- Literatures of Feminist Struggle
These two books, which cover feminist struggles in different periods and locales in twentieth-century literature, both of which are written by C.U.N.Y. English professors (in different units), read like two parts of one argument. While the two situate themselves within different bibliographies, and address discrete primary topics, both make cases about the tense social dynamics within which women have attempted to progress toward full citizenship in the U.K. and the U.S. over the past century. They both document histories of gendered repression—literary and historical. They both deal with disputes around who does what kind of work (and, implicitly, how they are compensated). And they both leave questions unanswered (because these issues are huge and because these books are brief).
Allison Pease's book explores the representation of boredom among female characters in early twentieth-century modernist literature. In the growing realm of "boredom studies," this affect is generally understood as an essential characteristic of modern subjectivity, which manifests in various historicized ways and may have pre-modern variants (see recent work by Gardiner, Goodstein, Svendson, and Toohey). Pease explores an efflorescence of gendered boredom in modernist literature and finds it both a site of socio-political struggle and a generative force behind modernist formal innovation.
Specifically, she looks at central female characters portrayed as bored or indifferent in work by Arnold Bennett, E. M. Forster, Robert Hichens, D. H. Lawrence, Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair, H. G. Wells, and Virginia Woolf. Together, these novels explore their heroines' experience of the alienation brought on by modernity's revision of labor dynamics and traditional cultural roles. [End Page 779]
May Sinclair's Three Sisters features three daughters of a vicar who spend their days "sitting there in the dining-room behind the yellow blind, doing nothing" until their father returns at ten in the evening for dinner (quoted in Pease, 64). Arnold Bennett's Hilda Lessways likewise presents women trapped in drawing rooms, feeling "that life had, for a time, deteriorated into the purposeless and the futile" (quoted in Pease, 64). In Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage, famously the first stream of consciousness novel (so-named by May Sinclair), the questing heroine Miriam Henderson struggles against boredom for thirteen volumes. In Ann Veronica, H. G. Wells' feminist heroine is "eager for freedom and life" and "vehemently impatient," and although "she [does] not clearly know for what. . . . She want[s] to know" (quoted in Pease, 47, 63). Will they find more satisfying occupation and through that a firmer sense of their own status as authoritative individuals? Not in these novels.
For Pease, modernist female boredom bespeaks an asynchrony whereby these characters (like many of their readers), educated to the point that they can both understand active subject status and desire it, are now also able to recognize their own exclusion from the privileges of full subjectivity in the patriarchal world. With all their decisions made for them, and nowhere to use their well-developed intellects, they stare blankly at the horizon, leaking subjectivity out the mental apertures bored into them by society's lack of good career options for women and its general rejection of feminine self-assertion. The jobless middle-class women of that day remained dependent and therefore often refrained from overt complaint about their status; a vicious cycle that continues to this day. The root of the affective term "boring" in its homonym (physical piercing) exposes the aggressive dynamics in play.
While gendered boredom is consistent, the responses offered in the novels vary, also in gendered ways. Female authors seek new solutions to the boredom their characters undergo, even if unsuccessfully, but male authors recommend old ones. No surprise that Connie Chatterley finds the answer to her feminist discontent in heterosex and a return to the old role of submission to a male partner, with the added benefit of direct sex talk. Wells's Ann Veronica experiences self...