Biography 23.2 (2000) 389-391
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The Spectacular Confessions of Barbara Green's title comprise a varied lot of autobiographies and less formal first-person writings generated by Britain's suffrage activists, both during their movement's militant and spectacular era between 1905 and 1914, and later, looking back on those years. Whether a novel or a private letter, the texts of interest to Green offer images of protest created within the context of women's campaigns to gain the vote, and they rely, she insists, on the persuasive force of the female body when thrust into the public sphere. As political gestures, these writings infused public debate about women's status with language and imagery derived from the personal experience of resistance--or in Green's construction, they "were intended to make the feminist body visible" (5). Political or collective by intention, the "spectacular confessions" are less interesting to Green as windows on individuals, than as tools in the formation of a social movement (17).
Green admits to a contemporary purpose (or two) in her consideration of this body of literature about suffragists' pageants, hunger strikes, violence, and martyrdom. First (in my own order), she wants to rescue British militants from critics of their day, and ours, who understood the suffragists to be trapped in the apolitical binds of modernism. If they mimicked the new culture of advertising with their repetitious accounts of the horrors of forced feeding, for example, Green argues that they also transformed it by making that culture a tool of resistance and a basis for collectivity. Thus, in their engagement with the dominant discourses of modernity, in their blending of critique and performance, they created, according to Green, a new political language and form. Second, Green wants this reimagined political and literary moment in history to provide a useful model for today's feminists. Here the chief lesson she draws is the advantage, demonstrated by militant suffragists themselves, to be gained by blending practice and theory (a point to which I'll return).
The core of this slim volume consists of three roughly chronological chapters that map the changing political needs and spectacular responses of the militants as their conflict with authority intensified. In a consideration [End Page 389] of the movement's pageants, through which suffragists arrayed themselves in public processions, Green reads Constance Lytton and Elizabeth Robins as theorists of problems in spectatorship and privilege. Their own pageantry raised for them questions of class and exclusivity. Green's chapter on the years of incarceration and forced feeding pits Teresa Billington-Greig, a critic of the militants, against a number of narratives by prisoners to reach the conclusion that suffragists exposed the culture of oppression and overcame their isolation through the retelling, or the reproduction, of their experience, and thus subverted the passivity of advertising. In the third of these chapters, Green examines the last period of militancy, when invisibility was imposed on activists threatened with re-arrest. Here she reads Mary Richardson and Gertrude Colmore to open up a new, muted politics of the spectacle, defined by sickrooms, sentimentality, and domesticity. According to Green, militants took these familiar sites of femininity and infused them with oppositional meanings that helped to sustain a virtual collectivity.
Less convincing as a part of the same argument are two further chapters, one about archives, or the construction of a history about women's spectacular politics, centered on Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas, and a final one about Djuna Barnes and her journalistic take on the propaganda of forced feeding. Although curious and challenging readings of the texts, these two chapters give Spectacular Confessions the feel of a collection of essays rather than a cohesive work. What begins as a strong and useful randomness about the texts under consideration, one that ignores genres and rigid definitions of literature, is here made haphazard. Any old...