The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Conceiving Strangeness in British First World War Writing

Conceiving Strangeness in British First World War Writing. By Claire Buck. Palgrave Macmillan, 2015. x + 249 pp. $90.00 (cloth).

Reviewed by Ann Rea, University of Pittsburgh—Johnstown

Masterfully overlaying analysis of several genres of writing—including nineteenth-century ethnographic travel narratives, fiction, letters and diaries, and museum exhibitions—Claire Buck’s Conceiving Strangeness in British First World Writing reframes our understanding of the First World War and empire. Meticulously argued, its multiple nuances allow a consideration of canonical texts, retrieved women’s texts, queer texts, first-person accounts by combatants and war workers as well as conscientious objectors, even objects. Buck convincingly demonstrates that our understanding of the First World War itself depends on ethnography to represent the front at home. As she concludes, “The way wartime and post-war writers conceived of Britain as an imperial nation defines how they conceived the war” (193). The book’s revisionist exploration of disparate literary materials dismantles divisions between the domestic space and the front as it dismantles the dichotomy between England and the “strangeness” of the empire.

Travel writing, as one of the forms examined in the book, allows Buck to consider letters from the front written by a regular volunteer as travelogues in order to reframe her analysis of canonical texts. Such texts deemed “canonical” “situate[e] a localized national ethos with Europe as its antithesis,” and from there Buck layers further examination of non-canonical texts, including life writing, that variously dismantle this viewpoint (50). The Grand Tour, which she sees behind many accounts of war experience, evokes a cosmopolitan English sensibility abroad. This sensibility is exemplified by Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of a Fox-Hunting Man, a travel narrative that describes the loss of parochial English innocence situated in a “queer geography that interweaves the strangeness of travel, war, and male same-sex desire” (73). While Edmund Blunden focuses his travel guide on the war’s destruction of European civilization, Enid Bagnold’s The Happy Foreigner’s traveling protagonist is foreign because of gender rather than nationality. Buck argues, furthermore, that Bagnold exposes the “unexplained presence, albeit marginal, of non-English laborers in Masefield, Sassoon, and Blunden,” even as The Happy Foreigner shows “empire as an elided term in those writers’ versions of English cosmopolitanism” (70).  Bagnold’s novel, in Buck’s view, thereby effectively identifies the limits of those writers’ cosmopolitanism (50). Her novel’s European landscape entails loss, but in “travestied forms” of domestic space that promiscuously mix racial and national entities in defiance of “the discourse of nationally discrete borders, peoples, and language” (70). Britons’ perception of the nation as an imperial world power defines the Empire’s First World War writing, which requires reconsideration, Buck argues, towards which end she urges encompassing the participation of colonials, women, and non-combatants, as well as middlebrow and popular culture (2). This reconsideration might facilitate “reframing the heart of British war literature within the context of empire and colonialism” (4).

By examining canonical figures such as John Masefield, Edmund Blunden, Siegfried Sassoon, and Rudyard Kipling in order to reread the canon in its place in Britain’s imperial identity, the book collapses divisions between the home and the front, the empire and the nation (4). Buck demonstrates that in spite of the dependence of British identity upon the spatial distinction between what it perceived as white civilized Europe and the colonies’ non-white spaces, “the war had turned the seemingly bounded space of Europe into an imperial contact zone” by introducing colonial alterity at the front (5). This contact changed those narrow definitions of the European “world” of the war, introducing an awareness of Britain as an imperial nation into war writing, as Buck says, “even when [its] setting is the domestic space of the nation” (4).    

In Conceiving Strangeness, the influence of travel writing on other genres makes the front strange and challenges spatial arrangements of race, a recognition that allows examination of, for example, Kipling’s war stories alongside Mulk Raj Anand’s Across the Black Waters and E.M. Forster’s “Alexandria Vignettes.” Anand’s hybrid of travel and war narratives corrects the imperial sense of the war, inserting the sepoy perspective, while also revealing the imperial spatial logic as its protagonist learns to “disinvest from Europe as the center of civilized values” (34). Anand’s scopic and spatial economy moves the sepoys from objects of the imperialist gaze, granting them scopic control as tourists, which in turn destabilizes distinctions among colonizer and colonized, loyal colonial soldier and rebellious enemy. Continuing her argument about travel writing from Chapter 2 to Chapter 3, Buck shows us that E.M. Forster’s sense of constraint under the Defence of the Realm Act (DORA), on military, colonial, and sexual levels, allows glimpses of Egypt in vignettes that foreground perspective and explore “the homosexual body as a site of resistance to colonial and military regulation” (102).

The starkest challenge to any progressive narrative of the war is Rose Alatini’s Despised and Rejected, banned under DORA, which portrays conscientious objectors’ imprisonment in what emerges as “a closed and impenetrable space, equivalent to the “forbidden zones” of the war front” (145). In defining “dissidence as deviance,” the State prison brings together in a potentially degrading space conscientious objectors, Sinn Feiners, socialists, and “inverts.” Buck shows how the novel links their imprisonment to the pre-war incarceration of suffragettes in a radical imagination of the spatial organization of wartime alterity, albeit one that takes place on the home front.

In the book’s final sections, in particular, women’s narratives about their experience of the war tend to challenge the machinery of war as progressive. Having argued in Chapter 4 that Enid Bagnold’s car serves variously as a liberating emblem of modernity for a woman abroad and as an emblem of “the failure of Europe’s equation of technological advancement with cultural progress,” Buck leads us into the final chapter, “Bringing the War Home: The Imperial War Museum,” which considers commemorative objects in a history of the museum alongside past British exhibitions that celebrated Britain’s industrial prowess (69). This chapter provides a thoughtful analysis of exhibits and their role in “the museum’s struggle to produce a stable and unified vision of the war” (158). Negotiating “the fraught relationship between the object as relic and the object of manufacturing,” the book focuses on how one 1920 exhibition in particular foregrounded women’s war effort in “substitute labor,” which served as a metonym for the Home Front (178, 180). Buck tell us, “It was women’s role in munitions manufacturing that made women the symbolic link between the domestic home front and the war (always happening elsewhere)” (179).

By exhibiting not merely munitions but objects that symbolized women’s participation in the war effort and their patriotic sacrifice, this 1920 exhibition, a “sanctification of women’s war work,” Buck argues, closed the gaps between technology and manufacturing, as well as between the fronts abroad and at home (178). A separate display at the museum’s early venue in Whitechapel commemorated women who died in manufacturing and in other war work, including an affectively powerful memorial to 500 women that did not survive the museum’s move to the Lambeth site in 1936. Buck’s response to this memorial is most touching. She describes reading the letters from bereaved family members who received handwritten letters from the museum requesting photographs for use in the memorial. Buck comments on,

The quality and type of paper, a disregard for the conventions of or signs of discomfort with letter writing, and sometimes errors of spelling and grammar also mark the writer’s class background. Many write about the financial burden that has come with their loss....Portrait photographers are evidently a luxury out of everyday reach for most of the writers. (187-88) 

Buck’s sensitivity to the poignancy of these letters and respect for the lives they evoke appears throughout the book where it considers letters and memoirs from the IWM archives and exemplifies how academics might avoid treating historical subjects as mere grist for the analytical mill. Buck accords these writers the same respect as one might “canonical” figures, holding them equally worthy of consideration. With the added layer of interpretation of the Imperial War Museum’s commemorative efforts, which Buck defines as the means by which the home front assimilated the topographical consideration of the war into the national geography, she acknowledges that the curated objects reminded viewers of their “technological invention, industrial production, and global trade as the undergirding of empire” (154). Noting that the Museum drew attention to the role of women’s work in producing many of the objects on display, Buck sees this as a historiography that incorporates the home front in a war museum that also serves as a war memorial. The book concludes, however, that the museum’s understanding of the war remains unified as “British” without an assimilation of colonial experiences of the war, even if it strives to understand class divisions. Conceiving Strangeness advances that understanding by exposing the centrality of Britain as an imperial power to our narrative accounts of the war.

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