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. Continue reading
Review of Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg, The Player Piano and the Edwardian Novel (Farnham: Ashgate 2015)
Writing in the June 1920 issue of The Sackbut, Alvin Langdon Coburn claimed:
There are some who are born with an appreciation of music but whose tender years have not been made unbearable by musical drudgery. Hours of ‘five-finger exercises’ with the thoughts on the playground, and lessons from an uncongenial teacher, never did a child any good and never will. All art-expression should come as a pleasure, a welling-up of an inner joy. Without this, art is dead, a stale and tasteless thing, and […] some have this innate musical instinct slumbering and dormant in their natures, unable to find a way of expressing itself, and to such the pianola comes as a positive exultation!
Coburn’s observations foreground several issues that are at the heart of Cecilia Björkén-Nyberg’s The Player Piano and the Edwardian Novel (2015): the quandary faced by those unable, or who have never had the opportunity to learn, to play the piano, but who deeply appreciate and wish to perform the music written for it (and, via piano reductions, for the orchestra); the tension between admiring music ‘naturally’ and respecting it professionally; and the anxieties generated by a mechanically made art, be it through technology or through the prestidigitation of a well-trained human being. Continue reading
Matthew Beaumont and Matthew Ingleby, eds. G.K. Chesterton, London and Modernity, London: Bloomsbury 2013 [ISBN:9781780937069]
This lively and varied collection of essays on G. K. Chesterton’s complicated relationship with modernity, and his intricate rendering of London in his writing, does more than offer a corrective to the previous dearth of critical work on Chesterton’s attitudes to the modern city. Through careful examination of Chesterton’s contradictory opinions and light-hearted prose, a broader view emerges of what “modernism”, and indeed London, meant to the Edwardians. Chesterton is an enigmatic writer whose elastic prose is characterised by an unlikely combination of paradox, punning and moments of profound insight; as Lynne Hapgood comments early on in the collection, “Even Chesterton’s stylistic flamboyance in this novel, veering between the absurdist, the heroic and a kind of anticipatory surrealism, was par for the course in an Edwardian period when the novel was charactertized by its sheer generic diversity.” His writings helped to curb the pessimistic strain of “high” cultural responses to urban life in the re-creation of a comic London, offering an alternative to the gritty city slums and intensely private spaces portrayed in many naturalist modern urban writing. Yet, as several of the essays attest, jest is often a conduit for unexpected wisdom or sharp political comment. Continue reading
‘Today essentially belongs to the Minister who once presided at the Board of Trade. Several attempts indeed have been made to describe the literature, art and drama of the present as “Edwardian,” from a very proper and loyal spirit, to which I should be the last to object […] But somehow the whole thing has fallen through; in this dramatic aeon the adjective “Edwardian” trips on the tongue; our real dramatists are all Socialists or Radicals; our poets and writers Anarchists (Mr. Arthur Machen being an honourable exception); and our artists are the only conservatives of intellect. Our foreign policy alone can be called “Edwardian,” so personal is it to the King. Everything else is a compromise; so our time must therefore be known – at least ten years of it – as the Lloyd-Georgian period.’ (Robert Ross, Masques and Phases, London 1909)
Arnold Bennett, The Glimpse, (London: Chapman and Hall, 1909)
‘Self-Portrait’ by Charles Conder (Tullie House) [Charles Conder is one of several artists mentioned in ‘The Glimpse’]
Arnold Bennett has been described as a materialist, a realist, a writer whose novels have ‘a narrative emphasis on the drab, the squalid and the mundane’.  He was, however, also capable of dreaming. In one such dream, he writes that he ‘stood by my own dead body and saw the pennies upon my eyes. I cannot remember at this distance of time what the rest of the dream was, but it had to do with the adventures of a soul after death’.
Never one to waste good material, Bennett immediately saw the potential for a story, and in May 1908 he wrote the short story ‘The Glimpse’ about the proprietor of a Staffordshire earthenware factory who has an out-of-body experience whilst lying in bed close to death. Bennett quickly came to the view that the material of the story was capable of being much more fully developed into a full-length novel with sound commercial prospects. Belief in Spiritualism was widespread, so the story of a soul’s adventures at the point of death would not lack a potential audience. Bennett wrote and published his approximately 70,000 word novel The Glimpse in 1909, between his two longer and better-known acknowledged masterpieces The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) and Clayhanger (1910). Continue reading
The Edwardian era coincided with “a steady expansion of British reading habits”, with the number of books published and made available to readers – through the establishment of new public libraries, Workers’ Educational Associations and book clubs – showing remarkable advances from the turn of the century to the mid 1910s.  Beyond this trend lay an improvement in family incomes and a rising level of literacy, in addition to vast population growth and increase in life expectancy. The fastidiousness and inequality of Victorian Britain resonated strongly with this new Edwardian society, generating a soar in fiction on social realism and the fantasies of romantic adventure, the spirit of childhood and outdoor life. Continue reading
This conference – held on 13th September 2015 – will re-evaluate the writing of Elizabeth von Arnim (1866-1941). Von Arnim’s complex, intelligent and witty novels were critically acclaimed and immensely popular during her lifetime, but until recently they have received little academic attention. This conference aims to shed fresh light on the contemporary contexts of von Arnim’s work and the literary hierarchies and values that have shaped her reputation.
Papers are invited on all aspects of von Arnim’s work and career. Suggested topics include:
- Contexts: understanding von Arnim’s writing in the context of the fin de siècle, the New Woman, middlebrow, modernism, World War 1 and 2, and women’s writing.
- Literary relationships with other writers such as E. M. Forster, Hugh Walpole, Katherine Mansfield, H. G. Wells and Frank Swinnerton.
- Intertexts: tracing the influences of writers such as the Brontes and Jane Austen.
- Forms: gardening, diary and epistolary novels; music; adaptation for film, theatre.
- International perspective: the importance of Switzerland, France, Germany and the USA in her writing and career.
Proposals of 400 words for 20-minute papers should be sent to firstname.lastname@example.org. The deadline is 20th February 2015.
Conference organisers: Erica Brown (Sheffield Hallam University), Isobel Maddison (Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge University) and Jennifer Walker (Independent Scholar).
The conference will be held at Lucy Cavendish College, Cambridge University, UK. The conference website can be found here.