Tuesday, 8 January 2013

Some thoughts on Edwardian literature

As you know, Katherine of November's Autumn is organising a challenge to read novels from 1880-1930, an era I thought I was woefully ignorant in. Now it comes back to me, I did actually enjoy some novels from that era, but it was years ago and I had forgotten about it. It's just that "classics" from that era, as in stuffy literary fiction didn't appeal to me. But I used to read George Bernard Shaw avidly when I was 16, HG Wells when I was 17 and EF Benson (1930's I think?) around that time.

Then there was Arthur Conan Doyle, H. Rider Haggard and Jules Verne, old favourites of mine. I liked She and The Lost World. The late Victorian era was the age of adventure stories, "literary" realist classics being limited to Thomas Hardy and George Gissing (yes, I know there more, but the only really well-known one today is Hardy.)  Realist classics were the staple of the early and mid-Victorians, as a late Victorian reviewer in 1895 lamented. They had lapsed to the age of "photographic" writing, where you describe boring scenes of people drinking tea unhappily. (I forget where to find it, but one of the links on the Brontëblog probably has the e-book.)  Still, fear not. This gave us the genre fiction we now know today as fantasy, science fiction and adventure.

Then of course the Golden Age of Detective Fiction, the likes of Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers. Christie was avidly devoured in my early teens, only to give it up in a few years for Grandma's Sayers books, and I went to the bookstore to buy some more. Then I stopped reading those for a few years while feeling down in general about the sort of books there were to read in general (I was doing my A-Levels at the time, and I hadn't started George Eliot or much of Hardy) as I'd read so many interesting classics the rest seemed boring. Even modern fiction was dull. I then went and picked up Terry Pratchett.

If you read TV Tropes, the Agatha Christie novels are the Genteel Interbellum Setting, between the two World Wars. Not quite an Edwardian tea party, but lots of upper-middle class parties and social events and adultery and drinks over a potted palm in colonial India. (Lots of military officers in Agatha Christie). Everyone calls each other "darling" (rolls eyes) and talks about Bohemian stuff. In fact that era lampshaded Bohemian attitudes in general, something that we 21st century readers can smile about today, as we inherited a lot of their Bohemian tendencies, eg pseudo-intellectuals, Marxists and Freudians. Which is probably why they still last today. In 100 years they may not, but let's enjoy it while we can.  If you are into this setting the detective novelists are recommended, Aldous Huxley (not Brave new World), and EF Benson. Evelyn Waugh will do as well. Stella Gibbons parodies some of them in Cold Comfort Farm. This era has more exotic settings i.e. titled or important people in colonies or tropical countries doing English stuff like drinking tea.

Surprisingly there was some good science fiction written eg Brave New World by Aldous Huxley. He later wrote Island, which is after the period I mention, but worth a look. Of course geeks will mention HP Lovecraft whom I haven't read yet.

As for serious literary fiction, I really don't know much. Oh, I know there's Virginia Woolf (ever so dull), James Joyce (nonsensical language), etc. but honestly they can't tell a story like the Victorians. In fact Virginia Woolf couldn't stand the Victorians.  In a brief phase of pretentious teenage-hood I attempted both authors only to fail miserably in disgust. Then I believe I saw something by an Elizabeth Bowen, among other things. I know I spent a fortune in books I never got to read.

If you want to know real-life Bohemian intellectuals, try Freud, (late 19th century to early 20th century). I laughed at Psychology of Love, Studies in Hysteria, The Interpretation of Dreams, etc. Expect phallic symbols, female genitalia and repressed sexual desires, homosexuality and incest.  If you like, have a look at Carl Jung, who seems to think everything has to do with an Egyptian past life.

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