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Literary HistoryThe Modern British Short Story
While the short story gained popularity in the United States and other parts of Europe during the second half of the nineteenth century, it did not emerge in Britain until much later. Victorian England rejected the short story as an important literary form, declaring it incapable of carrying important moral messages in its short length. The short story embraced individualism instead of nationalism. It was not until the Victorian Age disintegrated that the short story truly took hold in England.
Toward the 1890s, short stories from writers such as Thomas Hardy reflected the age of transition as rigid Victorian traditions gave way to Realism. However, Hardy was criticized for using the restrictive language from the Victorian era. Other writers during this time also were criticized for having one foot in the Victorian age and another in the modern age. It was writer Joseph Conrad who successfully combined the two literary styles and created a new one.
As literacy increased in Britain, the audience for literature grew. However, writers began to stray from popular themes and instead cultivated their own styles. As the ideals from the Victorian age crumbled, writers instead explored new ideas about religion, politics, history, and the individual. Writers became more introspective and created everyday characters with everyday experiences. Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, and D. H. Lawrence all contributed works that embodied Modernism.
As the early twentieth century brought the Great Depression and two world wars, Britain underwent further transformation. Writers such as Elizabeth Bowen and Graham Greene continued to focus on the internal conflicts of their characters; however, they incorporated current events to give their stories historical and political context.
The short story form may have limitations with its brief length. However, writers have fought this by insisting on tight prose and meaningful detail. The short story’s popularity has grown worldwide and continues to develop as an important literary form.
The Fiddler of the Reels and Other Stories. New York: Penguin Classics, 2003. A collection of eleven short stories by English writer Thomas Hardy written between 1888 and 1900. Includes a chronology, suggested readings, and a map of Wessex, where Hardy’s fictional stories take place.
Heart of Darkness and Other Tales. New York: Oxford University Press, 2003. Includes four of Joseph Conrad’s short stories, or “novellas”: Heart of Darkness, which first appeared in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1902 and is based on Conrad’s own travels into the Congo; Karain; Youth; and An Outpost of Progress.
The Short Story: The Reality of Artifice. New York: Routledge, 2001. Critic Charles May’s survey of the history of the short story, from its nineteenth-century roots to its contemporary form.
A Haunted House and Other Stories. New York: Harcourt, 2002. A collection of Virginia Woolf’s shorter fiction, from 1906 until 1941.
Complete Short Stories. New York: Penguin Classics, 2005. A collection of forty-nine short stories that reveal the full range of writer Graham Greene, a prolific twentieth-century writer.
The Victorian Short Story: A Brief History
The D. H. Lawrence Collections at The University of Nottingham
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