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Modernism/Modernity 9.1 (2002) 109-124
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Mary Borden's Forbidden Zone:
Women's Writing from No-Man's-Land
In medicine there is a neutral zone, a no-man's land, a regnum prostisticum, which really defies definition. This nebulous zone shelters many among the sad examples of nervous trouble sent home from the front.
--The Lancet, 18 March 1916 1
I am just as it were in the thick of a bombardment--writing you, here, from a front line trench.
--Katherine Mansfield to John
Middleton Murry (1918) 2
I have not invented anything in this book.
--Mary Borden, The Forbidden Zone 3
When Mary Borden died on 2 December 1968, the Times wrote in her obituary that her novels
were stamped by a certain conventionality of outlook. She tried in time to broaden the field of her observation and imaginative sympathy, but continued for the most part to make the best use of her talents in keeping to the type of wealthy and fashionable milieu which for many years she knew best. 4
This obituary shockingly overlooks the unconventionality of Borden's art and life. During World War I and World War II, Borden ran field hospitals, initially with no prior training. The daughter of a Chicago millionaire, in 1914 she offered to fund a fully equipped hospital of a hundred beds herself. While the army provided the doctors and surgeons, she had full control of [End Page 109] hiring the nurses. After the war, Borden married Sir Edward Spears, the man who rescued Charles de Gaulle from occupied Paris. She played official hostess to the British Legation, first in Beirut and then Damascus, and she received British medals of distinction and the French Legion of honor for her war work. However, from the publication of her first novel in 1912 (under the name Bridget McLagen) Borden was foremost a writer. 5 Like Edith Wharton, she felt called upon by the war to act and not simply to write. Yet her war memoir, The Forbidden Zone, shows a fascinating ambivalence about the actions that she took as a nurse during wartime.
Selections from The Forbidden Zone (formerly out of print since 1930) have very recently been republished. 6 It is one of the most powerful and one of the most experimental pieces of writing to have emerged from the war. 7 Although Borden's preface asserts the truth of her account, her method is more imagistic than documentary. Indeed, she wrote a surreal memoir about the war during a period when most war memoirs were written as conventional autobiographies. Neither a record nor a chronicle, nor, like May Sinclair's, a series of impressions, her war memoir attempted to register the impact of World War I through innovative aesthetic strategies. Borden mixes the genres of essay, fiction, and poetry, and blurs the lines between documentary and fiction. Beginning with the unfocused, muddy fields of Belgium, she portrays war as a series of phantasmic dislocations, an apocalyptic landscape marked by the posthuman incursion of the war machine. She describes the men and women of the war as displaced inhabitants of a strange, hallucinated world where people are reduced to bodies and functions. James Kribb claims that war texts strive not for "a mere representation," but for "an iteration of war," and Borden's text works at this dangerous edge of representation. 8 She can not claim the eyewitness status of the soldier, nor does she remove herself from the field of action. Her experimental and fragmented vision of the war dramatizes the limitations inherent in the noncombatant's representation of trauma. Simultaneously, Borden attempts to go beyond "representation" to "iteration" by using strategies of dislocation that destabilize the reader. In this essay I chart the ways in which Borden traverses the liminal space of The Forbidden Zone, a space that exists between traditional genres and modes of representation and that troubles conventional assumptions about gender. Her fictionalized memoir thus offers an original and profound articulation of a war which evaded easy categorization by a...