The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women Writers
Edited by Maren Tova Linett
Cambridge: University Press, 2010. xxiii-224 pages
Hardcover: 9780521515054, £50.00 / Paperback: 9780521735704, £17.99
Reviewed by Frédérique Amselle
Université de Valenciennes
Edited by Maren Towa Linett, the present Cambridge Companion intends to highlight women's role in the modernist literary revolution. As dissimilar as they may be, the two authors first quoted in the introduction are Charlotte Perking Gilman and Virginia Woolf as both of them "wrote about the new ways fiction could represent life" and shared a common "resistance to convention" .
Right from the beginning, the volume highlights the interaction between gender and art, describing how sex-consciousness should or should not interfere with art. Women were creators, artists transcending their sex, and they were the subject of works of art which "had to write about women in new ways" . Thus Art had to reflect upon the meaning of what being a woman artist meant and in this respect the present book intends to study how women developed new forms of art. The usual comparison with male modernist writers is only there to "recognize the common historical, literary, and political contexts surrounding both male and female modernist work". This volume wants to be "nuanced" in "understand[ing] women's modernism in its own terms" without comparing it "exceedingly" to men's—which is highly laudable and coherent regarding the cautious introduction.
I decided to review the different chapters without following the general organisation of the volume; accordingly, I divided them into four categories corresponding to the four aspects of modernism—or what led or contributed to modernism—developed in this volume: gender; ethnicity; political activism and creativity; creation.
The book lays the emphasis on the importance of the First World War  by showing what an opportunity it was for women in terms of work and emancipation, but it also points out how "the 1920s, as it turned out, saw a backlash against women working. [...] [It] reinforced ideas about men's and women's separate spheres". The middle chapters of the book consequently tackle the issue of gender (re-)assertion: how the context had repercussions on race, postcoloniality, activism and gender.
This is precisely what chapter 5 "Gender in women's modernism", written by Patricia Juliana Smith, is about. By focusing on the "New Woman" through Gilman's texts "The Yellow Wallpaper" and Herland, but also texts by Stein, Woolf and Cather, she deals with gender issue, sex and sexuality (mostly lesbianism and "homoerotic desire") and comments upon the different strategies used by the authors, thereby showing the impact of the First World War on working women and artists.
Race is then tackled in chapters 6 and 7, questioning otherness, ethnicity and the notion of national identity (chapter 8 on "geomodernism"). This leads to the topic of political activism and the suffrage movement in chapter 10, where Sowon Park stresses the link between aesthetics and politics.
The question of aesthetics is further developed in five chapters (chapters 1 to 4 and chapter 9). Chapter four shows how magazines, salons and presses run by women opened a space of freedom and creativity. Publishing contributed to give a voice to modernist artists and make some experimental projects more visible. The fields of creativity included poetry (chapter 2) as well as the modernist scene (chapter 3, on playwrights and performers) and visual arts (chapter 9). In the first chapter, Bonnie Kime Scott completes very clearly this overview of modernist creation as the author explores the beginning of the 20th century and divides it into three periods: 1900-1919, "a change in consciousness"; the 1920s, feminist modernism; the 1930s and the "crises of history".
Among the strong points of The Cambridge Companion to Modernist Women Writers, we can put a stress on a ten-page "guide to further reading" [203-213] which proves very useful and very rich: a list of the most recent publications in connection with each chapter. No doubt this is a handy support for students. It comes on top of the bibliographical notes at the end of the chapters.
Students will also appreciate the very thorough index with its clever subentries [215-224], as they will the 13-page chronology at the very beginning of the book. Indeed it covers a large array of subjects from politics to science, art, and literature. Yet, the other side of the coin is that it can be slightly confusing as there are no subcategories: books, paintings, scientific discoveries are all under one same entry. For instance, Albert Einstein's General Theory of Relativity, Dorothy Richardson's second novel-chapter of Pilgrimage, the Easter Rising in Dublin, the foundation of the national Woman's Party in the USA as well as the beginning of the Great Migration, all feature under the same 1916 entry! But this may be a modernist choice.
Cercles © 2011