Lost in Transition: Hugh Walpole 1909-1941

Hartley, John Cameron (2020). Lost in Transition: Hugh Walpole 1909-1941. PhD thesis The Open University.

DOI: https://doi.org/10.21954/ou.ro.00012049


Hugh Walpole was born in 1884, and arrived on the literary scene at the first attempt with his novel The Wooden Horse (1909), just as literary modernism was making its mark. Loyal to the traditional novel of plot and character, he was nevertheless aware that writers of his own generation were breaking new literary ground, and he would express the ambition to create a novel of transition marrying tradition and modern experiment. His commercial success, unabashed occupation of the middlebrow middle-ground, adherence to a tradition of romance writing, and love of the macabre, would put him at odds with highbrow modernism, even as he moved in the same circles and published in the same journals.

Eager to be seen as a serious novelist, and recognising the turbulent times he was living through, Walpole embarked upon a sequence of novels charting the first three decades of the twentieth-century, concentrating upon life in the city, in the provinces, and in the countryside. As he wrote, the world was plunged into war, revolution, and economic crisis. Alongside his social novels he produced genre macabres and historical fiction while writing literary criticism in his belles lettres, and charting the culture wars between middlebrow and highbrow.

With reference to a variety of creative writers and critics of his own day, including Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, and John Middleton Murry, and current critics of Gothic Modernism, this study considers two contexts as background to Walpole’s literary career: literary modernism which dominates any study of the period, and the romantic tradition which underpins his own writing. Then, through close reading of the texts, the study examines if Walpole succeeded in documenting his times by creating his literature of transition, and his value as a witness to turbulent times.

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