Ah, the 1930s – the Golden Age of Hollywood, the rise of the Marx Brothers, the first televised Shakespearean play (Twelfth Night, on the BBC, in case you’re wondering), the abdication of King Edward VIII, and the founding of the Frankfurt School of critical thinking and philosophy. Heady days! Not least in literature, too – many of our most beloved texts date back to the thirties. Here’s a quick sampling of some enduring favourites:
1. Brave New World, Aldous Huxley (1932)
Huxley’s vision of the future was all doom and fear, with his talk of social stratification into Alphas, Betas, Epsilons and the rest, and children decanted in hatcheries, and while it began life as a parody of HG Wells’ visions of a Utopian future, Huxley’s version quickly took on a real–world resonance that seems even more relevant today that it did then. Children educated via hypnosis to succumb to the ideological manipulations of the World State for the betterment of its economy? That shouldn’t sound so feasible… Dystopia at its best.
2. The Hobbit, JRR Tolkien (1937)
Ostensibly a kids’ book, Tolkien’s precursor to The Lord of the Rings is snappier, funnier and altogether more readable than its weightier sibling, if you’ll excuse us the heresy: Bilbo Baggins is a witty and intelligent narrator and he introduces all the creatures we’re familiar with from the later books (or from Peter Jackson’s film versions, if you’re visually inclined). It easily stands up to rereading as an adult – in fact, you might become more captivated than your child.
3. Rebecca, Daphne du Maurier (1938)
A ghost story and the tale of an uneasy marriage; the narrator, recently married to the widower Maximilian de Winter, goes to live in hs estate, Manderlay, where she meets the uber-creepy housekeeper, Mrs Danvers and becomes obsessed with discovering how her predecessor, Rebecca, the former Mrs de Winter, died. Paranoia, terror, unsolved crimes – this is a top-notch spooky thriller and definitely beats Hitchcock’s adaptation, however much of a yen you might have for Laurence Olivier and/or Joan Fontaine.
4. Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
Part of a long series of autobiographical novels, this is set in Florida in the early twentieth century and came under early fire for overturning racial stereotypes – which, of course, is partly why it’s still well-known today. Hurston, an African-American writer and part of the Harlem Renaissance, refused to go along with the typical consensus at the time, which was to portray black people’s lives as uniformly unhappy and downtrodden, and she also wouldn’t downplay female sexuality; the result is an excellently nuanced novel that’s still a cracking read today.
5. As I Lay Dying, William Faulker (1937)
Faulkner’s not an easy read, but As I Lay Dying isn’t his most daunting, though it is narrated by fifteen different characters. Don’t let that deter you, though! It’s about the death of Addie Bundren, and her family’s mission to get her buried in the location of her choice, and, despite the bleak subject matter, it’s both uplifting and funny, and has one of the shortest and most memorable chapters in the history of West literature, which we’ll quote in full for your pleasure: ‘My mother is a fish.’ If you’ve not yet read Faulkner, start here.
6. Cold Comfort Farm, Stella Gibbons (1932)
Parodying the romanticisation of rural life that you might take from writers like the Brontes or Mary Webb (very popular in Gibbons’ day), Cold Comfort Farm is an unrelenting black comedy in which the heroine, Flora Poste heads to Sussex to stay with her farming relatives, Aunt Ada Doom and the Starkadders. The phrase ‘laugh out loud’ is overused, but this book warrants it.
7. Tender is the Night, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1934)
Fitzgerald’s tale of the doomed marriage of a psychoanalyst and one of his patients, set mostly in the South of France, is often read as a commentary on his own marriage to Zelda Fitgerald, but it’s a really good read even without all the biographical speculation. Interestingly, two versions are extant – the first was told through flashback, but the revised edition, which came out in 1951, is ordered chronologically. We recommend you read both, if all the failing relationships don’t depress you too much…
8. At Swim-Two-Birds, Flann O’Brien (1939)
Irish satirist O’Brien, a.k.a. journalist Myles na gCopaleen, a.k.a. Brian O’Nolan (his real name) is a brilliant example of metafictional writing at its best: At Swim-Two-Birds tells several stories at the same time, mixing old Irish legends, Westerns and contemporary realism (of a sort), all of which escape their bounds and get tangled up in a postmodern mess that will leave you a bit baffled but very eager for more. (In which case we urge you to try the posthumously published The Third Policeman – probably our favourite of O’Brien’s novels.)
9. South Riding, Winifred Holtby (1936)
From experimental lit to hardcore social realism: Holtby’s masterpiece is set in a fictional part of Yorkshire and explores the imperatives of post-War social change. Socialism faces off against conservatism in a small village, and in a text that’s got as much to teach us now as it did in the 1930s.
10. The Waves, Virginia Woolf (1931)
Generally considered the most overtly experimental of Woolf’s novels, The Waves is the story of a group of seven friends, from young childhood to adulthood, told in six alternating stream-of-consciousness soliloquys. It’s hugely poetic and Woolf herself was apparently loathe to even call it a novel. It’s brilliant, nonetheless, and her evocation of the different characters’ lives through their impressionistic narratives had hardly been bettered since.
These are ten we adore more than ever, but of course the 1930s was awash with wonderful literature. If you think there are other that deserve a mention, we’d love to hear about them in the comments below.