- Off to the Pictures: Cinema-Going, Women's Writing and Movie Culture in Interwar Britain by Lisa Stead
Recent explorations into the relationship between cinema and literature in the interwar period such as Laura Marcus's The Tenth Muse: Writing about Cinema in the Modernist Period (2008) and David Trotter's Literature in the First Media Age: Britain Between the Wars (2013) have frequently returned to the question of gender inevitably raised by the visibility of women as film goers, stars, and critics in the 1920s and 1930s. Lisa Stead's Off to the Pictures: Cinema-Going, Women's Writing and Movie Culture in Interwar Britain, however, is the first monograph solely devoted to the importance of what she calls women's "film fictions" in this period (p. 197). Off to the Pictures opens a rich written archive that includes short stories published in fan magazines, print adaptations of films, middlebrow and modernist novels, film criticism, screenwriting, and business documents to examine how British women negotiated contradictory and dynamic representations of gender through an intermedial cinema culture that included print as well as film. Stead's project makes a number of important contributions to feminist film historiography and new modernist literary studies. The most crucial is her emphasis on the value of fiction for exploring women's [End Page 217] experiences of cinema culture. As Stead argues, fiction generates and interrogates the gendered masquerades created within this culture.
Off to the Pictures begins with an explanation of how women's film fictions reconfigure interwar cinema culture as they navigate between restrictive and liberating representations of women. Stead convincingly argues for the value of the British context of her study, as the nation's industry responded to the international dominance of Hollywood in the 1920s and 1930s by alternately embracing American films and positioning them as a foil to a British identity defined by domesticity. The second chapter of Stead's monograph elaborates on this nexus of gender, class, and national identity by addressing print adaptations of films, short stories published in film fan magazines, and the "novelettes, storyettes and movie stories" that appealed to an increasingly literate, female audience during this period (p. 52). Stead offers a particularly compelling reading of the female star through these fictions, charting an "ordinary-to-star-to-wife" narrative in which the domestic "conclusion" is challenged by the "characterisation" of the star throughout the narrative as an independent worker (pp. 63, 64). She extends this inquiry into how women negotiated changing and contradictory roles through cinema with a focus on middlebrow novels by authors including Stella Gibbons, Agatha Christie, Lettice Cooper, Rosamond Lehmann, Winifred Holtby, and Elizabeth Bowen in the third chapter. Stead considers how, as they encounter film texts and inhabit cinema spaces, female characters in these novels reveal both "pressures to conform" to limiting class and gender representations and a recognition of potentially liberating "alternative identities" beyond the "locally inflected value systems of gendered middle-class life" (p. 88). This chapter concludes with an exhilarating reading of how Bowen adapted film form to construct a cinema-going scene in her 1938 novel The Death of the Heart. While recent scholarship into the relationships between media in the interwar period has steered away from formal analogies, Stead shows here and in her next chapter on Jean Rhys how such analogies can be employed not merely to posit film as an "expressive tool" for fiction but, much more importantly, to posit fiction as a space for critically examining cinematic experiences (p. 107).
In its fourth, fifth, and sixth chapters, Off to the Pictures turns to three case studies, respectively looking at how the modernist author Jean Rhys, the film critic C. A. Lejeune, and the popular author and filmmaker Elinor Glyn reflected upon and shaped representations of gender through cinema culture. The chapter on Rhys provides a much needed examination of the oddly overlooked descriptions of cinema-going and the adoption of film form in Rhys's four interwar...