Last Updated on June 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 752
Readers with a general curiosity about the last twenty-five years of English literature need look no further than ["The Georgian Scene"]. There are, no doubt, more brilliant writers and better critics in England than Mr. Swinnerton, but I doubt if any writer is better informed. It is precisely its information which gives this book its melancholy value—this, and its author's extraordinarily pleasant manners.
"Melancholy" because so few of the writers it mentions can one remember any more; and more melancholy still because one realizes how precious few of them were worth remembering. "The Georgian Scene" is not merely a record of English writers from 1910 until today, it is also the record of thousands of tons of forgotten printed paper; and it says much for Mr. Swinnerton that he can make this literary mausoleum a pleasant place to linger in, instead of simply a place which gives you the creeps.
I have only one real criticism of Mr. Swinnerton's comprehensive and dutiful book. Its title is misleading. Surely the real Georgian scene was the scene which was never played out, which young prewar England never had time to finish, which ended abruptly with the death of Rupert Brooke in 1915; a scene which was mostly written in terms of a sentimentalism too mild to be poisonous, and prompted only by the magnificent, unfulfilled voices of Shaw and Wells. For if the Georgian scene actually continued beyond the war and into our year 1934, then it isn't finished yet—not so long as King George the Fifth lives to preside over the uncertain destinies of such as Spender and Auden. And it is something more than unfinished—it is practically meaningless unless you discuss politics and economics along with your literature.
Mr. Swinnerton, however, is purely a shrewd literary gossip. As such, it is difficult to praise him too highly. He knows his facts; and there never was such an array of facts, dates, and information as you will find here. Nor can you disagree with any of the judgments which he passes upon the hundreds of writers who throng this book; you can't disagree with them because they don't go deep enough. Indeed, Mr. Swinnerton invariably says the right thing: and, while the right thing about writers we haven't read and no longer remember is refreshing and useful, the right thing about writers we know pretty well is merely tedious.
While Mr. Swinnerton accurately describes his twenty-five years' scene, somehow or other he never gives it a shape. He is far too avuncular. From his kindly pages one can merely deduce a shape; the hollow and feverish five pre-war years; the so-called "purgation" of the war, and the curiously dispirited levels of today. This is the sad drama of English literature, and Mr. Swinnerton is too much in the drama to see it as a whole; nor can one see it simply in terms of literature. The reason is not a literary one. (pp. 305, 311)
In English life, the most violent changes have been made by men who did not believe in change; in English literature, the most startling innovations have been the work of innate conversatives. And so when—in post-war England—everything began to dissolve and melt together into some disordered jelly; when the old, comfortable world was given over to such scared and shifty figures as Baldwin and MacDonald; when the institutions that had once been fought against, in the happy belief that they were invincible, began to reel—then the English man of letters lost his grip. In an apparently broken society, he could neither build nor break. He became...
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an Aldous Huxley, or a Noel Coward, or a pacifist; he turned his back on reality….
Mr. Swinnerton is obviously troubled by this situation, but does his best to ignore it. He cannot see the dilemma of a nonrevolutionary literature in a revolutionary age. But he does contend very shrewdly that the new writers are too educated, and that the common man is scarcely heard any more. Perhaps the answer to the problem which haunts "The Georgian Scene" lies there; perhaps from the less educated classes which make up the larger part of that various, resourceful, and (if the word be allowed me) passionate race will come the new great writers. Meanwhile—and this is implicit in the text of "The Georgian Scene"—English literature has competently, and charmingly, and sometimes even brilliantly gone bankrupt. (p. 311)
George Dangerfield, "Brilliant Bankruptcy," in The Saturday Review of Literature, Vol. XI, No. 19, November 24, 1934, pp. 305, 311.