- Step-daughters of England: British Women Modernists and the National Imaginary
When it comes to the application of postcolonial theories to modernist texts, the beginning was promising: after all, Edward Said was trained as a modernist. But the project stumbled in Said's shadow. After some disheartening efforts in which modernist texts were revealed (shocking surprise) to be complicit in imperialist ideology, critics have found more fruitful and intellectually challenging approaches. Recent books by Jed Esty, David Adams, and Robin Hackett all examine the links between modernism and empire, analyzing the complex cultural pressures operating on and within literary texts.1 Jane Garrity's excellent new study importantly extends this grouping's theoretical reach, combining theories of nation, richly-textured readings of women's history, and analysis of a wide range of women writers of the inter-war period. Although the book only treats four writers in depth (Dorothy Richardson, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mary Butts, and Virginia Woolf), it ranges widely among Anglophone women modernists and early twentieth-century feminists: Willa Cather, Radclyffe Hall, Jean Rhys, Jane Harrison and many others enter the discussion (as do the male modernists), providing vivid and illuminating context. The second chapter, "British womanhood and national culture," will prove especially valuable, for it presents the major historical and theoretical context of the book in miniature.
Since September 11, 2001, contemporary thinkers have been meditating on national feeling with new intensity. Where patriotism once seemed a relic of the worst old days of patriarchy, recent events have revived complex feelings of love for, affiliation with, alienation from, and shame at one's country. It once again makes sense to ask: how do I express my affection for [End Page 841] (aspects of) my country while distancing myself from its martial and imperial actions? Each of the writers under consideration here asked herself the same question. Each, at one moment or another, found that she was glad to be English, felt most at home in England, and then questioned how, considering her opposition to empire and her culture's opposition to feminism, this could be so. Furthermore, each resisted the cultural role assigned to her as mother and nurturer of the nation. (And in fact three of the four were childless.)
The inter-war period saw many legal and cultural changes surrounding women's role in society. While the right to vote and the right to inherit property marked significant advances for women, other legislation had less progressive intents. Thus, legislators persecuted lesbian novels but overlooked lesbian behavior, both in an effort to discourage lesbianism. At the same time, several laws promoted rights for mothers. This latter, Garrity argues, was an ambiguous victory as such laws helped women while reinscribing maternity as the central purpose of a woman's life. Garrity's historical research serves her well throughout. Still, sometimes her awareness of complexity becomes burdensome: one wants her to get to the point, rather than acknowledging the slipperiness of the subject. However, when the subject is lesbianism, this approach has distinct advantages. Garrity teases out the lesbian subtext and links biographical information to literary text without creating a one-to-one correspondence. Fully versed in queer theory and the rhetoric of the closet, Garrity goes beyond simply identifying the homosocial preoccupations of many of these texts: she also explores what the culture found threatening in spinsters, feminists, and lesbians (a commonly linked triad at the time) and what these women found empowering in inhabiting those roles.
Interestingly, and in spite of her strong interest in lesbian readings in other chapters, Garrity's reading of Virginia Woolf's The Waves (1931) focuses on the unnamed lady writing, and the androgyny of two male characters, Bernard and Percival, whom she reads in the tradition of the phallic mother. This contrasts with Robin Hackett's sapphic reading of Rhoda as lesbian.2 Both Garrity and Hackett brilliantly refine Jane Marcus's landmark, albeit flawed, "Britannia Rules The Waves."3 Hackett's argument, too subtle to do justice...