Because William York Tindall’s Forces in Modern British Literature extends itself only to 1946, and because there has been nothing as wide-ranging published since, I looked forward to George Watson’s book repairing the omission. Watson, a Cambridge don, is also the author of a splendid study of English criticism from Dryden to Eliot, which I have praised elsewhere.

What is more, I once studied at Oxford with many of the men he discusses in his new book. Alas, I find in it a new Watson who thinks Eliot “perverse,” Spender “flatulent,” and John Betjeman to have “triumphant lucidity.” True, he devotes space to the Christian revival of Tolkien and C.S. Lewis, but Tolkien, my Anglo-Saxon tutor and just about the most boring man in the world in his day, hated Eliot and indeed almost everything written since the Middle Ages; while portly C.S. Lewis, whose lectures I attended with Kenneth Tynan, was enraged by Eliot to the point of writing a poor parody of The Waste Land.

Unfortunately, these useless donnish prejudices are infectious. Watson’s opinions stand in for critical rigor. Even the period under survey in his book is vague. Watson compares George Orwell with Evelyn Waugh (whom I used to meet in the inebriated company of Randolph Churchill), but Orwell died in 1950, and Dylan Thomas three years later. “I believe,” Watson claims, “the age of the second Elizabeth to have been one of the great ages of the British arts,” but its intellectual life as laid out here seems pitifully feeble. Besides its American equivalents, or even a British successor written by Keith Waterhouse, Kingsley Amis’s Lucky Jim seems second-rate; while his Stanley and the Women (1984), frequently alluded to by Watson, ranks as one of the worst novels I have ever read, excepting some of Graham Greene’s later works. Amis has now been knighted, while Greene received the Order of Merit. Iris Murdoch, a wartime communist and a charming lady, annually churns out novels that George Stade, chairman of Columbia University’s English department, has described as pretentious Harlequin romances; her latest books consist of trivial conversational matter that never ends, but only stops. Nevertheless, Iris Murdoch is now Dame Iris. Watson advances William Golding to support the contention that, “In literature, if in little else, Britain was again a world power.” Golding has got a Nobel Prize. Pearl Buck had one too. Poet Laureate John Betjeman wrote what John Wain, in a Sunday newspaper review, identified as locally successful doggerel; Wain, who has since tried tactfully to bury this opinion, has been elected Professor of Poetry at Oxford. The official English literary establishment seems thin beer indeed, by comparison with the stronger brew of its academic critics, such as Kermode, Cranston, Davie, Ricks, and Alvarez. As the knighted and damed pass before our glazing eyes, writers of the rank of Amis, Braine, Muriel Spark, Colin Wilson, C.P. Snow, Margaret Drabble, Beryl Bainbridge, and Barbara Pym appear to fall sadly short of Dickens and Defoe.

But Watson has this curious notion that English has become “the lingua franca of the world—the first mankind has ever known—and more than half of the world’s mail, it is said, is now in English.” Most of that half surely originates outside the British Isles, while the claim that “Britain annually publishes three times as many titles, relative to population, as the United States” is spurious in view of American control of the British publishing industry. I recall the late Bennett Cerf of Random House telling me that by the end of the century there would be only seven book publishers left in Manhattan, and that he intended to make sure he was one of them. There are only a handful of independent book publishers left in England today; even its once flourishing paperback firms are all appendages of some American conglomerate.

The penalty for this industrialization of what was formerly a gentleman’s avocation (Meredith’s Richard Feverel is casually asked by his father if he intends to “publish” when he goes to London) is that writers leave few footprints, or lasting ones, behind. In their day, there was enormous acclaim for the following authors, not one of whom rates a mention in Watson’s pages: Lawrence Durrell, Henry Green (Yorke), Thomas Hinde, Rex Warner, H.E. Bates, Rosamond Lehmann, William Sansom, V.S. Pritchett, Nigel Dennis, Gabriel Fielding. (I merely glance along my shelves as I write.) Doris Lessing and L.P. Hartley receive one non-evaluative mention each, Anthony Burgess little more. Such, too, is the fate of John Le Carre, who brilliantly refined a genre; while a thriller writer of extreme sophistication, Norman Lewis, is not mentioned at all. (I fail to find my erstwhile literary agent, Paul Scott, a very stimulating substitute.) No one in England in this period has altered the course of fiction. As Watson lets drop, “Proust and Joyce were not Englishmen.” Indeed.

When he tackles poetry, Watson is equally hard to follow with sympathy. “The aging W.B. Yeats” apparently “tried to be influenced by Pound.” Did he? Where? Yeats’ last poems, notably the Byzantium pair, are among the finest in the English language. When Yeats died in 1939, “he was treated,” Watson writes, “with only distant and qualified admiration by W.H. Auden.” But that poet’s “In Memory of W.B. Yeats” was among the most moving eulogies written in his time. Baffled bv Betjeman, conned by Connolly (notably over The Outsider), what can one say? Instead, one turns to British drama.

I was lucky enough to attend an early performance of John Osborne’s seminal Look Back in Anger—which Watson nicely terms “a kitchen-sink version of Private Lives“—at the Royal Court in 1956; and I admit to entertainment (little more) by subsequent fringe theater in England, as also by some postwar cinema there. Thanks to a fine dramatic tradition and intelligent audiences, Albion has enjoyed a rich mine of theatrical originality owing to the presence of such playwrights as Osborne, Wesker, Pinter, Stoppard, Alan Bennett, and Michael Frayn, to say nothing of the sometimes hilarious Joe Orton, murdered in 1967 when in his 30’s (though no Marlowe for all that). Yet can we seriously agree with Watson that, “since the 1960’s the British have had it mostly their own way in the theaters of the West”? Beckett was not British. Nor were Ionesco, Durrenmatt, Genet, Miller, Giraudoux, Sartre, and a dozen others of consequence.

The penultimate chapter of British Literature Since 1945 is the best. It is an excellent generalized essay on feminism, and to some extent the fiction “inspired” by feminism, and it is devoid of the irritating Britain-Is-Best chauvinism that robs so much else in this book of value.


[British Literature Since 1945, by George Watson (New York: St. Martin’s Press) 208 pp., $39.95]