Monday, May 7, 2007

A Brief Conversation with Lesley Hall

Timmi: Lesley, one of your passions, I believe, is literature by British women writing in the first half of the twentieth century, literature that has suffered critical neglect because it fell outside the canons of modernism (to whichjudging by the almost entirely male-author reading lists of courses on modernism at US colleges and universitiescritics have only grudgingly admitted stellar examples of modernism like Woolf, Barnes, Mansfield, and Richardson). You note in your profile of Naomi Mitchison (Conversation Pieces Vol. 15), for instance, that her work has not received its due at least partly because she chose to write in a variety of narrative forms other than those characteristic of modernism. Could you elaborate a bit, please, about this critical issue and suggest (a) a few works of nonfiction treating the subject and (b) a short list of novels you think would be of interest to feminist readers today?

Lesley: This is a question for which the answer could be very long indeed!

There were a number of women writing in the early twentieth century who are still very much worth reading, even though they largely fall outside what are considered to be the parameters of the canon as studied in literature departments, and until recently most of them have received little critical attention. I have a page on my website with some introductory links and comments on "British Women Novelists, 1910s-1960s:The 'middle-brows'": Many of these writers also produced large amounts of journalism and reviewing, and wrote non-fiction of various kinds, from gastronomic memoirs through biographies of forgotten women of the past to political polemics. Their work also segues into that of the women detective novelists of the 'Golden Age' of crime fiction (Christie, Sayers, Allingham, March) with an interest in the psychology of crime and even occasional attempts at the thriller: critics such as Nicola Humble in The Feminine Middlebrow Novel, 1920s to 1950s: Class, Domesticity, and Bohemianism and Alison Light in Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism Between the Wars, have effectively incorporated consideration of the mystery novel into their surveys of the period.

The apparent transparency of their writing and the sheer readibility and popularity of their work has probably militated against their being taken seriously, but as a new generation of feminist critics is beginning to point out, there are depths and complexities which mean that these works hold up to repeated re-reading and reward critical analysis. They also foreground women's experiences, which still tend to be seen as less universal and important than those of men - even when the experiences themselves are not usually ones common to the average urban C21st male in the developed world - and a woman's perspective.

These writers were not nostalgic for an imagined past, even though they were often critical of the present day's attitudes and institutions. The shadow of the Victorian age still hung over them as a past they were glad to have escaped (Delafield's Thank Heaven Fasting, aka A Good Man's Love, is a depiction of the agonising pressures and stultifying effects of the Victorian upper-class marriage market). The various novels of the period which present either a sudden collapse of civilisation (e.g. Cicely Hamilton's Lest Ye Die, or Barbara Wootton's London's Burning), or the rise of a fascist regime (e.g. Katharine Burdekin's Swastika Night, Storm Jameson's In the Second Year, Dion's vision at the end of Mitchison's contemporary novel We Have Been Warned) either implicitly or explicitly emphasise the costs for women and the loss of their still newly-won freedoms thus entailed.

The historical novel, however, did provide a useful means of exploring issues around gender unconstrained by the realities of the present. At the moment the information on my website focusses predominantly on writers and works dealing with the situation of women in contemporary society, so it's not terribly helpful as an introduction to looking at what women were doing with the historical novel, but there is a wonderful recent study by Diana Wallace, The Women's Historical Novel: British Women Writers, 1900-2000 (2004) Critics such as Janet Montefiore and Gill Plain have also written very insightfully on how moving away from the present could liberate women's imagination. Besides Naomi Mitchison's historical works, especially the very long (but very well-worth reading) The Corn King and the Spring Queen, I'd strongly recommend in particular Sylvia Townsend Warner's amazing Summer Will Show set during the 1848 revolution in Paris.

Other recent critical studies I've found very thought-provoking have been Diana Wallace's Sisters and Rivals in British Women's Fiction, 1914-1939, Catherine Clay, British Women Writers 1914-1945: Professional Work and Friendship and Chiara Briganti and Kathy Mezei, Domestic Modernism, the Interwar Novel, and E. H. Young - although it focuses on Young it has quite a lot to say about the strengths of the domestic novel and the work of her contemporaries working in that area. A very useful guide, including helpful short thematic and contextualising essays as well as entries on individual writers, is Faye Hammill, Ashlie Sponenberg, Esme Miskimmin, Encyclopedia of British Women's Writing 1900-1950.

For a taste of the kind of serious yet accessible writing that women of this period were doing, some of the novels in question are relatively easy to get hold of, having been reprinted by Virago or Persephone within recent years, and some have seldom or ever been out of print, at least in the UK: Winifred Holtby, South Riding, E M Delafield's Diary of a Provincial Lady, Stella Gibbons, Cold Comfort Farm, E Arnot Robertson, Ordinary Families. I'd recommend all of these, even if I also think it's a pity that Delafield and Gibbons tend to be known only for these particular books, wonderful as they are, when they wrote a great deal more that is very impressive. A novel I wish someone would reprint is G B Stern's The Woman in the Hall, a wonderful study of a con-woman which is all about story-telling, truth, artistry, deception and self-deception; or her The Augs: an exaggeration about the increasingly pathological hostility of the permanent residents of a seaside resort towards the annual influx of summer visitors. I'd also suggest Lettice Cooper's The New House and National Provincial, Holtby's The Crowded Street, Land of Green Ginger and Mandoa, Mandoa, E Arnot Robertson's Four Frightened People, F Tennyson Jesse's A Pin to See the Peepshow, Storm Jameson's Delicate Monster (included with two other short novels in Women Against Men). Rebecca West's outstanding work of the interwar period is the massive and magisterial Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, an account of travelling through Yugoslavia that is also a meditation upon history, politics, gender, and the meaning and importance of artistic creation; a briefer introduction to her work might be the collection of novellas, The Harsh Voice, or her 1957 novel The Fountain Overflows

Timmi: I know only a few of the works you mention (though many of the authors). I, too, think Sylvia Townsend Warner's Summer Will Show an amazing novel. (And now I want to sit down and reread it immediately!) I hadn't, though, heard of G.B. Stern: and now I'm dying to get my hands on The Woman in the Hall (such an unassuming-sounding title) and The Augs: an exaggeration (such a very provocative title). Thanks very much, Lesley.


StuckInABook said...

I'm coming to the party so very late, but what a wonderful post! I've loved Beauman's, Light's and especially Humble's books - so lots more to look out for. And as a long-time EM Delafield fan (for many books, not just the PL ones) I'm always delighted to see her mentioned.

StuckInABook said...

Oh, and I 'discovered' Sylvia TW last month, so this feels serendipitous...