- Reviewed by
"Homosexuality cannot settle in the mother country," Jennifer Poulos Nesbitt argues in Narrative Settlements: Geographies of British Women's Fiction between the Wars (63). Indeed, Nesbitt clearly demonstrates how homosexuality is repeatedly erased from British women's literature in the early-to-mid twentieth century. Looking closely at the works of Winifred Holtby, Vita Sackville-West, Angela Thirkell, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Rebecca West, and Virginia Woolf, Nesbitt examines the way in which women's new status as citizens placed them at the center of debates regarding national identity—while still not liberating their sexual identity. Nesbitt effectively explains how British women writers negotiated and ultimately settled for literary, sexual, and national conventions of the time, even as they toyed with other possibilities in their novels.
During the First World War women came out into the streets for the first time to take the jobs of missing men and keep the factories running. Socially, the war opened up new possibilities for women in the workplace and the public sphere. But the end of the war essentially (and uncomfortably) pushed women back into the home, a move that Nesbitt argues is reflected in the novels and imagery of that time. Nesbitt argues that women's writing of the time "explores the ways that the new opportunities for women might undermine or alter concepts of national security reliant on gendered concepts of the public and private spheres" (4). Though Nesbitt sees women writers as playing with literary conventions, she ultimately argues that these women fail to change the basic structure of the novel or the nation. For instance, Nesbitt argues that the figure of Britannia (a female icon with a helmet, shield, and spear) is a sort of transgender character meant both to inspire men to go to war and to encourage women to stay home and guard the home front. Similarly, the women writers that Nesbitt analyzes exhibit a sort of split desire, both as lesbians and as the "daughters of educated men" who identified themselves in terms of their patrilineage (qtd. in Nesbitt 13). These authors, according to Nesbitt, were ultimately willing to settle or secure England for their fathers, while still retaining a sense of ambivalence about the lost possibility of acting according to their own desires.
Nesbitt points out, much as Edward Said does in Culture and Imperialism, the way in which novelistic settings are microcosms for the British nation. Nesbitt argues these writers toyed with the place of women in interwar novels, using ambivalent homosexual [End Page 638] characters to express anxieties about their new social status. These gay characters were often ultimately sacrificed or had to resist their own desire in order to allow the heteronormative vision of England to stay intact. Nesbitt quite effectively ties in queer theory to an otherwise heteronormative discourse on women and imperialism in this time period. However, while I found Nesbitt's arguments to be quite convincing, I was somewhat disappointed that even she seemed to settle for or obfuscate gay and lesbian desire within this book. For instance, the introduction, advertising, and backflap to Narrative Settlements suggest only that the book will be about postcolonialism and women's place within Empire within the interwar period. Yet the book is really about women's difficulty in finding a place for gay and lesbian characters in England. I thought Nesbitt's argument was original and insightful, and I was only curious as to why this argument was hidden from the packaging of the book.
Narrative Settlements performs a fascinating refiguration of gay and lesbian desire in interwar British literature. Nesbitt's argument, if slightly defeatist, is nonetheless sophisticated and convincing. She examines the ways in which "a character's anxious, uncomfortable body emerges as the product of particular spatial arrangements" (4). For instance, in Mrs. Dalloway, Nesbitt sees Septimus Smith as being uncomfortably pushed out of London due to his homosexual desire, demonstrating that the novelistic conventions of setting or place ultimately have no site for gay and lesbian desire. Clarissa, conversely, demonstrates...