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Criticism of Society in the English Novel between the Wars

Hena Maes-Jelinek


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  • 1 William Van O’Connor, “The Novel in Our Time,” in Forms of Modern Fiction, p. 3.
  • 2 E.M. Forster, “English Prose Between 1918 and 1939,” in Two Cheers for Democracy, Penguin Books, 1 (...)

1“It is hardly an exaggeration to say that we do not know what kind of world we live in until we have experienced it through the coherent and meaningful configurations of our most original and perceptive artists.”1 The truth of this statement is confirmed by the foresight of the novelists in the inter-war period. In contra-distinction to the social historian, who saw the Twenties as an age of optimism and the Thirties as a period of economic depression, though also of renewed interest in the welfare of humanity, the artist’s vision of reality was first one of despair owing to the collapse of the traditional world, then of horror in view of the emerging social patterns. The English novel between the Wars interprets the difficult passage from an aristocratic tradition based on individual achievement to a system in which the combined influences of applied science and egalitarianism threatened to produce uniformly mediocre men. The writer of that period has thus portrayed English society at a moment of crisis and of deep transformation. Though it may be true that, as E.M. Forster writes, the interval between two wars “forms part of larger movements where wars become insignificant,”2 that period is a landmark in the history of the novel, a self-contained phase of development, in which new ways of looking at the world and new forms of fiction took shape, which were soon taken for granted and opened up unlimited possibilities for the novel. Each decade had its key figure, or, as has often been suggested, its conscience: D.H. Lawrence in the Twenties and Orwell in the Thirties. Lawrence was the heir and last representative of an already long tradition of protest against the transformation of England from an agricultural into an industrial society. Orwell, on the other hand, accepted industrialism, though grudgingly, but he was appalled at the thought that it might eventually destroy man instead of contributing to his welfare.

2The First World War and its aftermath brought to maturity economic, social and political movements which had their origin before, or at the beginning of, the twentieth century and modified the pattern of life. Industrialism, many writers insisted, was the source of all evil in the modern world: it stifled the natural life in men and turned them into puppets moving in ugly surroundings. Together with applied science and the general trend towards democratization, itself resulting from the industrial movement, it was giving rise to a materialistic society leading to our consumer world and to mass culture.

3The artist’s protest against the mechanization of man was not unconnected with his interest in the human personality and with his keen awareness of the dichotomy between flesh and spirit, for he thought that the process of mechanization was stimulated by the glorification of one aspect of the personality at the expense of the other. In the Twenties, possibly under the influence of Freud but more generally because of a growing interest in psychology, novelists were urged to explore hitherto ignored or unsuspected features of man’s psychological make-up. The War had revealed his capacity for evil, and he now appeared as a more complex being than had been assumed. Another influence was that of the notion of relativity, which had such an impact on philosophy and morality. The effects of these discoveries were speeded up by the War, which had also seriously damaged the prestige of authority and brought discredit on traditional beliefs. As a result, the artist questioned the value of civilization and of man’s achievement. The belief that humanity was progressing towards the kind of civilization that would ensure the happiness of all was definitely abandoned. Lawrence brought out the role of the subconscious in the individual’s free expression of the self as well as in the impulsive manifestations of hatred and love which alternately separated man from woman or brought them together. Virginia Woolf described the individual’s states of consciousness aroused in response to the surrounding world. Wyndham Lewis suggested no new interpretation of individual behaviour but sharply criticized the importance given by his contemporaries to relativity and the irrational in their rendering of individual life. He himself reasserted the superiority of the “person,” that is to say, the rational being, over the base and stupid mass, who were corrupting Western civilization. Contempt for humanity in the mass was fairly common in the Twenties. It sprang from the writers’ awareness of man’s limitations and eventually widened their satire beyond the scope of social criticism.

4For many writers in the Twenties the War gave the lie to all ideals originating in Christianity; it revealed the failure of liberalism and of the humanistic tradition, and denied all hope for progress. It heralded the fall of England as a world power and precipitated the decline of the ruling class. It exposed the inadequacy of the “old” and their standards. The War was followed by a debunking of all institutions, by the disruption of established social patterns and the rejection of traditional spiritual and moral values. This meant the end of society as a homogeneous and purposeful community. Confronted with the disintegration of the established order, disillusioned with the War, and influenced by theories which questioned the stability of any state of being and the rationality of man, the younger generation felt they were faced with nothingness, and they responded to the breakdown of values by giving themselves up to a frantic search for pleasure. Futility, Jazz and Jasper, Crome Yellow or Decline and Fall express the “comic despair” of the young, their feeling that the only answer to futility is futility. The central assumption in the satire of the Twenties is that in view of the disruption of society the individual is bound to behave foolishly and irresponsibly. Firbank was a forerunner and a model for the post-war satirists because he divested the novel of plot and narrative and reduced all social intercourse to disconnected and meaningless conversations. But the melancholy and sense of frustration which drove the young to seek refuge in frivolous activities was not merely the result of the individual’s disenchantment with his surrounding world. Man himself, supposedly a complete, harmonious being, was thought unreliable. The impossibility for the individual person to trust anyone else accounts for the increasingly bitter and cynical tone of the post-war satires.

5Two major themes were exploited by the novelists of the Twenties. One was the debunking of authority and its consequences for society, philosophy and art. The other, which was partly an effect of the collapse of authority and the ensuing disintegration, was the loneliness of man and the incommunicability between human beings. Here again Firbank served as a model: through conversation-pieces in which each character follows his own thoughts regardless of what others are saying, he made sensible the lack of communication between people. The satirists saw loneliness as a product of the distrust and heartlessness which characterized all human relationships. For D.H. Lawrence and Virginia Woolf, it was something deeper, referable to human nature itself though more keenly felt in a period of spiritual distress like the post-war era. One must beware, however, of considering loneliness as mainly an effect of the social dislocation, for it was also due to the individual’s wish to free himself from all restraints. The writers of the Twenties were all fierce individualists. Lawrence, in particular, thought that man could only be saved by the spontaneous expression of his individual nature, while Virginia Woolf’s art concentrated on the rendering of the individual’s inner life. To Wyndham Lewis, only the individual mattered, because he alone can be creative and godlike.

6Interest in the individual also led to a reinterpretation of man’s relationship with society. Whether in the satirical novel or in Lawrence’s and Virginia Woolf’s deeper explorations of life, the individual views the anarchical state of the world with distress. He finds it impossible to identify himself with a meaningless order of things and feels alienated from his environment or, as in Lawrence’s novels, he openly revolts against its deadness. The writers of the Twenties were unanimous in denouncing the weakness of civilization. Their characters seek refuge from it in primitive life, in a private world of personal relations, in pleasure, or in art, though the cultivation of art for art’s sake itself became the subject of satire and betrayed the artist’s sense of his own futility. The artistic coteries of the Twenties were derided for debasing both art and morals. Nevertheless while devising a new concept of aristocracy based either on innate superiority, on sensitiveness, or on intelligence, some writers were also laying the foundations of genuine human relation-ships and of the kind of community life that would encourage the individual to fulfil himself according to his nature. However, Lawrence’s “religion of the blood” and his wish to see life regenerated through wholesome sexual relations could not be easily reconciled with a workable social system. Virginia Woolf’s fiction dealt solely with individuals and personal relationships, yet even on this plane her characters succeed only occasionally in achieving a precarious harmony, though understanding between individuals was to her the key to harmonious living on the social plane. The attempts by Huxley’s “artist-hero” to approach life from a multiplicity of viewpoints did not make easier his identification with the surrounding world. These artists sought to free themselves from their sense of the transiency of life and of the fragility of personal relations through an apprehension of wholeness; but they never discovered the way to integration into society because they had not enough faith in anything save the individual. On the other hand, their conception of life as an endless flux of alternative moments of fulfilment and frustration, or as an ever renewed conflict between contrary forces made them challenge the formalization of any kind of human relationships. They themselves advocated sincerity and faithfulness to self in all circumstances. Their work expresses the hopeless dilemma of modern man divided between his wish for integration into a whole that would renew itself continually and his rejection of any form of coercion. Like many of their contemporaries, Lawrence, Virginia Woolf and Huxley discarded or mocked old conventions, but they felt that new ones were taking shape that would constrain the individual even more.

7The reinterpretation of life, of human nature, and of the individual’s relation to society led the novelists of the Twenties to experiment with form, each in his own way. The variety of such experiments testifies to the richness and liveliness of the novel but also to a lack of homogeneity due to a want of common beliefs among writers. However, a common denominator may be found in their determination to reject the social context of the traditional novel and in their attempt to express man’s dissociation from society either by exploring his “real” life and his chances of self-fulfilment in an environment to which he is hostile; or by rendering the surface life of society and its new rhythm and interpreting the dislocation of the world through almost exclusive use of dialogue in short disconnected scenes. In the late Twenties and the early Thirties the latter technique was perfected by Waugh in his portrayal of modern barbarism; the best satires of the inter-war period were published in that short, transitional period, after which the reaction of some writers against the aesthetic concerns of the Twenties and the neglect of moral values they thought it implied, as well as their interest in the impact of political movements on society, modified the trend of the novel. Virginia Woolf pursued her experiments up to the eve of the Second World War, but Huxley increasingly allowed the discussion of ideas to mar his satires, while Myers and Orwell were more concerned with what they had to say than with the form of fiction. Isherwood alone innovated in the Thirties, though he never produced the great work of which his early novels gave promise.

8In the Thirties the economic, social and political situation forced itself upon the writers’ consciousness. The slump and its conse-quences, Hitler’s coming to power in Germany and Edward VIII’s abdication in England, the Spanish Civil War, the Munich Agreement, made them aware of the degrading effects of destitution, of the confusion of values, of the threat of war and destruction. While in the Twenties the novelist described the individual’s predicament in a disrupted world, in the Thirties he concentrated on the importance of the individual’s behaviour and of his personal responsibility for the nature of society. Even Virginia Woolf, who in her first novel had told a story of withdrawal from the world of appearances, suggested in her last works that the meaning of life and a sense of achievement were also to be found in a social and historical whole. For many writers, the central assumption was no longer loneliness but conscience; most of them attributed social disorder and the weakness of Western civilization to the decay of spiritual values and the failure to discriminate between good and evil. Whether evil was for them of a spiritual, moral, or economic nature, they thought that only individual regeneration rooted in clearly defined beliefs could save society. But they were also urged by a sense of guilt because they belonged to the ruling class or to the cultural élite of the nation, and they felt that they must ensure the preservation of its spiritual heritage. In contra-distinction to the aestheticism of the Twenties and in reaction against the philosophy of meaninglessness to which many had adhered in that decade, the novelists of the Thirties were conscious that part of their role in society was to enlighten and to guide.

9A dominant feature in the novel of the Thirties was a sense of pressure and of threat within the country as well as without. Though Huxley and Orwell saw the future in different terms, they both showed that spiritual deadness, science and materialism could become efficient tools in the hands of power-thirsty men whose ultimate purpose was to regulate life and thought. They warned against a future developing along lines which men might one day be unable to control. Some writers described a world in which lack of faith, avidity for money, the ugliness of industrial areas or economic insecurity generated fear, hatred and violence. They asserted that if the ruling class had become unfit for power and was indeed losing its authority, this was being taken over by political parties which demanded complete submission from their adherents. These parties had emerged as a result of economic distress and social disorder, but in the eyes of many, their success was also due to the adulteration of culture and to the individual’s incapacity to think for himself, for spiritual confusion encouraged him to abdicate moral responsibility to a higher authority. Warner exposed the traps into which men might fall by supporting would-be dictators in the hope of remedying social disorder. Isherwood explored the hell of pre-dictatorial Germany and showed how, out of despair, the Germans allowed Hitler to take power. But Orwell perceived and insisted that a new morality was becoming influential, whose criterion was no longer truthfulness to the individual conscience but conformity of thought and behaviour to a group; it was a morality whose tenets would change with the interests of the group or the power that imposed it. Other writers in the Thirties suggested that man was no longer faced with a choice between good and evil but between the good of the individual and that of the state whatever this might be. Under the impulse of political commitment some even attempted to show that the two could be reconciled on a new basis. But Orwell thought that the problem of choice was much more complex. He criticized writers and intellectuals for allowing themselves to be deceived by their ideal of human brotherhood into transferring to a political party the allegiance they formerly gave to their country. He analysed the nature of the impossible dilemma with which the individual was confronted and made clear the full implications of his divided loyalties.

10Though most of the criticism of society between the Wars bears as much on Western civilization as on England itself, the particular concern of some writers for English society should be underlined. It found a subtle expression in Virginia Woolf’s and in Lawrence’s last novel, and it was a major source of inspiration in the later works of Orwell, Waugh and Powell. Their main theme, where England is concerned, is the loss of Arcadia, the deterioration of a way of life that was never to revive. But they were also concerned with England as a nation: Orwell in his war essays, Waugh in his later satires, and Powell in his portrayal of the decaying upper classes saw in the loss of ability of the ruling class and in their moral laxity the root of social disruption and of the emergence of a new, but corrupt, configuration of power. Waugh and Powell voiced their fear lest England’s inheritance should be running to waste in the hands of ascending commoners, who were less civilized but as immoral as the aristocracy they were trying to supplant. However, the novels of Lawrence and Orwell stand out as most representative of that English tradition of individualism and non-conformity which makes personal integrity the supreme value. Lawrence was the greater novelist, and his vision of the affluent society moved by a powerful and lifeless mass spirit was indeed prophetic. Orwell expressed his fear of the annihilation of the individual. Their last novels were inspired by the same urge to convince their contemporaries of the uniqueness of man’s inner self. In 1984 as in Lady Chatterley’s Lover sexual relations alone help man to resist mechanization and the deadness of industrial civilization: for Lawrence, they are the expression of his faith in the act of living; for Orwell, they testify to the indomitableness of human nature. Lawrence’s last novel is a hymn to life, Orwell’s is a desperate attempt to save the spirit of man. For both, however, the passionate assertion of the value of individual life is associated with their love of England and with their concern for the quality of life in their own country.

11The English novel between the Wars records the mutation from a Christian and humanistic civilization to one in which industry and science were gaining control over life. Novelists in the post-war era were inspired by a feeling of despair, which gave way in the Thirties to a vision of fear. Having portrayed a world falling apart and conveyed the individual’s loneliness, some were urged to rehabilitate faith and action. But even those writers who, like Myers, Orwell and Huxley in the late Thirties, described a search for the good life, could not refrain from suggesting that the search was doomed to fail. Such novels as The Revenge [or Love, Coming Up [or Air, A[ter Many a Summer, Between the Acts, The Professor, or Goodbye to Berlin render man’s anxiety and horror under the threat of a new catastrophe. Many writers in the Thirties foresaw the dangers of the police state and the growing violence in the modern world. But above all, the novelists of the inter-war period intimated that the sense of security which the individual used to enjoy in a stable and organic whole was lost forever, that unless man definitely silenced his personal conscience, he would be faced again and again with an impossible choice between individual fulfilment and the interest of the community and that, whatever his option, he was bound to pay a high price for it.


1 William Van O’Connor, “The Novel in Our Time,” in Forms of Modern Fiction, p. 3.

2 E.M. Forster, “English Prose Between 1918 and 1939,” in Two Cheers for Democracy, Penguin Books, 1965, p. 280.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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