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English Literature: 19th Century to Present Jandy Stone

Dr. Richard Russell date unknown as of yet

“A Reader’s Guide to the Twentieth-Century Novel in Britain”


by Randall Stevenson

reviewed by Jandy Stone


The twentieth century has seen perhaps more drastic changes in literature than any

other century, and the novel has dominated the literary scene more than ever. The

English-language novel has repeatedly reinvented itself and its form throughout the

century, influenced by the trauma of two world wars, the loss of the British Empire, and

the influx of perspectives from postcolonial authors. In A Reader’s Guide to the

Twentieth-Century Novel in Britain, Randall Stevenson charts the complicated course the

novel has taken over the past century, showing how it relates to the cataclysmic historical

events of recent history.

Stevenson begins with the Edwardian period, explaining its literature both as a

reaction against Victorian constraints and as an attempt to deal with the continuing

difficulties of the industrial revolution, the ominous growth of Germany’s strength, and

the loss of familial and societal stability. However, even during this time, not all writers

agreed that these concerns should be the focus of literature. Virginia Woolf, D.H.

Lawrence, and Henry James criticized their contemporaries for focusing too much on the

material and societal aspects of life, and not enough on human nature (22).

After looking at James, Joseph Conrad, and E.M. Forster as precursors to modernist

narrative techniques, Stevenson devotes his most in-depth chapter to the modernist novel,

introducing the theories of writing that underscore the work of Woolf, Lawrence, and

James Joyce. The modernist movement is separated historically from the Edwardians by

World War I, and several facets of literary modernism were strongly influenced by the

devastating psychological effects of the war. No longer finding it viable to hope in the

state, social order, or even religion in the post-war world, the modernists found purpose

in art and personal vision (30), seen clearly in Joyce’s The Portrait of the Artist as a
Young Man and Woolf’s To the Lighthouse. Modernism also brought stylistic innovations

to narrative form and structure, especially the tendency to deviate from chronological

storytelling toward a fragmented approach in which form became intrinsic to meaning.

Stevenson argues that modernism informs the novel even now, and that understanding it

and its contributions to novelistic form is imperative for understanding the twentieth-

century novel in general (6).

However, modernism was not universally praised at the time (52-53). Some

contemporary critics felt the modernists’ tendency to focus on the inner life of individuals

was an inappropriate denial of the social problems Britain faced moving into the

Depression of the 1930s. As memories of more peaceful Edwardian times receded, 1930s

authors dealt with a world that had always been shadowed by the threat of war, political

strife, and poverty. Stevenson suggests that the general tendency was to move “away

from personal or aesthetic interests and towards broader social concern, often reflected in

realist, even documentary styles” (59), rather than remain aloof from societal issues and

turn inward, as the modernists had. Although writers like George Orwell, Christopher

Isherwood, and Grahame Greene employ modernist techniques, they put them to a more

politically and socially conscious end.

Stevenson highlights three major novelistic tendencies of the World War II era: the

attempt to recreate the battlefield experience through a disorienting and fragmented form

(75-78); the use of fantasy to “provide contexts in which contemporary anxieties could be

clearly and vividly examined” (80); and looking back at pre-war innocence as an escape,

but also to search for causes of the current disillusionment. By the 1950s, the novel had

settled into half-hearted rebellion that led merely to reconciliation with society, tending to
be conservative in both values and style (95). But predictions of the death of the novel

(96) were proven wrong by the explosion of postmodern forms beginning in the 1960s.

Stevenson notes that the influence of Woolf and the modernists began to be felt again

in the 1960s, as “many novelists… rejected in their turn [the 1950s] new conservatism

and reluctance with experimentation or innovation in form.” (104) Writers increasingly

felt that traditional language and narrative techniques were inadequate to express reality,

which led to a self-conscious fragmentation of narrative and style. Stevenson shows that

in literature, unlike some disciplines, postmodernism really appropriates and goes beyond

modernism rather than rejecting it (112). Indeed, Stevenson connects modernism and

postmodernism directly through Irish writers James Joyce, Samuel Beckett, and Flann

O’Brien, whose work he sees as “a postmodern paradigm, a further prophecy of the self-

reflexive foregrounding of fiction-making, language and representation which has

become the distinguishable characteristic of postmodernism.” (114)

Another characteristic of postmodernism is inclusivity, which Stevenson looks at as

he deals with literature’s trajectory toward the year 2000. The British Empire dispersed

the English language and people throughout the world, and also brought the descendents

of English colonizers and indigenous peoples back to Britain, where their multi-cultural

outlook spawned a slew of postcolonial literature. Writers like Chinua Achebe, Kazuo

Ishiguro, Timothy Mo, and Salman Rushdie write from a perspective that involves both

British culture and their respective African, Japanese, Chinese, and Indian backgrounds.

Stevenson locates much of recent literary innovation in the shores of the former British

Empire; in fact, he finds that innovation in the British novel has often come from the
margins of society throughout the century, especially from Ireland, a much older seat of

British colonization (137).

Stevenson states that “literature not only reflects but seeks to compensate for the

problems and anguish of history, reshaping in imagination what is lost or intractable in

fact” (127), speaking here specifically of the effects of the loss of Empire on British

consciousness and its literature, but the quote also applies to the effects of World War I,

the 1930s depression, World War II, the baby-boomer era of the 1950s, the social

revolutions of the 1960s, and recent globalization. Despite Britain’s loss of political

power, its language has become dominant in many ways around the globe, and Stevenson

hopes the future will bring even greater vitality to literature in English, whether from the

island herself, or from the newer voices of her former colonies (141-142).

Although Stevenson’s book necessarily and explicitly (59) over-generalizes, he does a

very good job at identifying major trends and their historical influences. He explains

clearly and concisely the historical background and literary innovations, giving enough

particular examples for readers unfamiliar with the specific works to keep up. My only

quibble is a slight imbalance between the first and second halves of the book.

Appropriately, he gives a lot of time to modernism: part of his purpose is to show “the

recent and contemporary as a legacy of the now-established classics of the twentieth

century—those of the modernist period in particular.” (6) However, after the relative

depth of coverage from 1900-1950, the rest of the book feels rushed. He involves more

writers, and gives each one only a paragraph or two. This gives a great sense of the

diversity of those decades, but I wish he had taken time and space to develop them a bit

further. Aside from that, A Reader’s Guide to the Twentieth-Century Novel in Britain is
an excellent overview of a complex century, connecting literature to its historical climate

in a readable, concise, and illuminating way. Stevenson provides a good foundation for a

beginning study of twentieth century English literature, leaving his reader hungry for

more.