Freewomen and Supermen: Edwardian Radicals and Literary Modernism, by Anne Fernihough

Sandeep Parmar is tantalised by the notion of the political in Modernism

January 16, 2014

In spite of considerable recent efforts by literary critics, it seems that the Edwardian era still needs rescuing from that stubbornly persistent image conjured up by Modernism of a nearly decade-long, hazy summer afternoon lasting from about 1901 to 1910 – or, at a push, until the First World War. Even the “Long Edwardian Era” falls between two historical periods (the Victorian and the Modern) built on cherished binaries that posit these periods as exceptionally distinct from one another in their social, political and aesthetic concerns.

Thankfully, Anne Fernihough’s study offers a more discerning analysis of the inherent diversity of literary movements in order to challenge the dominant myth of Edwardian flimsiness – made famous by Virginia Woolf’s oft-repeated line from the 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”, “On or about December 1910 human character changed”. The invention of Modernism’s radical birth from the fantasy of its earnest, sleepy ancestors is nothing more than the indulgent myth of a generation striking out in search of “newness”, or so Fernihough suggests through her extensive readings of Modernism’s canonical and non-canonical authors with a keen eye on Edwardian social and political obsessions (eugenics, suffrage, mass culture, immigration among them). As she observes, both D. H. Lawrence and T. S. Eliot found themselves uncomfortably drawn to the same star of Nietzschean individuality, the “superman”; albeit via quite differing aesthetics, they both sought to eschew the totalising vagaries of abstract linguistic and intellectual concepts.

Both D. H. Lawrence and T. S. Eliot found themselves uncomfortably drawn to the same star of Nietzschean individuality, the ‘superman’

In looking at the Edwardians (among them Dora Marsden, A. R. Orage, H. G. Wells and Henry James) who influenced Modernists such as Dorothy Richardson, Ezra Pound and Wyndham Lewis, Fernihough seeks to uncover radical ideas about women’s rights, education, class systems, fashion, marriage, architecture before 1910, before the “Make it New” cry of Modernism drowned out the progressive radicalism already thriving on both sides of the Atlantic. Marsden is a particularly compelling example of a transitional figure; rejecting the perceived ineffectiveness of the Women’s Social and Political Union, she founded the radical political journal The Freewoman in 1911, which would be succeeded by The New Freewoman and then in 1914 by The Egoist, a short-lived but important Modernist literary journal. Although Marsden originally intended The Freewoman to be “a feminist review” (her subtitle) her goals were not aligned with those of the suffragists, and her fervent editorials reflected a preference for the superiority of the sublime individual (the “freewoman”) over the democratic social aims of the female masses for enfranchisement (the “bondswomen”).

Uniquely, Fernihough’s reading of Modernist writing as an extension of the ideals of individualism (sometimes, paradoxically, in accordance with the wider social programmes of vegetarianism, exercise, cooperative living and Fletcherising – that is, thoroughly chewing one’s food) departs from the view that the aesthetic avant-garde movements of the Modernist era were apolitical. The suggestion that Imagism – a movement promoting the concrete poetic image, the thing itself, not an abstraction – was born of Bergsonian vitalism and T. E. Hulme’s rejection of impurity is tantalising indeed.

However, Fernihough’s analysis is not always perfectly clear and her choice of Modernists can be frustrating. A case in point is her reading of Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons (1914), which she considers at the banal level of the object (food) rather than form (Cubist), thereby denigrating Stein’s significant role in the development of Modernist syntax. It is also surprising to see so few avant-garde female poets included here (and disappointing to have Katherine Mansfield and Woolf show up so frequently). Mina Loy would have made an excellent case study, given her polemics on modern poetry, Stein, feminism, futurism, democracy and, importantly, the individual.

Freewomen and Supermen: Edwardian Radicals and Literary Modernism

By Anne Fernihough
Oxford University Press, 304pp, £55.00
ISBN 9780199668625 
Published 24 October 2013

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