You may remember my recent post about reading this book, The English Novel in History 1895-1920, throughout the year, as a personal challenge for 2011, and blogging about it as I went, writing summaries about the major points and notes on what it covered. This post will cover the introduction and first chapter.
The author Henry James, a contemporary of the era in question, examines the rise in the popularity of the novel. He saw this as a profitable time for writers and an opportunity for writers to expand and embrace diversity.
James divided the mass of material into high, middle and lowbrow works. Highbrow meaning James, Conrad, Lawrence,Joyce and Woolf. Middlebrow included Wells, Bennett, Galsworthy and Forster. Lowbrow authors were too many to mention.
James claimed that 2 things had stunted the growth of the novel, prohibition restricting content and style, and recycling the same stories and style over and over again.
Another influence of the time was the ideology of production being replaced by the ideology of consumption (see below for chapter one where this is explored).
James and Woolf insisted that 'consciousness should be represented from within' (p3), bringing about the emergence of Modernist writing characterised by reforming the relationship between the writer and the expectations of the reader and pushing innovation. This led to the view of Modernism as the 'literary response to a breakdown in social order and continuity' (p3).
Chapter One: Consuming Passions
During this era we see a major shift in priority, from production to consumerism, the acquirement of items to help living standards and boost status and self esteem, especially in the middle classes. This was taking place in Great Britain, USA and Europe primarily at this time. This chapter examines this change in society and how it was reflected in contemporary writing.
'Age of demand, ...abundance, ...luxury, retail revolution, consumer capitalism' (p11) are all terms used by social and economic historians to describe the period. There was still dire poverty but living standards improved, especially for the working classes compared to earlier in the 19th century.
Consumerist tendencies were fuelled by the elements of choice available, the promotion of desire, to want things or a particular image to attain a projection of a desirable life. Lawrence Birken, who wrote a study on 19th century consumerist ideology brings attention to the 'symbolic badge of individualism' (p13) which also fed the need to acquire certain things.
There was a definite move from the necessary to the luxury of the desired item during this era.
Other things that promoted this shift was the popularity of technology which altered patterns of life. Scientific discoveries such as the telephone, aviation and the automobile added to the acquirement of desirable objects, and the literature of the time is littered with references to these new technologies.
Shopping changed as an experience. Stores with fixed prices became popular, leading to window shopping, and shopping as a leisure activity rather than a chore. This in particular affected the experiences of women, getting them out of the home, inhabiting a more public space, asserting independence, indulging desires as well as entering new forms of employment in department stores and sales environments.
On the back of all of these changes advertising flourished, perpetuating the dream with manipulative and utopian devices. Advertising served to arouse desire.
'Purchases now satisfied desire rather than need' (p22).
In the writing of the time, this newer level of consumerism altered conceptions of identity.
Contemporary works that illustrate the above points include...
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf
Ulysses by James Joyce
The Wife of Sir Isaac Harman by H G Wells
Howards End by E M Forster
This wraps up my first bulletin from this book. Look out for the next one some time in March.