The Modernist Review #30: Modernist Festivities

1 June 2021

If the last year has taught me anything, it’s that festivity is a central way in which we sustain our social relations. In the COVID-19 pandemic, parties have gained new levels of attention in the public sphere, with sociability being policed and politicised. We have seen both the positive and negative effects of this: socially distanced or online parties become warm and fuzzy news items, while superspreader events become sources for opprobrium and outrage.

Of course, so many moments of celebration have simply gone uncelebrated during this time, too. In March 2020, I submitted my thesis on parties the same day that gatherings of over ten people were banned where I live; being denied the opportunity to party after three years of studiously forgoing parties in favour of writing about them seemed plain cruel. Landmark birthday and anniversary celebrations are skipped over while university students mark the end of their degrees through laptop screens. We’ve been starved of intimate, tactile connection—a deprivation that may very well have lasting impacts on how we party in the future, with the Washington Post recently speculating that we’re ‘heading for a post-pandemic “Roaring 2020s,” with parties and excess’.[1] (Spoiler alert: the first attempt at this in the 1920s didn’t go too well, so maybe we should explore other options.)

While a partyless or partylite pandemic world was a new experience for us, it has happened before—and it happened to the modernists. Newspaper articles from the United States in late 1918, for example, show how the influenza pandemic interrupted partygoing. ‘A DRASTIC BAN IS ON’, proclaimed the Kansas City Star in October, announcing that ‘All Gatherings of 20 or More Persons, Including Parties, Weddings, and Funerals Prohibited’.[2] On Halloween, the mayor of Denver, W. F. R. Mills, stated that ‘Halloween parties are taboo, as are all other indoor gatherings, as the danger of the spreading of the influenza is still great’.[3] In November, the State Board of Health in Nebraska asked that ‘THANKSGIVING PLANS BE RESTRICTED’ to stop the spread of illness.[4] A few days after Thanksgiving, the Ohio State Journal noted ‘27 ILL AS A RESULT OF HOLIDAY PARTY’, after ‘[a]n elderly Columbus woman […] invited her seven sons and daughters, all married, to a Thanksgiving dinner’.[5] These articles demonstrate the alluring pull of festivity—the tension between obeying government regulations and connecting with old and new faces.

Perhaps the reason we’ve missed parties so much, then, is because of their jouissance, their opportunities for satisfying social mixing, their frivolity and fizzing energy. But maybe we’re just getting a bit misty-eyed and nostalgic, viewing festivity through a rose-tinted lens. Pick up a modernist (or modernist-adjacent) text featuring a festive event or two, and it’s unlikely that the affective landscape is always this pleasurable or stable. In To the Lighthouse (1927), Mr Ramsay’s ‘anger fl[ies] like a pack of hounds’ when Augustus Carmichael asks for a second bowl of soup at dinner;[6] Nick Carraway feels ‘unpleasantness in the air, a pervading harshness’ at one of the many Saturday night parties in The Great Gatsby (1925);[7] and there are some genuinely dreadful parties in novels that satirise the Bright Young People, like Evelyn Waugh’s Vile Bodies (1930) and Anthony Powell’s Afternoon Men (1931).

As Kate McLoughlin writes in the introduction to the 2013 edited collection The Modernist Party, ‘the party of the modernist period […] fragments, like so many other phenomena, into diversity’.[8] This month’s bumper special issue certainly demonstrates the varied ways in which the modernists partied, with each article bringing new perspectives to the way we understand these festivities.

In British Vogue in 1930, the American society hostess Elsa Maxwell wrote that hosting a successful party is like the ‘baking of a wonderful soufflé—the ingredients and proportions must be weighed and measured by the hand of an artist’.[9] Modernist parties often dwell on these components: the venue, guest list, entertainment, food and drink, dress code. The spaces and places of festivity are the focus of Lucas Townsend’s piece on Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock. Surveying the novel’s scenes in pubs, bars, nightclubs, and roadhouses, Townsend suggests that the novel ‘depicts an uncomfortable connection between self-indulgent modernist festivity and vanishing tradition’. While Townsend tours through festive spaces, Samuel Love turns to the otherworldly, exploring festivity’s potential for eeriness through an analysis of Eric Ravilious’s painting November 5th, 1933. Love presents Ravilious’s Bonfire Night scene as embodying ‘Eerie England’, arguing the painting depicts ‘the haunted nature of England reassert[ing] itself through the ritualistic behaviour of a festival’.

Parties themselves can be haunting, having long-term effects on feelings and relationships far beyond their original occurrence. This makes them critical scenes in literary texts for advancing plot. In modernist fiction, parties are often sites of intense realisation, crisis, or resolution. The party’s potential as a plot device is taken up by Charlotte Hallahan in ‘Death Comes to the Party: Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway’. Examining one of modernism’s most famous parties, Hallahan argues that Clarissa’s dinner party operates both as an event that connects Septimus Smith’s death to Clarissa’s rebirth and as a realisation of ‘the novel’s narrative desire’.

This ‘death in life’ is also the focus of Jonathan Ellis’s essay, ‘Katherine Mansfield’s Meringues’. Reading Mansfield’s short story ‘The Daughters of the Late Colonel’, Ellis ponders how meringues served at an awkward afternoon tea come to represent ‘the sickly spoils of colonial conquest’. Sasha Clarke continues the special issue’s interest in Mansfield’s festive food by viewing ‘Bliss’ through a Freudian lens. In ‘Freud in the Soup: Implications of Hysteria in Katherine Mansfield’s “Bliss”’, Clarke considers how Mansfield’s dinner party food reveals the ways in which ‘modernist attitudes toward sexuality, integrity, and science are both fed and starved’.

Despite the lasting impact parties can have on plots and lives, festivity is also often ephemeral, fleeting. Unless we’re in attendance ourselves, what we usually see of parties is what’s left behind: empty bottles and cups, soggy streamers, overexposed Polaroids scattered on the floor (or perhaps less romantically, Instagram stories viewed through bleary eyes the next morning). The photograph’s potential to document parties of the past is explored in Kevin Riordan’s essay on the ‘extended pose’ of modernism. In examining how Amanda Lee Koe’s novel Delayed Rays of a Star charts the lives of Marlene Dietrich, Leni Riefenstahl, and Anna May Wong ‘across a photographic century’, beginning with a photo of them together at a party in 1928, Riordan asks us to consider how we ourselves pose modernist figures, ‘both alone and together’.

Eleanor Jones likewise uses photographs of parties in her reconstruction of fashion historian Doris Langley Moore’s participation in the Bright Young People’s parties of the 1920s and 30s. While Langley Moore is typically left out of histories of the Bright Young People, Jones shows how the group’s parties—and the interwar era’s broader obsession with festive fashion—actively ‘incubated’ Langley Moore’s lifelong fascination with dress history. Jones’s article also reveals the centrality of the tabloid magazine to our understanding of parties in the early twentieth century, so it’s fitting that Jennifer Cameron’s review of Alice Wood’s Modernism and Modernity in British Women’s Magazines features this month. Wood’s book traces the intersections between modernism and print culture in interwar Britain, reminding us how materials like magazines are valuable sources for the researcher seeking to understand the historical specificities of festive events.

One of the great joys of modernist texts is their ability to take on new meanings as we relate them to current contexts. In ‘Party Going in a Pandemic’, Thomas J. Sojka contemplates the parallels between Henry Green’s darkly comic 1939 novel and living through COVID-19. In Green’s novel, a group of partygoers hole themselves up in a hotel at Victoria Station after fog cancels all train services. As Sojka asks, how might we respond when our own fog lifts? Will it be a ‘Roaring 2020s’ like the Washington Post suggests, or will it be more akin to what happened the month that Party Going was published—a war?

Thanks to Bryony, Gill, Emily, Jennifer, and Josh for letting me gatecrash this month and being such hospitable hosts by shepherding this special issue through its various stages. Depending on where you are in the world, you may not be able to party in person just yet, but I hope the articles here show that the party always finds a way to go on. 

Eliza Murphy, University of Tasmania


Sources:

[1] Marlene Cimons, ‘Are We Heading for a Post-Pandemic “Roaring 2020s,” with Parties and Excess?’, Washington Post, 28 March 2021 <https://www.washingtonpost.com/health/social-distance-covid-getting-closer/2021/03/26/61962630-8693-11eb-bfdf-4d36dab83a6d_story.html&gt; [accessed 20 May 2021]

[2] ‘A Drastic Ban is On’, Kansas City Star, 17 October 1918, p. 1.

[3] ‘Halloween Parties Taboo as Flu Spreads Thru City’, Denver Post, 30 October 1918, p. 12.

[4] ‘Asks Thanksgiving Plans Be Restricted’, Omaha World-Herald, 28 November 1918, p. 2.

[5] ‘27 Ill as a Result of Holiday Party’, Ohio State Journal, 5 December 1918.

[6] Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse, ed. by David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006), p. 78.

[7] F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby (London: Penguin, 2000), p. 100.

[8] Kate McLoughlin, ‘Introduction’, in The Modernist Party, ed. by Kate McLoughlin (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2013), pp. 1–24 (p. 2).

[9] Elsa Maxwell, ‘Farewell to This Season’, in Food in Vogue: Six Decades of Cooking and Entertaining, ed. by Barbara Tims (London: Harrap, 1976), pp. 60–61 (p. 60).

Cover image: Hermann Scherer, Party in the Studio (1925)

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