- Modernist Nowheres: Politics and Utopia in Early Modernist Writing, 1900–1920
In the closing scene of The Rainbow, D. H. Lawrence’s 1915 epic of love and labor in an age of aggressive materialism, Ursula Brangwen sits at her window gazing at the “dry, brittle, terrible corruption spreading over the face of the land” when suddenly a rainbow “forming itself” arises over the hill.1 A traditionally powerful pastoral image, the rainbow can be read in this context as a sign of a utopian future: a place in which Ursula’s desire for social and spiritual betterment will finally be fulfilled. As Nathan Waddell notes in his striking reading of this scene in Modernist Nowheres, however, the rainbow that arches over the novel’s concluding chapter is also a “distressingly ephemeral” one (189). Indeed, the novel ends before any transformation in Ursula’s life takes place, and the deliberate lack of closure intensifies rather than resolves the play between the precariously balanced contraries of potentiality and impossibility. The tension is between impulse for change and overwhelming doubt that any radical transformation can be achieved, and it is this tension that Waddell’s book expertly and for the most part satisfyingly detects in the works of Wells, Conrad, Ford, Lawrence, and Lewis.
Modernist Nowheres sets out to examine early modernist interest in “utopia,” an ambivalent term which is here understood as the longing for an ideal place or state of existence that is, crucially, contained by a “fundamental, and potentially debilitating, scepticism towards its own condition of possibility” (11). Aware of the definitional vagueness surrounding “utopia” and lamenting the fact that recent scholarship has stretched the discourse “to breaking point” (18), Waddell spends the book’s first two chapters exploring late nineteenth-century ideas of “meliorism” and post-Enlightenment notions of “perfectibility.” In doing so, he returns attention to Godwinian perfectibilist views and to such neglected late-Victorian and Edwardian meliorists as Paul Carus, Jane Hume Clapperton, James Sully, and Lester Frank Ward. This is a successful move as it provides a fresh and historically grounded way into the ambivalences of early modernist politics. Thus Wells is seen as an advocate of meliorism, the mode of thought that sees the world as capable of being made better gradually and incrementally, even if the “impressionistic method” (45) of A Modern Utopia complicates his meliorism a good deal. Conrad’s The Secret Agent stages an “intriguing commentary on the idea of perfectibility” (53): Conrad is found to be firmly against the belief in the possibility of meaningful social improvement while regretting that human nature is so desperately unimprovable (49).
The rest of the book, sharply delineated in short chapters, examines in detail various aspects of the intellectual activities of Ford, Lawrence, and Lewis. Waddell focuses on Ford’s editorship of The English Review (1908–10) and on his satirical responses to the garden city movement in such unfamiliar early texts as “The Future of London,” The Simple Life Limited, and Mr. Fleight, and he locates Ford as a utopian thinker dedicated to regenerating the public sphere of his time. Ford’s campaign for “thoughtful exposure to unprejudiced, non-moralistic writings” in The English Review becomes a prerequisite for his utopian “Republic,” in which “detached contemplation of art and society would be possible . . . in contrast to conflict-ridden Edwardian modernity” (76). According to this reading, Ford’s impressionism gains a distinctly political valence: for, like Ford’s sober editorials, “such literature is simply expressed . . . has no nationalistic flag to wave, and is unassimilable to the rhetorics of national reform” (68). Just as his poetics gain a political edge, Ford’s political critique of the garden city is mounted at the level of aesthetic form, with impressionism offering an “aesthetic alternative to the objectivist assumption of urban planning” (91) envisaged by the garden city movement. [End Page 811]
Unlike Ford, who did not pay special attention to economic and material realities, Lawrence is seen as a figure for whom any utopian reconception of the individual could only come...