Book Review | Threshold Modernism: New Public Women and the Literary Spaces of Imperial London
Reviewed by Bridget Chalk, Manhattan College
"The dandy, the flaneur, the hero, the stranger—all figures invoked to epitomize the experience of modern life—are invariably male" (Wolff 41). Janet Wolff's famously grim pronouncement about the public invisibility of European women in the late nineteenth century has long served as a baseline understanding of the gendered divides of the modern city and, by extension, modern literature. Elizabeth Evans's new book is the latest to challenge this account by detailing, through a wide range of literary texts and journalism, the way middle-class women newly populated the streets of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century London, generating anxieties and fresh possibilities around women's social roles.
Threshold Modernism argues that women on the streets and in various public and semipublic settings of London constituted "exemplary modern subjects," featured in countless articles, cartoons, stories, plays, and advertisements, who were "crucial to modernist reorientations around urban space" (5, 15). Evans asserts that despite the pervasive presence of middle-class women in public around the turn of century, this new and widespread visibility has not been the subject of sustained critical attention. While valuable work such as Deborah Parsons's Streetwalking the Metropolis (2000), Anna Snaith's Modernist Voyages (2014), and, most recently, Lauren Elkin's popular Flâneuse (2017) have paved new ground in historicizing women's wanderings around modern cities, Threshold Modernisms considers "locations on the threshold between public and private spheres, and the malleable expectations of places in flux, [which] often seemed to promise greater freedoms and opportunities for women" (11). Evans contends that women's visibility in semipublic urban locations gave rise to categorical modes of defining women in both affirmative and constrictive ways; the club, for example, had the potential to spark social and intellectual development, while the girl working in the shop was vulnerable to associations with the prostitute.
Meticulously researched, Evans's book illuminates both well-known and neglected texts to build an archive of commentary on women's visibility and its dynamic consequences for social and psychological life. In this archive, London stands foremost in the discursive imagination as the modern global city sine qua non, broadly diverse with many traces of the far-flung empire. The chapters are studded with maps of Evans's own making that chart the sites inhabited by the characters of the novels under examination, a feature that enriches and spatializes the discussion and creates a literary atlas of turn-of-the-century London. Evans establishes a rich terminology for her study, foremost among which is the "new public woman," a designation tied to but distinguished from the politically progressive "new woman," who was not necessarily associated with public spaces, "and the original 'public woman,' the prostitute" (5). As the book shows, new public women endured close scrutiny and managed their own visibility through what Evans calls "spectacality," or the way in which "women were often active negotiators of the male gaze, a dynamic use of the status of spectacle" (28).
The first two chapters, "Modern Sites for Modern Types" and "Shops and Shopgirls" look closely at specific types of new public women. To begin, Evans gives a broad overview of the many categories of newly visible urban women produced by the late nineteenth century's "shared need to organize, and thereby comprehend, a bewilderingly immense and diverse collection of places and people" (19). In chapter one, Evans considers Manet's well-known painting Un Bar aux Folies-Bergère and the "Sirens" chapter of James Joyce’s Ulysses to analyze the barmaid as a stock figure of modernity, "positioned, even staged, for the public gaze" among a field of intoxicating, consumable commodities (30). Evans reads social and emotional ambiguity in portraits of women serving behind the bar, who were often framed as glamorous sexual objects and disillusioned subjects, representative of the complex negotiation of gender, consumer culture, and respectability that women in public had to perform. More respectable but less definable, the shopgirl was the "most prevalent and persistent" type of new public woman (37), a figure that exemplified "the new emphasis on spectatorship and display, the breakdown of traditional roles and relations organized around gender and class, and the shifting boundaries between public and private spaces—in short, features of modern life" (38). In a series of astute analyses of women characters working in retail by Henry James, Amy Levy, and George Gissing, chapter two offers an illuminating exploration of the energies and dynamics of the visual and consumer capitalist economy that circumscribed women's opportunities.
Chapter three, "Streets and the Woman Walker," focuses on H.G. Wells's Ann Veronica and Virginia Woolf's urban writing, particularly Night and Day and The Years. Evans makes the case for an important continuity in the representation of women's urban vulnerability and opportunity between the two authors, contrary to the notorious distinction in sensibility issuing from Woolf's dismissive discussion of Wells in "Modern Fiction." These novels demonstrate the degree to which "street-walking" women, or les flâneuses, function as both spectators of the city scene and signs to be read and consumed by the public gaze. Chapter four, "Women's Clubs and Clubwomen" takes up the phenomenon of British women's clubs, which, as Evans points out, have "astonishingly" been completely erased from accounts of the period, despite their thriving presence for activists and shoppers on the London scene (152). While Dorothy Richardson "exposed limits to…[the] radical promise" of the clubs, the Jamaican writer Una Marson showed that the progressive and liberal politics of women's clubs "upheld imperial notions of racial and colonial dependence" (178).
In many ways parallel to the women newly populating the byways, shops, and restaurants of London, colonial émigrés to the city occupied marginal positions, observing carefully the wonders of the imperial capital they had been taught to revere while being surveilled themselves. Chapter five, "New Public Women Through Colonial Eyes," not only demonstrates that the positions and experiences of Indian and African writers are similarly liminal to new public women in London around the fin de siècle, but it also makes the important argument that the postwar Windrush generation, considered the beginning of Black British writing, actually followed on a robust body of writing in multiple genres by figures like A.B.C. Merriman and Duse Mohamed Ali (226). This chapter makes a compelling connection between the forms of alienation and surveillance experienced by new public women and colonial travelers to the imperial capital in its recovery of an archive of early twentieth-century anticolonial writing by African and Indian writers. In essays, memoirs, and fiction that provide a model for what Evans calls "reverse imperial ethnography," the chapter traces the racism permeating the streets of London, a subject so often elided in accounts of urban high modernism.
Threshold Modernism makes several significant interventions in our understanding of the modernist imperial city, particularly by emphasizing how gender and race, as well as class and sexuality, determined urban experience. In contending that "new public women" embody central preoccupations of modernity, Evans skillfully elucidates the specific modes of "scopic discipline" on the one hand, and liberatory agency on the other, associated with various types of women and the spaces they inhabited in the city. Evans's book will no doubt prompt productive reassessments of other women characters populating modernist London, like Forster's Schlegel sisters rushing off to their next club meeting while stressing about real estate, Eliot's typist, Mansfield's unhappy wives and desperate working women, and so many more. Threshold Modernism plots the sites and routes of the new public woman and asserts her centrality to urban modernism.
Wolff, Janet. "The Invisible Flâneuse: Women and the Literature of Modernity." Feminine Sentences: Essays on Women and Culture, Polity Press, 1990, pp. 34–50.
Disclosure: This review was commissioned prior to the author of the book under discussion taking on the role of Book Review Editor for The Space Between. The Editor of the journal managed the editorial process for this particular review, including all communication with the reviewer, in order to avoid any conflict, or the appearance thereof.