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Review by Rob Spence

Modernism has always resisted precise definition, and in recent years it has been normal in literary-critical circles to use the plural form in order to emphasise the diverse and multi-faceted nature of the term. Equally, a commonplace of criticism has been to emphasise the influence of the First World War on the literature of the time, even in works, such as Eliot’s The Waste Land, that do not specifically address the event. In this important and original new book, Alice Kelly explores how the terrible death-toll of the war reverberated through the work of women writers during and after the conflict. Its object is to “examine the impact of the vast, unanticipated mortality on literary representations of death.” Kelly’s focus is not on the already well-documented and well-discussed evocations of conflict presented by combatants, but rather on the ways in which death was processed by women both close to, and far from the action. In doing so, she suggests persuasively that the way death was depicted was transformed in the writing of the women she studies here, many of them new names to me, and doubtless to other readers.

The central premise, that literary modernism is shaped by its response to the war, is not a new one; but what is exciting and revelatory in this volume is the way in which Alice Kelly carefully details the extent of the transforming power of the representation of death and mourning on the development of modernism in the work of women writers. The female figures in the vanguard of that movement – Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, H.D. – are all represented here, in insightful and sensitive close readings, but Kelly adds an important additional layer , that takes the book beyond the usual confines of literary explication. Adopting an inclusive and wide-ranging approach to her sources, she brings into focus the writings of forgotten observers of the conflict, especially those women who witnessed at first hand the devastation of war.

The three-part structure of the book starts with these testimonies, of those closest to the action: the nurses. These narratives, drawn from published and unpublished accounts by the women who staffed the hospitals both in the war zones and at home, illustrate the enormity of the task that faced them, and their difficulties in dealing with the business of death on a mass scale. Drawn from diaries, reports, hospital records and the like, these accounts are poignantly affecting, their grim routines plainly and honestly told. 

The second part examines writers further distanced from the fighting, whose response to the endless killing was to produce new kinds of literature, often using symbolism to suggest obliquely the ways in which death permeated contemporary culture. This section has some particularly illuminating discussions of Katherine Mansfield’s creative and personal response to the situation.

In the third part, moving further in time from the war, Kelly breaks new ground in her discussion of how the war came to be the subject of new narratives in the rapidly established memorial culture of the post-war world. This is an important and original discussion of the ways in which material culture fed into the work of important women writers such as Virginia Woolf.

I learned so much from this book, and would recommend it to anyone seeking a different perspective on the First World War and its representation in literature and culture. Alice Kelly writes in a direct, unpretentious style, supported by documentary sources and copious illustrations. It is an admirable achievement of scholarship and criticism that may well change the way we think about the “war to end all wars.”

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Rob Spence’s home on the net is robspence.org.uk . You can also find him on Twitter @spencro

Alice Kelly, Commemorative Modernisms; Women Writers, Death and the First World War (Edinburgh University Press, 2020). 978-1474459907, 313pp., hardback.

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