19th century – good; 20th century – not so good

Emily Brontë

If I had to choose the countries that produced the best novels in the 19th century, the top three countries would undoubtedly be England, Russia and France in that order. Austen, Borrow, the Brontë sisters, Butler, Dickens, Eliot, Hardy, Thackeray and Trollope, to name only the best, produced some of the finest novels ever written, as did Dostoevsky, Gogol, Goncharov, Lermontov, Tolstoy and Turgenev and Balzac, Flaubert and Stendhal. The USA did produce Hawthorne, Melville and Twain, who are just behind. My list of best 19th century novels shows what I think was the best of the 19th century. No Germans or Spaniards and only one Italian.

Jude the Obscure

But it all changed in the 20th century. Hardy’s last great novel was Jude the Obscure , published in 1895. (He did write one more novel – The Well-Beloved – published in 1897). He devoted the rest of his life – he died in 1928 – to poetry. In other words, England’s last great novelist ceased to write novels at the end of the 19th century. Indeed, his last novel was published in the year of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and there may well be a connection between the two events. The 20th century (reminder: it started in 1901 not 1900) started, at least as far as England was concerned, with Kim and The Inheritors, not a great beginning. 1902 gave us the book form of Heart of Darkness (it had previously been published in a magazine) and Hound of the Baskervilles. Apart from a few Conrads (a dubious Englishman), we also get early Bennett, Forster, Wells, Chesterton, Ford and Hadrian The Seventh. Some interesting novels but, apart from Heart of Darkness (which was actually first published in the 19th century), there is nothing approaching greatness. The next decade brings Lawrence but also Richardson, Woolf, early Wyndham Lewis and Ford’s The Good Soldier but elsewhere we are getting Die Aufzeichnungen des Malte Laurids Brigge (The Notebooks of Malte Laurids Brigge), those three great US women writers – Edith Wharton, Willa Cather and Ellen Glasgow, Der Tod in Venedig (Death in Venice), the very great Петербург (Petersburg), Le Grand Meaulnes, La symphonie pastorale (The Pastoral Symphony) and the first books of À la recherche du temps perdu and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (and Shaw’s Pygmalion). Eliot, Yeats and Pound were also writing interesting poetry.


Clearly, by now, England had slipped behind in the league table. Looking at the number of authors reviewed on my site, you can see that the USA comes first, England second, Italy third and France fourth. This does not, I feel, necessarily represent which country produced the best novels in the 20th century. I have no doubt that the USA is in first place but I am equally certain that England is not in second place. Looking at the stats for my list of best novels, we get a similar order, only with France just nudging ahead of Italy. All this leaves me in a bit of a quandary. My gut feeling has USA first, France second and then… I don’t know but I don’t think that it is England. Of course, this difficulty is exacerbated by the fact that there are countries in the list of best novels of the 20th century which would not even vaguely appear in a list of the the best 19th century novels, in particular the countries of Latin America, Africa and South and South-East Asia.

Getting back to my original problem … (The joy of doing a blog is that it allows me to wander about a bit). If anyone is reading this, I hope that they will bear with me. What happened to the English novel? Let’s deal with the easier question first. WHat happened to the Russian novel? Easy answer: Stalin and the Soviet system. I plan to deal with this in a separate post at a later date so I will not say much more about it now, except that one of the many, many faults of the Soviet system is that it killed a lot of good literature. I am sure that many learned theses have been written on why the English novel faltered. The novel itself faltered, of course, because of the rise of the cinema, then TV and now the Internet, mobile phones and other new technologies. The Death of the Novel has been discussed for years – see some links on my site homepage (scroll down) – so I won’t add to the discussion, except to quote Julian BarnesTwo famous deaths have been intermittently proclaimed for some time now: the death of God and the death of the novel. Both are exaggerated. And since God was one of the fictional impulse’s earliest and finest creations, I’ll bet on the novel – in however mutated a version – to outlast even God. Yet, people are still reading novels, even if it is Fifty Shades of Vampires.

England’s best writer of the century?

But the English novel… The Death of the Empire may well have had something to do with it. As stated above,Hardy’s The Well-Beloved was published the same year as Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the apotheosis of the British Empire. It started to go downhill soon after and particularly went downhill after World War I. Yet France was battered more than England in World War I and was also losing its empire and yet produced quality fiction. France lost its aristocracy well before the 20th century but I cannot believe that the decline of the English aristocracy had much to do with the decline of the novel, not least because most of the great 19th century English novelists were definitely not aristocrats. The novel has been and remains an essentially middle-class phenomenon. The decline not just of the Empire but of Britain as a whole may well have to do something with it but wouldn’t this be mirrored in other art forms? England has never been able to compete as regards art and classical music with countries like France, Italy and Germany. And there is no doubt, at least from 1960 onwards, that Britain was one of the leaders as regards popular music. As regards drama, England’s heyday was in Elizabethan times not in Victorian times. England did also decline in the poetry field, from Keats, Wordsworth, Byron, Shelley and Tennyson to… what? Betjeman and Larkin? So not much real comparison there. But decline the English novel did. If you look at the Nobel Prizes awarded (not necessarily a good proxy for excellence but it will have to do), England has had three not very good novelists (Kipling, Galsworthy and Golding), two foreigners (Canetti and Eliot), a philosopher (Russell), a statesman (Churchill), who was also a very good writer but not a novelist, a dramatist (Pinter) and one very good but not great novelist (Lessing), who was born in Persia and grew up in Rhodesia. None of them, apart from Lessing, makes my list of best English novels, let alone best world novels. (It could be argued that this reflects the quality of the Nobel Prize Committee’s choice as well as the dearth of great English novelists. Both, I think, are true.)

Of course, there have been some fine English novelists, as, I think, my list of best English novels reflects but none of them approaches greatness. The 21st century has yet to bring anyone to the fore, though obviously that may change. And, if anyone objects, yes, I am aware that Ireland has done better and Scotland and Wales have also produced fine (though not great) novelists. So I shall continue read novels from all over the world but also novels from England and hope that, one day, there will be someone of the calibre. I look forward to reading her, whoever she may be.

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