The History of England

from Celts through 20th century


Category: Culture

By the end of the nineteenth century Great Britain was abandoning the aims of peace and retrenchment proclaimed by the Liberals. Foreign affairs were deeply affected by the coming of imperialism. As the world was divided up amongst imperialist powers, the newer powers, rapidly coming into the first rank of capitalist states, found themselves left behind in the race for colonies. Their only hope was to win colonies in a war for the redistribution of existing empires. As the danger of these policies became apparent to Britain and France, they drew closer together and ended their traditional rivalry.

Britain now set out to build the ‘Entente’, or alliance with France, extended to include Japan in 1902 and Russia in 1907. This alliance was ranged against the Tripple Alliance of Germany, Austria and Italy. The prospect of wars now affecting empires stretched across the world. Through the era of imperialism feelings of extreme patriotism and jingoism were fostered.

In literature this period saw a flood of stories of romantic adventure, often set in India or Africa, which appealed to thousands of readers because of their contrast to the drab routine life of factory workers and the new suburban population of clerks and other black-coated workers. R. L. Stevenson wrote Treasure Island in 1883, and King Solomon’s Mines written by Rider Haggard in 1886 gave a stirring picture of central Africa. W. E. Henley and Joseph Conrad wrote of adventures on the high seas. But the most popular of these writers was Rudyard Kipling (1865—1936), novelist, poet and author of fascinating tales for children, The Jungle Book (1894). His poem Mandalay, describing the romantic east as recalled by an ex-soldier, became a very popular song. There is much attraction in R. Kipling’s vivid descriptions and his brave and daring heroes, as well as in his boldness in revealing the dark and cruel sides of life, or in contrasting the natural simplicity of the natives to the insincerity and affectation of the colonizers. Yet he was a universally recognized bard of the British Empire, who delighted in describing Britain’s victories in colonial warfare. He firmly believed in the wisdom of English rule in newly conquered lands and called upon his compatriots to do their bit for their country. R. Kipling, no less than W. E. Henley, voiced the ideas of British imperialism, with its philosophy of ‘the right of the strong’ and its frank apology of militarism. One of R. Kipling’s poems, Big Steamers, was a direct appeal for a big navy to protect Britain’s far-flung trade routes.

R. Kipling was the first English writer to be awarded the Nobel Prize for literature (1907)/’

At the same time other writers offered escape from the unattractiveness of everyday life in other directions. Conan Doyle began his immortal series of Sherlock Holmes stories in the nineties, endowing the foggy bleakness of Baker Street, London, with a romantic glow. G. K. Chesterton wrote a series of detective stories with an unobtrusive Catholic priest as the unlikely unraveller of the mysteries.

A glimpse of the wonders that science might bring in the future — as well as some of the dangers — were expressed in the novels of Herbert George Wells (1866-1946), The Invisible Man (1897), The War of the Worlds (1898) and The First Men in the Moon (1901).\ As a critical realist he thought the scientifictechnological revolution was incompatible with the dominant role of a parasitic class, though his plans, both social and political, were Utopian. His various concepts of world reconstruction and the vagueness of his ideal are typical of a democratic-minded intellectual who was far from the working-class struggle. \ More consistent in their criticism were the critical realists of the twentieth century. George Bernard Shaw (1856 — 1950) turned to be the leading figure among them. Unlike Dickens and Thackeray who had only a vague idea of the future, Shaw deeply analysed the social essence of that system as such, not only its moral and ethical problems. He gave his idea of the future where private ownership of the means of production, distribution of goods and exchange should be abolished. However, ideologically he was limited by his devotion to reforms, and in some of his works not always consistent.

Another critical realist of the period was John Galsworthy who did much to expose the top layers of the bourgeoisie and bourgeois intellectuals.

John Galsworthy (1867 — 1933) grew up in a rich family, studying at Harrow, a select secondary school, and Oxford, a select university. It was in fact in his very family that Galsworthy found the prototypes of the Forsytes, who are so skilfully depicted in The Man of Property, the first novel of the cycle known as The Forsyte Saga (1922). As he himself pointed out, his indignation and protest against the realities of the time to which he was subjected at home, at school and at the university were at the root of the attitudes and thoughts expressed in his best works produced in the first decade of the 20th century, such as The Island Pharisees (1904), The Man of Property, The Silver Box (1906) and others. Their main characters live according to the law of ownership which is a basis of the social system of Great Britain.

The horrors of World War I wjere a bad shock to the young writers. The injustice and unreasonableness dftfie slaughter demonstrated the false, lying nature of the bourgeois slogan&ssiid pretences. A radical revaluation of values was the result, and the ‘lost generation’s’ disappointment led them to assume a distorted vision of the world. Being unable to see the real causes of the war, the clashing greeds of imperialist countries, their competition in enrichment, they put the blame on the development of technology, and on the inborn, incorrigible depravity and viciousness of man. What they wanted was to escape every contact with social life, to retreat to one’s private world. Life in all its complexity and fullness and vigour no longer occupied them.

This period is marked by the appearance of various literary schools, modernistic, psychological and others, headed by T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, James Joyce. T. S. Eliot (1888—1965) did not always ‘escape’ from reality since his position as leader of ideological reaction did not allow it. He seemed to be looking for ways to save his class and its peculiar civilization. Catholicism was seen by him as one of such ways, for it might help to curb the disobedient masses. In his Ulysses (1922) James Joyce (1882 — 1941) discrowns the man whose thoughts and actions are deliberately shown as ugly and petty. Such qualities as the triviality, hypocrisy, philistine imitation of feelings and thoughts do not look as socially determined phenomena but produce the impression of age-old traits inherent in man.

W. Somerset Maugham (1874—1965) in the course of his long life wrote a vast number of works, novels, plays, short stories^ Many of his works written at the turn of the century are of critical and realistic character. A doctor by profession he made good use of his professional observations. In Liza of Lambeth (1897), his first novel, fie described the life of the London slums.

All his best novels Maugham devoted to the people of arts. Such are Of Human Bondage, which came out in 1915 and where the author himself is the main character concealed under a pseudonym, The Moon and Sixpence (1919), CakesandAle, (1930), Theatre (1937). Among his best plays are The Circle (1921), The Constant Wife (1926), The Breadwinner (1930) in which he portrayed the force of circumstances, the way of life and social conditions, as well as the scantiness of the characters and their prototypes.

Having started from certain classical positions of English realism, D. H. Lawrence (1885 — 1930) was led by his tendency to treat social relations and contradictions as secondary, concentrating on sex treated as the pivot of one’s inner world (The White Peacock, Sons and Lovers (1913), The Rainbow (1915)), though in his last novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover (1928), post-World War I England was shown realistically with its social contradictions, the appalling poverty of the miners.

In the 1930s the ‘escapism’ was no longer popular among the best English writers, there was a notable shift to the left. New names adhering to critical realism appeared. Richard Aldington (1892—1962) in one of his best works, Death of a Hero, branded imperialistic wars. John B. Priestley (1894—1984) made a substantial contribution by The Good Companions, The Angel Pavement, Dangerous Corner. A. J. Cronin (1896 —1981) in his Hatter’s Castle showed a gloomy picture of family tyranny, the decay of family ties under the despotic influence of a person combining bourgeois smugness with aristocratic pretences. Social conflicts were demonstrated in his works The Stars Look Down and The Citadel. In the 1940s, however, Cronin deviated from the pressing questions of his time.

The 1930s witnessed the work of writers characterized by passionate confidence in the victory of the working people’s cause: Ralph Fox (1900—37), John Cornford (1915— 36), Christopher Caudwell (1909—37). The leader of this constellation of courageous humanists was Ralph Fox. In the late 1930s he wrote and warned the world about the menace of fascism.

This period is marked by a number of significant historical works by progressive English authors, which were devoted to the key periods of the class struggle in the history of Britain. The novels by Jack Lindsay (1900) may be singled out for their revolutionary nature and the understanding of the people’s role in history (1649. A. Novel of the Year, Men of ’48). His epic work The British Way, reveals the revolutionized consciousness of the people and the degradation of the bourgeoisie, its inevitable shift to reaction in post-World War II Britain.

One of the great masters of modern English prose is James Aldridge (1918). As a writer he commenced in the years of World War II. His first novel Signed with their Honour (1942) is devoted to the heroic struggle of the Greek people against the Italian and German fascist troops. In the postwar period he turned to the burning problems of the day, creating uncompromising characters who started their active struggle for peace, against reaction both at home and abroad, especially in The Diplomat and other works.

In the 1950s a so-called literary revolution took place. A new kind of literature burst upon the scene. The writers of this new literature — Kingsley Amis, John Wain, John Braine, Alan Sillitoe and others — became known as the ‘angry young men’. They came from working-class and lower middle-class backgrounds. They wrote about the ugly and sordid reality of life as they knew it, and they wrote angrily. Their novels and plays were not written in literary or intellectual language, but in the ordinary and sometimes ugly language of daily life. The scene was often set in the dark back rooms and kitchens of northern industrial cities. The main characters were not usually men and women with ideas and ideals. More often they were bitter and weak, defeated by the dramas and miseries of everyday life.( The authors revealed in their works {Saturday Night and Sunday Morning by Alan Sillitoe, Look Back in Anger by John Osborne, The Day of the Sardine by Sid Chaplin and a few others) their disgust and hatred of philistine existence and conformism in its various guises.) It is remarkable, that the manner of writing of the ‘angry’ is realistic, they do not follow the decadents. They continue the traditions of critical realism.

The home and international position of Great Britain in the 1950s brought to important changes in English literature. Two trends continued to develop — progressive and reactionary. Most significant representatives of critical realism of the time are Graham Greene (1904), Norman Lewis (1908), Basil Davidson (1914), Desmond Stewart (1924). These progressive authors are united by the common interest in preserving peace and the hatred for war. The novels by G. Greene The Quiet American, The Comedians, The Honorary Consul, The Human Factor and others are closely connected not only with moral problems but also with the most critical political events in the hotbeds of the globe. Of antiimperialist, anti-colonialist character are the novels by N. Lewis Volcanoes Above Us, The Sicilian Specialist, A Passage to Freedom), by D. Stewart (Sequence of Roles, and others).

The ugliness and meanness of life remains a favourite subject for novels and stage plays, as well as for films and television plays. The writers of today are interested in the small details of life. Most modern writers are observers rather than commentators. Their philosophic and aesthetic searchings took them closer to modernistic trends to a certain extent succumbed to the influence of existentialism, though some writers, among them Iris Murdoch, William Golding, Lawrence Durrell, Muriel Spark, Colin Wilson, Angus Wilson, do more than observe. The constant recurrence in modern English literature of the problem of alienation is a proof, a reflection of modern bourgeois society, its ideology and culture.

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