A Hundred Years of Fiction: 1896 to 1996

By Rubens, Robert | Contemporary Review, December 1996 | Go to article overview

A Hundred Years of Fiction: 1896 to 1996


Rubens, Robert, Contemporary Review


Throughout 1996 Contemporary Review has featured a series on 'The English Novel in the Twentieth Century'. The series, has ranged widely throughout the century dealing with authors as diverse as D. H. Lawrence, Barbara Pym, and Kingsley Amis. In the opening article in the series I commented that 'the only rule in the writing of fiction is that there are no rules.' Standing now however at the end of this series, this year and indeed almost of this century, it is pleasant to look back and see what has happened to the English novel in this century of unrest.

Henry James was the most influential author in the transition from the nineteenth century novel to that of the twentieth century. From The Spoils of Poynton (1896), to The Golden Bowl (1904) his novels revealed a startling awareness of psychological motivation and unconscious forces within the individual which had a powerful and continuing effect on the writers who followed him for the next hundred years.

Before James, the great tradition of the English novel was marked by vivid creations of scenes and characters - stalwart heroes, rogues, social climbers, high-spirited girls and eccentric old women. Although the English novel has never entirely broken away from this rich material, after Henry James there was a marked change in emphasis. Early twentieth century novelists became less interested in character as such. They shifted their attention to the images and preoccupations which govern the inner lives of the individual. Thus the modern novel took a poetic leap in an entirely new direction.

Aside from the influence of James (either direct or indirect) the reasons for this change are complex and varied. Partly because of the Industrial Revolution the idea of a personal destiny became almost insignificant and people began to absorb less from their environment because their environment was changing so rapidly. Then the First World War shattered the English emotional climate and left the nation disillusioned and disorientated. The novels of that period reflected this collective malaise and authors began to look inward.

This inwardness does not imply self-consciousness, but rather the belief in the unique significance of every individual life. This attitude can be seen in James Joyce's novel, Ulysses (1922). In this masterly work the new subjective approach is carried so far that the reader finds himself almost continually in the minds of the protagonists. To accomplish this, Joyce invented his own technique - the stream-of-consciousness which was perhaps the most important innovation in modern literature.

In the novel the author explores the lives of two heroes: the idealistic, warm-hearted businessman Leopold Bloom and the weak, despairing poet Stephen Daedalus. In their momentous meeting, Joyce shows that despite a basic lack of communication, people of greatly different temperaments can draw strength from each other and achieve a sense of human recognition. The author suggests that this form of symbiosis is not only possible, but essential in a world in which basic human values have disintegrated.

Joyce uses the city of Dublin to create a microcosm of modern life and parallels the incidents of the Homeric legend to impose all outward structure on the flux of his characters' inner monologues. The author's achievement is not only his new subjective method, but also his construction of a strong framework which helps us to see his characters in a clear perspective.

D. H. Lawrence is a writer of that period who has become curiously difficult to assess now. There is great power in his work, but power which is often misdirected. For Lawrence it was only intense emotions which were really important. He wanted people to be primitively themselves which is often nearly impossible in civilised society. Yet because of his unique sensitivity he could describe natural scenes, animals, children and the primitive drives of love and hate between people with more intensity than any other writer of this century. …

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