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Ann Wright's Literature of Crisis, 1920-22, Patrick Swinden's The English Novel of History and Society, 1940-80, and Garrett Stewart's Death Sentences: Styles of Dying [End Page 365] in British Fiction are each substantial works of scholarship on British literature that have in common an interest in the ways that literary works combine a connection with a past tradition, a present cultural climate, and a future in which they in turn become parts of a literary past that they in part foreshadow.
Although Wright's Literature of Crisis might at first seem to suffer from the combination of a narrow focus and the use of a vague and potentially unrevealing term such as "crisis," in fact her book is in many respects the most fully successful of the three; it combines the fine analytic tact necessary to reveal some striking connections between works so diverse as Howards End, Heartbreak House, Women in Love, and The Waste Land, with the perspicaciousness to relate common features notable in all four of the works discussed to an underlying sense of crisis in England in the period 1910-22; in addition, it has the grace to convey both analysis and conclusions in a style at once lucid, precise, and blessedly free of jargon. Thus, her discussions of verb tenses and participial forms in The Waste Land trace in minute detail patterns that lead to this striking—and clearly put—conclusion:
What might appear as merely rhetorical or linguistic reveals, then, a profound thematic relevance. The confounding of tenses, the quasi-adjectival use of the present participle with or without modal verbs, register anxiety over death and rebirth, stasis and change. The triumph of the present participle as verb-form within the poem denies to it certain completion. The Waste Land finally exists and persists in the continuous present, which is the dimension of crisis and apocalypse: "London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down."
I call particular attention to the clarity with which the significance of such often minutely detailed analyses is rendered by Wright partly because I shall have occasion later in this review to compare that kind of humane lucidity with what I take to be a distinctly less successful prose style.
The common features Wright calls attention to include a tendency toward contrived characters and plot; a preoccupation with madness, violence, and barren sexual relationships; a vision of a society fragmented by things such as class, fundamental values, and even time; an uneasy ambivalence notable in plot decisions and endings that involve multiple closures and waver between a sense of life confronted with an ubiquitous abyss and the possibility a consoling, if precarious, optimism. These underlying similarities emerge from close readings of the four texts—readings that fruitfully pay attention not only to the final version but to the evidences of earlier drafts and working notes.
But, while not losing sight of the larger view of the relationships the four works have to one another, Wright avoids the temptation to reduce them to exemplars: the strength of this book lies in the close and patient analyses it provides of the individual works, and she is capable of teasing plausible significance out of matters both great and small.
Like Ann Wright's study, Patrick Swinden's The English Novel of History and Society, 1940-80 has a well-defined if somewhat less-limited focus: the fiction of six contemporary British writers. And, like Wright, Swinden makes an effort to place the subjects of his study in literary history and in their relationships with the...