- At the Violet Hour: Modernism and Violence in England and Ireland by Sarah Cole, and: A Sense of Shock: The Impact of Impressionism on Modern British and Irish Writing by Adam Parkes
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012. 377pp.
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011. 284pp.
Both Sarah Cole and Adam Parkes offer distinctive, and occasionally contradictory, interpretations of the literature of the cusp of the century, with Parkes suggesting a rereading of the importance of impressionism, and Cole privileging violence as a controller of form and theme in literary Modernism. Both focus on the importance of vivid sensation(alism), especially in the overlapping area of Conrad’s political fiction, which is illustrated in their extended treatments of The Secret Agent, though together their books create a scholarly conversation about how we should interpret and understand such treatment.
“Violence experienced subjectively—bruising, terrible, vibrant, productive—is, for modernist writers, where it all begins” (8), writes Cole in the introduction to her engaging survey of Modernist Irish and English literature, At the Violet Hour. Cole poses her methodology as a model study of “different collections of texts,” and accordingly focuses on the canonical figures of High Modernism, Eliot, Conrad, Yeats, and Woolf, according to a “basic, imaginary structure” that she lays out in the first chapter on Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” positing a binary architecture for the literature of the period of “enchanted and disenchanted violence” (Cole 39).
Like Parkes in A Sense of Shock, for Cole the section on Conrad focuses on dynamite violence and the literature of terror, in particular The Secret Agent, though she has interesting commentary on “The Informer” from A Set of Six, and more significantly on Nostromo. Cole sets up an extended treatment of period anarchism by reviewing some of the determining factors of the philosophy and the major historical figures like Bakunin, Ravachol, and Kropotkin. It is a section that is rich and concise, summing up the period very well, followed by a [End Page 67] review, which, though by no means comprehensive, covers a robust selection of dynamite novels to set the literary context.
Cole begins the discussion with the curious note that while we may be used to terroristic detonation in contemporary society, it now having a kind of dreadful inevitability, Conrad’s audience would have been sensitive to the purely sensational novelty of the experience, and she points to “its chemical smell, to its shattering sound, to its extreme tactile effects” (Cole 83). She may be right, and it’s a fascinating idea, but her perception of the pristine sensory vacancy of the period may be imaginatively anodyne. One wonders if urban dwellers at the turn of the century with crowded streets filled with street hawkers, paper vendors, bustling crowds, horses in harness, dung in the streets, and unregulated factory growth with acrid smoke and smog might have presented the pure palate of undulled sensation that she imagines. No doubt she is right, however, that for the Edwardian audience, detonation as a spectacle, and as a sensation, must have been an extraordinary thing—but perhaps it is for us as well.
In her treatment, Cole argues that dynamite fiction is melodramatic in nature and sensational in form, and she takes the reader into the events of the Greenwich bombing to contextualize some of the later discussion of Conrad’s novel. In this well-researched and informative section, there is the occasional nuance that is either incorrect or deserves more clarification. She seems to confuse a series of Fenian outrages in England as part of a broader anarchist pattern of attempts on English targets; ironically, as one commentator suggests, newspapers conflate terror groups to “canalize fear” (Melchiori 9). Perhaps more significantly, Cole notes, Conrad’s “novel is true to contemporary newspaper accounts” (118), and she goes into some detail examining the spectacularly smashed body of Stevie in Conrad’s version of the events, noting that the “shovel” appears to have been Conrad’s invention. This...