The Space Between: Literature and Culture 1914-1945

Book Review | Rural Modernity in Britain: A Critical Intervention

Rural Modernity in Britain: A Critical Intervention. Edited by Kristin Bluemel and Michael McCluskey. Edinburgh University Press, 2018. xii + 302 pp. £24.99 (paperback); £80.00 (hardback); £24.99 (eBook [ePub]); £80.00 (eBook [PDF]).

Reviewed by Luke Seaber, University College London

In their introduction to the fifteen chapters of their edited collection, Rural Modernity in Britain, Kristin Bluemel and Michael McCluskey write that the “overarching goal of this project is to promote rural people and places as important yet often-ignored subjects for studies of British modernisation, modernism and modernity” (1). It succeeds in this aim triumphantly. The editors are quick to suggest, as the chapters will go on to demonstrate, that “‘rural’ and ‘modern’ should not be seen in opposition but rather as two terms relating to a vital relationship,” but the title—unavoidably, perhaps, given the exigencies of modern academic publishing and its focus on keywords and their searchability—suggests a narrower focus than the book in fact has (2). To speak of the rural is also to speak of that urban with which it necessarily exists in a dyad (as well, perhaps, as part of a yet more interesting triad with the suburban); “rural modernity” suggests to some extent a level of specialization, of partialness, that is not in fact true of this volume. Modernity is being looked at here as much as the rural is, and this is a book that should be read by anyone with interest in Britain in the period, the study of institutions, or the study of networks (to name only those fields of particular interest to the reviewer; there are many others besides), whether or not they have any interest in the rural.

The collection’s broad interdisciplinary range means that different readers will necessarily focus on different elements, and this review should be taken as doing that. The interdisciplinary range is shown, for example, by Ysanne Holt’s chapter, with its focus on—amongst many other things—textile manufacturing, or Rosemary Shirley’s on the visibility of electrification technologies in rural landscapes. This is also a volume truly on British modernity: this is not just about England. For example, Chris Hopkins’s chapter “Hiareth and Ambiguous Pastorals: Wales, England and Rural Modernities between the Wars” and Nick Hubble’s “Transformative Pastoral: Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair” point to how pleasingly non-Anglocentric the focus of this book is, at least geographically. Linguistically, the book does remain Anglocentric, however. Although Hubble, through a quotation from Gibbon, does make some reference to Scots (153-4), Britain’s other rural languages are rather conspicuous by their absence here in one of the book’s few real lacunae. There is no discussion of Gaelic, and Hopkins discusses English-language Welsh texts; there is also no mention of the rural phenomenon that was the Cornish language revival that was taking place in this period.

Hopkins’s chapter shows another of the book’s richnesses in its complicating of what (or where) the rural is: the mining country and landscapes of the Rhondda is not what one might think of immediately as “the rural,” any more than is the Italianate fantasia of the Welsh holiday village Portmeirion, but Hopkins demonstrates, just as Nigel Harrison and Iain Robertson do in their chapter on Clough Williams-Ellis, that these places should be discussed as rural sites (and sights). The “rural” need not be limited, should not be limited, to the stereotypically bucolic. Once again, the book’s strength lies in its refusal of the obvious. This can be seen in Samuel Shaw’s chapter on paintings of quarries by various artists (William Rothenstein, Edward Wadsworth, Walter Bell, and others): are quarries rural or industrial, or rural and industrial? They are “Cubism simply waiting to happen” (71), but images of them may also be potentially “romantic, [seeming] at first sight to have been born in the nineteenth century” (69). Here as elsewhere both “rural” and “modernity” are terms the suggested titular certainty of which fades as the various chapters interrogate them. 

The chapter that most encapsulates this complexifying of the book’s own terms, as well as perhaps best encapsulating the project as a whole, is Michael McCluskey’s “Change in the Village: Filming Rural Britain” in its discussion of “village modernity” (34). Its examination of how amateur filmmakers of different sorts—schoolboys, squires, schoolmistresses, and more—used new technologies as conscious agents is brilliantly done, in particular in how it advocates for a reading of these films (and by extension of works of rural intersubjectivity more widely) that allows for local agency. This, refreshingly, includes local humor (that texts of any type may “knowingly wink to a presumed local audience” is something academic analyses have an unfortunate tendency to elide [37]).

The rural, of course, is also a construction of modernity; Bluemel and McCluskey are careful, however, to make sure that their focus is primarily on “examining these [rural] sites and activities from the perspective of those who lived in them, looking ‘out’ towards the urban and suburban areas of Britain with which they were connected” (10). When chapters do look more at cultural productions that are at least as much about the rural as they are of it, they do not accept any simplistic dichotomies or narratives. Dominic Head’s chapter exploring nonfiction by the novelists Doreen Wallace, H.E. Bates, Adrian Bell, Leo Walmsley, and Francis Brett Young is an excellent example of this, examining how the “relationship between the rural, the literary imagination and English heritage needs to be reconsidered in the work of those writers who take their primary inspiration from the rural” (208). These writers’ various ambivalences and complexities show that the relatively standard critical view of the countryside as being in many ways a commodity produced for the city in nature writing, say, is far too simplistic a view. Particularly good is Head’s close reading of scenes from H.E. Bates’s Down the River (1937); this puts the chapter in dialogue with Kristin Bluemel’s on the wood engravings of Agnes Miller Parker, who, in her second collaboration with Bates, illustrated Down the River (95). Bates wrote of how remembered village scenes from his boyhood are also visual clichés, scenes from “third-rate engravers” (212). Bluemel offers a fascinating and rich analysis of the career of one of the greatest of engravers, weaving together Miller Parker’s biography and the rural localities where she lived and worked with close reading of her illustrations. (It would be very rewarding to extend Bluemel’s analysis in light of this volume to Miller Parker’s 1940 illustrations to A Shropshire Lad). It should be noted that the quality of the illustrations—engravings, paintings, photographs, film stills, and more is generally commendably high throughout the volume, and the presence of a color section is welcome (although it would have been nice had all of the paintings and images discussed been reproduced, however unrealistic that wish). 

One of the most “canonical” of the chapters in its focus also looks at images of landscapes, in Eluned Summers-Bremner’s examination of how Paul Nash, David Jones, and Eric Ravilious explore “the condition of being superfluous to oneself as it appears in rural English landscapes” (225). This exciting analysis of such well-known works as Nash’s The Menin Road (1919) or Equivalents for the Megaliths (1935) in its discussion of how war can be a very particular example of modernity’s presence in the rural (and vice versa) is in clear dialogue with Hana Leaper and Polly Mills’s fascinatingly detailed case studies of the murals that the artists living at Charleston in Sussex, such as Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, produced during the Second World War for the nearby Berwick Church. 

The chapters work together as an organic whole, each usefully followed by suggestions of which others it may be in dialogue with, partially due to the editors’ desire that “this volume [also] function as a classroom text, inspiring students…to engage with new materials in the interdisciplinary study of modernity” (14). This laudable aim is achieved, but not only with regards to those in the classroom. One of the book’s great successes—perhaps, ultimately, the most important test for any academic work—is how much it sparks new and exciting trains of thought. For this reader, those thoughts include how the countryside was one of the key sites in Britain for that most modern of technological innovations, aviation (see T.H. White’s descriptions of learning to fly in 1936’s England Have My Bones, where it is clearly seen as a country sport closely akin to hunting); with regards to war as a form of rural modernity, the cultural role of the lines of pillboxes built in various parts of the English countryside as the last line of defense in the case of Nazi invasion; the role not of artists’ colonies but of writers, painters, composers, and others simply on holiday near to each other on the North Cornish coast. Rural Modernity in Britain claims in its subtitle to be “a critical intervention.” It is a key intervention, and its influence deserves to be widely felt.


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