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The brave new world of modernism

Updated Monday, 9th August 2010

Dr Peter Lawson explores modernism in preparation for the first episode of In Their Own Words: British Novelists which will cover the ruins of war

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What is modernism? The term ‘modernism’ derives from the Latin modo, meaning ‘just now’, the present: ‘life; London; this moment of June’ as Virginia Woolf writes in the opening pages of Mrs Dalloway (1925). It is this emphasis on modern times, and the fleeting moments of which it is composed, that was central to writers in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Virginia Woolf Plaque Creative commons image Icon By Liits via Flickr under Creative Commons licence under Creative-Commons license

Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Group

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) famously dated the beginning of modernism to December 1910. This choice of date as a watershed refers to the first post-impressionist exhibition to be held in England. More broadly, Woolf was alluding to the demise of dated Edwardian culture with the death of Edward VII in that year. It is Woolf, and her fellow ‘Bloomsbury Set’ writers, who were to form the first experiments in modernism.

In 1911, Woolf moved with several men to a house in the Bloomsbury neighbourhood of London near the British Museum. This was shocking Bohemian behaviour by Victorian standards. Her housemates were her brother Adrian, the painter Duncan Grant, the economist John Maynard Keynes and the novelist Leonard Woolf. Also connected to this group were the novelist EM Forster, the biographer Lytton Strachey and Virginia’s sister, the painter Vanessa Bell.

Virginia married Leonard in 1912, and together they set up the Hogarth Press. Among its groundbreaking publications were the works of Sigmund Freud, which introduced English readers to psychoanalytical concepts of repressed sexuality, the unconscious and dreamwork which were to have a huge influence on modernist fiction. Woolf developed the stream of consciousness narrative technique in her fiction, based on the Freudian talking cure, in novels such as Mrs Dalloway (1925), To The Lighthouse (1927) and The Waves (1931).

Woolf also wrote of the unequal treatment of women in essays such as ‘A Room of One’s Own’ (1929) and ‘Three Guineas’ (1938). When fascist and Nazi governments gained power in Italy and Germany, Woolf radically linked the popularity of such right wing politics with patriarchy. In ‘Three Guineas’ she explicitly aligned herself with the anti-fascist struggle and when Nazism appeared to have conquered Europe, Woolf sadly committed suicide in 1941.

Evelyn Waugh and the Bright Young Things

By contrast, Evelyn Waugh met the Italian fascist leader Benito Mussolini in 1936 and claimed to be impressed. In 1937, Waugh remarked: “I am not a Fascist nor shall I become one unless it were the only alternative to Marxism” (in Wykes, 1999). His hostility to left wing politics was key to Waugh’s identity as a conservative Catholic novelist.

Waugh can be read as anti-modernist. He satirised modernity in novels such as Decline and Fall (1928), Vile Bodies (1930) and A Handful of Dust (1934). The novel Brideshead Revisited (1945), made famous by a TV adaptation in 1981 and the film in 2008, draws on his experience at Hertford College, Oxford, where the young Evelyn studied and socialised with the Bright Young Things of the 1920s. These were privileged members of the English upper classes, and Waugh observed them with an ironic yet affectionate eye.

Waugh converted to Catholicism in 1930, claiming that Christianity was the sole bulwark against modern secular chaos. The Sword of Honour trilogy (1961) draws on the novelist’s experience of the Second World War as an army captain. While championing tradition and heroism, it shows through satire how such values no longer have their allotted place in the modern world.

Graham Greene and the Soho Writers of the 1940s

George Orwell Copyrighted  image Icon Copyright: Penguin Books

The 1940s saw a burgeoning of talented novelists, including Graham Greene (1904-1991), Patrick Hamilton (1904-1962), Henry Green (1905-1973) and George Orwell (1903-1950).

Before Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene had converted to Catholicism in 1926, and he subsequently incorporated Catholic themes into his novels. Examples of novels with religious themes include Brighton Rock (1938), The Power and the Glory (1940) and The End of the Affair (1951). Also like Waugh, Greene wrote an accessible prose which eschewed modernist complexity and experimentation. Such was Greene’s focus on popularity that he called many of his novels “entertainments,” rather than literature.

Greene wrote thrillers such as The Confidential Agent (1939) and The Third Man (1949) which were filmed and became box-office hits. Greene’s emphasis on the seedy underworld of London and Brighton, and in his later fiction on corruption in destitute developing nations, led to the critical term ‘Greeneland’ to evoke such settings.

Patrick Hamilton is another significant novelist of the period. Like Greene, Hamilton offers a dark vision of humanity; for example, in Hangover Square (1941) and The Slaves of Solitude (1947). Both novels are set in and around London, and depict lonely, hard-drinking people whose lives are overshadowed by the Second World War. In Hangover Square, Hamilton combines a realist narrative with a stream of consciousness technique to evoke the protagonist’s nightmarish paranoia about modern social relations.

Henry Green wrote about working-class characters in a dense poetic language, drawing together dual concerns of inter-war novelists: revolutionary politics and literary experimentation. Novels such as Living (1929), Pack My Bag (1940) and Loving (1945) display an inventive modernist use of language while also engaging directly with social and political issues of this period.

Fears about the direction taken by modernity reach their apogee in the late works of George Orwell: Coming Up for Air (1939), Animal Farm (1945) and Ninety Eighty-Four (1948). Orwell was a left wing journalist, and correspondingly his prose engages with modern politics while steering clear of the linguistic complexity associated with modernism. In Orwell’s vision of the future, a police state ensures complete conformity. This modern dystopic vision may owe something to Aldous Huxley’s pessimistic novel, Brave New World (1932).





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