In a new series, we look at the novels that helped shape our past, from famous classics to forgotten gems. To kick things off, here's to the roaring 1920s...
In a new series, we look at the novels that helped shape our past, from famous classics to forgotten gems. To kick things off, here's to the roaring 1920s...
Every now and then, a novel captures its era so perfectly that it becomes a window through which future generations can peer into its world. In this new series, we are taking a look at the fiction that helped define the decades in which they came out. They aren't always bestsellers – some require time and distance to prove their epoch-defining credentials – but all have come to play a part in shaping our perspectives its time and place.
We're starting with the 1920s, one of the 20th century's most dynamic decades. The world was coming out of a devastating war, a new kind of capitalism was rearing its head, and many writers saw an opportunity to express their disillusionment with societal isssues such as racism present. For others, it was a fresh chance to celebrate sexual liberation, or the pursuit of pleasure that engendered the Jazz Age.
So, without further ado, here are 20 books, each of which played some part in defining the roaring 20s.
The Mysterious Affair at Styles by Agatha Christie (1920)
A country pile. A family torn by private tensions. A mysterious murder. Three bizarre clues that must be pieced together to catch the killer. And a very well-waxed moustache. Sound familiar? While The Mysterious Affair at Styles may not have been Christie's finest mystery, it was significant because it was her first, ushering in the Golden Age of Detective Fiction.
It was the book that introduced Hercule Poirot to the world, and Christie would go on to become one of the biggest-selling writers in the history of the English language, beguiling millions of readers with high-level intrigue, bringing detective fiction to prominence and inspiring countless copycats.
According to legend, she originally wrote The Mysterious Affair at Styles as a bet – that she could not compose a mystery novel in which the reader would be unable to spot the murderer before the detective. Sure enough, she did, over and over and over again.
The Age of Innocence by Edith Wharton (1920)
A ravishing tale about desire and betrayal in upper-class New York, Edith Wharton's literary groundbreaker won her the Pulitzer Prize in 1921, making her the first woman ever to do so. It tells the story of Newland Archer, an aristocratic young lawyer, and his boring but beautiful bride-to-be May Welland, as they prepare for their wedding.
But when May’s exotic cousin Ellen materialises from Europe, having fled her failed marriage to a Polish count, Archer's loins are activated by her worldly ways. He must make a choice: should he bow to societal strictures and marry a woman who bores him half to sleep, or to a femme fatale to whose flame he is intoxicatingly drawn?
Cheri by Colette (1920)
Colette (full name: Sidonie-Gabrielle Colette) was the ultimate literary renegade who both outraged and intoxicated turn-of-the-century Paris with her technicoloured personal life. She was an author, a poet, a memoirist, a feminist icon and a prolific journalist who trapezed between all manner of subjects from trench warfare to domestic abuse, fashion to faking orgasms.
But her novels are what have best withstood the tests of time, and Cheri was her masterpiece about a beautiful ageing courtesan's affair with a gorgeous but selfish much-younger man. In a review in 1929, TIME magazine described her style as 'distinguished for presenting the human side of animals, the animal side of humans.' It is a sumptuous tale of repression, scandal, sex and desire that rattled Parisian society by the bed boards, not least because it was one of the first novels of its kind to celebrate female sexuality as it ages.
The Waste Land by T. S. Eliot (1922)
'Complimenti, you bitch,' wrote Ezra Pound to Eliot in 1922 upon reading a near-final draft of his friend's latest work, which Pound had edited. 'I am wracked by the seven jealousies.' Pound – no slouch in the poetry department himself – knew not only that Eliot had just given the emerging Modernist literature movement its standard bearer, but that he had just read what would surely become known as one of the greatest poems of the 20th century. Sure enough, it did.
The masterpiece – about the devastating aftermath of the First World War – defied convention as it weaved different voices, to explore themes of trauma, disillusion, and death, wrapped in the barbed wire of Eliot's electrifying intellect. With The Waste Land, he lay waste to old notions of poetry's role as an art form, and changed the way it was written forever.
Buy the book here.
Ulysses by James Joyce (1922)
If there was a single work that could give TS Eliot cause to question his own talents, it was Ulysses. Published a mere week after he put out The Waste Land, Eliot – like everyone else who read it – was sledgehammered by its genius. 'Ulysses,' Eliot would tell Virginia Woolf, 'destroyed the whole of the 19th century. It left Joyce himself with nothing to write another book on. It showed up the futility of all the English styles.'
Banned, burned and bowdlerised, the sprawling novel shattered convention in its style, substance and sexual explicitness. Considered by some a full-frontal assault on literary tradition, it follows ad salesman Leopold Bloom as he wanders about Dublin across a single day. Warm and witty, wacky and wise, it is a uniquely intimate exploration of what it means to be a human – and is as influential today as in 1922, when Eliot said it had 'the importance of a scientific discovery.'
The Velveteen Rabbit by Margery Williams (1922)
If you've not read it, think Pinocchio meets Toy Story, but with a toy bunny who just wants to be loved, which will make him 'real'. The Velveteen Rabbit is a magical metaphor for love, life, the dirt each throws at us along the way, and how we clean ourselves off.
A boy is given an old fashioned toy rabbit for Christmas. But his other toys are mechanical so he ignores it. They explain to the rabbit that being loved makes you real. The rabbit is fascinated by the idea and does all he can to earn his owner's love, which he does, until he grows threadbare and patchy with the loved he craved.
It became a near-instant classic upon publication, and still delights young and old readers today.
Cane by Jean Toomer (1923)
A cornerstone of the Harlem Renaissance (more on which later), Toomer's Cane is a novel stitched together by a series of interwoven vignettes that poignantly capture the experiences of black Americans of his time. Probably its best-known section is the poem 'Harvest Song,' which opens with the haunting line: 'I am a reaper whose muscles set at sundown.'
Sales of the book were modest at the time, but his influence over the Harlem Renaissance was such that the sociologist Charles S. Johnson, called it 'the most astonishingly brilliant beginning of any Negro writer of his generation.' In echoes of Langston's call to arms, above, he always pushed back when labelled a 'Negro writer' because he identified first as an 'American', forbidding his publisher from mentioning his race in the book ('My racial composition and my position in the world are realities which I alone may determine'). It was crucial in bringing the African American experience into focus for American culture.
The Enchanted April by Elizabeth von Arnim (1923)
A sun-drenched ode to the transformative power of travel, The Enchanting April is... enchanting. Published at a time when international travel was beginning to take off, it was a huge bestseller on both sides of the Atlantic and set off a tourism boom to Portofino, on the Italian Riviera, where it is set.
It follows four very different women who respond to an ad in the paper appealing 'to Those who Appreciate Wisteria and Sunshine' and want to live in an Italian castle for a month. The only thing they have in common is a shared dissatisfaction with their respective home lives.
As they get to know each other, their unhappinesses are washed clean by the sun and they find new joys (and loves) in places they never knew existed. In many ways it is a pioneering example of the classic friendship psychodrama you can buy in any airport bookshop today.
The Inimitable Jeeves by P.G Wodehouse (1923)
PG Wodehouse is, without a doubt, England's preeminent genius of gentle comedy. There is not an author of any period in history whose writing better embodies his or her particular time and space. In Wodehouse's case, bumbling Bertie Wooster and his bacon-saving butler Jeeves have become synonymous with that shrinking gene pool of upper-class Edwardian England, where wars were won on cream tea and croquet and lunch could last a lifetime.
It wasn't just that his comedy was clever, but that it was so painstakingly precise in its lampoonery of the era. But it was the author and social satirist Evelyn Waugh who said it best, during a BBC broadcast in 1961: 'Mr. Wodehouse’s idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that may be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.'
Bally ho to that!
So Big by Edna Ferber (1924)
This was the biggest selling novel in 1924 and won its author a Pulitzer Prize a year later. Set in Chicago, So Big tells the story of the life of gambler's daughter Selina as she navigates the many huge challenges life throws in her face – challenges to her dignity, to her family, and to her mental health.
But what truly makes her one of the 20th century's great literary characters is her inextinguishable ability to find joy in the most unlikely of places. She is a flawed delight. But more than just a larger-than-life story of a go-getting 'modern woman', what makes it stand out as a timeless work of literature is the vivid snapshot it provides of a vanished time in history, through the high life and low life of 1920s Chicago society. 'Critics of the 1920s and 1930s,' wrote the New York Times, 'did not hesitate to call [Ferber] the greatest American woman novelist of her day.' This was her masterpiece.
Buy the book here
A Passage to India by EM Forster (1924)
This has proved the ultimate decline-of-empire classic, backdropped by the British Raj and the Indian independence movement in the 1920s. When Adela Quested and her ageing travelling companion Mrs Moore arrive in the Indian town of Chandrapore, they are put out by its repressed and prejudice atmosphere. So they set out to find the 'real India'. They engage the charming and respectable Dr Aziz as their guide, but after a mysterious incident at the Marabar caves, he is thrust into the eye of a scandal that grips both British and Indian sides of the imperial coin.
It was, said celebrated Indian novelist Anita Desai, Forster's 'great book... masterly in its prescience and its lucidity.'
Gentlemen Prefer Blondes by Anita Loos (1924)
This is another timeless classic that nevertheless defined it's time. Loos, then a Hollywood screenwriter, was inspired to write it during a trans-America train trip with the movie star Douglas Fairbanks and his leading lady. Watching the screen sire, she concluded her 'strength had to be rooted (like that of Samson) in her hair: she was a natural blonde and I was a brunette.'
The result of these musings became a jazz-age classic that has endured all the decades since (not to mention a 1953 movie adaptation starring Marilyn Munroe). Her gold-digging protagonist is a witty, seductively ironic and superhumanly smart carve up of a society obsessed with looks.
Buy the book here
The Great Gatsby by F Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
More than once has Fitzgerald's masterpiece about the delusion of decadence in the age of excess been branded 'the greatest of great American novels'. Which says a lot for a book that can be read in a day. It's brilliance, in part, lies in its brevity.
Echoing Noel Coward's words in 1925, when he sang, 'Cocktails and laughter, but what comes after?' Fitzgerald used The Great Gatsby to call out the unbridled hedonism of the Jazz Age, which roared through the 1920s, and led to the devastating economic crash of the 1930s. 'I was within and without,' says protagonist Nick, 'simultaneously enchanted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life.'
Reviews upon its publication, however, were mixed. Influential critic HL Mencken said it was 'in form no more than a glorified anecdote, and not too probable at that.' And yet, history proved it a piece of prescient genius, a book woozy on its own foresight, not to mention its gorgeously taught, lyrical prose.
Mrs Dalloway by Virginia Woolf (1925)
'We are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature,' Virginia Woolf told an audience a year before she published Mrs Dalloway, her fourth novel, to rapturous critical reception in 1925. She may not have been talking about her own work, but for the 95 years since its publication, it has been near universally credited with changing the game of writing about the philosophy of life, high society, and most of all, the psychology of feminism.
Written in the same stream-of-consciousness style pioneered by Joyce in Ulysses, it follows Clarissa Dalloway, a high-society hostess in post-war England as she prepares to throw a lavish party, across a single day. 'Mrs. Dalloway was the first novel to split the atom,' The Hours author Michael Cunningham famously wrote. 'It is one of the most moving, revolutionary artworks of the twentieth century.'
The Trial by Franz Kafka (1925)
Kafka wrote the trial between 1914 and 1915, but it wasn't published until 1925, a year after he died (mainly because his chronic self-esteem issues led him to make his best friend promise to burn his manuscripts after his death. Fortunately for the world, the friend ignored his dying wish). The Trial is a dark, melancholy story of confusion and existential dread, about a man suddenly arrested for a crime that's never revealed to him.
The novel was one among a small oeuvre that compelled the poet WH Auden to call Kafka 'the Dante of the 20th century'. The book, in short, encapsulated the growing fears of the time surrounding totalitarian oppression, alienation and bureaucracy in the modern world. And it's influence on contemporary thinking was profound. We're all conflicted, torn between worlds, trapped in situations from which we can't escape. The Trial embodies that modern malaise, and even spawned a word for it (we all know it): Kafkaesque.
The Weary Blues by Langston Hughes (1926)
The Weary Blues was the most important book by the Harlem Renaissance's most famous author. Hughes rose to fame fast and furiously amid a cultural movement that marked the first time in US history that white America began to pay attention to African American literature. And with this collection of poems, he – alongside a handful of others – gave voice to a generation.
With his masterful use of language, tone and rhythms of jazz and blues music of the time, he spoke personally and powerfully to the experiences of Black Americans. While the titular The Weary Blues (included in poetry anthology Blues Poems, left) is his most famous poem, it is Our Land that contains one of the most memorable lines (one as strong as any #hashtag that exists today) in 20th-century literature: 'I, too, am America.'
Winnie the Pooh by A. A. Milne (1926)
This summer marks 99 years since AA Milne knocked the stuffing out of children's storytelling with a honey-loving teddy bear named Pooh. It is hard to conceive of a more durable friendship group of anthropomorphic animals than Pooh, Piglet, Tigger and Eeyore (Pooh had been teaching kids it's ok to not wear trousers for eight years before Donald Duck waddled onto the scene).
Pooh's global cultural influence is so immense that he's even banned in China, where images of him are used to satirise Xi Jinping, its all-powerful leader. Indeed, in 2004, Christopher Robin's company of animal pals came second in a Forbes list of the top-earning fictional characters — just behind Mickey Mouse and friends – with an annual income of $5.6 billion (£4.73 billion).
Lady Chatterley’s Lover by D.H. Lawrence (1928)
Lady Chatterley's Lover was the book that shattered British squeamishness about sex into pieces (institutionally, at least). Telling the story of an affair between a young, married aristocrat and her also-married gamekeeper, it became notorious for its graphic descriptions of sex and seductive language, four-letter words and other forms of nighttime naughtiness (though it doesn't always happen after dark, here).
It was first published privately in Florence, then in France, but was not released in Britain for a full 32 years after DH Lawrence wrote it, following a landmark obscenity trial that became one of the most important cases in British literary and social history. It has since been anointed a 'sacred text' for British democracy and freedom of expression.
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque (1929)
All Quiet on the Western Front was a ground-breaking book that changed how the world saw the First World War. There is little glory to be found in it: war is hell, no matter what side you’re on. And Remarque's remarkably humane account of life in the German trenches during the early days of the Western Front showed the English-speaking world, for the first time, what it was like for the soldiers who lived in the same mud but spilled different blood from the other side of the barbed wire.
Remarque became one of the most articulate spokesmen for his generation, one that, in his words, was 'destroyed by war, even though it might have escaped its shells.' It is widely thought to be one of the greatest books about the experiences of war ever written.
Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)
Passing is not just about a black woman who lives her life 'passing' as a white woman. It's also about secrecy and hypocrisy and the universally human fear of being 'found out'. It was a very important book of the time, when conversations about race, class and gender were beginning to open up, despite prejudice still seeming, to many, a stone-set human right.
The story follows Irene and Clare, two mixed-race friends who reunite in a Chicago hotel after years of not seeing each other. Clare, Irene learns, has been living as a white woman with a racist husband who has no idea of his wife's background. Clare, on the other hand, remained in the African-American community but refuses to acknowledge the racism that holds back her family's happiness. They soon become consumed by the other's chosen path – until events conspire to make them confront their lies.
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