Book Review | The World Broke in Two: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster, and the Year that Changed Literature
Reviewed by Jay Dickson, Reed College
2022 looms large on the horizon for literary critics since it will mark the centenary of the annus mirabilis of modernism, the year that saw the publication of both T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land and James Joyce’s Ulysses. “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts,” Willa Cather wrote in her book of essays Not Under Forty, aware of the changes in literary fashion heralded by these two works now recognized as key to defining modernism. Taking its title from Cather’s remark, Bill Goldstein’s The World Broke in Two keeps its focus on four important writers associated with modernism—Eliot, Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, and D. H. Lawrence—who were, in his words, "all similarly and serendipitously moved during that remarkable year to invent the language of the future” (1).
Goldstein points out that as the year began, not one of the four had cemented their reputation with the wider public, and approached the new year with worries about their literary legacy. Eliot had finished writing his greatest poem, The Waste Land, towards the end of the previous year after he had taken a hiatus from his clerking job at Lloyd’s Bank to recuperate in Switzerland from a nervous breakdown. He was not sure, however, where he would be able to sell the poem in order to garner both the attention and the compensation he was sure it was worth. Woolf, recovering from a debilitating bout of influenza for several weeks at the year’s beginning, had begun her serious experiments in style with Jacob’s Room (which was to come out that year), but had not produced a work that would earn her the reputation she believed she deserved. Her friend Forster, on the other hand, had felt tapped out after his first four novels, and worried he was beginning to be forgotten after the 1910 success of his last published book, Howards End. Although he had circulated Maurice privately in 1913 among his friends, he was certain its homosexual subject matter precluded its publication in the United Kingdom. The fragments of novels he had started before the First World War had so far gone nowhere, and he felt no interest in his previous subject matter of heterosexual romance. As 1922 started, he planned to ship home from India, which he had visited for the second time in order to work as the private secretary for a maharajah and to find inspiration to finish his so-called “Indian fragment” (begun after his first visit to the subcontinent ten years earlier). Finally, in Italy, Lawrence looked to settle permanently in the United States. An invitation from the heiress Mabel Dodge Sterne to live on her properties in Taos, New Mexico cemented his plans to form a new home where he could write in peace.
As the year wore on, all four writers found that their literary projects—and self-confidence—grew. Although he had to return to his soul-deadening job in London, eventually Eliot published The Waste Land (without its famous notes) first in the inaugural October issue of his own new magazine The Criterion, and then in the U.S. the next month in The Dial at a rate of ten dollars a page, with the assurance that he would be honored with the Dial Prize, including a cash award of $2000, for his “services to the cause of literature” (238). In December, Horace Liveright published the poem in separate book form, this time with its notes included. Eliot’s friend Virginia Woolf also made her most impressive breakthrough that year, Goldstein argues, with the start of her first fully successful novel in her mature style, Mrs. Dalloway. In what is the most compelling part of the study, Goldstein shows how Woolf wanted to extend the experimentation of Jacob’s Room in part because of her admiration for Marcel Proust in excavating literary character through the use of recalled memories, and also in part because of her competitiveness with James Joyce for garnering so much attention with Ulysses. Joyce had sought to publish his masterpiece with Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s Hogarth Press, but although Woolf was impressed with his achievement in furthering the boundaries of fictional representation, she felt disgusted by his novel’s sordid Dublin milieu, and frustrated by what she saw as Joyce’s inabilities to flesh out his characters at anything approaching the level of a Tolstoy or a Thackeray. Goldstein shows that in an essay written that year (but left unpublished during her lifetime), “Byron and Mr. Briggs,” Woolf revived characters from her previous novels to converse at an imagined gathering, which allowed her once again to bring forth Clarissa Dalloway, one of the characters Lytton Strachey had most admired in her 1915 The Voyage Out. Woolf used the Proustian evocation of memories to start a new fictional enterprise centered upon “tunneling” out the character of Clarissa, in a series of linked short stories that eventually became Mrs. Dalloway.
Forster, meanwhile, had returned to Surrey after first stopping aboard his ship from India in Alexandria, where he was to enjoy a bittersweet reunion with Mohammed el-Adl, his former lover during the war years who was by then dying from tuberculosis. Although Forster dreaded his return to living with his restrictive mother, his fond memories of his lover helped re-kindle his interest in his Indian fragment, allowing him to finish what would be his most acclaimed book, A Passage to India. Finally, Goldstein argues Lawrence’s own peregrinations in 1922 during a long stay in Australia en route to the United States allowed him to write his own important novel that year. Although the actual meeting with Mabel Dodge Sterne was less fulfilling than either party had imagined, he still managed to wrest out of the extended layover experience in Australia Kangaroo, which represents one of his most autobiographical and explicitly political novels, depicting the fascination (but ultimate rejection) of both fascism and socialism for a Lawrentian writer-character visiting New South Wales.
The nomination of Kangaroo as one of the most important modernist projects of 1922 is surprising, despite it including the chapter “The Nightmare,” one of Lawrence’s most important statements on his wartime experience. Even so, what this novel has to do with “the language of the future” Goldstein claims the four invented is never wholly made clear, nor is the inclusion of Kangaroo as a literary landmark ever convincing. Nor, for that matter, ultimately, is the grouping of these four writers, whose connections with one another range from the close to the fleeting and accidental. Certainly Woolf and Forster were both members of the Bloomsbury Group, and Woolf and Eliot were good friends; but what binds Lawrence to the three of them, however, is left mostly a mystery. Moreover, if Willa Cather, as Goldstein admits, was herself not in step with the writers whose bold linguistic experiments she saw as establishing literary modernism, how much then was the author of the more formally conventional A Passage to India?
Nonetheless, the interest of Goldstein’s narrative rarely flags. Well researched and engagingly written, The World Broke in Two succeeds best in its biographical approach. The pepperiness of Lawrence, with his splenetic assaults against his friends and his constant geographic dissatisfaction (he found even the New Mexico mountains ultimately oppressively grand and empty) humorously succeeds juxtaposed against the grayness of the mask-like Eliot and the timid Forster. Moreover, Goldstein uses the reactions to the publications of Ulysses to provide a through-line for the year’s monumental literary importance in the English-speaking world. The effect of the latter, especially, was so gigantic that it seems puzzling why Goldstein did not include a portrait of Joyce himself. Sylvia Beach published Ulysses in full that February to coincide with Joyce’s fortieth birthday, but the serial publication of the book’s scandalous early chapters had made its reputation even earlier. Whereas Woolf had approached Joyce’s novel as both a challenge and a threat, both Eliot and Lawrence got a hold of early copies, and saw it as a benchmark against which they would be compared.
As for E. M. Forster? As Goldstein notes, his opinions of Ulysses have gone unrecorded. Yet in one of Goldstein’s best anecdotes, his opinion of Joyce’s more mature modernist style became evident later in his life. When interviewed for television in 1959 on the occasion of his eightieth birthday, Forster was seen writing at his desk. After the broadcast, V.S. Pritchett asked him what he had been writing, and Forster said to help the cameramen get their shot he had written repeatedly, “James Joyce is a very bad writer.” Forster knew to which sides of the divide both he and Joyce belonged after their world broke in two—even if Goldstein does not. That latter fact should not prevent you, however, from enjoying this lively and well-written book.