- Excursions into Modernism: Women Writers, Travel, and the Body by Joyce E. Kelley
As the title of Excursions into Modernism suggests, Kelley conceptualizes “travel” in the broadest of senses: as the physical journeying of human subjects; as a figure for subjective or [End Page 924] psychological changes; and as metaphor for innovation in literary or cultural forms. “At the heart of my project,” she writes, “lies an interest in philosophies of embodiment. . . . For women especially, articulating the lived body in travel allows for a new kind of freedom of expression. As women writers turn the imaginative gaze inward, they begin to redefine ‘travel’ entirely” (26). Citing the archaic use of “excursion” to mean “digression,” Kelley characterizes modernist style as a “wandering away from realist norms” (28). This deliberate blurring of the literal and the metaphorical can result in awkward, recursive formulations: “I argue that new imaginative and artistic explorations, what I call modernist ‘excursions,’ are enabled through reconceptualizing old vehicles traditionally located in the geography of the female body: the skin, the ill body, the womb, and the piano. Each forms a part of the feminine space which a woman may use to journey into new modernist modes of expression” (27). Kelley takes this approach in order to examine relations between the physical travels of writers and those writers’ depictions of women’s physical and psychological existence, as well as to trace affinities between the works of well-studied modernists such as Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield and lesser-known figures such as Grace Thompson Seton and Evelyn Scott.
The organization of Excursions underscores Kelley’s primary interest in women’s life experiences, since her readings of literary texts often center on autobiographical parallels and echoes. In five chapters, each organized around a thematic “excursion,” she aims to provide critical insight into women’s lives and their use of experience in their writing, with a focus on texts written between the 1910s and the 1940s. She groups novels, travel narratives, and memoirs by thematic and biographical similarities rather than by genre or nationality. (“Modernism,” a secondary term in this study, functions broadly as a reference to stylistic innovation and a thematic focus on interiority, subjectivity, and the ordinary.) In the first chapter, for instance, she charts a move from realism “into otherness, fantasy, and modernism” in travel writing of the 1910s and 1920s by women of means: Nettie Fowler Dietz, Grace Thompson Seton, and Vita Sackville-West (33). Dietz’s work appears to be unremarkably conventional, Seton’s a mélange of realism and fantasy, and Sackville-West’s introspective: she “approaches the Middle East as an open space for her own imaginings” (74).
In the second chapter, Kelley compares “narratives of passing” by writers who “allow their characters to undertake what I call ‘transdermal’ excursions, voyages both through and beyond the skin, enabled by a reconceptualization of skin tone and racial body” (87). “Passing” here signals a range of ways of performing or subverting identity, from the familiar movement of Nella Larsen’s protagonists across racial categories to the cultural displacement of Jean Rhys’s protagonist in Voyage in the Dark, and, finally, to Radclyffe Hall’s fantastical short story “Miss Ogilvy Finds Herself,” in which a woman in her fifties, restless since serving in an ambulance unit in France during World War One, visits Devon, where she dream-travels into a primitive past in which she is a “hairy, heavily tattooed tribal man” (119). The fourth chapter considers the work of women who travel during pregnancy and make this a theme in their writing: Mansfield, Elizabeth Smart, and Evelyn Scott. Mansfield, shuffled off to Germany (where she miscarries) by her forceful mother, writes the stories of In a German Pension, in which childbearing figures prominently. In By Grand Central Station I Sat Down and Wept, Smart fictionalizes her intense affair with a married poet over an itinerant year that begins in California, takes her cross country, first to New York, then to British Columbia, and results in pregnancy. In the mixed-genre...