- Reviewed by
It is both surprising and refreshing that the opening sentence of Ann Ardis's introduction to Women's Experience of Modernity credits the inspiration for this collection to someone else. Rather than engage in scholarship's combative rites of passage or other intellectual skirmishes, Ardis begins with a declaration of allegiance, self-consciously proclaiming that the volume she coedited with Leslie Lewis "rises to the challenge" posed by Rita Felski in The Gender of Modernity (1995): "How would our understanding of modernity change if instead of [End Page 513] taking male experience as paradigmatic, we were to look instead at texts written primarily by or about women? And what if feminine phenomena, often seen as having a secondary or marginal status, were given a central importance in the analysis of the culture of modernity? What difference would such a procedure make?" While Felski began the work of imagining and theorizing that difference, Ardis and Lewis start to fill in the details in their compelling, wide-ranging collection. Choosing the term "modernity" over "modernism," they continue the revisionist work of critics, like Felski, who argue that we cannot confine our understanding of modern culture to the study of a relatively small group of experimental writers and artists.
Though not traditionally interdisciplinary—there are no articles on the visual or performing arts here—this collection challenges textual boundaries to explore the impact of political, economic, and sociological phenomena on women's lives from the fin de siècle through the Second World War. Women's Experience of Modernity consists of three sections. The first, "Negotiating the Literary Marketplace," is the most conventional in the sense that it makes creative authorship its subject. However, as Ardis herself admits in her introduction, these essays stretch the boundaries of the canon by recognizing "'Edwardian' middlebrow essayists, 'Georgian' pastoral poets, fin de siècle urban ethnographers, and a best-selling child diarist" as true peers of modernists like H. D. and Radclyffe Hall (3-4). Yet unlike other collections, the objective here is not so much to resurrect forgotten writers or reset the conventional opening of the modern period (it does both), but to analyze how women writers used strategies other than experimental form to represent and theorize their experience. Contributors to this section chart new territory as they demonstrate how well-executed style analysis can illuminate the subtleties of cultural change. Among the most compelling, Talia Schaffer reveals ways in which the clotted, old-fashioned diction of Alice Meynell's essays functions as a politically and sexually subversive rhetorical strategy; Francesca Sawaya explores how Jane Addams veers between the discourses of professionalism and nostalgia in her writings; and Claire Buck examines the historical reasons behind Radclyffe Hall's abandonment of poetic form. Focusing on the connections between authorship, gender, race, and sexual identity, essays in this section reveal within many of these authors a dramatic, if often cloaked, struggle between the traditional and the subversive.
Like the first section of Women's Experience of Modernity, "Outside the Metropolis" primarily focuses on female authors of poetry and fiction. This group of essays participates in larger conversations about the canon by examining the impact of the modern on women [End Page 514] from India, South Africa, Asia, and colonial Britain. While a few of these contributors engage in rather limited arguments about national, racial, and economic identities, there are several standouts: Piya Pal-Lapinski combines an analysis of turn-of-the-century gynecological textbooks and Bram Stoker's Lair of the White Worm to explore fascinating connections between British colonialism and anxieties about the female body, while Lynn Thiesmeyer examines the transcribed narrative of Khun Fa, an aged and illiterate Chinese immigrant to Thailand, placing modernity's impact on the uneducated female masses at the literal center of this collection.
In their last section, "The Shifting Terrain of Public Life," Ardis and Lewis stretch the boundaries of literary inquiry to include such populist "genres" as pamphlets, magazine articles, and sex advice manuals. Though we find entries here on familiar writers...