Modernism and cultural revivals: 1901–1945
From around 1910 the Modernist movement began to influence British literature. While their Victorian predecessors had usually been happy to cater to mainstream middle-class taste, 20th-century writers often felt alienated from it, so responded by writing more intellectually challenging works or by pushing the boundaries of acceptable content.
Vorticism was a short-lived modernist movement in British art and poetry of the early 20th century, based in London but international in make-up and ambition. The movement was announced in 1914 in the first issue of BLAST, which contained its manifesto. It was co-founded and edited by Wyndham Lewis (1882–1957), the English painter and author. His novels include Tarr (1918) and the trilogy The Human Age (1928 and 1955) set in the afterworld.
In the late 19th century and early 20th century, Welsh literature began to reflect the way the Welsh language was increasingly becoming a political symbol. Two important literary nationalists were Saunders Lewis (1893–1985) and Kate Roberts (1891–1985), both of whom began publishing in the 1920s. Saunders Lewis was above all a dramatist. His earliest published play was Blodeuwedd (The woman of flowers) (1923–25, revised 1948). Other notable plays include Buchedd Garmon (The life of Germanus) (radio play, 1936) and several others after the war. Lewis also published two novels, Monica (1930) and Merch Gwern Hywel (The daughter of Gwern Hywel) (1964) and two collections of poems. In addition he was a historian, literary critic, and a founder of the Welsh National Party in 1925 (later known as Plaid Cymru). Kate Roberts’ first volume of short stories, O gors y bryniau (“From the swamp of the hills”), appeared in 1925 but perhaps her most successful book of short stories is Te yn y grug (“Tea in the heather”) (1959), a series of stories about children. As well as short stories Roberts also wrote novels, perhaps her most famous being Traed mewn cyffion (“Feet in chains”) (1936) which reflected the hard life of a slate quarrying family. Kate Roberts’ and Saunders Lewis’s careers continued after World War II and they both were among the foremost Welsh-language authors of the twentieth century.
First World War
The experiences of the First World War were reflected in the work of war poets such as Wilfred Owen, Rupert Brooke, Isaac Rosenberg, Edmund Blunden and Siegfried Sassoon. Dòmhnall Ruadh Chorùna was a Scottish Gaelic poet who served in the First World War, and as a war poet described the use of poison gas in his poem Òran a’ Phuinnsuin (“Song of the Poison”). His poetry is part of oral literature, as he himself never learnt to read and write in his native language. Welsh poet Hedd Wyn, who was killed in World War I although producing comparatively few war poems as such, was later the subject of an Oscar-nominated Welsh film. In Parenthesis, an epic poem by David Jones first published in 1937, is a notable work of the literature of the First World War, that was influenced by Welsh traditions, despite Jones being born in England. In non-fiction prose T. E. Lawrence‘s (Lawrence of Arabia) autobiographical account in Seven Pillars of Wisdom of the Arab Revolt against the Ottoman Empire is important. Poetry reflecting life on the home-front was also published; Guernésiais writer Thomas Henry Mahy‘s collection Dires et Pensées du Courtil Poussin, published in 1922, contained some of his observational poems published in La Gazette de Guernesey during the war.
The end of the First World War saw a decline in the quantity of poetry published in Jèrriais and Guernésiais in favour of short-story-like newspaper columns in prose, some being collected in book or booklet form – this being a common genre in the Norman mainland.
Two Victorian poets who published little in the 19th century, Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) and Gerard Manley Hopkins (1844–89), have since come to be regarded as major poets. While Hardy first established his reputation the late 19th century with novels, he also wrote poetry throughout his career. However he did not publish his first collection until 1898, so that he tends to be treated as a 20th-century poet. Hardy lived well into the third decade of the twentieth century, an important transitional figure between the Victorian era and the 20th century, but because of the adverse criticism of his last novel, Jude the Obscure, in 1895, from that time Hardy concentrated on publishing poetry. Gerard Manley Hopkins’s Poems were posthumously published in 1918 by Robert Bridges (1844–1930, Poet Laureate from 1913). Hopkins’ poem “The Wreck of the Deutschland“, written in 1875, first introduced what Hopkins called “sprung rhythm.” As well as developing new rhythmic effects, Hopkins “was also very interested in ways of rejuvenating poetic language” and frequently “employed compound and unusual word combinations”. Several twentieth-century poets, including W. H. Auden, Dylan Thomas, and American Charles Wright, “turned to his work for its inventiveness and rich aural patterning”.
Free verse and other stylistic innovations came to the forefront in this era, with which T. S. Eliot and Ezra Pound were especially associated. T. S. Eliot (1888–1965) was born American, migrated to England in 1914, at the age of 25, and was naturalised as a British subject in 1927 at the age of 39. He was “arguably the most important English-language poet of the 20th century.” He produced some of the best-known poems in the English language, including “The Waste Land” (1922) and Four Quartets (1935–1942). He is also known for his seven plays, particularly Murder in the Cathedral (1935). He was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948. Eliot’s friend Ezra Pound (1885–1972), an American expatriate, made important contributions of British literature during his residence in London. He was responsible for the publication in 1915 of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock“, but more important was the major editing that he did on the “The Waste Land”.
The Georgian poets like Rupert Brooke, Walter de la Mare (1873–1956), John Masefield (1878–1967, Poet Laureate from 1930) maintained a more conservative approach to poetry by combining romanticism, sentimentality and hedonism, sandwiched as they were between the Victorian era, with its strict classicism, and Modernism, with its strident rejection of pure aestheticism. Edward Thomas (1878–1917) is sometimes treated as another Georgian poet.
A duality of character in the literature of Scotland came to be characterised as Caledonian Antisyzygy—a self-imposed critical discourse about how to forge a model of homogeneous national Scottish culture out of a heterogeneous patchwork of language communities and national loyalties. In the early 20th century in Scotland, a renaissance in the use of Lowland Scots occurred, its most vocal figure being Hugh MacDiarmid whose A Drunk Man Looks at the Thistle (1926), is widely regarded as one of the most important long poems in 20th-century Scottish literature. Other contemporaries were Douglas Young, Sydney Goodsir Smith,Robert Garioch and Robert McLellan. The revival produced verse and other literature, including the plays for which Robert McLellan is best known.
James Pittendrigh Macgillivray (1856–1938) and Lewis Spence (1874–1955) looked back to what they regarded as a Golden Age of Middle Scots literature, partly as a political gesture to revive the style that prevailed when Scotland was a sovereign nation under the Stuarts. Such experimentation with archaising language for poetic effect did not found a new direction for literature in Scots, but their willingness to play with Mediaeval poetic language had an influence by stimulating debate and stimulating new ways of experimenting with Scots as a literary language.
A somewhat diminished tradition of vernacular Ulster Scots poetry survived into the 20th century in the work of poets such as Adam Lynn, author of the 1911 collection Random Rhymes frae Cullybackey, John Stevenson (died 1932), writing as “Pat M’Carty”, and John Clifford (1900–1983) from East Antrim.
With the revival of Cornish there have been newer works written in the language. In the first half of the 20th century poetry was the focus of literary production in Cornish. The epic poem Trystan hag Isolt by A. S. D. Smith (1883–1950) reworked the Tristan and Iseult legend. Peggy Pollard’s 1941 play Beunans Alysaryn was modelled on the 16th-century saints’ plays. John Hobson Matthews wrote several poems, such as the patriotic “Can Wlascar Agam Mamvro” (“Patriotic Song of our Motherland”). Robert Morton Nance (1873–1959) created a body of verse, such as “Nyns yu Marow Myghtern Arthur” (“King Arthur is not Dead”).
In the 1930s the Auden Group, sometimes called simply the Thirties poets, was an important group of politically left-wing writers, that included W. H. Auden (1907–73), Louis MacNeice (1907–63), Cecil Day-Lewis (1904–72, Poet Laureate from 1968), and Stephen Spender (1909–95). Auden was a major poet who had a similar influence on subsequent poets as W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot had had on earlier generations. Others associated with this group were novelist and playwright Christopher Isherwood (1904–86), and sometimes, novelist Edward Upward (1903–2009), and poet and novelist Rex Warner (1905–86).
The challenge of the modernist novel
While modernism was to become an important literary movement in the early decades of the new century, there were also many fine writers who, like Thomas Hardy, were not modernists. Novelists include: Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936), who was also a successful poet; H. G. Wells (1866–1946); John Galsworthy (1867–1933), (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1932), whose novels include The Forsyte Saga (1906–21); Arnold Bennett (1867–1931) author of The Old Wives’ Tale (1908); G. K. Chesterton (1874–1936); E.M. Forster(1879–1970). The most popular British writer of the early years of the 20th century was arguably Rudyard Kipling, a highly versatile writer of novels, short stories and poems, and to date the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1907). Kipling’s works include The Jungle Books (1894–95), The Man Who Would Be King and Kim (1901), while his inspirational poem “If—” (1895) is a national favourite and a memorable evocation of Victorian stoicism, regarded as a traditional British virtue. Kipling’s reputation declined during his lifetime but more recently postcolonial studies has “rekindled an intense interest in his work, viewing it as both symptomatic and critical of imperialist attitudes”. H. G. Wells was a highly prolific author who is now best known for his work in the science fiction genre. His most notable science fiction works include The War of the Worlds, The Time Machine, The Invisible Man and The Island of Doctor Moreau, all written in the 1890s. Other novels include Kipps (1905) and Mr Polly (1910). Strongly influenced by his Christian faith, G. K. Chesterton was a prolific and hugely influential writer with a diverse output. His best-known character is the priest-detective Father Brown, who appeared only in short stories, while The Man Who Was Thursday published in 1908 is arguably his best-known novel. Of his nonfiction, Charles Dickens: A Critical Study (1906) has received some of the broadest-based praise. However, unlike these other authors, Forster’s work is “frequently regarded as containing both modernist and Victorian elements”. Forster’s A Passage to India 1924, reflected challenges to imperialism, while his earlier works such as A Room with a View (1908) and Howards End(1910), examined the restrictions and hypocrisy of Edwardian society in England.
Writing in the 1920s and 1930s Virginia Woolf was an influential feminist, and a major stylistic innovator associated with the stream-of-consciousness technique. Her novels include Mrs Dalloway 1925, To the Lighthouse 1927, Orlando 1928, The Waves 1931, and A Room of One’s Own 1929, which contains her famous dictum; “A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction”. Woolf and E. M. Forster were members of the Bloomsbury Group, an enormously influential group of associated English writers, intellectuals, philosophers and artists.
Other early modernists were Dorothy Richardson (1873–1957), whose novel Pointed Roof (1915), is one of the earliest example of the stream of consciousness technique and D. H. Lawrence (1885–1930), who wrote with understanding about the social life of the lower and middle classes, and the personal life of those who could not adapt to the social norms of his time. Sons and Lovers 1913, is widely regarded as his earliest masterpiece. There followed The Rainbow 1915, though it was immediately seized by the police. and its sequel Women in Love published 1920. Lawrence attempted to explore human emotions more deeply than his contemporaries and challenged the boundaries of the acceptable treatment of sexual issues, most notably in Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was privately published in Florence in 1928. However, the unexpurgated version of this novel was not published until 1959.
An important development, beginning really in the 1930s and 1940s, was a tradition of working class novels that were actually written by writers who had a working-class background. Among these were coal miner Jack Jones, James Hanley, whose father was a stoker and who also went to sea as a young man, and other coal miner authors’ Lewis Jones from South Wales and Harold Heslop from County Durham.
An essayist and novelist, George Orwell‘s works are considered important social and political commentaries of the 20th century, dealing with issues such as poverty in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), the exploration of colonialism in Burmese Days (1934), and in the 1940s his satires of totalitarianism included Animal Farm (1945). Orwell’s works were often semi-autobiographical and in the case of Homage to Catalonia, wholly. Malcolm Lowry published in the 1930s, but is best known for Under the Volcano (1947). Evelyn Waugh satirised the “bright young things” of the 1920s and 1930s, notably in A Handful of Dust, and Decline and Fall, while Brideshead Revisited 1945, has a theological basis, aiming to examine the effect of divine grace on its main characters. Aldous Huxley (1894–1963) published his famous dystopia Brave New World in 1932, the same year as John Cowper Powys‘s A Glastonbury Romance. In 1938 Graham Greene‘s (1904–91) first major novel Brighton Rock was published.
British drama: 1901–45
Irish playwrights George Bernard Shaw (1856–1950) and J. M. Synge (1871–1909) were influential in British drama. Shaw’s career as a playwright began in the last decade of the nineteenth century, while Synge’s plays belong to the first decade of the twentieth century. Synge’s most famous play, The Playboy of the Western World, “caused outrage and riots when it was first performed” in Dublin in 1907. George Bernard Shaw turned the Edwardian theatre into an arena for debate about important political and social issues, like marriage, class, “the morality of armaments and war” and the rights of women. In the 1920s and later Noël Coward (1899–1973) achieved enduring success as a playwright, publishing more than 50 plays from his teens onwards. Many of his works, such as Hay Fever (1925), Private Lives (1930), Design for Living (1932), Present Laughter (1942) and Blithe Spirit (1941), have remained in the regular theatre repertoire. In the 1930s W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood co-authored verse dramas, of which The Ascent of F6 (1936) is the most notable, that owed much to Bertolt Brecht.T. S. Eliot had begun this attempt to revive poetic drama with Sweeney Agonistes in 1932, and this was followed by The Rock (1934), Murder in the Cathedral(1935) and Family Reunion (1939). There were three further plays after the war.
Early 20th-century genre literature
Emma Orczy (Baroness Orczy)’s The Scarlet Pimpernel was originally a highly successful play in 1905. The novel The Scarlet Pimpernel was published soon after the play opened and was an immediate success. Orczy gained a following of readers in Britain and throughout the world. The popularity of the novel, which recounted the adventures of a member of the English gentry in the French Revolutionary period, encouraged her to write a number of sequels for her “reckless daredevil” over the next 35 years. The play was performed to great acclaim in France, Italy, Germany and Spain, while the novel was translated into 16 languages. Subsequently, the story has been adapted for television, film, a musical and other media. Her stories about Lady Molly of Scotland Yard were an early example of a female detective as main character. Her character The Old Man in the Corner was among the earliest armchair detectives to be created.
John Buchan wrote adventure novels Prester John (1910) and four telling the adventures of Richard Hannay, of which the first, The Thirty-Nine Steps (1915) is the best known. Novels featuring a gentleman adventurer were popular between the wars, exemplified by the series of H. C. McNeile with Bulldog Drummond 1920, andLeslie Charteris, whose many books chronicled the adventures of Simon Templar, alias The Saint.
The medieval scholar M. R. James wrote highly regarded ghost stories in contemporary settings.
In 1908, Kenneth Grahame wrote the children’s classic The Wind in the Willows and the Scouts founder Robert Baden-Powell‘s first book Scouting for Boys was published. Classics of children’s literature include A. A. Milne‘s collection of books about a fictional bear he named Winnie-the-Pooh, who inhabits Hundred Acre Wood. Prolific children’s author Enid Blyton chronicled the adventures of a group of young children and their dog in The Famous Five. T. H. White wrote theArthurian fantasy The Once and Future King, the first part being The Sword in the Stone 1938. Mary Norton wrote The Borrowers, featuring tiny people who borrow from humans. Inspiration for Frances Hodgson Burnett‘s novel The Secret Garden, was the Great Maytham Hall Garden in Kent. Hugh Lofting created the characterDoctor Dolittle who appears in a series of twelve books, while Dodie Smith‘s The Hundred and One Dalmatians featured the villainous Cruella de Vil.
This was called the Golden Age of Detective Fiction. Agatha Christie, a writer of crime novels, short stories and plays, is best remembered for her 80 detective novels and her successful West End theatre plays. Christie’s works, particularly those featuring the detectives Hercule Poirot or Miss Marple, made her one of the most important and innovative writers in the development of the genre. Her most influential novels include The Murder of Roger Ackroyd 1926 (one of her most controversial novels, its innovative twist ending had a significant impact on the genre), Murder on the Orient Express 1934, Death on the Nile 1937 and And Then There Were None 1939. Other female writers dubbed “Queens of crime” include Dorothy L. Sayers (gentleman detective, Lord Peter Wimsey), Margery Allingham (Albert Campion – supposedly created as a parody of Sayers’ Wimsey,) and New Zealander Ngaio Marsh (Roderick Alleyn). Georgette Heyer created the historical romance genre, and also wrote detective fiction.
A major work of science fiction, from the early 20th century, is A Voyage to Arcturus by Scottish writer David Lindsay, first published in 1920. It combines fantasy, philosophy, and science fiction in an exploration of the nature of good and evil and their relationship with existence. It has been described by critic and philosopher Colin Wilson as the “greatest novel of the twentieth century”,and was a central influence on C. S. Lewis‘s Space Trilogy. Also J. R. R. Tolkien said he read the book “with avidity”, and praised it as a work of philosophy, religion, and morality. It was made widely available in paperback form when published as one of the precursor volumes to the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series in 1968.
From the early 1930s to late 1940s, an informal literary discussion group associated with the English faculty at the University of Oxford, were the “Inklings“. Its leading members were the major fantasy novelists; C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien. Lewis is known for The Screwtape Letters 1942, The Chronicles of Narnia and The Space Trilogy, while Tolkien is best known as the author of The Hobbit 1937, The Lord of the Rings, and The Silmarillion.
Second World War
It was anticipated that the outbreak of war in 1939 would produce a literary response equal to that of the First World War. The Times Literary Supplement went so far as to pose the question in 1940: “Where are the war-poets?”
Keith Douglas (1920–1944) was noted for his war poetry during World War II and his wry memoir of the Western Desert Campaign, Alamein to Zem Zem. He was killed in action during the invasion of Normandy. Alun Lewis (1915–1944), born in South Wales, was one of the best-known English-language poets of the war. Alun Llywelyn-Williams wrote in Welsh from the soldier’s viewpoint, and R. Meirion Roberts from the viewpoint of a chaplain. Caradog Prichard’s ‘Rwyf Innau’n Filwr Bychan (1943), a journal in Welsh, provided an account of military life from a supporter of the war, although a minority of Welsh nationalist writers produced works in opposition to the war. Sidney Keyes was another important and prolific Second World War poet. David Gascoyne, a surrealist poet of the 1930s, developed Christian imagery, while Edith Sitwell‘s Still Falls the Rain evoked the Blitz. Denton Welch(1915–1948) produced minutely observed portraits of the English countryside during the war.
Fair Stood the Wind for France was a 1944 novel by H. E. Bates who was commissioned into the RAF solely to write short stories as the Air Ministry realised that the populace was less concerned with facts and figures about the war than it was with reading about those who were fighting it.
The German military occupation of the Channel Islands 1940–1945 encouraged increased use of the vernacular languages among those who remained in the islands, but the German censorship permitted little original writing to be published. Within the restrictions, Les Chroniques de Jersey, the only surviving French language newspaper in the Islands, republished considerable quantities of older Jèrriais literature for purposes of morale and the assertion of identity. The post-Liberation social changes meant, however, that vernacular literature in the Channel Islands has never regained the situation it had enjoyed previously.
The Second World War has remained a theme in British literature. Later works of note include: Atonement, Ian McEwan‘s Booker Prize shortlisted 2001 novel; Charlotte Gray, a 1999 novel by Sebastian Faulks; and Empire of the Sun, J. G. Ballard‘s 1984 novel drawing extensively on his wartime experiences.