British Boarding Houses in Interwar Women's Literature: Alternative Domestic Spaces by Terri Mullholland
This fascinating monograph, British Boarding Houses in Interwar Women's Literature: Alternative Domestic Spaces, encompasses some of the most familiar names in women's writing of the interwar period (such as Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys), writers undergoing a significant renaissance in recent scholarship (notably Dorothy Richardson but also Winifred Holtby and Rosamond Lehmann), writers such as Lettice Cooper whose work has yet to attract a great deal of scholarly attention, and the almost completely forgotten writers of autobiographical accounts of boarding-house life. Indeed, a key feature of Mullholland's book is the way her work cuts across categories such as canonical/non-canonical, modernist/non-modernist, and high/middlebrow, continuing the welcome trajectory in recent literary studies of this period of challenging and reframing, implicitly or explicitly, such categories. The book's jacket refers to "the literature of the single room" as "a hybrid of the modernist and realist domestic fiction written and read by women"—gesturing to its interest in (modernist) interiority and (social realist) material contexts. On reading Mullholland's nuanced and detailed accounts, this description perhaps risks identifying "the literature of the single room" as more homogenous than actually appears to be the case. Nevertheless, it expresses the capacity of literary accounts of this peculiar interior space to convey, as Mullholland puts it, "what the boarding house room ultimately came to represent in social, cultural, and economic terms for the unmarried woman in interwar Britain," as well as the boarding house's suitability as a lens through which to examine the intersecting concerns of the psychic and the material (p. 17).
After an extremely useful introduction to the historical and social contexts for the development of single-room habitations for women and their representations in literature, chapter one focuses on Richardson's epic work Pilgrimage (1915-1967), an excellent place to start since this text's protagonist, Miriam, spends almost the entire novel living in lodging or boarding houses (and there is a fascinating discussion of the distinction between the two on pp. 35-38). The careful etymological explication of the concept of the "interior" here—in particular its relatively recent usage [End Page 215] to describe physical rather than mental or emotional space as well as cognate social and cultural developments—exemplifies this study's attentive focus on the psychic/material nexus embodied in the single room (p. 27). Mullholland's work ably conveys the complexity of Miriam's relationship with the single room but concludes on a positive note, emphasizing the capacity of the single room to provide the privacy and independence that an author, such as Miriam, might need to achieve her aspirations. Woolf's A Room of One's Own (1929) can of course never be far from our minds at points such as these, and it may be out of a desire not to state the obvious that Woolf's text does not feature in Mullholland's work as strongly as one might have expected.
Chapter two explores the economics of the boarding house in novels by Storm Jameson, Cooper, and Stella Gibbons, writers of fiction with very different narrative qualities from Richardson. Mullholland treats the satire of Gibbons with particular sensitivity, insisting on its capacity to perform a significant critique of women's social and economic status through an exploration of the opportunities and risks offered to women as boarding house landladies; it is not only the women who live in single rooms under examination here but also the women who own and profit from them. Overall, however, this chapter underlines that although "women may have been presented with more opportunities in the interwar period … the fictional representations of the discomfort of their accommodation reflects its precarious nature" (p. 78).
Chapter three shifts focus to consider the representation of various kinds of intimate relationships in works by Lehmann, Rhys, and Holtby, beginning with a fascinating account of the vicissitudes in attitudes towards women's sexuality during the early twentieth century, a crucial context for the readings that follow. Once again economics is a key issue, as Mullholland explores, for example, the representation of the kept woman or "amateur prostitute"—a familiar figure to readers of Rhys (pp. 95-98). Here Mullholland's readings emphasize just how bound up the sexual and social identities of Rhys's protagonists are with the practical and psychical implications of their living environments.
Chapter four "examines the significance of [the boarding house] for colonial women and those from North America travelling to Britain alone," mainly through "a genre of supposedly autobiographical, but largely fictionalised, travelogues and novels"—a crucial inclusion to expand the focus hitherto on British unmarried women (pp. 119, 120). This chapter reveals the added complexity of navigating this habitational space when the lens of foreign—often colonial—identity is also in play and concludes by discussing the moral panic surrounding the boarding house as a locus for relationships between Indian students and British girls. The final chapter explores "rooms for single women" in Woolf's The Years (1937), [End Page 216] which Mullholland rightly identifies as "a major example of the boarding house genre" (p. 162). In so doing, she offers—among other things—a further interpretative perspective on the notorious scene that eavesdrops on, as the characters put it, "The Jew … having a bath" (qtd. p. 159). The final paragraphs of this chapter act as a conclusion to the monograph and drive home the way in which depictions of these "contained locale[s]" act as vital fictional complements to the historical record of "the wider social, political and economic aspects of women's lives: reconstructing the historical through the fictional" (p. 162). A conclusion that gestured more broadly, bringing the wide variety of texts examined back into clear dialogue with each other while employing this evocative language of containment, might have rounded the monograph off more fully. That said, one need do no more than glance back through the pages of this highly informative and capacious study to be reminded of the significance of the boarding house for explorations of women's literature of this period and of the lacuna in the literary critical field that Mullholland has filled in this publication.