The Camden Town Group in Context

ISBN 978-1-84976-385-1

Signs of the Times and Flights of Fantasy: Fiction and Theatre in the 1900s

Simon J. James

The first decade of the twentieth century saw attempts by both artists and writers to break free of what sometimes seemed the staid legacy of the Victorian age. Simon James traces major developments in literature during this era, showing how some writers adopted a critical stance towards social structures and ventured into new subject areas.
Virginia Woolf’s notorious pronouncement that ‘in or about December 1910, human character changed’ seems to dismiss the first decade of the twentieth century as belonging, statically, to the end of the Victorian era, rather than to newer, more forward-looking phases of human artistic development.1 The artistic production of the period 1900–10, however, is characterised by a determination to break with the Victorian era’s perceived self-satisfaction, and to find new artistic ways of showing awareness of the changed conditions of modern life. According to Jefferson Hunter in Edwardian Fiction (1982), ‘what distinguishes Edwardian fiction from the fiction of the 1890s on one side, and the formally experimental novels of post-war modernism on the other, is [the] tendency to expand into new subjects’.2
‘Since the passing of Victoria the Great,’ novelist and prophet H.G. Wells would write in The Soul of a Bishop (1917), ‘there had been an accumulating uneasiness in the national life. It was as if some compact and dignified paper-weight had been lifted from people’s ideas, and as if at once they had begun to blow about anyhow.’3 High-Victorian realism had usually been set in the recent historical past; now literature was determined to engage with modern life, and even to find ways to change it. The two most strident campaigning voices were those of controversialists H.G. Wells in fiction and George Bernard Shaw in theatre. Shaw declaimed in the preface to Man and Superman (1903) that ‘effectiveness of assertion is the Alpha and Omega of style. He who has nothing to assert has no style and can have none: he who has something to assert will go as far in power of style as its momentousness and his conviction will carry him.’4 The best Edwardian writing is governed by a sense of having something important to say. Wells gave a talk to the Times book club in 1911 which pronounced:
I consider the novel an important and necessary thing indeed in that complicated system of uneasy adjustments and readjustments which is modern civilisation. I make very high and wide claims for it. In many directions I do not think we can get along without it ... And I do not mean merely that the novel is unavoidably charged with the representation of this wide and wonderful conflict. It is a necessary part of the conflict ... You see now the scope of the claim I am making for the novel; it is to be the social mediator, the vehicle of understanding, the instrument of self-examination, the parade of morals and the exchange of manners, the factory of customs, the criticism of laws and institutions and of social dogmas and ideas. It is to be the home confessional, the initiator of knowledge, the seed of fruitful self-questioning.5
For all of the popularity won for the English novel in the nineteenth century by Walter Scott and Charles Dickens, and the intellectual earnestness lent by Georges Meredith and Eliot, the Victorian novel was still felt to lack the respectability of other forms of art and writing; drama suffered from a lower status still. Imbued with a new seriousness, however, Edwardian drama and fiction sought to establish that writing a novel could be as serious and valuable an aesthetic undertaking as a painting, or a play as worthy of consideration as an opera or a symphony. The 1900s saw the magnificent ‘major phase’, for instance, of American émigré novelist and critic Henry James, who staked a claim for the importance of the novel on the grounds that, although perfection is not achievable in life, it might be in art. In the work of James and his friend and fellow émigré Joseph Conrad, in the novels of May Sinclair, and the short stories of James Joyce that were later published in Dubliners (1914), fiction takes as its subject the drama of consciousness. As Conrad wrote in Lord Jim (1900):
A marvellous stillness pervaded the world, and the stars, together with the serenity of their rays, seemed to shed upon the earth the assurance of everlasting security. The young moon recurved, and shining low in the west, was like a slender shaving thrown up from a bar of gold, and the Arabian Sea, smooth and cool to the eye like a sheet of ice, extended its perfect level to the perfect circle of a dark horizon. The propeller turned without a check, as though its beat had been part of the scheme of a safe universe; and on each side of the Patna two deep folds of water, permanent and sombre on the unwrinkled shimmer, enclosed within their straight and diverging ridges a few white swirls of foam bursting in a low hiss, a few wavelets, a few ripples, a few undulations that, left behind, agitated the surface of the sea for an instant after the passage of the ship, subsided splashing gently, calmed down at last into the circular stillness of water and sky with the black speck of the moving hull remaining everlastingly in its centre.6
The sensitivity with which the impressions of perception and feeling are recorded by Conrad calls into question the grounds on which the mind can claim to know anything for sure about other minds or about the outside world. ‘True wisdom,’ rules his narrator in The Secret Agent (1907), ‘is not certain of anything in this world of contradictions.’7
Differences of opinion about whether fiction should devote itself primarily to the portrayal of the ebb and flow of consciousness (a key tenet of modernism), or to the realist depiction of the changing external world, would later lead to artistic disagreements between Wells and James, John Galsworthy and Ford Madox Ford, and Arnold Bennett and Woolf. Conrad’s sense of the world as being one of contradictions, however, is shared nonetheless by Edwardian realist fiction, which repeatedly shows the status quo as being out of joint. Britain’s class, education and economic systems are shown as failing to reward the deserving or punish the vicious, often unthinkingly crushing distinct individualities. In George Gissing’s Will Warburton (1905), the gentleman hero loses his family’s capital as a result of a friend’s stock-market speculation, and becomes a grocer to support his family. Although he is declassed in the eyes of society by becoming a shopkeeper, the novel suggests that Will remains a gentleman because he has behaved like one. On the other hand, John Galsworthy’s popular Forsyte saga, which began with The Man of Property (1906), shows the members of the Forsyte family as imprisoned by a sense of their own importance and by the inherited weight of their Victorian possessions. The Forsytes’ emotional lives are shown as mediated entirely through property, Soames Forsyte even asserting his right of ownership over his wife Irene, after she falls in love with someone else, by raping her. In Wells’s Kipps (1905), the hero inherits a fortune, but fails in his efforts to become a gentleman because of the inadequacies of an education intended to make him no more than a draper; after losing his fortune, he returns to shopkeeping. The novels of Bennett draw on the techniques of French literary realism to make a claim, like that of the Camden Town Group artists, for the importance of the representation of everyday, ordinary life.8 George Douglas Brown’s The House with the Green Shutters (1901) too presents an unsentimental, even melodramatic view of rural Scottish life, in which the pride of the protagonist Jock Gourlay leads to his own financial ruin and death and to the suicide of his son.
Writers sought to tell the story of the restrictions placed on individual development by poverty or class; but no barrier, of course, was greater than that of gender. Elizabeth Robins’s Vida Levering passionately declaims in Votes for Women (staged 1904, novelised as The Convert in 1907) that ‘there’s no such unlikeness between different classes of men as exists between man and woman’.9 Novels as different as Wells’s polemical Ann Veronica (1909), Hubert Wales’s eugenic The Yoke (1907) and Elinor Glyn’s lushly melodramatic Three Weeks (1907) demand greater scope for women’s lives, particularly their sexual lives. New types, such as ‘the suffragette, the Freewoman, the college girl, the typewriter girl’, were now portrayed in fiction.10 Evelyn Sharp’s suffragette heroines in Rebel Women (1910) are ordinary women struggling to overcome traditional female reticence and to express themselves: Jane Eldridge Miller comments that ‘to be a woman in the Edwardian age ... was to live a double life, one that was alternately (or even simultaneously) Victorian and modern, repressive or liberating, traditional or radically new’.11
Theatre, too, was beginning to escape from the confines of the drawing room: Galsworthy’s Strife (1909) stages an industrial dispute, and Harley Granville-Barker’s Waste (1907) a Parliamentary campaign to disestablish the Church. This play’s representation of adultery, pregnancy and abortion meant that the play could only be licensed for private, rather than public, performance; Shaw’s work also suffered from the censorship imposed on British theatre until 1967. Unlike the Victorian actor-manager system, the best Edwardian theatre was a writer’s theatre (indeed many novelists, such as Somerset Maugham, also wrote for the stage). The ‘New Theatre’ or ‘Theatre of Ideas’ of Shaw and Granville-Barker at the Court Theatre both challenged the hypocrisies of society’s ruling institutions, and created vivid and entertaining new forms of drama: the King was reputed to have laughed so hard at a performance of John Bull’s Other Island (1904) that he broke his chair. The desire to throw off the shackles of the past and to establish something new are again dominant: Shaw’s Major Barbara (1905) and Barker’s Edward Voysey in The Voysey Inheritance (1905) both fret over the morally repugnant sources of their families’ inherited wealth; even in J.M. Barrie’s comedy The Admirable Crichton (1902) class hierarchies are inverted when Lord Loam loses his place at the head of his family to his more resourceful butler when they are shipwrecked on a desert island.
For all its concerns with the very material in which life is lived, at the same time much Edwardian writing also longs for the transcendent, for forms of escape. Margaret Schlegel ruefully acknowledges in E.M. Forster’s Howards End (1910) that her life is dependent on a basis of money, but she also longs for a union between the material and the spiritual, between the commercial and the artistic, the masculine and the feminine:
Only connect! That was the whole of her sermon. Only connect the prose and the passion, and both will be exalted, and human love will be seen at its height. Live in fragments no longer. Only connect, and the beast and the monk, robbed of the isolation that is life to either, will die.12
Horsham in Waste muses that ‘theoretically, we must all wish to guide ourselves by eternal truths. But you would admit, wouldn’t you, that we can only deal with temporal things?’13 An alternate literary response to the ever-changing realities of modern-day life is to look for ways of leaving it altogether. The effete Eustace Robinson in Forster’s ‘The Story of a Panic’ (1904) transforms into the Greek God Pan; the bourgeois ambitions of Chatteris in Wells’s The Sea Lady (1902) towards marriage and a parliamentary career are evaded when he elopes with a mermaid. The rural can also provide a refuge from the modern: Wells’s The History of Mr Polly (1910) sees Polly burning down his shop and leaving his wife for a career as a tramp and then a handyman in a country pub; the hero of Gissing’s The Private Papers of Henry Ryecroft (1903) uses his inheritance to retire from urban society forever. Landscape also becomes especially important in the work of regional writers, such as Eden Philpott’s Dartmoor novels or the extremely popular Scottish ‘Kailyard School’ of Barrie, S.R. Crockett and Ian Maclaren. Howards End, too, ends on a note of pastoral, with Schlegels and Wilcoxes happily exiled from London in the novel’s eponymous country house.
A country house is also the setting for the banquet that closes Kenneth Graham’s The Wind in the Willows (1908), a novel that celebrates the traditional bucolic joys of messing about in boats and of traditional domesticity over Toad’s dangerously modern obsession with the motor car. Escape is a prominent theme of writing for children in its ‘Golden Age’. Beatrix Potter’s The Tale of Peter Rabbit (1902) begins, famously, with the hero’s temporary flight from his family; E.E. Nesbit’s ‘five children’ are able, with the help of a flying carpet and magic amulet, to travel in space and in time. Nesbit, like Shaw and Wells, was a member of the Fabian Society, and her political concerns are more visible in her touching novel The Railway Children (1906). Rudyard Kipling also travels through English history in Puck of Pook’s Hill (1906), and to more exotic locations in Kim (1901) and Just So Stories for Little Children (1902). The most enduring Edwardian escape from adult responsibility is in Barrie’s proto-Freudian psychodrama Peter Pan (on stage, 1904, as the novel Peter and Wendy, 1911), whose hero refuses ever to grow up, preferring instead an endless existence of boyish adventures.
The appetite of a reading public greatly expanded by late Victorian educational reforms for the pleasures of vivid storytelling is demonstrated in the plenitude and variation of the era’s genre fiction. In Shaw’s 1910 play Misalliance, Johnny Tarleton complains to his father:
I like a book with a plot in it. You like a book with nothing in it but some idea that the chap that writes it keeps worrying, like a cat chasing its own tail. I can stand a little of it, just as I can stand watching the cat for two minutes, say, when Ive nothing better to do. But a man soon gets fed up with that sort of thing. ... I look on [an author] as a man that I pay to do a certain thing for me. I pay him to amuse me and to take me out of myself and make me forget.14
Also a golden age for the short story, the 1900s welcomed the acute satirical short stories of Saki and Kipling, and the ghost tales of M.R. James and Algernon Blackwood, whose ‘Psychic Doctor’ John Silence first appeared in 1908. The newly resurrected Sherlock Holmes cleared up the mystery of The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901–2); crimes were solved by G.K. Chesterton’s Father Brown, and committed by E.W. Hornung’s Raffles. Further scope for masculine heroism was provided in the historical romance, notably Baroness Orczy’s Scarlet Pimpernel (1905).
While the adventure novel demonstrated the virtues of British pluck in faraway countries or distant historical periods, at home and in the present day, however, Britain’s confidence in its global pre-eminence seemed to falter. George Ponderevo’s escape from London in Wells’s consumerist dystopia Tono-Bungay (1909) is on a powerful battleship that he will sell to a foreign power. Spy thrillers such as Erskine Childers’s The Riddle of the Sands (1903), in which two amateur yachtsmen stumble across Germany’s plans to invade Britain, or the phenomenally popular future history by William Le Queux The Invasion of 1910 (1906), serialised in the Daily Mail, showed the mother country threatened by foreign powers. The craze for invasion stories was parodied in The Swoop! by a young writer named P.G. Wodehouse, who had begun his writing career with the 1902 school stories The Pothunters. In Edgar Wallace’s Four Just Men (1905), the Foreign Secretary is assassinated by European anarchist vigilantes whose skill in espionage and plotting make them invulnerable; ingeniously, Wallace helped achieve a large sale for the novel by offering a cash prize for readers who could crack the ‘locked room’ mystery at its heart. In imagined historical revolutionary France, the Scarlet Pimpernel thrives because of his skill in disguising himself, but thrillers such as The Four Just Men and The Riddle of the Sands hinge, in turn, on the difficulty of recognising who the enemy actually is, even when right in front of you. In G.K. Chesterton’s brilliantly nightmarish The Man Who Was Thursday (1908), none of the characters, policeman or anarchist, proves to be who they seem; personal identity itself seems to vanish as subterfuge follows subterfuge. Such stories were often generated by the desire to make a specific polemical point, but also to satisfy a nostalgic longing for straightforward heroism in an increasingly confusing modern age. As I.F. Clarke has commented in Voices Prophesying War (1992):
In their own strange way, these writers were trying to create a Beowulf myth for an industrial civilization of ironclads and high-speed turbines, a new and violent chanson de geste for an age of imperialism, told in the inflammatory language of the mass press. They were popular epics for a period of universal literacy, the counterpart of the many tales about the deeds that won the Empire, all written to the glory of the nation-state; for in the closing years of the nineteenth century the aggressive nation-states of Europe had everything on their side except common-sense.15
In no period of English literature is the apocalypse-threatening anarchist more prominent or threatening a figure than the 1900s. If society is changing too rapidly to make any sense of, many writers speculated that such speed could only result in a crash more spectacular than even Mr Toad’s. Conrad’s The Secret Agent ends with the terrifyingly amoral Professor uncaught and still stalking the streets of London with explosives wrapped around his body, ‘terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world’.16 Chesterton’s eponymous Napoleon of Notting Hill (1904) plots civil war:
Terribly quiet; that is in two words the spirit of this age, as I have felt it from my cradle. I sometimes wondered how many other people felt the oppression of this union between quietude and terror. I see blank well-ordered streets, and men in black moving about inoffensively, sullenly. It goes on day after day, day after day, and nothing happens; but to me it is like a dream from which I might awake screaming. To me the straightness of our life is the straightness of a thin cord stretched tight. Its stillness is terrible. It might snap with a noise like thunder.17
Edwardian writing sought to put its past behind it, but, looking forward, tended to be anxious, apprehensive – with, of course, very good reason, as the First World War would soon unleash its terrible vengeance upon the old order.
Simon James is Senior Lecturer in the Department of English Studies, Durham University.


Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, in Andrew McNeillie (ed.), The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol.3, Hogarth Press, London 1986, p.384.
Jefferson Hunter, Edwardian Fiction, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, MA 1982, p.61.
H.G. Wells, The Soul of a Bishop: A Novel, Cassell, London 1917, p.24.
George Bernard Shaw, ‘Preface to Man and Superman’, The Complete Prefaces of George Bernard Shaw, Hamlyn, London 1965, p.165.
H.G. Wells, ‘The Contemporary Novel’, An Englishman Looks at the World: Being a Series of Unrestrained Remarks upon Contemporary Matters, Cassell, London 1914, pp.148, 167–8.
Joseph Conrad, Lord Jim, John Batchelor (ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford 1983, p.17.
Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, Martin Seymour-Smith (ed.), Penguin, Harmondsworth 1963, p.103.
See Richard Shone, ‘Text and Image: Camden Town Painting and Contemporary Fiction’, in Modern Painters: The Camden Town Group, exhibition catalogue, Tate Britain, London 2008, pp.44–5, and Samuel Hynes, ‘Camden Town and its Literary Context’, Arts Magazine, vol.55, no.1, September 1980, pp.130–3.
Elizabeth Robins, ‘Votes for Women’, in Jean Chothia (ed.), The New Woman and Other Emancipated Woman Plays, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1998, p.184.
Jane Eldridge Miller, Rebel Women: Feminism, Modernism and the Edwardian Novel, Chicago University Press, Chicago 1994, p.86.
Ibid., p.195.
E.M. Forster, Howards End, Penguin, Harmondsworth 1941, pp.174–5.
Harley Granville Barker, Waste: A Tragedy in Four Acts, Sidgwick and Jackson, London not dated, p.94,
George Bernard Shaw, ‘Misalliance’, The Complete Plays of George Bernard Shaw, Hamlyn, London 1964, p.613.
I.F. Clarke, Voices Prophesying War: Future Wars 1763–3749, second edn, Oxford University Press, Oxford 1992, p.108.
Conrad 1963, p.269.
G.K. Chesterton, The Napoleon of Notting Hill, Bernard Bergonzi (ed.), Oxford University Press, Oxford 1994, pp.78–9.

How to cite

Simon J. James, ‘Signs of the Times and Flights of Fantasy: Fiction and Theatre in the 1900s’, in Helena Bonett, Ysanne Holt, Jennifer Mundy (eds.), The Camden Town Group in Context, Tate Research Publication, May 2012,, accessed 23 January 2021.