Henry Fielding (1749)
Joyous and irrepressible, bawdy and fast, Fielding’s picaresque adventure is short on moralising over sexual liaisons, and long on a rich depiction of 18th-century life. Ceaselessly engaging and everlastingly fresh.
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Jane Austen (1815)
Of all Austen’s heroines, Emma Woodhouse is the most beguilingly flawed; and naturally, beneath the comedy of disastrous match-making and snobbery, the narrative has a keen intelligence and finely wrought moral sense that makes even a picnic on Box Hill seem universal.
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Charles Dickens (1860)
All that we associate with Dickens, from the large characters to the sense of social injustice, finds its most perfect expression here: Pip’s journey from blacksmith’s boy to nouveau gentility is an elegy of regret and nostalgia; and London and the windwhipped Thames estuary are unforgettably conjured.
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What Maisie Knew
Henry James (1897)
Legal divorce came to England in 1857 and was still a rarity when 40 years later, James’s novel told of a young girl being shuttled between two ghastly separating parents. Bleak, yet perfectly formed.
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George Eliot (1874)
Eliot brought her formidable acuity to the evocation of a very particular time – the political reforms of 1832 – but she also pioneered a real depth of psychological understanding in her unforgiving depictions of disintegrating love. Virginia Woolf described it as the only English novel “for grown-up people”.
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James Joyce (1922)
Or: a day in the life of Stephen Dedalus and Leopold Bloom, as they criss-cross Dublin on June 4, 1904. Every word is pregnant with meaning, every character’s thought conjured with precision, yet it is brilliantly, consistently, laugh-outloud funny.
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Virginia Woolf (1925)
Well-connected Clarissa Dalloway is to give a party later that evening; not far away, Septimus Smith, a victim of shell shock, sits in Regent’s Park, subject to hallucinations. Through their thoughtsWoolf addresses Society and the delicacy of sanity.
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Lady Chatterley’s Lover
D H Lawrence (1928)
The sex scenes and language are now inadvertently hilarious, but none of us were to know this until 1960, when the ban on this novel was lifted. Still startling, there is also another level here to do with landscape, inheritance and war.
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A Dance to the Music of Time
Anthony Powell (first volume, 1951, 12th volume 1975)
A fantastically ambitious and panoramic sequence detailing the lives and loves of various interlocking mostly upper middleclass characters across the 20th century, it continues to draw in fresh enthusiasts.
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Robert Graves (1934)
Graves hit a rich seam with this imagining of the lost autobiography of Emperor Claudius. Lethal palace intrigues, poisonings and sex, as well as satisfyingly complex relationships gives ancient Rome a vivid new colour and energy.
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Flann O’Brien (1939)
A book within a book within a book, a satirical evocation of 1930s Ireland, in which the characters write about one another, and these various fictional figments gang up on the notional author.
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The New Confessions
William Boyd (1987)
A sprawling picaresque aping the form of Rousseau’s The Confessions, New Confessions follows John James Todd from Edinburgh through the First World War to Berlin, Hollywood and then into exile on an island in the Mediterranean. Surprising, engaging, often very funny, it is also ultimately rather moving.
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A Clockwork Orange
Anthony Burgess (1962)
Young Alex loves Beethoven and ultraviolence, but the state thinks it has found a way to scientifically purge him of evil. The real point of the book is the dazzling language – a blend of cockney, Russian and Romany.
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The Girls of Slender Means
Muriel Spark (1963)
Set in drab 1945 London, Spark’s genius for conveying the flavour of a time, combined with the collision between light-hearted youth and intimations of a heavier life to come, results in a story with an unusual sweet-sour after-taste.
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The Sea, The Sea
Iris Murdoch (1978)
A theatre director takes a house on the coast where he meets his former love and disastrously begins wooing her afresh. Murdoch juggles philosophy with raw emotions and self-absorption and finds humour in both.
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Jilly Cooper (1985)
One of the greatest of guilty pleasures, Cooper’s febrile Rutshire Chronicles started here: show jumping is a backdrop to the extraordinary sexual dealings of the caddish Rupert Campbell-Black and the wealthy English county set. Pure glitzy class porn, yet still weirdly moving.
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John Banville (2005)
A masterful exploration of memory, and of loss, Banville’s Booker-winning novel focuses on an art historian reaching back to the seaside years of his childhood, and of the people and experiences and loves that have subsequently shaped the meaning of his life.
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Zadie Smith (2000)
The most startling quality of Smith’s precocious debut – a northwest London multiracial multigenerational saga – is the blend of extreme energy and stop-you-in-your-tracks psychological observation. Immigration, the human genome, Kilburn, failed fathers, 1970s pubs and a Nazi too; the genius lies in Smith’s flair for making it all seem so natural, as well as so funny.
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Hilary Mantel (2009)
There is the temptation to think of this extraordinary work as populist, even crowd-pleasing. But Mantel’s achievement runs deeper. In fictionalising Thomas Cromwell and the Henrician court, the deadly power struggles and the most tender relationships, Mantel has reinvigorated not just a genre but the English novel as a whole.
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Tess of the d’Urbevilles
Thomas Hardy (1891)
There are times when Tess’s ruralWessex has a medieval feel; but Hardy’s tragedy of a wronged country girl is also on another level about the painful onrush of modernity and industrialisation – a foreshadowing of simple purity despoiled by capitalism.
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THE OTHER CONTENDERS
The Pilgrim’s Progress
John Bunyan (1678)
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Daniel Defoe (1719)
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Clarissa, or, the History of a Young Lady
Samuel Richardson (1748)
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William Makepeace Thackeray (1848)
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Charles Dickens (1852)
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Elizabeth Gaskell (1853)
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Anthony Trollope (1857)
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EM Forster (1910)
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Of Human Bondage
Somerset Maugham (1915)
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The Forsyte Saga
John Galsworthy (1922)
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Henry Green (1929)
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Wide Sargasso Sea
Jean Rhys (1968)
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Quartet in Autumn
Barbara Pym (1977)
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Lanark: A Life in Four Books
Alasdair Gray (1981)
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Martin Amis (1984)
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Literature after 1945
Increased attachment to religion most immediately characterized literature after World War II. This was particularly perceptible in authors who had already established themselves before the war. W.H. Auden turned from Marxist politics to Christian commitment, expressed in poems that attractively combine classical form with vernacular relaxedness. Christian belief suffused the verse plays of T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry. While Graham Greene continued the powerful merging of thriller plots with studies of moral and psychological ambiguity that he had developed through the 1930s, his Roman Catholicism loomed especially large in novels such as The Heart of the Matter (1948) and The End of the Affair (1951). Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945) and his Sword of Honourtrilogy (1965; published separately as Men at Arms , Officers and Gentlemen , and Unconditional Surrender ) venerate Roman Catholicism as the repository of values seen as under threat from the advance of democracy. Less-traditional spiritual solace was found in Eastern mysticism by Aldous Huxley and Christopher Isherwood and by Robert Graves, who maintained an impressive output of taut, graceful lyric poetry behind which lay the creed he expressed in The White Goddess (1948), a matriarchal mythology revering the female principle.
The two most innovatory novelists to begin their careers soon after World War II were also religious believers—William Golding and Muriel Spark. In novels of poetic compactness, they frequently return to the notion of original sin—the idea that, in Golding’s words, “man produces evil as a bee produces honey.” Concentrating on small communities, Spark and Golding transfigure them into microcosms. Allegory and symbol set wide resonances quivering, so that short books make large statements. In Golding’s first novel, Lord of the Flies (1954), schoolboys cast away on a Pacific island during a nuclear war reenact humanity’s fall from grace as their relationships degenerate from innocent camaraderie to totalitarian butchery. In Spark’s satiric comedy, similar assumptions and techniques are discernible. Her best-known novel, The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie (1961), for example, makes events in a 1930s Edinburgh classroom replicate in miniature the rise of fascism in Europe. In form and atmosphere, Lord of the Flies has affinities with George Orwell’s examinations of totalitarian nightmare, the fableAnimal Farm (1945) and the novel Nineteen Eighty-four (1949). Spark’s astringent portrayal of behaviour in confined little worlds is partly indebted to Dame Ivy Compton-Burnett, who, from the 1920s to the 1970s, produced a remarkable series of fierce but decorous novels, written almost entirely in mordantly witty dialogue, that dramatize tyranny and power struggles in secluded late-Victorian households.
The stylized novels of Henry Green, such as Concluding (1948) and Nothing (1950), also seem to be precursors of the terse, compressed fiction that Spark and Golding brought to such distinction. This kind of fiction, it was argued by Iris Murdoch, a philosopher as well as a novelist, ran antiliberal risks in its preference for allegory, pattern, and symbol over the social capaciousness and realistic rendition of character at which the great 19th-century novels excelled. Murdoch’s own fiction, typically engaged with themes of goodness, authenticity, selfishness, and altruism, oscillates between these two modes of writing. A Severed Head (1961) is the most incisive and entertaining of her elaborately artificial works; The Bell (1958) best achieves the psychological and emotional complexity she found so valuable in classic 19th-century fiction.
While restricting themselves to socially limited canvases, novelists such as Elizabeth Bowen, Elizabeth Taylor, and Barbara Pym continued the tradition of depicting emotional and psychological nuance that Murdoch felt was dangerously neglected in mid-20th-century novels. In contrast to their wry comedies of sense and sensibility and to the packed parables of Golding and Spark was yet another type of fiction, produced by a group of writers who became known as the Angry Young Men. From authors such as John Braine, John Wain (also a notable poet), Alan Sillitoe, Stan Barstow, and David Storey (also a significant dramatist) came a spate of novels often ruggedly autobiographical in origin and near documentary in approach. The predominant subject of these books was social mobility, usually from the northern working class to the southern middle class. Social mobility was also inspected, from an upper-class vantage point, in Anthony Powell’s 12-novel sequence A Dance to the Music of Time (1951–75), an attempt to apply the French novelist Marcel Proust’s mix of irony, melancholy, meditativeness, and social detail to a chronicle of class and cultural shifts in England from World War I to the 1960s. Satiric watchfulness of social change was also the specialty of Kingsley Amis, whose deriding of the reactionary and pompous in his first novel, Lucky Jim (1954), led to his being labeled an Angry Young Man. As Amis grew older, though, his irascibility vehemently swiveled toward left-wing and progressive targets, and he established himself as a Tory satirist in the vein of Waugh or Powell. C.P. Snow’s earnest 11-novel sequence, Strangers and Brothers (1940–70), about a man’s journey from the provincial lower classes to London’s “corridors of power,” had its admirers. But the most inspired fictional cavalcade of social and cultural life in 20th-century Britain was Angus Wilson’s No Laughing Matter (1967), a book that set a triumphant seal on his progress from a writer of acidic short stories to a major novelist whose work unites 19th-century breadth and gusto with 20th-century formal versatility and experiment.
The parody and pastiche that Wilson brilliantly deploys in No Laughing Matter and the book’s fascination with the sources and resources of creativity constitute a rich, imaginative response to what had become a mood of growing self-consciousness in fiction. Thoughtfulness about the form of the novel and relationships between past and present fiction showed itself most stimulatingly in the works—generally campus novels—of the academically based novelists Malcolm Bradbury and David Lodge.
From the late 1960s onward, the outstanding trend in fiction was enthrallment with empire. The first phase of this focused on imperial disillusion and dissolution. In his vast, detailed Raj Quartet (The Jewel in the Crown , The Day of the Scorpion , The Towers of Silence , and A Division of the Spoils ), Paul Scott charted the last years of the British in India; he followed it with Staying On (1977), a poignant comedy about those who remained after independence. Three half-satiric, half-elegiac novels by J.G. Farrell (Troubles , The Siege of Krishnapur , and The Singapore Grip ) likewise spotlighted imperial discomfiture. Then, in the 1980s, postcolonial voices made themselves audible. Salman Rushdie’s crowded comic saga about the generation born as Indian independence dawned, Midnight’s Children (1981), boisterously mingles material from Eastern fable, Hindu myth, Islamic lore, Bombay cinema, cartoon strips, advertising billboards, and Latin American magic realism. (Such eclecticism, sometimes called “postmodern,” also showed itself in other kinds of fiction in the 1980s. Julian Barnes’s A History of the World in 101/2 Chapters , for example, inventively mixes fact and fantasy, reportage, art criticism, autobiography, parable, and pastiche in its working of fictional variations on the Noah’s Ark myth.) For Rushdie, as Shame (1983), The Satanic Verses (1988), The Moor’s Last Sigh (1995), and The Ground Beneath Her Feet (1999) further demonstrate, stylistic miscellaneousness—a way of writing that exhibits the vitalizing effects of cultural cross-fertilization—is especially suited to conveying postcolonial experience. (The Satanic Verses was understood differently in the Islamic world, to the extent that the Iranian leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini pronounced a fatwa, in effect a death sentence [later suspended], on Rushdie.) However, not all postcolonial authors followed Rushdie’s example. Vikram Seth’s massive novel about India after independence, A Suitable Boy (1993), is a prodigious feat of realism, resembling 19th-century masterpieces in its combination of social breadth and emotional and psychological depth. Nor was India alone in inspiring vigorous postcolonial writing. Timothy Mo’s novels report on colonial predicaments in East Asia with a political acumen reminiscent of Joseph Conrad. Particularly notable is An Insular Possession (1986), which vividly harks back to the founding of Hong Kong. Kazuo Ishiguro’s spare, refined novel An Artist of the Floating World (1986) records how a painter’s life and work became insidiously coarsened by the imperialistic ethos of 1930s Japan. Novelists such as Buchi Emecheta and Ben Okri wrote of postcolonial Africa, as did V.S. Naipaul in his most ambitious novel, A Bend in the River (1979). Naipaul also chronicled aftermaths of empire around the globe and particularly in his native Caribbean. Nearer England, the strife in Northern Ireland provoked fictional response, among which the bleak, graceful novels and short stories of William Trevor and Bernard MacLaverty stand out.
Widening social divides in 1980s Britain were also registered in fiction, sometimes in works that purposefully imitate the Victorian “Condition of England” novel (the best is David Lodge’s elegant, ironicNice Work ). The most thoroughgoing of such “Two Nations” panoramas of an England cleft by regional gulfs and gross inequities between rich and poor is Margaret Drabble’s The Radiant Way (1987). With less documentary substantiality, Martin Amis’s novels, angled somewhere between scabrous relish and satiric disgust, offer prose that has the lurid energy of a strobe light playing over vistas of urban sleaze, greed, and debasement. Money (1984) is the most effectively focused of his books.
Just as some postcolonial novelists used myth, magic, and fable as a stylistic throwing-off of what they considered the alien supremacy of Anglo-Saxon realistic fiction, so numerous feminist novelists took to Gothic, fairy tale, and fantasy as countereffects to the “patriarchal discourse” of rationality, logic, and linear narrative. The most gifted exponent of this kind of writing, which sought immediate access to the realm of the subconscious, was Angela Carter, whose exotic and erotic imagination unrolled most eerily and resplendently in her short-story collection The Bloody Chamber and Other Stories (1979). Jeanette Winterson also wrote in this vein. Having distinguished herself earlier in a realistic mode, as did authors such as Drabble and Pat Barker, Doris Lessing published a sequence of science fiction novels about issues of gender and colonialism, Canopus in Argos—Archives (1979–83).
Typically, though, fiction in the 1980s and ’90s was not futuristic but retrospective. As the end of the century approached, an urge to look back—at starting points, previous eras, fictional prototypes—was widely evident. The historical novel enjoyed an exceptional heyday. One of its outstanding practitioners was Barry Unsworth, the settings of whose works range from the Ottoman Empire (Pascali’s Island , The Rage of the Vulture ) to Venice in its imperial prime and its decadence (Stone Virgin ) and northern England in the 14th century (Morality Play ). Patrick O’Brian attracted an ardent following with his series of meticulously researched novels about naval life during the Napoleonic era, a 20-book sequence starting with Master and Commander (1969) and ending with Blue at the Mizzen (1999). Beryl Bainbridge, who began her fiction career as a writer of quirky black comedies about northern provincial life, turned her attention to Victorian and Edwardian misadventures: The Birthday Boys (1991) retraces Captain Robert Falcon Scott’s doomed expedition to the South Pole; Every Man for Himself (1996) accompanies the Titanic as it steamed toward disaster; and Master Georgie (1998) revisits the Crimean War.
Many novels juxtaposed a present-day narrative with one set in the past. A.S. Byatt’s Possession (1990) did so with particular intelligence. It also made extensive use of period pastiche, another enthusiasm of novelists toward the end of the 20th century. Adam Thorpe’s striking first novel, Ulverton (1992), records the 300-year history of a fictional village in the styles of different epochs. Golding’s veteran fiction career came to a bravura conclusion with a trilogy whose story is told by an early 19th-century narrator (To the Ends of the Earth ; published separately as Rites of Passage , Close Quarters , and Fire Down Below ). In addition to the interest in remote and recent history, a concern with tracing aftereffects became dominatingly present in fiction. Most subtly and powerfully exhibiting this, Ian McEwan—who came to notice in the 1970s as an unnervingly emotionless observer of contemporary decadence—grew into imaginative maturity with novels set largely in Berlin in the 1950s (The Innocent ) and in Europe in 1946 (Black Dogs ). These novels’ scenes set in the 1990s are haunted by what McEwan perceives as the continuing repercussions of World War II. These repercussions are also felt in Last Orders (1996), a masterpiece of quiet authenticity by Graham Swift, a novelist who, since his acclaimed Waterland (1983), showed himself to be acutely responsive to the atmosphere of retrospect and of concern with the consequences of the past that suffused English fiction as the second millennium neared.
The last flickerings of New Apocalypse poetry—the flamboyant, surreal, and rhetorical style favoured by Dylan Thomas, George Barker, David Gascoyne, and Vernon Watkins—died away soon after World War II. In its place emerged what came to be known with characteristic understatement as The Movement. Poets such as D.J. Enright, Donald Davie, John Wain, Roy Fuller, Robert Conquest, and Elizabeth Jennings produced urbane, formally disciplined verse in an antiromantic vein characterized by irony, understatement, and a sardonic refusal to strike attitudes or make grand claims for the poet’s role. The preeminent practitioner of this style was Philip Larkin, who had earlier displayed some of its qualities in two novels: Jill (1946) and A Girl in Winter (1947). In Larkin’s poetry (The Less Deceived , The Whitsun Weddings , High Windows ), a melancholy sense of life’s limitations throbs through lines of elegiac elegance. Suffused with acute awareness of mortality and transience, Larkin’s poetry is also finely responsive to natural beauty, vistas of which open up even in poems darkened by fear of death or sombre preoccupation with human solitude. John Betjeman, poet laureate from 1972 to 1984, shared both Larkin’s intense consciousness of mortality and his gracefully versified nostalgia for 19th- and early 20th-century life.
In contrast to the rueful traditionalism of their work is the poetry of Ted Hughes, who succeeded Betjeman as poet laureate (1984–98). In extraordinarily vigorous verse, beginning with his first collection, The Hawk in the Rain (1957), Hughes captured the ferocity, vitality, and splendour of the natural world. In works such as Crow (1970), he added a mythic dimension to his fascination with savagery (a fascination also apparent in the poetry Thom Gunn produced through the late 1950s and ’60s). Much of Hughes’s poetry is rooted in his experiences as a farmer in Yorkshire and Devon (as in his collection Moortown ). It also shows a deep receptivity to the way the contemporary world is underlain by strata of history. This realization, along with strong regional roots, is something Hughes had in common with a number of poets writing in the second half of the 20th century. The work of Geoffrey Hill (especially King Log , Mercian Hymns , Tenebrae , and The Triumph of Love ) treats Britain as a palimpsest whose superimposed layers of history are uncovered in poems, which are sometimes written in prose. Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts (1966) celebrates his native Northumbria. The dour poems of R.S. Thomascommemorate a harsh rural Wales of remote hill farms where gnarled, inbred celibates scratch a subsistence from the thin soil.
Britain’s industrial regions received attention in poetry too. In collections such as Terry Street (1969), Douglas Dunn wrote of working-class life in northeastern England. Tony Harrison, the most arresting English poet to find his voice in the later decades of the 20th century (The Loiners , From the School of Eloquence and Other Poems , Continuous ), came, as he stresses, from a working-class community in industrial Yorkshire. Harrison’s social and cultural journey away from that world by means of a grammar school education and a degree in classics provoked responses in him that his poetry conveys with imaginative vehemence and caustic wit: anger at the deprivations and humiliations endured by the working class; guilt over the way his talent had lifted him away from these. Trenchantly combining colloquial ruggedness with classic form, Harrison’s poetry—sometimes innovatively written to accompany television films—kept up a fiercely original and socially concerned commentary on such themes as inner-city dereliction (V ), the horrors of warfare (The Gaze of the Gorgon  and The Shadow of Hiroshima ), and the evils of censorship (The Blasphemers’ Banquet , a verse film partly written in reaction to the fatwa on Salman Rushdie for The Satanic Verses).
Also from Yorkshire was Blake Morrison, whose finest work, “The Ballad of the Yorkshire Ripper” (1987), was composed in taut, macabre stanzas thickened with dialect. Morrison’s work also displayed a growing development in late 20th-century British poetry: the writing of narrative verse. Although there had been earlier instances of this verse after 1945 (Betjeman’s blank-verse autobiography Summoned by Bells  proved the most popular), it was in the 1980s and ’90s that the form was given renewed prominence by poets such as the Kipling-influenced James Fenton. An especially ambitious exercise in the narrative genre was Craig Raine’s History: The Home Movie (1994), a huge semifictionalized saga, written in three-line stanzas, chronicling several generations of his and his wife’s families. Before this, three books of dazzling virtuosity (The Onion, Memory , A Martian Sends a Postcard Home , and Rich ) established Raine as the founder and most inventive exemplar of what came to be called the Martian school of poetry. The defining characteristic of this school was a poetry rife with startling images, unexpected but audaciously apt similes, and rapid, imaginative tricks of transformation that set the reader looking at the world afresh.
From the late 1960s onward Northern Ireland, convulsed by sectarian violence, was particularly prolific in poetry. From a cluster of significant talents—Michael Longley, Derek Mahon, Medbh McGuckian, Paul Muldoon—Seamus Heaney soon stood out. Born into a Roman Catholic farming family in County Derry, he began by publishing verse—in his collections Death of a Naturalist (1966) and Door into the Dark (1969)—that combines a tangible, tough, sensuous response to rural and agricultural life, reminiscent of that of Ted Hughes, with meditation about the relationship between the taciturn world of his parents and his own communicative calling as a poet. Since then, in increasingly magisterial books of poetry—Wintering Out (1972), North (1975), Field Work (1979), Station Island (1984), The Haw Lantern (1987), Seeing Things (1991), The Spirit Level (1996)—Heaney has become arguably the greatest poet Ireland has produced, eventually winning the Nobel Prize for Literature (1995). Having spent his formative years amid the murderous divisiveness of Ulster, he wrote poetry particularly distinguished by its fruitful bringing together of opposites. Sturdy familiarity with country life goes along with delicate stylistic accomplishment and sophisticated literary allusiveness. Present and past coalesce in Heaney’s verses: Iron Age sacrificial victims exhumed from peat bogs resemble tarred-and-feathered victims of the atrocities in contemporary Belfast; elegies for friends and relatives slaughtered during the outrages of the 1970s and ’80s are embedded in verses whose imagery and metrical forms derive from Dante. Surveying carnage, vengeance, bigotry, and gentler disjunctions such as that between the unschooled and the cultivated, Heaney made himself the master of a poetry of reconciliations.
The closing years of the 20th century witnessed a remarkable last surge of creativity from Ted Hughes (after his death in 1998, Andrew Motion, a writer of more subdued and subfusc verses, became poet laureate). In Birthday Letters (1998), Hughes published a poetic chronicle of his much-speculated-upon relationship with Sylvia Plath, the American poet to whom he was married from 1956 until her suicide in 1963. With Tales from Ovid (1997) and his versions of Aeschylus’s Oresteia (1999) and Euripides’ Alcestis (1999), he looked back even further. These works—part translation, part transformation—magnificently reenergize classic texts with Hughes’s own imaginative powers and preoccupations. Heaney impressively effected a similar feat in his fine translation of Beowulf (1999).
Apart from the short-lived attempt by T.S. Eliot and Christopher Fry to bring about a renaissance of verse drama, theatre in the late 1940s and early 1950s was most notable for the continuing supremacy of the well-made play, which focused upon, and mainly attracted as its audience, the comfortable middle class. The most accomplished playwright working within this mode was Terence Rattigan, whose carefully crafted, conventional-looking plays—in particular, The Winslow Boy (1946), The Browning Version (1948), The Deep Blue Sea (1952), and Separate Tables (1954)—affectingly disclose desperations, terrors, and emotional forlornness concealed behind reticence and gentility. In 1956 John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger forcefully signaled the start of a very different dramatic tradition. Taking as its hero a furiously voluble working-class man and replacing staid mannerliness on stage with emotional rawness, sexual candour, and social rancour, Look Back in Anger initiated a move toward what critics called “kitchen-sink” drama. Shelagh Delaney (with her one influential play, A Taste of Honey ) and Arnold Wesker (especially in his politically and socially engaged trilogy, Chicken Soup with Barley , Roots , and I’m Talking About Jerusalem ) gave further impetus to this movement, as did Osborne in subsequent plays such as The Entertainer (1957), his attack on what he saw as the tawdriness of postwar Britain. Also working within this tradition was John Arden, whose dramas employ some of Bertold Brecht’s theatrical devices. Arden wrote historical plays (Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance , Armstrong’s Last Goodnight ) to advance radical social and political views and in doing so provided a model that several later left-wing dramatists followed.
An alternative reaction against drawing-room naturalism came from the Theatre of the Absurd. Through increasingly minimalist plays—from Waiting for Godot (1953) to such stark brevities as his 30-second-long drama, Breath (1969)—Samuel Beckett used character pared down to basic existential elements and symbol to reiterate his Stygian view of the human condition (something he also conveyed in similarly gaunt and allegorical novels such as Molloy , Malone Dies , and The Unnamable , all originally written in French). Some of Beckett’s themes and techniques are discernible in the drama of Harold Pinter. Characteristically concentrating on two or three people maneuvering for sexual or social superiority in a claustrophobic room, works such as The Birthday Party (1958), The Caretaker (1960), The Homecoming (1965), No Man’s Land (1975), and Moonlight (1993) are potent dramas of menace in which a slightly surreal atmosphere contrasts with and undermines dialogue of tape-recorder authenticity. Joe Orton’s anarchic black comedies—Entertaining Mr. Sloane (1964), Loot (1967), and What the Butler Saw (1969)—put theatrical procedures pioneered by Pinter at the service of outrageous sexual farce (something for which Pinter himself also showed a flair in television plays such as The Lover  and later stage works such as Celebration ). Orton’s taste for dialogue in the epigrammatic style of Oscar Wilde was shared by one of the wittiest dramatists to emerge in the 1960s, Tom Stoppard. In plays from Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead (1966) to later triumphs such as Arcadia (1993) and The Invention of Love (1997), Stoppard set intellectually challenging concepts ricocheting in scenes glinting with the to-and-fro of polished repartee. The most prolific comic playwright from the 1960s onward was Alan Ayckbourn, whose often virtuoso feats of stagecraft and theatrical ingenuity made him one of Britain’s most popular dramatists. Ayckbourn’s plays showed an increasing tendency to broach darker themes and were especially scathing (for instance, in A Small Family Business ) on the topics of the greed and selfishness that he considered to have been promoted by Thatcherism, the prevailing political philosophy in 1980s Britain.
Irish dramatists other than Beckett also exhibited a propensity for combining comedy with something more sombre. Their most recurrent subject matter during the last decades of the 20th century was small-town provincial life. Brian Friel (Dancing at Lughnasa ), Tom Murphy (Conversations on a Homecoming ), Billy Roche (Poor Beast in the Rain ), Martin McDonagh (The Beauty Queen of Leenane ), and Conor McPherson (The Weir ) all wrote effectively on this theme.
Playwrights who had much in common with Arden’s ideological beliefs and his admiration for Brechtian theatre—Edward Bond, Howard Barker, Howard Brenton—maintained a steady output of parable-like plays dramatizing radical left-wing doctrine. Their scenarios were remarkable for an uncompromising insistence on human cruelty and the oppressiveness and exploitativeness of capitalist class and social structures. In the 1980s agitprop theatre—antiestablishment, feminist, black, and gay—thrived. One of the more-durable talents to emerge from it was Caryl Churchill, whose Serious Money (1987) savagely encapsulated the finance frenzy of the 1980s. David Edgar developed into a dramatist of impressive span and depth with plays such as Destiny (1976) and Pentecost (1994), his masterly response to the collapse of communism and rise of nationalism in eastern Europe. David Hare similarly widened his range with confident accomplishment; in the 1990s he completed a panoramic trilogy surveying the contemporary state of British institutions—the Anglican church (Racing Demon ), the police and the judiciary (Murmuring Judges ), and the Labour Party (The Absence of War ).
Hare also wrote political plays for television, such as Licking Hitler (1978) and Saigon: Year of the Cat (1983). Trevor Griffiths, author of dialectical stage plays clamorous with debate, put television drama to the same use (Comedians  had particular impact). Dennis Potter, best known for his teleplay The Singing Detective (1986), deployed a wide battery of the medium’s resources, including extravagant fantasy and sequences that sarcastically counterpoint popular music with scenes of brutality, class-based callousness, and sexual rapacity. Potter’s works transmit his revulsion, semireligious in nature, at what he saw as widespread hypocrisy, sadism, and injustice in British society. Alan Bennett excelled in both stage and television drama. Bennett’s first work for the theatre, Forty Years On (1968), was an expansive, mocking, and nostalgic cabaret of cultural and social change in England between and during the two World Wars. His masterpieces, though, are dramatic monologues written for television—A Woman of No Importance (1982) and 12 works he called Talking Heads (1987) and Talking Heads 2 (1998). In these television plays, Bennett’s comic genius for capturing the rich waywardness of everyday speech combines with psychological acuteness, emotional delicacy, and a melancholy consciousness of life’s transience. The result is a drama, simultaneously hilarious and sad, of exceptional distinction. Bennett’s 1991 play, The Madness of George III, took his fascination with England’s past back to the 1780s and in doing so matched the widespread mood of retrospection with which British literature approached the end of the 20th century.