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H.D. and the Victorian Fin de Siecle: Gender, Modernism, Decadence.

H.D. and the Victorian Fin de Siecle: Gender, Modernism, Decadence. By CASSANDRA LAITY. (Cambridge Studies in American Literature and Culture) Cambridge, New York, and Melbourne: Cambridge University Press. 1997. xix + 215 pp. 35 [pounds sterling]; $54.95.

Until recently literary modernism successfully perpetuated the myth of its originality though its decisive break with the past, in particular, its immediate Victorian past. However, in the last few years scholars have been examining these claims with more scepticism, revealing the degree to which the modernists were highly influenced by writers they critically repudiated. Cassandra Laity's new book on H. D. adds to this fertile area of study, but like many feminist scholars, Laity is keen to show the differences between the male and female modernists and the ways in which our understanding of modernism has generally been constructed by reference to male writers alone. She contends that H. D., in common with other female modernists, did not have the disdain for the Victorian past declared by her male colleagues, but drew inspiration from various male aesthetic writers, chiefly Swinburne and Pater, whose work explored the fluidities and ambiguities of gender identity. This more flexible treatment of gender and sexuality complemented and aided H. D.'s own exploration of lesbian and female identity outside the anxious and limited conceptions of woman proposed by male modernists. While Romantic 'personality' (closely associated with Romantic 'effeminacy') was the bugbear of the male modernists, who adopted a counter-offensive of 'impersonality' and distance, H. D. took up the two major Victorian decadent types denounced by the men: the boy androgyne and the demonic femme fatale, and reworked them as 'dissident masks' for her self-expression.

Laity's excellent first chapter, 'The Rhetoric of Anti-Romanticism', should be required reading for anyone interested in the genealogy and development of male and female modernisms. Here she shows how the male modernists, at first enamoured of their Romantic precursors, apparently break with them while remaining heavily dependent. She includes a fine rereading of Frank Kermode's seminal essay The Romantic Image (1957) to show how the male modernists' image of the dancing woman viewed by the male gazer, a symbol of aesthetic distance, is none the less a late version of the Romantic Medusan woman whose violent 'pathology' cannot be dispelled as easily as Kermode suggests.

Laity makes good use of primary sources to show H. D.'s familiarity with and admiration for Swinburne, who emerges as her primary precursor. There is also interesting coverage of her fascination with the Pre-Raphaelites, which coloured various works including the unpublished novels 'The Sword Went Out to Sea' and 'White Rose and the Red'. H. D. did extensive reading on the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood and was a close associate of Violet Hunt, whose book on Elizabeth Siddal, Wife of Rossetti (1932), was a key influence. Laity suggests that these works are attempts to refigure the male modernists as Pre-Raphaelites, but acknowledges there is much more work to be done on this 'Pre-Raphaelite revival' (p. 182). It would certainly be useful to know if H. D. read Mario Praz's famous treatment of the femme fatale in his The Romantic Agony, a book first published in English in 1933, and strangely not mentioned by Laity in spite of its strong influence on Kermode.

As a Victorianist, my major cavil about this book is that Laity too often reads her aesthetic writers through the tendentious interpretations of modern critics. The sometimes reductive articles by Thais Morgan and Richard Dellamora on Swinburne are accepted as new orthodoxies, and it is not always clear how much Swinburne Laity has read independently. This means the 'readings' of Swinburne that Laity constructs for H. D. are over-inflected by these critics in ways that are not always helpful. For example, 'Fragoletta' is not necessarily addressed to a 'boy' androgyne as Dellamora suggests: the opening stanza apostrophizes Eros, not Fragoletta, who is addressed later in the poem. As H. D. may have known, the heroine of Latouche's novel from which 'Fragoletta' derives its title eventually turns out to be a lesbian, something of more immediate relevance. Laity also needs to make clearer her sense of H. D.'s personal reading of Swinburne as opposed to a more general reading. I find no evidence of 'the homoeroticism implied by the opening lines of "Itylus"' (p. 36). There remains much more work to be done on the H. D.-Swinburne connection (Laity does not mention some key lesbian poems such as 'Sapphics' and 'On the Cliffs'). There are also some local irritations. Robert Buchanan's name is wrongly spelt throughout. Violet Hunt is not strictly a 'Pre-Raphaelite descendant' (p. 116), although her family knew many of the Pre-Raphaelites well. Thais Morgan's article on the dominatrix (p. 205) lacks the correct reference.

However, it is the general thesis of this book that makes it worth reading, and it is certainly cheering to see Swinburne's influence receiving such serious treatment. Laity's proposal that 'works by the Pre-Raphaelites, Swinburne, Pater, and Wilde created a "feminine" tradition for modernist women poets' (p. xi) is a claim deserving much more attention, and I hope that this often stimulating book will encourage further explorations in this area.

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Title Annotation:Review
Author:Maxwell, Catherine
Publication:The Modern Language Review
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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