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The 20th century - Historical background and social situation

When Queen Victoria died, England was one of the most powerful nations in the world, the British
Empire was huge, the Navy and the Army were well trained and invincible, the manufacturing and
trading middle class was prosperous.
But the 20th century saw the decline of Britain partly caused by the impressive growth of German
industry and also by new emerging powers, the USA and Japan.
During his reign, Victorias eldest son, Edward VII, pursued a policy of peace and good
relationships with foreign countries. England lived in the wave of Victorian optimism: the illusion
that the economic and social situation of the country was destined to prosper forever even if the gap
between the rich and the poor still existed (Disraelis The 2 nations).
Society was organized like a pyramid, at the top of the social ladder there was the aristocracy with
its privileges, it was followed by the middle class divided into upper (professionals and managers)
and lower (shopkeepers and clerks) at the bottom there was the working class divided into skilled
and unskilled workers whose families were very large with high infant mortality rate, very bad
housing conditions still subject to social injustices.
In this period the Liberal party won the general election and launched a program of social reforms
to help the poor and the old, laying the foundations of the welfare state. It was the first time the
British Government decided to spend money on the welfare of people; the most important reforms
School Meal Act: providing meals for children in need
Coal Mines Regulation Act: 8 hours working day
Old Age Pension: for people over 70
Parliament Act: to weaken the power of the House of Lords
National Insurance Act: to insure workers against sickness

In this period (1903) the movement of Suffragettes was born asking for universal suffrage for all
women, it came in 1918 (for women aged 30) and in 1928 (for women aged 21) after they chained
themselves to railings, broke windows and cried their rights. In was the first form of battle for
emancipation.When George V went to the throne in 1910 he had to face the event which changed
the face of the world: World War I. The main cause was the ambition of the German Emperor
William II who abandoned the policy of peace of Bismark and wanted his country to become more
powerful than England and France. He wanted to conquer the Balkan State to cut off Russia from
the Mediterranean and England from its control over Egypt and India.
The occasion was the murder of the heir to the Austrian throne, the Archduke Francis Ferdinand by
a Serbian student. So Austria attacked Serbia and Germany attacked the neutral territory of
Belgium. On the other side Russia supported Serbia, while England and France declared war to
It was Britains first European war since Napoleonic times apart from the Crimean war. George V
decided to abandon his name Hannover and changed it into Windsor. The war lasted four years,
Russia collapsed in 1917 because of the Bolshevik revolution, Italy, which was neutral at the
beginning and had sided with England, France and Russia in 1915, was defeated by Austria at
Caporetto, while the USA joined the war in 1917 as a crusade for democracy and accelerated the
German defeat. The armistice was signed in 1918 and the Peace treaty was signed at Versailles in
1919. The war caused the ruin of the four great European Empires and made possible a communist
revolution in Russia. The American President Wilson devised a plan to keep peace so the League of
Nations was born, but the American Senate voted against involvement in European matters, so the
USA never joined the league. During the years of the first post-war period enthusiasm was replaced
by discomfort and disillusion. The consequences of the war were:

even if unemployment disappeared thanks to a rise in demand for war production, there was a rise
in prices which led to inflation and rise in taxation;
the process of emancipation of women started because women proved to be competent in every
field during the absence of men who were at war (suffragettes); a step towards equality of the sexes;
labourers became conscious of their rights so trade unions grew in power and importance;
there were many social reforms and even living habits changed: cigarette smoking, cinema,
gambling, use of contraceptives;

The growth in industries in Asia and Japan caused a deterioration of European economy, great
depression, which was made worse by the wall street crash in 1929 followed by the new deal policy
established by the American President Roosvelt. It was an age of reforms according to which people
were set to work on jobs which were useful to the community as building new roads, schools,
hospitals. It was only towards the end of the 30s that the situation improved. Industries were
reorganized new sectors were created such as electricity, artificial fibres, plastic, motor-vehicles.
Mass production led to the creation of chain stores, advertising became very important, the growth
of the population slowed down because of birth-control practices, families became smaller and
women with more leisure time became more independent. As regards England, the two main events
were the situation in India and the Irish question. As for India the situation worsened because many
Indians had fought for Britain in the I world war and asked for more freedom but the English
Parliament refused so Gandhi started a campaign of non-violent civil disobedience and non-
cooperation until the British government declared to leave India in 1947. Thus India was divided
into two parts a Hindi one and a Muslim one later called Pakistan and Gandhi was killed by a
fanatic in 1948. Even other dominions of the former British Empire acquired their independence as
Africa, Canada, Australia, New Zealand and the Commonwealth was created.
The most serious problem was in Ireland where the Catholic minority who did not want to be
submitted to the Protestant government of Britain organized an army IRA (Irish Revolutionary
Army) which opposed the British Police using terrorist methods. The civil war ended when the
British in 1921 established the Irish Free State called Eire while the remaining part of Ulster in the
north remained part of the United Kingdom of Britain and Northern Ireland with its capital in
Belfast. However the problem is still open in Ulster.
As regards politics, in 1918 the Liberal Party was replaced by the Labour Party even if power was
always in the hands of the Conservatives, who faced the II World War. GEORGE V came to the
throne after Edward: The reforms carried out by the Liberals led to an increase in taxation, and the
Conservative reacted The Parliamentary Acts(1911) led to the loss of power by the House of Lords
and the House of Commons became the real legislator of the country .
When in 1936 George V died, his son Edward VIII went to the throne but his reign only lasted 10
months because he abdicated in favour of his brother George VI to marry a twice-divorced
American lady. George had to face the II world conflict. It started in 1939 when Hitler invaded
Poland and in 1940 Denmark and Norway and then Holland, Belgium and France. England and
France formed a coalition to stop Germany, the USA decided not to join the war at first, Roosvelt
only obtained consent from the Congress to send war material to England.
In 1940 Italy declared war to France and England, France was defeated and in England there was
the Battle of Britain wan by the pilots of the Royal Airforce. In 1941 Germany attacked Russia and
Japan bombed the American naval base of Pearl Harbour forcing the USA to enter the war. Because
of the cold Russian winter Germany and Italy were defeated, Italy was invaded by the Americans in
1943 and in 1944 the allies invaded Normandy and freed France. The USA, using atomic bombs on
Nagasaki and Hiroshima destroyed Japan so the war was over. In 1945 after Hitlers suicide
Germany surrendered.
The English Prime Minister Winston Churchill drew up the Atlantic Charter aiming at the respect of
human rights because this war cost more civilians than soldiers for bombing of towns, atomic bomb
and racism against the Jews. After the war the Labour Party won the elections and followed the

ideas of the Beveridge Report which promoted a series of measures to be taken in order to protect
and promote the welfare of British people.
The welfare state was born, it was a series of schemes and services assumed by the Government and
local authorities to deal with all types of social problems such as housing, education and health. The
main acts were:
Education Act which established compulsory and free education from the age of five to fifteen
National Insurance Act to assure assistance in case of sickness, unemployment, maternity,
National Health Service to provide free medical assistance
There was also a policy of nationalization for the control of power (electricity, gas, coal, iron, steel),
of transport (airlines and railways), of credit (the Bank of England).
In 1952 George VI died and was succeeded by his daughter Elisabeth II married to Philip Duke of
Edinburgh. During her reign she has faced different problems as
The Suez Crisis (1956) - caused by the nationalization of the canal by the Egyptian Government
The Falkland War (1981) - for the possession of the islands in front of Argentina
The Gulf War (1991) - because Iraq invaded Kuwait which was a member of the UN
The Irish Question which is still open
The Oil Crisis (1970s) until the discovery of oil in the North Sea
After the Labour Party had dominated the scene in the second post-war period, the Conservatives
returned to power in 1979 with M. Thatcher the iron lady who dismantled the policy of the
Welfare State. She was followed by John Mayor (Conservative) and in 1997 by Tony Blair
(Labourist) in 2007 by Gordon Brown (Labourist) and Cameron (Conservative).
1926: General Strike. BBC starts programmes. Industrial decline and unemployment. Gap between
upper middle class and working class. Evolution in colonial Empire: colonies start having some
kind of independence. 'Commonwealth(British colonies are granted different degrees of self-
government but remain tied to the crown). In 1920 Gandhi started is non-violent protest which lead
to the Government of India Act of 1935. 1947 India becomes independent and the Muslim area
becomes Pakistan. and the relationship between the two states are never really friendly. Gandhi is
murdered in 1948.
1929: Wall Street Crash. Mass unemployment and economic crisis.
1936: Edward VIII was named new king, but he abdicates to marry an American divorcee; George
VI was named new king and he ruled Britain till 1952.
Rise of totalitarianism: left attracted by Stalin, right attracted by Hitler, Mussolini and Franco. But
there was not a particular danger because the general attitude was to defend democracy at all costs.
1939 Winston Churchill Prime Minister. England against Hitlers Germany in the Second World
War(1939-45) The beginning of the second world war, called peoples war for the sense of national
unity against Hitlers Germany. The difference between the two wars is that the second was founded
on this principle of defending democracy against totalitarianism. Churchill, with his speech
promising blood, sweat and tears to let democracy win, led the country to victory. Setting up of a
Welfare State-help to the poor and free medical treatment. The causes of the war were:
the consequences of the Treaty of Versailles, which had imposed hard conditions on the defeated
the economic crisis which helped the rise of totalitarianism
Britain and France declared war to Germany in 1939 to support Poland which had been invaded.
Italy entered the war in 1940 supporting Germany. On one side Britain, France and USA, on the
other side Japan, Germany and Italy. Germany surrendered in 1945.

Before the outbreak of World War I: falling of the prices and the doubling of the wages of the lower
classes; industrialization, use of new technical innovations; growth of population and urban spaces;
extension of transport network. During Georgian Era was the British counterpart of the belle

poque: fashion, leisure sports, tea-parties. With World War I Britain faced horror and death. After
the war a brief period of economic boom was followed by economic depression. But despite the
crisis, there were new inventions(plastic, artificial fibres and petrol and cars),new residential
suburbs, mass production.
THE ROARING TWENTIES were full of fun, sensational and shocking lifestyle overcoming the
rigid Victorian code. Family became smaller because both parents worked.
Old age pensions, national insurance schemes, a new system of secondary education for children up
to the age of 15.
Crisis of trade, for the coming of new powerful countries like Japan, USA and India(in textile field),
industrial decline.
Depression and Unemployment increase trade-union activities, and a general strike was made in
The rigid class system of Victorian Age was maintained: upper and middle-classes were
strengthened and the gap between them and the working classes was wider.
New media were introduced(film and radio) and even newspapers preferred to give the sense of
shocking and sensational behaviour. BBC starts programmes.

Before 1910 Edwardian stage: writers used the techniques of realism and naturalism to examine
the social problems caused by rapid changes
from 1910 to 1930 Second stage: the most radical and characteristic works appeared in this period.
Especially in the years of disillusionment at the end of Word War I
from 1930 to 1950 After 1930, writers tried to cope with the enormous problems posed by the
Great Depresssion, the rise of Fascism and World War II. A more direct, didactic literature of
conscience came into prominence.
Question of Belief: spiritual research, magic, other religions, sciences or sensations, or even despair
as a result of a chaotic universe.
Pacifist movement
Victorian ideas and values collapsed mainly for:
1. the failure of the middle-class programme to guarantee a continuous improvement of the
economic and social conditions of all classes
2. the crisis of the positivistic faith in a better world
3. the new ideas that were imposing themselves powerfully
The first set of these ideas concerned psychology and was introduced by Sigmund Freud,
the father of psychoanalysis. The main effect of Freud's theory and exploration of subconscious and
unconscious were three:
1. it implied a radical criticism of the traditional models of relationship between man and woman,
parents and children, and also man and society
2. it offered a description of psychological deviances and neuroses
3. it provided the writers with a precise and rich lexis concerning the psychological sphere.

Nietzsche: he questioned objectivity of truth, said the primordial will dominated every
human being, discussed the role of the Superman. God is dead=loss of morality and end of
believing in a cosmic force ordering the universe. He justified nihilism, fear and anxiety dominating
the world.
Einstein: the theory of relativity. Uncertainty about the foundation of reality.
The first world war: individual sensibility, individual consciousness opposed to accepted
social order, values and ideals.
Modernism in Art, Music and Literature. Many divergent theories, but all overthrowing
traditional artistic conventions. Picasso, Stravinsky, Expressionism, Cubism, Dadaism, Futurism,
Vorticism-Imagism, Surrealism

PROSE influenced by
Social and political events and the economic crisis
Collapse of the established principles
Spread of education at the university
Freuds psychoanalysis
Influence of Dostojevsky and Proust
Radio and the new techniques
Reaction against the realistic tradition of Victorian fiction (even the realistic traditions
writers like Conrad in his criticism of Imperialism, D.H. Lawrence in themes of sexuality, family)
Emphasis on the individual
Portrait of human consciousness, in which the past, the present and the future coexisted
Two philosophers, the American William James (1842-1910) and the French Henri Bergson
(1859-1941) greatly influenced the development of European literature. James' idea that we record
every single experience in our minds in a continuum which cannot be analysed discretely, is the
foundation of the modern novel's technique of the stream of consciousness. Bergson acted in the
same way, first his idea of time as a continuous flow of consciousness (dure), not as a series of
chronological points in succession, and secondly with his assertion that intuition is superior to
intelligence. New conception of TIME: The mind needs different methods of narration according to
its process, so some authors (like V.Woolf and T.S.Eliot) were influenced by BERGSONS
THEORY CONCERNING LA DURE or DURATION FLUX, according to which inner time has a
duration eluding conventional clock time; so, the time seen in the past as a sequence of separate
points has been turned in a flowing continuity. The new ideas created a climate of cultural
relativism and a widespread scepticism, sense of loneliness and alienation. The writers of the first
decades reflected this desolate vision of the world, while some of them took refuge in religious or
esoteric belief (Yeats and T. S. Eliot)
STREAM OF CONSCIOUSNESS=Definition given by William James, the brother of Henry
James=the consciousness is not divided in bits but flows like a river or a stream. Consciousness is
not intelligence or memory, but it is the whole area of mental attention, from pre-consciousness
through different levels the mind and to awareness.
FICTION: The first deals with all the rational communicable area, the second concerns the area
beyond communication. The first is expressed a speech area by words and writing, the second a
WOOLF indirect interior monologue-introduced by clauses such as he thoughts, he
decided MONOLOGUE is the technique, the instrument used to depict consciousness and the
stream of consciousness and to translate it into words ( so following the flux of thoughts the syntax,
JOYCEare not interior
direct conventional.
monologue, shifting from thoughts to thoughts, without any apparent
connection of punctuation, verb, subject

HENRY JAMES-see the 19th century

CONRAD-interest in portraying human soul


D.H. LAWRENCE anti-victorian in themes of sexuality,

REALISTIC TRADITION CONRAD- anti-victorian in his criticism of imperialism
E.M.FORSTER rejection of Victorian social values





GEORGIANS Subjective and creative response to the potentiality of English
For the reign of George V Influenced by French Symbolism

Idealised rural England MODERNISM

Musical Language IMAGISM

G.B.Shaw continued to write and inspired other playwrights
T.S.Eliot wanted to revive verse drama like Greek and Elizabethan Models

MANIFESTO: Common speech; New rhythm; Free choice of the

subject; Imagery as the centre of poetry

W.B.YEATS mysticism of Celtic antiquity. Later he abandons

Romanticism and adopts the modernist direct, colloquial diction
and employs symbolic images to analyse modern life.