Literary Britain: The 20th Century

Lecture 28—The Great Tours: England, Scotland, and Wales

Round out your study of British literature with a survey of the 20th-century masters. Check out the Baker Street of Sherlock Holmes, visit the rural Dorset villages of Thomas Hardy, and then pop over to Bloomsbury in London to see where Virginia Woolf and her comrades created a new kind of literature.

Click on GREEN links to visit the highlighted location in Google Maps. Hover over BLUE text for more information about that item.

Here, we’re going to focus on George Bernard Shaw, Arthur Conan Doyle, the Bloomsbury group, C. S. Lewis, and George Orwell.

Britain’s Literary History – Arthur Conan Doyle

Britain's Literary History - Arthur Conan Doyle 
Arthur Conan Doyle by Walter Benington, 1914

Literary tourists usually seek out places connected with authors, but in the case of Sherlock Holmes the character has supplanted his creator. Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective lived and worked at 221b Baker Street, just off Marylebone Road in London, near the Planetarium and the Madame Tussauds wax museum. At the time, the street numbers did not go that high. Later, the street was extended and 221 became part of the address of a building society, which found it had to employ a full-time correspondent just to deal with the Sherlock Holmes mail that came pouring in every day.

Today, there is a Sherlock Holmes museum on Baker Street, which has the magic number as its address, even though it’s located between 237 and 241. It features late-Victorian furniture, chemistry experiments, the deerstalker hat, the meerschaum pipe, the violin, and other props from the stories, and has a convincingly cluttered appearance that feels just about right.

Arthur Conan Doyle was born and raised in Edinburgh and studied to be a doctor. The statue next to his birthplace, however, is of Holmes, not Doyle. One of his medical school teachers, Joseph Bell, emphasized to students the importance of close observation and logical deduction. Bell occasionally helped Edinburgh police with murder investigations and advised the London police on the Jack the Ripper case. He was the model for Sherlock Holmes.

George Bernard Shaw

George Bernard Shaw publish March 1915, The New York Times
George Bernard Shaw, published March 1915, The New York Times

Another successful writer of the late 19th and early 20th centuries was George Bernard Shaw. Irish-born in 1856, Shaw made his name as a music and theater critic in London, then as a playwright. At a time when much of the London stage was devoted to frivolity, he was enraptured by the plays of Henrik Ibsen, and championed the grim Nordic dramatist. Not that Shaw was humorless. Quite the opposite. He’s best remembered today for Pygmalion. The opening scenes are set in Covent Garden, which is still there but much changed since Eliza Doolittle’s time. Its iron-and-glass roofed building, set up in the 1830s and renovated in the 1980s, now harbors shops, cafes, and restaurants—it’s a good place to eat before going to a performance next door at the Royal Opera House.

Shaw was a knowledge-devouring genius. The place to see his personal effects is his country house, Shaw’s Corner, in the tiny Hertfordshire village of Ayot St. Lawrence. The house had been built in 1902 as a rectory, but Shaw, an atheist, moved in just four years later and resided there for the rest of his very long life. In a glass case are Shaw’s Nobel Prize and his Oscar. He’s the only person ever to have won both awards—the Nobel Prize in 1926 and the Oscar in 1938, for the screenplay of Pygmalion.

Out in the garden, you can wander through the well-kept flower beds and arrive at Shaw’s writing hut, which is tucked away out of sight near the back. It’s an austere little place, with nothing more than a table, chair, typewriter, and cot. What brings it to life is the fact that it’s mounted on a turntable, which allowed Shaw to move it around to catch the sun or take shelter from the wind.

The Bloomsbury Group – Britain’s Literary History

The Bloomsbury Group - Britain's Literary History
Bloomsbury Group Plaque, 51 Gordon Square

Bloomsbury is the area of London around the British Museum. The Bloomsbury Group was a cluster of writers and artists who lived and worked there in the early 20th century. Solidly respectable today, it still carried a hint of Bohemia in the years before World War I when two sisters, Virginia and Vanessa Stephen went to live there. We remember them as Virginia Woolf, the novelist, and Vanessa Bell, the artist. They befriended several outstanding Cambridge graduates, men who had been inducted into a secret society, the “Apostles,” during their college years. Among them were Leonard Woolf, Lytton Strachey, Roger Fry, and John Maynard Keynes. This was the nucleus of the Bloomsbury Group.

After the war, the Woolfs moved to Sussex, settling at Monk’s House in the village of Rodmell, just inland from the south coast. Now run by the National Trust, Monk’s House is a fascinating place to visit. It was built in the late 17th century and surrounded by gardens and orchards. Here, in a little writer’s cabin during the 1920s, Virginia Woolf wrote Mrs. DallowayTo the Lighthouse; and Orlando: A Biography, her masterpieces.

Just a few miles from Monk’s House is Charleston House in the village of Firle, long-time home of Virginia Woolf’s sister, Vanessa Bell. It, too, was a gathering point for Bloomsbury intellectuals and artists. She, her lover Duncan Grant, and her son Quentin painted many of the walls and doors in Post-Impressionist style. They collected paintings by prominent modernists, many of whom they knew. The house, which is open to visitors, has works by Delacroix, Derain, Renoir, and Picasso. You can visit the neighboring parish church of Berwick, where the walls were also decorated by the Bells and Duncan Grant. Here the murals depict Biblical scenes using local people as their models. Every May, the Charleston Festival features the work of promising young writers and artists.

The Inklings – Literary History

The Inklings - Literary History
Interior of the Eagle and Child Pub, one of two pubs in the area where the “Inklings” would gather.

The Bloomsbury intellectuals represented modernism and the political left. The Inklings, by contrast, were a writers’ group embodying tradition and Christianity, who deplored many aspects of modernity. Its two central figures were C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien, both wounded veterans of World War I and both professors, or “dons” at Oxford.

The place to encounter the Inklings is Oxford, at two pubs on a street called St. Giles. One is the Eagle and Child, which has been in business since the 17th century. Right across the road is the Lamb and Flag, owned by St. John’s College and dating back several hundred years. Both pubs are still in business and display pictures of the Inklings drinking and smoking together.

Magdalen College, where Lewis worked, is spacious and opulent. Its chapel and cloisters, dating from the late 1400s, were among the last Catholic English structures in the Gothic style to be finished before the Reformation. Even though it is near the center of the city, the college has beautiful gardens, extensive grounds, a great deer park where a herd of fallow deer grazes, and a rustic walk beside the River Cherwell, named after the writer Joseph Addison, who was a fellow of the college.

Magdalen’s New Building, from 1733, is a neo-Classical structure in honey-colored Cotswold Stone, where Lewis had rooms. Two hundred years earlier, Edward Gibbon had lived there when it was quite new, before setting out to write the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. Tolkien was a “don” first at Pembroke College and then at Merton, another of the great Oxford powerhouses.

George Orwell – Literary Master

George Orwell - Literary Master
George Orwell was a prolific writer on topics related to contemporary English, society, and literary criticism.

George Orwell was just a few years younger than C. S. Lewis. Both gave popular BBC broadcasts during World War II, but there the similarities end. Barnhill House, the farmhouse where he lived while writing 1984, was—and still is–about as remote as it’s possible to get in Britain. Twenty-five miles from the little port where the ferry came in from the mainland, accessible only by a rutted track, without electricity or running water, Barnhill was Spartan. Barnhill house is still there now, available to rent, but with cautions about its remoteness and primitive condition.

We all have favorite authors and the landscapes that inspired them excite us, too, especially if we’ve long imagined going to visit them. One of your many preparatory tasks before going to Britain should be to check where your favorite writers came from; how they used the urban and rural landscape in their plays, poems, and novels; and how you will be able to incorporate these places in your travels.


Interactive Map of All Locations Mentioned in This Lecture


Suggested Online Reading About Britain’s Literature

C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and the Inklings 
What was the Bloomsbury group?
Sherlock Holmes’ London
Shaw’s Corner


Images courtesy of:
Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, By Walter Benington (RR Auction) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons