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When a book on modernist literature claims that what is at stake in its central argument is “Nothing less than our definitions of what modernism is and does” (142), one is entitled to feel that it has set the bar high. But Wilson sensibly places this claim in the conclusion to her exceptionally convincing monograph, and therefore one arrives at her bold assertion prepared to do no less, indeed, than start reading modernism somewhat differently.
Taking four more or less established modernist writers as her case studies, and under the governing metaphor of the threshold, Wilson interrogates the role of the more-or-less-visible domestic laborer of the early twentieth century as she argues that not only do servants play significant roles in modernist texts, narratively and thematically, but also that characteristics of domestic labor inform their structure. She compellingly observes that servants have been neglected in modernist literary criticism and suggests that this may be largely to do with the perceived anachronism of the servant—that Victorian throwback—in a modernist context. Recent shifts in modernist literary studies towards an interest in the domestic, challenging the long-held dominance of the urban as modernist environment par excellence, make this study particularly well-timed. As Wilson puts it, “These novels struggle with the new recognitions of modernist domesticity” (5). Her book adeptly evokes the dynamic quality of this struggle.
Noting that many modernist writers literally depended on servants to support their own professional existence, Wilson goes further in asserting the dependence of modernist writers upon domestic labor insofar as encounters with the “intersections of modernism and domesticity” embodied in servants in modernist texts “lead to two significant types of structural innovations”: [End Page 570] the adopting of “some of the characteristics of servant labor into the work of narrative” (in Woolf and Stein), and the emergence of “paranoid” narratives in Larsen and Rhys (6). Although in her introduction Wilson indicates that the way this second innovation operates is more subtle than the first, her most challenging idea is that Woolf’s and Stein’s narratives effectively “work like servants.” This attention to narrative form is imbricated with a significant contribution to the way modernist literary study attends to class, and as such it will prompt current critics to do so in more sophisticated ways.
Polarized views of modernism’s class politics crystallize around no single modernist figure more readily than Virginia Woolf (eugenicist snob or radical socialist feminist?), with whom Wilson begins. Wilson’s project was prompted by the figure of the cook in Woolf’s “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown,” famously embodying the change in “human character” that Woolf teasingly places in 1910. As Wilson observes, this statement is so frequently used as a starting point for discussions of periodization and definitions of modernity that the figure of the cook herself all but disappears. In response, Wilson takes the time to attend to the status and expectations of the cook in particular, and servants in general, within this historical period. This cook famously crosses a previously taboo threshold, “in and out of the drawing-room” (33); in general, however, Wilson argues that the presence of the author’s fictional servants “materializes the thresholds Woolf enables other characters to cross” (38).
While Woolf’s attempts to present the interior life of a servant are tentative and very limited, Gertrude Stein’s Three Lives offers two full narratives of the domestic laborer. Yet, as Wilson points out, “The Good Anna” and “The Gentle Lena” have been almost completely sidelined in Stein criticism in favor of the longest story, “Melanctha,” which is a balance The Labors of Modernism seeks to redress. The familiar Steinian themes of repetition and sameness mesh wonderfully with Wilson’s observations about the characteristics of domestic labor and feed into some brilliant close readings. For example, her analysis of what she calls “threshold sentences,” which frame stories within stories, offers a novel, properly contextualized, and thoroughly textually grounded way of articulating the way these...