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Penelope's Web: Gender, Modernity, and H.D.'s Fiction.

Susan Stanford Friedman's new book forms a companion-piece to the same author's Psyche Reborn: The Emergence of H.D. (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1981). Although H.D. is most famous as a poet, she also completed and prepared for publication thirteen full-length novels, though only three were published in her lifetime, and even today some still remain unpublished. As a result, this study of her fiction carries to the non-specialist the excitement of investigating hitherto unknown work by a major figure within literary modernism. Friedman argues that the poems and prose texts 'exist in symbiotic relationship', distinct but necessary to each other and fulfilling different needs of the author. Her early imagist poems, which attracted the attention of Ezra Pound and for which she is still best known, constitute an 'impersonal discourse' which seems to erase the historical moment, gender, and individual identity of the female artist, re-creating Hilda Doolittle as 'the invisible poet', an ahistorical, genderless, almost bodiless auteur, 'H.D., Imagiste'. Her prose fiction, Friedman argues, seeks to rectify this erasure of history, gender, and individuality. Here H.D. writes from a specific historical moment, even using 'the historical novel to define modernity'. She also writes specifically as a woman, seeking to reconstruct any discourse that 'leaves . . . out, women' (Pilate's Wife, p. 64), and 'gendering modernism' by resisting the 'tendency in male modernism to fix women in the silent space of the feminine'. Instead, like Penelope weaving and pulling out her weaving, H.D. works and reworks the key events of her life: her expatriate status, her war trauma, marriage and her husband's adultery, abortion, motherhood, and other relationships, in particular her lesbian attachment to the writer Bryher. The climax of Friedman's story, and of the methodology of this book, is H.D.'s analysis with Freud in Vienna in 1933, which is specifically memorialized in H.D.'s Tribute to Freud and less directly in much of her later fiction. The effect of this analysis was, in particular, to allow H.D. to 're-member' the maternal body and, it is suggested, to return revitalized to both her sexuality and her ability to write, both of which were for her caught up in her relationship with the maternal. Friedman, although sometimes heavy-handed (see, e.g., p. 339--'Heterosexuality and motherhood . . . triggered a repressed sadomasochistic dynamic'), offers here an extraordinarily vivid and convincing account of the psychodynamics of female creativity.

Friedman is particularly adept in charting H.D.'s place in the modernist movement, and she makes telling comparisons with Virginia Woolf and other female modernists. (Just occasionally, however, these comparisons broaden out to such an extent that they become almost meaningless: see, e.g., p. 285, where The Gift and other books are compared with Adrienne Rich, Alice Walker, Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Pound, Williams, Woolf, Colette, Havelock Ellis, and Freud!) Friedman is also unfailingly interesting on the intertextuality of H.D.'s work, her allusions to, and reworkings of, contemporary and earlier writers: Madrigal is seen to rewrite D. H. Lawrence's self-approvingly autobiographical St. Mawr, to offer 'a satirical gloss' on some of Lawrence's poems, to function as 'a revisionist, intertextual play on Women in Love', and also to make critical reference to Aaron's Rod and Kangaroo. H.D. insists on her right to tell the story of her relationship with Lawrence from her own point of view, and to question his self-images. Madrigal also, Friedman argues, makes important use of intertextual references to Keats, Herrick, and Browning, allusions, overt or buried, which help to structure the novel's characterization and treatment of gender, and which also serve to insert H.D. herself into the literary tradition and to claim an equal right to her own voice. This is a long book--longer, perhaps, than it needs to be, since its style, influenced by H.D.'s own, tends to repetitiveness. It is densely documented and rich--and generally tactful--in its use of post-structuralist theoretics and post-Freudian feminist psychoanalysis. It is likely to remain the standard work on H.D.'s fiction for a long time.

JACQUELINE PEARSON University of Manchester
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Author:Pearson, Jacqueline
Publication:The Review of English Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Feb 1, 1994
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