Period Introduction Overview

The Twentieth Century and After

  • The Modern period, beginning around the turn of the twentieth century, has its roots in the late Victorian transition from widespread belief in art as a vehicle for pleasure andinstruction towards a belief (at least on the part of artists) in "art for art's sake." 
  • The sense of alienation—i.e., the distance between the serious artist and a general public—that marked the early twentieth century grew out of this sense of art for art's sake; or, put another way, a sense of art was no longer beholden to some general, public purpose.
  • Mass literacy became a reality towards the end of 1800s, in large part owing to passage of the Education Act of 1870 that mandated compulsory elementary schooling.
  • Universal education, even if just in basic reading and writing, produced a general reading public that in turn generated demand for popular fiction.
  • A widening gulf emerged between so-called serious (or highbrow) art and popular (or lowbrow) art.
  • Seemingly, the more generic and "mass-produced" popular literature became the more experimental, challenging, and avant garde some modern artists became, as though reacting against a literature that tried to appeal to a lowest common denominator.
  • Already by the last decades of the Victorian period (the 1880s and 1890s) authors were turning away from the optimism and triumphalism that had marked the early- and mid-Victorian periods. 
  • Many authors were satirizing, even attacking, middle-class Victorian values and were reflecting a greater degree of skepticism in their work, especially of the long-held Victorian belief in national exceptionalism―i.e., that England was special in history and thus had a duty to spread its version of civilization across the globe.
  • At the dawn of the twentieth century, many people (artists included) had lost their faith in institutional, cultural, or social foundations that could provide stability in the world. W. B. Yeats would express this sense of dissolution and instability most definitively in his 1919 poem, "The Second Coming": "Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold" ( p.  2099).
  • The development of psychoanalysis and of comparative mythology in the early twentieth century also had a profound impact on artists of the time.
  • Psychoanalysis challenged traditional ways of understanding human beings as fundamentally rational, decision-making individuals.
  • Comparative mythology sought basic connections between the world's various belief systems, which ultimately destabilized faith in Christianity as a singularly privileged (or "correct") belief system.
  • Fundamental changes in the intellectual sphere were matched by equally fundamental changes of a more mundane variety: the use of electricity, for example, or the proliferation of radio and film, were changing the world in basic but profound ways.
  • Even basic beliefs in the universal laws of mathematics were challenged by new theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, each in its way offering a radically new view of the world than what Newton had provided centuries before.
  • Mass production, a logical outgrowth of the industrial revolution, became the norm for all manner of goods, from cars, to clothes, to works of art.  (Or "art," as some skeptical Modernists might say.)
  • The American ex-patriot writer Ezra Pound provided British Modernism with its paradigmatic motto: "make it new."
  • At this time, women were finally gaining some measure of equality (slowly but surely): the Married Women's Property Act of 1882 allowed women to own their own property, and women won the right to vote thanks to parliamentary acts in 1918 and 1928.
  • The "Edwardian" and "Georgian" periods are named for the British monarchs King Edward (1901-1910) and King George (1910-1936). The terms are generally used to indicate the time between the end of the Victorian period and the beginning of the First World War, especially in reference to aspects of that pre-war period when a happy Victorian optimism seemed to be present (in contrast to the growing sense of alienation and instability that so many Modernist artists expressed).
  • The First World War (1914-1918) truly marked the end of whatever optimism about progress that the Victorian age had engendered.  The "Great War," as it was then known, decimated the landscape and produced death on a scale that the world had not previously known.
  • The British Empire, by this time, was coming apart as well. Some colonies fought for independence while others assumed control of their own affairs but remained part of the British Commonwealth (as opposed to the British Empire).
  • The idea of "English" literature changed radically throughout the twentieth century as it came to include voices from across the globe who were (or who had recently been) "English"—i.e., part of the empire or the commonwealth. These new voices were from places as geographically diverse as Canada, New Zealand, India, the Caribbean, and Africa.
  • Closer to home, Irish demands for self-governance were becoming more vocal and often more violent as the twentieth century progressed.
  • After the First World War, economic depression and unemployment led many new writers into left-wing politics (including socialism, communism, and forms of liberalism). The 1930s were known as the "red decade."
  • Leftist political thinking became much less radical with the outbreak of the Second World War.
  • The Second World War (much like the First) took a massive toll, and it meant the final end of Britain's place as the leading world power (a mantle taken up by blocs that would emerge as the Cold War superpowers: the United States and the Soviet Union).
  • Rapid decolonization followed in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s as British colonies around the world gained their independence. Somewhat ironically, many of these colonial subjects began emigrating to England due to labor shortages there. This marked the beginning of a vibrant ethnic diversity (which still characterizes places like London), though racial inequality and prejudice often marked the immigrant experience.
  • Margaret Thatcher became the country's first female prime minister in 1979. She held office for 12 years (1979-1990), during which time her Conservative party worked to disempower unions and to dismantle England's "welfare state." Neoliberal market policies ("deregulation") enthused many in the business community, though just as many others recognized that such policies often widened the gap between the rich and poor.
  • Through the 1960s and into the 1980s the Irish nationalist movement became increasingly violent. The Irish Republican Army (IRA) waged a campaign against British rule, often turning to violence (which met, predictably, with violent repression by British authorities).
  • The Conservatives were voted out in 1997 as the political pendulum swung back towards a Labour government (under Tony Blair) that many hoped would revive struggling public services that had been gutted by the previous Conservative party: primarily the health and public education systems.
  • Blair (and his Labour Party successor Gordon Brown) came under increasing scrutiny as public approval plummeted, thanks generally to worsening economic conditions but much more specifically to the choice to join the United States in its invasion of Iraq in 2003 and the abstract "war on terror."

Poetry

  • The early twentieth century, between about 1900 and the First World War saw the beginning of radical new experiments in poetry. Early writers were especially concerned to delineate clear images and to rid poetry of its Romantic and Victorian era superfluities (its emotion, its didacticism, its exposition).
  • Many Modernist poets looked to seventeenth century metaphysical poets for technical inspiration. So the Modernists were not entirely anti-tradition, and many, like T. S. Eliot argued that Modern poets must have an extensive knowledge of tradition.
  • The metaphysical poets—of whom John Donne was the best example—worked with simile and analogy to present the reader with startling new comparisons. T. S. Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" contains a good example in its opening lines: "Let us go then you and I when the evening is spread out against the skylike a patient etherized upon a table" (p. 2524; italics added).
  • The comparison of the evening to an etherized patient is both surprising—a comparison we have likely never heard before—but it also reflects the perspective of the poet's speaker―that is, we learn about him by how he views the world.
  • T. S. Eliot was also important in the way that his work presented allusions to, and direct quotations from, many other works, as though a "new" kind of poetry could in fact be built from fragments of the old.
  • Modernism was not just a literary phenomenon; it took hold in many art forms and flourished both in England and Continental Europe. Many writers, in fact, borrowed ideas from music and the visual arts.
  • Many poets of the late 1930s and 1940s (especially post-Second World War) embraced a more direct, impassioned, and human tone, perhaps responding to the inhumanity of the war.
  • But with the 1950s came a movement back towards the linguistic precision of the early Modernists (i.e., away from the emotive extravagance of the 1940s). While returning to a more precise language, however, poets of the mid-century (calling themselves  the "Movement") were not so concerned to return to a style heavy with allusion and intellectualism. They were just as concerned to produce a poetry that was well-crafted and concise but that communicated the details of everyday life.
  • Over the last half of the twentieth century (and continuing today) the English poetic landscape became more and more diverse. This is thanks in part to the diverse "English" voices that are now part of the literary tradition but that emerged from colonial and post-colonial experiences in India, Africa, and the Caribbean, for example.
  • Writers from these "mixed" heritages are especially well equipped to speak to the modern sense that manypeople feel (regardless of their heritage) in a world that often seems a mixture of positive and negative and the product of a fractured past.
  • Poets like St. Lucian speak directly to a divided sensibility: a love for an English literary tradition but a deep scorn for a history of imperial mistreatment. 
  • This mixed-ness is becoming more obviously a benefit and not a problem of "impurity" as for so long it was deemed to be by cultures who sought to protect a "pure" racial identity by denigrating anything that was different.

Fiction

  • Despite its diversity, Modern novels typically focus on themes like the individual in society and the temporality of human existence.
  • Modernist novels tend to fall into three obvious periods: 1900-1920s (a time of experimentation, allusiveness, and complexity); 1930s, 1940s, and 1950s (a time when novelists returned to social realism); and post-1960s (a period when important writers emerged from post-colonial contexts).
  • In its early stages, the Modernist novel turned inward to contemplate the workings of the individual mind (of characters and authors themselves). This marked a reaction to the Victorian concern for exploring vast social landscapes in the novel.
  • Later Modernist novelists were no less experimental, necessarily, though they often returned the issues of politics and class to fiction that early Modernists had not examined so closely.
  • Contemporary English fiction, if it is possible to distill any common tendencies from its diversity, often looks backwards, uneasily, to England's earlier days. Much contemporary fiction thus looks to provide a sense of perspective, as though the culture itself is now working through what its own history has meant, for good and for ill.

Drama

  • Modernist English drama was not as obviously marked by the experimentation that characterized either Modernist English poetry and fiction or that characterized Continental European drama (which was much more concerned to break with convention and reinvent tradition).
  •  Modernist drama on the Continent became increasingly self-conscious, or aware of itself as drama.
  • Non-English dramatists often broke with long-standing dramatic conventions (i.e., that actors break character and/or address the audience). Similarly, these dramatists challenged conventional notions of storytelling such as that a plot should begin, reach a climax, and achieve resolution.
  • English drama of the early Modern period might have been alive and well, thanks in part to the work of late-Victorian authors like Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw, but it would not become a true progressive force until it began to reflect the countercultural movements of the 1950s and 1960s.
  • One of the earliest dramatic innovators in the English tradition was Samuel Becket, though his early groundbreaking play,Waiting for Godot, was written in French and first performed in Paris.
  • Beckett's plays, often "plot-less" and devoid of resolution, reflected a post-Second World War feeling of emptiness, cultural fatigue, and alienation.
  • From this post-war period English drama traveled along different trajectories, including Beckett's "theater of the absurd" but also the social realism of John Osborne and Harold Pinter.
  • 1968 marked an important year for British theater as in that year the Theatres Act (or 1843) was abolished. This act had required all plays to be submitted to (and effectively censored by) the state.
  • The 1970s thus saw the emergence of a newly liberated theater, not to mention the formation of many theater groups, which included actors, writers, and directors working collaboratively.
  • The post-colonial period also introduced many new voices to the British stage, like Caribbean-born Derek Walcott and African-born Wole Soyinka.
  • Contemporary British literature (including drama, poetry, fiction, and nonfiction) is almost impossibly diverse. It might be this very diversity that marks the Modern and postmodern periods as beginning a reaction to the high-Victorian aims of empire. From the Victorian desire for one, world-encompassing British culture has common quite the opposite: a contemporary literary landscape of endless variety.