In a 2008 essay, Susan Stanford Friedman acknowledges the pervasive assumption that feminist criticism has lost its renegade dynamism and has become a diminished paradigm, yet she vigorously argues against this view by highlighting four groundbreaking shifts that have reignited the “gynocritical terrain of feminist theory and criticism.”1 Briefly, she defines these four radical shifts as: (i) the movement from national to transnational frameworks of interpretation; (ii) the rise of “bio-cultural studies”; (iii) the insistence on the intersectionality of identity categories beyond a focus on gender; and (iv) the rise of digital culture. These observations build upon Friedman’s earlier influential argument that feminist critics should practice a “locational feminism,” namely, a critical methodology that attends to a “multiplicity of heterogeneous” spatial and temporal locations simultaneously (e.g. nation, region, race, class, and sexuality as well as gender).2 Both works eschew the now exhausted notion of a universal feminism. In the more recent essay Friedman polemically concludes that the “founding assumption of gynocritical feminist criticism”– i.e. that the main justification for the category of “women writers” is women’s collective identity as women – is now passé.3 Feminist scholarship on women’s modernism and women’s modernity is clearly at an impasse, but is this statement really true? Certainly the rise of post-structuralism, transnational and race studies, as well as queer and transgender theory, have all contributed to a more complicated and nuanced understanding of gender-based analyses and their political import. Few would contest the desirability of this shift or argue for methodologies that are now considered retro; nobody seeks to reproduce tediously predictable lines of argument, and scholars who focus on gender today generally do so in tandem with categories such as race and nationality. At the same time, one must concede that this move to expand the range and scope of our understanding of gender raises inevitable questions about the viability of the category of “women’s writing.” What, in other words, is the rationale for retaining a focus on “women’s writing”– and, more particularly, on experimental women’s writing – within modernist studies today, and how can we signal the continued vitality of this gender-inflected area of scholarship without succumbing to the bewildering label, old-fashioned?4 In light of the ways modernist studies has distanced itself both from the perceived elitism of “high modernism’s” experimental agenda, and from the rubric of écriture feminine which equated the experimentalism of women writers with a now-discredited account of repressed-but-erupting female experience, how might we revive an interest in women’s experimental writing beyond these twin legacies?
The new modernist studies has helped to extend the designation “modernist” beyond such familiar figures as Pound, Eliot, Joyce, and Conrad and has facilitated transatlantic cultural study approaches that examine particular women writers within the context of national and local structures. Two such notable books are Cristanne Miller’s Cultures of Modernism: Marianne Moore, Mina Loy, and Else Lasker-Schuler, which focuses on gender, location, and experimentalist poetics; and Alexy Goody’s Modernist Articulations: A Cultural Study of Djuna Barnes, Mina Loy and Gertrude Stein, which similarly foregrounds gender as well as distinctive modernist moments and locations. Both monographs seek to articulate the fundamentally heterogeneous conditions for women within countries generally seen homogenously as ‘the West,’ and both implicitly argue for the value of retaining the category of “women’s writing.” Additional efforts to expand the boundaries of modernism can be found in the “Middlebrow Network,” an interdisciplinary transatlantic digitization project that provides a forum for research into the material production, dissemination and reception of middlebrow films, music, books and journals, as well as middlebrow and middle-class taste.5 This is one area of research in which an analysis of women’s writing has dominated the field, but the under-studied category of the “masculine middlebrow” writer and reader has begun to garner attention.6 Although one can only applaud such revisionary work, it is worth noting that such efforts to re-chart the boundaries of modernism in relation to the middlebrow inevitably consign to obscurity writers now aligned with the discredited category of the ‘highbrow.’ Mary Butts, a non-canonical (as well as elitist and politically conservative) experimentalist exemplifies this problem. Moreover, even though most of the research into the cultural production of the middlebrow has focused on writing by and for women, the fact remains that the passionate interest in women’s writing that exploded in the 1970s is no longer pervasive.7
This loss of interest, as Toril Moi astutely observes, is symptomatic of two things: one, since the publication of Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble 1990, it has become increasingly “difficult to speak of ‘women’ except in inverted commas”; and two, the decline of interest in women’s writing is invariably linked to the larger cultural disenchantment with feminism.8 As Moi succinctly puts it: since the 1990s “feminism has been turned into the unspeakable F-word.”9 Building upon Moi’s observations, I would argue that although there is a continued interest in the study of women writers, there has been a simultaneous and persistent marginalization of non-canonical writing by female modernists since the institutionalization of feminist criticism in the 1980s – even as some women writers now have a certain caché. To offer one example: Lawrence Rainey’s well-received anthology, Modernism (published by Blackwell in 2005), which is over one thousand pages long, purports to be the “most comprehensive anthology of Anglo-American modernism ever to be published,” and contains few non-canonical women writers.10 The anthology incorporates the entire text of Virginia Woolf’s last major novel, Between the Acts, but includes no entry for Katherine Mansfield – arguably a modernist master of the short story in English. One questions the logic of including the entirety of Between the Acts, a novel that is in print, widely available, and written not only by a dominant, but the dominant female figure in British modernism, when so many of her female contemporaries – such as May Sinclair, Rosamond Lehmann, Vera Brittain, Stella Benson, Winifred Holtby, and Vita Sackville West – are excluded from the anthology. Rainey incorporates excerpts from the extraordinary English modernist, Mary Butts, but the focus on women writers is erratic at best. Yet in assessing how modernism has fared in the hands of critics since the 1960s, Rainey does take note of the historical impact of feminist criticism, maintaining that “quietly and tenaciously, feminist critics have inexorably altered the scope of works included in the modernist canon: authors once deemed classic but then strangely forgotten (such as Gertrude Stein), authors swiftly hailed but just as swiftly forgotten (Djuna Barnes), and authors utterly forgotten but newly esteemed (Mary Butts), occupy a far more central place in the contemporary canon of modernism” today (xxvii). While Rainey authoritatively argues that “one dismisses such changes at one’s peril” (xxvii), his account of modernism does not try to wrench many lesser known or neglected women writers out of obscurity.
This is one cultural index of where female modernism is today and can arguably be read as part of the larger failure of what Sharon Marcus identifies as the tendency of male critics to ignore or marginalize feminist work. Marcus writes: “Feminist work by women is often read, repeated, and even rebutted without the benefit of being cited.”11 Marcus’s context here is scholarship on seventeenth and eighteenth century literature and culture, but her remarks have a certain relevance for modernist studies as well, particularly her observation that there is not so much “a particular animus against female critics or feminist criticism” but rather “patterns of citation that favor male authors and critics.12 Recent work by eminent male scholars in modernist studies would support this reading. Pericles Lewis’s Modernism, Nationalism, and the Novel (2007) contains readings of Joyce, Balzac, Conrad, Proust and D’Annunzio, but no woman writer.13 Gabriel Josipovici’s What Ever Happened to Modernism? (2010) brings together a diverse range of artists and writers – including Beckett, Borges, Cézanne, Stevens, Robbe-Grillet, Joyce, and Picasso – but includes only passing reference to women – notably, Virginia Woolf. This is symptomatic of what I have argued elsewhere to be the fact that Woolf remains the only universally canonized British woman modernist.14 Does what we might call ‘the Woolf syndrome’ therefore explain why she appears in celebrated studies that otherwise privilege male authors? Is this a form of tokenism masquerading as inclusion? Douglas Mao’s Solid Objects: Modernism and the Test of Production (1998) contains chapters on Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, Wallace Stevens, and Woolf.15 In Jed Esty’s A Shrinking Island: Modernism and National Culture in England (2004), Woolf is the only female modernist who gets her own chapter.16 The same is true of Mark Woellager’s Modernism, Media, and Propaganda (2006), which devotes a chapter to Woolf alongside readings of Conrad, Ford Maddox Ford, and James Joyce. Pericles Lewis’s most recent book, Religious Experience and the Modernist Novel (2010), examines five canonical novelists – Henry James, Marcel Proust, Franz Kafka, James Joyce and, yes, Virginia Woolf. No book can make a claim to be exhaustive, but if a footnote, a bibliographical citation, and a chapter are signs of cultural status conferred, then women modernists have not been faring very well in recent years.
Despite this apparent marginalization, a few select women writers are experiencing something of a renaissance thanks to what Douglas Mao and Rebecca Walkowitz have recently called the “transnational turn” in modernist studies.17 This increasing emphasis on transnational exchange and expansion of modernism’s geographical borders beyond a preoccupation with Europeanness has facilitated a welcome re-evalution of colonial women writers. Katherine Mansfield, a New Zealand native who wrote critically of empire from within the metropole, London, is arguably attracting renewed attention in large part because her stories can be read as exempla of a particular transnational sensibility: not only female, but also de-centered, colonial, proto-postcolonial. The inaugural Katherine Mansfield Symposium was held in September 2009 in Menton, France, and included over eighty speakers – including the New Zealand Ambassador to France, Sarah Denis.18 Annual conferences have followed in Melbourne (2010), Cambridge (2011), and Slovakia (2012). The Katherine Mansfield Society publishes an annual peer-reviewed journal (published by Edinburgh University Press), three annual newsletters, and sends out regular email bulletins to its members. On the society’s website you can buy an audio CD of the writer’s life, make purchases from the Katherine Mansfield Society Amazon Bookstore, join a Mansfield forum on Facebook, and subscribe to daily Katherine Mansfield twitters. Also on the website, one can learn that during the symposium, Quantas Airlines presented a plaque to the Katherine Mansfield Society after naming one of its planes after the author.19 The potential impact on the academy of this intriguing constellation of politics, aviation, and modernism is hard to gauge, but two things appear to be true: one, if you are an obscure, neglected, or semi-neglected woman writer it is beneficial to have a fan base; and two, it is easier to be recuperated today if your work can be situated within the discourses of transnationalism, postcolonialism, cosmopolitanism, or diaspora/migration studies.
Jean Rhys is another colonial writer whose reputation and influence has benefited from today’s focus on transnational modernisms. Although already “rediscovered” once, shortly before the publication of her most famous work, Wide Sargasso Sea, in 1966, Rhys’s exploration of the intersections of race, gender, and metropolitan modernity dovetail with today’s attention to the centrality of transnational circulation. Her 1934 novel, Voyage in the Dark, about a white creole woman in pre-World War I England, explores the complex gender dynamics of primitivism through a fragmented narrative style that is in conversation with Caribbean modernism and can be said to exemplify Urmila Seshagiri’s claim that British modernism’s revolutionary momentum derives from “the poetics of racial difference.”20 In this way, Rhys’s work invites comparative analyses that seek to bring modernism into dialogue with postcolonial literature, underscoring one of the key recent developments in Anglophone modernist studies. It thus comes as little surprise that King’s College in London recently hosted the first international conference on the author, “Reading Jean Rhys,” in 2010.21
The transnational turn in modernist studies is currently the best hope for re-discovering long-recovered, yet long-forgotten, or simply never fully recovered, British women writers – in particular, colonial women writers who have received far less critical attention than Rhys. But even writers who conform to its template of issues have no guarantee of institutionally meaningful recovery. The Jamaican writer Una Marson, a poet, dramatist, broadcaster, journalist, and political activist, explored the hybrid state of Caribbean identity in the context of empire, but today no society, no journal, no newsletter, and no annual conference celebrate her.22 Although there are several comprehensive studies of colonial writers in interwar England – such as Jeffrey Green’s Black Edwardians, C. L. Innes’s, A History of Black and Asian Writing in Britain, and Sukhdev Sandhu’s London Calling– the attention has been predominantly on male writers – that is to say, Claude McKay rather than Una Marson, Mulk Raj Anand rather than Sarojini Naidu, the Indian poet and nationalist.23 A notable exception is Jessica Berman, who devotes a chapter to the writings of several little-studied women writers of late-colonial India in her superb new book, Modernist Commitments: Ethics, Politics, and Transnational Modernism (2011).24 Berman’s reading of transnational modernism is rigorously comparative and attentive to complex geographies of gender. However, the broader tendency in recent scholarship to try to expand the definition and scope of modernism as a literary-historical label at times offers minimal guidance for understanding the precise way that gender and nation, or the racialization of whiteness, resonate in colonial women’s writing of the period, which remains under-studied and under-theorized.25 Colonial women writers who deserve more attention include not only Naidu and Marson, but also Christina Stead, Olive Schreiner, Cornelia Sorabji, and Santha Rama Rau – a feminist social reformer and writer who is the subject of a 2007 book by historian Antoinette Burton.26 Burton reads Rama Rau through the framework of postcolonial literary studies, arguing that she should be recognized as a proto-post-colonial writer, a precursor to such figures as Said, Spivak, and Mukherjee. One way to restore and even elevate the standing of a forgotten cultural figure is to insert her into a genealogy of others whose significance is undisputed. This is the approach Burton takes.
The fact that non-colonial women’s responses to empire have received far less critical attention than they deserve is yet another feature informing their limited impact on contemporary redrawings of the modernist literary landscape, despite the transnational turn in modernist studies. Although Nancy Cunard’s key political writings on race and imperialism have recently generated scholarly attention, not much work has been done on other non-colonial modernist women’s relationship to empire (again, aside from Woolf).27 A case in point would be Dorothy Richardson, whose employment of imperialist and nationalist rhetoric in her multi-volume opus, Pilgrimage, has received very little critical attention – and today the novel is no longer in print in the U.S.28 Is this because of the book’s earlier association with feminist critical methodologies of the 1980s, which upheld the novel as an exemplar of the now passé category of “feminine writing”? A privileging of Pilgrimage’s depiction of feminine consciousness alone can no longer animate our reading of the text’s revolutionary potential, but if the novel’s engagement with transnational circulation were seen as a powerful resource for Richardson’s modernist experimentation, would the book generate renewed attention?29
Throughout Pilgrimage Richardson explores the affinities between modernity and empire – sometimes in order to critique imperialism, and in other instances to circulate feminist arguments about women’s inclusion in the public sphere and make claims for the novel’s aesthetic claims to newness. For example, the dental office in which the protagonist, Miriam Henderson, works is depicted as a kind of imperialist shrine, replete with evidence of England’s brutal assertion of power and looting of other cultures. As Miriam’s “eyes roa[m] from thing to thing” like a camera pivoting on its tripod, she observes “the shields and assegais...beautiful coloured bead skirts spread out amongst curious carved tusks and weapons...[and a] placid gold Buddha reclining...on the Japanese cabinet” (II, 68).30 Surveying her employer, Mr Orly’s, primitivist and orientalist decor, Miriam spies a hand painted card that reads “Melly Klismas” (II, 37), and repeats phrases from Kipling’s poem, “Mandalay” (II, 67). Like a tourist on a colonial excursion to Kipling’s world of “Gunga Din” (II, 37), Miriam registers Mr Orly’s African tobacco pouch, his bookcase constructed of Burmese wood (II, 68), the Oriental curtains and Turkish carpets (II, 74), later imagining that such surroundings give rise to discussions about the Boar War and Anglo-Saxon Supremacy (IV, 201). I’m attending to such imagery in detail here not only to show the ways Richardson relies on racial tropes and nationalistic imagery as a means of signaling the heterogeneity and unremitting newness of modernity, but also to underscore Miriam’s equivocal response to the introduction of non-Western objects into an English interior. If today’s increased emphasis on transnationalism can provide us with new tools to restore the long-obscured role of empire in a writer such as Richardson, who negotiated the aesthetic radicalism of modernism through the lens of modern primitivism and imperial-era constructions of Englishness, it can also help us to probe beyond Woolf’s oft-cited figuration of Lily Briscoe’s “little Chinese eyes” into other unexamined or under-examined works that may tell a different story about racial, cultural, and national difference in British modernism.31
But at the same time, we should be cognizant of those writers who, by not fitting the critical trends of the moment, face neglect for another set of reasons. What, for instance, do we do with a highly individual writer such as Anna Kavan, an obscure British modernist who published a string of good but conventional novels under the name of Helen Ferguson beginning in the late 1920s before exhibiting her stylistic power in Let Me Alone (1930) – a novel which refuses strict verisimilitude and presages the surrealistic experimentalism and syntactic quirks of her highly acclaimed collection of short stories, Asylum Piece (1940)?32 Like Kavan, Olive Moore is another peculiarly enigmatic English writer who did not court publicity or acknowledge literary fashion; also like Kavan, Moore’s writing displays a scathing virtuosity that has completely fallen below the radar. The question is both why, and how do we situate her? Moore wrote startlingly original novels but is neither a diasporic subject, nor engaged overtly in the project of anti-colonialism, and thus will not fit neatly into the framework of transnational modernism. Like Rhys, Moore examines how the material inscriptions of the female body testify to the cultural devaluation of femininity – as she puts it, “woman is the eternal oven in which to bake the eternal bun.”33 Moore’s disturbing second novel, Spleen (1930), is about an Englishwoman who goes into self-imposed exile in Italy in 1907 after giving birth to a deformed son, but it’s not clear that this condition of exile can be read within the context of the globalization of modernism. Does an Englishwoman’s exile to Italy warrant attention within today’s focus on transnationalism? In other words, can Moore’s representation of gendered border crossing be read within the idiom of transnational circulation, or would this just be another instance of what Mao and Walkowitz call “the old international modernism (739) – Eurocentrism? If we assume the latter, should this disqualify the text from our renewed attention, or do we need other paradigms through which to revisit modernist women’s writing when is escapes the concerns of transnationalism? Urmila Seshagiri, whose book, Race and the Modern Imagination (2010), makes a capacious case for the transnationalization of modernist studies, has recently argued that “feminist scholarship on modernism would benefit strongly from a move away from intersections” because “geographical intersections form but one aspect of women’s modernism and women’s modernity.”34
Seshaghiri is a provocateur at a moment when transnational critical practice dominates modernist studies, but her insistence that we “do not want to attend to geography at the expense of gender” helps us to resurrect the notion that self-consciously experimental writing that is concerned with a primarily Anglo-European axis in no way compromises a writer’s value for the study of modernism.35 There is still so much to say about Moore – whose work is largely unknown and almost entirely out of print – particularly her intersecting critique of empire and gender. In Spleen, nationalities like English and Italian are not capitalized, but this eccentricity has gone unremarked by critics. Moore arguably utilizes modernist formal experimentation such as textual defamiliarization not only to critique the “Phalliculturists,” but also to argue for what she calls the “Nationalisation of the emotions”– her satiric observation that feminine values will become “universal only when raised to the dignity of an Act of Parliament.”36 Moore was a highly original modernist whose idiosyncratic prose style been described as a cross between Virginia Woolf and Djuna Barnes, but with a more biting wit. Although feminist theory has moved beyond essentialist understanding of feminine inscription – what Moore herself, writing in 1934, presciently (and critically) called “that warm menstrous flow of womanly prose”– all of her work is deeply engaged in the intertwined issues of linguistic innovation and the question of what it means to be a woman in early twentieth-century England.37 How then can we find a productive way to talk such topics in non-essentialist and historicist terms even if they are at odds with our own contemporary orthodoxies?
Moreover, even if we are able to chart the ideological work that Moore’s inimitable writing performs, is that enough to justify a twenty-first century retention of the category “women’s writing” that might contain it? Would the recent interest in the New Formalism, a movement that seeks to reinstate close reading as “the opening move, preliminary to any kind of critical consideration,” be another way that such a writer – preoccupied with linguistic pyrotechnics – could be recuperated today?38 Perhaps, but because New Formalist work has tended to concentrate on poetry in the Early Modern and Romantic periods, it seems unlikely that such a context alone would help to recuperate Moore’s prose in modernist studies – even though the application of an historically informed formalist critique might well be a way to begin talking about the pleasure one has in reading her acerbic and elliptical writing. How do we cultivate canonical interest in Moore as a radically experimental female modernist, given her own culturally and historically informed engagement with gender and insubordinate sexual politics, and what does it even mean to invoke the category of gender in a post-identitarian age? Moreover, are there any benefits to eschewing the category of canonical prestige? Moore herself, in her dazzling 1934 collection of observations and aphorisms on modern culture and art, The Apple is Bitten Again, critiques the elitism implicit in the notion of a literary establishment by leveling an indictment against Virginia Woolf: “Example of how a verdict is obtained in the English Literary Courts. Mrs Woolf in a literary weekly reviews the books of newcomers, and finds neither interest nor distinction…Down and DOWN.”39 Here, Moore envisions Woolf as a dogmatic judge condemning interlopers (like herself) who do not conform to the prevailing literary orthodoxy.
Yet the fact remains that today the core of most undergraduate and graduate English programs are built around anthologies and books that are heavily canonical and widely accessible, so if Moore is out of print she stands a slim chance of cultural absorption on any terms. Another way to generate interest in Moore that would rely more on her status as marginalized object of study than as a formal innovator would be to foreground how her idiosyncratic work either fits within an identifiable canon of modernist writing or confounds the critical frameworks that might secure her literary reputation. Another, perhaps more effective strategy – from the perspective of utility if not form – would be to situate her within the context of modern periodical studies because of the fact that in the 1930s she worked as a journalist for the London Daily Sketch, publishing numerous articles on a range of topics such as child rearing, fashion, beauty, public monuments, and modern art. This vast archive of Moore’s newspaper columns is totally unexamined, reminding us that the labor of seemingly old-fashioned feminist recovery work is still far from done. Each of these modes of accession to literary status poses advantages as well as disadvantages for the critic who seeks to place Moore’s distinctive voice in literary history. With the demise of Virago’s reprint series of lesser-known novels by women, Moore’s best chance for widespread recognition and commercial success would arguably be Persephone Books – the independent London book publisher (and shop) dedicated primarily to neglected fiction and non-fiction by twentieth-century British women writers.40 The press is a phenomenal resource and forum: it organizes regular teatime book groups to discuss its titles; it sponsors film showings (e.g. the 1928 silent film adaptation of Margaret Kennedy’s The Constant Nymph) at the British Film Institute; it seeks out niche markets to popularize its titles (e.g. a cream tea was held at at Adamczewski’s Fine Houseware shop, in Lewes, which sells ‘traditional, stylish utillity essentials’ and stocks Persephone books); it features a potter and tile-maker, Annabel Munn, who makes the beautiful Persephone mugs, sugar bowls and vases that are sold exclusively in the shop; and it hosts a regular lecture series by notable authors and professors (such as Hermione Lee, Penelope Lively, and Elaine Showalter) that function as tie-in events. All Persephone Books are carefully designed with a clear typeface, a uniform dove-grey jacket, and endpapers and bookmarks that reproduce textiles from the period. Could Moore ever find a home at the press that in 2008 reissued Winifred Holtby’s 1924 novel, The Crowded Street, with endpapers that featured a lovely 1920s printed silk dress fabric designed by British designer George Sheringham and a new preface by Holtby’s biographer Marion Shaw?41 To my mind, Moore stands little chance for incorporation on such terms because her experimental style and biting prose – the family is a “monstrous fetish,” and maternity “a form of adhesive plaster by which mankind is held together, and is decaying”– does not fit snugly into Persephone’s middlebrow realist aesthetic and the press’s appeal to a genteel, accessible, and non-threatening femininity (an appeal which undoubtedly contributes to its success).42 What decorative endpapers could illustrate Moore’s acerbitude?
I would like to end by briefly suggesting two practical ways, in addition to what I have already proposed above, that we might revive – or even revolutionize – the category of “women’s writing” within modernist studies. First, I think it could be beneficial to establish a twentieth-century British women writers association and annual conference, akin to the one that already exists for seventeenth through the mid-twentieth century American women writers and eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British women writers.43 Or, perhaps a coalition of scholars working on women’s writing in the 20th century could lobby the organizers of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British Women Writers Association (BWWA) to open their organization and annual conference to twentieth-century scholars.44 Such incorporation would arguably work against the marginalization of work on twentieth-century women writers and could simultaneously function as a test ground for innovative comparative work in Anglophone modernist studies. Since 2000 there have been several laudable independent efforts to keep the work of discrete women modernists alive, but these individualized attempts at recuperation have not generated a publicly recognized basis for incorporation. For example: The Fifth Biennial Rebecca West Conference was held at CUNY Baruch in 2011.45 Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge has been a pioneer in hosting several one-day colloquiums on twentieth-century women writers who remain largely unread, and have fallen almost out of sight: Rosamond Lehmann in April 2009; Winifred Holtby in 2007; Sylvia Townsend Warner in 2006; Storm Jameson in 2005; and Nancy Cunard in 2001.46 A colloquium on Elizabeth Taylor was held in July 2012.47
Of the writers listed above, Sylvia Townsend Warner is the only one who has a Society and an annual Journal devoted to her work.48 A full edition of Warner’s poems, edited by Claire Harman, was published in 2008; Harman’s assiduity is one of the main reasons why Warner’s writing has had any critical attention at all since her death in 1978. In her introduction to this volume, Harman asks: “Why does Sylvia Townsend Warner seem such a ghostly figure in twentieth-century letters?” She argues that Warner’s curious absence may stem not only from the fact that she was an upper-class Englishwoman, a lesbian, and a Communist, but because her works are “confusingly diverse”– that is to say, no one of her books was sufficiently like another to produce the impression of coherence upon which a loud reputation depends. This is a compelling argument and one worth contemplating as we grapple with the meaning of the category “woman writer” and ask, as does Harmon, whether or not it is possible for authors like Warner to be “inserted retrospectively into the canon” even though the “record is, to some extent, sealed, and she is on the outside.”49 Cumulatively, I would argue that such individualized recuperative efforts are cause for optimism, but ultimately are not enough to reconfigure the field. Single author venues can certainly help revive pockets of interest in female authors who are neglected or invisible, but such generous intentions are an inadequate response to the marginalization of women’s writing within modernist studies today. The tribute to Lehmann at Anglia Ruskin attracted forty participants, enough to draw attention to the author but not enough to spark vigorous debate about the merit of such recuperative acts more widely.
The second intervention I would like to propose is structural: we need to bring some kind of order to the bewildering array of literary journals, newsletters, and symposiums on individual women writers by establishing a fully searchable, digitized scholarly resource that would contribute to a comprehensive critical and cultural history of Anglo-American female modernists. Resources already online that focus on British Women Writers include the Brown University Women Writers Project, which covers a period from 1400 to 1850, and the Victorian Women Writers’ Project. An excellent resource is The Orland Project: Women’s Writing in the British Isles from the Beginnings to the Present, but although Orlando is an impressive recuperative database of women’s writing in the British Isles, not all female modernists are represented (e.g. Olive Moore, Winifred Watson) – hence the need for a digital resource that would privilege modernism. That way, we might actually hear about events such as the “Reading Elizabeth Bowen”50 symposium that was held at the Centre for Modernist Studies at the University of Sussex in May 2009, the “Celebrating Women’s Writing” conference held at Lucy Cavendish College in June 2010, or the “First International Djuna Barnes Conference” held at the University of London in September 2012.51 With this kind of resource, we might simultaneously be made aware of recent monographs on neglected women writers – namely Phyllis Bottome, Rumer Godden, and Winifred Holtby – or publications, such as the Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women Writers, that seek to break new ground by highlighting the gender of modernism from fresh perspectives.52 An online resource could also be the place to let scholars who are interested in the globalization of modernism know about events like the transatlantic conference, “Voyaging in, voyaging out: Virginia Woolf y América Latina,” that was held in Montevideo, Uruguay, in June 2011.53 Three digital models that come immediately to mind are the Modernist Magazines Project, the Middlebrow Network, and the British Association for Modernist Studies, electronic databases that bring together a disparate range of materials in one cohesive place.54 These two efforts – an annual conference and a digital resource – would confer a certain legitimacy upon women modernists that is now lacking and would consecrate their study as a genuinely scholarly enterprise, rather than a form of cheerleading; in my view, this would go a long way toward countering the perception that the category of “women’s writing” is either passé or a matter of indifference. But beyond these pragmatic steps, we need collectively to continue taking stock of an ongoing paradox: that the very theoretical frameworks that have sought to liberate us from the constraints of normative gender categories have unwittingly made it harder to support and study writing produced by actual, historical women.