- Wisps of Violence: Producing Public and Private Politics in the Turn-of-the-Century British Novel
Wisps of Violence is part of the recent critical reappraisal of turn-of-the-century literature in the context of contemporaneous radical politics, particularly socialism in its relation to feminism and the suffrage movement. Eileen Sypher, however, does not connect her work to this reappraisal. Perhaps the scarcity of reference in this book to other recent criticism in this field, particularly feminist criticism, is a result of a parallel scarcity of reference to modernism: most of the revisionist work on turn-of-the-century literature has been done within modernist studies, and is therefore premised on an assumption that the emergence of modernism was the most important literary phenomenon of the period, Sypher chooses instead to locate her texts in relation to earlier 19th-century works and movements, such as the condition of England novels and Zola's naturalism, because her focus is on realistic representations of radical public politics in its negotiations with an increasingly politicized private, domestic sphere.
Sypher links this orientation, appropriately, to a Machereyan critical paradigm, where one reads a novel as a set of gaps between the finished "product" and the authorial "project," and therefore as ideological symptom of the historical conditions that enabled the product, and/or prevented the project from being realized. This paradigm, though often mechanically, predictably deployed here (and too often deployed, regrettably, in awkward, infelicitous prose), is on the whole well suited to a discussion of realistic political novels. It produces some important and interesting insights, particularly when Sypher arrives in the final chapters at the feminist novels that most move and excite her, such as Gertrude Dix's The Image Breakers, Elizabeth Robins' The Convert, and Virginia Woolf's Night and Day. The last two chapters, on socialist and suffragist political novels by women, are particularly useful in their discussions of the mutualities and conflicts between socialism and feminism in this period, and of the strengths and limitations of realistic political novels in representing this perennially troubled conjunction. But the omission of modernism as movement, as source of crucial texts of the period, as locus of an enormous range of critical work and insight, particularly given that Sypher thinks so highly of Woolf and her early groundbreaking modernist novels, creates an oddly partial, limited, distorted literary-critical universe in this book.
Modernism is not discussed as a context for understanding the complexities of James' and Conrad's representations of anarchism in The Princess Casamassima and The Secret Agent, the subject of Sypher's second [End Page 399] chapter, or as a context for accounting for what Sypher herself considers the superiority of Woolf's narrative technique in Night and Day in handling the overwhelming ambivalence toward revolutionary politics that permeates these texts. Much of Sypher's first chapter is devoted to a discussion of the paucity and poor quality of realistic political novels at the turn of the century. Her tone in this chapter is largely one of bewildered regret at the sorry state of her object of interest in this period, a state she accounts for as the result of the breakdown of the old "ideologemes" but not as the result of the emergence of a new fictional form (modernism) that is itself forged by the ambivalence toward revolutionary movements that Sypher discovers again and again in the texts she analyzes.
This book is particularly insightful in its analysis of the failure of realist fictional representation of radical politics to contain the threat of the new woman because of its reliance on the "paternalist, usually saviour, figure," representative of an outmoded "ideologeme," as avatar of socialism. The discussion of that failure at the beginning of Chapter 7, "The Outsiders': Women and Socialism," is the strongest section of the book. Despite its limitations, therefore, Wisps of Violence is a useful addition to revisionist feminist study of turn-of-the-century British fiction.