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Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development
by Jed Esty

Reviewed by Chris Mourant


Published:

Published by Oxford University Press, 2012   |   2012 pages

In his first book, published in 2004, Jed Esty posed a relatively simple research question: if the accumulation and concentration of economic, social and cultural power in metropolitan London in the high age of British imperialism between 1880 and 1930 shaped and inflected the character of British literary modernism, as has long been recognised, then what was the relation of literary culture to the contraction and diffusion of imperial power from 1930? In A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England, Esty explored this relation via a critical reassessment of the ‘late modernism’ of writers such as T. S. Eliot, Virginia Woolf and E. M. Forster. By tracing the ways in which these writers in the thirties and forties began to deemphasise the redemptive agency of universal art and promote instead the particularity of national culture, Esty highlighted the ways in which the potential energy of a contracting British Empire was converted into the language not of aesthetic decline but of cultural revival. The Anglicism of Eliot’s Four Quartets is indicative of this turn inwards towards national culture as a source of revival. Esty’s ability to perceive and then articulate a broad literary-historical trend made A Shrinking Island a significant intervention within ‘modernist studies’, reorienting the perception of canonical authors by focusing attention on later works and reinvigorating the study of an often neglected transition period in literary history. A Shrinking Island also signalled Esty’s commitment to geographical thinking, something he returns to in his second book, Unseasonable Youth: Modernism, Colonialism, and the Fiction of Development.

In the Foreword to Unseasonable Youth, Esty’s editors list the theorists his work is most indebted to: Georg Lukàcs, Fredric Jameson and Franco Moretti. This lineage places Esty firmly within the tradition of Marxist literary criticism. In his article ‘Conjectures on World Literature’ (2000), for instance, Moretti argued that world literature is a system analogous to global capitalism, in that it ‘is simultaneously one, and unequal: with a core, and a periphery (and a semiperiphery) that are bound together in a relationship of growing inequality.’ Both Jameson and Moretti have developed the idea that the modern novel first arises as a compromise between foreign form and local reality, suggesting a direct correlation between the development of literary forms and the structures of global markets. Influenced by theoretical formulations such as these, Esty in Unseasonable Youth charts the ways in which the novel form of the Bildungsroman was shaped, transformed and distorted by the increasing globalisation and uneven economic development witnessed at the turn of the twentieth century. This thesis owes much to Moretti’s book The Way of the World: The Bildungsroman in European Culture (1987). Here, Moretti argued that the main purpose of the Bildungsroman was to manage the effects of modernisation by representing it within a safe narrative scheme: ‘youth’ becomes the master trope for ‘modernity’, signifying the constant transformation of industrial society and the growing interiority and mobility of bourgeois, middle-class subjects; and the narrative closures of adulthood or marriage reconcile the potentially boundless (youth and constant transformation) with the finality of social determination, thereby encoding a deeply counterrevolutionary and conservative impulse. One need only think of the novels of Jane Austen to understand how these techniques of narrative closure operate. Esty extends Moretti’s thesis by introducing the idea of nationhood: in the same way that adulthood gives a finished form to the modern subject, he argues, nationhood gives a finished form to modern societies. Throughout Unseasonable Youth, Esty reiterates a single research question: what happens to the form of the Bildungsroman novel when the reciprocal allegories of ‘self-making’ and ‘nation-building’ (or self-development and economic development) no longer seem adequate to the representation of life in an increasingly globalised world of uneven development?

In the early chapters, Esty’s analysis extends back to Goethe’s Wilhelm Meister, conventionally thought to be the first and preeminent Bildungsroman, and encompasses the works of nineteenth-century authors such as Dickens, Scott and Balzac. One of the strengths of Esty’s study is the way in which it charts the residual realism of high modernism, revealing the continuities between Victorian and early twentieth-century critiques of developmental thinking and modes of representation. His analysis of George Eliot’s The Mill on the Floss, for instance, highlights the ways in which the novel subverts the generic ethos of maturity and eschews the standard ending for a Bildungsroman, anticipating later narrative innovations. As the relatively stable temporal frames of national destiny that underpin the individual development of a central protagonist from youth to adulthood in the classic Bildungsroman are exposed to increasingly conspicuous and global uneven development at the beginning of the twentieth century, Esty argues, the social frames of reference for the novel become more uncertain, narrative closure becomes more impossible, and youth becomes stunted, thwarted, regressive, ‘unseasonable’. The arrested-development of a central protagonist – either through frozen youth or sudden death – refuses the narrative closure of maturity and thereby registers the widening gap between an imperial, Enlightenment narrative of continual progress and the actual history of modernisation. Unseasonable Youth pivots on the fin de siècle, with its core decades corresponding roughly to what Eric Hobsbawm identifies as the ‘age of empire’ (1875-1914). Late Victorian and early twentieth-century literary figures such as Dorian Gray and Peter Pan are emblematic of characters that will not or cannot grow up. Esty argues that this trope of ‘unseasonable youth’ proliferates as economic development becomes increasingly global and uneven.

Unseasonable Youth is principally concerned with the works of modernist exemplars, from H. G. Wells and Joseph Conrad to Virginia Woolf and James Joyce. In her first novel The Voyage Out, for instance, Woolf depicts the young protagonist Rachel Vinrace’s sea voyage to South America on her father’s ship, a rite of passage and course of self-discovery that is cut short when Rachel suddenly dies of a mysterious illness: conspicuously linked to a confrontation with the masculine realm of global economic development, Rachel’s entrance into the world of adulthood is also an exit. Similarly, James Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus is described by Esty as ‘an anti-hero devoid of enterprise and motivation and hope – all the qualities that define the protagonist in a novel of progress’. Esty links this arrested development and displacement of action, in which Stephen is always trying to assert moral and temporal control over the process of his own formation, to a fundamental breakdown of the soul-nation allegory in early twentieth-century Ireland, in which emergent nationalism is always troubled by colonialism, patriarchal and religious power, and stunted economic development.

Esty’s main contribution is undoubtedly to the field of modernist studies. Yet this book will also be of significant interest to theorists of postcolonial and world literatures. Esty’s analysis of texts by Olive Schreiner, Jean Rhys and Elizabeth Bowen enables him to chart the ways in which the early-twentieth-century critique and subversion of the Bildungsroman self-nation allegory directly influenced the formation of later postcolonial and devolutionary writing. In one of the most interesting sections of the book, Esty tracks a devolutionary ‘post-British Empire world of separated and relativized national units’. As such, Unseasonable Youth is highly suggestive for further work within literary studies into the way in which late-twentieth and twenty-first century authors responded to a world of both increasing globalism, on the one hand, and political, socio-economic devolution on the other. The novels of Scottish writers such as Alasdair Gray, Irvine Welsh and James Kelman, in particular, come to mind in this regard. Indeed, in his conclusion, Esty highlights how the trope of ‘unseasonable youth’ extends into the late twentieth century, briefly considering authors ranging from Samuel Beckett to Kazuo Ishiguro, Doris Lessing to Tsitsi Dangarembga, Günter Grass to Salman Rushdie, right up to Ben Okri, Ian McEwan, and even ‘lads lit’ authors such as Martin Amis, Jonathan Coe and Nick Hornby. As a result, Esty manages to achieve an astounding breadth of study – from Goethe to Will Self.

Importantly, Esty achieves this breadth of study without ever compromising the insightfulness of his close readings. Esty’s prose is fluid, and his turn of phrase constantly surprising. In a brilliant bit of analysis, for instance, he (re)reads a well-known moment in the opening chapter of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in which ‘Stephen gives order to the (traumatic) disorder of experience by locating himself within a nested geography of classroom, school, town, country, nation, continent, planet, and universe’:

This signal moment of Ptolemaic self-assertion both reinterprets and, in a sense, travesties the soulmaking apparatus of the Goethean hero who builds a nascent intellect out of a kind of cultural global-positioning system always set to the cardinal point of the cosmopolitan self. Such devices – the most hoary conventions of the modern novel as a technology of self-fashioning – are deployed by Joyce but also torque until they lay bare their own status as conventions. This one in particular, the location of the self within a concentric model of political geography, gets tested and exposed as Stephen doggedly exits the circles of family, church, school, and nation.

The above passage is indicative of the quality of Esty’s writing and highlights a particular strength of his study: Unseasonable Youth combines broad analysis of genre, periodisation and historical change with a close attentiveness towards singular moments of word choice and narrative tone, proving that the ‘distant reading’ infamously espoused by Moretti need not come at the expense of detailed ‘close reading’ practices.

Unseasonable Youthis undoubtedly an important book for the way in which it provides a new and rich perspective on the work of several canonical authors, something that so often eludes other writers. Ultimately, the same remarkable ability Esty exhibited in A Shrinking Island for recognising submerged patterns across a wide range of key texts means that Unseasonable Youth will forever change how we think about the modern Bildungsroman and understand ‘the fiction of development’.


Chris Mourant is completing a PhD in English Literature at King’s College London, researching Katherine Mansfield’s relation to magazine culture and global modernity.

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