Women's Fiction and the Great War.
'It is no longer true to claim that women's responses to the war have been ignored' (p. 2) say the editors of this volume in a clear and challenging introduction. Not ignored, but subtly or perhaps even blatantly conscripted; taken up in support of a given ideological position: on gender definition or construction, or perhaps on cultural values. Women as pacifists, hating masculine violence; women as worshippers and healers, content to mourn casualties and care for survivors. Those two perspectives are at odds, and Suzanne Raitt and Trudi Tate show scrupulously both by their compilation of essays and their comments that these positions may be multiplied; so too may the diverse literary forms, even within the category of 'women's fiction', through which the Great War, war itself, is addressed. Difference, not definition, is the watchword here. Considering writers from the Edwardians to modernists and anti-modernists, and texts ranging from Romance to Journal, propaganda, letters, short fictions and novels, some of them virtually unknown and others deceptively familiar, these essays demand individual, precise attention and the readiness to shift assumptions. Sandra Gilbert's construction of the Great War as a war of the sexes is not jettisoned, but jostled by displacement of the orthodoxy of the dominance of gender concerns. Recognizing instead how the Great War 'only intensified the pressure on women to inhabit a cultural, social, and sexual paradox' (p. 5) allows this volume to propose their problematic as a model for another: 'emblematic of a society's relation to historical process' (p. 6).
Helen Small, in 'Mrs Humphry Ward and the First Casualty of War', achieves a sense of this partly through lively illustrations: Mary Ward posed for the photographer on a trip to the front; the censor vilified as a caricature of the Hun by a cartoonist attacking propaganda. While for Ward 'writing was an act of war' it carried an ethical cost, and Helen Small shows delicately how the sense of this can be registered aesthetically in scrupulosities of style: '"She knew it, and was not unconscious of a certain moral defeat; as she looked out upon all the strenuous and splendid things that women were doing in the war." That slight semicolon carries more than its usual weight' (p. 36).
The willingness to confront unpalatable attitudes and imperfect texts is a valuable characteristic of this volume. Mary Conde finds that Edith Wharton 'has produced an extraordinary, though flawed, document of struggle, deception, and loss' (p. 63) in A Son at the Front, asking who will pay the cost of war. Jane Potter sets women's romances against memoirs in considering how some writers 'presented to the public a clear-sighted and determined vision, much-needed or desired' (p. 105). Claire Buck takes on the problem of Radclyffe Hall's identification of her masculinity with patriotic values, incapable of a view larger than nationalism. Mary Hamer reads Mary Butts, despite finding her 'the hardest figure to recruit for any cause', because her writings 'cannot be dismissed' (p. 219). Elizabeth Gregory incorporates Gertrude Stein amongst candidates for this volume, although 'For the most part, she protests by eliding the evidence of violence around her, refusing to honour it with mention, and focusing on pleasure instead' (p. 280).
Suzanne Raitt's own essay on May Sinclair's war journals stretches what we might expect from such a volume. Sinclair was 51 when war broke out, and her journals 'reveal in painful and awkward detail the shame of a middle-aged woman who sees in middle age her last chance at life' (p. 65). This is a new perspective on the cultural construction of femininity at a time of both cultural and personal crisis, accentuated by the competition of superfluity with loss. A defiantly 'unsexy' subject, traced in desperately passionate terms. 'Feminine agency' is curiously guaranteed by 'awkward pride'.
Gillian Beer brings textual scholarship as well as cultural history to bear on Vernon Lee's Satan the Waster, whose multiple subject positioning is mirrored by the complexities of manuscript, revisions, notes, and editions. Change, not stability, says Beer, matters to Lee throughout her career, and provides a key to understanding this problematic text, but also to interpreting its importance as an attack on the 'herd' mentality which could permit the prosecution of the war. Virginia Woolf, according to Tracy Hargreaves, found the 'preposterous masculine fiction' (p. 134) of the war outrageous but difficult to confront. War is an unstable category in her writings, and seems almost elided from To the Lighthouse; but Hargreaves disinters its ghostly presence from the middle section, 'Time Passes'. Using Woolf's holograph, she discovers the crisis for the artist of the imperative to include what resists representation.
Natalie Blondel turns to a neglected writer, Frances Bellerby, for another approach to the same problem. 'People live double lives' in Bellerby's work, caught among the living but 'dwelling in memories of the dead' (p. 151). Intriguingly, this double exposure is traced through the stylistic devices of a world where 'the estrangement of the bereaved from the world of the living is imaged through their estrangement from language itself' (p. 160).
Katherine Mansfield's techniques of representation, as Con Coroneos shows, include the aesthetic of disgust, containing the horrors of war, and correspondingly acting as a 'self-inoculation' against another threat. Mansfield's illness gives her a kind of guiltless clarity. Conversely, HD suffered a miscarriage which she attributed to the shock of war news, and Trudi Tate traces the exploration of war trauma throughout her work, which dissolves the apparent distinction between active service and civilian experience, and shows the devastation of a cultural neurosis that knows no boundaries. Transgression, as this volume demonstrates, may be liberating, but it can also bring destruction.
NICOLA BRADBURY University of Reading
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|Publication:||The Review of English Studies|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Nov 1, 1998|
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