Literature between the Wars

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Arguably, the period either side of The Great War saw what was probably the finest sustained flowering of English literature in the twentieth century. Ironically, much of it wasn’t English in origin: Ulysses, was published in 1922; the mature Yeats was writing his greatest verse spend that time. Eliot and Pound were American in origin; Robert Frost American in its fullest sense. From England itself, DH Lawrence and Virginia Woolf wee pushing the boundaries of the novel. Woolf wrote her most important works in the ‘twenties, though the famous Bloomsbury Group (of which more anon) was a creature born before the war; the Woolf family Hogarth press first published The Wasteland in 1923 (Woolf herself typeset it). It is noticeable that all the above, with the notable exception of Woolf and Joyce, all were either apolitical or right-wing (in the case of some, such as Pound, very much so). More significant than their politics was the note of disillusion with the everyday bourgeois reality than ran through the works of Yeats, Pound, Eliot and Woolf.

Again, Joyce is an exception: Ulysses was the world of the Dublin bourgeois. Joyce though, was little read (Ulysses, like Lady Chatterly, was banned). As historians though, just as interesting are the lesser works or, to put it bluntly, what real people actually read. Of what we would see now as part of the English literary canon, much was very widely read between the wars, but most of that was nineteenth literary fiction: the likes of Dickens, George Eliot and Jane Austen were as ubiquitous then as now. There were big selling works of literary fiction too, many of them now unread.

Literature in the ‘twenties was often focused on class conflict, sex and the impact of war, of men beset by religious crises and looking back to the safer world of the ‘Edwardian garden party’ than never existed in reality, but did now in myth. War itself would not feature until the last years of the decade (see a later related note on JourneyRobert Keable’s Simon Called Peter (1921) was about an Anglican clergyman who has a crisis of faith at the front, has an affair with a French prostitute, before rediscovering his faith. In ASM Hutchinson’s If Winter Comes (1921), class conflict could only be healed by a return to Edwarian Christian values. Warwick Deeping’s best-selling Sorrell & Son (1923), featured a decorated ex-army officer left to raise his son after his wife deserts them, rejected by feckless proles and stupid women. All three have something of the note of a fearful and embittered conservatism looking back to better times.

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It’s probably true to say that, tellingly, the new literature of the ‘thirties took something of a leftward turn, as it had previously occupied with the likes of Shaw. Now, it came in the form of AJ Cronin (The Stars Look Down & The Citadel), or WH Auden, for example. Some veered into agitprop: Victor Gollancz’s Left Book Club and the appearance of Penguin Books in 1935 (including political tracts called Penguin Specials). The likes of George Orwell (notably in The Road to Wigan Pier) and JB Priestley were clearly political. Walter Greenwood’s Love on the Dole almost single-handedly created the tradition of social realism that would blossom again in the late ‘fifties and beyond.

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In fact, the best of the literature of the ‘thirties was never as simplistically political as Love on the Dole, or as jejune as the often well-intentioned, but simplistic, left-wing politics the Auden circle were prone to (see a later note on Irish literature, notably Sean O’Casey and Louis MacNeice).

One other very new phenomena affected literary fiction now; well, two. Orson Welles as-live radio version of HG Wells War of the Worlds caused panic among its American audience. By the war, authors such as JB Priestley and George Orwell became radio personalities. And then, All Quiet on the Western Front became a much lauded and big hit movie; a new trend was set. In 1941, Love on the Dole itself became a hit movie. Dramatists such as Noel Coward (see here) and even poets would make a splash in film, such as Auden did in The Night Mail (see here). The cross-media platform was born.

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