Characteristics of Twentieth- and Twenty-First-Century British Literature


While the Romantic Period covered roughly 1780 to 1830, and the Victorian Era lasted from then until about 1901, the literature produced during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries usually is grouped into two major categories.  The bulk of the early part of the twentieth century often is referred to as the Modernist Period, and the remaining part is the Postmodernist Period or Contemporary Period.  Harmon and Holman’s A Handbook to Literature (9th ed.) offers the following rough categories, the first of which overlaps with Victorianism:


1870-1914 Realistic Period (further reaction against the Romantics)

                        1870-1901 Late Victorian Age (decadence and aestheticism)

1901-1914 Edwardian Age (named after Edward VII; initial reactions against Victorian conventionality and trust in authority)

1914-1965 Modernist Period (experimental writing; stream of consciousness; alienation)

                        1914-1940 Georgian Age (named after George V; vitality in literature)

1940-1965 Diminishing Age (shrinking of the British Empire, especially after World War II; post-war rebuilding and psychological depression)

1965-         Postmodernist or Contemporary Period (increased sense of malaise; greater hybridity, transnationalism, and inclusiveness)


The two world wars (1914-1918 and 1939-1945) influenced the literature profoundly.  Traditional genres of drama (from writers like Samuel Beckett or Tom Stoppard), poetry (from writers like William Yeats or Philip Larkin), and novel (from writers like James Joyce or V. S. Naipaul) remained popular, but writers were more willing than ever before to experiment with genre, sometimes combining or redefining them.  Some of the main features of twentieth- and twenty-first-century British literature include the following:


A sense of authorial alienation from society and readers (Eliot, Pound).

A reaction against “prudish” Victorianism (D. H. Lawrence).

Loss of optimism about the future.

Increasing skepticism about established religion and relegation of traditional religions to relatively unimportant status (Nietzsche and the death of God).

Stoic determination to endure the troubles of existence.

Interest in the workings of the subconscious mind (Freud).

Increasing sense of dislocation and lack of moral certitude (expanding cities, new kind and scale of war, new technologies like film and radio and aircraft).

Intense interest in experimentation with traditional literary forms.

Hybridization of traditional forms with postcolonial ideas, dialects, etc.

Increasing importance of regional literature (preservation of marginalized cultures).

Greater importance of women (voting rights, Margaret Thatcher as first female Prime Minister for twelve years starting in 1979).

Interest in surrealism, imagism, absurdism.

Unreliable narrators and stream of consciousness.

Open endings and plotlessness rather than following the traditional linear plot structure.

More frank exploration of sexuality (in terms of gender and of homosexuality).

Self-consciousness of literature (literature about literature).