In The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, E. M Forster and the Year that Changed Literature Bill Goldstein demonstrates how the Great War had a profound effect on the psyche of these key writers and led to experimental forms of literature.
Bill Goldstein, the founding editor of the New York Times books website, defines 1922 as a dividing line in literary history whereas Ezra Pound is even more precise, claiming the end of the ‘Christian Era’ ended on October 29, 1921, the night James Joyce finished Ulysses[i]. The novel was published on Joyce’s 40th birthday, Feb 2, in Paris. Although Goldstein suggests we should use the term ‘publication’ lightly given it entailed two copies.
In this fascinating and well researched ‘biography,’ Goldstein intersects the intellectual and personal lives of Virginia Woolf, T.S. Eliot, D.H. Lawrence, and E. M Forster to show how each of them were suffering from despair, illness and uncertain creative futures at the beginning of the year but would go on to produce innovative works that would help shape literary modernism and ‘make personal and artistic sense of a dislocation in time and consciousness between the country England had been before the war and what it was now[ii].’
Virginia Woolf turned 40 on January 25, 1922, and, aside from her acerbic reviews, was having difficulty writing. She was not the novelist she felt she ought to be and suffered pangs of doubt. Influenza had left her bed ridden and would claim more lives than the battlefield of WWI. From her bed she felt like ‘a watch without a tick[iii]’.
Woolf was the centrepiece of the Bloomsbury Group which Enid Bagnold described as ‘a kind of glittering village with no doors. It hoovered ungeographically and had to my mind, only one inhabitant – a woman with a magnet[iv].’ To outsiders it was cliquey and claustrophobic. Siegfried Sassoon dismissed the ‘London intellect’ as intellectually indulgent and as ‘a stream that never reaches the ocean[v]’. Woolf would finally out her magnet down towards the end of the year and begin work on Mrs. Dalloway which would be published in 1925 but serialised as Mrs Dalloway in Bond Street in the July 1923 issue of The Dial.
The action takes place on a day in the middle of June. The stream of consciousness, mode of narrative, and flipping between characters led to structural and stylistic comparisons with Joyce’s Ulysses. However, Woolf was not a fan of the book. She and her husband Leonard had turned down the opportunity to publish the novel via their Hogarth Press, but this was due to its size rather than aesthetic reasons. She was dismissive of Joyce’s masterpiece in her diaries, stating it was ‘an illiterate, underbred book it seems to me: the book of a self-taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating[vi]’
Woolf would allude to the book in Mrs. Dalloway when she wrote ‘These five years – from 1918 to 1923 had been, he suspected, somehow very important. People looked different. Newspapers seemed different. Now, for instance, there was a man writing quite openly in one of the respectable weeklies about water closets. That you couldn’t have done ten years ago – written quite openly about water closets in a respectable weekly.[vii]’
E.M. Forster was on his way back from India and had still not made much progress with A Passage to India, the novel he had been loosely tinkering with for the past decade. He would finally complete it in 1924 and it would be his last. He died 46 years later at the age of ninety-one. Both Woolf and Lawrence identified Forster as suffering from inanition. It’s little wonder as his novels weren’t selling very well. In 1921 A Room with a View had sold 66 copies and Howard’s End only 32[viii]. Putting aside his dithering with the Indian novel, he was also depressed about the imminent death of his lover Mohammed ed Adl. Siegfried Sassoon got his measure when he wrote, ‘I wish he would get really angry with the world. Or fall passionately in love with an idea.[ix]’
T.S. Eliot and his wife Vivien appear to have taken it in turns to be ill. Eliot had a nervous breakdown in 1921 and took three months off work while Vivien was accumulating a list of ailments that came at great financial cost. This created more anxiety for Eliot, all of which meant he had neither the time nor inclination to work on fragments of a poem that would eventually become The Waste Land.
Eliot had a keen advocate in Ezra Pound who, as early as 1915, stressed the importance of Eliot remaining in the UK to pursue a literary career instead of returning to America to become an academic. On March 30, 1922, Pound published the manifesto ‘Credit and the Fine Arts: A Practical Application’ in the New Age in which he declared it was a failure of civilisation that ‘the worst work usually brings the greatest financial reward’ and therefore artists were doomed to starve. Pound proposed a cultural reboot and Bel Espirit was a plan to ‘release more energy for invention and design.’ He proposed a subscription that would guarantee a broad income, much like Patreon models we see today, as the best gift to an artist ‘is leisure to work[x]’ At the time, Eliot was working at Lloyds Bank, meaning ‘the poet wasted his energy in service of the very machine that denied him his place as an artist.[xi]’
Those who tried to publish Eliot required a lot of patience. He was slow and unreliable and oblivious to deadlines. But it was worth the wait, though Eliot would not leave Lloyds Bank until 1925.
Lawrence had lived in Taormina for two years, the longest he had lived anywhere since his self-imposed exile of 1919, and so was ready to embrace the nomadic lifestyle once more, which was made possible via a generous offer from Mabel Dodge Sterne to come stay in New Mexico. This appealed to his thirst for adventure and spontaneity. A new location also presented material for a new novel.
Sterne’s letter included a few leaves of desachey and osha, luring Lawrence via taste to his next exotic location. Sterne had an annual income of $14,000 and so in contrast to Lawrence, had no reason to move. She could afford to bring the world to her. Despite her good intentions, this placed her in a position of dominance and control, one that would lead to various clashes with Lawrence when he arrived.
‘He was happiest far away from wherever he had most recently been,’ observes Goldstein. ‘The lure of Taos was that it was twenty-five miles from any railroad. Inaccessibility was vital. The only road to Fontana Vecchia was a mule track.[xii]’ For Lawrence, being too close to your neighbours was like being ‘caught like a fly on flypaper, in one mess with all the buzzers. How I hate it!’
Nearly one year on from completing Aaron’s Rod, Lawrence began working on Kangaroo, detailing his and Frieda’s arrival in Sydney. He finished it, six weeks later, just before their boat set sail for America – the last sentences detailing their departure. The book represented their experiences in real time, blurring the boundaries of fiction and fact, using memory and experience as had Proust and Forster.
In their own ways, each writer turned to fiction as a means of coping with trauma, change, and the difficulties of living in a postwar world. Their experimentations in perspective, form and structure as well as drawing from personal experience would help transform literary modernism as we know it and usher in new forms of expression that would change the literary landscape forever.
One hundred years on we have Covid, a war in Ukraine, and the dominance of technology in every area of life. The question is not so much what literary forms will help us deal with these changes but whether literature is still a viable artform to articulate these concerns as it was in 1922.
Bill Goldstein. The World Broke in Two (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2017)
- [i] Bill Goldstein p.294.
- [ii] Bill Goldstein p.9.
- [iii] Bill Goldstein p.14
- [iv] Bill Goldstein p.21
- [v] Bill Goldstein p.23
- [vi] VW Diary 2, p 188-89
- [vii] Mrs Dalloway. P.61
- [viii] Bill Goldstein p.73
- [ix] Bill Goldstein p.116
- [x] Bill Goldstein. P.111
- [xi] Bill Goldstein P.111
- [xii] Bill Goldstein P.91