in Hardy’s novels:

If anything, any tendency toward seemingly inevitable tragedy in Hardy’s novels has less in common with the inexorable fate of Greek tragedy or the scientific determinism of French naturalism than with the later works of American film noir—Jacques Tourneur’s Out of the Past (1947) is a good example—or even neo-noir, as in David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence (2005). (128–29)

Also noting Hardy’s essential modernity, Williams acknowledges the vividness with which Hardy chronicles the landscape of traditional rural England, but declares that, in Hardy, this traditional landscape is always in the process of becoming a thing of the past. Hardy’s rural England, says Williams, is “old in custom and in memory, but old also in a sense that belongs to the new times of conscious education, the oldness of history and indeed of prehistory: the educated consciousness of the facts of change” (Country 197). Indeed, for Williams, Hardy is best understood as a novelist primarily of change: “Within the major novels, in several ways, the experiences of change and of the difficulty of choice are central and even decisive” (197). Hardy’s world is a world in transition, even as he centers his exploration of that transition in “the ordinary processes of life and work,” in the prosaic, day-to-day activities that are crucial to change in the lives of individuals but that seldom feature in the history books as the focal point for narratives of change in a broader sense of sweeping societal transformation (Country 211).

Hardy details the passing away of traditional forms of rural life in his fictional Wessex with a certain sadness that is nevertheless not nostalgic. Hardy has no interest in fantasizing about a return to the old ways: he understands that history moves only forward. Caught up in this sometimes-brutal forward march, Hardy’s characters suffer a great deal. But they never do so because modernization is itself envisioned as a bad thing in general, however unfortunate it might be for specific individuals. In The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886), Michael Henchard meets his downfall because the times have passed him by, so that he has been supplanted by the more modern-thinking Donald Farfrae. The tragedy here, though, is not that the world changed, but that Henchard didn’t. The town of Casterbridge itself—which has been built over the bones of Roman soldiers–is a reminder of the inevitability of historical change, a fact that Henchard fails to understand or acknowledge. Meanwhile, the tragedies of the protagonists of Tess of the d’Urbervilles (1892) and Jude the Obscure (1895) do not occur, as might at first seem to be the case, because modernization has disrupted older forms of life in which they might have been more comfortable, subsequently allowing them to dream unrealizable dreams that would formerly have been unimaginable. Their stories are tragic because the forces of modernization that have begun to unsettle traditional roles associated with gender and class, respectively, have not yet proceeded far enough to allow Tess and Jude to transcend those older roles entirely.

Among other things, Hardy’s novels show an awareness of the historical contingency of the modern world, an understanding that things have not always been the way they are and that they could have been otherwise. For Williams, this awareness has largely been lost in the world of the twentieth century, where so many take for granted not only the inevitability of modernization and urbanization but the idea of minority ownership of the technologies and resources that are so crucial to these processes. Williams suggests the value of reading postcolonial novels by authors such as Nigeria’s Chinua Achebe (1930–2013) or Kenya’s Ngũgĩ wa Thiong’o (1938– ), who write from areas of the world where modernization is still underway and not so firmly entrenched as to obscure the historical process through which this modernization occurs. In this sense, Williams suggests, postcolonial novels such as Achebe’s Things Fall Apart are much like “English literature of rural change, as late as Hardy” because both Hardy and Achebe understand and represent “the internal tensions” of their transforming societies, with new modes of social organization in the process of supplanting older ones (Country 286).

This suggestion indicates the value of studying British literature and culture within a global perspective, rather than confined within its own bounds. That approach will be taken throughout this volume. I will begin, however, with a specific consideration of British literature in the first decades of the twentieth century, and especially of the phenomenon known as literary “modernism.” Such literature responds directly to the processes of modernization that had evolved throughout the nineteenth century, sweeping away the old and making way for the new, but in ways that were neither easy nor comfortable. Indeed, the modernization of the nineteenth century led, by century’s end, to a sweeping sense of crisis that is already reflected in the work of Hardy and that emerges in a particularly striking way in the works of literary modernism, which respond directly to the transformations of the nineteenth century that Williams describes. But these transformations always already included an element of globalization that should never be ignored, even when discussing only British literature. This twin emphasis on modernization and globalization will remain my focus throughout the remainder of this volume.


[1] The term “bourgeois” is often equated with “middle class,” the designation there referring to the class that lies in the middle (in terms of social standing) between the aristocracy and the working class. However, as capitalism evolves over time, the bourgeoisie become the owners of factories and other aspects of the means of production under the new system. They also often become much wealthier than the leftovers of the medieval aristocracy, so that the term “middle class” becomes increasingly problematic. The real class opposition under capitalism is that between the bourgeoisie and the working class, or proletariat. The aristocracy become increasingly irrelevant, while a new middle class of small business owners and professionals (such as doctors, lawyers, and professors) arises as well. This new middle class is more bourgeois than proletarian, but its members control a relatively small portion of the capitalist economy.

[2] Historians such as Jules Michelet and Jakob Burckhardt began using the term “Renaissance” at the end of the 1850s. But the idea of the bourgeois period as a recovery from the dark period of Catholic-aristocratic rule in Europe has its roots in the first true work of modern scientific historiography, Edward Gibbon’s (1737–1794) The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, published in six volumes between 1776 and 1789. Gibbon’s monumental work was the first history that attempted to explain, based on primary sources, the fundamental root causes of historical change, rather than simply to construct a narrative of events. It was also the first clearly to depict the Middle Ages as a decline from the former glories of the Roman Empire, glories to which the bourgeois world was now returning.

[3] Then again, capitalism itself did not suddenly arise out of nowhere in the early eighteenth century, which is why Michael McKeon, one of the more recent literary historians who has built upon Watt’s work, pushes his story of the birth of the English novel back to 1600. McKeon, however, still sees the rise of the novel as closely tied to the historical rise of capitalism. He concludes that “in the formation of novelistic narrative, the most important narrative model was not another ‘literary’ genre at all, but historical experience itself” (238). Another recent contribution, by Margaret Doody, draws upon the work of the Russian theorist Mikhail Bakhtin (1895–1975) in tracing the roots of the novel all the way back to ancient Greece.

[4] The classical description of the ways in which the regimentation of time required by capitalism led to new perceptions of time itself can be found in E. P. Thompson’s essay “Time, Work-Discipline and Industrial Capitalism.”

[5] Compare here Lennard Davis’s Factual Fictions (1983), which explores the rise of the novel as informed by nonfiction forms such as journalism and views the novel as a consolidation of journalism, history, and literature that arose out of anxieties over fictionality and as a response to censorship.

[6] These changes will be discussed in more detail in the next chapter. The best description of them can be found in Eric Hobsbawm’s The Age of Empire, which caps off a magisterial three-volume history of the nineteenth century that also includes The Age of Revolution and The Age of Capital. As there is no room in this chapter to discuss in detail the historical events of the nineteenth century, I refer those wishing more detail to Hobsbawm.

[7] In the phenomenon that M. H. Abrams has called the “secularization of the sublime,” Romanticism could be said to have displaced the worshipful energies formerly associated with religion onto a twin worship of nature and of the artist.

[8] Of course, essentially medieval political and economic structures continued to hold sway in most of Eastern and Western Europe until the Russian Empire and the Austro-Hungarian Empire were swept away in the upheavals of World War I.

[9] Compare here the description by the eminent critic Edward Said of the “lusterless world of the European bourgeoisie, whose ambience as every novelist of importance renders it reconfirms the debasement of contemporary life, the extinction of all dreams of passion, success, and exotic adventures” (Culture 157–58).