Page:EB1922 - Volume 31.djvu/19

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ENCYCLOPEDIA BRITANNICA

VOLUME XXXI

THE SECOND OF THE NEW VOLUMES


ENGLISH LITERATURE (see 9.645*). A retrospect, from the vantage-ground of 1921, over the progress of English literature in recent years showed no sign of degeneracy in literary quality. From a purely national point of view, English writers have prob- ably never stood higher comparatively in the world of letters. The commerce of the book-world and the ply of the " best sellers" may vary; but if we regard the curve of literature as a whole, it is justifiable to claim that, during the past generation, the best English work has not been deflected from the direction in which literary progress had been steadily moving.

The acme of the English novel was reached already in the last quarter of the igth century. And among novelists still living in 1921 Thomas Hardy held a position of lofty preeminence. In these later years his work as a poet had given him a second title to fame. Even more than in the case of his finest tragic novels, his tragic epic, The Dynasts, is full of a great pity and a great patience. Like all great tragedy it is cathartic. Like all great art, it exalts and enlarges.

In Sir J. M. Barrie, by origin a typical Scot, who, together with Hardy, had received the Order of Merit, fantasy had achieved its highest embodiment since Midsummer Night's Dream. Faerie had, in him, become naturalized on the English stage; and it has been for the theatre that all his later work was done a constantly growing range of work, from Peter Pan to The Admirable Crich- lon, Cinderella, What Every Woman Knows, Dear Brutus, The Twelve-Pound Look, The Old Lady Shows Her Medals, and Mary Rose. Hardy and Barrie between them had created an atmos- phere of the theatre in which it had become possible for an imagination worthy of English literature to move and breathe and have its being.

In the forefront of literary activity in 1921, the work of H. G. Wells and of Bernard Shaw, though less creative, sounded its challenge to the future Wells as the sociological autobiographer of his time, Shaw as a satirist, often as bitter as Swift, and with something in him of a new Gulliver.

H. G. Wells's skill as a writer is shown in the almost animal realism of his presentment, not in one or two books merely, but a score. In his fiction he is specially autobiographic:

" I recall an underground kitchen with a drawered table, a window looking up at a grating, a back yard in which, growing out by a dust- bin, was a gi'ape-vine; a red-papered room with a book-case, over my father's shop, the dusty aisles and fixtures, the regiments of wine-glasses and tumblers, the rows of hanging mugs and jugs, the towering edifices^ of jam-pots, the tea and dinner and toilet sets in that emporium, its brighter side of cricket goods, of pads and balls and stumps. Out of the window one peeped at the more exterior world, the High Street in front, the tailor's garden, the butcher's yard, the church-yard and Bromley church tower behind, and one was taken upon expeditions to fields and open places. This limited world was peopled with certain familiar presences, mother and father, two brothers, the evasive but interesting cat."

Upper-class life he saw (from the point of view of the servants' hall) when on his father's death in 1878 his mother became house- keeper in the family in which she had formerly been lady's maid, at Up Park near Petersfield, the " Bladesover " of Tono-Bungay, which also enshrines some early experiences in the chemist's shop at Midhurst. He had a bitter struggle, both for livelihood and for education, beginning work as a draper's assistant at the age of 15, and experiencing in his own person some of the humilia- tions he has described in Kipps. Striving to educate himself, he took a humble post as assistant master in an obscure school, and from this in turn he escaped with the aid of a Government scholarship to the Royal College of Science, South Kensington. It was his good fortune to come under Huxley, the leading expo- nent of the new science of biology and one of the most stirring spirits in the intellectual unrest of the time. Economically and socially the immediate gain for Wells was the London B.Sc. degree with first-class honours in zoology; upon his mental development the effects were far-reaching. It is really of himself under the name of " Oswald " that Wells speaks in this pas- sage from Joan and Peter:

" Those were the great days when Huxley lectured on zoology at South Kensington, and to him Oswald went. Oswald did indeed find science consoling and inspiring. Scientific studies were at once rarer and more touched by enthusiasm then than a quarter of a century later, and he was soon a passionate naturalist, consumed by the insatiable craving to know how. That little long upper labora- tory in the Normal School of Science, as the place was then called, with the preparations and diagrams along one side, the sinks and windows along the other, the row of small tables down the windows, and the ever-present vague mixed smell of methylated spirit, Canada balsam and a sweetish decay, opened vast new horizons to him. To the world of the eighteen-eighties the story of life, of the origin and branching out of species, of the making of continents, was still the most inspiring of new romances. Comparative anatomy in particular was then a great and philosophical ' new learning," a mighty training of mind; the drift of biological teaching towards specialization was still to come."

It was partly due to ill-health as a hard-worked young don that Wells turned his attention from the more scholastic region of scientific journalism and text-book to writing romance of the Jules Verne variety. In this he achieved a rapid success. It is still delightful for a reader to recall the thrill of first contact with The Time Machine and Doctor Moreau's Island, soon to be followed by The Wheels of Chance, and the War of the Worlds, in the middle and later 'nineties. Some critics will maintain that, in technical skill and professional drollery, Mr. Wells never surpassed The Wheels of Chance or The Sea Lady. In 1900, however, came Love and Mr. Lewisham, which was regarded as a landmark; but it was eclipsed in the direction of sociology of contemporary life by Kipps in 1905 and the more ambitious Tono-Bungay in 1909. Nor will the war-period in England be understood without Mr. Britling Sees It Through.

' These figures indicate the volume and page number of the previous article.