- Portable Modernisms: The Art of Travelling Light by Emily Ridge
Luggage in the early twentieth century was glamorous in its materiality and its possibilities for mobility. In Portable Modernisms, Emily Ridge sets out to explore how luggage—valises, purses, suitcases, trunks, etc.—serves as an apt metaphor for much of modernity. Her work covers an impressive breadth of material, from trade journals discussing how best to display luggage in store windows to Punch's satirical depiction of ways to "Carry a Suit-case in an Unsuspicious [End Page 607] Manner" that might as well have inspired Monty Python's "Ministry of Silly Walks" sketch. Borrowing methodologies from thing theory and material culture, Ridge argues that the literature of modernity is particularly influenced by the culture of portability and its omnipresent materiality. Ultimately, portability in all its iterations—from literal luggage to metaphorical rootlessness—shaped modernism and its literary output.
Ridge begins by examining the literary evolution from the "house of fiction" to the "civilisation of luggage," phrases used by Henry James in his 1908 Preface to The Portrait of a Lady (1880) and by E. M. Forster in Howards End (1910), respectively. The "house of fiction" has idiomatically come to mean that fiction is structured largely like a Victorian house and is "something solid and hermetic, often synecdochically representative of a larger social whole" (32). This understanding of the phrase, however, is not an accurate representation of James's meaning: "[a] close reading of his model reveals a disfigured structure in the throes of transition" and presents the house's potential collapse, according to Ridge (37). She compares this structure to a "proto–modernist Tower of Babel" rather than a solid Victorian house (37). And considering the phrase was used by James as an introduction to his book nearly thirty years after its initial publication, the potential collapse of the Victorian model seems logical. The year after James's Preface, Forster considers the "civilisation of luggage" from the vantage point of one of fiction's great houses (and "houses of fiction") in Howards End. Ridge examines Forster's reluctance to venture too far into modernism and "portability," but the house's future is precarious throughout the novel, which also emphasizes the undercurrent of portability and transience in the new twentieth century. Despite Forster's mixed feelings about the shift toward portability, he provides us with its catchphrase and launches Ridge's exploration.
Perhaps the most striking form of portability Ridge establishes in her first chapter is a well–traveled hatbox described in Max Beerbohm's short story "Ichabod" (1900). The hatbox is covered in a curated collection of traveling labels that serves as a "private autobiography" of the owner's travels, an articulation of self, and a narrative text in its own right (cited in Ridge, 42). Had Odysseus had such a hatbox on his travels, Beerbohm asserts, "Homer would have seen in it a sufficient record, a better record than even he could make, of Odysseus' wanderings. We should have had nothing from him but the Iliad" (44). The hatbox becomes a "playfully reimagined" form of the Homeric Odyssey twenty years before James Joyce's Ulysses, becoming a symbol of the modernist author "writing and dwelling in motion" (51)—like Joyce who wrote parts of Ulysses upon an upturned packing-case-turned-desk (54). This establishes a trend in modernist writing that emphasizes "routes over and above roots" (56).
Ridge then argues that the "civilisation of luggage" holds particular potential for women since a woman's bag, purse, or luggage can become a "subversive emblem" for female self–sufficiency and autonomy (20). The more a woman takes control of her portable property, the greater the implications for a woman's rights to landed property and political autonomy; therefore, the New Woman, the suffragette, and the enfranchised woman are all connected to the question of who controls a woman's bags. For instance, in an 1894 Punch illustration, a Miss Sampson offers to carry a Mr. Smithereen's bag; the...