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But you, my dear, can you not read my thoughts at all?...
I have so strange a feeling that you could... if you would....
- Rebecca West, Harriet Hume

Set in the period shortly after World War I, Rebecca West's obscure, out-of-print novel Harriet Hume (1929) shows the correspondences between high modernism and the spiritual knowledges supposedly dispelled by discourses of Enlightenment modernity. Subtitled "A London Fantasy," West's saga tilts away from the generic markers of realism to a landscape of fantasy, rendered through the mannered remoteness and baroque aestheticism of its style. Such oscillations between realism and fantasy, the mundane and the mystical, historical specificity and a remote timelessness, register the power of West's vertiginous aesthetic to mediate between an ironic portrait of the present and an invocation of other worlds and otherworldly experience. In Harriet Hume, the otherworldly is accessed primarily via the figure of telepathy, which enables the protagonist, Harriet Hume, to bring her mind closer to that of her lover, Arnold Condorex. Telepathy not only mediates the relationship between these figures--revealing their inevitable entanglement--but offers an analogue to West's modernist practice, as a device for illuminating the fluid, intersubjective nature of consciousness. Inviting comparison to Woolf's Mrs. Dalloway (1925), West's Harriet Hume adapts the language of modern spiritualism to an investigation of consciousness, whereby characters otherwise distanced by social, political, and economic circumstances are linked through occult relation.

This essay focuses on the channels of telepathic transmission and reception that crisscross West's experimental novel. West's interest in telepathy, as a phenomenon that affirms the permeability of psychic boundaries and the entangled nature of consciousness, not only illustrates the persistence of spiritualism within the cultural imaginary of modernism but also the affinities between these spiritual knowledges and modernist literary form. As Helen Sword argues in Ghostwriting Modernism (2002), even the most rationalistic and skeptical of modernist authors were fascinated by popular spiritual phenomena in its full range of expression and assimilated into their art references to and representations of telepathy, mesmerism, hypnosis, seances, spiritual mediumship, and automatic writing. (1) Late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers including Bram Stoker, Arthur Conan Doyle, Henry James, May Sinclair, W. B. Yeats, H. D., Radcliffe Hall, James Joyce, and T. S. Eliot became participants in a modern spiritual revival, often using their literary experiments to limn the intricate relations between earthly and otherworldly experience. (2) In an era of declining faith in orthodox Christianity and robust investment in scientific rationalism, late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writers sought to channel an unseen world not strictly confined to materialist and empiricist principles. Nor was this fascination with the spiritual and the occult among modernists merely an anachronistic Victorianism; as Alex Owen argues in The Place of Enchantment, occultists and spiritualists, much like their modernist counterparts, thought of themselves as thoroughly modern subjects, avatars of the new (9). The popular spiritual revival that peaked at the end of the nineteenth and the early decades of the twentieth century emerged partly in response to the devastation of World War I and the desire to communicate with the recently dead, to the proliferation of new communication technologies that collapsed distances and accelerated contact, and to an era of psychological modernity characterized by an awareness of the fluid relations of matter, psyche, and spirit. (3) Literary modernism's forays into spiritualism testify to the haunted geographies of the first world war, to the uncanny voices of new communication technologies, to the fascination with the hidden powers of the psyche, and to the phantasmatic spaces of psychic, social, and sexual disorder and possibility generated by the conditions of modernity. (4)

But if spiritualism and occultism were once marginal to accounts of modernism, we might attribute this, as Amy Clukey suggests, to a modernist establishment which "crafted a retrospective self-image that censored its own occult interests..." (80). Spiritualism, argues Tim Armstrong, "persists as a secret within modernism, an important way of registering human exchanges in a world rendered strange, super-sensual, technologically-connected" (129). Answering the imperative of the new modernist studies to think more expansively about the diverse cultures of modernism, this essay joins a significant body of scholarship that has, over the past two decades, reestablished the links between modernism and spiritualism that were largely excluded from dominant accounts of the field. (5) In so doing, it subjects modernism to a mode of analysis that reads the complex narrative structures and complicated prose style of the modernist novel in relation to the forms of re-enchantment and the fluid spiritual, psychic, and material crossings that characterized early twentieth-century thought.

The novelist, critic, and socialist feminist journalist Rebecca West is not an obvious candidate for a study of spiritualism in modernism: she did not subscribe to occult organizations or move in spiritualist circles. She did, however, attend fashionable seances and was convinced of her own possession of psychic powers inherited from her mother. (6) She also wrote for The Freewoman, a radical feminist journal founded by Dora Marsden that was uniquely hospitable to discussions of spiritualism and the occult. More convincingly still, West's fictional worlds vibrate with obscure meanings, featuring ghosts, spiritual events, and characters who act as mediums, clairvoyants, and telepaths. Sword points out that while "mediumistic discourse was a destabilizing, low cultural, often implicitly feminized mode of speech and writing," it had implicit correspondences to high modernism, including a shared repertoire of formal strategies like multiple perspectives, fragmented discourse, and a manipulation of authority and passivity (Sword x). Both telepathy and spiritual mediumship placed textuality at the center of their practices and drew heavily upon literary practice as a metonym for the discursive authority and cultural empowerment of the medium (Sword 15). Conversely, West draws on telepathy as an implicitly feminized practice and subversive mode of communication--a kind of influence at a distance--that resonates with her own aesthetic practice and ethical and political priorities. If the telepath makes connections across distances, bridging otherwise incommunicable gaps, West's fictions perform an analogous operation by mediating between the elite cultural formations of high modernism and popular literary genres. Her works illustrate, perhaps more vividly than many of her modernist counterparts, the dynamic interdependence of modernism and popular literary culture--a dynamism that is essential to recent reconsiderations of the field. Indeed, the anomalousness of West's fictions, their destabilizing mixture of high modernist experimentation and popular and sensational genres and modes (melodrama, the Gothic, fantasy, mysticism), renderthem especially capable of challenging what Robert Scholes has called the "founding binary opposition for all Modernist critical terminology," that between high and low (xii). Debra Rae Cohen has described this aspect of West's modernism as a "playful generic iconoclasm...a particularly sophisticated and idiosyncratic intertextual chatter" ("Sheepish" 143). In thinking of this intertextual chatter as a form of textual crossing, as a subversion of hierarchies of aesthetic value, I draw explicit connections between telepathy as theme and plot device in Harriet Hume and the telepathic as a set of aesthetic strategies that West deployed to mediate between seemingly distant discourses.

Using telepathy as a lens with which to perform a feminist reading of the capabilities of the modernist novel, this essay highlights West's use of telepathy as a process in which minds are brought into intimate rapport, a process which in turn offers West a Utopian figure for transcending social antagonisms predicated upon gender and class. Modern spiritualism, like Theosophy and the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn, proved to be an arena of self-empowerment for women at the turn of the century, providing figures such as Annie Besant a spiritual counterpart to politically progressive views. In Harriet Hume, telepathy helps West envision a form of spiritual transcendence that reaffirms the fundamental interconnection of human beings, especially across the gender divide. By aligning West's feminist modernist aesthetic with turn-of-the-century investigations of telepathy, I argue that telepathy is as close as possible to a metaphor for West's writing, insofar as it foregrounds a self-reflexivity about mediation and generates analogies between the intricate interpsychic exchanges of telepathy and those generated by the textual encounter between author and reader. As this essay goes on to show, West's telepathic modernism models a receptivity to other minds that is central to the aesthetic and feminist imperatives of her fiction. In its representation of the mind as porous and permeable, capable of communion with other minds, telepathy is an inherently subversive mode that collapses distances and brings subjects into intimate proximity.


Harriet Hume employs a particularly modernist metaphoricity of telepathy in its ironic portrayal of a solipsistic man whose consciousness is doubly penetrated by both the narrator and Harriet herself. The novel's modernism can be attributed to its highly mediated narrative surfaces and interpenetrating narrative levels, managed through a flexible free-indirect style and through a female telepath who acts as a sensitive interceptor of the novel's multiple voices. If other modernist texts make formal use of the exquisite sensitivity and polyphony that telepathy literalizes, West's novel is unique in importing the trope of telepathy to experimental modernist practices. Indeed, its free-indirect style, interior monologue, and stream-of-consciousness prose highlight the forms of permeability that Harriet's telepathy literalizes. Sharing with telepathy a heightened attention to form and to the process of mediation itself, Harriet Hume evokes a modernist model of authorship that emphasizes both the author's exquisite attunement to other minds (a la Woolf), and a self-reflexive attention to the medium itself--what Raymond Williams will call the modernist "community of the medium" (qtd. in Clukey 90).

While West scholars have recuperated interest in this obscure, high-modernist novel after decades of critical neglect, none of these critics have foregrounded the trope of telepathy in their reading, and none have situated the novel within the context of modern spiritualism, which fascinated late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century audiences on both sides of the Atlantic. (7) Although West's fictions, especially The Return of the Soldier, have been read alongside developments in psychoanalysis, her fictional universes, which unite spiritual and material concerns, and her persistent representations of fringe states of consciousness, suggest that she assimilated into her fictions the more open-ended theories of the psyche that predated psychoanalysis. Harriet Hume solicits a nuanced reading of the historicity, metaphoricity, and aesthetics of telepathy, as well as a reading of the interrelated technologies of communication developed during the decades leading up to the publication of West's novel, those such as the telegraph, telephone, gramophone, and radio that aimed to close the distance between physically and psychically remote bodies. Derived from the Greek words tele (distant) and pathos (feeling), telepathy purported to transmit information by circumventing the conventional sensory relays of verbal communication and physical interaction. As such, telepathy promised to unite subjects across space and time, a role that West's novel performs by representing interpsychic relations that exceed conventional forms of communication.

Telepathy can best be understood at the intersection of late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century popular spiritualism and psychological and scientific investigations into the nature of mind and consciousness, investigations that were largely secular but directed to psychic and spiritual realities that lay beyond the purview of empiricism. As Alex Owen points out, the new spirituality was "at the heart of a contemporary preoccupation with the riddle of human identity and consciousness" (13), and was, therefore, not a rejection of, but a culturally specific extension of, turn-of-the-century psychological developments. Wouter Hanegraaff suggests that while magic had conventionally been used to harness the powers of the natural world, turn-of-the-century occultism was increasingly focused on harnessing the powers of the psyche. (8) As such, telepathy marked a historical turn in which paranormal phenomena were being interpreted within the more legitimating frameworks of science and psychology. The term "telepathy" was coined in the 1880s by F. W. H. Myers, the Cambridge-educated classicist, poet, and psychical researcher whose work on abnormal psychical phenomena such as trance states, apparitions, telepathy, and spiritualism aimed to show that such phenomena could "be brought under the operation of the laws of the natural world" (Hamilton 123). (9) Myers helped to found the Society for Psychical Research (SPR) in 1883, whose aim was to extend scientific legitimacy to a range of mental phenomena previously grouped under the category of the occult. Psychical researchers offered to bridge the spheres of modern spiritualism, modern psychology, and scientific positivism, without trivializing or pathologizing the first, but rather bringing it under the purview of scientific legitimation. Myers was convinced that phenomena such as somnambulism, hysteria, multiple personality, telepathy, and clairvoyance were not abnormal or pathological states but reflected "the furthest reaches of a general continuum of human potentialities" (Owen 174). In the 1880s, he became keenly interested in thought-transference--what he eventually called "telepathy"--which he defined as a "communication of impressions of any kind from one mind to another, independently of the recognized channels of sense" (Human xxii). Myers would broaden this definition to include a cluster of impressions at a distance, including mind-reading, clairvoyance, divination, and mental rapport between the living and the dead: "Telepathy may thus exist between two men in the same room as truly as between one man in England and another in Australia, or between one man still living on earth and another man long since departed" (Human xxii). Although his methods were scientific, Myers echoed the beliefs of modern spiritualists that individual minds were more than isolated units, that they could be brought into rapport with each other outside of traditional modes of sense-making, and that such rapport could initiate transformational sympathy, a process Myers notably compared to reading (Owen 173-74).

Myers's belief in the potential unity of human minds was grounded in his faith in the "composite" or "colonial" character of the human psyche, a psyche that was not unified and consistent but composed of conscious ("supraliminal") and unconscious ("subliminal") faculties (Human 10). Myers insisted that the conscious or "supraliminal" self was merely one of several possible selves, that it did not encompass all the latent possibilities of selfhood. He based his understanding of spiritual phenomena in the idea of this "subliminal" self, which connoted "all that takes place beneath the ordinary threshold, or say, if preferred, outside the ordinary margin of consciousness" (qtd. in Owen 174). While Myers took seriously the Freudian concept of the unconscious, his subliminal self developed along different lines. Rather than exist as a product of repression, the subliminal self was permeable--accessible to consciousness via dreams, hypnosis, automatisms, and moments of creative activity. Erupting into consciousness in such moments, the subliminal self could offer a resource for spiritual knowledge and heightened perception that exceeded the bounds of individual experience (Armstrong 124). Myers would later conclude that the subliminal self "could be emancipated from the ordinary limitations of organic life," and thus could persist after bodily death (Human xl). Those who could access the powers of the subliminal self could potentially achieve intersubjective rapport via telepathy or mediumship; thus telepathy, as an interpsychic communication between beings, depended first and foremost on an intrapsychic communication between "supraliminal" and "subliminal" parts of the self. While Myers was crucial in introducing psychoanalysis into the world of British psychology, he was considerably more optimistic about the self's capacity to harness telepathic energies under the active control of normal, daily consciousness. (10) For Myers, the subliminal self could become part of, even permanently integrated into, consciousness, which could over time generate widespread social acceptance and normalization of what was perceived to be abnormal psychical experience (Myers, "Retrocognition" 334). While membership in the SPR peaked in 1920, its widespread popularity in England during this time has been eclipsed by decades of scholarly attention to psychoanalysis. In turn, orthodox psychoanalytical accounts of the psyche, with their emphasis on intrapsychic dynamics and on a more egoistic self, have overshadowed the eclectic and open-ended views of the psyche popularized by Myers and other psychical researchers. (11)

Myers's interest in telepathy and telepathy's intimate relationship to transmission and communication technologies is part of Myers's relevance to the cultural work of modernism, as the age of accelerated communication augured new versions of influence at a distance. Nor was the relationship between psychical phenomena and communication technology merely metaphorical: some of the first scientists to experiment with telepathy were also some of the first to develop technologies of wireless communication. As Pamela Thurschwell points out, debates within the SPR about the possibilities of telepathy, hypnosis, and survival after death contributed "to wider reconceptualizations of the borders of individual consciousness" and emerged "together with new communication technologies such as the telephone and the telegraph..." (2). Thurschwell goes on to argue that these occult ways of imagining cultural transmission and communication created "phantasmatic spaces" that redefined intimate, sexual, familial, and national ties between people against the usual patriarchal models of inheritance and community via marriage and the nuclear family (2). As Laura Marcus points out, telepathic communication at the turn of the century was an "illicit mode of communication," "a thought-transmission through 'unofficial' channels" (156). These new discourses about the borders of consciousness and the permeability of psychic and physical boundaries were intimately tied, according to Thurschwell, to anxieties around changing gender and sexual roles--embodied in the disruptive figures of the New Woman and the dandy--and around new forms of intimacy and contact between subjects that posed challenges to patriarchal and heteronormative forms of alliance.

Thurschwell's attention to occult forms of transmission and communication and the phantasmatic spaces that they create for new forms of intimacy can be leveraged for a reading of Harriet Hume, insofar as the novel uses the trope of telepathy to imagine subversive modes of contact between subjects across the borders of gender and class. As spiritual mediumship was typically the province of working-class women who found that they could raise their status through such practices, these phantasmatic spaces were also literal spaces in which differently classed and gendered figures converged. (12) West's New Woman protagonist lives on her own, supports herself as a musician, and engages in non-marital sex for pleasure: her itineraries therefore challenge codes of feminine middle-class respectability. Despite Harriet's assurance to her lover Arnold that "I will not disturb the classic relationship of the sexes" (37), her telepathy does precisely that, challenging the sovereignty of the imperial male subject as rational agent in charge of his own mind. In its representation of the mind as porous and permeable, capable of communion with other minds, telepathy is an inherently subversive mode that brings subjectivities into intimate, and sometimes dangerous, proximity. It is no accident that Arnold's anxieties cluster around telepathy and technology, those invisible channels of transmission that deform his resolutely individualistic and materialist thinking and bring him into uncomfortable collision with other subjectivities. While archaic and mannered in its presentation, the universe of Harriet Hume ultimately depends upon modern spiritualist conceptions of space and time--where psychic, social, and geographic distances are imagined as vast but traversable, where technology, aesthetics, and spiritual phenomena forge intimacies in systems that seem overwhelming and hierarchical.


The term telepathy never appears in Harriet Hume; rather, "supernatural arts," "second sight," "clairvoyance," "mind reading," "supernatural knowledge," and "occult...eavesdropping" serve as synonyms for inexplicable intimacies achieved at a distance. Beyond a flitting reference to psychical research in The Fountain Overflows (1956), West makes no other direct reference to psychical research, W. F. H Myers, or telepathy in her work. Yet I would argue that the atmosphere of psychical research pervades Harriet Hume, as the novel adopts its frameworks to articulate the occult sympathy and elusive psychical affinities between Harriet and Arnold, who are otherwise caught in the fraught dynamics of gender antagonism. The novel is structured as a series of five encounters that take place over the course of twenty years in which the lovers' physical proximity facilitates intimate scenes of mind reading. Harriet finds that she becomes telepathic, spontaneously, when in Arnold's presence. Romantic encounters are transmuted into eroticized interpsychic events that give Harriet special access to Arnold's mind, laying bare the complex mental world of the opposite sex.

Harriet lives on her own in a converted flat in Kensington and supports herself as a professional pianist; her lack of connections appears to render her vulnerable to the calculations of her opportunist lover, Arnold, an aspiring politician and social climber who abandons Harriet after their brief tryst so that he may "rise in the world" (56). Arnold, who also lacks wealth and status, decides that Harriet is an insufficient conduit to the privileges of ruling class society and decides to exchange her for a "privy Counsillor's plain daughter" after their first sexual liaison. Arnold Condorex, whose name connotes his "scheming predatory side and his kingly, even noble qualities" (Rollyson 67), is driven exclusively by the desire to "rise in the world": "It dominated him, he was its instrument" (Harriet Hume 57). The otherwise conventionalized portrait of a woman of low rank, abandoned by a self-serving rake who uses her on the way to fulfilling his own ambitions, is complicated, however, by the altered states of consciousness that permit Harriet to traffic in her lover's thoughts and expose his devious schemes. Each time the lovers meet Arnold is seduced by Harriet's "infernal witchcraft," but he swiftly moves to rationalize her enigmatic abilities by denying their legitimacy.

While Arnold's perspective focalizes most of the narrative, Harriet's telepathy affords her and the reader alike access to Arnold's secret motivations, which she communicates to Arnold after the fact. West presents Arnold's discourse as a lengthy interior monologue full of arch confidences, self-dramatizations, and an obsessive self-consciousness about his place in the world: telepathy becomes an ideal device for ironizing the reliability of his discourse, which we come to learn via Harriet's telepathy is full of deceit and indirection. After their first romantic interlude, Arnold observes that "she wore a radiance that had been but newly applied, and stood taut with a tensity derived from some galvanic force that still electrified the air about her, and had not been dissipated by time at all" (23), as if the enigma of Harriet's sexuality were linked to the mysterious forces of electro-magnetism. Attributing this transfiguration to her mockery of him, he suspects that the "witch like" Harriet is "in league with formidable forces" and that "the whole world was furtively mocking one Arnold Condorex" (25, 23). Harriet's transfiguration is in fact the mark of her new powers of mind; she reports: "I had that patch of headache here; and just as I was when we saw those children through those windows, I was in your mind. And because I was in your mind I knew what your body was doing" (27). In this scene of spontaneous telepathy, Harriet's mind becomes a sensitive instrument capable of extending beyond the material body, of resolving the problem of her distance to Arnold by penetrating his consciousness. In the novel's disjunctive and polyphonous discourse, Harriet narrates to Arnold (and therefore to us) the sequence of his thoughts after he has had them, including his assessment of her house and its objects for what they reveal of her "utter lack of fortune," as well as his plan "to enjoy Harriet till the last safe moment and then disembarrass himself of her" (55). Rather than dispute the accuracy of the visions, Arnold corroborates them, signaling to readers the reliability of her discourse over his--that her telepathy does in fact render Arnold's mind transparent: "It is true! Every word is true! And it is a miracle!" (32). In this scene of modernist epiphany, both characters experience a transforming understanding of each other and their relationship that is entirely nonverbal:
It struck him that they were exchanging glances of more agonized
sincerity, more desperately truthful reference to their mutual regard,
than they would have shared had they been parting as true lovers. Could
not something be done with all this honesty, with all this acute sense
of each other's being? (58-59)

Thus, while modernist narrative is typically read as destabilizing the authority of omniscience offered by classic realism, Harriet Hume's, telepathy serves as a stand-in for the impossibility of the omniscient third-person narrator in modernism while also registering the persistence of the desire for omniscience. As an alternative to narrative omniscience, then, telepathy satirizes this narrative impulse toward transparency while offering a compensatory fantasy for intimate interpsychic rapport in a world rendered increasingly abstract and mediated. West uses the uncanny and enigmatic properties of telepathy as a resource for her modernist morality tale, whereby Harriet's knowledge of Arnold's motivations to rise in the world at any cost propels the persecuting machinations of his own conscience, which drive him ultimately to madness and to suicide (although the latter is left somewhat vague). Harriet's telepathy not only exposes Arnold's schemes to abandon Harriet and dupe his political peers, but it slowly erodes Arnold's sense of his invulnerability to guilt: "Where had he been infected with this monstrous doubt that rising in the world was not the supreme good" (63).

While initially awed by Harriet's powers of mind, Arnold begins to experience her telepathy as an unwelcome invasion, as if such non-consensual mind reading were a form of violation or surveillance: "It was not humane to spy upon him so" (28). Harriet's ability to inhabit Arnold's mind and to observe his bodily movements from within raises questions about selfhood, privacy, and volition, and about the permeability of the boundaries between self and non-self, a porousness famously invoked by West's contemporary Virginia Woolf in her description of life as "a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end" (154). In "Modern Fiction" Woolf asks, "is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?" (154). It is worth noting that Woolf compares modern authors to "spiritualists" in opposition to "materialists"--the latter her shorthand for the middlebrow authors of her day whose well-crafted fiction failed to capture the elusive "life or spirit...the essential thing" (153). (13) Woolf reserves for the moderns a concern with "the dark places of psychology" (156), but such concerns were for Woolf a spiritual rather than a scientific exercise. However secularized and aestheticized their vision of spirit, Woolf and West exploited the circuitous, indeterminate, and poetic qualities of language to access an immaterial spirit or essence; crucially, spirit in their conceptions is something not just intra- but interpsychic, in that it provides a linguistic model for the transpersonal exchanges and boundary crossings that unite individuals into a broader human continuum. In the case of Woolf, Jessica Berman points out that such intersubjective connections are part of "Woolf's recognition of her responsibility toward people radically different from herself but also her effort, through narrative imagination, to explore the possibilities and limits of ethical connection across irrevocable distance" (40). I would add that Woolf cast the ethical value of her authorship in mediumistic terms: "I think writing, my writing, is a species of mediumship. I become the person" (qtd. in Sword 84). For Woolf, projecting herself into the mind and body of another was the spiritual modus operandi of the moderns.

In portraying characters whose thoughts and perceptions run parallel and frequently merge, Woolf and West, I argue, promote a Utopian vision of consciousness offered by telepathy--a capacity for interpsychic rapport between subjects--without abandoning a recognition of the incommensurability of experience of characters distanced by class, gender, age, and nationality. In Mrs. Dalloway, the upper-class Clarissa Dalloway experiences Septimus Smith's suicide as a significant event in her own life, even though she has never met the shell-shocked veteran and has been insulated from the direct effects of the war. Intuiting the foul play behind Septimus's suicide, Clarissa suspects the psychiatrist Sir William Bradshaw of committing "some indescribable outrage--forcing your soul, that was it" (184). Clarissa's ability to intuit Septimus's psychic suffering borders on the telepathic, raising questions about the permeability of consciousness and the agency of the thinking subject. But the connection with Septimus emerges from a broader sense of rapport with others, for Clarissa believes she has:
Odd affinities...with people she had never spoken to, some woman in the
street, some man behind a counter--even trees or barns. It ended in a
transcendental theory which, with her horror of death, allowed her to
believe, or say that she believed (for all her skepticism), that since
our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so momentary
compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the
unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or
that, or even haunting certain places, after death. Perhaps--perhaps.

Articulated in the elastic style of stream-of-consciousness, Clarissa's transcendental theory (punctuated by her own skepticism--"Perhaps--perhaps") affirms her sense of the interconnection of all things, both human and non-human, across intervals of time and space, life and death. Clarissa's mind, unmoored from the limitations of the material body, mingles fluidly with other minds in what seems like a communal act of commemoration for the recently dead. As George Johnson reminds us, Clarissa's belief in the unseen and the possibility of the soul's survival after bodily death bears a striking resemblance to the theories of Myers, who posited the existence of an indwelling soul as the cornerstone to his "colonial" theory of personality (Dynamic 201).

As intuitive characters paired against their more solipsistic male counterparts, Clarissa Dalloway and Harriet Hume model capacities for sympathetic attunement available to anyone; and yet such characterizations also reinscribe essentializing notions of solicitous, maternal femininity for which Woolf and West have been criticized. In her aesthetic treatise "The Strange Necessity" West submits that "it does not seem at all unlikely that we should have a mind-consciousness which tells us as fully about other people's minds as our body-consciousness tells us about other people's bodies" (102). This kind of intuitive, empathic connection to the other that is rooted in a connection to one's own lived body is essential to West's faith in narrative fiction as the medium through which such connections could be forged. For both West and Woolf, the representation of interpsychic transmission was part of a larger aesthetic, psychological, and metaphysical investigation into the permeability of consciousness and the capacity of shared consciousness to disrupt the seemingly incommensurable divides of class, gender, age, and nationality. West draws on forms of modern spiritualism, and specifically on telepathy, to model a capacity for interpsychic rapport between distant subjects, which suggests not only a continuum between subjects but between routine perception and the more heightened states of attunement proper to telepathy.

Jennifer Wicke has pointed out that Woolf's understanding of consciousness is ineluctably social, in that "the absolute privacy of consciousness is unobtainable, and the thoughts, images, and refrains of consciousness take collective forms" (117). Much like Myers, Woolf favored a view of selfhood as multiple and dispersed, capable of transgressing the boundary of life and death. As Woolf says in her diary on April 27, 1925: "my present reflection is that people have any number of states of consciousness (second selves is what I mean) & I should like to investigate the party consciousness, the frock consciousness &c" (3:12). As Lisa Cohen points out in her discussion of the "frock," clothing constitutes both a boundary to the self as well as its permeability (260). Casting her vision of social consciousness in the conventionally feminized languages of parties and clothing, Woolf mingles turn-of-the-century psychical ideas about second selves and deeper states of consciousness with her own understanding of the social nature of consciousness. In Mrs. Dalloway, Clarissa experiences psychical unity with Septimus at the party she convenes, a place where her social gifts are most apparent, and where she recognizes both the diffuse and the overlapping nature of consciousness most forcefully.

West's investigations into shared consciousness are inextricable from the socialist and feminist radicalism that defined the early part of her literary career; indeed, telepathy functions as a Utopian feminist strategy that envisions women's self-empowerment via the extension of the senses, beyond the limitations of the social body. In Harriet Hume, the perceptual and epistemological advantages Harriet enjoys as a reader of Arnold's mind compensate for the material forms of disadvantage she experiences. In spite of Harriet's physical disadvantages--the poor eyesight and diminutive stature that is repeatedly invoked--telepathy enhances her access to other minds, which in turn disrupts Arnold's ability to transform her into an unwitting victim of his schemes. Arnold consistently remarks Harriet's exaggerated compliance and willingness to bend to his will, aligning her with the colonial subjects and domestic servants whom he rules; he imagines "the meek pliancy of her form and manners, which were such that if one found her in one's way one might surely pick her up and loop her round a hook on the door without encountering physical or mental resistance" (66). But as in other fictions of female telepathy and spiritual mediumship, Harriet's exquisite receptivity to other minds is reimagined as a source of psychic strength and moral virtue. Arnold's jokes about her eyesight, in which he equates poor vision with failed perception, offer moments of punctuated irony for the reader: "She could not read my thoughts. I doubt if she could read her primer" (66). As Arnold strives to demonstrate his social, economic, and physical superiority to Harriet, Harriet's telepathy--the spontaneous, unwilled flows between her and Arnold's mind--becomes a feminist counter-discourse, insisting upon modes of relation that are fundamentally intersubjective and non-hierarchical.

In conceiving of West's telepathy as motivated by explicitly political feminist objectives, it is helpful to consider the political context of what seems like an otherwise fantastical tale. Set loosely in Westminster--the seat of government--in the period after World War I, the novel evokes the rigid social structures of late imperial England and the rapacious greed of the ruling classes. Arnold is both an outsize villain out of melodrama and a recognizably opportunist politician cheating his way to power; Harriet is an exquisitely feminine creature, close to pure spirit, and an independent "New Woman" with a professional life in the public sphere. When Arnold and Harriet meet for the second time six years after their initial tryst, he has risen in the world of English imperial politics through corrupt schemes contrived to manipulate the English public, including a scheme to fabricate a fictional colonial territory called Mondh over which he rules. Debra Rae Cohen has described this phantom territory, in which everything can be known, as "the vanishing point of imperial epistemology" ("Sheepish" 148). Indeed, this illusory territory, with its capacity to generate status and prestige for Arnold, marks the hollowness of the English imperial project itself. Arnold's political triumphs are achieved exclusively through deceit and treachery; both his title and his marriage are made possible because of the prestige that attaches to the illusory Mondh. In the second encounter between Harriet and Arnold, Harriet's telepathy reveals that he is planning to marry Lady Ginevra, a woman betrothed to the son of Arnold's former patron--an act of pure treachery. She tells him: "For I saw all, dear Arnold. I saw the vision of the future which comes and goes at the back of your mind, sustaining you against all present tedium" (103). Rather than express remorse for his actions, Arnold blames Harriet, "that damnable witch," for having "engineered this whole situation" through her prophecy. This time the accuracy of her visions plunges Arnold into paranoia about the transparency of his own mind and his susceptibility to blackmail: "Let the witch bum. For she had come between him and every human being's right not to know quite what he is doing" (110).

On their third encounter, Harriet's telepathy reveals that Arnold is engaged in a conspiracy to overthrow the senior members of his party, but he denies that he is "moved by any base or mercenary motive" (163), performing yet another obfuscating dance around the truth of his intentions. In his interior monologue following the confrontation, Arnold conjures the perils of reading and being read by Harriet, who exposes at every turn his political intrigues: "She knows what I am thinking! She is letting the poor fool find what solace he can in the ridiculous position of being an open book which another can read at will!" (183). Arnold also accuses Harriet of trying to "pick the lock of my soul" (161), a metaphor for psychic violation that evokes anxieties of emasculation. He asks Harriet: "Will you never weary of spying on my nakedness?" (197). Arnold's anxieties about being read as an open book or picked like a lock evoke the textual erotics of telepathy, which imagines a permeable self whose thoughts, feelings, and fantasies can be rendered transparent to others. As he feels the walls of his mind becoming porous, Arnold exclaims, "I have lost power to negotiate even with myself (183). In the analogy between mind and text that such metaphors create, Arnold wonders if the self is merely a text to be read and interpreted by others. If for Harriet telepathy offers intimate knowledge of the other, for Arnold it marks a terrifying dissolution of the self--a self exposed to the contingencies of human perception and interpretation.


Telepathy, like spiritual mediumship, permits West to experiment with authority and passivity, privacy and publicity, proximity and distance, presence and absence while giving characters and readers access to previously withheld worlds, worlds that are also imaginatively reconstructed by the telepath. Harriet Hume is one of several West characters who functions as a telepath or medium--an intermediary between seemingly remote psychic and social bodies. In West's World War I novel, The Return of the Soldier (1918), for example, the androcentric world of war is made available to a non-combatant and female reader through the narrator, Jenny, who mediates the story of male trauma. Jenny experiences the war vicariously through the imagined traumas of her shell-shocked cousin, Chris Baldry, an upper-class soldier who returns from war with a selective amnesia that has obliterated his knowledge of the past fifteen years of his life. The uncanny way Jenny describes the front, the trenches, the explosion of shells, and the dismemberment of bodies--albeit entirely in dreams--places her in a curiously proximate relation to the war; Jenny performs the role of spiritual medium, linking the non-combatant to the combatant, the home-front to the war-front, the living to the dead. By relaying the perspectives and experiences of male characters via female intermediaries, The Return of the Soldier and Harriet Hume refract masculine anxieties about the obtrusion of women into previously male-dominated spheres--war, politics, authorship. Jenny is a liminal figure, situated on the fringes of bourgeois femininity; but as a narrator she mediates experiences otherwise unavailable to a woman of her time, directing the experience of the war through a kind of affective vicariousness. In her reading of Jenny, Cohen points out that Jenny's own experience of the war is mediated by the official and unofficial propaganda disseminated to civilians during wartime; her interpellation and re-mediation of such propaganda problematizes her textual authority, creating in part the unreliable narration so characteristic of modernism (Remapping 80-83). To be sure, the fantasies of psychic access these two West novels present, managed through female mediums and narrators, also point reflexively to the potential for unreliability consonant with modernist epistemologies, as telepathy's fantasy of omniscience, of access to other minds, exists in productive tension with modernism's insistence on the fallibility of human perception. In Jenny's case, the very qualities that render her receptive to channeling also prime her for interpellation, such that she comes to represent the susceptibility of the populace to the propaganda machine.

Jill Galvin points out that women's association with the feminine traits of sympathy and receptivity rendered them fit for channeling in both spiritual and technological mediums (12). In her words, "The medium was a passive instrument, well attuned to the subtle cues, sometimes described as vibrations, by which the spirits expressed themselves" (30). Such beliefs grew out of late Victorian evolutionary thinking that women had finer nervous systems, and thus a greater capacity for intuition and "altruistic fellow-feeling" (Luckhurst 216), capacities that also made them susceptible to emotionalism and hysteria. Harriet and Jenny are attuned to their surroundings and susceptible to suggestion, traits that enhance their spiritual receptivity. As female telepaths and mediums Harriet and Jenny supplement their precarious embodiment and tenuous subjectivity with a vicarious inhabitation of their male counterparts; their attenuated subjectivity is coextensive with an intensification of the power to feel with and like others. In Harriet Hume, Harriet's etherealness is crucial to aesthetic transmission, for as Carl Rollyson observes: "Harriet is like a work of art looking for a body in which to incarnate herself (Literary 68). Similarly, Clarissa Dalloway's sense of her own insubstantiality renders her "particularly sensitive to others' identities" (Johnson 200).

For late Victorian figures such as Havelock Ellis, women's "greater impressionability and greater suggestibility" rendered them more susceptible to nervous dysfunction (qtd. in Luckhurst 219). But, as Luckhurst points out, the valency of such readings of feminine difference could be reversed. For New Woman authors in particular, "hypersensitivity and visionary reveries signaled refinement and sympathy beyond the brutishness of masculine nerves" (Luckhurst 221). Along these lines, we might view Harriet Hume and Clarissa Dalloway's telepathic receptivity as modeling an ethical attunement to others that is rooted in an enhanced awareness of the interconnectedness of all beings. Rather than simply reify gender difference then, telepathic receptivity could work to erode it. Indeed, the telepath's transitive ability to move between genders and classes evokes modernist models of intersubjectivity and gender fluidity offered by Woolf's Orlando and Eliot's Tiresias, who "throbs between two lives." In her visionary reveries, when she occupies the mind and body of Arnold, Harriet experiences a fluctuating gender identity, which prompts her to acknowledge the privileges and prejudices of each gender position. As in the seance, in which women were invested with the power to speak to and for men, telepathy affords Harriet rare access to male authority.

Enamored of the passages in which Orlando experiences a change of sex, West wrote a laudatory review of Orlando, praising its representation of the blindness of both genders, "how far one's sex is like a pair of faulty glasses on one's nose; where one looks at the universe, how true it is that to be a woman is to have a blind spot on the North Northwest, to be a man is to see light as darkness East by South" (qtd. in Rollyson 67). Woolf wrote to West in gratitude for the review with sentiments that evoke the intersubjective consciousness they stage in their fictions: "I can't tell you how it exhilarates me to feel your mind running along where mine tried to go (what a lot more you have guessed of my meaning than anybody else!)" (qtd. in Rollyson 67). (14) Woolf evokes similar aspirations for gender transitivity and shared consciousness in A Room of One's Own, in which she proclaims, "In each of us two powers preside, one male, one female....The androgynous mind is resonant and porous... naturally creative, incandescent and undivided" (128). Invoking Coleridge, Woolf suggests that the most "normal and comfortable state of being" is when the male and female parts of the self "live in harmony together, spiritually co-operating" (128). As models of authorship, Woolf's androgynous mind and West's telepathic mind configure consciousness as interpsychic and gender transitive; their Utopian power resides in their capacity to deconstruct dichotomous social identities and to offer a vision of subjectivity that is more capacious and mobile than a strict gender binary implies. Through a series of fanciful transformations reminiscent of Orlando, Harriet Hume highlights the parallels between modernist fiction and telepathy, as forms of transmission that could enact distant feeling--bringing subjectivities with incommensurable social experiences into radical proximity. West re-routes the late Victorian trope of telepathy through a distinctly modernist aesthetic that highlights the role of modernist fiction in mediating social, psychic, and affective distance.

West shares with Myers and other psychical researchers a vision of the self that is shifting, mysterious, permeable, and entangled with other selves, both living and dead, in ways that muddle distinctions between male and female, self and other, life and death. As an inherently fluid and transgressive mode of perception and communication telepathy destabilizes what Cohen calls the "critical taxonomies" that subtend Arnold's strict materialism and instrumental thinking. However fanciful its presentation of telepathy, Harriet Hume reflects the optimism of psychical researchers and modern spiritualists about the self s capacities to develop and extend its perceptual abilities toward a sympathetic relation with others. As an intuitive, Harriet renounces an exclusive relationship to telepathy and insistently points to openings for reciprocal telepathy with Arnold, as if interpsychic rapport--as a more intimate and less mediated form of communication--could resolve the gender antagonism and class difference that structure their world. Harriet's Utopian urge for intimacy and transparency is tempered, however, by Arnold's refusal to meet her halfway. As Harriet says shortly after their first romantic encounter, "But you, my dear, can you not read my thoughts at all?...I have so strange a feeling that you could... if you would..." (35). As Harold Orel points out, the novel makes us aware "that Arnold, too, could share the gift of reading minds, of reading Harriet's mind, if he would temper his skepticism, if he would admit the possibility of emphatic cords" (135). Arnold's refusal of telepathic reciprocity with Harriet marks not only his failure of empathy and aesthetic sensitivity, but his ethical failure to acknowledge the otherness at the heart of the self--an otherness that, for Myers, could be manifested by the subliminal self.

For Arnold, who insists on the clear separation of self from other, of man from woman, of matter from spirit, Harriet's telepathy--or what he calls the "mystical confusion of substance" between them--marks a terrifying disorder:
Ay, there has been abolished order. That is shown by the destruction of
that division between human beings, which confined one to little
fiddling activities which are but one disguise worn by obscurity, and
exalting another of more grandiose make to appropriate grandeur; for 1,
even I, am threatened with obscurity. (253)

This disorder for Arnold is not only experienced as spatial, as the world of London becomes animated with spirits, but vertical, precipitating a collapse of social hierarchies. In the rigidly hierarchical world Arnold struggles to preserve, one that confers immediate value to his maleness, Harriet's powers of intuition are destabilizing. As he says to her, "I would transport you to a purer world where things sit more stably in their categories" (209). Arnold spends the last third of the novel convinced that Harriet, his "opposite," has marshaled the forces of the unseen world against him: "The spiritual world is infected against me" {Harriet Hume 248). One could argue that his plunge into madness and his sensational suicide suggest that Harriet's telepathy has undermined his sense of himself as subject of his own narrative, and that, following Myers, our narratives are always subject to the interference of other minds.

The ending of West's novel exhibits the characteristic indeterminacy we have come to expect from both modernist and gothic fiction: as Orel points out, it is unclear whether Arnold commits suicide and whether the four characters who are together at the end of the novel are dead and "talking to each other on some astral plane" (132). Arnold is potentially dead or he is alive and suffering from madness. He may have murdered Harriet, his "opposite," and they may be reunited in death, or she is alive and able to communicate with his spirit. The two police officers who arrive to the scene (to enforce the law or reveal its impotence) could themselves be ghosts, hinting as they do at their own deaths. The ambiguity at the level of plot may suggest a failure on the part of West to deliver on the promises that her novel sets in motion. West's ending becomes less equivocal, however, if we posit like Myers a world with multiple planes of existence and characters able to interact across the divide of life and death, and where the unseen world exists in contiguity with the seen. As the cohesive principle to his theory of the colonial self, Myers posited the existence of an indwelling soul that preexists and survives bodily death, and went so far as to suggest that man was part of a larger World-Soul (Owen 175, 177). West's novel not only points to a soul which survives physical death, but to a collective consciousness beyond the individual that manifests within the intersubjective space of the novel.

Laura Cowan reminds us that Harriet's gift for reading Arnold's mind is intimately tied to her artistic abilities (80). The novel makes this connection explicit when Arnold notices that Harriet's piano responds to Harriet without being physically touched, as if voice and instrument were in harmony. Harriet responds:
Any piano will answer any voice that speaks to it deeply enough. There
are cords in my throat, and cords in my piano. Set the air shaking with
strong enough pulses, and both cords will shake alike. I...I imagine
that something of the same order explains our private marvel.... We
have been shaken by the same pulse, and it was not a weak one. (34-35)

In this acoustical metaphor in which bodies vibrate in unison to the same pulse, art and telepathy are configured as modes of sympathetic relation. In The Foundations of Aesthetics (1922), I. A. Richards and C. K. Ogden argue that art is itself a form of telepathy, a way of coming into contact with minds other than our own (qtd. in Wilson 126). That Harriet is also exquisitely attuned to the aesthetic reinforces the association between telepathic and aesthetic receptivity. Just as Harriet uses her channeling to bring her mind closer to that of her lover, so too does the novel use telepathy to envision a sympathetic relationship between novel and reader. If Harriet Hume offers the telepathic as a model of sympathetic vibration, a way of navigating psychic and social distances, it does so with an optimism about the capacity of the aesthetic to facilitate a reciprocal exchange between minds. West's telepathic modernism may seem like a consoling fiction in an era of radical uncertainty and alienation, but it also reflects an optimism about the new forms of intimacy and enchantment that modernity makes possible.


(1) In Ghostwriting Modernism, Sword makes a key distinction between modern spiritualism and occultism: "Spiritualism is not the same as occultism, with which it is often confused; whereas the latter promises ancient, esoteric knowledge to a select group of initiates, the former is accessible to anyone who can construct a homemade Ouija board or hire a storefront medium" (xi). Harriet Hume's representation of telepathy resembles the amateurish and accessible mode of popular spiritualism rather than the esoteric occultism.

(2) See Montgomery for discussion of the populist spiritual revival after WWI and Sword and Thurschwell for their discussions of turn-of-the-century authors influenced by spiritualism and magical thinking. Undoubtedly, the most well-known example of a modernist poet inspired by occult practice was Yeats, who participated in the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn.

(3) Scholars have pointed out that popular spiritualism peaked in the years after WWI, as a testament to a grieving populace yearning for communion with the recently dead. See Montgomery.

(4) As Owen points out in his discussion of occultism, "By the first decade of the twentieth century, occult organizations proliferated, a vibrant occult press was in operation, books and periodicals devoted to the topic were appearing in ever greater numbers, and ordinary people as well as the famous and lettered were involved with occultism in all its variations" (6).

(5) For crucial work on the relationship between modernism and spiritualism, see Sword; Johnson; Owen; Wilson; Thurschwell; Galvin; Leigh; Enns and Trower; and Luckhurst.

(6) See Montgomery and Orel for brief references to West's forays into spiritualism.

(7) Notable exceptions to the critical neglect of Harriet Hume include Cohen's "Sheepish Modernism: Rebecca West, The Adam Brothers and the Taxonomies of Criticism" and Frigerio's "Music and the Feminine Art of Detail in Rebecca West's Harriet Hume," both from Schweizer's pivotal collection Rebecca West Today. Laura Cowan, Harold Orel, and Carl Rollyson have offered crucial readings of the novel that discuss mind reading, although not as the focus of analysis.

(8) Sausman quotes Hanegraaff in Vibratory Modernism, 30.

(9) As Johnson points out, psychical research "kept metaphysical questions within the realm of turn-of-the-century" psychology" (Dynamic Psychology xi).

(10) For more on this idea see Hamilton, Immortal Longings, 4. Johnson notes that psychical research was more subversive than psychoanalysis in that it was less interested in the diagnosis and healing of abnormal psychical phenomena than in challenging the dominant materialist culture by focusing on the unexplained and irrational {Dynamic Psychology 63).

(11) See Johnson, Dynamic Psychology, for a sustained discussion of the differences between the dynamic psychology of psychical research and psychoanalysis.

(12) In contrast, the SPR based their claims about telepathy on experiments with two young men. in particular, Douglas Blackburn and George Smith, who were known for public performances of "thought-transference" and "muscle reading." See Wilson 113. The American mind-reader Washington Irving Bishop also served as a model for the SPR's experiments into telepathy. See Luckhurst 60.

(13) As Johnson argues, Woolf's schema misreads Edwardian authors as thoroughly allied with materialism, when in fact many of them were engaged in projects of psychical realism (Dynamic Psychology 144-45).

(14) Kime Scott points out that as a high modernist experiment in fantasy with an explicit focus on gender, Harriet Hume takes Orlando as an obvious precursor (Refiguring Modernism 223).


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Author:Spitzer, Jennifer
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Critical essay
Date:Dec 22, 2018

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