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14 - The Understated Art, English Style

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  17 November 2016

Dean Baldwin
Affiliation:
Pennsylvania State University
Dominic Head
Affiliation:
University of Nottingham
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Summary

The writers discussed in this chapter form a unique group in the history of modern British fiction. Most were born during the rise of high modernism and came to maturity during its flourishing decade, the 1920s, yet, with a few exceptions, they have seldom been included in discussions of modernism, or in considerations of the ‘Auden generation’. If anything, they might be called second generation modernists, for their stories – influenced by the stark realism of Maupassant, the open-ended poetics of Chekhov and the sexual politics of D. H. Lawrence – often seemed unconventional to magazine editors and contemporary readers. Nevertheless, they embodied in many ways the fears of some high modernists, springing as they did from the lower middle classes, educated not in public schools and universities but in the newly created grammar schools, earning their living by their pens. Except for Lawrence and Graham Greene, the writers discussed here were not intellectuals; they had no overriding theories of politics, economics and sociology, though inevitably their stories touch on these issues. With a few exceptions, they resembled E. M. Forster's Leonard Bast – struggling to move upwards culturally by locating themselves between the extremes of popular genres (mystery, adventure and romance) and the experiments of The Yellow Book, Ulysses and Mrs Dalloway.

As most of these writers came to maturity between the World Wars, they reacted to the mass murder of the First World War by focusing on the individual, but, unlike the modernists, they found much of their inspiration among the people of the small towns and farms outside London. Jed Esty argues that the ‘metropolitan modernists’ (T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf, Forster) turned away from internationalism, fragmentation and the city in the 1930s to focus on an inward-looking, non-imperial England. Following Esty's lead, we might postulate that the writers discussed here also focused inwardly on individuals at the margins of society, as Frank O'Connor's theory of the story claims. Like the modernists, they often delved into their characters’ internal lives and found complex, unstable characters, but the traditional omniscient or first person, or occasionally the free-indirect, points of view – not stream of consciousness – were the staples of their narrative repertoire.

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Publisher: Cambridge University Press
Print publication year: 2016

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References

Baldwin, Dean, Art and Commerce in the British Short Story, 1880–1950 (London: Pickering and Chatto, 2013).
May, Charles E., The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice (New York: Twayne, 1995).
Stinson, John J., V. S. Pritchett: A Study of the Short Fiction (New York: Twayne, 1992).
Treglown, Jeremy, V. S. Pritchett: A Working Life (New York: Random House, 2004).
Vannatta, Dennis, ed., The English Short Story, 1945–1980: A Critical History (Boston: Twayne, 1985).
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