Two world wars, an intervening economic depression of great severity, and the austerity of life in Britain following the second of these wars help to explain the quality and direction of English literature in the 20th century. The traditional values of Western civilization, which the Victorians had only begun to question, came to be questioned seriously by a number of new writers, who saw society breaking down around them. Traditional literary forms were often discarded, and new ones succeeded one another with bewildering rapidity, as writers sought fresher ways of expressing what they took to be new kinds of experience, or experience seen in new ways.
Post-World War I Fiction cl622l2569rlle
Among novelists and short-story writers, Aldous Huxley best expressed the sense of disillusionment and hopelessness in the period after World War I (1914-1918) in his Point Counter Point (1928). This novel is composed in such a way that the events of the plot form a contrapuntal pattern that is a departure from the straightforward storytelling technique of the realistic novel.
Before Huxley, and indeed before the war, the sensitively written novels of E. M. Forster (A Room with a View, 1908; Howards End, 1910) had exposed the hollowness and deadness of both abstract intellectuality and upper-class social life. Forster had called for a return to a simple, intuitive reliance on the senses and for a satisfaction of the needs of one's physical being. His most famous novel, A Passage to India (1924), combines these themes with an examination of the social distance separating the English ruling classes from the native inhabitants of India and shows the impossibility of continued British rule there.
D. H. Lawrence similarly related his sense of the need for a return from the complexities, over-intellectualism, and cold materialism of modern life to the primitive; unconscious springs of vitality of the race. His numerous novels and short stories, among which some of the best known are Sons and Lovers (1913), Women in Love (1921), The Plumed Serpent (1926), and Lady Chatterley's Lover (1928), are for the most part more clearly experimental than Forster's. The obvious symbolism of Lawrence's plots and the forceful, straightforward preaching of his message broke the bonds of realism and replaced them with the direct projection of the author's own dynamically creative spirit. His distinguished but uneven poetry similarly deserted the fixed forms of the past to achieve a freer, more natural, and more direct expression of the perceptions of the writer.
Even more experimental and unorthodox than Lawrence's novels were those of the Irish writer James Joyce. In his novel Ulysses (1922) he focused on the events of a single day and related them to one another in thematic patterns based on Greek mythology. In Finnegans Wake (1939) Joyce went beyond this to create a whole new vocabulary of puns and portmanteau (merged) words from the elements of many languages and to devise a simple domestic narrative from the interwoven parts of many myths and traditions. In some of these experiments his novels were paralleled by those of Virginia Woolf, whose Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) skillfully imitated, by the so-called stream-of-consciousness technique, the complex of immediate, evanescent life experienced from moment to moment. Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett appeals to a small but discerning readership with her idiosyncratic dissections of family relationships, told almost entirely in sparse dialogue; her novels include Brothers and Sisters (1929), Men and Wives (1931), and Two Worlds and Their Ways (1949).
Among young novelists, Evelyn Waugh, like Aldous Huxley, satirized the foibles of society in the 1920s in Decline and Fall (1928). His later novels, similarly satirical and extravagant, showed a deepening moral tone, as in The Loved One (1948) and Brideshead Revisited (1945). Graham Greene, like Waugh a convert to Roman Catholicism, investigated in his more serious novels the problem of evil in human life (The Heart of the Matter, 1948; A Burnt-Out Case, 1961; The Comedians, 1966). Much of the reputation of George Orwell rests on two works of fiction, one an allegory (Animal Farm, 1945), the other a mordant satire (Nineteen Eighty-Four, 1949)—both directed against the dangers of totalitarianism. The same anguished concern about the fate of society is at the heart of his nonfiction, especially in such vivid reporting as The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), an account of life in the coal-mining regions of northern England during the Great Depression, and in Homage to Catalonia (1938), about the Spanish Civil War.
Fiction after World War II
No clearly definable trends have appeared in English fiction since the time of the post-World War II School of writers, the so-called angry young men of the 1950s and 1960s. This group, which included the novelists Kingsley Amis, John Wain, and John Braine, attacked outmoded social values left over from the prewar world. Interest in the 1970s focused on writers as disparate in their concerns and styles as V. S. Pritchett and Doris Lessing. Pritchett, considered a master of the short story (Selected Stories, 1978), is also noted as a literary critic of remarkable erudition. His easy but elegant, supple style illuminates both forms of writing. Lessing has moved from the early short stories collected as African Stories (1965) to novels increasingly experimental in form and concerned with the role of women in contemporary society. Notable among these is The Golden Notebook (1962), about a woman writer coming to grips with life through her art.
Anthony Powell, a friend and Oxford classmate of Evelyn Waugh, has also written wittily about the higher echelons of English society, but with more affection and on a broader canvas. His 12-volume series of novels, grouped under the title A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), is a highly readable account of the intertwined lives and careers of people in the arts and politics from before World War II (1939-1945) to many years afterward. His four-volume autobiography, To Keep the Ball Rolling (1977-1983), complements the fictionalized details that form the basis of his novels. Iris Murdoch, a teacher of philosophy as well as a writer, is esteemed for slyly comic analyses of contemporary lives in her many novels beginning with Under the Net (1954) and continuing with A Severed Head (1961), The Black Prince (1973), Nuns and Soldiers (1980), and The Good Apprentice (1986). Her effects are made by the contrast between her eccentric characters and the underlying seriousness of her ideas.
Other distinctive talents include Anthony Burgess, novelist and man of letters, most popular for his mordant novel of teenage violence, A Clockwork Orange (1962), which was made into a successful motion picture in 1971; and John Le Carré (pseudonym of David Cornwell), who has won popularity for ingeniously complex espionage tales, loosely based on his own experience in the British foreign service. His novels include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), A Perfect Spy (1986), The Russia House (1989), and The Night Manager (1993). William Golding displays a wide inventive range in fiction that explores human evil: the allegorical Lord of the Flies (1954); The Inheritors (1955), about Neanderthal life; The Spire (1964); and The Paper Men (1984), about an English novelist's cruel behavior to an American scholar. Golding won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1983.
Two of the most remarkable poets of the modern period combined tradition and experiment in their work. The Irish writer William Butler Yeats was the more traditional. In his romantic poetry, written before the turn of the century, he exploited ancient Irish traditions and then gradually developed a powerfully honest, profound, and rich poetic idiom, at its maturity in The Tower (1928) and The Winding Stair (1933). The younger poet, T. S. Eliot, born in the United States, achieved more immediate acclaim with The Waste Land (1922), the most famous poem of the early part of the century. Through a mass of symbolic associations with legendary and historical events, Eliot expresses his despair over the sterility of modern life. His movement toward religious faith displayed itself in Four Quartets (1943). His surprising combination of colloquial and literary diction, his fusing of antithetical moods, and his startling, complex metaphorical juxtapositions relate him, among English poets, to John Donne. Eliot's style was intimately influenced by his study of such French poets as Jules Laforgue and Saint-John Perse. Eliot's essays, promulgating a style of poetry in which sound and sense are associated, were probably the most influential work in literary criticism in the first half of the century.
Both Yeats and Eliot exercised enormous influence on modern poets. A third influence was that of Gerard Manley Hopkins, a Victorian poet whose work was not introduced to the world until 1918. The conflict between his Roman Catholicism and his sense of the beauty of this world, and his complicated experiments in metrics and vocabulary have attracted much attention.
Of the many poets stimulated to indignant verse by World War I, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen, and Robert Graves rank among the most lastingly important. Graves's ability to produce pure and classically perfect poetry kept his reputation strong long after World War II. His historical novels, such as I, Claudius and Claudius the God (both 1934), also helped to maintain his popularity. The verse of Dame Edith Sitwell, who communicated her disdain of commonplace propriety as much by the aristocratic individualism of her personal attitudes as by her poetry, was first published during World War I; her experimentalism had little directly to do, however, with social problems. Extravagantly imaginative metaphors after the manner of the metaphysical poets, and conscious distortion of sense impressions, somewhat as in modern painting, were among her poetic devices. After World War II she wrote more compassionate and moving poetry, as in The Canticle of the Sun (1949) and The Outcasts (1962).
The succeeding generation of poets, identified in the popular consciousness with the depression and social upheaval of the 1930s, made use at first of so much private or esoteric symbolism as to render the poetry barely intelligible to any but a small coterie of readers. The best known of these—W. H. Auden, Stephen Spender, and C. Day Lewis—filled their earlier poetry with political and ideological discussion and with expressions of horror at bourgeois society and nascent totalitarianism. After such verse plays as The Ascent of F-6, written in 1936 in collaboration with Christopher Isherwood, Auden's poetry became more reflective in The Double Man (1941) and, later, City Without Walls (1969). So, too, Day Lewis moved from The Magnetic Mountain (1935) to a more personal lyricism in World Above All (1943). His Poetic Image (1947) was a prose exposition of the modern poetic ideal. The position of poet laureate, held by Day Lewis from 1968 to 1972, subsequently passed to Sir John Betjeman, popular for his nostalgic humor.
Experimentalism continued in the exuberantly metaphorical poetry of the Welsh writer Dylan Thomas, whose almost mystical love of life and understanding of death were expressed in some of the most beautiful verse of the middle of the century. After Thomas's death in 1953, a new generation of British poets emerged, some influenced by him and some reacting against his influence. Among the leading younger poets were D. J. Enright, Philip Larkin, John Wain, Thom Gunn, and Ted Hughes. In 1984, after Betjeman's death, Hughes, whose poetry focuses on the savagery of life, became poet laureate.
Aside from the later plays of George Bernard Shaw, the most important drama produced in English in the first quarter of the 20th century came from another Irish writer, Sean O'Casey, who continued the movement known as the Irish Renaissance. Other playwrights of the period were James Matthew Barrie, John Galsworthy, Somerset Maugham, and Sir Noel Coward. Beginning in the 1950s the so-called angry young men became a new, salient force in English drama. The dramatists John Osborne, Arnold Wesker, Shelagh Delaney, and John Arden focused their attention on the working classes, portraying the drabness, mediocrity, and injustice in the lives of these people. Although Harold Pinter and the Irish writer Brendan Behan also wrote plays set in a working-class environment, they stand apart from the angry young men. In such works as The Birthday Party (1957) Pinter seems to offer reasonable interpretations of his characters' behavior, only to withdraw the interpretations or set them slightly askew in an effort to keep the audience intent on every least hint in the action on stage. Outside the literary mainstream was the Irish-born novelist-dramatist Samuel Beckett, recipient in 1969 of the Nobel Prize for literature. Long a resident in France, he wrote his laconic, ambiguously symbolic works in French and translated them himself into English (Waiting for Godot, play, 1952; How It Is, novel, 1964).
Both English and American audiences have enthusiastically received the plays of Joe Orton and Tom Stoppard. Orton's Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964), Loot (1967), and What the Butler Saw (1969) are farces dealing with the perverseness of modern morality; dazzling verbal ingenuity distinguishes Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966), Travesties (1974), and The Real Thing (1984).