- Step-daughters of England: British Women Modernists and the National Imaginary
Jane Garrity's Step-daughters of England examines how, despite their frequent ambivalence toward, and even overt resistance to, the British imperial project, four British women writers of the years between the world wars nonetheless remained deeply influenced by the logic and rhetoric of Empire. According to Garrity, these writers were compelled by a love of England as well as a desire to inscribe themselves as citizens of the nation as women had not hitherto been able to do, even as they were acutely critical of many facets of life in contemporary England—especially of their situation as women within its systems. And their investment in the cultural mythology of England, as well as their acculturation within the "infrastructure of Englishness" (23), sometimes led them unwittingly to speak the language of Empire. Garrity illuminates how these British women modernists' "experience of nation" and "complicated relation" to imperialist structures of feeling marked their work (1, 11).
Of the British women writers that Garrity treats, Woolf is the clearly canonical figure here, while Dorothy Richardson, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and Mary Butts are included with the acknowledgment that they are "critically neglected" and undervalued (13). She seeks to recuperate these last three from marginality. These writers also represent a range of different relationships to the category of modernism: whereas Woolf and Richardson, given their formal strategies and thematic concerns, are readily classified as modernist, Butts is not often invoked in discussions of modernism because she is usually simply absent from the radar screen of twentieth-century literature; Warner, when addressed, is often denied modernist status on grounds of her formally conservative prose idiom. Garrity reads all these writers as modernist, and she maintains that modernist experimental fiction by British women writers forms a prime locus for the phenomenon she examines.
Garrity suggests that these early-twentieth-century women writers, actuated by awareness of the injustice of the position of British women (who remained politically disempowered despite such recent gains as the vote) develop compensatory fantasies in their fiction of more powerful public roles for women within England; and the way in which they imagine an improved situation for Englishwomen indicates the impact of imperial mythology on their thought. The language of mapping and territorial conquest prevalent in their work also reflects their imbrication within imperial discourse. Although [End Page 693] Garrity doesn't invoke it, one thinks here of "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer": much like the Keats who, as a stableman's son without university training who often had to strain for public legitimacy, deployed imperial tropes of conquest to capture the empowerment afforded him through access to the literature of classical antiquity, so these British women writers enlist such terms—terms implicated in the very imperial England that has denied them public power—to express hopes that women might be newly enabled within a reformed England.
While rich with research—though usually not the primary "archival" kind of which the back cover boasts—as well as skillful close reading and carefully designed arguments, Garrity's study is somewhat longer than it needs to be. At 350 pages in extremely small type, the book uses a great deal of territory to unfold its arguments. Moreover, the structure of Garrity's central argument follows a formula too familiar these days: that despite an apparent rejection of a discourse, these writers nonetheless end up colluding with the very discourse they purport to refuse. As a result, the same conclusion is repeated here somewhat too often: that all roads, however much they appear to deviate from it, lead inevitably to imperial England. If the work of these British writers seems captured by the logic of the British Empire, Garrity's seems somewhat in thrall to the pressures and habits of the contemporary academy.
This said, her study is also deeply intelligent, theoretically adept, impressively researched and enormously useful both to modernist studies and scholarship on twentieth-century fiction more generally. She is right to draw attention...