English Literature




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.

A   Post-World War I Fiction

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, overintellectualism, 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 complexity 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 Homage to Catalonia (1938), about the Spanish Civil War.

B   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. Although Amis continued to write into the 1990s, his satirical novel Lucky Jim (1954) remains his most popular work. The working-class or lower-middle class realism in the work of the angry young men gave way in the 1960s and 1970s to a less provincial emphasis in English fiction.

Anthony Powell, a friend and Oxford classmate of Evelyn Waugh, also wrote 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 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.

In the 1970s interest 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 (Complete Stories, 1990), is also noted as a literary critic of remarkable erudition. His easy but elegant, supple style illuminated both forms of writing. Lessing 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. In 1983 she completed a series of five science-fiction novels under the collective title Canopus in Argus: Archives.

Iris Murdoch, who was 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 writers noted for novels of ideas are Margaret Drabble and her sister, A. S. Byatt. Drabble has explored the predicament of contemporary educated women in such novels as The Realms of Gold (1975) and The Gates of Ivory (1991). She investigated the dilemmas faced by intelligent women entering late middle age alone in The Seven Sisters (2002) and other recent novels. Byatt won the Booker Prize, England’s highest literary award, for Possession (1990), about a romantic involvement between two academics. She completed an ambitious quartet of novels tracing changing patterns of family life in England from the 1950s to the 1970s with A Whistling Woman (2002). Art historian Anita Brookner writes of women in search of human connection and established her reputation with Hotel du Lac (1984), which won the Booker Prize.

Other distinctive talents of the second half of the 20th century 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 won popularity for ingeniously complex espionage tales, loosely based on his own experience in the British foreign service. Burgess’s prolific output ended with A Dead Man in Deptford (1993), which vividly recreates the life and times of 16th-century playwright Christopher Marlowe. Le Carré’s novels include The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963), Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974), The Russia House (1989), and The Constant Gardener (2001). William Golding displayed a wide inventive range in fiction that explores human evil: the allegorical Lord of the Flies (1954); The Inheritors (1955), about Neandertal 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 in literature in 1983.

John Fowles produced several highly experimental novels, including The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), in which he brings the fictional nature of the novel to the foreground, and A Maggot (1985), a mystery set in the 18th century. Julian Barnes established his reputation with Flaubert’s Parrot (1984), which is about scholarship and obsession, and followed it with other experimental and satiric works, including England, England (1999).

Dark humor permeates the novels of Muriel Spark, who is best known for The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), about a schoolteacher who turns out not to be what she seems. It was successfully adapted for stage and screen, with actress Maggie Smith in the role of Brodie. Darkness was the dominant mode of much of the fiction of the 1980s and 1990s. Martin Amis, son of Kingsley Amis, produced ferocious satires of modern society in such works as Money: A Suicide Note (1984) and The Information (1995). Short stories and novels by Ian McEwan have dealt with moments of extreme crisis, as when his characters face their own mortality in Amsterdam (1998), which won the Booker Prize. In Atonement (2002), which won the National Book Critics Circle Award, McEwan deals with a child’s lies and her later attempts to come to terms with them by writing fiction. Another comic novelist, William Boyd, had an immediate success with A Good Man in Africa (1981), about a British diplomat who uses sex and alcohol to counteract boredom with humorous results. Boyd’s Any Human Heart (2002) chronicled in a tongue-in-cheek manner the decline of the British way of life during the 20th century.

Rose Tremain visited overlooked areas of the past for her quirky historical novels, such as Music and Silence (1999), set in the 17th-century court of the king of Denmark, Christian IV, and The Colour (2003), set in New Zealand during the 19th-century gold rush. Beryl Bainbridge also mined the past, but from unusual viewpoints, in Every Man for Himself (1996) and According to Queeney (2001). Every Man for Himself, which takes place during the voyage and sinking of the Titanic in 1912, is narrated by an assistant to the doomed ship’s designer. According to Queeney portrays British lexicographer Samuel Johnson as observed by his friends the Thrales and their daughter Queeney. Michael Faber produced a contemporary novel of Victorian England, The Crimson Petal and the Rose (2002). The novels of Penelope Fitzgerald reflected a biographer’s skill of creating an extremely vivid picture of her subjects’ lives and included The Bookshop (1978), Offshore (1979, winner of the Booker Prize), and The Blue Flower (1995).

Other perspectives reinvigorating English fiction in the late 20th century came from novelists born outside England; some of these novels looked at colonialism or its aftereffects. V. S. Naipaul produced the semiautobiographical novel The Enigma of Arrival (1987), about a writer’s migration from the British colony of Trinidad to the English countryside. South African Nadine Gordimer, who won the 1991 Nobel Prize, wrote of conflict in a society divided by race. English-educated Ruth Prawer Jhabvala based many of her comedies of manners on her observations as a European living in India. Indian-born Salman Rushdie satirized society in such novels as Midnight’s Children (1981) and drew the condemnation of Islamic fundamentalists for Satanic Verses (1988). British-born Kazuo Ishiguro, of Japanese ancestry, elegantly portrayed upper-class English society of the 1930s through the eyes of a butler in his best-known novel, The Remains of the Day (1989). Anita Desai, who chronicles Indian society, counterpoints Indian and American culture in Fasting, Feasting (1999). Zadie Smith, though British born, looked at the lives of immigrant and mixed race families in contemporary London in her dazzling first novel, White Teeth (2000). She continued to explore ethnicity in her second novel, The Autograph Man (2002).

C   Modern Poetry

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 poets of that generation were D. J. Enright, Philip Larkin, John Wain, Thom Gunn, and Ted Hughes. Although they had different styles, these poets constituted what became known as The Movement and sought to appeal to the common reader with a nonsentimental poetry of the everyday, written in colloquial language. Larkin (Collected Poems, 1988) often wrote of deprivation and absence. Hughes, whose poetry is noted for its depiction of the savagery of life, became one of England’s most significant poets and was made poet laureate in 1984 after the death of Betjeman. Poet and critic Andrew Motion was named poet laureate in 1999, following Hughes’s death.

Prominent British poets of the late 20th century included Craig Raine, Wendy Cope, James Fenton, and Seamus Heaney. Raine’s early collection, A Martian Sends a Postcard Home (1979), brings a fresh viewpoint to many topics. Wendy Cope’s witty insights appear in Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis (1986). Fenton’s collection Out of Danger (1994) covers love, war, and the political violence he encountered as a war correspondent in southeast Asia. Heaney, from Northern Ireland, won the 1995 Nobel Prize in literature. Although his poetry appears simple in its language and flow, its structure and references are often complex.

D   Modern Drama

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) and Betrayal (1979) 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 in 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, 1953; 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 (1982). Stoppard’s inventiveness continued in his later plays that explore such nonliterary ideas as quantum mechanics (Hapgood, 1988) and entropy—nature’s tendency toward disorder—(Arcadia, 1993). Stoppard’s trilogy, The Coast of Utopia (2002), chronicled conflicting views among radicals in 19th-century tsarist Russia. Michael Frayn, best-known for his comedy Noises Off (1981) about the theater, based the play Copenhagen (1998) on a 1941 meeting between two physicists involved in atom-bomb research on opposite sides during World War II.

Other important British dramatists of the late century included Alan Ayckbourn, Caryl Churchill, and David Hare. Ayckbourn wrote farcical dramas about middle-class anxieties, including Absurd Person Singular (1973) and Communicating Doors (1995). Churchill focused on gender and economics in provocative plays such as Cloud 9 (1979) and Serious Money (1987) and presented a bleak future of barbarism in Far Away (2000). Hare’s politically engaged plays include Plenty (1978), a satire about postwar Britain, and The Judas Kiss (1998), about the downfall of playwright Oscar Wilde.