Nation and Novel: The English Novel from Its Origins to the Present Day

By Patrick Parrinder | Go to book overview

14
Round Tables: Chivalry and the
Twentieth-Century English
Novel-Sequence

IN twentieth-century English fiction there are novelists of expansion and novelists of contraction. D. H. Lawrence's Œuvre after the First World War is an outstanding example of expansion through time and space. It reflects Lawrence's restlessness as he journeyed to Australia, New Mexico, and southern Italy; it explores his fascination with primitive cultures and ideas of prehistory, and hints at transcendental realities beyond the material world. Novels and stories like The Plumed Serpent (1926) and The Woman Who Rode Away (1928) are fantastic fables foretelling the defeat of Western civilization and European imperialism. No novelist has done more to distance himself from his beginnings in Victorian provincial realism, yet Lawrence in Lady Chatterley's Lover executes a final if rather hesitant return to England.

In the work of Lawrence and other 'expansionist' novelists—Aldous Huxley, Wyndham Lewis, H. G. Wells, and later in the century Doris Lessing—the novel form itself comes under intense strain. Their fiction is unstably poised between topical satire and dream romance, between the 'discussion novel' of ideas and visionary science fiction. But the majority of twentieth-century English novelists did not follow their lead. Far from representing an ever-widening circle of life and intelligence, their novels portray a distinctly diminished social circle. Theirs is the fiction of what one critic has called the 'shrinking island'.1

If the novelist's social range was shrinking, so was the novel itself as a physical object. In the 1890s the Victorian circulating libraries lost their virtual monopoly of the book market and the conventional three-volume novel was replaced by single volumes which were far more attractive to purchasers. Ambitious novelists continued to write long novels, and many bestsellers were extremely bulky, but the average novel became much shorter. By the middle of the twentieth century there was a striking

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