The twentieth century in Britain has a lot of phases. The first forty years of the twentieth century saw both the consolidation of a century- and-a-half’s industrial growth and development, and a decisive transition towards the now-familiar modernity of our own technologically advanced, mass-democratic and mass-consumerist society. New innovations in science and technology such as motor car, cinema, wireless telegraph, the aeroplane and electric power gave the twentieth century a new look. Nevertheless, the First World War was a severe blow on the century.
After the death of Queen Victoria in 1901, things started to change gradually. The new century saw a continuing reaction against what were perceived as deeply entrenched Victorian values and attitudes, especially in religion and morality. Although there were no major upheavals organized, institutional religion in this period in Britain, the profound impact of nineteenth century science, philosophy and thought continued to be widely felt and there was certainly a spreading and deepening crisis of faith among artists and intellectuals, whose questioning and search for alternative systems of belief were now also increasingly influenced by the recently established fields of anthropology and comparative religion.
Several features are known to have dotted the twentieth century. First is the global war. This global war was the First World War which broke out in 1918. Masses of dead bodies littered the streets, plumes of poison gas drifting through the air, hundreds of miles of trenches infested with rats; these are some of the indelible images that have come to be associated with World War I (1914–1918). It was a war that unleashed death, loss, and suffering on an unprecedented scale.
Another crucial feature of the twentieth century is radical artistic experiment. The boundary breaking art, literature, and music of the first decades of the century are the subject of the topic, “Modernist Experiment”. Among the leading aesthetic innovations of this era were the composer Igor Stravinsky, the cubist Pablo Picasso, and the Futurist F.T. Marinetti. The waves of artistic energy in the avant-garde European arts soon crossed the English Channel, as instanced by the abstraction and dynamism of Red Stone Dancer (1913–14) by the London-based vorticists, and modernists include such English writers as Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot who also responded to the stimulus and challenge of the European avant-garde with manifestos, poems, plays, and other writings. This topic explores the links between continental experiment and the modernist innovations of English language poets and writers during a period of extraordinary ferment in literature and the arts.
The twentieth century also witnessed the emergence of new nations out of European colonial rule. Ireland was the oldest of Britain’s colonies and the first in modern times to fight for independence. Politically and ideologically, too, society continued to become more pluralistic and democratic, and the Victorian trend towards a more diverse social – class structure and looser, less deterministic social networks continued apace.
The literature of the first third or so of the twentieth century is usually defined in terms of its rejection of the values, attitudes and practices of the immediately preceding Victorian age – or at least of those aspects of the age that had come to stand for a ‘Victorianism’ defined, among other things, by hypocrisy and puritanical narrow-mindedness. Reaction against such Victorianism had been gathering pace since at least the 1880s, but after Queen Victoria’s death reaction became outright rebellion as a new age of skepticism and searching critique began to assert itself and all the assumed Victorian verities were challenged and questioned. Indeed, this questioning spirit is perhaps the outstanding characteristic of early twentieth- century literature.
The wars of the period inevitably added impetus and edge to anti-Victorian critique, and if the experience and consciousness of war, with all the ramifications of its newly realized potential for destruction, was an all-pervasive feature of the literature of the period. Especially after 1914, war itself supplied the direct and indirect subject matter for innumerable literary texts. The resulting literary experiments and debates gave rise to an extra-ordinarily rich and diverse range of writings, and this has meant that there is still no entirely settled ‘map’ of the literature of the period. For some writers, even towards the end of the period, it was effectively ‘business as usual’ where, although issues may well have changed, the tried and tested techniques of the Victorians would still more or less suffice. In the second half of the twentieth century, the standard model of literary critical classification for these years, especially in the field of fiction, has been one which identifies two major trends or modes of writing, defined principally by their different stylistic and technical features.