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Criticism of Society in the English Novel between the Wars

Hena Maes-Jelinek


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1The main concern of this study is the artist’s vision of society; its major theme is the relation between the individual and society resulting from the impact of social and political upheavals on individual life. By criticism of society I mean the novelist’s awareness of the social reality and of the individual’s response to it; the writers I deal with all proved alive to the changes that were taking place in English society between the two World Wars. Though the social attitudes of the inter-war years as well as the writers’ response to them were shaped by lasting and complex influences, such as trends in philosophy and science, the two Wars stand out as determining factors in the development of the novel: the consequences of the First were explored by most writers in the Twenties, whereas in the following decade the novelists felt compelled to voice the anxiety aroused by the threat of another conflict and to warn against its possible effects. After the First World War many writers felt keenly the social disruption: the old standards, which were thought to have made this suicidal War possible, were distrusted; the code of behaviour and the moral values of the older generation were openly criticized for having led to bankruptcy. Disparagement of authority increased the individual’s sense of isolation, his insecurity, his disgust or fear. Even the search for pleasure so widely satirized in the Twenties was the expression of a cynicism born of despair. The ensuing disengagement of the individual from his environment became a major theme in the novel: his isolation was at once a cause for resentment and the source of his fierce individualism.

2Even before the decade was over, it was felt that social disorder and moral laxity were hastening the decline of Western civilization, whose weaknesses had already been revealed by the War. In the Thirties the influence of economic distress and political confusion on individual life stimulated the novelists’ sense of responsibility; aestheticism gave way to commitment. The threat of war and the pressure of political ideologies urged them to express the individual’s sense of insecurity and to expose the traps of political orthodoxy and dictatorship, though, unfortunately, this was sometimes done to the detriment of art. Many searched for a way to salvation but could not conceal their own pessimism about the chances of regeneration. The novel of the Twenties described the collapse of the old world and the rejection by the individual of the meaningless standards which thwarted his freedom. In the Thirties the novelists described men’s striving after social harmony and found that, henceforth, no ideal could reconcile the good of the community with that of the individual. Instead, new loyalties were asserting themselves which threatened to restrict individual thought and action and even tended towards the complete annihilation of the self.

3The two different trends of thought briefly indicated above will appear from the analysis of individual works. My major purpose is to show how the novelists of the inter-war period responded personally to similar circumstances. Thus, though a sense of man’s isolation lies at the root of D.H. Lawrence’s and Virginia Woolf’s vision of the social reality, their description of the individual’s relation with the circumambient world was inspired by dissimilar conceptions of the essence of life and produced widely differing interpretations of human relationships. Most novelists of the Twenties were urged to experiment with form in order to convey their personal outlook on a disrupted world. In this respect, Firbank and Gerhardie, though not among the greater novelists of the decade, were forerunners and models for Huxley and Waugh, the best satirists of the period and the most eloquent interpreters of its mood. Wyndham Lewis dissociated himself from the other novelists of the Twenties; he called himself “the Enemy” not only of society as he saw it but also of his fellow-writers, with whom he had more in common than he would acknowledge, yet whom he held responsible for debasing Western civilization.

4It is misleading to identify the work of any of these authors with one decade rather than another. Waugh, for example, wrote his best satires in the Thirties, though these evoke the spirit of the Twenties more than that of the period in which they were written; this is also true of most of Anthony Powell’s pre-war novels. On the whole, however, the novelists of the Twenties who were still writing in the following decade began to take an increasing interest in moral values, in the need for achiever rent and in the possibility of redeeming society through individual or collective action, or both. Huxley and Myers are representatives of that development, though the latter’s work is mostly associated with the Thirties, precisely because his best novels, published in that decade, reflect the heightened sense of responsibility of the writer. Orwell, Isherwood and Warner definitely belong to the Thirties and were directly or indirectly involved in Left-wing politics in that period. The political commitment of intellectuals and writers a few years before the Second World War is an important component of the literary background of the decade, but except for Orwell’s novels, and to a lesser extent Myers’s, it had little immediate influence on fiction. However, the development of Orwell and Isherwood as writers is so closely linked with their personal life that their work cannot be fully understood apart from it. The attitude of other Left-wing intellectuals will also be discussed in the chapter on Orwell in order to bring out his own views on the main problems of the time.

5Inevitably, the writers I deal with had to be treated differently depending on their personal approach to the novel, the significance of social criticism in their work and their importance as artists. Some of the novels analysed here were written before the First World War or after the Second. Indeed, it was necessary to present the work of some writers as a whole and to trace the origin or the continuity of their vision. The introductory chapter of this study is a brief survey of the war novels published in the Twenties and Thirties, because these works throw light on the transition from a stable world to one of chaos and confusion. The last chapter ends with a commentary on Powell’s Music of Time. Though this sequence was started after the Second World War, Powell’s attempt to revive the inter-war period and to recapture its social moods and trends, testifies to its enduring interest for the novelist today.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1970

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