The 1920s was the Jazz Age in America, and the age of modernism in Britain. It was the era of flappers, cocktail parties, and experimenting with the novel; but for others, who couldn’t afford the luxury of gin fizzes in luxury mansions or a room of their own to move the novel in new directions, it was an era marked by poverty and class divisions. Below, we introduce some of the finest novels from, and about, the 1920s.
Edith Wharton, The Age of Innocence. Let’s begin this rundown of classic 1920s novels with one published right at the beginning of the decade, 1920. Edith Wharton’s The Age of Innocence, made into a film by Martin Scorsese in the 1990s, won the Pulitzer Prize in 1921 and remains her best-known novel. It offers a valuable insight into the world of New York society which Wharton knew so well. Set in the 1870s that Wharton remembered so well from her own childhood, the novel focuses on the wealthy Newland Archer, who has been engaged to May Welland, the daughter of an illustrious family, for some time before he falls in love with May’s cousin, the Countess Ellen Olenska.
James Joyce, Ulysses. Wharton considered Joyce’s 1922 novel Ulysses to be ‘a turgid welter of pornography (the rudest schoolboy kind) & unformed & unimportant drivel’, and it certainly contains scenes set in toilets, sexual content, and some (punning) references to swear words, along with many incidental (and seemingly insignificant) details from everyday life. Joyce’s vast novel follows the advertising agent Leopold Bloom around Dublin over the course of one day in his life, 16 June 1904. The plot is episodic, loosely based on the events in Homer’s epic poem The Odyssey, and the novel is now regarded as one of the greatest achievements of twentieth-century literature, for its attention to everyday detail (Joyce is especially good at describing scenes in pubs) and pioneering use of stream of consciousness, seen especially in the novel’s closing section.
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain. An epic of a novel published in 1924, The Magic Mountain is about a group of invalids in the Swiss Alps, and contains some of the finest psychological portraits of illness in all of literature. It focuses on the years leading up to the outbreak of the First World War, but reflects the sense of post-war malaise that many felt in the years following the Armistice.
Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway. In 1925, Virginia Woolf published her first truly great novel, which built upon the techniques she had been perfecting in her short fiction and her previous novel, Jacob’s Room. That book was Mrs Dalloway, which, like Joyce’s Ulysses, covers the events of a single day in June – although Woolf’s June day is set in 1923 rather than 1904 and her setting is London rather than Dublin. We learn about Clarissa Dalloway’s life, her marriage to the MP Richard Dalloway, and her former romance with her friend Peter Walsh; running alongside Mrs Dalloway’s reminiscences and reveries we have the First World War veteran Septimus Warren Smith, who is suffering from severe PTSD and constantly having flashbacks to his time in the war. Among many things, Woolf’s modernist novel invites us to consider who is ‘sane’ and who ‘insane’ in a messed-up world scarred by war, death, and rapid industrial, political, and social change.
F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby. This is not only one of the greatest 1920s novels but also one of the greatest novels of all time, and often appears near the top of any list of great novels. It was published in the middle of the decade, in 1925, and is narrated by Nick Carraway, who enters the moneyed world of the titular Jay Gatsby, who owns a large Long Island mansion and is known for throwing lavish parties. But Carraway soon learns of the inner longing and pain that Gatsby’s partygoing (and partythrowing) exterior is barely concealing, and tragedy soon unfolds. Although Fitzgerald’s novel is known for its brilliant descriptions of cocktail parties and life among the wealthy ‘new money’ of America, it also evokes the other side of New York, and the industrial squalor many Americans were living and working in. Before he decided upon The Great Gatsby as his title, Fitzgerald toyed with calling his novel ‘Under the Red, White and Blue’, ‘Among the Ash-Heaps and Millionaires’, and, worst of all, ‘The High-Bouncing Lover’.
Ernest Hemingway, The Sun Also Rises. Hemingway was friends with Fitzgerald, whose wife Zelda dismissed Hemingway’s tale of American expats’ life in France and Spain as ‘bullfighting, bullslinging, and bullsh*t’. However, this 1926 novel – which was Hemingway’s first – is now considered his greatest novel by many. It’s an example of the roman a clef or ‘novel with a key’, because the characters are loosely based on real people Hemingway knew, and he drew upon his own experiences in France and Pamplona to write it.
Agatha Christie, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. The greatest and most influential novels of the 1920s weren’t all modernist experimentation or ‘high’ art, and Agatha Christie, widely regarded as one of the most masterly novelists when it comes to the nuts and bolts of plot, produced a masterpiece in this 1926 novel with a twist ending that has surprised many readers (we’ll say no more for risk of offering spoilers). It’s a Poirot novel, and perhaps less famous than Murder on the Orient Express, but a skilful piece of mystery fiction.
D. H. Lawrence, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. Lawrence completed this, his most famous novel, in 1928, two years before his untimely death from tuberculosis. But it would not see publication in Britain until 1960, following a high-profile trial when Penguin Books was faced with prosecution for publishing the novel in the UK. (At the trial, the prosecuting lawyer memorably asked the male jury if it was a novel they’d wish even their wife or their servants to read.) The novel was acquitted, and Lawrence’s exploration of a passionate affair between the aristocratic Constance Chatterley and her husband’s gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors, was devoured by tens of thousands of readers. At its heart, the novel is about Lawrence’s key theme: the way our bodily instincts and natures transcend man-made class structures.
William Faulkner, The Sound and the Fury. Faulkner’s fourth novel, published in 1929, The Sound and the Fury The Sound and the Fury is set in Mississippi and follows the Compson family, former aristocrats from the South whose family has lost its good name in the decades following the end of the Civil War. The novel was not an initial success but later got the dues it deserved, and is a fine example of Faulkner’s innovative style.
Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front. Published as a serial in 1928 and then as a book early the following year, this bestselling late 1920s novel describes the physical and mental toll the First World War took on German soldiers, as well as what happened to them when they returned to civilian life after the Armistice, returning to an economically troubled Germany. As such, the novel is a flipside to Woolf’s portrayal of Septimus Smith in her novel. Remarque’s novel was added to the Nazis’ bibliocaust in the early 1930s, and Remarque was later stripped of his German citizenship; he fled Germany for Switzerland, and his sister, who remained behind, was arrested and beheaded. Remarque’s novel remains one of the most powerful novels about the First World War.