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Book Review: Threshold Modernism

7 December 2020

Matthew Chambers, University of Warsaw

Elizabeth F. Evans, Threshold Modernism: New Public Women and the Literary Spaces of Imperial London (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019)

I was researching a small organization which briefly existed in early 1930’s London and I became curious as to how they ended up in the neighborhood where they would regularly hold meetings. After a little digging around I learned that a half dozen of the organizers lived within a 3-block radius of the square they would frequent. This is hardly a surprising discovery (Francesca Wade’s Square Haunting (2020) is worth reading) but it is an example among many of how location matters in the formation of modernist texts, institutions, and networks. For example, James Joyce famously worked out the timing of ‘Wandering Rocks’ using a stopwatch and map of Dublin, and he was not the only modernist writer, as Elizabeth F. Evans has shown, to have considered verisimilitude when structuring a novel: its setting, its action, and significantly, the cultural and geographic locatedness and mobility of its female characters.

Evans’s Threshold Modernism addresses shifting relations between gender, race, and place in turn of twentieth-century London. Evans offers the concept of ‘new public women’ in order to reference their contradictory associations with both the “new woman” and the original “public woman,” the prostitute’ (5). For the literature of the age this figure ‘epitomized modernists’ representational dilemma: how to reject old methods of representing the world while continuing a deep commitment to holding the mirror up to contemporary society’ (6). She situates new public women in three different spaces – shops, streets, and women’s clubs – in order to draw out the plethora of new spaces in which these women were found, received, and discussed. Evans focuses on London to emphasize how ‘geographic locatedness’ can reveal a variety of attitudes and power dynamics at work in a singular space, and this attention to the local pays rich dividends.

Evans begins by using Joyce’s Ulysses (among others) to show how the growing numbers of middle-class women in public spaces in European urban centers led to specific social configurations and mainstream assumptions over the type of woman who would frequent or work in these spaces. As she notes in her chapter on shopgirls, this public presence produced a tension between popular discourse and fictional representation of types of ‘new women’. With the example of the shopgirl, Evans argues that ‘her apparent coherence as a category, which often obscured dramatic differences in relative economic prosperity and work conditions, helped her to function metonymically for women’s changing relationship to the public sphere’ (41). Importantly, for her book, Evans uses maps in this and the subsequent chapter to illustrate how characters were situated in and traversed the city, drawing conclusions on various writers’ assumptions about how place and mobility signified for ‘new public women’ in their novels. Maps of Henry James’s The Princess Casamassima (1886), Amy Levy’s The Romance of a Shop (1888), George Gissing’s The Odd Woman (1893), H.G. Wells’s Ann Veronica (1909) and Virginia Woolf’s Night and Day (1919) are provided and hint at what would be a promising digital project on a much broader scale. Indeed, maps and mapping are vital for Evans, as she shows in the following chapter on ‘street love’ and flânerie, where she examines how women could explore a city while themselves existing as objects of observation. The book rounds out with a fascinating discussion of the role of women’s clubs, hubs for much social and political organizing and group identity building. Nevertheless, these groups were still determined by a sense of Englishness, an issue Evans complicates in the final chapter with a discussion of how the ‘new public woman’ was received by Britain’s colonial subjects arriving in London.

Threshold Modernism covers a lot of ground, as it were, and the multiple critical approaches to the figure of the ‘new public woman’ is the book’s central strength. Evans draws out how authors treated location and movement as textually meaningful, and it is significant that readers would be expected to do the same. To what degree a reader in the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century would be able to identify where the characters were, where they were going, and then how they responded to these ‘new public women’ as a result of that knowledge is a fascinating thought. Evans’s is an engaging critical approach, one I could see easily being used in a classroom, and is a welcome addition to scholarship of modernist space and place.


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