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  • Machines for Living: Modernism and Domestic Life by Victoria Rosner
  • Maggie Humm
Machines for Living: Modernism and Domestic Life. Victoria Rosner. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2020. Pp. 320. $36.95 (cloth); $24.99 (eBook).

On page four of Machines for Living: Modernism and Domestic Life, Victoria Rosner writes: "The title of the leading journal in modernist studies, Modernism/modernity, separates them [modernism and modernity] with a dividing bar, accentuating the space between even as it brings them into relation. … My objective in this book is to discard the dividing bar" (4).

As Rosner suggests, a solidus not only accentuates space but represents division and exclusion between two terms. While it can connect noncontrasting terms (Hemingway/Faulkner generation) a solidus, or virgule, avoids taking positions. In opposition, Rosner's Machines for Living sets out her clear belief that "the revolution that was modernism was profoundly connected to domestic life" (vii). Machines for Living builds on Rosner's previous book Modernism and the Architecture of Private Life (2008) to show, by means of detailed examination of the ways in which "literary and architectural form share design principles," how writers including Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot, George Orwell, and the less expected Ivy Compton-Burnett responded to modernity's preoccupations with minimalism, hygiene, and domestic innovation (21).

The self-congratulatory story that modernity tells about itself, and its own origins, is that modernity involves a secular possession of nature by means of science and technology. The ontological foundation for the self-consciousness of modernity is based on ideas of change, although the term "modern" was not used in the current sense until the sixteenth century.1 While not really showing how modernism's "new vocabulary of form substantially derived from non-literary discourses of modernity" (why do publishers insist that book proposals are always "new"?), Rosner's is a much more significant offering—a genuinely wide-ranging, interdisciplinary compass of early twentieth-century literary and cultural formations (18).

Machines for Living's many vivid associations between writing and design, primarily the domestic, gives existing modernist studies of the domestic and the arts an imaginative and significant direction. Visual modernism was always interdisciplinary. Roger Fry's Post-Impressionist exhibitions and Omega Workshops offered democratic arts, exemplified in his designs for his own domestic space: his house, Durbins. "He would explain that it was quite easy to make the transition from Watts to Picasso … under his influence, his pressure, his excitement, pictures, hats, cotton goods, all were connected," Woolf writes in Roger Fry.2 Fry leads in a line to the socially engaged art of the environment and domestic architecture in the English utopian constructivist groups of the 1950s, whose leading theoretician was Anthony Hill.3

From Christopher Reed's pioneering work, resulting in Bloomsbury Rooms' (2004) discussion of Bloomsbury's projection of home life onto the public realm, modernist studies has embraced the significance of domesticity and the ontological force of technology and design. Matthew Taunton's Fictions of the City (2009) demonstrates that domestic architecture helped authors to understand the complexity of modernity. Alice T. Friedman's Women and the Making of the Modern House (2006) reveals how women's sponsoring of the modern movement assisted its development. Peter Kalliney's Cities of Affluence and Anger (2006) analyzes links between the [End Page 686] twentieth-century British novel and domestic architecture. Rosalyn Gregory's and Benjamin Kohlmann's Utopian Spaces of Modernism: British Literature and Culture (2012) describes modernist writers' utopian ideals. And Pamela L. Caughie's necessarily more focused Virginia Woolf in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (2000) brings together exemplary accounts of the interpermeability of writing and technologies in the work of Virginia Woolf—gramophones, cameras, cars, and houses.

Machines for Living builds on this work to focus on how "certain aesthetic practices in modern literature connect to the modernization of the home" (18). Rosner's first theme is minimalism in architecture and similarities in the writing of Ezra Pound, Eliot, and Ernest Hemingway which connect their work to architectural critics from the Czech Karel Teige to Lewis Mumford. Rosner specifically discusses Teige's contribution to architecture criticism but his work as a whole is a fascinating example of...