© 2021, by M. Keith Booker

Writers such as Thomas Hardy, H. G. Wells, and Joseph Conrad had helped to give British literature a decidedly more modern tone in the last years of the nineteenth century, while the rise of naturalism at the same time produced a new and more modern American literature as well. But 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 a sense, there are four strains in the development of modern British literature: the “high” (mainstream literary) realist strain, the “high” modernist strain (which challenges literary convention), the “popular” strain written largely in compliance with the dominant ideology of the time but intended for a broad audience, and a strain of working-class literature written in opposition to that ideology. Individual works, of course, can participate in more than one of these categories simultaneously.

Mainstream British Literature

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.[1] 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[2] 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).

In looking at British fiction 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, both in their understanding of India and in Kipling’s deft use of a realist literary style.

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).[3] 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.

Arnold Bennett (1867–1931) 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.[4] 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 modernist Bloomsbury Group, especially Virginia Woolf, who saw his work as hopelessly old-fashioned.[5] 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 John Galsworthy (1867–1933) 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.

British Modernist Literature

Joseph Conrad (1857–1924) might best be considered a sort of proto-modernist who began to move in modernist directions before the modernist movement itself was fully underway.[6]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 and one of the exemplary texts discussed at length at the end of this chapter. (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 (egged on 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. For example, 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.

Another relatively early arrival on the British 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 tragicomedy 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 James 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[7] 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 Madox Ford (1873–1939) and Wyndham Lewis (1882-1957). 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. 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. Indeed, The Good Soldier is often considered alongside the work of writers such as Woolf and Forster as among the greatest British modernist novels. 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.

Popular British Literature

The period from 1900-1945 was a crucial period of transition in the history of Western culture because it was the period that brought the dominance of literature as a cultural form to an end. As this period began, the new medium of film was just beginning to become a popular reality. Initially led by British and French innovations and boosted in the 1920s particularly by German and Soviet inventiveness, this new medium ultimately came to be dominated by the Hollywood film industry, marking a key phase of the American rise to global power. By 1945, meanwhile, film had come to reach larger audiences and to exercise more influence on the culture at large than literature ever had. And yet, by 1945, a new technology, television, was on the horizon that would soon eclipse even film in cultural power. This new medium would soon, in the 1950s, come to reach mass audiences in both Britain and the United States, bringing the seductive power of the moving image directly into individual homes.

Still, literature continued to expand its own audience in the period 1900–1945, partly due to growth in literacy rates around the beginning of the twentieth century. In general, the popular literary forms that had arisen in the course of the nineteenth century continued to thrive in the twentieth, sometimes in new and exciting ways. In Britain, 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 Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein 1818)—and ultimately to 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.[8] 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 Arthur Conan Doyle I the late nineteenth century 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 British 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).

The suspicion toward modernity, on the part of Lewis and Tolkien no doubt grows out of the pastoral nostalgia that was so prominent in Britain in the 1920s, though it is probably also 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—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), though Clarke’s important work only emerged after 1945. His 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 his 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 Kubrick 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[9] 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.

British 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. But there is also a rich British tradition, beginning with writers such as William Edwards Tirebuck, Allen Clarke, and Margaret Harkness (publishing as John Law), of producing 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[10]) 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.[11] 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.[12] 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.[13] 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.[14]

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.[15]

“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. Among other things, Isherwood was one of the first (having spent time in Germany in the early 1930s) to warn of the menace posed by the German Nazis.[16] 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”(shown below), then assumed to have been painted by Peter Breughel, though that attribution has since been disputed.

Bruegel's Icarus and the perils of flight - Journal of ART in SOCIETY

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.[17]


Booker, M. Keith. The Modern British Novel of the Left: A Research Guide. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1998.

Booker, M. Keith. “The Other Side of History: Fantasy, Romance, Horror, and Science Fiction.” The Cambridge Companion to the Twentieth-Century English Novel. Ed. Robert L. Caserio. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press,2009. 251–66.

Carey, John. The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia 1880–1939. Rev. ed. Chicago: Chicago Review Press, 2005.

Fox, Pamela. Class Fictions: Shame and Resistance in the British Working-Class Novel, 1890–1945. Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1994.

Jameson, Fredric. The Political Unconscious: Narrative as a Socially Symbolic Act. Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press, 1981.

Klaus, H. Gustav, ed. The Socialist Novel in Britain: Towards the Recovery of a Tradition. New York: St. Martin’s, 1982.

Luckhurst, Roger. Science Fiction. Cambridge: Polity Press, 2005.

Marx, Karl, and Friedrich Engels. Literature and Art. New York: International Publishers, 1947.

Mathews, Roger. Fantasy: The Liberation of Imagination. London: Routledge, 2002.

Shippey, Tom. J. R. R. Tolkien: Author of the Century. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2001.

Williams, Raymond. Marxism and Literature. New York: Oxford University Press, 1977.


[1] 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.

[2] 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.

[3] 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.

[4] 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.”

[5] 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.

[6] 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” (219).

[7] 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.

[8] 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.”

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

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

[11] 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.

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

[13] 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.

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

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

[16] 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.

[17] The full text of this poem can be found at https://www.poets.org/poetsorg/poem/memory-w-b-yeats.