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Who's Upstaged by Virginia Woolf? Five Lesser-Known Women of Modernist Fiction

Modernism was probably the most important literary movement of the twentieth century, and like most important literary movements, it can sometimes seem like a bit of a boys’ club. Histories of modernism generally reach for names like T.S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, D.H. Lawrence and above all James Joyce. There’s a case to be made, however, that the most formally innovative and psychologically penetrating—that is to say, the most modernist—of the modernist writers were women.

Virginia Woolf, of course, is universally acknowledged as one of modernism’s leading lights, for the layered psychological portraiture and flat-out brilliance of novels like To The Lighthouse, The Waves, and Mrs Dalloway. Woolf herself certainly would not have chosen James Joyce as the representative modernist writer. She thought Ulysses ‘the work of a queasy undergraduate scratching his pimples.’ The only modernist Woolf acknowledged as a peer (and a rival) was a woman: the New Zealand writer Katherine Mansfield.

Mansfield’s work displays all of Woolf’s psychological depth, but her greater sensitivity to postcolonial issues and the anxieties of class (Woolf, as her opinion of Joyce suggests, could be a bit of a snob) make Mansfield’s writing more radical and in some respects more accessible today. Jean Rhys, another overlooked woman writer of the modernist period, arguably invented the postcolonial novel in Wide Sargasso Sea, while Djuna Barnes and Gertrude Stein laid the groundwork for the LGBTQ fiction of the twentieth century. Kate Chopin, meanwhile, created many of the tropes that distinguish the fiction of the American South. All five women were feminist pioneers in their writing and in their lives.

The Garden Party and Other Stories

Mansfield is at her best in the story form. ‘The Garden Party’ relates, in a subtle, languorous style, the Sheridan family’s preparations for the titular soirée. The story’s point of view flits like a butterfly from character to character as Laura watches the workmen put up a marquee, her sister Jose tunes the piano and her mother directs operations. When the family learns that their working-class neighbour, Mr Scott, has died, they must decide whether or not to press ahead with the celebration, and the story’s subtleties tighten into a noose of painful ironies.

Other stand-out stories include ‘Psychology,’ which offers a fictionalised account of Mansfield’s relationship with that other master of modernist approaches to psychological fiction, D.H. Lawrence, and ‘Prelude,’ a dreamy evocation of a child’s memories of moving house—which lands some heavy punches on the theme of women’s oppression in the home.

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Nightwood

Barnes belongs to that celebrated generation of American writers who spent the nineteen-twenties in Paris. She moved there in the same year as Ernest Hemingway, but where Hemingway is famous for his much-imitated and even-more-parodied heterosexual bullishness, Barnes is the godmother of lesbian fiction.

Nightwood is the first major novel to explicitly address sexual love between women. It’s also a strange and wonderful tale, which playfully reconfigures the tropes of the Gothic novel as T.S. Eliot repurposed blank verse and Joyce upended the biographical narrative.

Its central character (if Nightwood has a central character) is Matthew O’Connor, a transvestite—now we would call him transgender—who is posing as a doctor in order to perform deliveries and abortions. His lyrical tirades make him the sympathetic heart of a novel populated with troubled and sometimes downright frightening characters. Barnes evokes them in language of a strangeness and intensity you won’t find anywhere else:

‘Jenny Petherbridge was a widow, a middle-aged woman who had been married four times. Each husband had wasted away and died; she had been like a squirrel racing a wheel day and night in an endeavor to make them historical; they could not survive it.’

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Wide Sargasso Sea

Born in 1890 on the Caribbean island of Dominica, Rhys faced snobbery and exclusion when she was sent to England at the age of 16 so she could attend boarding school in Cambridge. She studied later at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, but left when her tutors decided she would never learn ‘proper English.’ She became the mistress of a wealthy stockbroker, but the affair ended without marriage. An involvement with another man ended in an abortion which nearly claimed Rhys’s life.

At this point Rhys turned to fiction, but she did not escape exploitation by controlling men. The writer and literary patron Ford Madox Ford praised her work, and inveigled her into a ménage à trois with himself and his partner Stella Brown. Rhys finally escaped to a remote Cornish town. She had been silent for almost twenty years when she published Wide Sargasso Sea.

Her masterpiece is a prequel to Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, imagining the life of Mr Rochester’s first wife, whom Jane encounters as ‘the madwoman in the attic’ of Rochester’s country house. Rhys imagines Mrs Rochester as a white Jamaican, scorned in her own country as the daughter of slave traders, but viewed in England as an erotic curiosity.

A powerful indictment of the power men wield over female destinies, Wide Sargasso Sea is also a riposte to the exclusion of colonial experiences, and colonial crimes, from British literature.

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Three Lives

Stein was not merely part of that celebrated generation of American writers in Paris: she was the centre of their circle. Hemingway, Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound all attended her salon, alongside the artists Picasso and Matisse. Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, which recounts the Paris years, is her best-known contribution to literary history, but her other writing achieves a level of linguistic experimentation unmatched by any modernist fiction writer except, perhaps, Joyce.

Three Lives started as a translation into English of Gustave Flaubert’s Trois Contes (Three Tales)—an exercise in improving her French which was not intended for publication. As Stein developed her own versions of Flaubert’s stories, however, she began to expand them into new pieces of fiction which challenged the literary realism of which Flaubert was the acknowledged master.

Stein’s three stories each follow working-class women—one a woman of colour—in Baltimore. Their subject matter as well as their groundbreaking style made them controversial, but Three Lives would help subsequent generations of women writers, working-class writers and writers of colour to break free of the historical confines of realist literature.

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The Awakening

Published in 1899, The Awakening was arguably the first modern feminist novel, certainly one of the earliest modernist novels, and the first novel in the American’s South unique literary tradition.

It follows Edna Pontellier, a middle-class woman living in New Orleans at the end of the nineteenth century. She is a wife and a mother and that is all she is expected to be—but Edna has other ideas. Chopin depicts Edna’s sexual and creative awakening in a level of detail that was shocking for its time. Nor does she flinch from showing the price that Edna must pay for following her own desires in a society that cannot accommodate them.

Unsurprisingly, the novel’s contemporary reviewers were appalled by The Awakening. One reviewer declared himself ‘well satisfied’ by Edna’s tragic end. But Chopin’s novel was a rallying cry for women and women writers everywhere.

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I'm a copywriter based in Dublin. Bookwitting about literary fiction, mostly.

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