Review: Literature of the 1900s by Jonathan Wild


Review of Jonathan Wild, Literature of the 1900s: The Great Edwardian Emporium (Edinburgh University Press, 224 pp., £75)

Shopping, like much else, became recognisably modern in the first decade of the twentieth century. One of its principal modernisers was the American entrepreneur Harry Gordon Selfridge, the ‘Earl of Oxford Street’, whose flagship London store, opened in 1909, aimed to turn shopping from a necessity into a leisure activity. Selfridge’s offered immersive and material pleasures: its departments were arranged over many floors; its spaces were designed particularly to appeal to women; customers could see and handle the wares, assisted by 1,400 well-trained staff.

Jonathan Wild’s impressive Literature of the 1900s, volume one in The Edinburgh History of Twentieth-Century Literature in Britain, takes the department store as a metaphor for the decade’s literary field. The book’s chapters are figured as a store’s departments – departments for war and external affairs, administration, children, decadence, and internal affairs. The conceit is more than a clever way to organise his wide-ranging and potentially disparate material: it focuses the reader on the consumption of literature, which is his book’s central theme. Wild argues, convincingly, that readers and reading changed on or around January 1900, as literature, and fiction in particular, became Britain’s major leisure activity, and readers, or consumers, demanded more literature, and more kinds of literature.

Writers and writing changed too, in response to consumer demand but also reflecting the profound social changes of the last decades of the nineteenth century. Many of these changes are familiar to us from studies such as Peter Keating’s The Haunted Study (1989): mass education, more jobs and roles for women, increased leisure time, and so on. Unsurprisingly for a critic whose first monograph examined clerks in literature, Wild is attentive to the social dimension, and he makes a strong case for the importance of suburban, lower-middle-class and provincial life in the decade’s literature, exemplified by the life and works of Arnold Bennett, W. Pett Ridge, H.G. Wells and others. The rise of the suburban middle-class also explains the period’s obsession with the English countryside: his final chapter examines this topic in Edwardian poetry and topographical writing, as well as novels by Forster and Kenneth Grahame. Wild also brings in other, less frequently examined issues: he is particularly good, for example, on the impact of the Anglo-Boer War and its coverage in the popular press, showing the striking frequency with which the war was read about rather than directly represented in the period’s fiction.

Suburban, provincial and middle-class men and women could find more to buy and enjoy in the literary emporium than ever before. So too could their children. We know that the decade which gave us Peter Pan, Peter Rabbit, Kim, the Boy Scout, Rat, Mole, Badger and Toad, the Railway Children and, on the other side of the Atlantic, the Wizard of Oz and Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm, was an exceptionally rich one for children’s books. But Wild refreshes the familiar account of this golden age for children’s literature with a compelling analysis of Beatrix Potter’s innovations: Potter saw the potential of the new technology of the three-colour process to vividly realise her delicate watercolours, and combined this with a reassuring and conversational tone, carefully designed layout of words and image, and the endearing anthropomorphic characterisation of her animal cast. In his chapter on children’s fiction he gives plenty of space to the canonical figures of Potter, Nesbit and Grahame, but also includes P.G. Wodehouse, not generally thought of as an Edwardian writer but whose early work took the school story sub-genre re-popularised by Kipling’s Stalky & Co. (1899) and reworked it with what would become his trademark wit.

Wild rejects the ‘great men’ approach exemplified by John Batchelor’s The Edwardian Novelists (1982), and perhaps the book’s primary virtue is its embrace of non-canonical and forgotten writers. Among the novelists, Wild has things to say about the husband and wife team of C.N. and A.M. Williamson, about the hugely successful Elinor Glyn, author of mildly erotic romances like Three Weeks (1907) – famous for a scene involving a tiger rug – and about the prolific historical novelist Maurice Hewlett. He positions the contributions of the conservative (in every sense) Poet Laureate Alfred Austin alongside the more politically challenging verse of William Watson and Rudyard Kipling. And his exploration of English countryside writing covers such minor figures as the appropriately named P.H. Ditchfield alongside the more enduring work of Ford Madox Hueffer and Edward Thomas.

Wild’s focus on writing and publishing practice is well suited to a series that aims, in the words of its general editor Randall Stevenson, to “promote productive, sharply-focused literary-historical analysis”. There is, though, an inevitable downside to a literary-historical, book history approach. The volume’s need to provide a general survey means that some sections sacrifice depth for breadth: although Wild is extremely good on certain works, such as The Wind in the Willows (1908), Howards End (1910), and several of Kipling’s poems, more close readings of important or illustrative texts would have been welcome. The ‘decadence’ chapter, covering sex, cars and money, is an awkward compilation of three good but disparate short essays respectively addressing publication and censorship, the representation of a transformative new technology in fiction, and the theme of finance in Edwardian plays. And, sometimes, the book is insufficiently broad, with some surprising omissions. One disappointment is the absence of Hueffer’s early novels, such as his breathtaking Fifth Queen trilogy (1906-8), but the most striking omission is that of Henry James, who merits only a couple of passing mentions.

Whether or not one actually enjoys the three novels which constitute what is sometimes claimed to be James’s major phase – The Wings of the Dove (1902), The Ambassadors (1903), and The Golden Bowl (1904) – there is no denying that they represent a massive literary monument. Judged in their contemporary context as well as from the perspective of later literary Modernism, they are surely among the most influential works of the decade, and constitute the apotheosis of James’s lifelong obsession with technique, scene and character. Moreover, James was the commanding figure in what Wells called the “ring of foreign conspirators” – which also included the half-German Hueffer, the American Stephen Crane, and the French-speaking Pole Joseph Conrad – who sought to remake English fiction into Art. Wild includes some of Wells’s thinking on the purpose of the novel – an instrument for social change as well as a means of representing reality and perception – but he doesn’t set this in its context. At the start of the decade, Wells shared with his avant-garde friends an interest in literary experimentation and impressionism; by the end of the decade he had become convinced that they were in an aestheticist dead-end of their own making, and so he and they parted company. This dispute between the decade’s canonical figures is not the whole story of the Edwardian novel, but it is a major part of it, with an important legacy in the development of literary Modernism as a counter-current to socially engaged, overtly political writing.

Such omissions serve, though, to remind us of the extraordinary richness of the decade, particularly in fiction but also in drama: Wild gives plenty of space to the New Drama of Granville Barker and Shaw, which belies the stereotype of Edwardian drama as a dreary succession of well-made plays. Even without James, Literature of the 1900s emphatically succeeds in proving that the Edwardian decade was not a merely transitional or marginal period, but a moment of immense literary significance. After 1910, literature, like shopping, was never the same again.

Andrew Glazzard, January 2018


2 responses to “Review: Literature of the 1900s by Jonathan Wild

  1. I really enjoyed this excellent and informative review. As all good reviews should, it made me want to read the book immediatley. Which I no doubt would were it not quite so expensive!

  2. Great review – really looking forward to reading the book!!

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