PGS Lit Soc: The Age of Modernism

 This article by Bryony Hart was originally given as a talk to PGS Literary Society on Thursday, 6th July. This term, the Literary Society will feature speakers on a range of subjects, from literature to architecture, physics, history and philosophy, to celebrate 1922: one of the most significant years in intellectual and cultural history.

Guernica by Pablo Picasso, 1937

“Poets in our civilization,” T.S. Eliot writes in a 1921 essay, “must be difficult.”

‘Such difficulty, he believed, reflected the times: advanced industrialisation transformed the West, Europe reeled from World War I, and the Bolshevik Revolution ignited Russia. Thinkers such as Darwin, Nietzsche, Marx, Freud, and Einstein changed people’s understanding of history, economics, philosophy, science, psychology, physics, and even religion’. During this term’s Lit Soc, you will be invited to listen to speakers from across many departments, from English, Science, Art, History to PRS, because this is a movement that involved all parts of culture. 

With the inventions of everything from the automobile to the aeroplane, the vacuum cleaner to the incandescent lightbulb, the motion picture to the radio, and the bra to the zipper, people’s lives were changing with such unprecedented speed. Many English-language artists, thought a new approach was needed to capture and comment on this new era, requiring innovation in their own work: the result was called Modernism, the largest, most significant movement of the early 20th century.

Difficult, various, complex: these are often the very terms critics use to describe Modernist Literature in general.

Today, I am here to talk to you, about the sharp contrast that exists between 19th and 20th Century prose, which serves as an effective way of greater appreciating the shift that occurred in the early 1900s.

The two writers that establish the contrast between 19th Victorian and 20th Modernism are Thomas Hardy and Virginia Woolf, respectively. Thomas Hardy, as many of you know, was a prose writer (then later a poet) who was preoccupied with the Dorsetshire landscape and the way in which humans were borne out of this space. He was a writer who experienced such a seismic shift in culture and technology in his time, witnessing, as a child, a public hanging, the development of the railway system, the introduction of standardised education, and the eruption of the First World War, amongst many other things.

Hardy was a man of the land. Or an observer of it. He watched, with much horror, the shift that was occurring to the landscape in terms of the people living on it. Due to the rising economic pull of towns and cities as a result of industrialisation, and the development of the railway systems across England, rural labourers were moving away to what they thought would be a better way of life. Farming was being increasingly mechanised and the old labouring techniques of the past were being set aside for quicker, more efficient farming and economic methods, many of which were deadly to those operating the machinery. Language was changing too.  Standardised education brought about standardised language (a phrase that still makes me shudder when I read GCSE English language mark schemes), and so the dialects of the past, with all their history, richness and uniqueness, were being lost to what Hardy famously coined ‘The ache of modernism’ in his novel Tess of the D’Urbervilles (1892). Don’t get me wrong, Hardy didn’t resist it, but he saw it coming … over the hills of Dorset. It was inevitable, and he charted its gradual movement into the rural communities of England in his wonderful novels which he set in the fictional realm of Wessex.

Hardy is most famous for his sweeping landscapes. I believe that if Hardy had been living just one hundred years later, he would have been an epic filmmaker, creating gorgeous panoramic vistas that would make him a multi-award-winning artist. And it is these landscapes, and the observational sketches that he makes of the people who live upon this land, that make his work such a great example of what Modernism is not. 19th Century Victorian Literature is often preoccupied with, as Hardy was, showing us the external world that we live in rather than delving into the minds of the characters.  They wanted to show us what things looked like, what people were wearing, how people moved, the houses that they lived in. They want to show us character’s actions, but rarely explored in the internal complex workings of the character’s mind, something which Woolf captures so well in her works.

Let me read you an example from the opening of Thomas Hardy’s famous tragedy (best read alongside Shakespeare’s King Lear) The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). In this novel, the main character, a labouring man called Michael Henchard, in a drunken state sells his wife and child at a country fair, only to wake the next morning to realise the error of his ways. The novel then follows him as he rises from labourer to wealthy merchant:

One evening of late summer, before the nineteenth century had reached one-third of its span, a young man and woman, the latter carrying a child, were approaching the large village of Weydon-Priors, in Upper Wessex, on foot. They were plainly but not ill clad, though the thick hoar of dust which had accumulated on their shoes and garments from an obviously long journey lent a disadvantageous shabbiness to their appearance just now.

The man was of fine figure, swarthy, and stern in aspect; and he showed in profile a facial angle so slightly inclined as to be almost perpendicular. He wore a short jacket of brown corduroy, newer than the remainder of his suit, which was a fustian waistcoat with white horn buttons, breeches of the same, tanned leggings, and a straw hat overlaid with black glazed canvas. At his back he carried by a looped strap a rush basket, from which protruded at one end the crutch of a hay-knife, a wimble for hay-bonds being also visible in the aperture. His measured, springless walk was the walk of the skilled countryman as distinct from the desultory shamble of the general labourer; while in the turn and plant of each foot there was, further, a dogged and cynical indifference personal to himself, showing its presence even in the regularly interchanging fustian folds, now in the left leg, now in the right, as he paced along.

What was really peculiar, however, in this couple’s progress, and would have attracted the attention of any casual observer otherwise disposed to overlook them, was the perfect silence they preserved. They walked side by side in such a way as to suggest afar off the low, easy, confidential chat of people full of reciprocity; but on closer view it could be discerned that the man was reading, or pretending to read, a ballad sheet which he kept before his eyes with some difficulty by the hand that was passed through the basket strap. Whether this apparent cause were the real cause, or whether it were an assumed one to escape an intercourse that would have been irksome to him, nobody but himself could have said precisely; but his taciturnity was unbroken, and the woman enjoyed no society whatever from his presence. Virtually she walked the highway alone, save for the child she bore. Sometimes the man’s bent elbow almost touched her shoulder, for she kept as close to his side as was possible without actual contact, but she seemed to have no idea of taking his arm, nor he of offering it; and far from exhibiting surprise at his ignoring silence she appeared to receive it as a natural thing. If any word at all were uttered by the little group, it was an occasional whisper of the woman to the child—a tiny girl in short clothes and blue boots of knitted yarn—and the murmured babble of the child in reply.


As you can see, Hardy is preoccupied with the external.  Note the following:

-        The time – in terms of the century – 1830s ish

-        Their state of dress  - lovely knitted yarns and fustian waistcoats …

-        Their location

-        Michael’s trade

-        Their awkward silence and relationship – the physical signs of it

Hardy is describing the external world of his characters. I imagine it like moving pieces on a game of chess.  We don’t see the internal world of Michael: why is he so distant from his wife and child? What is the man THINKING, for goodness sake? And what about his wife? How is she tolerating such distance? What are her thoughts and feelings right now about her future life with this man and her child? Perhaps she’s thinking that she’ll tolerate anything because she loves her daughter so much.  The point is, as a reader, we simply do not know because Hardy, and writers like him, do no show us the internal workings of their characters. There are plenty of other points in his novels where he does the same, even in moments of great tragedy. Take this moment, so ripe for insight into the internal thoughts of Michael, the morning after the selling of his wife:

He looked about—at the benches—at the table supported by trestles—at his basket of tools—at the stove where the furmity had been boiled—at the empty basins—at some shed grains of wheat—at the corks which dotted the grassy floor. Among the odds and ends he discerned a little shining object, and picked it up. It was his wife’s ring.

A confused picture of the events of the previous evening seemed to come back to him, and he thrust his hand into his breast-pocket. A rustling revealed the sailor’s bank-notes thrust carelessly in.

This second verification of his dim memories was enough; he knew now they were not dreams. He remained seated, looking on the ground for some time. “I must get out of this as soon as I can,” he said deliberately at last, with the air of one who could not catch his thoughts without pronouncing them. “She’s gone—to be sure she is—gone with that sailor who bought her, and little Elizabeth-Jane. We walked here, and I had the furmity, and rum in it—and sold her. Yes, that’s what’s happened and here am I. Now, what am I to do—am I sober enough to walk, I wonder?” He stood up, found that he was in fairly good condition for progress, unencumbered. Next he shouldered his tool basket, and found he could carry it. Then lifting the tent door he emerged into the open air.


The closest we get to his internal thoughts is via direct speech, and as we know, what we say is not always what is thought or felt. It feels that we are always at arm’s length when reading 19th Century fiction, something that Virginia Woolf, in the early 1920s, took issue with.

Now, this the point where I want to create the contrast. Virginia Woolf was part of the Bloomsbury Group, a set of intellectuals all living in and around the affluent Bloomsbury area of London, who were writing and creating art against the norm, striving to ‘make it new’ as I mentioned at the beginning. Woolf is considered one of the most important writers of the modernist movement and is most known for developing the stream of consciousness style that, as modern readers, we take for granted. This is where the reader follows the internal thoughts and feelings of a character, which, when religiously followed, can make for a complex and confusing narrative.  Think about this for just one moment: it is unlikely that your thought processes during this day have been chronological, logical, sequenced – they have likely been an internal explosion impossible to comment on.

Woolf, when reflecting on the state of prose fiction at the start of the 1900s, in her essay ‘Modern Fiction’, remarked that prose writers of the 19th and early 20th

seems constrained, not by his own free will but by some powerful and unscrupulous tyrant who has him in thrall, to provide a plot, to provide comedy, tragedy, love interest, and an air of probability embalming the whole so impeccable that if all his figures were to come to life they would find themselves dressed down to the last button of their coats in the fashion of the hour. The tyrant is obeyed; the novel is done to a turn. But sometimes, more and more often as time goes by, we suspect a momentary doubt, a spasm of rebellion, as the pages fill themselves in the customary way. Is life like this? Must novels be like this?

Woolf was not writing about Hardy, per se, but rather writers of his time.  What she is challenging here is the assumption that novels must be about the external worlds of character, places and events, and PLOT, rather than the psychological workings of the human mind and the occurrences of everyday life.  She appeals to the reader and writer to

Look within and life, it seems, is very far from being “like this”. Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old.

For Woolf, writing was about capturing the ‘myriad of impressions’, the ‘atoms’, the minutiae, rather than the sweeping and broad snapshots that we see in Hardy’s fiction.

In her novel Mrs Dalloway, written in 1925, Woolf does just this. This novel must be up there with one of the most difficult novels to read. There are no chapters, there is a loose chronology of 24 hours (the novel was originally called The Hours and typifies the reason why Hardy and Woolf contrast so well – Hardy’s novels often span multiple generations, yet their novels are often of similar length). The sentences never end: get ready to be best buddies with Woolf’s favourite punctuation mark, the semi-colon.

In this novel, Woolf captures the internal and psychological workings of two very different people: Clarissa Dalloway, wife of Richard, MP, living in Westminster, who is getting ready for a party being held at their home, seemingly successful but full of regret, lack and dissatisfaction; and Septimus Warren Smith, Officer from WW1, married to Rezia, has survived war, yet is haunted and suffers from PTSD. Their narratives run parallel to one another and their paths briefly cross at the end of the novel. Both characters appear to have had homosexual relationships, which resulted in the novel being banned in some countries.

Let me read you a few paragraphs from the opening:

Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.

For Lucy had her work cut out for her. The doors would be taken off their hinges; Rumpelmayer's men were coming. And then, thought Clarissa Dalloway, what a morning--fresh as if issued to children on a beach.

What a lark! What a plunge! For so it had always seemed to her, when, with a little squeak of the hinges, which she could hear now, she had burst open the French windows and plunged at Bourton into the open air. How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning; like the flap of a wave; the kiss of a wave; chill and sharp and yet (for a girl of eighteen as she then was) solemn, feeling as she did, standing there at the open window, that something awful was about to happen; looking at the flowers, at the trees with the smoke winding off them and the rooks rising, falling; standing and looking until Peter Walsh said, "Musing among the vegetables?"--was that it?--"I prefer men to cauliflowers"--was that it? He must have said it at breakfast one morning when she had gone out on to the terrace--Peter Walsh. He would be back from India one of these days, June or July, she forgot which, for his letters were awfully dull; it was his sayings one remembered; his eyes, his pocket-knife, his smile, his grumpiness and, when millions of things had utterly vanished--how strange it was!--a few sayings like this about cabbages.

She stiffened a little on the kerb, waiting for Durtnall's van to pass.

Do you see the difference?

What actually happens in this moment? Who on earth is Lucy? Where is Bourton? I thought we were in London?  Who is Peter Walsh? I thought she was off to buy some flowers?

What is happening is this: Clarissa stands on the kerb.  This is the physical action within this extract.  The rest, memory. The feelings of the past.  A past moment of central significance to Clarissa that is always within reach. Yet, there is also random mentions of cauliflowers, vegetables and cabbages. Flickers from the past that flit in and out of Clarissa’s mind because this is how the human mind operates. For Woolf, ‘Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end.’ What she was striving for in her narrative was to ‘record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness. Let us not take it for granted that life exists more fully in what is commonly thought big than in what is commonly thought small.’ Through this technique, the reader learns about the tiny moments in Clarissa’s life that have changed her beyond comprehension, and through these moments we come to understand and appreciate her utter dissatisfaction with the life she finds herself in.

The stream of consciousness technique is most successful when she presents us with an insight into Septimus’s psychological state of mind. I find this extract interesting because it starts with a physical description of the character, very much against Woolf’s comments about what Modernist fiction should be:

Septimus Warren Smith, who found himself unable to pass, heard him.

Septimus Warren Smith, aged about thirty, pale-faced, beak-nosed, wearing brown shoes and a shabby overcoat, with hazel eyes which had that look of apprehension in them which makes complete strangers apprehensive too. The world has raised its whip; where will it descend?

Everything had come to a standstill. The throb of the motor engines sounded like a pulse irregularly drumming through an entire body. The sun became extraordinarily hot because the motor car had stopped outside Mulberry's shop window; old ladies on the tops of omnibuses spread their black parasols; here a green, here a red parasol opened with a little pop. Mrs. Dalloway, coming to the window with her arms full of sweet peas, looked out with her little pink face pursed in enquiry. Every one looked at the motor car. Septimus looked. Boys on bicycles sprang off. Traffic accumulated. And there the motor car stood, with drawn blinds, and upon them a curious pattern like a tree, Septimus thought, and this gradual drawing together of everything to one centre before his eyes, as if some horror had come almost to the surface and was about to burst into flames, terrified him. The world wavered and quivered and threatened to burst into flames. It is I who am blocking the way, he thought. Was he not being looked at and pointed at; was he not weighted there, rooted to the pavement, for a purpose? But for what purpose?

In this extract of Septimus’s stream of consciousness, there are profound moments of absolute clarity.  This is a man who has observed man’s inhumanity to man.  The moment of war has passed yet for Septimus the ‘horror’ is always at the surface, ‘quivering and threaten[ing] like Clarissa’s memories at Bourton. He is asking questions about the state of Man. The state of the future that lies ahead of him. The ‘whip’ seems to be some almighty force that could crush humanity at any moment – most fitting for the times we find ourselves in today.

And this is the way in which I see the Modernist movement within literature. It is no longer an investigation of the external workings of the world, rather an introspective exploration into the workings on the human mind, which was, at this time, reeling from the trauma of one of the most horrific wars known to mankind. If you read Modernist fiction, you will be presented with something that is fragmented, deliberately dislocated, breaking narrative continuity, moving away from the traditional presentation of character and disobey rules of syntax and coherence of narrative language. 

I’ll let Woolf finish today’s talk:

There is no limit to the horizon, and that nothing — no “method”, no experiment, even of the wildest — is forbidden, but only falsity and pretence. “The proper stuff of fiction” does not exist; everything is the proper stuff of fiction, every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain and spirit is drawn upon; no perception comes amiss. And if we can imagine the art of fiction come alive and standing in our midst, she would undoubtedly bid us break her and bully her, as well as honour and love her, for so her youth is renewed and her sovereignty assured.