British and Irish Literature Literature of the 'Thirties
Matthew Taunton
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 September 2021
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199846719-0178


The literature of the 1930s occupies an important and complex position in critical accounts of modern British and Irish writing. Unlike terms such as modernism and postmodernism, writing of the 1930s does not announce itself as an “ism,” seeming at first glance to operate as a neutral label for writing that happens to have been published in the period 1930–1939. Like modernism and postmodernism, however—indeed in some ways even more so—the term is, in practice, associated with a specific set of thematic concerns, aesthetic approaches, and political commitments. The unique literary mythology of the “Red Decade” was being deliberately and self-consciously encoded by key protagonists before the decade was out, with W. H. Auden influentially regretting the “clever hopes” of a “low, dishonest decade” in his poem “September 1, 1939.” Auden’s own accounts of his dalliance with left-wing, committed writing and his subsequent disillusionment—mirrored by the trajectories of Stephen Spender, Louis MacNeice, and others—helped to consolidate a narrative of the decade’s literature as one that began with the articulation of overweening “clever hopes,” and ended as these were exposed as dangerous, adolescent illusions. The thirties, for some time, operated as a convenient box for the idea of committed literature. The decade confronted students of modern literature like a carefully curated museum display designed to illustrate the folly of mixing political commitment with literature. Yet this familiar narrative of the decade’s writing is modeled around the particular experiences of a few, largely male, upper-middle-class poets. Since the 1980s, the general tendency of scholarship has been to complicate or unpick this narrative, expanding the canon beyond the Auden circle, emphasizing continuities with the modernism of the 1920s, and producing more nuanced accounts of committed literature that are not bound up with its inevitable failure. These shifts have gone along with a rising tide of scholarly interest in previously neglected women writers, including Winifred Holtby, Storm Jameson, Rose Macaulay, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, among many others. In our own troubled political times, literature of the ‘thirties continues to provoke and fascinate because of the important questions it poses about writing and commitment, even while the forms of commitment and the range of writers studied under this heading have proliferated. Through this process an excessively tidy literary-historical narrative has increasingly been replaced by something messier, more open ended, and ultimately more interesting.

General Overviews

Hynes 1976 did much to establish the key lines of inquiry in 1930s literature as an academic field, though it focuses somewhat narrowly on the group of (male, upper-middle-class) poets around Auden. Cunningham 1988 is a foundational work of scholarship that significantly broadened the range of writers studied and remains a valuable overview of key themes and authors in the decade. Mengham 2005 is a useful single-chapter introduction to the decade’s writing. Montefiore 1996 and Joannou 1998 are influential books in a still-thriving feminist revision of the decade’s literature, which has recovered a great deal of previously neglected women’s writing, of an extraordinary range and quality (see more under Women’s Writing, Feminist Criticism). The surge in interest in literature of the ‘thirties over the course of the 2010s is reflected in a flurry of edited collections published in the late 2010s and early 2020s. Of these, Smith 2019 is the most accessible to undergraduates, providing insightful surveys of developments in the major literary forms and genres as well as thematic chapters highlighting political and historical preoccupations. Ferrall and McNeill 2018 and Kohlmann and Taunton 2019 are more compendious books with research-led chapters reaching into some less well-traveled corners of the decade’s literature. Mellor and Salton-Cox 2015 and Hubble, et al. 2021 are shorter, more focused interventions that engage somewhat polemically with the previous historiography of 1930s writing. Much of the work collected in these collaborative volumes is informed by the perspective of the “long 1930s,” described, in particular, in Mellor and Salton-Cox 2015 and Kohlmann and Taunton 2019.

  • Cunningham, Valentine. British Writers of the ‘Thirties. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1988.

    A wide-ranging, almost encyclopedic book that did much to establish the way writing in the 1930s has been studied ever since its publication. Remains an indispensable guide to the decade’s writing, even if subsequent scholars have frequently found things in it with which to disagree.

  • Ferrall, Charles, and Douglas McNeill, eds. British Literature in Transition, 1920–1940: Futility and Anarchy. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2018.

    Rich anthology of contemporary scholarship that emphasizes continuities between the 1920s and 1930s, helping to undo the binary opposition between realism and modernism.

  • Hubble, Nick, Luke Seaber, and Elinor Taylor, eds. The 1930s: A Decade of Modern British Fiction. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2021.

    Brings together eight intelligent and focused contributions that open new perspectives on questions such as the middlebrow, conservatism, and queer writing. Hubble’s “‘You’re Not in the Market at Shielding, Joe’: Beyond the Myth of the ‘Thirties’” (pp. 17–58) is a particularly valuable critique of the abiding clichés that hang over writing of the 1930s.

  • Hynes, Samuel. The Auden Generation: Literature and Politics in England in the 1930s. London: Bodley Head, 1976.

    A engaging study that focuses on a relatively small coterie of important poets. While more recent criticism has sought to expand the canon of thirties writing beyond this group (often for feminist or anti-colonial reasons), Hynes remains an insightful commentator on these writers and their milieu.

  • Joannou, Mary. Women Writers of the 1930s: Gender, Politics and History. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1998.

    Challenges Auden’s characterization of the 1930s as a “low, dishonest decade” by drawing attention to the range and diversity of women’s writing in the period. Writers covered include Elizabeth von Arnim, Elizabeth Bowen, Katherine Burdekin, Nancy Cunard, Storm Jameson, Rosamond Lehmann, Naomi Mitchison, Jean Rhys, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Rebecca West, and Virginia Woolf.

  • Kohlmann, Benjamin, and Matthew Taunton, eds. A History of 1930s British Literature. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    A collection of twenty-six essays that uses the idea of the “long 1930s” to reposition the 1930s as a pivotal decade in 20th-century literary history. The four sections focus on, respectively, geographies and identities, media and institutions, commitment and autonomy, and the global 1930s.

  • Mellor, Leo, and Glyn Salton-Cox, eds. Special Issue: The Long 1930s. Critical Quarterly 57.3 (2015).

    A collection of essays on the long 1930s by leading scholars in the field, with essays on C. L. R. James and Charles Madge alongside more thematic ones on spy fiction, noir thrillers, urban lighting, and Irish modernism.

  • Mengham, Rod. “The Thirties: Politics, Authority, Perspective.” In The Cambridge History of Twentieth-Century English Literature. Edited by Laura Marcus and Peter Nicholls, 359–378. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

    A thoughtful piece that introduces some of the key preoccupations of 1930s writing through some well-chosen examples.

  • Montefiore, Janet. Men and Women Writers of the 1930s:Tthe Dangerous Flood of History. New York: Routledge, 1996.

    An important feminist intervention in the literary historiography of the decade. Montefiore retains a focus on many of the key themes established in the previous scholarship on the 1930s (class, anti-fascism, unemployment, etc.), while moving women’s experience and women’s writing to the foreground of these discussions.

  • Smith, James. The Cambridge Companion to British Literature of the 1930s. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 2019.

    DOI: 10.1017/9781108646345

    Excellent introduction to the decade that includes chapters charting developments in the main literary genres and forms as well as ones that situate ‘thirties writing in relation to historical and political developments. Suitable for undergraduates and also of great interest to established scholars. Kohlmann’s “Fashioning the 1930s” is illuminating on the literary historiography of the decade.

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