June 5


What Went Wrong with British Literature?

I had two powerful reactions to Terry Eagleton’s introduction to the major authors of British Literature, The English Novel.

I loved the wry insights scattered throughout his survey of Defoe, Dickens, Woolf, and Joyce, and I felt troubled and amazed by his final thesis: that the English novel went into decline after World War II — that everything produced since Virginia Woolf stepped into the water, her pockets filled with stones, has not only been less good than the great works of the Victorians and the Modernists, but has been written in a kind of bad faith, failing to continue on their great journey of freedom.

(This post is part of the series “What am I Doing this Summer?”)

Eagleton writes really well and covers a lot of literature in easy, quick prose.

The book starts with Daniel Defoe, describing the heady early decades of the novel’s birth, then describes its maturation with the Victorians (Austin, the Bronte sisters, Dickens), then the transitional period out of the conventions and mass appeal of the 19th century (with Tom Hardy and Henry James) and its final artistic peak, with Modernists like Woolf and D.H. Lawrence.

While the overall argument is at times a little unclear, and individual points often seem to contradict points made in other chapters — as DJ Taylor points out, the book has the feeling of being collected out of lecture notes — the reader finds on almost every single page a brilliant idea, expressed with wonderful style.

This is Eagleton on the English dislike of abstract thought:

England is the home not of ideas but of customs and traditions — which means, roughly speaking, ideas which were once controversial, but which now feel so natural that we no longer need to argue about them.

This is him commenting on the popular reader’s love of fantasy and romance:

The common people do not wish to see their own faces in the mirror of art. They have quite enough ordinary life in their working hours without wanting to contemplate it in their leisure time as well.

And, opposing this, the revolutionary attitude of the realist novel, depicting for the first time real, normal life, without condescension or satire:

The novel is the mythology of a civilisation fascinated by its own everyday existence.

As I read The English Novel, I felt increasingly curious what its conclusion would be.

I could see the list of contents, so I knew that Eagleton’s survey ended with Virginia Woolf. I wasn’t sure whether that was Eagleton’s choice or his editor’s: perhaps, I wondered, his book contract was simply to introduce the most canonical old authors, and so he would not address the failure of his account to include any author who lived late enough to fly in a passenger jet, or watch a television, or witness Indian independence or the Soviet Union.

Perhaps, I wondered, Eagleton would get to Virginia Woolf and simply stop, passing over all later British authors in silence.

But this was not the case.

Instead, in his final chapter, Eagleton explicitly states that he has already covered all the greatest English / British authors. All the best English novels, he claims, were written eighty or more years ago.

The Modernists showed the way forward, but later English writers failed to follow on:

After the Second World War, some of their literary successors did their best to pretend that everything was exactly as it had been. Philip Larkin, the unofficial Poet Laureate of the second half of the twentieth century, turned his back on Eliot, Pound and Joyce and peered back over their heads to Hardy and Edward Thomas. Many other poets did the same — some out of sheer provincialism, others because the act proved too hard to follow. The novel resumed its parochial perspectives.

Just to make his point absolutely clear, Eagleton then whips through a vast number of post WWII English / British / Commonwealth authors and comments on their shortcomings: Martin Amis is too postmodern, Anthony Powell is a “cut-price version of Proust,” Iris Murdoch is Irish and therefore doesn’t count, Tolkein is conservative, patrician and therefore “socially marginal,” Salman Rushdie an unfortunate sellout to Neoliberal warmongering.

Eagleton speculates on whether this is due to a problem in English culture itself:

It was as though there was something about postwar, postimperial mainstream English culture which was peculiarly inhospitable to the production of major fiction. Perhaps this is one reason why so many English novelists have set their work abroad…

But for whatever the reason, Eagleton concludes that the challenge of Finnegans Wake remains untaken up, at least in England. The immense freedom promised by that unreadable novel — freedom from language, from institutions, from gender — remains the furthest along the English novel has so far managed to get.

I’m very curious what you think about arguments like Eagleton’s. Does such a broad sweep impress you with its verve and daring? Annoy you with its hazy generalities? Do you find the idea interesting, but want to know more what Eagleton means by terms like freedom and “socially marginal”?




British authors, British Literature, Daniel Defoe, English novel, PhD comprehensive exams, Terry Eagleton, The English Novel, Virginia Woolf

You may also like

  • I think the problem, if it is indeed a problem, is with the average reader rather than writers. I know I find many of the ‘classics’ boring and long winded. I feel as someone with a love of both reading and writing I should read the classics, so I do. But I’ve not yet found one that I couldn’t put down, whereas moderns books I’ve found many that I’ve stayed up until the early hours of the morning to finish. Writers can only publish what people want to read and I think the majority of readers prefer the modern style.

    • What I find strange is how books that we now find boring, like Clarissa or (for me) Tristram Shandy, were at the time devoured by readers everywhere. It’s amazing how reading expectations change with time.

  • I find myself wanting to read this book now, before tackling its assertions. I want to disagree vehemently with Eagleton, but I think I need to take in his full argument first. Another one for the reading list!

    • I have a theory about the thesis, but it will be a longish post. Honestly, the argument is more asserted than proven, yet still, the book is worth reading…

  • {"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}

    Get writing today: join my free course

    All you need is an email address: work at your own pace as you write a new short story.