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  • The Problem of the Woman’s Bag from the New Woman to Modernism
  • Emily Ridge (bio)

And then Mrs Brown faced the dreadful revelation. She took her heroic decision. Early, before dawn, she packed her bag and carried it herself to the station. She would not let Smith touch it. She was wounded in her pride, unmoored from her anchorage; she came of gentlefolks who kept servants—but details could wait. The important thing was to realize her character, to steep oneself in her atmosphere. I had no time to explain why I felt it somewhat tragic, heroic, yet with a dash of the flighty, and fantastic, before the train stopped, and I watched her disappear, carrying her bag, into the vast blazing station. She looked very small, very tenacious; at once very frail and very heroic. And I have never seen her again, and I shall never know what became of her.

Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1923)

“Details could wait,” Virginia Woolf interjects in the culminating image of her 1923 essay about character and fiction.1 Yet she does draw attention very pointedly to one particular detail: Mrs. Brown carries her own bag. In fact, though her imagined Edwardian literary counterparts tellingly overlook this detail, she states it twice in quick succession. Why is this detail worth repeating while others can wait? Why does Woolf stress Mrs. Brown’s adamant refusal to let Mr. Smith touch her bag, and what does this gesture imply? Why is it something only she purports to notice? And perhaps most importantly, since this is, after all, a discussion of Edwardian and modernist strategies for character development in fiction, what does this particular detail add to such a discussion? [End Page 757]

This article contends that the woman’s bag became a central symbolic point of focus—on a par with the oft-cited bicycle or latchkey—in portrayals of shifting gender relations dating from the emergence of literature by and about “new women” in the late nineteenth century through to early twentieth-century modernist literature.2 In the first section, I address imaginative emphasis on the woman’s bag as both an index of social autonomy and a means of registering a break with literary convention. In the second, I consider how often the woman’s bag plays a pivotal role in fin-de-siácle characterizations of the disturbance caused by the New Woman to traditional chivalric dynamics and, correspondingly, to the idea of masculine textual authority. In the final section, I look at instances of the collision of such positive and negative perceptions in several early twentieth-century modernist texts, examining more problematic depictions of the woman’s bag as an object of contention and of contentious readings. These are representations that question the very possibility of a woman’s achievement of autonomy within a social system founded on proprietorial relations.

As a whole, the article makes a case for the woman’s bag as a byword for modernist instability, indeterminacy, and contradiction. A paragon of portability and mobility in and of itself, the bag is an inherently unstable object in both its spatial positioning and its internal constitution. To a great extent, the same can be said of the New Woman, a figure who was largely “a product of discourse,” as Sally Ledger has suggested, and thus inevitably a locus of semantic disagreement.3 Most critical accounts of this fin-de-siácle phenomenon begin, indeed, by drawing attention to the impossibility of defining the New Woman as a single entity. Angelique Richardson and Chris Willis, for example, remind us that the “New Woman was not one figure, but several” (introduction, 13), and Ann Ardis underlines the nominal irony of this inherent plurality: “Given that the New Woman was so many things to so many people at the turn of the century, the name we have remembered her by is oddly singular.”4 It is a name that carried interchangeable—more often than not, disputed—meanings, signaling a lack of fixity above all. The bag was a perfect metonym for this restless modern woman. As such, it can be differentiated from other common accessories in stock sketches...


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pp. 757-780
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