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The short story remains a crucial - if neglected - part of British literary heritage. This accessible and up-to-date critical overview maps out the main strands and figures that shaped the British short story and novella from the 1850s to the present. It offers new readings of both classic and forgotten texts in a clear, jargon-free way.

Table of Contents

Introduction: What Is a Short Story?

1. Introduction: What Is a Short Story?

Abstract
This question has always exercised critics and commentators on the short story, and often involves them in extraordinary contortions to avoid the simplest and most circular answer: a short story is a story — a narrative sequence of events, episodes or connected emotions — which is short. Even if the term ‘story’ is reasonably uncontentious (and frankly it is not entirely agreed upon), shortness introduces an element of relativity which causes major problems for the short-story critic. A short story is short generally in contrast to the longer prose narrative the novel. Ian Reid goes so far as to say that ‘in its current usage “short story” is generally applied to almost any kind of prose narrative briefer than a novel’, and shortness can lead to accusations of ‘slightness and slickness’,1 of lesser status and lesser seriousness than the larger work of prose fiction. Size, apparently, matters. Critics therefore often operate by analogy with other forms to describe the short story’s special status. As Dominic Head has suggested, visual metaphors in particular are frequently used,2 although these have the disadvantage of presuming a specific patterning in short fiction, forgetting that all narrative is essentially temporal, understood through time, rather than primarily spatial as visual art is.
Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, Ruth Robbins

The Victorian and Edwardian Short Story

Frontmatter

2. Introducing the Victorian and Edwardian Short Story

Abstract
The reputations of most Victorian writers of fiction rest on novels rather than short stories. Charles Dickens, arguably the most famous storyteller of the time, wrote many brief tales and sketches, but despite his friend Percy Fitzgerald’s claim that he ‘always seemed to hanker after the short story’, Dickens’s seemingly relaxed approach — his loose definition of the short story as ‘anything told orally by a narrator within the story or as anything shorter than four serial instalments’ — has helped ensure that this element of his writing has tended to be viewed as secondary to the novels.1 A belief has sprung up that the great Victorian writers who are still read today — Wilkie Collins, Anthony Trollope (1815–82), Elizabeth Gaskell (1810–65), Mary Elizabeth Braddon, George Eliot (1819–80), Thomas Hardy (1840–1928) — had little sense of the short story’s artistic potential. In fact, all these writers wrote short stories, though with mixed reasons for doing so. Both Elizabeth Gaskell and the fin-de-siècle naturalist writer George Gissing (1857–1903) wrote short stories unashamedly for money and discussed their reliance on swift payment for their stories in their letters. Gissing eased his struggle to support his dependants by writing stories and novellas despite his fear that he was compromising his artistic talents by pandering to the marketplace; Gaskell increased her output of stories at certain times in her career to finance family holidays, notably getting £100 from Dickens for the novella My Lady Ludlow in 1858.2
Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, Ruth Robbins

3. Victorian Sensations: Supernatural and Weird Tales

Abstract
The development of the Victorian short story is inextricable from the nineteenth-century fascination with the supernatural, with its origins in the popularity of Gothic fiction at the end of the eighteenth century. As we saw in chapter 2, realist fiction from the pens of Anthony Trollope and others was popular during the period, but it is a misconception to categorise fiction of the period as wholly realist. The importance of Gothic paradigms and conventions to our understanding of cultural preoccupations, fantasies and modes of thinking also needs to be acknowledged. Recently Nicola Bown, Carolyn Burdett and Pamela Thurschwell have argued that for the Victorians, ‘the supernatural was both fearful and terrible and ardently desired…an important aspect of [their] intellectual, spiritual, emotional and imaginative worlds’.1 This chapter focuses on some of the ways in which writers of the day exploited this interest.
Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, Ruth Robbins

4. New Woman Short Stories

Abstract
The 1890s were the era of the New Woman, a type of modern femininity who began to appear regularly in the journals, magazines and literature of the fin de siècle. As Sally Ledger and Scott McCracken have argued in relation to the growth of imperialism, feminism and socialism, ‘the process of cultural fragmentation that characterised the fin de siècle threw the norms of the Victorian age into crisis’.1 The New Woman was a key element of the crisis in gender relations during this transitional period. Her potential feminism took the form of rebelling against the constraints of marriage and motherhood, rejecting domesticity and embracing the freedoms of new urban environments. Moreover, she challenged social norms by pursuing her own desires, acknowledging her own sexuality and agitating for better education and employment opportunities for women. In Sarah Grand’s short story ‘The Undefinable: A Fantasia’, which appeared in the American magazine Cosmopolitan in 1894, the artist narrator rhapsodises about ‘the glorious womanhood of this age of enlightenment, compared with the creature as she existed merely for man’s use and pleasure of old; the toy-woman, drudge, degraded domestic animal, beast of intolerable burdens’.2 However, the undefinable New Woman, who was everything that the stereotypical ‘angel in the house’ was not, was glorious only to those who embraced progress. Such a radical figure was held responsible for the breakdown of traditional gender roles; indeed, as Ann L. Ardis has argued, ‘for her transgressions against the sex, gender and class distinctions of Victorian England, she was accused of instigating the second fall of man’.3
Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, Ruth Robbins

5. Imperial Adventures and Colonial Tales

Abstract
After the women-centred stories of Chapter 4, this chapter is concerned with a different dimension of the late-Victorian and Edwardian short story: versions of the male adventure romance, which, in its day, was an enormously popular (and potentially lucrative) sub-genre of fiction. In the 1880s, two bestselling novels –Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island (1883) and H. Rider Haggard’s (1856–1925) King Solomon’s Mines (1886) — had helped set in motion a revival of this kind of writing. As Stevenson explained in ‘A Gossip on Romance’ (1882), the interest lay in ‘clean, open-air adventure’.1 Writers such as Rudyard Kipling, Joseph Conrad, Charles Hyne (1865–1944) and William H. Kingston (1814–80) were recognised, alongside Haggard and Stevenson, as the main romance writers, and in the 1890s and early 1900s they were joined from time to time by others such as William le Queux (1864–1927), Bram Stoker, Reginald Wray (W. B. Home-Gall, 1861–1936), W. J. Locke (1863–1930), P. C. Wren (1885–1941) and John Buchan (1875–1940).2
Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, Ruth Robbins

The Twentieth-Century Short Story

Frontmatter

6. Introducing the Twentieth-Century Short Story

Abstract
There is a particular way of describing the development of the short story in the early part of the twentieth century which has had enormous influence on studies of the form. Most surveys of the genre race towards the major figures of modernism in the period leading up to and immediately following the Great War — James Joyce, Katherine Mansfield and D. H. Lawrence, for instance — because, the argument goes, the short story is a modern form, and therefore it must be expected to operate within the experimental mode of modernism. The critical and aesthetic preferences in discussions of the form have been for what Clare Hanson has called the ‘plotless fictions’ of the early years of the twentieth century, where ‘the primary distinction is between those works in which the major emphasis is on plot, and those in which plot is subordinate to psychology and mood’.1 Although other commentators, notably Dominic Head in The Modernist Short Story, have sought to finesse this view, they have often done so in ways which focus strongly on the short story’s formal features and on the technical innovations of the early part of the century.2 There are a number of problems with this emphasis.
Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, Ruth Robbins

7. The Short Story and the Great War

Abstract
The First World War (1914–18) has held a prominent place in the British literary landscape for almost a century. It was, as Angela Smith notes, a ‘cataclysmic conflict’, very different from previous conflicts. On one day in July 1916, 60,000 British soldiers died, mowed down by the recently invented machine gun. It was also
[a closer war than people were used to]: the guns of the Western front could be heard across the Channel; Zeppelins carried out bombing raids along the east coast of Britain. Men were conscripted into the combatant or non-combatant service. Women were encouraged to take the places of their men — in the workforce, in industry, on the land. Of the 5,215,162 men who served in the army, 44.4 percent were killed or wounded. Very few families escaped unscathed.1
In the war’s aftermath, work began on building ‘a land fit for heroes’ (to quote Prime Minister David Lloyd George’s 1919 electioneering slogan) and on commemorating the dead and trying to come to terms with the unprecedented slaughter that had taken place. The first national two-minute silence was held on 11 November 1919. War memorials were erected. The playwright and broadcaster J. B. Priestly (1894–1984) expressed the views of many when he wrote that ‘nobody, nothing will shift me from the belief, which I shall take to the grave, that the generation to which I belong, destroyed between 1914 and 1918, was a great generation, marvellous in its promise’.2
Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, Ruth Robbins

8. Experiment and Continuity: The Modernist Short Story

Abstract
It is, of course, impossible to answer this question briefly, and it might be impossible to answer it at all. As with all the terms by which we identify movements in literature (Romanticism, the Gothic, realism, naturalism, postmodernism, for instance), it might be that modernist writings share little more than a certain amount of historical contiguity and a particular place in the mind of the literary critic. Like Romanticism, modernism is largely a retrospective term, applied by the academy after the event, and seldom used of themselves by those who appear under the label. It might even be that modernism is itself a ‘short fiction’, in the sense that it is a shorthand way of grouping writers and their works, taxonomising them for the purpose of imposing coherence on an otherwise messy literary history. That said, since the word is used by critics, some definition, however rudimentary and unsatisfactory, is probably necessary here, not least because the short-story form is often identified as a specifically modernist form.
Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, Ruth Robbins

9. The Short Story and Genre Fiction: The Same Old Story?

Abstract
The first of these two quotations is the answer of one of the respondents to a questionnaire sent out by Q. D. Leavis in the late 1920s when asked about the effect of magazine publication on short fiction. The respondents were all novelists, grouped by Leavis into a range from highbrow literary artists to those who were out-and-out commercial writers, avowing that they ‘deliberately wrote fiction as a comfortable way of getting a good living, “with the minimum of exertion”’.3 The second quotation is from one of Agatha Christie’s non-detective short stories, ‘Mr Eastwood’s Adventure’ (1932),4 in which the eponymous hero is a writer working for the very magazines described in the first quotation. Mr Eastwood has writer’s block, and is in search of a plot for his next commission; in the course of the story he embarks on a strange adventure which furnishes him with such a story, though he also ends up the victim of an audacious burglary, which is the result of precisely the kind of plot that his editor demands (a mysterious and beautiful woman in danger, himself as the hero apparently arrested for a crime, and so on). It shows the extent to which Christie, herself a very popular novelist and writer, was self-aware of the conventions of her chosen genres, to the extent even of making mockery of them in self-referential moments. In this chapter, then, we turn from the exquisite aestheticism and formal experimentation of the modernist short story to the popular forms of the short story in the twentieth century, though this contrast between what might be termed ‘art’ and ‘craft’ is not entirely secure, as the chapter will suggest.
Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, Ruth Robbins

The Post-War Short Story

Frontmatter

10. Introducing the Post-War Short Story

Abstract
It is often said that the short story declined during the second half of the twentieth century, following the end of the Second World War in 1945. A shrinking of the magazine market, coupled with the sense that the short story was ‘for the most part middle-aged and graying around the temples’, its main practitioners having been born before the First World War, led some observers to suggest that the short story’s best days were over.1 One such middle-aged and greying short-story writer was P. G. Wodehouse (1881–1975), who had been fabulously popular in the 1920s and 1930s on account of his comic stories of upper-class life featuring, among others, the (not so) bright young thing Bertie Wooster and his superior valet, Jeeves. In 1950, Wodehouse lamented the collapse of one of the mainstays of short fiction, The Strand magazine, asking, ‘Where can [a writer] sell his stories?’ He recalled seventeen magazines from his childhood, ‘and probably a dozen more that I’ve forgotten’. Wodehouse’s apparent inability to sell stories may well have had something to do with his dubious status in post-war Britain following his undistinguished war, in which he controversially made pro-German broadcasts before departing for the United States, but his own view was that magazines died of ‘slanting’ (the demand that all stories be written to a formula) and ‘names’ (printing anything by anyone famous even if it was substandard).2
Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, Ruth Robbins

11. Women’s Stories, 1940s to the Present

Abstract
One of the ways in which the period after the Second World War can be analysed is in terms of changes in women’s material and psychic lives, registering the impact and repercussions of second-wave feminism. The 1950s housewife, presiding over ‘homes fit for heroes’, was a reference point for mid-century femininities, but women’s association with the domestic space and their roles as wives, mothers and daughters are still important to late-twentieth-century and twenty-first-century gender formations. In an early feminist text, The Second Sex (1949), the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir protested against the way in which woman was always defined in relation to man and therefore became his ‘other’. Her famous line ‘One is not born, but rather becomes a woman’ also stressed the social, rather than the biological, process of acquiring femininity, throwing the emphasis onto social convention as a major factor in defining gender identity.1
Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, Ruth Robbins

12. The British Short Story Today

Abstract
Changes in British society, including mass immigration, the recruitment of new workers from the West Indies and a rise in mixed-race relationships, contributed to the growth of multiculturalism after the Second World War, ensuring that post-war fiction came increasingly to address issues of race, ethnicity and mixed-race relationships. In his discussion of the development of the British novel between 1950 and 2000, Dominic Head has commented on the complex questions of identity and national affiliation at the end of empire, in which fiction ‘has proved to be a fruitful site for investigating the hybridised cultural forms that might be produced in an evolving, and so genuinely, multicultural Britain’.1 Hybridity, referring to the process of the mixing of races theorised by Homi Bhabha, becomes a key concern, but though it can sometimes be celebratory, ‘the migrant identities that are fictionalised in post-war writing are often embattled and vulnerable’.2 Large-scale post-war migration and xenophobia influenced notions of national identity; as Mark Stein has written, ‘black British authors record both a confrontation between their protagonists and Britain, its institutions, its people, and some of the strategies that were employed in this situation’.3 In his discussion of the politics of recognition, Charles Taylor4 contends that racial identity needs to be recognised, acknowledged in its diversity and difference, to combat the process of ‘othering’, which marginalises those who do not fit easily into conceptions of whiteness.
Emma Liggins, Andrew Maunder, Ruth Robbins
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