Modern British Literature Before World War II: From Realism to Modernism


© 2019 by M. Keith Booker

As the twentieth century began, dramatic changes were afoot in British literature and culture, just as dramatic changes were underway in British society as a whole. This discussion will outline some of the latter changes and then examine the ways in which these changes influenced the production of British literature.

Britain at the Beginning of the Twentieth Century

The triumph of scientific rationalism in the eighteenth century was informed by a utopian optimism concerning the ability of human beings to understand (and eventually change) their world. In England, especially, this intellectual optimism was quickly reinforced by technological advances that led to a nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution that seemed to offer almost unlimited potential for the creation of wealth and for the practical realization of the utopian dreams of the previous century. And all of this occurred within a framework of a new forms of bourgeois historiography that envisioned history as a narrative of continual progress. The future, indeed, seemed bright. The social and intellectual climate of Victorian England at the end of the nineteenth century, however, was strongly informed by a sense that something had gone wrong and that the utopian visions that drove the evolution of English society in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were not being matched by actual reality. The new system of industrial capitalism had created great wealth for the select few who owned the factories and other key resources, but it had also created a large urban proletariat[1] who worked long hours under grueling conditions and found themselves mired in poverty regardless of how hard they worked. The conditions under which the working class lived and worked were so harsh that, by many measures, health, nutrition, and other measures of quality of living had actually declined over the course of the nineteenth century. And, to make matters worse, overproduction had driven the capitalist economic system into a deep and lengthy depression in the last decades of the century, leading to massive unemployment and to widespread concerns among the upper classes that revolution might be imminent.

For its own part, the working class responded to these harsh conditions through participation in to an increasingly organized labor movement in England, a key marker of which was the London Dock Workers strike of 1889. Subsequently, the labor and socialist movements in Britain gained considerable power through the 1890s, providing a source of hope for a better life among workers but also causing increased anxieties for the upper classes. Britain’s rulers responded to these anxieties with a variety of strategies designed to alleviate them, though time and again attempts to the crisis in British society only produced new sources of anxiety.

One way in which the ruling class in Britain responded to this crisis was to ramp up expansion of the empire, especially in Africa, beginning with the Berlin Conference of 1884–1885, in which Britain and the other major European imperial powers (France, Germany, and Belgium) were joined by a number of other European nations (and the United States) to discuss ways of peacefully dividing up the African content so that competition for territory there would not lead to conflict. The resultant map gave Britain the rights to huge portions of the continent, while the French and Germans got their shares as well. The Congo Free State, a large region in central Africa, was declared the private property of the Belgian Congo Society, to be ruled personally by King Leopold II of Belgium. Lesser powers gained a certain amount of access to trade routes and other resources, and countries such as Portugal, Italy, and Spain were also granted the rights to smaller colonial territories in Africa.

The Berlin Conference was successful in heading off violent conflicts as the various European powers scrambled for footholds in Africa. However, it essentially ignored the fact that the fading Ottoman Empire still claimed the rights to large portions of North Africa, an omission that would become a factor in World War I as the Ottomans joined that conflict in the hope of re-establishing their African territories. Perhaps more importantly, the Berlin Conference often ignored the realities of existing social and political structures in Africa, while paying little or no attention to the rights and wishes of the indigenous populations of the continent. As a result, Britain, in particular, discovered that the subjugation of Africa was to be a difficult one, often requiring extensive military campaigns and brutal forms of political oppression.

Their former confidence in British invincibility and in the inevitability of a global British Empire already shaken by the bloody events surrounding the Indian Rebellion of 1857, the British nevertheless seemed to expect relatively little local resistance almost everywhere they attempted to establish their colonial rule in Africa. In fact, however, the last decades of the nineteenth century were fraught with difficulties for the British conquest of Africa. By the end of the 1870s, Egypt was nominally still a semi-autonomous part of the Ottoman Empire; in practice, however, the regime in Egypt was already a British puppet. In 1881, a charismatic Islamic leader called the Mahdi (essentially the Muslim messiah) was building enough support to cause the British formally to occupy Egypt, making it formally a British protectorate in 1882. The British then moved south to try to quash the Mahdist uprising, only to be met with fierce resistance that culminated in the fall of Khartoum, the most important city in Sudan, to the Mahdi in 1885. The British commander in Khartoum, the celebrated colonial campaigner General Charles George “Chinese” Gordon, was killed in the siege.[2] A long struggle ensued, and the British (via forces commanded by Herbert Kitchener) would not retake Khartoum until the defeat of the Mahdist rebels at the Battle of Omdurman on September 2, 1898.

In the meantime, British colonial forces had met with significant resistance across the continent, from present-day Kenya to present-day Nigeria. Then, just as Sudan had been re-secured, the British found themselves embroiled in another major African colonial campaign as growing hostilities between the British Empire and the Boer settlers in South Africa erupted into all-out war in 1880, resulting in defeat for the British Empire and independence for the Boer Republics of southern Africa. In the Second Boer war, which began in October 1899, the British would finally exert control over South Africa, but at great cost. The overconfident British suffered several initial reversals, then brought Kitchener in to command their forces in 1900. Kitchener was able to defeat the Boers by the end of May in 1902, but only by employing extremely harsh measures, such as destroying Boer farms and crops and confining Boer women and children (over 26,000 of whom died) in the first modern concentration camps in order to put pressure on the Boer guerilla fighters who were hiding out in remote areas. Over 100,000 black Africans who sympathized with the Boers were also imprisoned in camps, where over 20,000 died.

Among other things, the British forces in the Boer War were hampered by the fact that a large percentage of British working-class men were in such bad health from their poor nutrition and squalid living and working conditions that they could not meet the minimum physical standards for service in the British military. As a result, the British army in South Africa had to be supplemented with conscripts from the longtime British colony of Ireland, just as anticolonial sentiment in Ireland was already reaching an all-time high. Indeed, many Irish volunteers fought on the side of the Boers in the war. The conscription of Irish men to serve in a war designed to extend the reach of British colonial domination was understandably treated with considerable resentment in Ireland, all the more so because Irish troops were routinely employed in the most hazardous positions and essentially used as cannon fodder during the war. The British had initially sought to justify their colonization of Africa with a version of what Rudyard Kipling, in a poem written in 1899 (and actually addressed to the United States), called the “white man’s burden,” arguing that more civilized and advanced white Christian nations had not just a right, but a responsibility to colonize the less developed regions of the world in order to bring civilization, enlightenment, and Christianity to the nonwhite peoples of those regions. But this strategy did not serve in the Boer War: the Boers were white Christians, and it was abundantly clear that the British wanted to colonize South Africa for purely economic reasons.

The collapsing economy, falling quality of life, and a never-ending string of crises in the colonies contributed to a growing sense of anxiety in England as the nineteenth century drew to a close. Perhaps, some began to wonder, the Enlightenment vision of uninterrupted progress toward a better and better world was not as pre-ordained as the people of most Western European nations had originally thought. And “pre-ordained” is indeed the correct word. Probably the most important philosophical support for nineteenth-century notions of history-as-progress came from the German philosopher G. W. F. Hegel’s (1770–1831) scientific/rational version of divine providence, in which history is seen as an inevitable movement of human civilization toward the realization of a pre-defined ultimate goal that is identified with God’s plan for humanity. Hegel writes: “That world history is governed by an absolute design, that it is a rational process—whose rationality is not that of a particular subject, but a divine and absolute reason—this is a proposition whose truth we must assume (28).

Hegel’s view also provided strong theoretical justification for European colonial expansion, because his view of a divine plan that drives history leads him to the ethnocentric conclusion that, among the world’s cultures, European culture has advanced the farthest toward the realization of God’s plans for human development—and (of course) that, among European cultures, German culture is the most advanced of all. (British thinkers largely adopted Hegel’s model of history but substituted their own countries for Germany as the pinnacle of European civilization.) Conversely, Hegel saw African culture as the least advanced of all of the world’s cultures, as still mired in a childlike primeval primitivity, not as yet having begun the historical progression toward true civilization. This view, of course, provided valuable support to those who wished to find a justification for the European colonization of Africa—and for notions such as Kipling’s idea of a “white man’s burden,” notions that were still being cited well into the twentieth century.

For example, in his 1922 book The Dual Mandate in British Tropical Africa, the renowned British colonial administrator Lord Lugard, while acknowledging that European nations could of course be expected to profit from their African colonies, nevertheless maintains that this colonization also works for the benefit of Africans:

“Europe is in Africa for the mutual benefit of her own industrial classes, and of the native races in their progress to a higher plane; … It is the aim and desire of civilised administration to fulfill this dual mandate …. In Africa to-day we are . . . bringing to the dark places of the earth … the torch of culture and progress, while ministering to the material needs of our own civilization” (qtd. in Sicherman 148).

The Hegelian vision of history as inexorable progress provided one of the most important determining forces in European thought in the nineteenth century. Over and over, in one field after another, one finds European thinkers of the time producing models based on a notion of forward temporal movement. For example, the distinctive plot structure of the nineteenth-century realistic novel can be seen as a direct instance of this nineteenth-century notion of history as progress. As J. Hillis Miller points out, “[t]he notions of narrative, of character, and of formal unity in fiction are all congruent with the system of concepts making up the Western idea of history” (“Narrative” 461). In particular, Miller argues that our view of how fictional plots should proceed is thoroughly informed by the Hegelian model of rational history:

“The assumptions about history which have been transferred to the traditional conception of the form of fiction . . . include the notions of origin and end (“archeology” and “teleology”); of unity and totality or “totalization”; of underlying “reason” or “ground” of selfhood, consciousness, or “human nature”; of the homogeneity, linearity, and continuity of time; of necessary progress; of “fate,” “destiny,” or “Providence”; of causality; of gradually emerging “meaning”; of representation and truth” (459-60).

Hegel, of course, was not the only important thinker who influenced nineteenth-century visions of history. Karl Marx (1818–1883), for example, adapted Hegel’s dialectical methodology to describe a history that was driven not by abstract principles (as in Hegel), but by material forces. Importantly, this change meant that “men make their own history,” as Marx put it, which is very much in line with the humanist vision of the Enlightenment but which also means that the outcome of history is not pre-ordained. History, for Marx, is driven by certain scientific/rational principles, which means that there are limits on what can happen. What actually will happen, however, is determined by the decisions and actions of human beings within these limits. Those decisions and actions might (and certain could) lead to a better world, but they also might not.

Marx’s scientific vision of human history has much in common with the work of his close contemporary Charles Darwin (1809–1882), working in the same Victorian context. Darwin’s theory of evolution, set forth in the 1859 volume Origin of Species, proposes that plant and animal species evolve by a process of natural selection. For Darwin, however, evolution is a discontinuous and random process. Changes in species occur because of random mutations in individual members of the species. Most mutations are not helpful and will not be passed on widely to future generations. However, if a mutation happens to help the individual organism bearing the mutation to survive in its particular environment, then that mutation will tend to be passed on to future generations simply because the organism will be more likely to live long enough to reproduce. If a mutation is harmful, it will probably not be passed on, because the organism bearing it probably will not live long enough to reproduce. Darwin’s theory applies to all plant and animal species, though what understandably captured the popular European imagination of the time was its implication that even human beings evolved from more primitive species. This idea spurred a number of visions of future evolution, in which various thinkers attempted to imagine the advanced forms that human life might take in the distant future, though these visions did not generally account for the fact that human civilization had advanced to the point where very few mutations would be likely to endow their possessors with an enhanced chance of survival.

Of course, Darwin’s vision also produced a certain amount of anxiety because of its implication that humans were not fundamentally different from other animals and that they had not been specially created by God to rule the planet and ultimately to repopulate a heaven emptied out by the expulsion of Satan and his rebellious angels. Darwin’s model also led to anxieties because, unlike history in Hegel’s philosophy, evolution proceeds by chance and is not determined by some overriding plan. Then again, the nineteenth-century confidence in progress was such that the randomness of Darwinian evolution was virtually ignored in popular accounts. Evolution came instead to be viewed as a process of adaptation in which plants and animals somehow develop characteristics specifically because those characteristics help them to survive: birds need to be able to fly, so they develop wings, and so on. In short, evolution came to be viewed very much as another sort of progress.

Indeed, in the movement known as “social Darwinism,” many models of social progress came (wrongly) to be modeled on Darwin’s theory of evolution. Thinkers such as Herbert Spencer began to argue that human societies advance through a process of natural selection analogous to that attributed to plants and animals by Darwin, presumably assuring that society will gradually progress to more and more efficient and sophisticated states. Predictably, as confidence in the inevitability of progress waned, Darwin’s ideas began (again, inappropriately) to be used to support skepticism toward progress. In particular, the Darwinian vision of progress (with no divine plan to guide its forward movement) also triggered a growing anxiety over the possibility that evolution might somehow reverse itself and begin to proceed backward, with humans then becoming more and more primitive. Even Spencer’s notion of social progress contributed to these anxieties. For Spencer, Victorian England was a unique society because it had the sophistication of advanced, or “industrial” societies, but still maintained the raw energy and drive that he associated with primitive or “militant” societies. But this hybrid vision of Victorian England implied that the Victorians maintained strong vestiges of their primitive past, reinforcing fears that these primitive characteristics might somehow re-emerge and once again become dominant.

Perhaps the central expression of nineteenth-century European anxieties over the possibility of “backward” evolution was Max Nordau’s[3] 1895 book Degeneration, an enormously popular work that helped to fuel the widespread fascination with the concept of “degeneration” (or backward evolution to a primitive state) that swept across Europe in the last years of the nineteenth century. Indeed, as Kershner notes, the concept of degeneration captured the popular imagination of the time perhaps more than any other. Nordau was a student of Cesare Lombroso, the physician and criminalist who had developed the concept of inborn criminal traits, which he believed could be detected through physical examination of would-be criminals, especially of the structures of their skulls. Nordau’s book bears a clear relationship to Lombroso’s work. It purports not only to describe the characteristics of “degenerate” types, but also to elaborate on the opposing characteristics that one might be expected to find in men of genius.

Late Victorian literature is filled with images of degeneration, of which Robert Louis Stevenson’s (1850–1894) The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886) is perhaps the classic example. Here, the ultra-civilized and ultra-sophisticated Dr. Henry Jekyll invents a potion that can bring his submerged primitive energies back to the surface, transforming him into the savage and animalistic Mr. Hyde. Eventually, Mr. Hyde (having more raw, natural vitality) takes complete control, forcing Dr. Jekyll to commit suicide in one last desperate act of resistance. This story became a very popular one and was subsequently adapted to film several different times, suggesting that it appeals to something very powerful in the popular imagination.

In addition to Marx and Darwin, several other important late-nineteenth-century thinkers led to fundamental changes in the direction of modern thought. Particularly important were the Austrian psychiatrist Sigmund Freud (1856–1939)—whose vision of the human psyche suggested hitherto unexpected depths and complexities—and the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche (1844–1900)—whose iconoclastic thought declared the death of God (by which he really meant death of the belief in God) and challenged many of the received ideas about the solidity of Truth that had formerly driven so much of European thought. It is also the case that, as the nineteenth century came to a close, rising levels of education (and rising literacy rates) meant that more and more people would be aware (even if sometimes only vaguely so) of the sweeping intellectual currents stirred by the work of such thinkers as Marx, Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud.

In The Age of Empire (which focuses on the years 1875–1914), Eric Hobsbawm describes the intense sense of crisis that reigned in European society in the last years of the nineteenth century and the first years of the twentieth. More than anything, according to Hobsbawm, this period is marked by an intense sense of “the imminent death of one world and the need for another” (10). This struggle to build a new world took many forms, including the search for new modes of artistic expression that drove the modernist movement. In England, the perceived need to find new ways of dealing with the crisis led to a full decade of Liberal Party rule, from 1905–1915. During this period, the Liberal British government attempted to deal with changing conditions by instituting an entire network of new social programs, including old-age pensions, health and unemployment insurance, child health laws, and more progressive taxation.

However, as Hobsbawm notes, these attempts often led to contradictory results—which is perhaps not surprising, given that the sense of crisis itself was so thoroughly informed by the inherent contradictions within bourgeois society. Indeed, in retrospect, it is easy to see that the successes of British bourgeois society in the nineteenth century were also the sources of the crisis in which it found itself by the last years of the century. The triumph of individualism (a key linchpin of bourgeois ideology) loudly announced that all individuals were equal, even as the capitalist system produced more and more inequality. Further, the declaration that each individual is special and unique (designed among other things to quell any sense of collective solidarity among the working classes, while spurring an ethos of competition) also made each individual feel alienated and alone—and thus unhappy with the system that caused this situation. Similarly, industrialization and the growth of the factory system led to increases in efficiency and productivity, but this very productivity led to the oversupply that nearly capsized the entire system in the last years of the century. Further, efficient factory production requires standardization that contributed to a sense that life was growing increasingly regimented and routine, making many feel that their lives were being forced into dehumanizing, machine-like rhythms, as in the routinization described by the German sociologist Max Weber (1864–1920), whose classic study of this phenomenon (known as “rationalization” or “routinization”) was originally published in 1905. In this extremely influential study, Weber argues that the rise of capitalism (accompanied by the rise of Protestantism as a key element of its ideological support) has stripped life of all sense of wonder and magic and of anything and everything that can’t be rationalized, routinized, packaged, and marketed. For Weber, the result is a world devoid of magic, a world in which everything makes sense, everything has a price, and nothing has real value. And, finally, the Victorian faith in progress, even when realized, has the downside of continually distancing the present from the past and leading to a sense instability and of a loss of connection with tradition.[4]

Programs for dealing with the end-of-the century crisis also sometimes led to contradictory results because they themselves were inherently contradictory: designed to achieve better living conditions for the lower classes, they were also designed to blunt political unrest among the masses, thus ensuring the continuation of bourgeois rule. For example, perhaps the two most crucial (and seemingly most progressive) reforms instituted in English society in the last years of the nineteenth century involved the extension of voting rights to working class men[5] and the extension of at least a minimal amount of free public education to working class children. However, this extension of voting rights was largely intended to stave off any potential enthusiasm for revolution (and under pressure from an increasingly organized international labor movement), while the extension of public education programs was enacted partly because the increasingly complex capitalist system needed more educated workers and partly to give the powers-that-be an opportunity to indoctrinate working-class children with bourgeois ideology—thus ensuring that they would grow up to be obedient workers (and to use their new voting rights in ways that were no threat to the bourgeois system).

The spread of public education also led to an immediate increase in literacy, potentially empowering workers—but also potentially making them accessible to the bourgeois print industries, thus furthering their susceptibility to manipulation by bourgeois ideology. In any case, the spread of literacy in the last years of the nineteenth century would have a profound effect on British literature, essentially creating two different strands of literary culture. During most of the nineteenth century, the most respected authors were also the most commercially successful. Virtually all readers of literature were upper-class readers. Now, however, “literary” writers, producing works of what might be called “high” culture, concentrated on writing works for sophisticated audiences, while writers of “popular” literature produced works designed to entertain mass audiences. Moreover, the 1890s also saw the birth of an entirely new form of culture, as film first began to be a viable source of entertainment as well. All of this would lead to dramatic changes in the British cultural landscape as the old century ended and the new one began.

Modernity and Modern British Literature

Changes in culture do not happen suddenly or completely. New emergent forms always begin to appear while the earlier dominant forms still maintain their dominant position. Older forms continue to exist in residual form. At any one time, then, there are at least three different cultural eras in existence at once, as the current prevailing culture is supplemented by the ongoing presence of older forms and the early emergence of new forms that might someday become dominant. This model of simultaneous, interacting cultural elements, elaborated most eloquently by Raymond Williams in Marxism and Literature (121–27), is especially relevant in times of radical change such as the one that occurred at the beginning of the twentieth century, when the bifurcation of British culture into “high” and “popular” forms complicated the situation still further.

In looking at British literature at the beginning of the twentieth century, one can discern both continuity and disruption. For example, amid the split between literary writers and popular writers, Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936) remained both a popular writer of colonial adventures and a respected literary author well into the twentieth century, leading to his selection as the first British winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1907. Born in India, Kipling used his knowledge of the Indian subcontinent to produce works such as Kim (1901) that were far more sophisticated than the typical colonial adventure.

Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) also sought to be both literary and popular. However, his works were never as popular as Kipling’s, though they would ultimately come to be regarded as having more literary significance. Meanwhile, the most respected novelists in Britain in the first decades of the twentieth century were not the modernist writers who later came to be thought of as the most important forces in the British literary world of the time. Instead, novelists such as Wells, Arnold Bennett (1867–1931), and John Galsworthy (1867–1933)—all of whom were writing in what was essentially a continuation of the spirit of nineteenth-century realism—both gained more mainstream critical respect and sold more books than more experimental “modernist” writers such as Conrad, E. M. Forster (1879–1970), and Virginia Woolf (1882–1941). Indeed, while it was in its heyday (roughly 1900-1930), modernism was never a dominant cultural form, even if subsequent cultural historians would retroactively elevate the modernists to a central position in the evolution of twentieth-century culture—partly because the complexity and formal sophistication of their work could be used to support Cold War arguments that Western literature was aesthetically superior to Soviet literature.

In addition, we should recall that “popular” or “mass” literature in this context means literature produced for consumption by the masses—not literature produced by the masses. Popular literature was generally written by middle class writers and published by many of the same companies that published “high” literature. In short, both “high” and “low” literature were part of the same profit-oriented Culture Industry, an industry in whose interest it was to promote the capitalist system of which it was a crucial part. Most literary histories consider only literature produced by this Culture Industry. However, it is worth at least noting that the English working class has a history, at least since the early nineteenth century, of producing its own alternative, unofficial culture. That culture has focused forms such as newspapers, leaflets, and live performances due to a lack of access to the resources required to produce novels. Published novels written from a genuinely working-class perspective are thus few and far between, but they do exist—and some of them are extraordinary. In a sense, then, there are four strains in the development of modern British literature: the “high,” or conventionally literary realist strain, the “high” modernist strain, the “popular” strain written in perfect accordance with the dominant ideology of the time, and a strain of working-class literature written in opposition to that ideology.

Popular British Literature in the Early Twentieth Century

In general, the popular forms that had arisen in the course of the nineteenth century continued to thrive in the twentieth, sometimes in new and exciting ways. The strain of Gothic fiction that had led from Horace Walpole’s The Castle of Otranto (1764), through “female” Gothic works (such as Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794), Maria Edgeworth’s Castle Rackrent (1800), and Frankenstein), through Bram Stoker’s (1847–1912) Dracula (1897) gained new life in the ghost stories of the medieval scholar M. R. James (1862–1936). Meanwhile, the fantasy tale, which one might consider to have originated in the works of William Morris (1834–1896)—such as The Well at the World’s End (1896)—and George McDonald (1824–1905)—such as Lilith (1895)—would eventually emerge fully formed in J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit (1937), followed by his monumental Lord of the Rings trilogy (1954–1955). The pioneering science fiction novels of H. G. Wells did not have many direct successors in the early years of the twentieth century, but they would ultimately be crucial forerunners when the genre took off.[6] The colonial adventure was on the decline in the new century, partly because growing anticolonial agitation in Ireland (Britain’s oldest colony) and India (Britain’s biggest and most important colony) had made the empire seem less romantic. Nevertheless, such works did continue to appear, and Haggard continued to write and publish novels well into the twentieth century, including numerous sequels to King Solomon’s Mines, the last of which, Allan and the Ice-Gods, was published posthumously in 1927. Finally, detective stories and novels such as those pioneered by Doyle took interesting new directions in the early decades of the twentieth century in the work of Agatha Christie (1890–1976), while Barbara Cartland (1901–2000) pioneered a new kind of romance story aimed at women readers seeking escape from the dreariness of their domestic lives.

Writers such as William Hope Hodgson (1877–1918)—as in The House on the Borderland (1908)—produced early-twentieth-century forerunners of the modern horror genre, but it was the ghost story, especially in the hands of James, that emerged in the early part of the twentieth century as the most important form of what would later come to be regarded as “horror” fiction. James drew upon his extensive knowledge as a professional medieval scholar to create effectively Gothic settings for his ghost stories, which were published in a series of collections, beginning with Ghost Stories of an Antiquary in 1904, followed by More Ghost Stories of an Antiquary (1911), A Thin Ghost and Others (1919), and A Warning to the Curious and Other Ghost Stories (1925). An omnibus edition, The Collected Ghost Stories of M. R. James, was published in 1931.James’s stories tend to follow a set formula—but, then again, he invented the formula, which numerous successors have imitated. The stories tend to take place in quiet settings (either in the country or on a university campus); they tend to feature a protagonist modeled on James himself, a sort of gentleman-scholar whose interest in ancient books or other objects inadvertently summons a ghost, which the protagonist must then face using his wits and knowledge as primary weapons.

Some early-twentieth-century fantasy writers were quite explicit in their production of stories designed to enact an escape from the routine of modern life. In Edith Nesbit’s (1858–1924) The Enchanted Castle (1907), for example, three English schoolchildren set out in search of a magical realm free of the effects of modernization. As one of them puts it, “I think magic went out when people began to have steam-engines, and newspapers, and telephones and wireless telegraphing” (10). These children thus inadvertently echo the then-recent work of Weber. This escapist tendency would continue in the work of the writers who ultimately defined the modern genre of British fantasy.

By mid-century, British fantasy fiction had come to be dominated by writers who were suspicious of modernity. Such writers—such as C. S. Lewis (1898–1963) and J.R.R. Tolkien (1892–1973)—were often driven by their own conservative (typically religious) impulse, but it is also the case that the rise of British fantasy in the 1930s and 1940s seems to have been at least partly a reaction against the rise of American science fiction during the same period. Such writers came to associate science fiction with the contamination, or even extinction, of indigenous British cultural traditions by American popular culture—and by American-driven modernization as a whole. Thus, Roger Luckhurst argues that the association of science fiction with “Americanized modernity … is surely part of the reason that the most notable form of writing in England in the wake of the war was the more indigenous form of fantasy” (123). Luckhurst argues that the writing of Lewis and Tolkien, in particular, “responds directly to the condition of modernity in England, and to what they perceived as a disastrous defeat of tradition” (124).

In terms of their suspicions toward modernity, it is probably significant that both Lewis and Tolkien were scholars of medieval literature. Both were also devoted Catholics. Lewis is best known for The Chronicles of Narnia, a series of seven fantasy novels intended primarily for children, written between 1949 and 1954. Considered a classic of children’s literature, this sequence is strongly informed by Christian ideas; the magical world of Narnia is driven by principles that definitely go beyond the physical laws of our own world but operate in fairly strict accordance with the supernatural aspects of Catholicism, up to and including a hero (Aslan) who is a transparent figure of Christ. Moreover, the world of Narnia is viewed through the lens of a group of children who arrive there from our own world, encouraging readers to accept the principles of Narnia (and Christianity) with a childlike innocence (and faith).

Tolkien began the creation of the elaborately detailed imaginary realm of Middle Earth in The Hobbit (1937) but perfected it in the seminal “Lord of the Rings” trilogy, which comprises The Fellowship of the Ring (1954), The Two Towers (1954), and The Return of the King (1955). Here, he creates the magical realm of Middle Earth, drawing upon his upon his extensive knowledge of Anglo-Saxon, Norse, and Greco-Roman mythologies, as well as Catholicism to create a vivid fantasy realm. The detail with which Tolkien populates his Middle Earth probably accounts for the fact that so many readers have found that work so compelling. Meanwhile, the plot of the trilogy is carefully crafted—based, as Richard Mathews has noted, on the “scriptural pattern of revelation”—to enhance reader involvement and to deliver satisfying resolutions in the end (138). To this day, Tolkien’s work remains highly popular with general readers—buoyed by the vast popular success of Peter Jackson’s film adaptations between 2001 and 2003—though it has long received mixed reviews from critics, many of whom have complained of the blandness of Tolkien’s style, the oversimplicity of his moral vision, and the escapist and unrealistic nature of his nostalgia for earlier, presumably simpler and better times. Nevertheless, his works of fantasy remain the standard against which all such works are still judged today. Indeed, Tom Shippey declares Tolkien to be the most important author of the twentieth century, the principal author responsible for the fact that “the dominant literary mode of the twentieth century has been the fantastic” (vii).

Shippey exaggerates here, and fantasy has not been the dominant literary mode in Britain or elsewhere in the twentieth century—though it has certainly been an extremely important mode. Meanwhile, despite the aversion to the genre noted by Luckhurst, science fiction has continued to be an important mode in British literature ever since the pioneering work of Wells in the 1890s. Indeed, despite his turn to a primarily realist mode of fiction in the twentieth century, Wells himself continued to produce science fiction throughout his career. As opposed to the antiquarianism of Lewis and Tolkien, Wells believed that science and technology, properly guided by socialist political principles, could bring about a better world. However, a utopian outcome was by no means inevitable to Wells, and many of his works—such as When the Sleeper Wakes (1899)—anticipate the important dystopian vein that marked much of British speculative fiction in the twentieth century. Works such as Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1932) and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four (1949)—bracketing a variety of anti-fascist dystopias in the 1930s, such as Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937)—are certainly among the best known and most influential works of British literature in the last century. On the other hand, works with more distinctively utopian themes have continued to appear as well. One could cite here the fictions produced in the 1930s by the British socialist writer Olaf Stapledon (1886–1950), including Last and First Men (1930) and Star Maker (1937). Here Stapledon envisions the far-future societies in which humanity has evolved to the point of overcoming the negative inclinations (such as selfish individualism) of our own world. Stapledon’s interests are largely philosophical; he deals relatively little with advanced technology or with politics, though his work is informed by a consistent antipathy toward capitalism and fascism.

Stapledon’s novels, like much of the work of Wells, contain important utopian energies in their sense that bigger and better things may await humanity in the far future. The same can be said of the work of Arthur C. Clarke (1917–2008), whose work often deals with the notion of the evolution of the human species into a radical new era, typically propelled by the intervention of an advanced alien race that might, in fact, have been overseeing the development of humanity from its very beginnings. This idea is developed in the most detail in this novel Childhood’s End (1953), in which an invasion of alien Overlords helps to propel humanity into a new stage of evolution. This same motif is also crucial to the single work for which Clarke is perhaps best known today, the 1968 science fiction film 2001: A Space Odyssey, directed by Stanley Kubrik and co-written by Kubrick and Clarke, the latter of whom also wrote a novelization of the film’s story in parallel with the making of the film.

Finally, no consideration of British popular literature in the twentieth century could be complete without an acknowledgement of the importance of detective fiction in British culture. Doyle himself continued to write Sherlock Holmes stories well into the twentieth century, with his last Holmes novel, The Valley of Fear, appearing in serialized form in 1914–1915. The last collection of Holmes stories by Doyle, The Case-Book of Sherlock Holmes, appeared in 1927, gathering stories originally published in Strand magazine from 1921 until 1927. By this time, Christie had established an important presence in British detective fiction, beginning with her first novel, The Mysterious Affair at Styles (1920), which introduced the detective Hercule Poirot, who would be featured in many of Christie’s detective novels and stories going forward. Christie’s other major detective figure, Miss Jane Marple, was introduced in the short story collection The Thirteen Problems in 1927. Christie would go on to become one of the most prolific and popular[7] authors of the twentieth century in a career that ultimately included 66 detective novels and 14 story collections, stretching until the end of her life in 1976.

Christie developed a distinctive, formulaic style of refined detective fiction, often featuring upper-class characters and almost always ending as the detective identifies the culprit so that justice can be done and order restored. Her fiction thus constitutes an essentially conservative reassurance that the existing social structure works. Several of Christie’s novels are set in or related to the Middle East (where she spent a considerable amount of time with her archaeologist husband), where they consistently reaffirm the rightness of empire. Christie’s work thus stands in stark contrast to the “hard-boiled” style that became so popular in American detective fiction of the twentieth century, which is often much more cynical about the reliability of existing mechanisms for the distribution of justice. However, while Christie was the dominant British detective-fiction writer of the twentieth century, other styles have also been successful. For example, in the 1930s the leftist literary critic Christopher Caudwell (writing as Christopher St. John Sprigg) wrote harder-edged detective novels sympathetic to the proletarian cause. Similarly, the leftist poet Cecil Day-Lewis (1904–1972) also wrote detective fiction. Writing as Nicholas Blake, Day-Lewis (the father of the distinguished actor Daniel Day-Lewis) began writing detective novels in the 1930s and became one of Britain’s most successful writers of detective fiction in a career that extended into the 1960s, though his politics became more muted in later years. One of his last detective novels, The Sad Variety (1964), even contains a sharp critique of leftist dogmatism and Soviet expansionism.

Working-Class and Leftist Literature

If bourgeois novelists such as Dickens and Elizabeth Gaskell called attention to the plight of the English working class in their novels of the mid-nineteenth century, novels later in the century were even more graphic in their detail, though still stopping short of calling for the working class to take collective action to improve their lot. Novels such as George Gissing’s The Nether World (1889) and Arthur Morrison’s A Child of the Jago (1896) attempted to make a middle-class audience aware of the miserable living conditions of the underclasses, especially in London. In addition, writers such as William Edwards Tirebuck, Allen Clarke, and Margaret Harkness (publishing as John Law) produced novels designed to express a genuinely working-class perspective on contemporary social and political issues. For example, Harkness’s first novel, A City Girl (1887) tells, in a fable-like fashion that departs from nineteenth-century conventions of realism, the story of Nelly Ambrose, a young woman who lives in poverty in the tenement in London’s West End. Nelly’s life is hard, but she continues to dream of a better life, though those dreams are never realized in the novel. A City Girl has a special historical importance for leftist aesthetics because it drew the attention of Marx’s associate and frequent co-author, Friedrich Engels, whose critique of the novel (put forth in a letter written to Harkness in 1888), establishes a number of fundamental ideas that have remained influential for Marxist critics and theorists ever since that time (Marx and Engels, Literature and Art 41-43). In the letter, Engels diplomatically praises Harkness for her concentrating on the working class, so long neglected in British literature. However, he concludes that Harkness should have provided more realistic descriptions of the lives of her working-class characters, through “truthful reproduction of typical characters under typical circumstances” (41). He also advises Harkness to try to make her working-class characters less passive and more capable of taking action to improve their lives. In perhaps his most influential suggestion (one that would greatly impact later leftist critics such as Lukács) Engels declares that the great French realist Honoré de Balzac, despite his personal reactionary philosophy, is “a far greater master of realism” than the left-leaning French naturalist novelist Émile Zola, and thus urges Harkness, who was so clearly influenced by Zola, to turn to Balzac as a model instead (42-3). Time and again, in subsequent decades, leftist critics would point to the right-wing Balzac as a crucial role model for leftist novelists.

The last years of the nineteenth century also saw an increase in the production of historical novels from a working-class perspective by writers such as William Hale White (The Revolution in Tanner’s Lane, 1887), James Haslam (The Handloom Weaver’s Daughter, 1904), and E. L. Voynich (The Gadfly, 1897). As modernist innovation became an important force in the British literary world in the first decades of the twentieth century, fiction oriented toward socialism or the working class continued to be produced in a relatively conventional realist mode. However, 1914 saw the posthumous publication (albeit in expurgated form[8]) of Robert Tressell’s (the pen name of Robert Noonan, 1870–1911) highly innovative The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, probably the most vivid literary evocation of working-class experience to that date and a book that would become the single most influential text in British proletarian literature in the twentieth century.

A mysterious figure about whom comparatively little is known, Tressell was Irish by birth, but he lived most of his life in London, punctuated by a stay in South Africa during most of the 1890s, after which he apparently helped to organized the Irish Brigades, which fought alongside the Boers against the British in the war.[9] While in South Africa, Tressell acquired experience in the construction trade that would provide valuable information for the writing of The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, though it appears that he held something of a supervisory position in South Africa and did not experience the hardships of most of the characters in his novel. He did, however, labor in more working-class positions after his return to England, which also provided gist for his novel, which includes unprecedented details about the working lives of the proletariat in England.

The 1920s then saw another surge in the production of proletarian literature in Britain, spurred by British social and economic problems in the wake of World War I and inspired partly by the success of the Russian Revolution and the project to build socialism in the Soviet Union. For example, in This Slavery (1925), Ethel Carnie Holdsworth, who herself worked in a Lancashire cotton mill from the age of nine, moves significantly beyond Harkness in the elaboration of a legitimate socialist politics, a difference that can be seen most clearly in the consistently negative depiction of religion (including the Salvation Army with which Harkness was so fascinated) as a tool of capitalist ideological domination.

With the coming of the Great Depression of the 1930s (and with the threat of fascism looming over British society—both internally and externally—during most of that decade), British proletarian literature underwent a veritable explosion of productivity—as did proletarian literature in America and elsewhere.[10] This decade saw the publication of hundreds of proletarian novels, often influenced by trends in the Soviet Union and by the work of Soviet writers such as Maxim Gorky and Mikhail Sholokhov. Special themes of British leftist literature in the 1930s include antifascism in general and the Spanish Civil War in particular, as well as criticisms of British class society and the social and economic inequities of capitalism.[11] Proletarian works were produced in a wide variety of modes and from a significant range of political perspectives. Some of them, such as Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s trilogy, A Scots Quair (1932-1934) employed sophisticated modernist literary strategies that helped them to become accepted as classics of British literature.

During this period, middle-class writers such as Alec Brown (Daughters of Albion (1935), Rex Warner (The Wild Goose Chase, 1937) and Edward Upward (Journey to the Border, 1938) produced works (sometimes in experimental avant-garde forms) that attempted to convey the need for radical social and political change in Britain, while writers such as Walter Greenwood (Love on the Dole, 1933) and Walter Brierley (Means Test Man, 1935) used realist and naturalist strategies to convey working-class experience to a primarily middle-class audience in ways that helped many such books become best-selling popular successes. Meanwhile, writers such as Harold Heslop (Last Cage Down, 1935) and Lewis Jones (Cwmardy, 1937; We Live, 1939) began to make genuine progress toward the development of a legitimately proletarian literature, written by workers for workers, that would break free of the limitations of the bourgeois aesthetic tradition.[12]

The proletarian energies of the 1930s were felt in poetry as well. Indeed, the dominant strain in British poetry in the 1930s tilted strongly toward the political left, as poets such as W. H. Auden (1907–1973) expressed strong political convictions both in their poetry and in their other activities. Auden was the leader of a group of important leftist poets in the 1930s that also included Stephen Spender (1909–1995) and Cecil Day-Lewis, the latter of whom went so far as to join the Communist Party from 1935 to 1938. Auden, for his part, broadcast anti-fascist political messages during the Spanish Civil War, having been convinced that he could contribute more that way than by volunteering to serve on the ground in the war itself. In addition, one of his best-known poems, “Spain, 1937”) (aka “Spain”), written after his visit to Spain in 1937, specifically addresses the Spanish Civil War. In this poem, included below, Auden begins by lauding the coming of modernity and the promise it brought of a better world. He then warns that current events in Spain put that entire legacy in jeopardy. Like T. S. Eliot, Auden sees the modern world in a state of crisis. Unlike Eliot, he does not question modernity itself, but instead locates the true crisis in the threat to the project of modernity that is represented by the rise of fascism in Europe. The poem is an exhortation for advanced democracies such as Britain and the United States to come to the aid of the Spanish Republicans. Alas, no official help was forthcoming, though many on the Left in both Britain and America did volunteer and go to Spain to help the Republican cause. A number of British proletarian and leftist writers were, in fact, killed in Spain, including the young poet John Cornford (1915–1936), the novelist and critic Christopher Caudwell (1907–1937), and the novelist and critic Ralph Fox (1900–1936). In addition, the novelist Lewis Jones (1897–1939) collapsed and died at a young age after working himself to exhaustion agitating in favor of British intervention in Spain.[13]

“Spain, 1937”

W. H. Auden

Yesterday all the past. The language of size

Spreading to China along the trade-routes; the diffusion

Of the counting-frame and the cromlech;

Yesterday the shadow-reckoning in the sunny climates.

Yesterday the assessment of insurance by cards,

The divination of water; yesterday the invention

Of cartwheels and clocks, the taming of

Horses. Yesterday the bustling world of the navigators.

Yesterday the abolition of fairies and giants,

the fortress like a motionless eagle eyeing the valley,

the chapel built in the forest;

Yesterday the carving of angels and alarming gargoyles;

The trial of heretics among the columns of stone;

Yesterday the theological feuds in the taverns

And the miraculous cure at the fountain;

Yesterday the Sabbath of witches; but to-day the struggle

Yesterday the installation of dynamos and turbines,

The construction of railways in the colonial desert;

Yesterday the classic lecture

On the origin of Mankind. But to-day the struggle.

Yesterday the belief in the absolute value of Greek,

The fall of the curtain upon the death of a hero;

Yesterday the prayer to the sunset

And the adoration of madmen. but to-day the struggle.

As the poet whispers, startled among the pines,

Or where the loose waterfall sings compact, or upright

On the crag by the leaning tower:

“O my vision. O send me the luck of the sailor.”

And the investigator peers through his instruments

At the inhuman provinces, the virile bacillus

Or enormous Jupiter finished:

“But the lives of my friends. I inquire. I inquire.”

And the poor in their fireless lodgings, dropping the sheets

Of the evening paper: “Our day is our loss. O show us

History the operator, the

Organiser. Time the refreshing river.”

And the nations combine each cry, invoking the life

That shapes the individual belly and orders

The private nocturnal terror:

“Did you not found the city state of the sponge,

“Raise the vast military empires of the shark

And the tiger, establish the robin’s plucky canton?

Intervene. O descend as a dove or

A furious papa or a mild engineer, but descend.”

And the life, if it answers at all, replied from the heart

And the eyes and the lungs, from the shops and squares of the city

“O no, I am not the mover;

Not to-day; not to you. To you, I’m the

“Yes-man, the bar-companion, the easily-duped;

I am whatever you do. I am your vow to be

Good, your humorous story.

I am your business voice. I am your marriage.

“What’s your proposal? To build the just city? I will.

I agree. Or is it the suicide pact, the romantic

Death? Very well, I accept, for

I am your choice, your decision. Yes, I am Spain.”

Many have heard it on remote peninsulas,

On sleepy plains, in the aberrant fishermen’s islands

Or the corrupt heart of the city.

Have heard and migrated like gulls or the seeds of a flower.

They clung like burrs to the long expresses that lurch

Through the unjust lands, through the night, through the alpine tunnel;

They floated over the oceans;

They walked the passes. All presented their lives.

On that arid square, that fragment nipped off from hot

Africa, soldered so crudely to inventive Europe;

On that tableland scored by rivers,

Our thoughts have bodies; the menacing shapes of our fever

Are precise and alive. For the fears which made us respond

To the medicine ad, and the brochure of winter cruises

Have become invading battalions;

And our faces, the institute-face, the chain-store, the ruin

Are projecting their greed as the firing squad and the bomb.

Madrid is the heart. Our moments of tenderness blossom

As the ambulance and the sandbag;

Our hours of friendship into a people’s army.

To-morrow, perhaps the future. The research on fatigue

And the movements of packers; the gradual exploring of all the

Octaves of radiation;

To-morrow the enlarging of consciousness by diet and breathing.

To-morrow the rediscovery of romantic love,

The photographing of ravens; all the fun under

Liberty’s masterful shadow;

To-morrow the hour of the pageant-master and the musician,

The beautiful roar of the chorus under the dome;

To-morrow the exchanging of tips on the breeding of terriers,

The eager election of chairmen

By the sudden forest of hands. But to-day the struggle.

To-morrow for the young the poets exploding like bombs,

The walks by the lake, the weeks of perfect communion;

To-morrow the bicycle races

Through the suburbs on summer evenings. But to-day the struggle.

To-day the deliberate increase in the chances of death,

The conscious acceptance of guilt in the necessary murder;

To-day the expending of powers

On the flat ephemeral pamphlet and the boring meeting.

To-day the makeshift consolations: the shared cigarette,

The cards in the candlelit barn, and the scraping concert,

The masculine jokes; to-day the

Fumbled and unsatisfactory embrace before hurting.

The stars are dead. The animals will not look.

We are left alone with our day, and the time is short, and

History to the defeated

May say Alas but cannot help nor pardon.

Auden, of course, also wrote in a variety of modes other than the purely political. Indeed, by the end of the 1930s, he was beginning to doubt whether art and poetry could have a major political impact, given the power of other forces a work in the modern world. One of Auden’s best-known poems, for example, was “Musée des Beaux Arts,” written in December 1938 while he was in Brussels, Belgium, with his friend, the novelist Christopher Isherwood (1904–1986), himself an important figure in 1930s British culture and one of the first (having spent time in Germany in the early 1930s), to warn of the menace posed by the German Nazis.[14] This poem was inspired by Auden’s viewing, in the Musées Royaux des Beaux-Arts de Belgique in Brussels, of a painting entitled “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” then assumed to have been painted by Peter Breughel, though that attribution has since been disputed.

The painting “Landscape with the Fall of Icarus,” the inspiration for Auden’s poem “Musée des Beaux Arts.

In the painting, the mythical fall of Icarus occurs virtually without notice, while ordinary people, who have enough mundane troubles of their own, simply go about their business without stopping to contemplate this event of such prominence in Western culture. Auden, perhaps thinking back to the horrors of the Spanish Civil War, or perhaps looking forward to the spread of those horrors throughout Europe in World War II, ultimately reminds us that life goes on despite the worst events that can occur. He also notes that events of momentous importance to some might be insignificant to others. Mixing everyday language with a context of myth, high art, and poetry to capture this contrast between the momentous and the mundane, Auden expresses admiration when he notes of the Old Masters such as Breughel, that

They never forgot

That even the dreadful martyrdom must run its course

Anyhow in a corner, some untidy spot

Where the dogs go on with their doggy life and the torturer’s horse

Scratches its innocent behind on a tree.

One of Auden’s most moving poems, written shortly afterward in very much the same mode, was “In Memory of W. B. Yeats,” an elegy written on the occasion of the death of the Irish poet William Butler Yeats in January 1939. By this time, Yeats himself had moved to a rightist political position that was almost the opposite of Auden’s. Yet Auden continued to regard Yeats as one of the great poets of the twentieth century and as a major influence not only on his own work, but on modern poetry as a whole. In the poem Auden manages to express grief without becoming maudlin and even pulls off the impressive feat of avoiding a descent into cliché and sentimentality while arguing that while Yeats the man is gone, he will live on in his poems, which march on, unaware that their creator has died: “The death of the poet was kept from his poems.” Those poems, in fact, will continue to change those who read them, while readers will continue to give new life to the poems as well: “The words of a dead man,” Auden writes, “Are modified in the guts of the living.” At the same time, Auden labors under no illusion that poetry of any kind will exercise a dramatic and wide-ranging influence on the world of the future. He thus ends the poem on a note of resignation and regret:

But in the importance and noise of to-morrow

When the brokers are roaring like beasts on the floor of the Bourse,
And the poor have the sufferings to which they are fairly accustomed,
And each in the cell of himself is almost convinced of his freedom,
A few thousand will think of this day
As one thinks of a day when one did something slightly unusual.

What instruments we have agree
The day of his death was a dark cold day.[15]

The Mainstream Realist Tradition

England entered the new century in a mixed state of anticipation and anxiety. When Queen Victoria then died in 1901, it further created a sense that an old era was ending and a new one was beginning. Little wonder, then, that big changes would soon be afoot in British culture. It is worth remembering, though, that much of the culture that was most respected at the time continued to be produced in a relatively conventional mode that was largely an extension of late-Victorian literary style. Dramatists such as George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950), who had become Britain’s most prominent dramatist by the end of the nineteenth century, continued to occupy that position for decades into the twentieth.[16] Shaw wrote in a consistently realist mode, though his sympathy for socialist causes often shows up in his work, giving it a distinctly modern tinge. Similarly, Thomas Hardy, who did not begin publishing poetry until 1898, remained a prominent English poet for decades afterward, again writing in a relatively traditional style but also showing the influence of the changing world around him. His 1902 poem “The Man He Killed,” for example, shows a skeptical attitude toward war that reflects popular disillusionment over the recent Boer War as well as Hardy’s own personal attitudes. The poem revolves around the absurdity of a combat situation in which two total strangers, who might in civilian life have become friends, are expected to try to kill one another thanks to forces beyond their control or understanding.

“The Man He Killed”

Thomas Hardy

“Had he and I but met

  By some old ancient inn,

We should have sat us down to wet

  Right many a nipperkin!

  “But ranged as infantry,

  And staring face to face,

I shot at him as he at me,

  And killed him in his place.

  “I shot him dead because —

  Because he was my foe,

Just so: my foe of course he was;

  That’s clear enough; although

  “He thought he’d ‘list, perhaps,

  Off-hand like — just as I —

Was out of work — had sold his traps —

  No other reason why.

  “Yes; quaint and curious war is!

  You shoot a fellow down

You’d treat if met where any bar is,

  Or help to half-a-crown.”

This poem (along with other war poems by Hardy) stood in stark contrast to most (staunchly jingoistic) British war poetry up to that time and anticipated the harsh depiction of warfare by British World War I poets such as Siegfried Sassoon (1886–1967) and Wilfred Owen (1893–1918), whose skeptical attitudes captured the feeling of many that this war was a senseless conflict being fought at huge human cost with no clear reasons behind it. After all, World War I visited unprecedented destruction upon the European continent in a conflict the real motivations behind which were never really all that clear. Poets such as Sassoon and Owen were not particularly inventive in terms of poetic form, but their skeptical attitude toward the war was a distinct rupture in poetic history that captured—more than any of the modernist writers—the traumatic nature of World War I as potentially marking the end of the Enlightenment project. Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum est[17] is still regarded as one of the greatest and most important war poems ever written.

“Dulce et Decorum Est”

By Wilfred Owen

Bent double, like old beggars under sacks,

Knock-kneed, coughing like hags, we cursed through sludge,

Till on the haunting flares we turned our backs,

And towards our distant rest began to trudge.

Men marched asleep. Many had lost their boots,

But limped on, blood-shod. All went lame; all blind;

Drunk with fatigue; deaf even to the hoots

Of gas-shells dropping softly behind.

Gas! GAS! Quick, boys!—An ecstasy of fumbling

Fitting the clumsy helmets just in time,

But someone still was yelling out and stumbling

And flound’ring like a man in fire or lime.—

Dim through the misty panes and thick green light,

As under a green sea, I saw him drowning.

In all my dreams before my helpless sight,

He plunges at me, guttering, choking, drowning.

If in some smothering dreams, you too could pace

Behind the wagon that we flung him in,

And watch the white eyes writhing in his face,

His hanging face, like a devil’s sick of sin;

If you could hear, at every jolt, the blood

Come gargling from the froth-corrupted lungs,

Obscene as cancer, bitter as the cud

Of vile, incurable sores on innocent tongues,—

My friend, you would not tell with such high zest

To children ardent for some desperate glory,

The old Lie: Dulce et decorum est

Pro patria mori.

Poets such as Hardy explored decidedly modern themes but in forms that essentially continued nineteenth-century conventions. Yet the controlled austerity of Hardy’s verse also exerted a strong influence on British poets who came after him, especially Philip Larkin (1922–1985). Some of the most widely respected English novelists of the early twentieth century also wrote in a relatively traditional style but often with very modern attitudes. Wells, for example, turned from his pioneering work in science fiction in the 1890s to write more conventional realist novels, though the highly satirical Tono Bungay (1909) still includes elements of science fiction. Other Wells novels of this period—Anna Veronica (1909), The History of Mr. Polly (1910), The Passionate Friends (1913)—were in a more conventionally realist vein, though they contained strong elements of social satire that reflected Wells’ Fabian socialist views (which he shared with Shaw, among many others).[18] Wells also continued to write speculative fiction as well as non-fiction, becoming a respected socialist and utopian thinker as well as an historian. Works such as A Modern Utopia (1905) and The Shape of Things to Come (1933) outlined his vision for a utopian future. His key historical work The Outline of History (1920) was especially important (and popular) as an account of history for a general audience; this work subtly figured the history as the past that leads to the utopian future imagined in his other work.

Bennett was much more conventional as a novelist, writing only realist novels, though some of his work bordered on naturalism in its focus on the grim details of the often difficult lives of its working-class characters. He wrote in several genres but is best known for his numerous novels, especially those set in the “Five Towns” industrial region of the Staffordshire Potteries, now making the city of Stoke-on-Trent in the West Midlands of England.[19] The latter include Anna of the Five Towns (1902), The Old Wives’ Tale (1908), and a series of four novels collectively known as The Clayhanger Family (1910–1918). Bennett’s 1917 crime novel The Loot of Cities was something of a departure for him, though it is widely considered to be a classic of the genre. Though quite successful during his prime, Bennett suffered significant damage to his reputation as a novelist due to the harsh criticisms leveled against his work by members of the Bloomsbury Group, especially Virginia Woolf, who saw his work as hopelessly old-fashioned.[20] Moreover, Bennett’s clear sympathy for ordinary working people ran against the elitist inclinations of the Bloomsbury Group, who felt that intellectuals had a responsibility to resist the growing influence of the masses in driving cultural production in England and elsewhere. More recently, however, critics such as John Carey, employing a more modern and democratic view, have championed Bennett’s work as a sort of fictional defense of the masses against the onslaught of elitist intellectuals such as the Bloomsbury Group.

Like Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy also came in for criticism from the Bloomsbury Group, though that didn’t stop Galsworthy, perhaps the most conventional of the three as a realist novelist, from becoming the second English writer to win a Nobel Prize in literature in 1932. By far the best-known works of Galsworthy’s career are the three novels and two shorter “interludes” that together detail the history of the fictional Forsyte family, published between 1906 and 1921 and then published together as The Forsyte Saga in 1922. This saga tells the story of a single upper-class British family caught up in the dramatic changes underway in British society as a whole from the late nineteenth century to the beginning of the 1920s. On the other hand, British history here is used primarily as a backdrop for the personal stories of the Forsytes, as the novels maintain the individualist focus of the typical bourgeois novel. 1922, of course, is now remembered as the greatest year of modernist literary production, the year in which both T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses were published. At the time, however, the publication of the omnibus edition of Galsworthy’s Forsyte novels was considered a much more important literary event, Eliot and (especially) Joyce remaining somewhat marginal cultural figures. Now, however, The Forsyte Saga is remembered primarily for its highly successful 1967 BBC television adaptation, while The Waste Land and Ulysses are considered among the greatest monuments of twentieth-century literature.

Literary Modernism

Though marginal at the time it was produced, the modernist works of the first three decades or so of the twentieth century moved to the very center of the British literary canon, especially in American literary studies (and American college classrooms) in the 1950s. Indeed, modernism in general came to the fore in literary studies in conjunction with the rise of the New Criticism as the dominant mode of literary analysis at the same time. Modernism, with its emphasis on style and literary technique, was perfectly suited to the New Criticism, which emphasized the same things. Since that time, however, modernist literature has received a tremendous amount of attention and ways of reading that literature have evolved from the intensely formalist New Critical emphasis of the 1950s to more historically- and politically-based readings in recent decades.

However, the exact nature and ideological orientation of modernism are still being debated—partly because modernism was never a coherent, coordinated project, but a broad and diverse international phenomenon. All modernists responded to a sense that the world was changing so rapidly that older artistic forms were no longer adequate as representations of contemporary reality. But different modernist artists responded in different ways. Politically conservative modernists—such as the American expatriate poets Ezra Pound (1885–1972) and T. S. Eliot (1888–1965)—were horrified by the changes they saw going on around them and felt that modern tendencies toward the democratization were leading to an overall decrease in the quality of culture. Such modernists were largely in accord with the revulsion toward the masses expressed in such works as José Ortega y Gasset’s The Revolt of the Masses (1930), which viewed the rise of mass culture as a form of debased mob rule and longingly looked back to the earlier status of a sophisticated intellectual elite as the arbiters of modern thought and culture. Eliot and Pound, who were close friends and associates, responded by producing complex, esoteric poetry that resisted the turn toward popular literature and was thus accessible only to an educated elite. Other modernists, though, were not so sure that the collapse of the traditional culture was necessarily a bad thing. Woolf came from a privileged, upper-class English background and had her own elitist tendencies. It was, in fact, Clive Bell’s Civilization (1928), which begins with a letter of dedication to Woolf, that probably did more than any other single work to create the image of modernism—and especially the Bloomsbury Group—as snobbishly elitist.[21] However, Woolf also found that her status as a woman nevertheless placed severe limitations on her rights and opportunities, and she aimed much of her writing at gender-based inequalities in British society. The Irishman James Joyce (1882–1941) was born a colonial subject, regarded as inherently inferior by Ireland’s British colonial masters. Both Woolf and Joyce seemed to regard the breakdown of older cultural forms as a potential opportunity to develop new cultural forms that might help to win more equitable treatment for women and for the Irish, respectively. Thus, when they developed new experimental forms of writing, the point was not to exclude the masses but to break free of literary forms that had worked in complicity with the traditional power structures that had held women and the Irish in subaltern positions for hundreds of years.

Whatever the goals of the artists, however, virtually all observers have agreed (though the details vary) that modernist literature was highly experimental and highly oriented toward producing something new that responded to the new modern world in which the artists suddenly found themselves. In one of the earliest attempts to develop a coherent retrospective description of the characteristics of modernist literature, Maurice Beebe, writing in 1974, acknowledges the difficulty of getting a comprehensive hold on such a large and diverse phenomenon, and instead opts try to characterize a single work that he feels best represents the spirit of modernism. That work was Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses, which Beebe feels displays four “cardinal points” that might be used to describe modernism as a whole:

(1) formalism and the importance of structure and design;

(2) an attitude of detachment and non-commitment that can generally be labeled as irony;

(3) use of myth not as a discipline for belief or subject of interpretation, but as an arbitrary means of ordering art;

(4) reflexivity and the concern of art with its own creation and composition

Beebe’s characterization Ulysses is typical of its time, when the judgment of the American New Critics that Ulysses was a work much concerned with form and language and little concerned with politics and history ruled supreme. The championing of Ulysses—and of the work of other modernist novelists, such as the American William Faulkner (1897–1962)—by the New Critics was crucial to the canonization of modernist literature in the 1950s, the same decade in which the New Criticism became enshrined as the “official” mode of literary analysis in college classes all over America. But the insistence of the New Critics that modernist works were divorced from historical and political reality, ensconcing themselves instead in an isolated aesthetic realm, also did a great disservice to the works of many modernist artists—including an artist such as Joyce, whose works are so energized by his spirited critique of the maiming of Ireland by the British Empire and the Catholic Church. Beebe’s vision of Joyce’s “attitude of detachment” is thus highly questionable. Indeed, Beebe (writing at the time before the rise of postcolonial studies as an important force in both British and American academia) virtually ignores Joyce’s Irishness and essentially treats him as a British writer, something that was also common at the time. That a writer from such a marginal background—a writer who was once considered a pornographer—would emerge in Beebe’s vision as the central modernist literary artist also speaks to the power of the revisionary treatment of modernism spurred by the New Criticism (and the Cold War) in the 1950s.

The Dutch critic Douwe Fokkema presents a later and somewhat more sophisticated list of the central “conventions” of modernism, including:

(1) the presentation of the text as not being definite or complete;

(2) epistemological doubt with respect to the possibility of representing and explaining reality;

(3) metalingual scepsis as to the possibility of expressing adequately whatever knowledge about the world one thinks to have found;

(4) respect for the idiosyncrasies of the reader, or the idea that reading is a private affair upon which even the writer should not intrude.

There are, in fact, many such characterizations, most of which are positive—in line with the prevailing view that literary modernism represented the pinnacle of aesthetic achievement in modern literature. Marxist critics, however, were suspicious of modernism as a mere self-indulgent reflection of bourgeois decadence, produced by artists who had retreated from the social world into their own aesthetic realms. In his important essay “The Ideology of Modernism,” Lukács (still considering Joyce as a key example) grants that modernist texts can contain a great deal of naturalistic detail, a suggestion with which any reader of Ulysses would have to agree. The problem with modernism for Lukács is that these details are intended not as a representation of typical elements of reality; instead, they are mere allegorical stand-ins for abstract ideas: “Modernist literature thus replaces concrete typicality with abstract particularity” (43).

Modernism, for Lukács, is marked by three central weaknesses:

(1) Estrangement from reality—abstraction and narcissism. According to Lukács, “Joyce uses Dublin, Kafka and Musil the Hapsburg Monarchy, as the locus of their masterpieces. But the locus they lovingly depict is little more than a backcloth; it is not basic to their artistic intention” (21).

(2) Subjectivity and individualism. For Lukács, the focus on the inner minds of characters (which often amounts to a focus on the inner minds of pathological characters—something Lukács compares to the preoccupations of Freudian psychoanalysis) is a weakness that diverts attention from the outer social world.

(3) A general emphasis on the pathological. For Lukács, a fascination with the bizarre and the abnormal in modernist literature means that this literature loses touch with the lives of ordinary people.

Interestingly, attitudes toward modernist literature among bourgeois and Marxist critics began to reverse polarities in the 1960s, partly because the rise of a new postmodernist form of literature produced new perspectives on literary history, while the oppositional political movements of the 1960s produced new ideas about what constituted resistance to dominant ideas. Now, bourgeois critics such as the Egyptian American critic Ihab Hassan, one of the first important critics to call attention to postmodernism as a literary phenomenon, began to see modernism in a more negative light as a conservative form of literature that lacked the subversive energies they associated with the new postmodernist literature. When Hassan attempts to characterize postmodernism in his landmark essay “POSTmodernISM,” he does so largely by seeing postmodernism as an extension of modernism, but with more democratic and revolutionary energies—in keeping with the 1960s context in which Hassan was working at the time. For Hassan, both modernism and postmodernism are informed by the following characteristics:

(1) urbanism

(2) technologism (including reactions to technology like Bergsonian time and dissociation of sensibility)

(3) dehumanization (essentially an end to the old realism, affecting the sense of the self—style takes over: let life and the masses fend for themselves)

(4) primitivism (use of archetypes and the return of Dionysus)

(5) eroticism

(6) antinomianism (iconoclasm, schism, excess, movement toward apocalypse)

(7) experimentalism

In this essay, Hassan’s principal interest is in postmodernism, but he still discusses it in terms of these “rubrics” developed from modernism, concluding that a central difference between the two movements has to do with the questions of order and authority:

whereas Modernism created its own forms of Authority, precisely because the center no longer held, Postmodernism has tended toward Anarchy, in deeper complicity with things falling apart . . . the Authority of Modernism . . . rests on intense, elitist, self-generated orders in times of crisis, of which the Hemingway Code is perhaps the starkest exemplar, and Eliot’s Tradition or Yeats’ Mythology is a more devious kind. (29)

Subsequent critics of postmodernism have often moved in this same direction, pointing out the elitism of modernism and criticizing its lack of engagement with historical reality. Andreas Huyssen, for example, has criticized modernism as an elitist form designed to preserve a distinction between high and low art that is essentially class-based. For him, postmodernist literature bridges that gap, refusing to privilege what has traditionally been regarded as high culture over the more popular forms that have arisen in the twentieth century. On the other hand, according to Fredric Jameson, America’s most important Marxist critic at the end of the twentieth century and the most important theorist of postmodernism, such criticisms of modernism fail to place the movement in its proper historical perspective. For Jameson, it is not modernism, but postmodernism that is the ultimate artistic reflection of bourgeois ideology. Postmodernism is the kind of art that arises when the historical process of capitalist modernization is essentially complete; modernism, on the other hand, appears at a time when this process is still underway. Modernism, for Jameson, continues to reflect vestiges of older forms of social organization, deriving energy from “the coexistence of realities from radically different moments of history” (Postmodernism 307). The sense of the new in modernism is so intense because the old still exists to provide contrasts; in the age of postmodernism, everything is new, so that, in a sense, nothing is, the very category of the new having lost any real meaning. Modernism, according to Jameson, is driven by the “myth of producing a radically new Utopian space capable of transforming the world itself (Postmodernism 104), while postmodernism simply accepts the world as it is and contains virtually no utopian energies whatsoever. Moreover, Jameson argues that the various forms of modernism, however variable, share an unmitigated hostility toward the capitalist market, while the various forms of postmodernism, which can be equally variable, share an affirmation of that market (Postmodernism 304–05). Even modernism’s notorious subjectivism, for Jameson, has a strong utopian component, suggesting the possibility of an impending transformation of the self from the older bourgeois model. Postmodernism, in short, announces the ultimate triumph of capitalist modernization, while modernism functions as a last-ditch attempt at resistance against the growing hegemony of capitalism and of bourgeois ideology, driven by the belief that there are alternatives, thanks to the surviving energies of the Second International[22] (Postmodernism 313).

Many accounts of modern literary history are built upon a narrative of movement from the dominance of realism in the nineteenth century, through the challenges to realism offered by modernism, to the eventual emergence of postmodernism. However, as Jameson’s discussions of literary history emphasize, modernism differs from both realism and postmodernism because it was never a dominant form during its initial run; it was instead a marginal form opposed to a still dominant realism. From this point of view, postmodernism can be seen as what modernism is when it becomes dominant, losing its oppositional energies and becoming thoroughly conscripted as what Jameson calls “the logic of late capitalism.”

However one sees modernism, it is clear that the modernist movement responded to a number of historical, cultural, and intellectual phenomena (from Marx to Freud, from the Indian Rebellion of 1857 to the Russian Revolution of 1917) in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, all of which contributed to an intense sense of a need for innovation in the arts. All in all, modernist artists reacted (sometimes positively, sometimes negatively, sometimes ambivalently) to the secularization, alienation, reification, routinization, and globalization of the modern world. They produced new forms of art that might be described, in my view, as having the following characteristics, especially where literature is concerned:

            (1) a sense of intense social, political, and cultural crisis

            (2) a complex relation to the literary tradition

(3) formal complexity and experimentalism (including intense self-consciousness and focus on art as the subject of art)

(4) exploration of the nature of human subjectivity (suggesting a sense that subjectivity is in crisis).

British Modernist Literature

Poets such as T. S. Eliot were among the most important British modernists. However, it has been noted that modernist fiction, because of the emphasis on form and literary technique, often functioned liked poetry.[23] It is perhaps for this reason that the best-known works of modernist literature in Britain are primarily fiction, which in some ways assumed the role formerly played by poetry. British novelists such as Conrad, Forster, Woolf, D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930), Ford Madox Ford (1873–1939), and Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957) produced works of lasting significance that are still read and studied today.

Conrad might best be considered a sort of proto-modernist who began to move in modernist directions before the modernist movement itself was fully underway.[24]Conrad was born in the Russian-ruled Ukraine (as Jozef Korzeniowski) to an aristocratic family of Polish nationalists who were active in efforts to gain Polish independence from the Russian Empire. His family moved to Warsaw when Conrad was only three years old; because of his father’s subsequent political activities there, the family was soon exiled by the Russian authorities to a frigid area north of Moscow. By 1863 they were allowed to move back to an area of the Ukraine where the climate was more moderate, but Conrad’s mother nevertheless died of tuberculosis in 1865. In 1867, Conrad moved with his father to an Austrian-ruled area of Poland. After his father died in 1869, Conrad led a difficult existence until he was sent by his uncle to Marseille in France to become a sailor. He was already at this time fluent in French (in addition to his native Polish), and he had read widely as a boy, including books of adventure that must have made a life at sea seem appealing. He served for the next four years in the French Merchant Marine, then for nearly sixteen years in the British Merchant Marine. Over half of that time was spent at sea, and his travels provided much material for his later writing. Conrad became a British citizen in 1886 and retired from sailing in 1894, partly because of poor health and partly because the failing economy made it more and more difficult to secure positions on ships.

Conrad had dreamed of being a writer from a young age. His first novel, Almayer’s Folly (1895), is set among the Dutch colonies in Maritime Southeast Asia and draws directly upon his own travels there. An Outcast of the Islands (1896) had a similar setting. The story “An Outpost of Progress” (1897) moves to the Belgian-ruled region of the Congo, which Conrad had also visited during his sailing career. That same year, The Nigger of the Narcissus became his first truly successful novel. It details the voyage of the sailing ship Narcissus from Bombay to London, made more difficult by unrest in the crew and by a ferocious gale encountered at sea. This novel was described by Henry James as “the very finest and strongest picture of the sea and sea life that our language possesses.” It was followed in 1899 by the serial publication of Heart of Darkness, Conrad’s first true masterpiece. (It would not be published all together in one place until it was included in Youth and Other Stories in 1902.) 1900 saw the publication of Lord Jim, another important text that showed some of the same strain between tendencies toward popular adventure writing and modernist-style literary experimentalism that marks Heart of Darkness.

By this time, Conrad was a well-established literary figure, and each of his published novels was considered a literary event—though none of them were genuinely big sellers, perhaps because their modernist tendencies did not appeal to a broad audience. Nostromo (1904) is a political adventure set in the fictional (and tellingly named) “Costaguana,” a postcolonial Latin American country that has nominally gained its independence from European rule but continues to be dominated by foreign “material interests.” This novel showed a growing sophistication in Conrad’s treatment of issues related to colonialism, though his next novel would be a darkly comic political satire set back in London. The Secret Agent (1907) deals with the activities of a group anarchists (inspired by a Russian agent who actually wants to discredit anarchists) who are trying to blow up the Greenwich Observatory, a key emblem of British imperial power—symbolically somewhat like the World Trade Towers that were bombed in New York in 2001. Among other things, this novel is one of the most prominent examples of Conrad’s tendency to portray Russians negatively throughout his career. Under Western Eyes (1911) centers on a group of exiled Russian anarchists and portrays Russians in a similarly negative light.

Chance (1913) essentially marked a new phase in Conrad’s writing career. His greatest commercial success, it was also less inventive than the novels that preceded it, suggesting that Conrad had already passed his zenith as a creative artist. Narrated by Charles Marlow (who also appears as a narrator figure in both Heart of Darkness and Lord Jim, Chance centers on Flora de Barral, Conrad’s most fully realized female character, but is otherwise unremarkable. Victory (1915) and Rescue (1920) are similarly professional efforts that contain little in the way of innovation—except perhaps for a tendency to draw upon a widening array of literary predecessors.

Though his critical reputation has fluctuated over the years, Conrad now seems firmly established in the Western literary canon, despite the belief by some critics (see the discussion of Heart of Darkness below) that his depiction of Europe’s colonial subjects can at time border on downright racism. Much of the reason for the ongoing interest in his work has to do with the way his concern with form and style prefigured modernism, while much of it also has to do with his intense engagement with public issues of his day, especially colonialism.

Another relatively early arrival on the modernist scene was E. M. Forster (1879-1970), who showed a talent for literary innovation as early as his first novel Where Angels Fear to Tread (1905), a tragi-comedy surrounding the marriage of a British woman, Lilia Herriton, to an Italian dentist, Gino Carella. The resultant dialogue between England and Italy would show up several times in Forster’s career. His next novel, The Longest Journey (1907), focuses on the attempts of the sensitive, but lame, Rickie Elliot to become a writer. Rickie’s aestheticism and physical weakness are contrasted with the health and pagan energies of his half-brother, Stephen, raising a number of issues related to class and to the great modernist theme of alienation. Forster then returned to Italy in 1908, clearly contrasting Italian vitality with British repression in A Room with a View. Here, a young English woman, Lucy Honeychurch, discovers love in Venice with George Emerson and escapes the suffocating attentions of the tellingly-named bourgeois Cecil Vyse.

Howards End (1910) is perhaps Forster’s first truly great novel, and one that captures some of the tensions in a British society in the throes of all-out modernization. Here, the confusing blur of constant change that is London is contrasted with the more peaceful and slow-paced life at Howards End, while issues related to class and to culture are crucial to the text. Maurice, written 1913, is a gay bildungsroman detailing the growing love between Maurice Hall and the earthy gamekeeper Alec Scudder. Growing out of Forster’s own status as a closeted gay man, it was published posthumously in 1971, withheld until after his death at Forster’s own request. A Passage to India (1924) deals with a number of key issues in the long relationship between England and India and is one of the great novels of the colonial experience. In 1927, Forster turned to criticism with Aspects of the Novel (1927), and he spent the final decades of his life devoted to teaching and criticism, rather than to novel writing.

The son of a Nottinghamshire coal miner and of a former teacher forced into factory work by financial circumstances, D. H. Lawrence (1885-1930) was very unusual among the major modernist writers in having a working-class background. He did, however, receive a college education that allowed him to begin a career as a schoolteacher, though he soon turned to writing full-time. His first novel, The White Peacock, was published in 1910. Perhaps less formally adventurous than some other modernists, Lawrence was at the forefront of modernist innovation in the frank portrayal of sexuality. In exploring that realm, he was also among the modernists who was most strongly and directly influenced by the work of Sigmund Freud. He was also perhaps the single modernist author who could most directly be seen as an heir to the legacy of Romanticism, a legacy toward which many modernists were quite skeptical.

Sons and Lovers (1913), one of Lawrence’s most important works, is a somewhat autobiographical study of the attempts of young Paul Morel to transcend his own working-class roots through intellectual endeavor. Lawrence’s next novel, The Rainbow (1915), was seized by the police and declared obscene, thus beginning the encounters with censorship that would plague much of his career. For example, Women in Love (the sequel to The Rainbow) was completed in 1916 but not published in 1920 because of its controversial sexual content. This novel continues the story of the Brangwen sisters, Ursula and Gudrun, as they cope with the tribulations of modernity in a Midlands colliery town. Lady Chatterley’s Lover, meanwhile, remains perhaps Lawrence’s most notorious novel for its battles with censorship. It was originally published in 1928, then seized and banned for more than thirty years until the publication was approved in a landmark censorship trial that opened the way for the publication of a number of sexually-explicit texts.

Lawrence also ran afoul of the British authorities during World War I when he and his German wife were accused of working to aid the German side during the war, leading to harassment that made their lives in England quite difficult. They left England soon after the war and wandered about the world, settling most extensively in New Mexico in the American Southwest and in Northern Italy, near Florence. While in the U.S. Lawrence wrote Studies in Classic American Literature (1923), a landmark discussion of its topic that drew new attention to American literature and especially to the work of Herman Melville, whose critical reputation at that time had been in decline. Long suffering from ill health, Lawrence died in France at the age of forty-four.

In retrospect, the most important of all British modernist novelists was probably Virginia Woolf, though she was among the last of them to receive major critical attention—due to precisely the sort of gender discrimination that was the target of much of her writing. However, as feminist literary criticism rose to prominence amid the Women’s Movement of the 1960s, Woolf became a key figure for many feminist critics and is probably now second only to Joyce in the modernist pantheon—both for the brilliance of her writing and for her championing of more liberal attitudes toward gender.

Woolf’s first few novels show the beginnings of her development as a writer who sensitively explores the inner lives of her characters, especially her women characters. The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919), though, are relatively conventional when compared with her later novels. Jacob’s Room (1922), heavily influenced by Woolf’s emotional memories of the death of her brother Thoby in 1906, deals specifically with the life and death (in World War I) of young Jacob Flanders—and thus is one of the modernist works that directly reacts to the war. It was the beginning of Woolf’s major phase as a writer.

Woolf then proceeded to write a string of remarkable and innovative modernist works. In Mrs. Dalloway (1925) she reaches the height of her powers as a modernist novelist and as a practitioner of the technique of stream of consciousness[25] as she attempts to show her readers the inner workings of the minds of her characters. The same can be said for To the Lighthouse (1927), which is also a representative modernist work in its concern with the process of artistic creation. Woolf then topped off her novels of the 1920s with Orlando (1928), a fascinating mock biography of a young Elizabethan man who lives into the twentieth century, experiencing a change in gender along the way. Though it received little serious attention when published, Orlando has become an important text for feminist critics in recent years; it anticipates later literary phenomena such as magical realism, while its play with history might be seen as an anticipation of postmodernism.

The Waves (1931) is perhaps Woolf’s most intensely lyrical, poetic, and experimental work, a sort of extended prose poem that explores the inner thoughts of a group of friends who attempt to find viable identities for themselves amid the turmoil of the modern world. Flush (1933), a mock biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, is a relatively minor work but one that still manages to touch on important gender issues. It was followed by The Years (1937), a relatively conventional realistic novel that traces the history of the Pargiter family from 1880 to 1936. Woolf then returned to experimental form with Between the Acts (1941), built around a village pageant that seeks to present a sweeping panorama of English history.

In addition to her fiction, Woolf was important as a member of the Bloomsbury Group and as a writer of various kinds of nonfiction. Her diaries have been published in various forms, for example, and her extended essay (actually the text from two lectures) A Room of One’s Own (1929), dealing with the special difficulties faced by women writers in a literary tradition dominated by males, has become a leading manifesto for feminist critics. Three Guineas (1938) continues Room’s exploration of feminist issues. Woolf’s critical essays—such as the important “Modern Fiction” (1921), which helped to shape the modernist movement in important ways—have appeared in a variety of collections, including The Common Reader (1925), The Second Common Reader (1932), and The Death of the Moth (published posthumously in 1942).

Finally, of note among lesser British modernist novelists are Ford and Lewis. Ford was important not only for his own writing but for his relationships with and support of other writers, both personally and as the editor of the journals The English Review and The Transatlantic Review. He was particularly close with Conrad, with whom he co-authored three novels, including the science fiction novel The Inheritors (1901), which deals, among other things, with the inability of the British aristocracy to cope with the onslaught of modernity. Ford was also an important promoter of modernism as the editor of The English Review and The Transatlantic Review. But Ford’s own novels, including The Good Soldier (1915) and the four novels of the Parade’s End tetralogy (1924–28), are of considerable merit in their own right. As a measure of anti-German feeling in England in the wake of World War I, it might be noted that Ford changed his last name from the Germanic “Hueffer” soon after the war. Meanwhile, born in the same year as both Joyce and Woolf, Lewis was a talented writer and painter whose reputation declined after his rightest sympathies led him to support Hitler and the British Fascist Party during the 1930s. Nevertheless, novels such as Tarr (1918) and The Apes of God (1930) are nevertheless important for their technical virtuosity and must be considered in any assessment of the overall achievements of British literary modernism.

By the 1930s, with an economic depression in full swing and war with Nazi Germany looming on the horizon, British culture as a whole turned to a more direct engagement with contemporary events and away from modernist experimentalism. The period of “high” modernism in literature was over by the beginning of the war, though the innovations of the modernists would continue to exercise an important influence on writers of the decades after the war. Modernist innovations in literature and the visual arts were also important inspirations for British filmmakers; eclipsed by Hollywood film in the 1930s in terms of global popularity, British filmmakers would nevertheless play an important role in British culture going forward, often occupying the kinds of roles once occupied by novelists.


[1] The “proletariat” is the name given by Karl Marx to the new working-class that arose in conjunction with capitalism and that generated the labor that made capitalism possible.

[2] The American film Khartoum (1966) heroizes and sentimentalizes the defense of the city by Gordon, who is played in the film by Charlton Heston, then a major star probably best known for playing Moses in the Biblical epic The Ten Commandments (1956). The Mahdist forces are depicted largely as bloodthirsty killers in the film, though the Mahdi himself (played by the distinguished British actor Sir Laurence Olivier) is depicted as a surprisingly dignified figure.

[3] Nordau (1849–1923) was a Zionist from Budapest who spent most of his adult life living and working in Paris.

[4] See the volume edited by Hobsbawm and Ranger for a collection of essays dedicated to the ways in which the Victorians reacted to this situation by inventing a number of traditions (and, indeed, the very notion of “tradition” as we know it) that they hoped would restore a sense of historical stability and connectivity.

[5] Voting in Britain was still an all-male affair, however. Suffrage was not extended to British women until 1918, when women over 30 gained the right to vote. Ten years later, the voting age for women was lowered to 21. Some urban working-class men gained the right to vote in 1867, though full suffrage for working-class men would not be achieved until the reforms of 1918.

[6] For a succinct overview of the nonrealist strain in modern British fiction (including horror, fantasy, and science fiction, see my essay “The Other Side of History.”

[7] The Guinness Book of World Records lists Christie as the best-selling author of all time.

[8] The full text of the novel would not be published until 1955.

[9] Some accounts assert that Tressell returned to England just before the onset of the Boer War in 1899. Others claim that he in fact stayed in South Africa and fought alongside the Boers, after which he was captured and interned by the British until the end of the war.

[10] See Croft for a spirited discussion of the leftist literary scene in Britain in the 1930s.

[11] The Spanish Civil War began in 1936, after right-wing forces within the Spanish military revolted against a popularly-elected leftist Republican government in Spain. With General Francisco Franco at the helm, the rebel forces gained support from the German Nazis and the Italian fascists, while the Republicans gained support from the Soviet Union. Despite widespread pubic outcries, the governments of the United States and Britain stayed on the sidelines, despite reports of numerous atrocities being committed by the right-wing forces against Spain’s civilian population, which largely supported the Republicans. By 1939, Franco had secured control of Spain, where he remained in power as a military dictator (despite the loss by his allies in World War II) until his death in 1975.

[12] For more on leftist fiction in Britain, see Klaus, Pamela Fox, and my own The Modern British Novel of the Left.

[13] For more on the role of British volunteers in Spain, see Hoskins.

[14] Isherwood, like Auden and Aldous Huxley, would ultimately move to America, where his novels, strongly informed by his own experience as a gay man, have exerted an ongoing influence, partly through their film adaptations. His novellas Goodbye to Berlin (1935) and Mr Norris Changes Trains (1939)—ultimately published together as Berlin Stories in 1945—were the inspiration for the much-acclaimed musical film Cabaret (1972), which among other things documents the fall of Weimar Germany and the rise of the Nazis. His novel A Single Man (1964), set in Southern California, is a sensitive exploration of grief that was adapted into a much-admired film of the same title in 2009. Though it lacks the historical ramifications of the Berlin Stories, many consider A Single Man to be Isherwood’s finest literary achievement.

[15] The full text of this poem can be found at

[16] Born in Dublin, Shaw might rightly be considered an Irish dramatist. However, he lived and worked most of his life in England, and seldom visited Ireland after he left it in 1876; he tackled largely English topics in his drama. Most literary historians therefore treat him as a British dramatist, though he was sometimes highly critical of British policy toward Ireland. He also had extensive connections in Irish literary circles and was a close friend of W. B. Yeats.

[17] The Latin phrase “Dulce et decorum est, pro patria mori” (“It is sweet and beautiful to die for one’s country”) is a conventional expression of patriotic zeal during wartime. The poem devotes itself to ironizing that expression through reminders of the true horrors of warfare.

[18] The Fabian society advocated a gradual evolution into socialism—as opposed to the sudden revolution envisioned by Marx. Founded in 1884, the society still exists today, though it reached the peak of its power and influence in the last years of the nineteenth and in the early years of the twentieth century, when figures such as Wells and Shaw saw its views as the path to building a new, more modern world. During its heyday, the society had many important members, though Sidney Webb (1859–1947) and Beatrice Webb (1858–1943)—who were among other things, founders (along with Shaw and others) of the London School of Economics in 1895—were its most important driving forces.

[19] There were actually six towns in the Staffordshire Potteries, but Bennett preferred “Five Towns” as a designation for his fictionalized version of the region, simply because he thought it had a better ring to it than “Six Towns.”

[20] The Bloomsbury Group was a key driver of modernist culture in England. It was composed of a group of influential artists, writers, and intellectuals who regularly met to discuss various issues related to modern culture. Their aesthetic sympathies were strongly in the direction of modernist innovation, while their social sympathies tended to be rather elitist, most of the members having come from upper-class backgrounds (and most having been educated at Cambridge). In addition to Woolf, key members included Woolf’s husband, the publisher and essay writer Leonard Woolf; the painter Vanessa Bell (Virginia Woolf’s sister); the art critic Clive Bell (Virginia Woolf’s brother-in-law and the husband of Vanessa); the novelist E. M. Forster; the art critic and painter Roger Fry; the painter Duncan Grant; the biographer Lytton Strachey; the noted economist John Maynard Keynes; and the literary journalist Desmond MacCarthy.

[21] Bell’s book “tries to justify the continued existence of an elite whose primary function is to preserve high art by cultivating taste among its members” (Zwerdling 102).

[22] The Second International, formed a meeting in Paris on July 14, 1889, remained the primary international organization for the promotion of socialism and workers’ rights until 1916. Among other things, the Second International marked the emergence of Marx as the leading thinker whose work drove the socialist movement. It also united workers around the globe in a concerted effort that, among other things, provided a central impetus for both governments and capitalists to institute reforms in areas such as public education and working-class suffrage, as well as the beginnings of modern social safety-net systems such as the kind that would grow into the Social Security system in the U.S. The Second International also established May 1 as International Workers’ Day and March 8 as International Women’s Day, holidays that are still observed around the world today. It finally fell apart in the midst of World War I, when rivalries among nations began to supersede international working-class solidarity.

[23] See, for example, Joseph Frank.

[24] Jameson has even suggested that Conrad might be read “not as an early modernist, but as an anticipation of that later and quite different thing we have come to call variously textuality, écriture, pos-modernism, or schizophrenic writing” (Political Unconscious 219).

[25] Pioneered in its modernist mode by Joyce, influenced by Freud, and anticipated by the indirect free style of Flaubert, stream-of-consciousness writing attempts to capture a sense of the flow of thoughts and impressions that passes through a character’s mind in response to external events. This flow is often presented in the form of interior monologues that reflect a character’s inner thoughts much as the soliloquy form is an outward reflection of a character’s thoughts in the work of dramatists such as Shakespeare.