As some of you may know, I defended my dissertation on Thursday and earned an upgrade in my honorific. (Not bad for someone who failed gym so many times she almost didn't graduate from high school.) Here, in case you're interested, is an excerpt from the statement I made at the beginning of the defense. It outlines why I chose the texts I chose to analyze and how I see these texts (and my readings of them) working together to form a coherent statement on an important and overlooked aspect of late modernist women’s writing in Britain. I'd be happy to hear any responses you might have, as I begin thinking about how to revise the dissertation to book form.
Elizabeth Bowen’s novels The House in Paris (1935) and The Death of the Heart (1938) indicate that something in Britain was broken long before David Cameron came on the scene. “Tradition is broken,” Bowen wrote in 1937. The social mores of the past– the means of organizing the unruliness of everyday life– have been eroded, and superseded by a movement toward a more open society. Social exchange has become a potential minefield, and the consequences of these new freedoms must be dealt with. But how, when (as Noel Coward notes in his play “Private Lives”) the situation is– or at least feels– entirely without precedent?
Elyot, the anti-hero of “Private Lives,” remarks that in light of this, “I shall continue to be flippant.” But Coward himself did not operate exclusively in this frivolous vein. Songs like “Twentieth Century Blues,” which was a hit song in 1931, indicate that Coward felt a more serious urge to bear witness to the confusion and pessimism of the period.
Why is it that civilized humanity
Can make the world so wrong ?
In this hurly-burly of insanity
Our dreams cannot last long
Twentieth century blues.
They’re getting me down.
Escape those weary
Twentieth century blues.
In Coward’s more serious moments, “humanity” rhymes with “insanity.” The song, Coward said later, “struck the right note of harsh discordance and typified…the curious hectic desperation [he] wished to convey” (177). The 1930s will continue in this “musical” vein: the rhythm is stylized, ironic, but the melody’s in a minor key, and the lyrics are laced with wariness and uncertainty.
Having read the scholarship on 1930s British women’s writing, I knew that I didn’t want to look at texts that were explicitly political, as these had received ample attention, but rather texts that characterized what seemed to me most important to highlight about British women’s late modernism: a sense of uncertainty and belatedness. I wanted to concentrate on texts that seemed to hesitate before any final resolution, that were still interested in the potential of modernist form while aware of the limitations of what high modernism had achieved.
I tried to imagine what the aims of this late modernism could be– what all these revisions were tending towards. I tested out idea of authenticity, or impersonality, or more feminist ideas that would read these texts as “coming into their own” narratives. In chapter five I do come close to this last idea, offering the thesis that Bowen appropriates masculine spaces as spaces for female “becomings.” but even this term “becoming” implies a forestalled arrival. “Becoming” is an ongoing state.
This refusal of totalities, the suspicion of concepts like “marriage,” “civilization,” “humanity,” came to be a crucial aspect of late modernism for me. Throughout the dissertation I build upon this idea, and finally explore it in my final chapter on Woolf, where I look at the tension in Woolf’s poetics between embodiment and suspension, between sensation and the written word. I find that her reading of DH Lawrence is a key component to understanding her insistence on indeterminacy. That Woolf herself participated in high modernism and late modernism places her work in a position to provide a solid conclusion to my exploration of these ideas of belatedness and uncertainty that I am claiming as characterizations of the era.
Let me contrast a novel I didn’t write about with one that I did, to make clear the difference between late modernism and 1930s women’s writing. Winifred Holtby’s 1936 novel South Riding similarly explores this feeling of incertitude, in the battered optimism of the young headmistress Sarah Burton, the impending bankruptcy of gentleman farmer Robert Carne, the fortunes of the brilliant young student Lydia Holley, born and raised in the Kingsport slums and charged with looking after her brood of brothers and sisters after her mother dies in childbirth, and the foibles and tragedies of the different members of the community of South Riding.
Holtby’s novel is about the difference that local government can make in people’s lives: each book of the novel is named after a sub-committee of the local council (which include Education, Public Health, and Highways and Bridges) and the events of the novel are filtered through these nexuses of social concern. Although the general tone of the novel is hopeful, its final lessons are ambiguous. Sarah Burton, the energetic young headmistress who is the novel’s heroine, quotes to her students at the 1935 Silver Julibee celebration the following lines from the nationalistic hymn by Cecil Spring Rice, “I vow to thee, my country”:
‘The love that asks no questions, the love that stands the test,
That lays upon the altar the dearest and the best…’
“Don’t take that literally,” Sarah tells her students.
Don’t let me catch any of you at any time loving anything without asking questions. Question everything– even what I’m saying now. (510)
This in an apt ending to an extremely moving and stirring novel, one that ends on an embrace of death and yet finds in the abyss a necessary outline for the life before us. (Woolf makes a similar point, though in a more modernist mode, in The Waves.) To question, always, is the political duty of these young women: not to subscribe to the doxa of patriarchal nationalism contained in sentimental patriotic solemnities.
Although it seems most everyone in the town is having a difficult time of it, Holtby reserves most of her sympathy for the town’s women, who are fated by their sex to take jobs below their capacities and training, serve as “household drudges,” and bear not only the physical agony of childbirth, but the burden of raising the child. “I’m going to have another child,” Nancy Mitchell wails. “And how are we going to live? Oh God! How are we going to live!” (246)
This question provides one of the most productive intersections between South Riding and The Death of the Heart. Bowen’s novel takes up this question in a mannered, elegant, ironic conversation between the sophisticated Anna Quayne and her friend St Quentin: “Also you know, you do always seem to think there must be some obvious way for other people to live. In this case there really is not, I'm afraid” (16). Where in some cases the accepted social code may be “obvious,” in this case, Anna remarks, it is inapplicable. Whereas the characters of South Riding ask “How are we to live?” and call on the local council for help, the disillusioned characters of The Death of the Heart, deserted by country, religion, or upbringing, can turn only to each other, glancing at their neighbors to see how they’re doing it, hiding from the neighbors their breaches of conduct. “We must live how we can,” the narrator concludes.
There are a number of differences, superficial and profound, between South Riding and The Death of the Heart: differences in each novel’s attitudes towards feminism and conservatism, the range of social classes of the characters they feature, as well as the contrast between the northern provinces of England and the southern metropolitan center. But the differences I want to highlight between the ambiguities and uncertainties of South Riding versus those of The Death of the Heart have to do with the blending of social concerns with issues of style and of form. Although the novels share many of the same concerns, this is the basis of my decision to include texts such as those by Lehmann, Rhys, and Woolf alongside those of Bowen: all four women are engaged in a similar project of social and formal revision.
It would be a stretch to classify South Riding within the category of modernism. Although they share thematic concerns, Bowen seems more interested in the possibilities of form, whereas Holtby seems more interested in the possibilities of message. “We are members of one another,” Holtby writes in her prefatory letter to her mother, quoting Paul’s letter to the Romans (Romans 12:3-8). She is not only referring to members of the same community, of course, but to the community of humanity. Bowen’s citydwellers, on the other hand, feel more alienated than ever, and have an awareness of themselves as estranged from anything as conventional as a community. Communities, for Bowen, are in the process of being dissolved, and there is not much that can be done about it. Bowen’s novels and essays constantly interrogate and ironize concepts like “community,” and “humanity.” Her novels interpret themselves for the reader, her sentences twist in syntax to avoid banality, her young heroines are intensely aware of themselves as young heroines, her novelistic forms double back on themselves. Andrew Bennett and Nicholas Royle call this aspect of Bowen’s work the “dissolution of the modern novel.”
So how is one to live, when the very ideals Holtby turns to no longer seem coherent? I suggest that in order to answer this question, Bowen– and the other writers I consider– operates in a constant state of attunement: to the reader’s expectations, to her literary forebears, to high modernism, to the social context her novels describe. As I read and thought about these issues in the work of Rhys, Woolf, and Lehmann, it became clear to me that answering Nancy Mitchell’s question– how are we to live– requires a certain social literacy, requiring the pairing of visual perception with an informed sense-experience, in Merleau-Ponty’s terms. In Bowen’s novels, social expectations hang in the air as a vague presence to which all parties refer without knowing to what they are referring. Bowen makes clear the extent to which these social norms are unarticulated; because of this they produce a generalized anxiety, both for those who can’t negotiate the rules, and for those who think they can. Rosamund Lehmann articulates social know-how as a question of “fit,” and her novel Invitation to the Waltz (1931) is accordingly preoccupied with clothing and fashion sense. Bowen articulates the breakdown of social norms through the dislocations, ruptures, deferrals, and elsewheres that mark her early novels. Storytelling, spectacle, and uncertainty are all associated in Rhys’s work. And in The Waves (1931), Woolf’s characters are all asking variants of this question, looking to each other to learn how to be, turning around an invisible center, their questionings punctuated by the cycles of nature.
There is, then, a coincidence of perception and late modernism, a function of the thoroughgoing ambiguity or hesitation of the 1930s. (…)