- A Curious Peril: H.D.'s Late Modernist Prose by Lara Vetter
With the publication of A Curious Peril: H.D.'s Late Modernist Prose, Lara Vetter participates in a critical renaissance in H.D. studies. In the 1980s and 1990s, feminist poets and scholars recovered H.D. from the shadows of Ezra Pound and other high modernists to unearth her literary critiques of patriarchal gender and sexual norms. Over the last decade, outstanding studies, including those by Adelaide Morris and Annette Debo, have exemplified a second wave of scholarship that explores H.D.'s cultural and social investments, inclusive of and extending beyond gender critique. A Curious Peril, which thoroughly accounts for the modernist's overlooked late-career prose, ought to be counted amongst this auspicious company.
Renewed interest in H.D. is partly owed to recent recovery efforts, which have offered new editions of lesser-known prose texts and have made available previously unpublished fiction dating from during and after the Second World War. Vetter herself has edited the recent reprint of H.D.'s By Avon River (1949). To date, aside from these editions' introductions and a handful of journal articles, this newly recovered work has received scant critical attention. A Curious Peril begins to rectify this oversight by investigating what often is called H.D.'s postwar fiction "trilogy," all authored under the pseudonym Delia Alton—The Sword Went Out to Sea: Synthesis of a Dream (1946-1947, published 2007), White Rose and the Red (1947-1948, published 2009), and The Mystery (1948-1951, published 2009)—as well as the aforementioned By Avon River (republished 2014) and the espionage story Magic Mirror (1955-1956, published 2012). [End Page 460] Vetter presents the postwar prose as a critique of permanent war culture and British imperialism and as a rethinking of postwar subjectivity. She contends that "we have not thought of H.D. as a political writer, but in part that is because her late prose oeuvre has been critically ignored, much of it only recently having appeared in print for the first time" (p. 21). For Vetter, H.D.'s late-career shift toward a "broader, more dynamic, historical analysis" and "formal structures that would document and express the fragmentation of faith and the dismantling of authority" is coextensive with a trend in the more politicized works of late modernism, from around 1930 to 1950 (p. 23). Rejecting high modernism's trademark concerns with interiority and static metaphysics, H.D. and other writers' outward or social turn, coupled with their continuing formal experimentation, "gestures toward postmodernism without fully committing to it" (p. 30).
A Curious Peril skirts the private and psychological and instead develops a biographical method focusing on the poet's public life and career. That biographical narrative is augmented by Vetter's meticulous attention to the formal, thematic, and conceptual elements of H.D.'s prose. This strategy helps her avoid the fallacy of reading H.D.'s postwar work as symptomatic solely of an older woman's deteriorating psychological and physical health. When writing of the spy novel Magic Mirror, Vetter notes her "suspicion" that other critics have "shied away from this theme [of espionage] because it points to H.D.'s apparent real-life paranoia stemming from the 1946 illness that culminated … in her receiving electroshock treatment" (p. 173). By contextualizing H.D. as a historical subject, a representative survivor of two World Wars and the Blitz, Vetter's methodology allows her to broach hitherto avoided, sensitive matters. Throughout the study, Vetter also impressively draws on texts informing H.D.'s own research of historical events like the medieval Crusades and the Renaissance's New World campaigns; cultural movements such as the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and the Moravian Church's beginnings; and even occultist and spiritualist practices. Indeed, her lengthy supplementary bibliography, "Works Mentioned that H.D. Owned and/or Read," will prove invaluable to future scholars' work (pp. 249-54). When she reads H.D. reading, Vetter implicitly signals the late fictions' sociality. By writing...