Transience, technology and cosmopolitanism: the reimagining of place in English modernism

Wiseman, Sam (2013) Transience, technology and cosmopolitanism: the reimagining of place in English modernism. PhD thesis, University of Glasgow.

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Recent work by scholars including Jed Esty and Alexandra Harris has emphasised a renewed focus among English interwar modernist writers upon rural landscapes, culture and traditions. This thesis builds upon such work in examining that focus in the prose works of D.H. Lawrence (1885-1930), John Cowper Powys (1872-1963), Mary Butts (1890-1937) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941). All of these figures have a profound sense of attachment to place, but an equally powerful desire to engage with the upheavals of interwar modernity – in terms of urbanisation, cosmopolitanism, and developments in technology and transportation – and to participate in contemporary literary experimentation. This dialectic between tradition and change, I argue, is analogous to a literal geographical shuttling between rural and metropolitan environments, and in all four writers I identify imagery and literary techniques which reflect those experiences, and are applied across diverse geographical realms.

One central claim is that modernity’s tendency to challenge cultural and geographical boundaries, and its oscillations between disintegration and renewal, are manifested in new ways of depicting and understanding our relationships with place and nonhuman animals. I also emphasise the continuity of particular literary techniques (such as paratactic syntax) and forms of imagery (trees, bodies of water) across metropolitan ‘high’ modernism and the texts of the later interwar period, presenting this as evidence for the consistent influence of a tradition/change dialectic in these writers’ work. Another key claim is that all four writers call for an expansion of our conception of modernism, through their challenge to the urban-central/rural-peripheral dichotomy, their emphasis on the past and tradition (particularly the sense of temporal layering within landscapes), and the unorthodox ways in which their work can be considered experimental (for example, through meandering or non-linear structuring).

Chapter One emphasises ambivalence in the work of Lawrence, in terms of the persistence of underlying tensions, and argues that these are inextricably bound up with his intimate, empathic understanding of place. Lawrence longs to return to an idyllic, prelapsarian landscape connected to the Nottinghamshire of his childhood, but recognises the impossibility of doing so, given his exposure to the maelstrom of cosmopolitan and metropolitan experience. These experiences generate the need for a renewed relationship with place, although he struggles to articulate any such vision. In Chapter Two I argue that Powys has a similarly ambivalent relationship with modernity, but defuses this through the deliberate playfulness of his work: his ‘Wessex novels’, written from the USA, reimagine the landscape of home through a fantastical, nostalgic lens that can be described as ‘imaginative realist’. This approach, he suggests, is one way in which the contradictory desires and inclinations of the peripatetic modernist author can be reconciled. Through his complex identity and experience of self-imposed exile, Powys develops a strong sense of the English landscape as layered, expressing a kind of temporal cosmopolitanism.

In Chapter Three, I again note a vexed relationship with modernity and place in the work of Butts, whose work often expresses a dismayed sense that her childhood landscape in Dorset is being invaded by urbanites and tourists. Like Powys she attempts to resolve this through a re-enchantment of place, emphasising a sense of an ‘unseen world’ in the region, but such fantasises are both less self-conscious and more ethically problematic than Powys’. Nonetheless I do note a distinctively cosmopolitan reimagining of rural England, as a potential haven for marginalised communities, in works such as Armed with Madness (1928). Finally, Chapter Four posits Woolf as a figure in whom the dialectical tensions between belonging and place are less troubling. I relate this ability to manage tensions to Woolf’s equally strong attachments in childhood (and throughout her life) to both urban and rural environments, reflected in the development of an ‘urban pastoral’ form in Mrs Dalloway (1925). In all four writers there is evidence that modernism’s expansion of perspectives can be fruitfully extended to those of place and nonhuman animals, and Woolf’s work is particularly sustained and successful in this respect. The central stress in my thesis conclusion, accordingly, is on the need to incorporate such perspectives into understandings of modernism as a community-oriented movement.

Item Type: Thesis (PhD)
Qualification Level: Doctoral
Keywords: Modernism, Place, Cosmopolitanism, Transience, Technology, Transportation, Environment, Ecocriticism, England, D.H. Lawrence, John Cowper Powys, Mary Butts, Virginia Woolf.
Subjects: P Language and Literature > PR English literature
Colleges/Schools: College of Arts > School of Critical Studies > English Literature
Supervisor's Name: Shuttleton, Dr. David
Date of Award: 2013
Depositing User: Dr Sam Wiseman
Unique ID: glathesis:2013-4650
Copyright: Copyright of this thesis is held by the author.
Date Deposited: 08 Nov 2013 08:28
Last Modified: 17 Oct 2016 14:05

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