The realist novel was a vital form in the Edwardian age; writers like Gissing, Bennett and their imitators presented minutely realised pictures of ordinary life, with not very heroic heroes discovering the limitations of their world, and usually being forced to compromise with it. This kind of novel was strong on sociology, strong on psychology, and its realism wasn’t just a matter of convincing physical detail – it was about the conflict between the individuals and social conditions that they ignored at their peril. Such books could also make a powerful case for social change.
But by the twenties this form was a fading flower, condescended to by the advanced, and seen as fit only for the patrons of Boots Library. “Galsworthy and water” was the sort of label applied to twenties writers who continued in the realist tradition.
What killed it? Undergraduates will be taught that it was killed by modernism, that the technical experiments of Joyce and Woolf left it outmoded. Mrs Woolf may even be credited with killing it single-handed, with one mighty essay (Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown):
And so [the Edwardians] have developed a technique of novel writing which suits their purpose; they have made tools and established conventions which do their business. But those tools are not our tools, and that business is not our business. For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death…
But Joyce’s readership was tiny, and Woolf’s essay would not, I would guess, persuade anyone not already converted.
On the other hand, I rather like a theory expressed by S.P.B.Mais in 1916, in which he blamed the War:
Before the war we gave scant attention to any but the problem novels. We revelled in the artistry of Gilbert Cannan, Hugh Walpole, Arnold Bennett, Compton Mackenzie, D.H.Lawrence, and all the host of younger novelists who were all out to smash contemporary traditions, iconoclasts who sought to make us see that our gods were mere tinsel, our conception of love sentimentality and only a travesty of the real thing. We were content to see ourselves in these feckless irresolute heroes and commonplace rather ugly heroines who fought for freedom and made a horrid mess of their lives in the doing of it. We admired them as brave realists who shunned nothing in their endeavour to depict us as we really were.
Then came the war with its change of values. What was incredibly unreal and melodramatic in 1912, became the ordinary incident of everyday life in 1915 and conversely what we had looked upon as photographic representation of life in 1913 looked simply silly in the light of what had happened to each of us in the year following it. The upshot of this was that we came to regard the novel as a more and more decadent branch of letters…
During the War, the realist novel became very difficult to write. Pre-War social concerns could now seem less important (even the militant suffragettes acknowledged this, and trimmed their campaign accordingly) and stories based on compromise did not chime well with the temper of the times. There was also less of a demand for writing about flawed heroes. Bennett’s The Roll Call (1918) is a case in point. It starts as a rather ordinary novel about a rather average young man from the provinces, making his way in London. Disappointments, compromises, and partial successes – the usual mixture. Then towards the end War breaks out. The hero is transformed from man to soldier – in this role he sees himself as triumphant, but the book suddenly stops. In wartime it would have been bad form to extend the realist conventions into an analysis of the hero’s army career – that would be admitting to the possibility of compromise and even failure.
Mais’s comments are in an article on John Buchan in Land and Water (preparing the way for the serialisation of Greenmantle). They suggest not only why it was fruitful for Buchan to move away from the realist tone of books like The Half-Hearted, and why his extravagant “shockers” found such a willing audience in wartime, but also how bog-standard realism lost a prestige that it was never completely to regain.