20th Century English Novels : Characteristic Features

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Twentieth century Novels

      The novel developed both in quantity and quality during the period between the wars in England. It has been urged that the novel declined in scale since then. No writer since then has the moral urgency of a Conrad, the verbal gifts and wit of a Joyce, the vitality and all consuming obsession of a Lawrence. Yet the novel between 1939 and 1964 contains the vitality and vigour worthy of a major genre.

No writer since then has the moral urgency of a Conrad, the verbal gifts and wit of a Joyce, the vitality and all consuming obsession of a Lawrence. Yet the novel between 1939 and 1964 contains the vitality and vigour worthy of a major genre.
20th century Novelist

      The English novel reached its height of success during the first, second and third decades of the 20th century, although the century itself began more or less on a conventional note, and were a continuity of the 19th century. The 20th century ultimately reached to an age of multifarious experiments. The major novelists of the age focused all their attention on the inner life rather than exterior human existence. The psychological novel did not anymore satisfy the neo-realistic novelist such as Henry James and James Joyce. They wanted to concern themselves with subconscious and unconscious and incorporate this into their novels. As such, they had to attempt a completely new thematic definition of the novel, and change the entire conception and characteristics as also to create a new technique. This new technique was given the generic name of the stream of consciousness. The 20th century major novelists are Thomas Hardy (1840-1928), Henry James (1843-1916), Joseph Conrad (1857- 1924), Herbert George Wells (1866-1946), David Herbert Lawrence (1885- 1930), James Joyce (1882-1941), Virginia Woolf (1882-1941), E. M. Forster (1879-1970) and Aldous Leonard Huxley (1894-1963). Some other novelists of the period arc Samuel Butler (1835-1902), George Moore (1852-1933), George Robert Gissing (1857-1903), Enoch Arnold Bennett (1867-1931) and Rudyard Kipling (1865-1936).

      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 Com'ad (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 (1873rl957), whose novel Pointed Roof (1915), is one of the earliest examples 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). 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 Earm (1945). Evelyn Waugh (1903-66) satirized 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 Braue 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 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, Kingsley Amis, William Golding, et al.

      Anthony Powell’s (1905-2000) twelve-volume cycle of novels A Dance to the Music of Time (1951-75), 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 include 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 (born 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 (born 1932), born in Trinidad, was another immigrant, who wrote A House for Mr. Biswas (1961) and A Bend in the River (1979) among other things. Naipaul won the Nobel Prize in Literature. From the West Indies, George Lamming (born 1927) is best remembered for In the Castle of the Skin (1953). Another important immigrant writer Kazuo Ishiguro (born 1954) was born in Japan, but his parents immigrated to Britain when he was six. His works include, The Remains of the Day (1989) and Neuer Let Me Go (2005).

      In the late 20th century, Scotland has produced several important novelists, include James Kelman (born 1946), who like Samuel Beckett can create humor out of the most grim situations. How Late it Was, How Late (1994), won the Booker Prize that year; A. L. Kennedy (born 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 (born 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 (born 1939) is a novelist, biographer and critic, who published from the 1960s until this century. Her older sister, A. S. Byatt (born 1936) is best known for Possession published in 1990. Martin Amis (born 1949) is one of the most prominent of contemporary British novelists. His best-known novels are Money (1984) and London Fields (1989). Pat Barker (born 1943)has won many awards for her fiction. Novelist and screenwriter Ian McEwan (born 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 (born 1975) Whitbread Book Award winning novel White Teeth (2000), mixes pathos and humor, focusing on the later lives of two war time friends in London. Julian Barnes (born 1946) is another successful living novelist, who won the 2011 Man Booker Prize for his hook 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’s (1874-1965) Of Human Bondage (1915), a strongly autobiographical novel, is generally agreed to be his masterpiece. In 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.

      However, in the 20th century novel is treated as an interpreter of life. Human characters are no longer studied in its external manifestation. The Human sensibility, consciousness and even the submerged bubbles of the subconscious and thoughts were ransacked to make the characters n-dimensional. The story telling was no longer the same traditional kind of a chronological statement. Time, space and chronology were destroyed intentionally and deliberately to make it possible for the entire human situation to be revealed in its primal chaotic and disintegrated condition — outside of Space — Time. Language also underwent a radical change.

      It would be wrong to think that the English novel reached its highest water-mark with the stream of consciousness novels, although Joyce’s Finnegans Wake has created an impression that it was novel to end all novels. There were also other novelists writing during the life time of Joyce and Woolf, who maintained their individuality and produced novels very different kind. As matter of fact the popular novelists during the fourth, fifth and 6th decades of the 20th century remain surprisingly free from the overwhelming influence of the stream of consciousness novel.

      Graham Greene (1904) is one of the most distinguished novelists of the period. Born in 1904, he was a convert to the Roman Catholic Church. His reputation as an outstanding novelist of the period was firmly established with the publication of his novel : The Power and the Glory (1924). He unifies his various interests under a single outlook and expresses them in a prose style that is almost startling in its starkness. He satirises the evils of twentieth century urban civilisation but he does not preach. His other novels are: The Man Within (1929), Rumour at Nightfall (1931); It's a Battlefield (1934); England Made Me (1935); A Gun for Sale (1936) ; Vie Confidential Agent (1936) ; The Ministry of fear (1943) ; The Heart of the Matter (1948); The End of the Affair (1951); The Quiet American (1956); Our Man in Havana (1958); A Burnt-out Case (1961).

      Greene is unquestionably a major novelist of this century, in style and content, "among the few, the very few, of our great living novelists". The contest of good and evil rages throughout his novels. In all his novels is the ceaseless struggle for grace that frees men of the bondage of sin. He is a competent craftsman whose plots are cleverly but unconventionally unfolded Joyce Cary (1888-1957) is the most original novelist of his generation. His best work is to be found in two trilogies, the first of which comprises Herself Surprised (1941), To be a Pilgrim (1942) and The Horse's Mouth (1944). In Gulley Jimson, the hero of the last novel, Cary embodies his conception of genius and of the significance of art. Politics inspired his second trilogy - Prisoner of Grace (1952), Except the World (1953), and Not Honour More (1955). Unlike most English novelists of this period, Cary was seriously concerned with the meaning behind experience. His novels are characterised by excellent characterisation, poetic vision and exuberance but sometimes his novels are shapeless. He seems to lose control of the story by the very intensity with which he becomes involved in the happenings.

      Evelyn Waugh (1903) satiric and serious novelist published Scott-King's Modern Europe (1949) and The Loved One (1948), which established his fame as a novelist. His other novels are Decline and Fall (1928), Black Mischief (1932), A Handful of Dust (1934), Scope (1937), Put out more Flags (1942). As a humourist he avoids the moral purpose intrinsic to Meredith's and Molier's view.

      G.P. Snow (1905-1980) was a major literary figure of the period. He wrote a number of novels: Strangers and Brothers (1940), The Light and the Dark, Time of Hope (1950), The Masters (1951), The New Men (1954), Home Coming (1956), The Conscience of the Rich (1958), The Affair (l960), Corridors of Power (1964). He is a traditional novelist who follows in technique and manner the average Victorian novels. Snow avoids the impressionism and symbolism of Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Lawrence and Conrad and in so doing returns the novel to a direct representation of moral, social and political issues.

      George Orwell (1903-1950) was the conscience of his generation. His fame as a writer rests on his two books: Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four (1949). Animal Farm (1945) represents Orwell's disillusionment with Russian communism. It is called a 'fairy tale' but it is a political allegory. The central situation depicting the revolt of the animals against the farmer, the introduction of a Communal State and its betrayal by the power-greedy intellectuals was interpreted as an attack on Stalinism. His 1984 is a more devastating satire and is often compared with Huxley's Ape and Essence. It gives a monstrous picture of a regimented world of the future ruthlessly controlled by the Inner Party in its lust for power, as the last vestiges of human freedom and dignity have been totally obliterated. The gentler manner of Animal Farm gives way to a grim denunciation of the whole trend of modern society. Until the publication of Animal Farm, Orwell was best known as a novelist in the tradition of George Gissing. In a series of documentary novels such as A Clergyman's Daughter (1935), Keep the Aspidistra Flying (1936), The Road to Wigan Pier (1937) and Coming up for Air (1939), he depicted the emptiness and squalor of life among the working classes. William Golding in Lord of the Flies (1954) is concerned with moral aimlessness. In Leslie Allen Paul's autobiography, Angry Young Men (1951), iconoclasm is the dominant note. The central figures and anti-heroes, disgusted youngman who find the whole world reprehensible.

Twentieth century women novelists

      Among the women novelists, Elizabeth Bowen (1899-1973) and loy Compton Burnett (1892-1969) are outstanding Elizabeth Bowen wrote eight novels The Hotel, The Last September, Friends and Relations, To the North, The House in Paris, The Death of the Heart, The Heat of the Day. A World of Love. She is an intensely feminine novelist. She can create young girls realistically but cannot present developed adults. She believes in clarity of detail, precision of phrase and ironical expressions. Ivy Compton-Burnett is a more powerful writer. She shows a talent for depicting English middle-class family life. She wrote in the pre-war period Dolores, Brother's and Sisters, More Women than Men, etc. Her post-war novels include Parents and Children, Elders and Betters, Man Servant and Maid Servant, A House and its Head, Mother and Son, A Father and his Fate, etc. She focuses her imagination on the narrow field of family relationships and shows a subtle insight into human relationships and family psychology. She portrays the conflicts and antagonisms within the family group in a multi-dimensional dialogue. The story is entirely through conversation there is no description. Her strength as a novelist lies in her artistry, her urge to achieve perfection of form in the chosen medium. Her plots are developed with subtle cunning; her spare, colourless prose is instinct with wit and humour.

Novel After World War II

      Among the more notable contributions to contemporary English fiction in the nineteen fifties were the novels of Ivis Murdoch. Her first novel, Under the Net (1955) revealed powers of fancy and imagination that were further developed in Flight from the Enchanter (1956). Her other novels are The Sand Castle, The Bell, A Severed Head, An Unoficial Rose (1962). She accepts her position as cultivated intellectual and writes with engaging seriousness. Her, novels have no plot of significant action and lack unity. They are a series of episodes cleverly strung together. However, they have flashes of brilliant wit. She has restored to fiction that romantic warmth which was lost under the influence of the social realists.

      Angus Wilson, a writer of short stories made a considerable reputation as a novelist in the nineteen fifties. Through his novels he exposes the shams and evils of the society. He is a moralist and like George Eliot integrates the story with a moral theme and like Dickens draws caricatures and exaggerated types. His best known novels are Hemlock and After (1952), Anglo-Saxon Attitudes (1956) and The Middle Age of Mrs. Eliot (1958).

      Samuel Beckett and Lawrence Durrell, two Irishman made important contributions to the novel in the nineteen fifties. Samuel Beckett has a tragic vision of life. He showed French influence in a series of unusual novels Molloy, Malone Dies, The Unnamable, Murphy (1938) and Watt (1945) were his earlier works in English. Beckett is a metaphysical novelist who explores the condition of man and communicates the language of despair. The characters are all engaged in some kind of pilgrimage Molloy, a cripple searches fruitlessly for his daft moth: Malore bedridden exists in a vacuum of boredom; the unidentified hero of The Unnamnable symbolises the final hopelessness of Fallen Man and demonstrates the absurdity ot the human condition. They are parts of a decaying civilisation. Beckett conveys with frightening insistence the isolation of modern consciousness. He is, however, an Irishman with a mercurial wit and a cunning sense of humour.

      Lawrence Durrell has written the Alexandria Quartet of novels - Instine (1957), Balthazar (1958), Mountolive (1959), Clea (1960) described as 'an investigation of modern love'. He is acclaimed as successor to James Joyce and D. H. Lawrence. The Black Book written in 1938 anticipated the themes and attitudes of Alexandria Quartet. Human personality for Durrell is multi-dimensional, comprising contradictions and ambiguities; love and hate manifest themselves simultaneously. Everything is ultimately true of everyone in the undivided stream of life. Durrell's prose in The Black Book singularly rich and poetic in its orchestration of verbal effects ranging from the crude to the exotic. In the Alexandria Quartet, the author investigates love in its infinite variety. All four novels cover roughly the same events, but the angle of vision is constantly changing with the spectator. Love and power, tenderness and cruelty, blindness and understanding are the axes on which the story spins. Technically considered the quartet is too complicated. Durrell writes at times uncontrolledly; his style is overstrained; his narratives is often incoherent; it lacks the repose and ultimate simplicity of a great novel. Yet he is serious about his art. He has introduced vitality, imagination, eloquence and depth to the novel at a time when many English novelists are either effete and meticulous or boisterous amateurs.

      Other novelists who have made distinguished service to the modern English novel include Kingsley Amis, John Wain, Nigel Denis, John Braine, Thomas Hinde, Anthony Powell, V.S. Pritchett, Anthony West, Henry Green and Cristopher Isherwood.

      The earlier novels of Doris Lessing from 1951 to 1969 offer perhaps the most vivid, Cf. indirect evidence of how and why people's lives changed in the first twenty-five years after the Second World' War. Her first novel The Grass is Singing (1951) set in Southern Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) focuses on the marriage of Mary and Richard Turner, and the murder of Mary by Moses, the African servant with whom she has been sleeping. British fiction over the years has consistently returned to, or at the very included references to colonial settings. It makes one realise the extent to which the English over a long period depended on the empire for a sense of self-definition.

      The Grass is Singing is a novel that considers the essential frailty and emptiness of colonial power, conveying the sterility and hypocrisy of the lives of the settlers. The novel starts with the mere facts of the murder, as reported by the local newspaper, it then goes on to explore the story behind the headline. There is, throughout the novel a sense of colonial order that has been imposed upon Africa without any regard for the land or the native people.

      After The Grass is Singing, Lessing in a five volume sequence of novels entitled Children of Violence tracks the life of a character called Martha Quest. The five novels are Martha Quest (1952), A Proper Marriage (1954), A Ripple from the Storm (1950% Landlocked (1965) and The four-gated City (1969). The novels deal with Martha's childhood on a farm in Southern Rhodesia, her involvement in left-wing politics, her marriage, her life in post-war Britain. Lessing is trying to grasp how tne individual will relates to and engages with larger historical and political realities. Similar themes are explored in Golden Notebook (1962). William Golding is another writer who considers the post-war world. Lord of the Flies (1954) looks at a group of school boys marooned on an island and their reversion to savagery. It is another novel that considers the frailty of the structure of civilisation. In his novels, Golding speculates on whether there is any meaning in existence. The Spire (1964) is about a man driven to build an immense spire for a Cathedral; it is also the glory of God, but also a hair-brained scheme. In Darkness Visible (1979) a horribly distributed child emerges from the wartime bombing of London. The child Matty is convinced that he has been put on earth for a purpose. This seems to be the case when, towards the end of the novel, he saves the life of another child. His action stands as an illustration of the power of love as a force in the world. Darkness Visible confronts us with a dark, violent and essentially meaningless world.

      John Fowles in his The French Lieutenant's Woman (1969) suggests the uncertainties of modern life. A modern narrator writes a Victorian novel about the relationship between Charles Smithson and Sarah Woodruff who has been previously involved with a French sailor. Fowles cannot detach himself from a male-centred literary and very English way of judging life. An inability to break free from old ways of looking is at the very heart of Graham Swift's Waterland (1983). It tells the story of a history teacher who is a middle-aged English man and there is, therefore, something that belongs to the past. How can a English author break free from old ways of seeing, and more generally, how can English fiction break free from received ways of telling a story ?

      Martin Amis in his novels Money (1984) and London Fields (1989) paints a picture of Britain during the Thatcher years with characters cynically pursuing their own interests in a society where both culture and compassion are redundant concepts. But what really distinguishes Amis's novels is that he narrates in the voice of this society reproducing the discourses of contemporary English and American life.

      There are different works of a long lost of writers. There are working class novels of the post-war period such as Alan Sillitoe's Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) which tells the story of a factory worker, Arthur Seatorn whose aspirations do not rise above the pursuit of drink and women. The attraction of Sillitoe's novel is that it offers a different perspective on English life. There are different voices present within Britain and that a different voice sees the world in a different way. It is noteworthy that outsiders have found new ways of looking and in doing what a mainstream of white, middle class male authors have added nothing new to the tradition of fiction.

      Novels by women writers who have absorbed and been shaped by the emergence of a feminist discourse over the past thirty years provide the clearest examples of genuinely new voices in fiction. Angela Carter, before her premature death in 1992 wrote novels which include The Passion of New Eve (1977) and Wise Children (1987). Nights at the Crcus (1984), her eighth Novel concerns a circus artist, and Walser, a journalist who hopes to debunk the improbable stories about her life. In the inventive manner that characterises her novels, Carter plays with fantasy and narrative points of view.

      English novel has today be enriched by the colonial writers. James Kelman, a Scottish nationalist in his How Late it was, How Late (1995) relies upon an aggressive Glasgow voice. The Caribbean writer V.S. Naipaul is the author of works such as The Mystic Masseur (1957) and A House for Mr Bistoas (1961). The post colonial tradition is continued and enriched by the colonial writers writing in English.

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