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Age of anxiety

Updated Tuesday, 17th August 2010

The OU's Dr Stephenie Forward looks at 20th century literature from 1946 to 1969 as In Their Own Words: British Novelists explores the 'age of anxiety'

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Austere conditions in post-war Britain laid the foundations for major developments in the subject matter tackled by writers from the 1940s onwards. The period we are considering here was marked by a number of different ‘labels’ that were dreamed up for so-called ‘groups’ of writers. In his book The Movement: English poetry and fiction of the 1950s, Blake Morrison described how the term ‘The Movement’ was given to certain poets and novelists, including Philip Larkin, Kingsley Amis and John Wain. They reacted against modernism, preferring to be accessible and straightforward, and their sentiments seemed to capture the mood of the times. Amis’s Lucky Jim (1954) mocked pretentiousness, paving the way for other satirical works; however, the writers themselves denied the existence of a specific ‘movement’. 

The impact of John Osborne’s 1956 play Look Back in Anger inspired the coining of the term ‘Angry Young Men’ to identify writers whose work reflected deep disillusionment with British society. The Angry Young Men included Larkin, Amis and Wain (Hurry on Down), Osborne (who also penned The Entertainer), John Braine (Room at the Top), Alan Sillitoe (Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner), and Colin Wilson (The Outsider). Their central characters tended to be working-or-lower-middle-class figures: lonely, rootless, trapped, and antagonistic towards authority figures.

Angry Young Women

This was a predominantly male ‘movement’, but Shelagh Delaney (A Taste of Honey), and Iris Murdoch were sometimes identified as Angry Young Women. Strictly speaking it is inaccurate to lump the authors together, as many of them firmly rejected the label. Amis, for example, was a friend and admirer of Larkin, but he declared that they were ‘savagely uninterested in the same things’. For the most part the Angry Young Men rarely encountered each other, and there were some fierce rivalries; yet the term persisted, and they prepared the ground for the massive cultural changes that characterized the 1960s. One of the Angry Young Men authors, Colin Wilson, chronicled this phase in his book The Angry Years: The Rise and Fall of the Angry Young Men (2007). The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography offers a sharp definition.

Kingsley Amis said: ‘Any proper writer ought to be able to write about anything’ and when he died in 1995 obituarists certainly hailed him as an all-rounder: novelist, comic master, poet, reviewer, scriptwriter, polemicist, literary critic, sci-fi writer and memoirist. It has been said that over his long career his fiction reflected the changes that took place in society. His own views altered, too: his youthful support for communism was to be replaced ultimately by support for Thatcher and Conservatism.

Lynne Reid Banks is another versatile author, known for both adult and children’s fiction (especially The Indian in the Cupboard) and for biographies of the Brontës. Her landmark book, The L-Shaped Room, was published in 1960, relating how unmarried Jane Graham is rejected by her middle-class father after becoming pregnant. She moves into an attic room in a dilapidated Fulham boarding-house, where she encounters other ‘outsiders’. Jane’s story continues in two sequels: The Backward Shadow and Two is Lonely.

The label ‘kitchen sink realism’ was derived from an expressionist painting by John Bratby and was also applied to novels, plays and short stories featuring ordinary people struggling to cope. Although Nell Dunn was from a wealthy upper-middle-class background, she wrote about working-class life in Up the Junction (1963) and Poor Cow (1967).

Dystopian work

Other writers wrestled with serious issues in their own ways. The bleak nature of JG Ballard’s dystopian work is said to have given rise to the definition ‘Ballardian’ in the Collins English Dictionary. His childhood experiences in a Japanese internment camp inspired Empire of the Sun (1984), but in his early career he was acclaimed for his New Wave science fiction.

Anthony Burgess also wrote dystopian fiction, attaining cult status with A Clockwork Orange (1962). He was a prolific author who produced novels (including his Malayan trilogy), poems, criticism and articles, and musical compositions.

On a lighter note, this period also saw the success of James Bond. Ian Fleming published Casino Royale in 1953, following it with a steady stream of Bond novels before his death in 1964. Interestingly Kingsley Amis recreated the super-spy in Colonel Sun (1968), using the pseudonym Robert Markham.





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