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The Modernist Review #19: Staying at Home

1st May 2020

These days, home isn’t so much where we start from as where we’ve ended up.

As we’ve all done our best to adapt to the new very-much-not-normal, the Modernist Review team has been keen to provide a space for discussion and collaboration. Over the past few weeks, we’ve been publishing installments of our Teaching Online Dialogue, which you can all find compiled here, along with former TMR editor Gareth Mill’s (University of Reading) piece on organising Nearly Carbon Neutral Conferences. Now, for our 19th issue, we’ve asked TMR contributors to reflect on the experience of staying at home.

This month’s theme may be topical, even perhaps a little too close to home, but it builds on a growing interest in reassessing the place of domesticity in modernist studies. Most recently, the Modernism in the Home conference (organised by Matilda Blackwell, Rachel Eames and Brittany Moster at the University of Birmingham, 1-2 July 2019), urged its delegates to challenge the ‘[c]lassic anti-domestic rhetorics of modernity [that] have often aligned the domestic with the private, designating it a lesser to the democratic, masculine and thoroughly “modern” public sphere.’

For Chloë Jamieson (Royal Academy of Arts), ‘modernity and domesticity are not separate constructs, but can be combined to create a different interpretation of what it means to be modern,’ where design and experimentation exist not only in galleries, in pages and on canvases, but on skirting boards, door handles, and the everyday space of the home. Jamieson’s piece offers a glimpse through the keyhole, into the interior lives of Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in their own home at the Charleston Farmhouse, where ‘immersive interiors […] encompass the spectator’ and domestic space ‘[becomes] a living canvas.’ Now, a bit of housekeeping and a word on Charleston: like many other museums and galleries, Charleston has had to close its doors to visitors for the time being. They have launched an emergency appeal, calling on donations from the public so we can visit this historical home in the future. If you feel you are able to, please consider sending a donation here.

Interior with a Table 1921 by Vanessa Bell 1879-1961
Interior with a Table 1921 Vanessa Bell 1879-1961 Bequeathed by Frank Hindley Smith 1940

While you’ve been staying at home, you might have started to notice things: a shift in the meaning of domesticity as your bedroom, kitchen or living room becomes your work space; a new sense of the boundaries that separate you from the outside; an unprecedented awareness of the contents of your storing cupboard; a slightly altered relationship with flat surfaces and everyday objects coming in from outside. Maybe you’re having longer conversations with your plants or getting to know the personality quirks of your utensils. There’s something reassuringly familiar about our domestic spaces, but also, sometimes, troublingly unhomely. Do you, like Franz Kafka’s Gregor, feel as though your body is ‘confined by an architecture which [you] cannot navigate, and which cannot accommodate [you]’? Do you also, occasionally, feel like climbing, or indeed ‘Crawling up the Walls’ of your own home? Don’t worry. Tapping into the complexity of our current urges for domestic cleanliness, Rory Hutchings looks at The Metamorphosis as a ‘parable for dirty living’, which ‘might allow new and undisciplined relationships between bodies and space to emerge.’ The feeling of dirt, messiness, or more generally, stuff, and how it occupies the spaces we live in, is a central concern of Meindert Peters’s (New College, Oxford) ‘Interiors of (Un)use.’ Using Walter Benjamin’s comments on Bertold Brecht’s furniture, Peters sweeps up your most uncomfortable existential questions from under the rug: ‘[h]ow is your interior treating you? Is it helping you in your tasks, or being a tad recalcitrant?’ Are you a slave to your household objects? Are you your own bad lodger?

Our current living situations may have prompted other difficult questions about domesticity. Are our interiors really so self-contained? What forces and feelings stay outside brick walls, and what follows us inside? In a piece exploring ‘The Politics of a Permeable Home’ in Sylvia Townsend Warner’s short stories, Claire Pelly (King’s College, London) reflects on the exterior’s ability to permeate walls, both physical and psychological.

And now to address the elephant in the living room: comparisons between lockdown and the Blitz are a tricky, easily politicised business, but our modernist ‘stuck at home’ issue wouldn’t really be complete without an exploration of World War II blackout precautions. Stephanie Butler’s (University of Toronto) piece dives into the letters of Virginia Woolf to explore her experience of staying at home during the London air raids, in a world where ‘windows were reconceptualised as safety hazards.’ And because it’s just too tempting, we will only hint at this in passing: who would have thought that the ‘Nature is healing’ meme had a dignified Woolfian ancestry? We recommend reading Butler’s article for further discussion of badgers, drain-dwelling sharks, and the patriarchy.

Finally, this month’s issue comes with a flurry of book reviews for your virtual shelves. Elizabeth O’Connor’s (University of Birmingham) review of Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting gives us the perfect transition: the book ‘follows the lives of five modernist women who called Bloomsbury’s Mecklenburgh Square home in the interwar years in Britain,’ reflects the boundaries between private and public spheres, and seeks to upset the familiarity of the male modernist canon. Opening up the square to the world, Francesca Bratton’s (Maynooth University) reviews Global Modernists on Modernism: An Anthology, edited by Alys Moody and Stephen J. Ross, and tackles the notorious ‘meaning of “modernism”’ problem (a household favourite among TMR regulars, with an extensive dialogue started off by Michael Shallcross and Luke Seaber). Diane Drouin (Sorbonne Université) tells us about Mina Loy’s Critical Modernism (by Laura Scuriatti), with echoes of our issue’s theme in Loy’s lampshade shop, discarded objects found art, and Paper House.

Are you still here? We know that this issue of TMR has been our biggest yet (even chunkier, can you believe it, than our iconic and very much not-sponsored KitKat Chunky issue). We know that it might look a bit daunting for those of you who find themselves struggling with a much shortened attention span at the moment. You’re not alone, and we have just what you need: why don’t you start with something small, like an aphorism? Check out Rebecca Varley-Winter’s (University of Cambridge) review of Aphoristic Modernity: 1880 to the Present, edited by Kostas Boyiopoulos and Michael Shallcross, where you’ll find that aphorisms, like little burrs made of words, can ‘stick in the mind, and sting it awake.’

Aaand this is it! Thank you for taking the Modernist Review into your homes today (and all the other days). This month, we would also like to extend a particular thank you to our contributors, who have worked under difficult conditions to deliver stellar pieces with the perfect mixture of professionalism and loveliness. Whether you’ve been drowning under piles of scripts or blankly staring at a mark on your wall in the hope it turns into a snail (or maybe… your PhD?), we hope you enjoy this month’s (un)homely collection, and that, if it hasn’t helped you fight off the gloom completely, it’s at least made it a little cozier. As always, we hope you are keeping safe, and we warmly welcome any submissions or suggestions for TMR. You can find us on Twitter @modernistudies or use our swish new address,

Stay at home! (if you can!)

With our very best wishes, from our homes to yours,

Cécile, Polly, Bryony & Josh

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