‘British Literature in Transition: 1920-1940 Futility and Anarchy’ by Charles Ferrall and Dougal McNeill (eds) reviewed by Brian Elliott

and (eds)
British Literature in Transition: 1920-1940 Futility and Anarchy

Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2018. 368 pp., £84.99 hb
ISBN 139781107145535

Reviewed by Brian Elliott

About the reviewer

Brian Elliott is Associate Professor of Philosophy at Portland State University. His latest book is …


According to the general editor, Gill Plain, the series ‘British Literature in Transition’ aims ‘to reconsider the habitual practices and critical norms that shape our understanding of twentieth-century writing’ (xiii) and ‘to understand literature’s role in mediating the developments of the past hundred years’ (xiv). As the editors of this particular volume covering 1920-40, Charles Ferrall and Dougal McNeill, explain, the subtitle is derived from T. S. Eliot’s reference to the ‘immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history’ (6). Eliot made this comment in his 1922 review of James Joyce’s Ulysses, one of a small number of epochal literary works published in that seminal year for ‘high modernism’. The novelty of approach adopted in the volume is signified by the fact that two seemingly disparate decades in British literary history are surveyed as the period in question, thereby allowing ‘new breaks and continuities to come into view’ (8).

More specifically, the volume seeks to problematise the generally received understanding that the 1920s were all about formal innovation wedded to an art for art’s sake outlook, whereas the 1930s constituted a distinctly politically engaged period of British literary culture. ‘So-called ‘autonomous’ works of the 1920s,’ the editors contest, ‘can be read as always engaged in the political and social debate’ (9). Reading against the grain of standard literary history, it is noted that the 1920s marked a highpoint in British working-class political activism, most obviously in the case of the 1926 General Strike; while the 1930s were, by contrast, ‘politically quiescent’ (10). The volume editors instantiate the linkages between British literature and political consciousness of the 1920s by quoting a 1927 article by D. H. Lawrence, where the writer accentuates the pivotal social significance of the division between middle- and working-class cultures in contemporary Britain. This theme, of course, Lawrence took up in his final, highly controversial novel Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was originally published in 1928.

Intriguingly, the volume editors also point to parallels between the period surveyed and our present point in time, alluding to ‘the uncanny ways interwar literature seems to gesture at or participate in the controversies of our own day’ (23). More particularly, they reference the 2008 global financial crisis and ongoing controversies relating to devolution of power to the four nations that comprise the United Kingdom. A further parallel relates to ‘a newly energised anti-internationalist populism in England’ as evidenced in the 2016 Brexit referendum result (23). A final mirroring highlighted by the editors relates to advances in communications and entertainment technologies. As individual chapters go on to investigate in detail, the 1920s and 30s witnessed the widespread adoption of telephones and radios in British homes, as well as the birth of celebrity culture made possible by changed modes of presentation and the expanded reach of newspapers. These socially disruptive media developments can be seen as parallel to the radical ways in which contemporary ‘new media’ have reshaped British society over the last two decades. From the vantage point of the literary and cultural establishment of the 1920s and 30s, media innovations gave rise to a popular culture that was regarded, all too often, as inimical to the means and ends of ‘high art’.

The eighteen chapters of the book are organized into five thematic parts, dealing respectively with the wake of the First World War, a changed understanding of the human condition, contemporary politics, the situation within and between the UK’s four constituent nations, and oppositions between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture. Each part, in turn, contains an impressive breadth of theme and perspective. For example, the part devoted to politics includes contributions on the changing consciousness of history among writers, presentations of women in the home and workplace, the birth and development of the documentary genre in literature, and the reception of Indian writing in English. In the editors’ introduction to this part of the book, the main critical argument of the volume as a whole is restated: ‘In recent years the narrative of the autonomous Twenties being followed by the political Thirties has received considerable modification […] Miners’ strikes and lock-outs in 1921 and 1926, and severe, bitter industrial unrest in all Britain’s major centres, contributed, for many on the left and right, to a feeling that the 1920s was a decade of revolutionary challenge’ (146).

In a fascinating chapter entitled ‘Women’s Work? Domestic Labour and Proletarian Fiction’, Charles Ferrell questions the cut and dried gendering of household work in depictions of working-class life in British literature of the 1920s and 30s. Contrasting Orwell’s presentation of a strict and invariable gendered division of labour in working-class households in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), Ferrell argues that ‘working-class writing from the 1930s is actually surprisingly sensitive to the condition of working-class women. “Surprising” that is unless the assumption of a masculinist bias is in fact a middle-class prejudice’ (168). In making his case, Ferrell steers the reader through numerous portrayals of working-class life to be found in novels written and published at the time by working-class authors. Along the way, Orwell’s further assumption that depictions of worker-class protagonists inevitably hinge on a desire to overcome class origins through social mobility is also questioned. In certain cases, at least, working-class protagonists may indeed ‘desire to escape from the material conditions of the working and lower middle classes but they do not desire any kind of middle class status, and the “culture” they acquire and display is not an inherently middle class quality or possession’ (172-3).

In the following chapter, entitled ‘Ordinary Places, Intermodern Genres: Documentary, Travel, and Literature’, Kristin Bluemel expands on the theme of artistic presentations of working-class life and the social position of those who create such depictions. In this case the context is ‘documentary literature’ and its precarious blending of fact and fiction. Bluemel shows how this genre of British literature can be understood to have grown out of earlier popular travel literature, exemplified most prominently by H. V. Morton’s In Search of … book series, which examined the current state of England, Scotland, Ireland and Wales between 1927 and 1932. In its seminal period, a ‘documentary’ was synonymous with a travelogue, giving rise to the two early examples of documentary literature compared and contrasted by Bluemel in her chapter: J. B. Priestley’s English Journey (1934) and Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier. In great detail, the chapter demonstrates how Priestly and Orwell respectively employ a quite distinct ‘rhetoric of place’ (183). Whereas, in Orwell, ‘the lack of proper names, particularly names of places in between North and South, has the effect of keeping English people and places apart’ (189), in Priestley ‘readers not only share his sense of national investment in diverse and distinctive Northern localities, but understand that places between origin and destination are integral to the nation’ (190).

The framing of class-based literary presentation is expanded in Liam McIlvanney’s chapter on depictions of Glasgow as the ‘Second City of the Empire’. The 1922 General Election saw an ascendant Labour Party win ten of Glasgow’s fifteen seats, something that made ‘Glasgow – along with Sheffield – the ‘reddest city in Britain’, and gave birth to the enduring legend of ‘Red Clydeside’ (244). McIlvanney relates how, a matter of years before this, in 1919 riots in Glasgow’s central George Square had been met with tanks when the UK Scottish Secretary had presentiments of a ‘Bolshevist rising’ (245). Against this backdrop of working-class organisation and agitation, this chapter brings to light the contradictions inherent on Glasgow’s presentation as a major centre of industry within the British Empire: ‘The imperial economy that drove Glasgow’s precipitate growth also trapped swathes of its working population in a cycle of dangerous, low-paid employment.’ (245) The rest of the chapter then goes on to document the ‘ambivalence towards Empire’ in novels written and published by Glaswegian authors in the 1930s, many of which have been neglected and marginalized in recent surveys of modern Scottish literature. A particular preoccupation of these novels is the decay of shipbuilding in the city as economic depression struck and deepened in the 1930s. As the sense of an end of Empire looms in the face of a moribund shipbuilding industry, the literary works considered in this chapter presage the emergence of Scotland into something very like the semi-autonomy it has gained over the last two decades.

The foregoing gives some sense of the admirable detail and complexity offered by the various chapters of this volume. The underlying editorial argument is consistently evident through the book, offering the reader a satisfying sense of congruence and coherence across parts and chapters. The authors also do justice to the aim of the ‘British Literature in Transition’ series ‘to understand literature’s role in mediating the developments of the past hundred years’ (xiv). From a Marxian perspective, of course, this role of mediation has always been something of a contested issue. While the overall argument offered in the book is that writers of British literature in the 1920s were already very much involved in the political and social issues of their day, it is also perfectly plausible to argue that this involvement did not, by and large, find overt expression in the key works that were deemed to constitute the birth of British modernism at the time. For instance, it is noted by Gabrielle McIntire, in her chapter ‘History: The Past in Transition’, that ‘D. H. Lawrence’s writing was radicalised by the General Strike’ (164). While Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover certainly turns on a cross-class relationship, it is very far from overtly depicting anything about ongoing political turmoil in Britain in the way, for example, George Eliot had done in her 1866 novel Felix Holt, The Radical. If anything, Lawrence’s novel represents a coming to terms of the First World War, something we know continued to preoccupy the writer long after 1918.

As has been made clear, there is much to admire in the way contributors manage to weave together literary works and the social and political histories of the day. Nevertheless, I believe the underlying argument of the historical revisionism at work – namely, that the standard reading of an autonomous 1920s versus an engaged 1930s should be rejected – ultimately remains vulnerable to substantive objection. On this point, it is necessary to grapple with the class positioning of both individual writers and of artists as a collective grouping. In simple terms, artists are akin to artisans, namely specialised workers. Writers, especially, conduct their work under largely solitary conditions. Equally, their works can be incubated for many years and further external contingencies can delay their publication. For example, Lawrence’s Women in Love was originally conceived as a book project entitled The Sisters years before it appeared in 1920. In other words, many seminal novels of a period are essentially retrospective, representing the immediate past rather than the ongoing present. Secondly, the decision to be a literary producer is effectively a decision to place oneself at several removes from political praxis in an immediate sense. Of course, this in no way means all literature is radically apolitical; but it does in principle problematise the very notion of ‘engaged literature’. This does not amount to saying, however, that the cultural clashes between leftists and conservatives in Britain in the 1920s and 30s were little more than a social storm in a teacup. Rather, it is a matter of registering, in nuanced and fine detail, how the ebb and flows of such debates fed into institutional, political, social and educational reform. It is in this key way that aesthetic mediation truly matters, both a century ago and today.

2 October 2020

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