Book Review: The Passion Projects: Modernist Women, Intimate Archives, Unfinished Lives

7 December 2020

Eilish Mulholland, The Queen’s University of Belfast

Melanie Micir, The Passion Projects: Modernist Women, Intimate Archives, Unfinished Lives (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2019)

The history of Anglo-American modernism can feel monolithic in definition. Ranging from a plethora of guides, anthologies, curricula and collections to commemorative tea towels, mugs, tote bags and tell-all biographies, the understanding seems to be that modernism was formed by a group of definitive writers such as Virginia Woolf, Ezra Pound, Wyndham Lewis, Filippo Tommaso Marinetti, D.H. Lawrence, Ernest Hemmingway, James Joyce, W.H. Auden and Wallace Stevens. The history of modernism appears to be firmly settled in the form of articles, novels and critical commentary in which we come to know writers intimately. We know of their friends, family and lovers. We know from journals and letters every intimate detail about their lives. We know even where they visited and even what they ate and drank. These snippets of life and style are at first unassuming. Amid reading, writing and researching, amongst the frenzy of collating and connecting we fall into an assumption, an assumption that when it comes to a writer’s biography,we always assume that the information we desire will simply be there.

However, what has been inscribed into cultural consciousness is not necessarily true. In-between dusty library shelves, last wills and testaments, reference cards and cultural pre-occupations with hostile, heteronormative societies, there are forgotten histories of those who lived on the margins of society. Known yet unknown, hidden in-between pages of half-finished biographies, sentimental mementos annotated letters, diaries and scrapbooks. Colourful collections of lovers, writers, wives and mothers to acts of literary creation peek tentatively at a potential researcher from their bundles of paper. Compared to the researcher used to carbon copies of poems and letters, myriads of boxes and files and scans detailing notebooks, correspondences and contextual print and publishing, the prospect of tackling this unfinished, disorganised biography is the stuff of nightmares, but for Melanie Micir it is a critical and cultural treasure trove. Framed by what Micir terms as a state of ‘biographical impulse,’ (6) whereby the standard form of legitimate biography is rejected in favour of seamless, free-formed acts of collection, recording and description, we find that authors become alternate creators. In short, they are ‘reshaping’ the outlines of conventional modernism for a newly envisaged world of female curation.[1]

Micir’s first chapter opens with a reflection on the history of archival work. It begins with a passage from the introduction to ‘Lives of the Obscure’, a set of three biographical sketches published in The Common Reader (1925) by Virginia Woolf:

The obscure sleep on the walls, slouching against each other as if they were too drowsy to stand upright. Their backs are flaking off; their titles often vanished. Why disturb their sleep? Why reopen those peaceful graves…[2]

Micir perceives an allure in caring for these metaphorically abandoned books of old. In mirroring the same act of resurrection as voiced by Woolf, to ‘to feel oneself as a deliverer advancing with light’, Micir begins her process of written exhumation. In the first section, she begins by turning our attention to Radclyffe Hall. Known for her famous libel scandal in 1926 with her lesbian novel The Well of Loneliness, Micir explores how the taint of scandal seeped into the preservation of her memory with the publication of The Life and Death of Radclyffe Hall by her partner Lady Una Troubridge. As is often the case with these women writers, the ‘delicate problem’ of queer desire which required careful management in death as in life was often shouldered by their closest surviving persons.[3] Keen to promote what Micir describes as ‘retrospective corrective’ (30) Troubridge’s narration of her years spent by Hall’s side ‘writing, reading, dictating, correcting, typing and retyping’ (29) were mired by her own jealousies of Hall and her lover Souline. In detailing her determination to provide a version of life that severely diminished Souline’s appearance, and even going as far as to burn the correspondence between Hall and Souline,Micir exposes in minute detail the difficult balancing act between the personal and political when it comes to unravelling the self-made archive. Literary inheritance and disinheritance are at question in Micir’s discussion of Alice B. Toklas’ conflict with the estate of her late partner Gertrude Stein. Despite a sizeable collection of artwork consisting of Matisse’s, Picasso’s and Renoir’s (but to name a few), and although Stein’s will provided for Toklas beyond the grave, the challenges poised from extended family and Stein’s explicit request to pursue posthumous publication superseded all questions of maintenance and comfort. It was instead that on the 7th of March 1967, Alice Toklas died alone, in poverty, having shunned all financial preservation in a humble attempt to conserve the biographical legacy of her beloved partner.

This notion of the archive as a locus of power continues in Micir’s exploration into the unfinished records of female persons. In this section the reader finds themselves being subtly challenged in our understanding of queer lives in the aftermath of modernism. Micir makes clear that the archive is never a finished piece. Subject to flux and outside influence ranging from literary gatekeeping to the writer’s own demons, the path to the archive is once again reiterated as being far from trouble free. As we have seen previously, instances of degradation, mistreatment, triumph and degradation are never far from mind for Micir. Charting the painful, hesitant movements towards the concluding act of confirmed conservation, Micir takes us on a journey of contrasts. In the final chapters Micir once again sustains her line of biographical variety in modernist women. Her section on Djuna Barnes and her attempts to record, reclaim and impose structure onto the legacy of her contemporary, the Baroness of Dada (otherwise known as Elsa von Freytag-Loringhove), is a delight in frivolity and struggle. It is in Micir’s conclusion that this volume becomes truly inspiring. However tender, however tumultuous, Micir firmly argues at the close that we should approach biography with a loose taxonomy. She advocates for recognising and valuing these materials as temporary fledglings, caught in waiting to become their own passion project in the hopes of sparking another’s newfound curiosity.


Sources:

[1]Katz, Tamar, ‘Modernism, Subjectivity, and Narrative Form: Abstraction in The Waves’, Narrative, vol. 3, no. 3 (1995), pp. 232–251.

[2]Virginia, Woolf. ‘Lives of the Obscure’, in The Common Reader, Complete Edition (Essex: OK Publishing, 2017), pp.106-122 (p.106).

[3]  Leslie A. Taylor. ‘“I Made up My Mind to Get It”: The American Trial of The Well of Loneliness, New York City, 1928-1929’,  Journal of the History of Sexuality, vol. 10, no. 2 (2001), pp. 250–286.

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