The 1930’s in Great Britain were a time of strained seriousness and sophomoric frivolity, of Marxism and fascism, of fads and traditionalism. In British Writers of the Thirties, Valentine Cunningham looks at the decade’s social and political issues as seen in the lives and works of its major and minor poets, novelists, playwrights, essayists, and critics. Cunningham, a fellow and tutor in English literature at Corpus Christi College, University of Oxford, is an expert in political literature, having written Everywhere Spoken Against: Dissent in the Victorian Novel (1975) and edited Spanish Front: Writers on the Civil War (1986). He is sympathetic toward the goals of the leftist writers of the 1930’s but is less than impressed by their political achievements. Sorting through facts and fictions about the period and such figures as W. H. Auden, T. E. Lawrence, and Wyndham Lewis, he uncovers compromises, lies, hypocrisy, back-stabbing, Old-Boyism, and decadence on both sides of the political spectrum.
Cunningham acknowledges that his approach to literary criticism is unfashionable but claims that deconstructionists have only “half an argument” because they ignore the context in which literature is created. By connecting historical events, the private lives of writers, and literary works, he attempts to reveal “whole ranges of sets of meanings rippling outwards into the dense textures of the wider literature and history of the period.” Believing that history has an enormous impact upon intellectual activities, Cunningham tries to make connections that are not readily obvious without straining for effect, admitting that there is no single correct way of reading the 1930’s. He could be faulted for implying a clear-cut Right-Left division on almost everything—even cricket and soccer—but he does perceive a blurring of issues in several instances.
Although the majority of British writers in the 1930’s professed left-of-center political views, conservatives held their own since they included “the period’s biggest literary guns”: T. S. Eliot, William Butler Yeats, Wyndham Lewis, and Evelyn Waugh, among others. Eliot made The Criterion a house journal for many spokesmen for rightist issues, especially the virtues of and dangers posed to British ruralism. Right-wingers saw what Eliot called “the urbanization of mind” as a major threat to the country-house, small-village way of life they favored. Conservatives were hostile not only to industrializied cities but also to suburbs, resulting in John Betjeman’s famous plea, “Come, friendly bombs, and fall on Slough.” Rightists such as Laura Riding and F. R. Leavis were upset that the 1930’s became a period of mass movements. Cunningham says that these conservatives “couldn’t bear the idea of their fellow man grouped in the large heeded numbers of the modern democratic world.” Such attitudes led to a romance with the fascism of Sir Oswald Mosley and Adolf Hitler. Lewis expressed his admiration for the latter in Hitler (1931), and Henry Williamson, in Goodbye, West Country (1937), went so far as to claim that the air of Germany was fresher than that of his native land.
Cunningham expects perverse logic and silliness from the Right but is constantly disappointed in the same from the Left. He accuses Stephen Spender of “the wish-fulfilment that continually infected the writing of ’30s Leftists: who tended to slip easily from what was, to what they wished were the case, an elision eased by their confused rhetoric of a future always coming into being.” Spender, Auden, Christopher Isherwood, and their friends professed sympathy and admiration for the working class but had little real contact with ordinary people. When George Orwell, who did have such contact, objected, in The Road to Wigan Pier (1937), to the odor of workers, the literary Left was embarrassed and outraged. Even Orwell remained merely a visitor to the poverty of the working class. Among all the leftists of the 1930’s, only Christopher Caudwell (formerly Christopher St. John Sprigg) decided to live and work among the proletarians, in the East End of London. By contrast, Isherwood’s contribution to understanding the worker’s problems involved eating sweets to try to ruin his good bourgeois teeth.
If the intellectuals of the Left could not deal directly with the proletariat, they could at least try “to capture the mass-audience for good writing and art, to discover their own mass-appealing subject-matter and . . . seek to transform bourgeois art and aesthetics in the process, creating new, non-bourgeois kinds of art for the awakened masses.” Unfortunately, according to Cunningham, the Left never determined how to make the working class an effective subject of art. The bourgeois writers did not understand this subject well enough, and Cunningham considers Lewis Grassic Gibbon (James Leslie Mitchell), best known for his trilogy A Scots Quair (1932-1934), the only proletarian writer to have created truly lasting work. Cunningham still praises lesser novelists, tied to the conventions of strict realism, for revealing working-class life and putting “working-class regions of Britain, the humble parts of cities, and their ordinary denizens, very firmly on to the twentieth-century novel’s map.” In general, the fiction of the 1930’s did little in presenting the hardships of proletarians that had not already been done much better...
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