Modernist Voyages: Colonial Women Writers in London, 1890-1945, by Anna Snaith

Sandeep Parmar on a brave, welcome crossing of anti-colonialist and feminist narratives

July 24, 2014

The near invisibility of “colonial writers” in British Modernism is a recent angle of canonical revision, as gender in Modernism was from the 1970s onwards. Peripheral writers, often women, who wrote during the early 20th century but have since fallen out of print or gone unmentioned in post-Modernist evaluations of the period – whose names might be aligned latterly with the canonical figures of Eliot, Pound and Joyce in complicated Modernist networks of publication, promotion and influence – are the subjects of an increasingly transnational study of Modernism.

Anna Snaith’s book sits among this burgeoning 21st-century focus on race and anti-colonialism, somewhat prompted by the false sense that colonial writers spoke primarily from within the “heart of the Empire” only after decolonisation and widespread immigration to England in the 1950s and 1960s. Throughout her analysis of seven colonial female writers who made what she terms “the voyage in” (a nod to Virginia Woolf’s The Voyage Out but also to Jean Rhys’ Voyage in the Dark), Snaith scrutinises the effects of both the journey and ideas of displacement and home. While this is a brave, welcome crossing of anti-colonialist and feminist narratives, supported by strong existing scholarship on race in the Modernist era, some of the analysis is uneven and founded, in principle, on broad definitions of “Englishness” and “colonial” that brush over cultural dissimilarities, considerations of class, nationalism and gender hierarchies therein.

Olive Schreiner (South Africa), Sarojini Naidu (India), Katherine Mansfield (New Zealand), Jean Rhys (Dominica), Una Marson (Jamaica) and others similarly intersect at the voyage into an imperial frame of language, law and culture. However, the nuances of differing class privilege, relative financial comfort, ability to “pass” as English, political engagement and a hugely varied support for the “Pax Britannica” is what ultimately divides these women.

Marson and Naidu are both writers for whom the issue of skin colour serves as a unique barrier. Not coincidentally, both were more politically active than Mansfield or Rhys (who, despite poverty or tenuous residence, were promoted by key Modernist writers), and what is striking about this side-by-side reading of Naidu and Marson alongside their white counterparts is how heavily their nationalist and anti-colonialist ideas inform the analysis. According to Snaith, both poets are emphatically not avant-garde, but their inclusion in this list of more aesthetically conventional Modernists supposedly depends on their “contra-modernist” questioning of formal innovation and their resistance to Eurocentric, assimilated modernities.

One feels, however, that a more concerted effort to closely analyse Naidu’s and Marson’s poems, their language, mythological writings back to ancient culture, formulations of subjectivity and modes of address would have put these women on par with the book’s insightful chapters on Mansfield’s problematic Maori imagery and Rhys’ fetishising of blackness. Disappointingly, not only is Reginald Dyer, the general responsible for the 1919 Amritsar massacre, confused with Michael O’Dwyer, the lieutenant governor of Punjab, but Naidu’s poetic response to the killing of Sikhs in the poem Panjab 1919, which is couched heavily in Hindu mythology, goes unquestioned with regard to Indian nationalism and its insensitivity to religious difference. Ironically, the “voyage in”, from a somewhat amorphous colonial space, makes the task of reading these women together, within an expanding landscape of international Modernism, even more difficult at the nexus of Empire.

Modernist Voyages: Colonial Women Writers in London, 1890-1945

By Anna Snaith
Cambridge University Press, 296pp, £60.00
ISBN 9780521515450
Published 1 May 2014

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