- Modernist Voyages: Colonial Women Writers in London, 1890-1945 by Anna Snaith
Modernism is so closely associated with the city that it is difficult to think of it apart from particular urban environments and contexts: fin-de-siècle Vienna, the left bank of Paris in the twenties, Weimar Berlin, the congresses of Moscow, the little magazines of Chicago, Harlem in New York City. The city has been the crucible of artistic creation, the indispensable location of networks, exhibition spaces, and printing houses, and the center of experimental writing, art, and music. In this historiography, perhaps no city has greater claim to being called the capital of modernism than London, home to Vorticism, Blast, and Bloomsbury. Yet as the field has expanded both temporally and spatially in recent years under the auspices of the new modernist studies, the focus has shifted away from the western city to locales and regions outside of Europe and America. In addition, the so-called “transnational turn” means that we need to see cities not as centers from which all culture emanates but as way stations through which goods, services, people, ideas, and cultures flow. Anna Snaith’s important new book Modernist Voyages: Colonial Women Writers in London, 1890-1945 is situated right in the midst of this changing critical landscape. The colonial women she examines “voyage in” to London, bringing with them a range of issues and ways of seeing that ask us to reconsider not just London’s centrality in conceptions of modernism but modernism itself (p. 1).
For the most part, Snaith leaves behind the familiar categories of influence, archive, coterie networks, or patronage that drive so much of modernist studies and instead focuses on shifting identities, the circulation of ideas, and the detrimental effects of transnational capital in the [End Page 283] twilight of empire. Her stated goal is both ambitious and urgent: “we need to construct alternative maps that depict the resistant spaces and networks that worked to counter an urban architecture that monumentalized imperial power” (p. 5). By deploying the map metaphor here (that ultimate document of imperial authority), Snaith acknowledges London as a source of imperial power while revealing it as an imagined and scripted place, one open to the redrawing of boundaries, the renaming of spaces, and to counter-cartographical approaches. If, as she acknowledges by drawing on the work of Henri Lefebvre, “space … is socially produced, not abstract, empty or geometrical,” she reimagines London as a heterotopia to the colonial women who voyaged there by sea (p. 4).
Snaith focuses on seven women writers from different colonial spaces whose writings were shaped both by their colonial identities and their travels in complex ways: the South African novelist Olive Schreiner, the Indian activist and poet Sarojini Naidu, the Canadian author and journalist Sara Jeannette Duncan, the New Zealander Katherine Mansfield, the Dominican writer Jean Rhys, the Jamaican feminist author Una Marson, and the Australian novelist Christina Stead. As Snaith says of this diverse group and of the larger intersection of gender and empire, “women writers were actively writing themselves in to national narratives of belonging, and travelling in order to do so” (p. 11). However, Snaith is not interested in expansion in purely geographical terms, but rather she wants to expand the ways in which we read the complex interactions of gender and empire by showing how these women encounter the modern world in their writing and in their activism.
In her chapter on Schreiner, Snaith provides a brilliant analysis of the role of both prostitution and the transnational diamond mining corporation De Beers in shaping gender identity at the height of imperialism. She shows the ways in which both diamonds and women’s bodies were similarly the objects of valuation and trade and how Schreiner’s fierce indictment of both the diamond trade and prostitution drove her creative output, even as Schreiner herself only partially saw her feminism aligned with an anti-imperial agenda. In her chapter on Naidu, Snaith focuses on the “inseparability of her...