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Randall Stevenson. The Oxford English Literary History, Volume 12. 1960-2000. The Last of England?

Armelle PAREY
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Randall STEVENSON, The Oxford English Literary History, Volume 12. 1960-2000. The Last of England?. Oxford University Press, 2005, 624 pp., €29.23, ISBN 0-19-928835-6

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1Randall Stevenson, Professor of Twentieth Century Literature at the University of Edinburgh, has taken upon himself the task of writing the 12th volume of The Oxford English Literary History. Entitled The last of England? it purports to inform us on the period stretching from 1960 to 2000. But Randall Stevenson’s engrossing history also wants to be thought-provoking as the question mark punctuating the title indicates. With its multiple reference to works past and present, ranging from Pre-Raphaelite Ford Madox Brown’s oil painting and poem to James Scott’s canvas in 1999 — a detail of which illustrates the book — via Derek Jarman’s 1988 movie, the title is deliberately polysemic. Referring of course to the most recent literary production from England, it also interrogates the regularly announced demise of England. Randall Stevenson argues that what was really meant was the end of “a certain kind of England” (4), i.e. traditional England: his work acknowledges the changes that came over England and points to the consequent vitality of the country and its literature.

2It may be fruitless to discuss here the focus and justification for it on “England” and “English literature” considering it is a choice for the whole series and not just the volume we are concerned with. And yet... The introduction explains that the focus on one nation rather than all of them in this volume (and in the whole collection) is deliberate and symptomatic of the changes that took place following World War II. But because the study necessarily “explores [...] the intersection of local, national and international influences on literature in England” (7), it seems that it all boils down to not discussing Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish writers. It unavoidably sometimes proves difficult to respect self-imposed spatial and temporal limitations, as R. Stevenson is well aware of: “Modernist strategies were in any case, of course, as often Irish as English in origin. These, too were reinforced for the 1960s by Irish intermediaries particularly significant at the start of the decade, Flann O’Brien and Samuel Beckett” (410). Because one cannot examine a period in literature independently from what came before, this book repeatedly goes beyond the selected dates. The introductory part called “Histories” thus inevitably stretches before the period announced. In order to explain postmodernism in literature, the author reminds the reader of what it came after. He thus spends a significant number of pages on modernism exemplified by Woolf, Joyce, Eliot, Lawrence, a period he knows particularly well — see his Modernist Fiction (1992; rev. ed. 1998).

3The 1960s may seem an unusual starting point for this Literary History. Indeed this particular period — 1960 to 2000 — has little been considered as studies — particularly those devoted to the novel — often embrace the whole post-war period because World War II had such a major impact on the fiction of the rest of the century. R. Stevenson cannot avoid doing the same. No matter how much he stresses the 60s as a break from before (terminal break-up of the empire, social and sexual changes), he still has to revert to the Second World War because the novel does (434) as he himself stresses.

4Before devoting over a hundred pages to each field of literature (poetry, drama and narrative, each part following chronological order), the first part aptly entitled “Histories” dwells on the context in which literature emerged. Very precisely and extensively, the author covers critical theory as well as political events, but also developments in society such as the advent of television or the impact of new technologies on the publishing industry.

5When dealing with literature as such, Randall Stevenson proves as accurately exhaustive without being simplistic, taking his reader step by step through the maze of movements, theories and changes undergone by each field. His book indeed provides an illuminating and useful outline to theory, background, thinkers followed by the analysis of the implication of its development on the literary imagination.

6Each literary genre is presented in chapters focusing on significant periods followed by chapters devoted to a particular trend. The author does not offer a close reading of texts but occasionally gives an apt and appealing summary of a novel or play that makes the reader want to read or re-read the texts mentioned. The literature of the period as portrayed by Randall Stevenson has proved exciting and stimulating, “not only by reflecting new outlooks and ideas, but often by initiating them — identifying and exploring, in imagination, potentials not yet much developed in society itself” (461).

7A few well-chosen illustrations serve R. Stevenson’s view of the period as dynamic. On top of to-be-expected photos of plays, there is, for instance, a picture of people queuing to buy Lady Chatterley’s Lover , when it was acquitted of obscenity in November 1960 as well as two posters of the series “Poems of the Underground” in the London Tube.

8Along with the usual index and list of works cited at the end, the book closes on a useful section for further reading as well as a detailed index of a selection of authors with a brief biography, the list of main works and more interestingly perhaps a short bibliography.

9Professor Stevenson’s study is a rare, illuminating and energizing companion to a thorough introduction to English Literature in the late twentieth century. Prompted by the controversy aroused by his dwelling on lesser-known artists in his book, Randall Stevenson wrote in The Guardian , “there are still critics who find any such account of English culture — varied, dynamic and democratic — peculiarly hard to swallow, preferring to go on equating tradition with virtue; the popular and the entertaining with the familiar and the adventurous”. Randall Stevenson is decidedly not one of them, all the better for us.

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Armelle PAREY, « Randall Stevenson. The Oxford English Literary History, Volume 12. 1960-2000. The Last of England? », E-rea [En ligne], 4.2 | 2006, document 10, mis en ligne le 15 octobre 2006, consulté le 20 octobre 2017. URL : http://erea.revues.org/721

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Armelle PAREY

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