- Reviewed by
Like modernism, which it supposedly supplanted, the literature of the 1930s has undergone substantial revisions over the last fifteen years. The standard equation of 1930s writing with “the Auden Generation” has given way to a much more complex and diverse picture of the period, made possible, in part, by the reprinting of midcentury women’s writing by feminist presses. The fiction and poetry of writers like Storm Jameson, Naomi Mitchison, Rebecca West, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and others is now not only available to new readers but, in the case of West and Warner, is the subject of some excellent new research. The danger, Janet Montefiore claims in her new study, is that [End Page 483] many of these rediscovered women’s texts are read as part of a specialized history of “women’s writing” while standard textbooks on the 1930s remain unreconstructed. Her project in Men and Women Writers of the 1930s is to write these women back into the literary history of the period, and, by doing so, to produce a new understanding of both the history and the politics of thirties writings.
Montefiore’s book offers a much needed, long overdue corrective to earlier studies and will be enthusiastically welcomed by all those working on the 1930s. Its six chapters are crammed with material. She discusses a number of forgotten or neglected men and women writers, focusing not only on poetry but on undervalued forms of writing like autobiography, memoir, travel writing, and historical fiction that, as she rightly argues, were crucial in this decade. She sets herself two key questions: “What part has memory played in the political literature of the 1930s?” and “What were the roles of women both as writers and as symbols in constructing that literature?”
On the second question, the book covers a great deal of very useful ground. The first two chapters examine the gender divisions marking the critical construction of thirties writing from early essays like Orwell’s “Inside the Whale” and Virginia Woolf’s “The Leaning Tower” through more recent studies. Exploring the relationship between personal testimony and public crisis, Montefiore details the ways in which the gendering of public and private spheres contributed to the exclusion or marginalization of certain genres and writers. She then argues, convincingly, that the writing of Storm Jameson, Rebecca West, and Sylvia Townsend Warner, for example, was as closely, if differently, concerned with the politics of fascism, unemployment, and the Spanish civil war as the poetry of Auden, Spender, and Day Lewis. And, following Hynes, she points out the ways in which the politics of these male poets are also informed by the personal. While identifying the crude misogyny of many left-wing thirties writers, she is never less than perceptive and appreciative of their literary achievements.
The question of memory is not, it seems to me, as fully developed. The first chapter cites Walter Benjamin’s statement that “Memory is not an instrument for exploring the past, but its theatre” before moving on to Maurice Halbwachs’s theory of the “collective framework” of knowledge and memory. Halbwachs, the French sociologist influenced by Bergson and Durkheim, claims that memory is always in [End Page 484] some sense “collective,” since to make his or her past intelligible, the individual necessarily enters into dialogue, implicit or explicit, with the collective framework of the group. However, these theoretical points then seem to be forgotten—except for a reference to Halbwachs in the final chapter, which provides a detailed reading of West’s Black Lamb and Grey Falcon. The implications of Benjamin’s and Halbwachs’s propositions are not really integrated into the analysis of individual texts nor discussed at the theoretical level—for example in relation to Lukács whose very different work is used to frame the discussion of historical fiction in chapter five.
Men and Women Writers of the 1930s does not draw on the “collective frameworks” of current criticism, and Montefiore misses an opportunity to put thirties writing into dialogue with contemporary debates on historiography, psychoanalysis, and...