- At Home and Abroad in the Empire: British Women Write the 1930s
Knowing that At Home and Abroad in the Empire originated as a volume of conference essays makes its combination of coverage and focus all the more striking. Virtually all the significant British women writers of the 1930s are discussed: Elizabeth Bowen, Nancy Cunard, Betty Miller, Jean Rhys, Edith Sitwell, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Rebecca West, and Virginia Woolf all receive substantial attention, as do their massively popular [End Page 394] contemporaries Agatha Christie and Dorothy L. Sayers (this was, after all, the golden age of the sleuth novel). Holding together this wide range of authors is the contributors' common focus on the relationships among gender, national affiliation, race, and empire.
The volume includes essays from many major figures in the field of interwar women's writing: among them Phyllis Lassner, who shows why their context of declining British power makes the colonial locales of Christie's murder mysteries much more than incidental; Bonnie Kime Scott, here describing the mid-century trajectory of West's career; Claire Tylee, discussing representations of Jewishness in mid-1930s "women's fiction" by Miller and Bowen; Tory Young, addressing the surrealist forms taken by Cunard's anti-racist and anti-imperialist politics; and the late Julia Briggs, whose 2006 essay on Woolf and Englishness is reprinted here. Other highlights of the collection include Linda Camarasana's illuminating reading of Rhys's Good Morning, Midnight in relation to the 1937 Expo of the novel's Paris setting, and Geneviève Brassard and Marianne Guénot-Hovnanian's postcolonial-studies-inspired analysis of Woolf's The Waves in French translation.
The introduction by Robin Hackett and Gay Wachman describes at some length the main areas of scholarly interest the book engages, primarily modernist studies, British writing of the 1930s, and the literature of empire. And the editors have done a stellar job of recruiting contributions that address all these fields in telling ways. However, it ought to be acknowledged that in some other important respects the introduction does not do justice to the book's overall quality. For a start, it is disconcerting that the editors of a volume specifically about nationhood and empire in the U.K. context appear not to know that "English" and "British" are not synonymous, and their use of the two terms as if they were interchangeable is not only culturally oblivious—anti-imperialism begins at home, one might say—but also endlessly confusing. Still, while a knowledgeable copyeditor could have unraveled such telling muddles as "British women writers of the 1930s manifest their inheritance of colonial Englishness," it would have required only an adequate one to correct the sentence that follows it: "We argue that imperial discourse is as significant in work that is overtly about empire as in work that is not overtly about empire" (p. 20).
An inherently more damaging distraction is the editors' recourse to polemical misrepresentations on topics as central to the volume as modernist studies and interwar British culture. It has been some time since scholars of modernism could justly be accused of promulgating a "narrow, if enthusiastic, myth of modernism as exclusively word centered, formally experimental, high art" (p. 17); and to say of the 1930s that "[m]iddle-class and white British [sic] women were burdened with the responsibility of preserving the strength, including the imperial strength, of England and [End Page 395] the purity of Englishness as a race" (p. 19) is to make as tendentious a historical claim as its inflammatory invocation of a Nazi state ("purity . . . as a race") and its passive articulation ("were burdened" by whom?) imply. The volume brings together uniformly thoughtful and often richly contextualized accounts of an enduringly significant group of writers and thinkers by an impressive cast of contributors; it certainly never needed exaggerations like those to defend its interest for scholars of interwar literature.
Marina MacKay is Associate Professor of...