British Literary Modernism in Reaction to Victorianism and Romanticism
The development of a new age of art necessarily implies the dissolution, either in part or in full, of ages past. British Literary Modernism developed after Victorianism, which came about after Romanticism. Modernism, then, could be seen as the rebellious child of those past ages past, as it developed itself in large part as a reaction against the ideals that first gave birth to it.
As the literary era immediately preceding Modernism, Victorianism is apt to face the strongest acts of artistic rebellion. One of the starkest shifts in principles occurred in the realm of domesticity. The literal death of Queen Victoria, the maternal figurehead of Victorianism, came to represent the metaphorical death of the domestic values she portrayed, especially in regards to thoughts on marriage and the place of women within society. Modernist writers more readily wrote about imperfect marriages and women who rebelled against the expectations given them. Female writers of the time, such as Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys, became especially concerned with portraying female protagonists in a different and far less conventional light.
Additionally, England’s perception of its imperial might started changing as writers began examining cultural bias. Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness is a prime example of the Modernist shift from Victorian ideas of British superiority. It, along with other works of its kind, demonstrates how darkness is a trait of humanity, rather than merely a trait of inhabitants from a certain region.
This new emphasis on human darkness also reflects a difference between Modernism and Romanticism. Modernism as a whole seems slightly more lenient on Romantic ideals than on Victorian ideals—perhaps, if for no other reason, due to the distance in time between the two movements—but it still finds ways to rebel against the Romantics. A primary difference is in optimism, so to speak, notably within the realm of nature. The Romantics found solace and absolute truth in nature. For many Modernists, however, nature was simply something else that existed within the physical realm. There may be aesthetic appreciation to be found in nature, according to Modernist thought, but truth was still subjective. The distrust even of nature is, perhaps, the most obvious difference between Modernists and Romantics, but it demonstrates an overall trend of distinction the Modernists make in reaction to Romanticism: lack of moral self-confidence and disbelief in objective truth.
Modernism is certainly its own movement; however, it is also a rebellion against the movements of ages past. To fail to understand how Modernism grew out of and in spite of its parent literary eras would be to fail to understand a large part of its very foundations.