English Novel - 20th Century

20th Century

Thomas Hardy stopped writing fiction after Jude the Obscure (1895) was severely criticized, so that the major novelists writing in Britain at the start of the 20th century were an Irishman James Joyce (1882-1941) and two immigrants, American Henry James (1843-1916) and Pole Joseph Conrad (1857-1924). The modernist tradition in the novel, with its emphasis "towards the ever more minute and analytic exposition of mental life", begins with James and Conrad, in novels such as The Ambassadors (1903), The Golden Bowl (1907) and Lord Jim (1900). Other important 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 in 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. Then in 1922 Irishman James Joyce's important modernist novel Ulysses appeared. Ulysses has been called "a demonstration and summation of the entire movement". Set during one day in Dublin in June 1904, in it Joyce creates parallels with Homer's epic poem the Odyssey.

Another significant modernist in the 1920s was Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), who 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), and The Waves (1931). Her essay collection A Room of One's Own (1929) contains her famous dictum; "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction".

But while modernism was to become an important literary movement in the early decades of the new century, there were also many fine novelists who were not modernists. This include E.M. Forster ((1879-1970), John Galsworthy ((1867-1933) (Nobel Prize in Literature, 1932), whose novels include The Forsyte Saga, Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) author of The Old Wives' Tale, and H. G. Wells (1866-1946). Though Forster's work is "frequently regarded as containing both modernist and Victorian elements". E. M. 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. The most popular British writer of the early years of the 20th century was arguably Rudyard Kipling ((1865-1936), a highly versatile writer of novels, short stories and poems and to date the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1907).

A significant English writer in the 1930s and 1940s was George Orwell (1903–50), who is especially remembered for his satires of totalitarianism, Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949) and Animal Farm (1945). Evelyn Waugh (1903–66) satirised the "bright young things" of the 1920s and 1930s, notably in A Handful of Dust (1934), and Decline and Fall (1928), while Brideshead Revisited (1945) has a theological basis, setting out 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 (1872-1963) A Glastonbury Romance. Samuel Beckett (1906–89) published his first major work, the novel Murphy in 1938. This same year Graham Greene's (1904–91) first major novel Brighton Rock was published. Then in 1939 James Joyce's published Finnegans Wake. In this work Joyce creates a special language to express the consciousness of a character who is dreaming.

Graham Greene was an important novelist whose works span the 1930s to the 1980s. Greene was a convert to Catholicism and his novels explore the ambivalent moral and political issues of the modern world. Notable for an ability to combine serious literary acclaim with broad popularity, his novels include, The Heart of the Matter (1948), A Burnt-Out Case (1961), and The Human Factor (1978). Evelyn Waugh's (1903–66) career also continued after World War II, and in "1961 he completed his most considerable work, a trilogy about the war entitled Sword of Honour. In 1947 Malcolm Lowry published Under the Volcano, while George Orwell's satire of totalitarianism, 1984, was published in 1949. One of the most influential novels of the immediate post-war period was William Cooper's (1910-2002) naturalistic Scenes from Provincial Life (1950), which was a conscious rejection of the modernist tradition. Other novelists writing in the 1950s and later were: Anthony Powell (1905-2000) whose twelve-volume cycle of novels A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-1975), is a comic examination of movements and manners, power and passivity in English political, cultural and military life in the mid-20th century; comic novelist Kingsley Amis is best known for his academic satire Lucky Jim (1954); Nobel Prize laureate William Golding's allegorical novel Lord of the Flies (1954), explores how culture created by man fails, using as an example a group of British schoolboys marooned on a deserted island; philosopher Iris Murdoch was a prolific writer of novels that deal with such things as sexual relationships, morality, and the power of the unconscious. Her works including Under the Net (1954), The Black Prince (1973) and The Green Knight (1993). Scottish writer Muriel Spark's also began publishing in the 1950s. She pushed the boundaries of realism in her novels. Her first, The Comforters (1957), concerns a woman who becomes aware that she is a character in a novel; The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), at times takes the reader briefly into the distant future to see the various fates that befall its characters. Anthony Burgess is especially remembered for his dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange (1962), set in the not-too-distant future, which was made into a film by Stanley Kubrick in 1971. In the entirely different genre of Gothic fantasy Mervyn Peake (1911–68) published his highly successful Gormenghast trilogy between 1946 and 1959.

Immigrant Doris Lessing (1919- ) from Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe), published her first novel The Grass is Singing in 1950, after immigrating to England. She initially wrote about her African experiences. Lessing soon became a dominant presence in the English literary scene, frequently publishing right through the century, and won the nobel prize for literature in 2007. Salman Rushdie (1945- ) is another among a number of post Second World War writers from the former British colonies who permanently settled in Britain. Rushdie achieved fame with Midnight's Children 1981, which was awarded both the James Tait Black Memorial Prize and Booker prize, and named Booker of Bookers in 1993. His most controversial novel The Satanic Verses (1989), was inspired in part by the life of Muhammad. V. S. Naipaul (1932- ), born in Trinidad, was another immigrant, who wrote among other things A House for Mr Biswas (1961) and A Bend in the River (1979). Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in Literature. Also from the West Indies George Lamming (1927- ) is best remembered for In the Castle of the Skin (1953). Another important immigrant writer Kazuo Ishiguro (1954- ) was born in Japan, but his parents immigrated to Britain when he was six. His works include, The Remains of the Day 1989, Never Let Me Go 2005.

Scotland has in the late 20th-century produced several important novelists, including James Kelman (1946- ), who like Samuel Beckett can create humour out of the most grim situations. How Late it Was, How Late (1994), won the Booker Prize that year; A. L. Kennedy (1965- ) whose 2007 novel Day was named Book of the Year in the Costa Book Awards. In 2007 she won the Austrian State Prize for European Literature; Alasdair Gray (1934- ) whose Lanark: A Life in Four Books (1981) is a dystopian fantasy set in his home town Glasgow. Another contemporary Scot is Irvine Welsh, whose novel Trainspotting (1993), gives a brutal depiction of the lives of working class Edinburgh drug users.

Angela Carter (1940-1992) was a novelist and journalist, known for her feminist, magical realism, and picaresque works. Writing from the 1960s until the 1980s, her novels include, The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (1972) and Nights at the Circus (1984). Margaret Drabble (1939- ) is a novelist, biographer and critic, who has published from the 1960s until this century. Her older sister, A. S. Byatt (1936- ) is best known for Possession published in 1990.

Martin Amis (1949- ) is one of the most prominent of contemporary British novelists. His best-known novels are Money (1984) and London Fields (1989). Pat Barker (1943- ) has won many awards for her fiction. Novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan (1948- ) is another of contemporary Britain's most highly regarded writers. His works include The Cement Garden (1978) and Enduring Love (1997), which was made into a film. In 1998 McEwan won the Man Booker Prize with Amsterdam, while Atonement (2001) was made into an Oscar-winning film. McEwan was awarded the Jerusalem Prize in 2011. Zadie Smith's (1975- ) Whitbread Book Award winning novel White Teeth (2000), mixes pathos and humour, focusing on the later lives of two war time friends in London. Julian Barnes (1946-) is another successful living novelist, who won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his book The Sense of an Ending, while three of his earlier books had been shortlisted for the Booker Prize.

Among popular novelists Daphne Du Maurier wrote Rebecca, a mystery novel, in 1938 and W. Somerset Maugham (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage (1915), a strongly autobiographical novel, is generally agreed to be his masterpiece. In genre fiction Agatha Christie was an important writer of crime novels, short stories and plays, best remembered for her 80 detective novels and her successful West End theatre plays. Christie's novels include Murder on the Orient Express (1934), Death on the Nile (1937), and And Then There Were None (1939). Another popular writer during the Golden Age of detective fiction was Dorothy L. Sayers, while Georgette Heyer created the historical romance genre.

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