Sunday, 1 March 2009

Ladies, Please Don't Smash These Windows by Maroula Joannou

Subtitled Women's writing, feminist consciousness and social change 1918-38, Joannou's book considers issues of feminism, pacifism and socialism within the work of some well-known feminist writers, such as Vera Brittain and Virginia Woolf, and some now quite obscure writers including Leonora Eyles and Katharine Burdekin. The book is arranged thematically but also traces a chronological journey from the Great War, with a critical evaluation of Vera Brittain's feminism as evinced in Testament of Youth, to the eve of the second World War and a consideration of Woolf's feminist and pacifist Three Guineas. These opening and closing chapters mirror each other to a certain extent, with Joannou identifying the class-bound and individualist nature of Brittain's experience which limits her radicalism, and opposing them with a reading of Three Guineas that draws out its greater radicalism, showing how Woolf used this book to align herself with those outside her class and removed from her Bloomsbury peers. During the journey through the inter-war period we look at the socialist-feminist works of Leonora Eyles, a new name to me and a middle-class writer who attempted to depict and critique patriarchal and industrial society; the portrayal of the spinster in works by Sylvia Townsend Warner, Winifred Holtby and F M Mayor; lesbian representation in Orlando and The Well of Loneliness; and the relationships between femininity and feminism in Bowen's The Death of the Heart and Lehmann's The Weather in the Streets. The chapter on lesbianism argues that the non-traditional narrative structure and elements of fantasy in Orlando enable Woolf to offer a much more trenchant critique of masculinity and patriarchy than is possible for the more realistic and more obvious (and, in its day, more shocking) Well of Loneliness. A similar argument is used to compare STW's Lolly Willowes, whose escape from respectable middle-class life into life as a witch in rural Bedfordshire, and FMM's Rector's Daughter, which may take a light ironic tone when describing the life of Mary Jocelyn, and show ambivalence about Mary's self-sacrifice, but cannot achieve the critical bite of Lolly Willowes; it lacks the latter book's scope and internal freedom to do so. The introduction and conclusion point to the need for socialist and Marxist analyses of the 1930s to take account of and incorporate feminist critiques if we are to gain a full understanding of the period, and also argue strongly for the study of traditional, non-modernist writers alongside the modernist interwar women writers; Joannou exemplifies this type of comparative study extremely well throughout the book. A thoughtful and provocative critique, then, that places the lesser-known and traditional writers within an expansive canon of interwar literary production.

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