The English Novel of the 1960s



Dr Joe Jackson: Assistant Professor, Department of English, University of Nottingham


17 July



It may make sense to conceive of two different temporalities defining the 1960s: as a calendrical period and as a popular era. In the first, straightforward case, the 1960s begin on January 1st 1960 and end on December 31st 1969. In the second, the earliest years of the calendrical decade might be understood as the concluding years of the ‘long 1950s’; the discursive era of the 1960s, with its rich and deep cultural associations and echoes, begins at a later point. In terms of the literature of England, this latter understanding of the 1960s is useful insofar as it offers a neat periodisation of what was called ‘angry young’ culture (an umbrella term disavowed by almost all writers grouped underneath it) in the late 1950s and persisting into the next decade. This ‘school of genuinely working-class fiction’ (Taylor 103) broke through in theatre, such as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956), and in prose such as John Braine’s Room at the Top (1957), and Alan Sillitoe’s Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1958) or The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner (1959). Rather than a specific movement, these writers operated in a shared cultural and social environment defined by a post-war condition of lack, welfare state intervention, and bourgeois culture. The formal characteristics of the works themselves also suggested a class dimension, in their thematic representation of the inequalities and rigidity of the British class structure, day-to-day experiences of alienated labour, and in new experiments with language. ‘Dialect’ writing defined itself starkly against the Received Pronunciation that was then the preserve of British state-culture, and made a strong claim for the legitimacy of ‘unsanctioned’ culture. Abandoning the ‘personal-realist’ novel, this new moment of the ‘social-realist’ English novel meant, in the words of Michael Gardiner, ‘the recovery of the everyday in culture’, and consequentially, a return of national England against an absorptive Britishness (Gardiner, The Return of England in English Literature 85).


David Storey’s This Sporting Life (1960) encodes many of these elements: alienation, class exploitation; regional and cultural marginalisation; and a suspicion of state interventions. The novel represents the body as the site of class conflict, in the immediate harrowing of protagonist Arthur Machin – the loss of his teeth. Rugby league, with its working-class and regional associations, allegorises the pain, vulnerability and repetition of factory labour, while his injured body suggests the speculacularised consumption of the working-class body for profit, literally through sport, and analogously through work. This is reinforced by the machinic implication Machin’s name, positioning him not as human but as an apparatus, as a reductive function. Machin’s description of the post-match ambience reinforces these ideas:


[W]e’re sitting crowded in the bath, the hot water jerking at the broken skin. A thin seep of blood and mud darkens the surface. It breaks and coils around the slumped men. The heads stick above the water like protesting animals in a pool; I give over trying to think.’ (8)


Anger around class conditions ‘seeps’ here: crowding and disempowerment; ‘therapies’ that agitate rather than soothe; men as farm animals being deloused or prepared for the abattoir; the impossibility of thought and the frustration of social relations.


The suggestion that sport constitutes an almost-literal corralling of the working class into a disciplining system maintained for the profit and social benefit of others strongly echoes Alan Sillitoe’s Smith in ‘The Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner’, who rejects certain victory in sporting competition as protest against a kind of obedient absorption into ossified, middle-class structures of achievement. Sillitoe’s work in the late 1950s had contributed to opening a space for writers such as Storey, Stan Barstow (A Kind of Loving, 1960), and Sid Chaplin (Day of the Sardine, 1962). He continued the line of enquiry into exhausting, exploitative labour in Key to the Door (1961), the title of the novel alluding to a mythology of social mobility that concludes with a note of bitter irony regarding the door that one must ‘flex your labouring muscles to open’ (448). As John Lucas has argued, ‘[w]riters who had in the 1950s either changed their style in the next decade or struggled to stay true to their belief in the realism that had sustained them in their earlier work.’ (‘The Sixties: Realism and Experiment’ 546). Key to the Door marked the development of Sillitoe’s work and a clearer manifestation of larger political themes that went beyond ‘local realism’ to a more worlded and structural ‘anger’ in the form of European and Commonwealth class consciousness. The novel also ran counter to prevailing assumptions about the Labour party as representing working-class interests:


Labour, Brian repeated, bending to pull up his share of a huge stone. Labour – the word had a stern ring to it, like the hard labour they gave you in court. Perhaps this was soft labour since everybody voted for it. […] [A]ll big names seemed like devil’s threats to keep his soul in thrall. (158)


In the context of the early 1960s, Sillitoe’s writing registers a bitter scepticism at the role of the state, including the post-war welfare settlement pioneer by Labour, in the lives of working people. For Brian Seaton, the ambitions of the Labour party are for the valorisation and continuity of labour, and a ‘stern’ paternalism, rather than the emancipation of working people pulling up ‘huge stones’; Labour, a political ‘big name’, has effected little meaningful change in his life. The reference to a soul in thrall, meanwhile, alludes to what he considers a meaningful political project: liberation from drudgery and freedom to define himself outside the narrow constraints of working life and ‘workerism’. 


The kind of masculine consternation found in the gender relations of ‘angry’ writing in the period emerges from the same moment of political foment that saw improvements to women’s rights in the 1960s. Revisions to property and abortion law, and workplace gains in the form of successful industrial action and the first women in the Cabinet, were concrete outcomes that registered broader shifting post-war attitudes and a sense of cultural change. In fiction, these changes could be seen in the novel: motherhood and its profound, unusual effects; sexual expression and the effacement of puritanical morality; labour and the working woman; and women of independent means and ideas. One such example is Margaret Forster’s Georgy Girl (1965). Forster, herself a part of the ‘working-class set’ breaking into novel publishing, was the Carlisle-born daughter of a factory worker and housewife, but like Margaret Drabble, taps into the ‘swing’ of London metropolitan life that was an expanding feature of the national imagination in the 1960s. In Georgy Girl, a novel of de- and re-threaded familial relationships that result in unorthodox configurations, the outcomes of these newly redrawn relational networks are not always expected or necessarily empowering. Importantly, however, neither to they suggest an explicit tone of moral censure or remonstration. Behind the swinging metropolitan lifestyle, Georgy Girl also points to the growing ‘disciplinary’ power of advertising and the perfectible female image in that historical moment:


George laughed out loud, a great guffaw, the tears pricking behind her eyes. She didn’t see how she could ever stop looking like a caricature. It was something to do with her face being too long and big and her damned hair being the way it was. As ever, she struggled with herself not to give way to self-pity. She had to try to alter herself. (14)


This passage also presents a subtle indication of the ‘writerly’ qualities of the novel, in the knowing reference to the struggles of character creation: a figure who can’t seem to ‘stop looking like a caricature’, that must ‘try to alter herself’ – a reflexive moment suggestive of postmodern experiment.


Like Georgy Girl, Drabble’s The Millstone (1965) centres on childbirth and changing attitudes to motherhood and marriage. It depicts the pregnancy and childbirth of Rosamund, a single, academic woman, and her personal growth and developing autonomy, along with a ‘peculiar tension between […] the innocent vulnerability of Rosamund […] and her determination to take responsibility for her own life’ (Lucas, 557). The novel is starkly illustrative of the continuation of gender differences in the 1960s - for example, it anticipates ‘victim blaming’ discourses of present at certain moments – and continues a critical position on welfare state intervention in the post-war period; the National Health Service is considered with a wary eye, suggestive of paternalistic structures and social control, rather than beatified. In the final stages of the novel, a radical privileging of female experience is registered most explicitly:


Love had isolated me more securely than fear, habit or indifference. There was one thing in the world that I knew about, and that one thing was Octavia. I had lost the taste for half-knowledge. George, I could see, knew nothing with such certainty. I neither envied nor pitied his indifference, for he was myself, the self that but for accident, but for fate, but for chance, but for womanhood, I would still have been. (172)


In the intensity of Rosamund’s love for Octavia, her bourgeois ‘half-knowledge’ is sacrificed for the ‘certainty’ constitutive of maternal feeling. Although the fetishisation of female reproductive function has subsequently been criticised by feminist thought, Drabble’s juxtaposition of an intellectual and academically-talented woman, autonomous outside of socially-sanctioned relationships, with the epiphanic quality of motherhood, remains provocative for its time.


The 1960s also marked a growth in the popularity and critical acclaim of genre writing, particularly in experimental science fiction responding to rapid technological and social developments, and spy fiction invigorated by the context of the Cold War. Len Deighton’s seminal The IPCRESS File (1962) taps into the intersection of technological progress and the Cold War, where rapid developments in military, psychological and surveillance capabilities feed a concomitant fictional registration. In the novel, strategies of formal obfuscation – nameless characters and temporal uncertainty – reproduce and underline the paucity or conflict of information that characterises the Cold War moment. Meanwhile, Fleming’s James Bond novels, seven of which were published in the 1960s, epitomise a distinct set of attitudes to the Cold War. In an ‘era of escalation’ where the Cold War can be represented as winnable, and ideological contestation retains an imagined ethical justification, British state superiority constantly intervenes to prevent disaster; the manifestation of the British spy, personified in a charismatic and articulate Bond, portrays such intervention as a desirable moral force, despite its neo-imperial and strongly masculine character. Contrastingly, the emergence of Le Carré’s more compromised spy figures, in The Spy Who Came in from the Cold (1963) or The Looking-Glass War (1965), belongs to an ‘era of détente’, preserving a delicate balance and presenting a moral equivalence – or rather a mutual moral void – between competing powers over the Iron Curtain. The British intelligence services are just as willing to be expedient and unethical as their Soviet counterparts. In Le Carré, much of contemporary England can be read in the sharply imagined setting of Leamas’s first stint ‘in the cold’:


‘His flat was small and squalid, done in brown paint with photographs of Clovelly. It looked directly on to the grey backs of three stone warehouses, the windows of which were drawn, for aesthetic reasons, in creosote […] fraying brown carpets and the clumsy darkwood furniture, like something from a seaman’s hospital. […] They were beginning to know him elsewhere too, the grey, shambling figure from the Mansions. Not a wasted word did he speak, not a friend, neither man, woman nor beast did he have.’ (27)


Sharply juxtaposed against Fleming’s stylish upper-class Bond, with his glamorous international lifestyle, Le Carré’s England is ‘squalid’, ‘brown’/’grey’ and ‘fraying’, the intelligence operative a ‘grey, shambling figure’: a ‘tattered’ Britain both literal (in terms of post-war decline) and figurative (in terms of a punctured mythology of moral superiority)1.


The 1960s also saw an amplification of a boom in post-war dystopia, channelling George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949). Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange (1962) revealed a developing anxiety around youth culture and self-expression, encoded in the linguistic novelty and ‘foreignness’ of the remarkable ‘Nadsat’ of Alex and his ‘droogs’, their ‘effete’ tastes and clothing, and their gratuitous violence and nihilism. But the novel also pointed towards governmentality as a threat to the liberty and moral health of Britain in the moment, in the agglomeration of state agencies presented as Alex’s antagonists: welfare services; prisons and the police; the government itself; and the thinly-veiled National Health Service that underwrites the rehabilitative atrocities of the Ludovico Technique. The novel’s preoccupation with the possibility of free moral choices depends on such a structure of moral discipline, and derives its substantial energy from precisely the moral context of the British welfare state. A similar desire to break from the constraints of bourgeois society and the over-determining priorities of the welfare state can be seen in the writing of J. G. Ballard, whose novel The Drowned World was also published in 1962. In a prescient narrative of a flooded world as a consequence of environmental degradation and global warming, the protagonist, the scientist Kerans, drifts away from his initial ‘empirical’ mission to measure the new landscape as part of a larger military taskforce.  His conversion into a semi-mystical figure, ‘a second Adam searching for the forgotten paradises of the reborn sun’ (171), sees him heading south, away from the bosom of the military and the rapacious looters, to undoubted death. The novel’s alienated, waterlogged jungle instigates in Kerans an urgent restlessness, to seek out a new understanding of ‘neural’ time, and new worldly experiences. These are presented as antithetical to a barely concealed 1960s Britain, which is literally revealed as the receding waters pumped from the lagoon exposes Leicester Square amidst the drowned cityscape of London. The social context, meanwhile, is encoded in the bonhomie and rigid class hierarchies of the soldiers; the greedy, pointless materialism and short-termism of the looter Strangman; and the absurd positivism of measurement and recording of the end of the human world.


Some of the jarring descriptions of looters in The Drowned World attest to a literary imagination still entangled with some colonial discourses of race, an entanglement that was being interrogated and unpicked by migrant writers in the 1950s, such as Sam Selvon and George Lamming. In the 1960s, alongside these pioneers, other migrant narratives were achieving popular and critical acclaim. V. S. Naipaul, one of the most significant literary voices to emerge from the Anglophone Caribbean, published several works during the 1960s including two of his most famous novels, A House for Mr Biswas (1961) and The Mimic Men (1967). In A House for Mr Biswas, an inept, predestined, Mohun Biswas (in several respects a forerunner of the characters of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children, 1981) struggles to disentangle himself from the weight of tradition and superstition that dominate his Indo-Trinidadian community. His escape is offered by the much-deferred promise of the novel’s title: a house of his own. A House for Mr Biswas is a very English fantasy of home-ownership, but also a deeper metaphor for a form of structured belonging that speaks powerfully to the deracinating experience of migration to England. Flux and instability in the Caribbean, meanwhile, also underpins The Mimic Men, where:


‘the centre, the metropolitan source of standard language, stands as the focus of order, while the periphery, which utilises the variants, the ‘edges’ of language, remains a tissue of disorder. Such geometric opposites are articulated clearly by the narrator, Kripal (‘Cripple’) Singh’

(Ashcroft, Griffiths and Tiffin, The Empire Writes Back 89)


Naipaul’s valorisation of the standard language of the centre marks him as a distinctly different writer to the linguistic experimentation of Selvon, who rendered his synthetic Jamaican into a compelling literary language. It also separates him politically and aesthetically from writers such as Jean Rhys, whose late-career magnum opus Wide Sargasso Sea (1965) inverted the centre-periphery relationship between England and the Caribbean in her retelling of Brontë’s Jane Eyre. The retelling of Antoinette (Bertha) Mason’s childhood, and the seduction and alienation of Rochester in the West Indies, parallels a redistribution of literary significance, where the writing of the Caribbean occupies and renders strange the canonical works of the colonial centre. As a consequence, Wide Sargasso Sea has often been invoked as a classic work of postcolonial ‘writing back’ to English Literature, providing a model that would be followed by many later writers.


Rhys’s resituating and renegotiation of Brontë’s canonical work stood as a form of intertextual rewriting that hinted shifting literary practices later labelled as ‘postmodern’. Although the concept of ‘postmodernism’ only really started to be explicitly named in the 1970s, pre-eminent works are traceable to the English novel of the 1960s – for example in the work of John Fowles and Angela Carter. While tangible markers of ‘the postmodern’ are notoriously difficult to pin down, some elements associated with postmodern literature might – tentatively – include the ‘writerly’ text, that draws attention to the constructedness of narrative, rather than ‘naturalising’ the plot for the reader (a so-called ‘readerly’ text); parody and pastiche – the ‘redrawing’ of texts of the past, and intertextual ‘stitching’; self-reflexivity, where the narrator is implicated, the author is inserted, the book-object itself is infringed. Fowles’s novels of the 1960s, The Collector (1963); The Magus (1965); The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1969), all break dramatically from Victorian realism in their playful, reflexive qualities. The French Lieutenant’s Woman, particularly, presents a system of ‘alternative endings’ that reflect on the stolid novel form itself historically, with its concrete linearity and plot conclusiveness; this is combined with a ‘present narrator’, an authorial presence who participates in self-referential games that emphasise the fictionality and arbitrariness of novel-writing:


In my experience there is only one profession that gives that particular look, with its bizarre blend of the inquisitive and the magistral; of the ironic and the soliciting.

Now could I use you?

Now what could I do with you?



Another form of literary experimentation can be found in the writing of Angela Carter, whose The Magic Toyshop (1967) fearlessly combined allusions to the protagonist’s abuse at the hands of her uncle with an oblique interrogation of female sexuality. Things in Carter are seldom what they seem – moral, and narrative, certainty is usually impossible to establish; radical images and provocative ideas are commonplace.


The combination of Freudian, psychological and psychoanalytical drama with elements of mythology and fairy-tale, tapping into the ambiguities of sexuality, are definitive features of Carter’s writing; she attempted to find new voices for female experience and a new expression of a kind of aesthetic feminism in her work towards the end of the decade.


Finally, the end of the 1960s marked a significant moment in understanding the novel of the late twentieth-century, with the advent of the Booker Prize in 1969. The first Booker was awarded to P. H. Newby’s Something to Answer For; also on the shortlist was Iris Murdoch’s The Nice and the Good and Muriel Spark’s The Public Image. Alan Sinfield remarks that when ‘Leavis and Adorno complained that “good” culture was threatened by consumer culture, they thought they knew which was which. The 1960s realisation was that market structures were organising all cultural production’ (291). Bearing in mind such a realisation, the Booker Prize is a symbolic moment in which our understanding of what constitutes ‘good’ literature became more entangled with formalised systems of judgment that are also ‘organised by market structures’. This is a final, and very significant, engagement with the English novel in the 1960s, in addition to the considerable cultural, social and political changes wrought during the period, and concomitant literary developments brought about by those changing conditions, formal experimentation and shifting perceptions of genre. The decade saw the coalescing of the dominant position of the novel within literary economy, ‘organised by market structures’ and underlined by the structures of endorsement, publicity, commodification, and popular taste epitomised in the Booker – a revelation that should shine a bright light on publishing, and reading, practices up to the present.



[1] I owe a debt of gratitude to my colleague, Dr Steven Morrison, for conversations, and his considerable insight, on the topic of spy fiction in the 1960s.



Primary Bibliography

Ballard, J. G. The Drowned World. New York: Berkley Books, 1962.

Barstow, Stan. A Kind of Loving. London: Michael Joseph, 1960.

Burgess, Anthony. A Clockwork Orange. London: Heinemann, 1962.

Carter, Angela. The Magic Toyshop. London: Heinemann 1967.

Deighton, Len. The IPCRESS File. London: Hodder and Stoughton, 1962.

Drabble, Margaret. The Millstone. London: Weidenfield and Nicolson, 1965.

Forster, Margaret. Georgy Girl. London: Secker and Warburg, 1965.

Fowles, John. The Collector. London: Jonathan Cape, 1963.

- - - The Magus. London: Jonathan Cape, 1965.

- - - The French Lieutenant’s Woman. London: Jonathan Cape, 1969.

Le Carré, John. The Spy Who Came in from the Cold. London: Gollancz, 1963.

Naipaul, VS. A House for Mr Biswas. London: André Deutsch, 1961.

- - - The Mimic Men. London: André Deutsch, 1967.

Rhys, Jean. Wide Sargasso Sea. London: André Deutsch, 1966.

Sillitoe, Alan. Key to the Door. London: W. H. Allen, 1961.

- - - The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. W. H. Allen, 1959.

- - - Saturday Night and Sunday Morning. W. H. Allen, 1958.

Storey, David. This Sporting Life. London: Macmillan, 1960.


Secondary Bibliography

Ashcroft, Bill, Gareth Griffiths and Helen Tiffin. The Empire Writes Back. London: Routledge, 1989.

Gardiner, Michael. The Return of England in English Literature. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Head, Dominic. The Cambridge Introduction to Modern British Fiction 1950-2000.  Cambridge: Cambridge CUP, 2002.

Hewison, Robert. Culture and Consensus. London: Methuen, 1995.

Lucas, John. ‘The Sixties: realism and experiment’ in Laura Marcus and Peter Nicholls  

eds. The Cambridge History of Twentieth Century English Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2004. pp 545-562

Sinfield, Alan. Literature, Politics and Culture in Postwar Britain. London: Bloomsbury,


Taylor, D J After the War: The Novel and England since 1945. London: Chatto and

Windus, 1994


© Dr Joe Jackson, 2017