The World Broke In Two

by Bill Goldstein

September 14, 2017


The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts.
Willa Cather, Not Under Forty

Some years are understood as pivotal in history—1492, 1776, 1865, 1914, 1945, 1968. Nineteen twenty-two is a dividing line in literary history. The World Broke in Two tells the story of 1922 by focusing on four legendary writers: Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, and D. H. Lawrence, who were all similarly and serendipitously moved during that remarkable year to invent the language of the future.

Willa Cather began her 1936 book of essays, Not Under Forty, with the melancholy remark about changes in literary fashion: “The world broke in two in 1922 or thereabouts.” Cather was thinking of the publication of Ulysses in February and of The Waste Land in October of 1922, and the ways in which those works seemed, all at once, to herald a new modernist era in which the form of storytelling she prized, and had excelled at, was no longer of signal importance. Her own novel of the war, One of Ours, was published in 1922 and won the Pulitzer Prize in 1923. But Joyce’s novel and Eliot’s poem, and the coincidence of their publication dates, had very quickly given 1922 a privileged place in the history of literary modernism in which she and her work seemed to have no share. She was a relic of an old literature the value of which had not been preserved against the new literature that Joyce and Eliot represented.

For Woolf, Eliot, Lawrence, and Forster, the literary apocalypse of 1922 had less to do with publication dates than with the personal and creative challenges that indeed broke the world in two for them in 1922. Woolf, Forster, Eliot, and Lawrence were, at the start of 1922, writers in deep despair, privately confronting an uncertain creative future; each of them felt literally at a loss for words. None of these essential pillars of twentieth-century literature could foresee the work just ahead that was about to transform them as writers. The Waste Land was published in 1922—but the drama of the year for Eliot had less to do with the poem’s appearance than with how close he had come to not finishing it or having it published at all.

Renewal came as each in turn experienced a sudden, if still tentative, spark of vision. In early spring, Woolf thought to write again of a character who had appeared in her first novel, The Voyage Out, published in 1915: this was Clarissa Dalloway. Forster, picking up the abandoned manuscript of what was to become A Passage to India, made his first significant progress on a work of fiction in eight years. Both of them began to read the first volume of Proust’s ÀÀ la recherche du temps perdu, in French, which inspired their work, and on which both drew as they continued to work through 1922 and beyond. Lawrence started Kangaroo, his neglected but perhaps most autobiographical novel, written at light speed during his hundred-day sojourn in Australia that spring and summer. And Eliot, stopping in Paris for two weeks with Ezra Pound, began editing his poem into a 450-line distillation of his years of intermittent and sometimes aimless work. By the end of the year, the blank pages facing them in January were filled: they’d found the words, or were making new words, new forms, new styles, reworking the words into new shapes.

Rivalries and jealousy—including with James Joyce and the specter of his Ulysses—had a role in these writers’ renewed creativity, as did the various ways each of them gained fresh publicity, and increasing renown, as 1922 progressed. Reviving the joy at the heart of their endeavors in 1922 is one of the goals of The World Broke in Two. In February 1922, Virginia Woolf looked over her shoulder at her friends and rivals and remarked in her diary with a mix of admiration and awful surprise, “How these writers live in their works—How ambition consumes them!” How right she was.


“It is after all a grrrreat littttterary period,” Ezra Pound wrote to T. S. Eliot in January 1922.

This was a prophetic sentiment Eliot, or Virginia Woolf, E. M. Forster, or D. H. Lawrence, was unlikely to have shared at that moment. Most people begin a new year with a sense of resolution, a glimmering hope that by this time next year dreams will have come true, or plans been achieved, or nascent ideas become novels or poems. For these four authors, all among the major writers of the twentieth century, the year 1922 began, frighteningly, with a blank page even more starkly empty than usual because of personal travails and the open questions of form, style, and subject that haunted them all. Their shared questions were based in a shared fear: that a great (in plain English) literary period Pound foretold might be approaching, but it would pass them by.

Virginia Woolf turned forty on January 25, 1922. It was an unhappy milestone. For weeks before and after the dreaded birthday, she was stranded in bed, “apparently the favourite breeding ground of the influenza germ,” and alternately preoccupied by a lingering fever and her equally persistent failure to have yet written a novel that commanded the precise quality of literary esteem she aspired to.

After years spent strenuously avoiding writing fiction, her friend E. M. Forster had likewise become painfully conscious of past and impending failures of his own, and of his evaporating prominence. “So here I am with 3 unfinished novels on my hands. Even mother must notice I’m played out soon,” he had written in his diary as long ago as December 1913. One of these was his Indian fragment—seventy-five pages of which he abandoned the next year, before the world war. Born on New Year’s Day, 1879, Forster celebrated his forty-third birthday on the first day of 1922, and as January got under way he was literally at sea, on his way home after having spent most of 1921 in India, more time abroad that he had hoped would offer some direction for the latest of his incomplete novels. But when he returned to England in March 1922 from the Indian sojourn that was meant to inspire him, he was no less adrift than before. As a writer and as a man, he was trapped, having struggled with an unrequited love for Mohammed el Adl, the married Egyptian tram conductor whom he’d met in Alexandria during the war, as laboriously as he’d wrestled with his continuing failure in fiction. That he was well into middle age and living with his mother was lost on no one, least of all himself.

T. S. Eliot—“That strange young man Eliot,” as Virginia once called him—was as uncertain of himself and his work, as adrift, as Forster and Woolf were. He marked the start of 1922 in Lausanne, Switzerland, recovering from a nervous breakdown so severe he had left his job at Lloyds Bank for a three-month rest cure in October 1921. Eliot’s distress, in part, was rooted in the sense of failure he shared with Woolf and Forster. Eliot, during his Lausanne treatment and in London before and after it, had to face down his inability to make any real headway on a long poem he had been contemplating for years. The many disparate pieces of what would become The Waste Land consisted in part of lines and fragments written during the war and before, including some bits from his undergraduate days at Harvard. For many years, the poem existed only in the future tense. Eliot could not put it together in a coherent way, and the frustrations and collapse that shadowed him as 1922 began were the culmination of years of attenuated effort.

“I am trying to finish a poem,” Eliot wrote from Lausanne to a friend shortly before Christmas. It was “about 800 or 1000 lines . . . Je ne sais pas si ça tient.” I do not know whether it will work. It was as if he could not express his doubts in English, hiding his fear of failure in a whispered aside in French.

D. H. Lawrence might have been speaking for them all when as the new year began he wrote his friend Earl Brewster from Taormina.

More and more I feel that meditation and the inner life are not my aim, but some sort of action and strenuousness and pain and frustration and struggling through. Men have to fight a way for the new incarnation. And the fight and the sorrow and the loss of blood, and even the influenzas and the headache are part of the fight and the fulfillment. Let nobody try to filch from me even my influenza.—I’ve got influenza at the moment.

As ill himself as Woolf and Eliot, who came down with influenza just as Woolf became sick, he was also as much at odds with domestic life as Eliot and Forster, anxious for change, restless with routine, almost allergic to his surroundings, and as eager as Woolf, Forster, and Eliot to start on new work. Lawrence and his wife, Frieda, living in self-exile in Sicily since 1919, were longingly and persistently in search of what Lawrence called “naked liberty”—the freedom to write, but also, simply, to live without prejudice and without the moral straitjacket England represented. A year and a half in Taormina, absorbed in the “carelessness of the South which dispelled like an unconscious benison the harsh and petty carefulness” of his English roots, living in a big house with a big garden, “beautiful and green, green, and full of flowers . . . on a steep slope at some distance above the sea—looking East,” had not, after all, put enough distance between Lawrence and the England he had fled.

In late 1921, vacillating about where he might “live apart and out of the usual pattern,” he received an invitation from the wealthy patron of the arts Mabel Dodge Sterne, who hoped he would come to Taos, New Mexico, to live near her in a house she had ready for him and write a novel about the ancient land and the persisting spirit of the Taos Pueblo. He agreed, impulsively, yes. He would come. But, as he recognized, “my compass-needle is a shifty devil,” he wrote, and he put America on hold.

Lawrence, in 1922, was years away from publishing his most notorious novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover. The novel, published privately in 1928, spans the years 1917 to 1924. Yet Constance Chatterley first meets her lover, the gamekeeper Oliver Mellors, at the beginning of 1922, on a “frosty morning with a little February sun,” as if finally, after five years of reliving the horror of the war that had crippled her husband and made him impotent, Lady Chatterley at last feels the frozen core of her own life beginning to melt. Her existence, she muses, is “either a dream or frenzy, inside an enclosure,” a glass bubble of domestic ennui from which sex will deliver her. As 1922 began, Woolf, Forster, Eliot, and Lawrence himself were similarly impatient to break free—but from the stifling enclosure of literary tradition.

Just before Lady Chatterley meets her lover, she is talking with her husband, surveying together the dwindling forests that surround their estate. “One must preserve some of the old England!” Clifford Chatterley says from his wheelchair.

“Must one!” Constance replies. “If it has to be preserved, and preserved against the new England?”

Lady Chatterley poses the question almost to herself, but it was precisely what Lawrence, Eliot, Woolf, and Forster were asking themselves, on the page and at home, with their friends, or in their diaries and letters. It was the question of their lives at the start of 1922, when the ice of the postwar hangover they shared with Lady Chatterley was finally on the verge of thawing, although they didn’t know it yet.

I do not know whether it will work, Eliot had written. In fact, 1922 would be a crucial year of change and outstanding creative renaissance for Woolf, Lawrence, Forster, and himself.


Behind these four writers’ creative struggles and triumphs and private dramas—nervous breakdowns, chronic illness, intense loneliness, isolation, and depression, not to mention the difficulties of love and marriage and legal and financial troubles—lay a common spectral ghost: the cataclysm of World War I that each of them, in 1922, almost four years after the Armistice, was at last able to deal with creatively.

In 1922, Eliot, Forster, Lawrence, and Woolf each discovered a private literary way to recapture and to bridge the lost time that the war represented. The gap itself—the distance of the past that had been made more unrecoverable by the trauma of the war—now became the theme of their work. “Under the brown fog of a winter dawn, / A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many,” Eliot writes in The Waste Land. One consequence of the unprecedented scale of killing during World War I was a new awareness that the past became a piece of the present through the experience of memory.

“Big Ben was striking as she stepped out in the street,” Virginia Woolf wrote at the start of “Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street,” the 1922 story that became her 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. “The war was over,” Clarissa will think. But the sound Virginia Woolf conjured signaled at the same time that the war was present everywhere. It had been three and a half years since the Armistice, but in small ways and large England was unable to escape the war or its long aftermath. Church bells did not chime in England until after the war was over, forbidden by the Defense of the Realm Act in 1914. And though each year on November 11, the anniversary of the Armistice, the nation observed a two-minute silence in honor of the fallen, this did not seem to sanctify their sacrifice enough. In November 1921, the Royal British Legion had begun Poppy Day, a new way to mark the anniversary that Field Marshal Haig asked the nation to join. His plan was that to support ex-servicemen, people should buy a “Flanders poppy” to wear that day as a “sign of remembrance and reverence” for the thousands of “our heroes who lie beneath this flower in Flanders field.” The idea for the silk flowers came from the wartime poem by the Canadian lieutenant colonel John McCrae that began “In Flanders fields the poppies blow / Between the crosses row on row.” This was to be the third Remembrance Day, but Haig’s idea, and his call that “November 11 shall be a real Remembrance Day,” suggested that the solemnity of the day had been ebbing year by year and must be reconsecrated in a way visible to all (and a rebuke to those who did not buy or wear a poppy). The response was so great—eight million sold on that one day, not enough to satisfy demand, and more than £105,000 raised—that on Remembrance Day 1922, another real Remembrance Day, more than thirty million would be sold. Remembrance was now a national effort even as individuals were, in their own daily lives, moving farther and farther away from it.

The English translation of the first volume of Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu was published in September 1922, only six weeks before the fourth anniversary of the Armistice. The title the translator C. K. Scott Moncrieff chose for the volume was Swann’s Way, an apt English counterpart to the French original, Du côté de chez Swann. The title of the seven-volume work he translated more freely as Remembrance of Things Past. It was an allusion to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 30: “When to the sessions of sweet silent thought / I summon up remembrance of things past / I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought.” But Scott Moncrieff was a veteran and had been injured in the war. Remembrance of things, including the war, was very much on his mind, and on England’s. Remembrance Day—Poppy Day—endures nearly one hundred years later. The design of the flowers, and their manufacture, has changed, as have the wars the nation remembers.


Autumn 1921 brought remembrance of the war back in another way. At almost the same time as Poppy Day was announced, Parliament was debating a return to the prewar licensing hours that would allow people to eat and drink at both earlier and later hours than wartime restrictions mandated by the Defense of the Realm Act. The effort would mean that people could return, as the Times reported, to their prewar “liberties” (Lawrence’s “naked liberty” in a different guise). But not everyone was pleased with this idea, and the issue was debated—not only in Parliament but vociferously among groups opposed to and in favor of the return. It was a question of morality for some—akin to the idea for Prohibition in the United States—but for others it was a question of business. Hotels and restaurants were eager for the change, and their customers, they argued, were, too. It was not to be simple. Parliament voted to change the hours, but local resistance led to confusion across the country. In London the difference was felt borough by borough, where different boards oversaw different districts and wished for different times (an extra hour before lunch, to cater to visiting tourists, or a later hour at night, to satisfy theatergoers and others). On one side of the street in the West End of London the rules were one way, on the other side another.

Some of the most famous lines in The Waste Land take on a new meaning in the context of England’s awkward embrace of its onetime liberties. A conversation is overheard in a pub, the snippet as unmoored from clarity (and clarifying punctuation) as such conversations usually are.

When Lil’s husband got demobbed, I said—
I didn’t mince my words, I said to her myself,

. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
And if you don’t give it him, there’s others will, I said.
Oh is there, she said. Something o’ that, I said.
Then I’ll know who to thank, she said, and give me a straight look.

The interjections were the familiar cry of the pub owner asking for last orders. It is repeated five times in the poem. Eliot had written this section during or just after the war, and later said the exchange was recounted to him by his maid. By the time he published The Waste Land in October 1922, it had become the slogan for a changing London. The narrator of the poem, walking through postwar London, had not known that death had undone so many. The narrator might have been equally surprised by where and when he might drink.

One consequence of the unprecedented scale of killing during World War I was a world haunted by the palpable absence the death of so many created: the past made indelibly present by loss that could not be forgotten. The techniques these writers experimented with in 1922 were an attempt to make personal and artistic sense of a dislocation in time and consciousness between the country England had been before the war and what it was now, and between the artists they had been then and the pioneers they were becoming. Looking back at their work before the war and just afterward—and at the work that Joyce and Proust were doing—impelled them to confront and pin down on paper the texture and vitality of a new landscape of the mind. In formulating a new equation of experience and memory, in reinventing the literary depiction of the past and its persistence in the present, Eliot, Forster, Lawrence, and Woolf conspired to make the modern happen. Memories of the war were inescapable on the streets of London, and across the nation and Europe, a misery compounded by the start, during the winter of 1921–22, of an influenza epidemic unlike any seen in Europe since the pandemic of 1918–19. It was not clear, as 1921 ended and as 1922 began, how much worse it would become.

Virginia Woolf became extremely ill with influenza the first week of January. She was one of the homebound casualties and she did not know whether her various ideas for new books would also be.

Copyright © 2017 by Bill Goldstein.

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BILL GOLDSTEIN, the founding editor of the books site of The New York Times on the Web, reviews books and interviews authors for NBC’s “Weekend Today in New York.” He is also curator of public programs at Roosevelt House, the public policy institute of New York’s Hunter College. He received a PH.D in English from City University of New York Graduate Center in 2010, and is the recipient of writing fellowships at MacDowell, Yaddo, Ucross and elsewhere.