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Book Review: Commemorative Modernisms

8 February 2020

Iro Filippaki, Johns Hopkins University

Alice Kelly, Commemorative Modernisms: Women Writers, Death and the First World War (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2020)

Anyone who has ever dealt with a close bereavement knows that it inevitably begs the harrowing question of what to do with the body. This question, Alice Kelly writes in her book Commemorative Modernisms: Women Writers, Death and the First World War, is the primary concern of modernism. Kelly’s monograph is an articulate, well-researched, and amply-evidenced study that combines history, material culture, and brilliant close-readings to trace the ways through which women writers reclaimed the realm of World War I and its dead from masculine, combatants’ experience.

Modernism’s preoccupation with death has been long acknowledged, as has women’s role in witnessing and recording the deadly consequences of World War I, even if sporadically.[1] From Ariela Freedman’s presentation of a ‘new emphasis on witnessing’ found in modernist women’s texts, to Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick’s recounting of women’s writing as offering ‘female civilian’ views on war that would call out masculine war narratives as ‘perverse, traumatic, and quotidian,’ the importance of women writers in understanding war’s trauma is often emphasized.[2] Kelly’s book, however, is one of few meticulous studies that focuses exclusively on women’s writing and the way it changed representations of death during and after World War I — and how these women’s literary style developed throughout those years.

An intriguing aspect of Kelly’s monograph is its structure, which is arranged based on women’s proximity to death and the dying. Ranging from the ‘intensely proximate’ (40) relationship between nurses and the dying, both in terms of geography but also in terms of the writer’s class and political views, to the absently abstract witnessing of the home front, Commemorative Modernisms close-reads lesser-known modernist figures such as Olive Dent, Enid Bagnold, R. E. Leake, Pat Beauchamp, Henrietta Tayler, Lesley Smith and Dora M. Walker, and it unpacks the most problematic writings of Edith Wharton – often considered “jingoistic” propaganda (27) – and some of the most popular texts of female modernism, including writing by Katherine Mansfield, H.D., and Virginia Woolf. The result is a forceful expansion of the World War I literary vocabulary and an exposition of crucial literary tropes employed by female writers of the time, shaping not only modernist but also official attitudes to death.

Although the main premise of the book – namely that World War I changed death’s literary representation – is an oft-made suggestion, Commemorative Modernisms implicitly describes a linguistic transformation that took place alongside a transformation in biological, emotional, but also economical terms during the modernist period, and that was manifested specifically in women’s writing. Some unique contributions are Kelly’s offering that it was proximity to death that impacted the kind of language used by women to describe, mitigate, and represent death; her reading of modernist death as a combination of wartime and influenza casualties, a concurrency of events that complicated attitudes to death and its commemoration; and the detailed close-readings that reveal affinities between individual and collective trauma, and real and metaphorical death.

The key debate that permeates Kelly’s study is, ultimately, whether male and female modernist writing is indeed different. Was women’s witnessing, recording, and commemorating the war that much different from their male counterparts’ descriptions, literary or otherwise? Kelly’s answer is a resounding ‘yes.’ As she writes, the women’s material and ‘cultural associations of their sex with life, death and grief’ (41), often combined with their physical closeness to the dead, meant that women were voicing both existential concerns as well as discussing the morbid logistics of death. In other words, it was primarily women who were tasked with finding what to do with the body: nurse it, mourn it, survive it, represent it, and bring it to life all over again. For the most part, as Kelly writes, their relationship with ‘the experience of war death was therefore largely one of imaginative re-construction’ (11). This multi-genre reconstruction (memoirs, manuals, letters, diaries, photographs) is closely examined in Kelly’s monograph, and is found to throw a wrench in ‘official acts of monument-making, whether physical monuments or the development of rituals’ (17), undermining the ‘conservative language that attempted to reinstate the wartime values of patriotism and heroism’ (17). Brilliantly, narrative tropology takes center stage and is seen here to influence not only imagination and mourning, but also social views and administrative developments. Letters written by nurses or fellow soldiers and sent from the front are seen in Kelly’s work as ‘narrative mediation[s]’ of death (13); cinematic narration hints at literary efforts for memorialization and sense-making; and anticipatory narratives of ‘proleptic mourning’ (91) provide a departure from combatants’ writing.

Kelly’s book is a solid, diligent study that provides a narrative history of death while starting from a discussion of basic dualities that have fueled criticism around modernist death, such as the binary of tradition versus change, the division between materiality and spirituality, and the gap between mourning and celebration. Commemorative Modernisms points to a new direction in the humanities, by making the case from the start that you can’t ‘do’ modernism without examining methods of commemoration, sociocultural views, and historical archives: in Kelly’s words, ‘much of what we call modernist experimentation in terms of death can be traced to its specific sociohistorical wartime and postwar context’ (240). The text’s engagement with the material culture of death in the form of newspaper clippings, paintings, letters and diaries brings women’s literary writing together with the ungraspability of World War I trauma, thus merging the material and the abstract aspects of modernism — and of death. Establishing women as commemorative, literary first-aiders, whose narratives were widely read during the war, Kelly demonstrates that nurses’ ‘immediate proto-commemoration’ (40) played a decisive role in the formulation of official modernist World War I discourses. Kelly traces an alternative modernist canon whose narrative topology is a hybrid of domesticity and Victorian traditionalism on the one hand, and elliptical experimentation and despair on the other.


[1] An important study of death and modernism is: Alan Warren Friedman, Fictional Death and the Modernist Enterprise (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995).

[2] Ariela Freedman, Death, Men, and Modernism: Trauma and Narrative in British Fiction from Hardy to Woolf (New York and London: Routledge, 2003), p. 6 ; Julie Goodspeed-Chadwick, Modernist Women Writers and War: Trauma and the Female Body in Djuna Barnes, H.D., and Gertrude Stein (Baton Rouge, LA: Louisiana State University Press, 2011), p. 1.

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