Anthony Powell, Constant Lambert, D.J. Taylor, E.M. Forster, Edith Sitwell, Ford Madox Hueffer, H.G. Wells, Henry James, John Middleton Murry, Joseph Conrad, Maureen Kincaid Speller, Muriel Jaeger, Peter Quennell, Sarah Cole, T.S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, William Walton
When I read Lost Girls by D.J. Taylor last autumn, I was disappointed. It seemed to me that the book only really came alive when Taylor was discussing the London literary scene during the 1940s, and the four young women who were the titular subject of the book were at best only peripherally involved in that scene. So I decided to try a book that seemed to more directly address his interests. Which is how his 2016 literary history, The Prose Factory, appeared on my Christmas list (very many thanks, Maureen).
At the moment I am only into the second chapter, but already it is obvious that this is a subject he is much more interested in writing about. The book is a literary history of Britain from 1918 until, more or less, the present, and it is as general and has the sort of blinkers as one might expect. A cursory glance, for instance, suggests that H.G. Wells is the only science fiction writer to appear in the index; which is fine with me, I wasn’t really expecting anything else. As a broad account of literary movements it is providing exactly the sort of historical context I was hoping for, and at times it can be quite revealing.
When you look at literary history from a science fiction perspective, for instance, modernism tends to come across as a monolithic force, an instant literary establishment that, as the result of a quarrel between Henry James and H.G. Wells, conspired to exclude Wells and, in his wake, science fiction as a whole, from serious academic consideration. It wasn’t exactly like that. Reading Taylor’s chapter on modernism in the 1920s I wasn’t surprised to find that it was quite a fragmented movement, but I was surprised to learn how tribal it was.
The father of literary modernism, as I suppose we might put it, was Henry James, who is barely mentioned in Taylor’s book primarily because he had died in 1916. He brought a number of his Romney Marsh friends and neighbours, such as Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, into the modernist camp on his coat tails, though it has to be said that at the time Conrad and Ford were more readily seen among the Georgians, the conservative, traditionalist literary movement that began with the end of the Edwardian era and fizzled out during the First World War.
It was after the war that modernism really got going, often lauded within the pages of the plethora of small magazines that were published throughout those years. These are magazines with famous names – Criterion, The Athenaeum – but they were still decidedly small. Even the best of them were lucky to have a circulation of 1,000, and those subscribers were fickle, if they grew weary of John Middleton Murry’s jeremiads in The Athenaeum, they would switch to T.S. Eliot’s austere pronouncements in Criterion. And though Taylor doesn’t say so, I get the distinct impression that this readership primarily consisted of academics in Oxford and Cambridge, and would-be writers in London plodding from the offices of one small magazine to the next in the hope of getting published. Despite this, the magazines were influential, at least in terms of how later academics look back on the modernists.
Middleton Murry was the cheerleader for one tribe of modernists, endorsing a number of the newer writers. But he seems to have been at war with everyone, and fairly soon lost his influence. Another tribe centred on the Sitwells, who were early advocates of the work of Eliot. Their circle included the composers William Walton and Constant Lambert, and they brought into their branch of modernism something of the polyrhythms and improvisation of jazz, the other great artistic movement of the decade but one that was not otherwise widely taken up by modernists. But the Sitwells were self-obsessed, idiosyncratic, and argumentative. Edith Sitwell in particular seems to have delighted in her feuds. There is one delightful vignette in Taylor’s book in which someone came upon Edith Sitwell and Virginia Woolf sitting side by side on a settee during one of their periodic truces, and I got a vivid impression of two tight-lipped women each preparing to spit venom at the other. Woolf, and Bloomsbury, introduces another tribe, one that encompassed the artistic as much as the literary, and whose publishing house, the Hogarth Press, brought out books by writers like E.M.Forster, Peter Quennell, and Muriel Jaeger, who weren’t all normally classed as modernists. Though the most notable title from the Hogarth Press was probably the first edition of “The Waste Land”, which brings us inevitably to Eliot himself, buttoned-up and puritanical, whose early poems, and especially “The Waste Land”, made him the torchbearer for post-war modernism. He inspired reverence – Taylor tells of a young Anthony Powell gazing in wonder when he chanced to spy Eliot dining alone at a Charlotte Street restaurant – and there were any number of would be writers trying to copy his work (as successfully as such copyists invariably are); but he also inspire mystification and condemnation, especially from critics like J.C. Squire, the last of the Georgians. Though Eliot himself, politically conservative and religiously inclined, probably had more in common with the Georgians than with the new generation of would-be revolutionaries who followed in his wake.
And this, I suspect, barely does justice to the internecine conflicts that characterised the first decade or so of literary modernism in Britain. I mean, where does one fit James Joyce, championed by Eliot but hardly the clubbable type one might find in Bloomsbury or at a Sitwell country home? So when Sarah Cole, in her truly wonderful book, Inventing Tomorrow: H.G. Wells and the Twentieth Century, argues that Wells was a modernist writer all along, the response has to be: of course, but what brand of modernist?