Women's Literature from 1900 to 1960: Impact of the World Wars

views updated



SOURCE: Lassner, Phyllis. "The Quiet Revolution: World War II and the English Domestic Novel." Mosaic 23, no. 3 (summer 1990): 86-100.

In the following essay, Lassner studies the impact of World War II on female British authors, contending that these writers used the conventions of the domestic novel as a filter for their experiences during the war through which they questioned both the domestic and political ideology of war and society.

In her 1982 poem entitled "Picture From the Blitz," Lois Clark commemorated the British women who suffered the loss of their homes while holding down the home front during World War II:

After all these years
I can still close my eyes and see
her sitting there,
in her big armchair,
grotesque under an open sky,
framed by the jagged lines of her broken house.

The English domestic novel similarly survived the Battle of Britain, but its import was equally altered forever by the image of a woman who may have nowhere to go when her home is destroyed. Such a change, however, was not merely the result of physical destruction and dislocation; it also had much to do with the way the war on the home front exposed the relationship between the patriarchal ideologies which informed such novels and the sexual politics which conditioned women's daily lives.

As much recent scholarship has shown, both World Wars I and II had deep and lasting effects on women's lives and consciousnesses. Despite disagreement about whether women's wartime experiences were empowering or dehumanizing, feminist scholars maintain that both wars were conducted by societies "organised on aggressively competitive principles" and that whether women were pacifists or complicit with the patriarchy, this was a "wartime state" (Tylee 200). To collapse the significance of both wars, however, is to overlook an important difference.

At a time when World War II was brought home by "the terrifying whine, of Messerschmitts 110 and 109" (Lister 403), many British women writers recognized that this war was not "only one of a sequence of wars" (Gubar "My Rifle" 228). Indeed, noting that it was "easy enough" to see continuities between the horrors of World Wars I and II, Storm Jameson argued that a terrible singularity pertained to "the cruelties the Nazis practice on Poles, Czechs, Jews, in the name of racial purity and on their own countrymen in the name of order" (Journey 95-96). Recalling how easy it was to be a pacifist in World War I and between the wars, she now reconsiders the cost of saving "the human mind and spirit," and concludes that she cannot, "with the pacifists, cry: Submit, submit. The price was too high; the smell from the concentration camps, from cells where men tortured men, from trains crammed to suffocation with human cattle, choked the words back into my throat" (Journey 6).

In their agony over the targeted destruction of their own homes and families and concern for Nazism's victims outside Britain, many British women writers reconsidered their politics about home and nation. As Catherine Reilly has noted, "the disillusionment engendered" by World War I changed into "a calm acceptance of what had to be done" (Chaos xxii). Despite the death of 60,000 civilians in the 1941 Winter Blitz, personal testimony reveals that "the vast majority of British women wanted no truck with pacifism" (Costello 211). As Angus Calder notes, men and women from different political and economic sectors felt that there was "some purpose in this for almost everyone" (57). Thus Stevie Smith felt justified in railing against the "dream darkness" and "dotty idealismus" of "pan Germanism and Naziism" even while she deplored a history of British imperialism (Over the Frontier 258, Me Again 174). In her review of Vera Brittain's England's Hour, Smith shares Brittain's empathy for victims on both sides of the war, but she is also enraged at Brittain's failure to recognize that the stubborn heroism of a civilian population is a necessary "military weapon" against the German hope to demoralize the British people and make them capitulate (Me Again 176).

Like Stevie Smith, other British women writers have also viewed World War II as a very different experience from the war which was to end all wars. These novels not only address women's unequal status in their own homes; they also challenge the patriarchal state which demands that they cope with food shortages, relocations and deaths for a war effort which also classifies them as "immobile" (Minns 10). In addition, they also share the fear and rage at the ubiquity of Hitler's war expressed by Virginia Woolf, who invokes his name for every mention of "tyranny, the insane love of power" ("Thoughts" 155). Because these women felt that Hitler could not be stopped and their loved ones saved except in a total war, they felt empowered to play an active role and to exercise their own definition of humanity.

Thus these writers were empowered not by the death of men in the battlefield, as Gilbert and Gubar claim (Land 1:67, 2:262), but by their own debates and formation of their own grounds for participating in the war. Instead of complying with men's reasons for war, they formed their own reasons out of their own agonizing experiences. They supported the war effort, not to salvage a pre-war illusion of stability or, as Nancy Huston claims, to produce sons to die valiantly (119), but to be able to have their children join them in redefining home and homeland. Jameson felt that "on what [women] think … depends the future of this land, the future of all the children in it. Let no one tell you what to think. Think for yourself" ("Courage" 15). As a result of thinking for themselves, they were "fighting in the front-line trenches … for the first time in the world" (Bloom 33). By filtering their experience and understanding of World War II through the conventions of domestic novels, they questioned the political ideology of war and its relation to domestic ideology.


INDIRA GANDHI (1917-1984)

One of the world's most powerful women, the late Indian prime minister Indira Gandhi dominated her country's politics for almost two decades before her assassination in 1984. Gandhi owed her start in public life to her illustrious father, Jawaharlal Nehru, India's beloved independence leader and first prime minister, but she quickly proved to be an adroit politician in her own right. Gandhi built a charismatic relationship with the Indian masses in a strongly male-dominant culture and consistently confounded her political opponents, most notably when she regained power with a landslide victory in the 1980 elections after being ousted from office three years earlier by voters opposed to her authoritarian form of government. Gandhi was criticized during her career for lacking a consistent political ideology or clear vision of India's future, but even her detractors acknowledged her achievements in strengthening India as a regional power and keeping her country's chronic religious, ethnic, and separatist tensions in check. Tragically, however, Gandhi's firm response to communal violence ended with her assassination at the hands of Sikh religious extremists avenging her government's assault on a Sikh holy place being used as a terrorist headquarters. Gandhi's life has inspired dozens of biographies, and she wrote her autobiography, My Truth/Indira Gandhi (1981), in addition to numerous collections of political speeches.

At first reading, such novels seem to make a simple substitution to accommodate the war-time situation: the familiar upper-middle-class household is transported to temporary quarters in provincial towns where husbands are attached to military installations. Yet the nostalgia in each of these novels is overlaid with an ambivalence which becomes a political statement as persistent in its call for change as Virginia Woolf's Three Guineas, Storm Jameson's moral fables, and Stevie Smith's nightmare vision.

What happens in these revisionary domestic novels is that in the face of a war on the home front, melancholy yields to a yearning for change, a development which has a revolutionary aspect because it occurs in "the class" that Elizabeth Bowen observed, "in England changes least of all." Her novel of the 1930s, The House in Paris, shows how this world had withstood "the Boer War, the [Great] War and other fatigues and disasters [with] so many opportunities to behave well" (70). The gentle satire in this statement points to a conservatism which fits quite comfortably into the form of the domestic novel. Its model is the irony which drives the novels of Jane Austen. Set within an ideology which "glorified the values of family and home," the ironic twist shows a tempered resistance to "duty, self-sacrifice, and endurance" (Fryckstedt 9). Despite British losses in World War I and economic disaster, the inter-war period was a time of rebuilding a society which still believed it had a shaping role in the world and at home.

With the bombing of the home front, however, gentle satire could no longer hold the center of the domestic novel. The onslaught of World War II destroyed forever the unquestioned assumption that the family home was an inviolate sanctuary preserving universally held values. Death and evacuation forced women to confront disturbances in domestic life which earlier could be managed with humor. As Jane Lewis and others have observed, without the stability secured by an empire still conceived to be viable, the roles of housewife and hostess became noticeably frustrating and constraining (116).

Against this background, domestic fiction is challenged in new ways. Its ideology is exposed as a powerful and negative force in women's lives through a questioning of the idea that a "powerful and rewarding sense of community … and continuity" are "necessary values of the nation in wartime" (Featherstone 156). These values are shown to have had the effect of coercing women into believing that it was best for them to retain their roles as "angels of the hearth" in order to preserve the domestic sanctuary for which their men were sacrificing their lives. Although domestic fiction had inculcated and perpetuated these values even in the quietest times, it took the war to expose the propagandist nature of the genre—to suggest that the message of the domestic novel was no different than that produced by the Ministry of Information. In their revision of domestic plots, women writers discovered that representing the Blitz and evacuation also required the challenging of the old ideologies which assumed that women were "passive, weak and 'naturally' inferior" (Lewis 135). As such, these novels reveal the anxieties behind what Bowen called the "unconscious sereneness" of "living and letting live" (70).

Of the four novels I wish to discuss, The Long View by Elizabeth Jane Howard (1956) is the most radical in form. It dissects a marriage spanning the years 1926-50 by beginning at the moment of its breakup and working backward to the first meeting of Antonia and Conrad Fleming. The novel's startling retrospective plotting dramatizes a view of history as determined and depressing. Written years after the war, the novel suggests that women are necessary and exploited during war but barely relevant afterward. At the same time, however, the perspective created by the narrative structure shows a persistent resistance on the part of these women.

The Long View incorporates the social changes of its time span in the consciousness of Antonia, but because we see her awareness emerging at the beginning of the novel—at the moment when it may be too late to change the direction of her life—we share her entrapment. We are forced to watch her fated development without hope of any literary or social surprises. When it begins, in 1950, the novel depicts a woman's futile efforts to discover and sustain what little sense of self she has grafted from her upper-middle-class life. Looking ahead to her next twenty-five years, she realizes that she has had no "violent facile conviction to support her … no god-like creature brimming with objective love and wisdom to whom she could turn" (34-35). This melancholy view of a woman caught in the stasis which her world takes for stability becomes a challenge to the reader. As we review her life for the past twenty-five years, we also review the social and literary forces which seemed, in the twenties, to promise women self-determination. In the narrative space of Antonia's life, we see how these promises left women wiser but still trapped in domestic space. For the contemporary reader, from the perspective of new promises for women's liberation and of new feminist perspectives on women's writing, Howard's novel is a sobering experience.

The Long View shows the interaction of social and literary experiment with women's psychological, social and literary imprisonment in domestic scenes of the fifties. When the novel begins, the Flemings' marriage has reached the end of a protracted stalemate. When the novel ends by retrospectively returning to 1926, we are thus aware of the doomed nature of Antonia's youthful innocence and open-ended dreams of self-definition. This long and critical retrospective view shows how the curious mixture of idealism and cynicism of the twenties created a bind for female character: whatever highs and lows the world endured, the fates of women in the domestic novel remained bound to the care and feeding of family establishments.

In the time warp of The Long View, all emotional and social modulations are dramatized in terms of domestic conflict. The opening scene, wherein Antonia Fleming views her dinner party as "the kind of unoriginal thought expected of her" (9), makes it clear that the domestic power which enabled Mrs. Ramsey and Mrs. Dalloway to create a moment of harmony has atrophied. Over the long and disastrous course of the Flemings' marriage, woman's domain functions not only as a battleground, but as the sacred fount on which women are worshiped and discarded. They cannot but fulfill and disappoint male fantasies of ageless and infinitely fascinating grace and beauty while they serve as the emotional and social barometer of the hearth. The following exchange between Antonia and her first disappointed and disappointing lover prefigures the categorical distinctions in which a patriarchal ideology has caged the female. When he asserts, "Domestic creatures never have any choice, you see—not like the wild ones," she questions whether it is possible to "divide people up like that," into "Wild, or domestic" (313). Only during World War II, an episode at the formal and thematic center of the novel, is there a possibility for Antonia to define her own responsibilities and thus other categories for female experience.

The second part of the novel, "1942," opens with a domestic scene turned inside out. Harboring various evacuated mothers and children as well as convalescent soldiers, the upper-middle-class home is shell-shocked. One mother, Mrs. Fawcett, is disenfranchised at another angel's hearth and seems reduced to a parody of a general without a war. "With a kind of expert wildness," she appears to have lost her sanity, her sense of self, as she is forced to give up her own home and become an object in another woman's imprisoning space (72). The repetition of "wildness" to indicate choice is clearly ironic here. As a term which connotes a romantic dream of the free and noble savage, "wildness" typically champions men's yearning for self-discovery but marks women with comparable dreams as deviant. Mrs. Fawcett's wildness, however, like the "unaccountable" Land Girl doing farm work at the Flemings' country house who "exuded sex," represents a rebellion against all the upper-middle-class arrangements of power and order as they originate in the home (73). When Mrs. Fawcett quarrels with the Land Girl and shows her contempt for gentility and cleanliness, she expresses a rage which undoes all the propaganda and myths about the "national characteristic of being magnificent in a crisis" (72).

Another woman billeted with Antonia reverses Mrs. Fawcett's disorder: "Dorothy lived a life dominated by Hitler" and by her wish for his assassination. Within her obsession, however, is a cautionary vision: an omnipotent Hitler whose "fiendish ingenuity" threatens to control Britain (72). Mrs. Fawcett's sense of geo-political disaster inspires Antonia to recognize the oppression within her own home. Driven by her husband's patriarchal imperatives, Antonia develops her own vision through a new sense of community which the historian Eric Taylor calls "the strange sisterhood of war" (34). Like the crazy-quilt mix of women who relocate together in Sylvia Townsend Warner's story "Sweethearts and Wives," it is through the "feminine unreason" of the other women in Howard's novel that Antonia begins to sense her own "frostbitten mind," paralyzed from domestic responsibility (76, 73).

The war mobilizes Antonia's sense of herself by forcing her to enact her desires. She expresses her intense love for her children by keeping them in England against her husband's wishes and she disturbs his compulsive designs for living by taking in evacuees and wounded. When her husband comes home on leave, Antonia turns his accusations of her weak-mindedness against him. At the very moment that she acknowledges his injunction not to "identify [her]self" with the war, she suddenly recognizes that she has betrayed his expectations and discovered her own: "The notion … that perhaps he could not really choose the part she played for him, occurred to balance their uneven intimacy" (84). Making her "political unconscious" conscious (Marcus 58), Antonia speaks and acts in opposition to a husband/commander who has tired of her precisely because she has so completely fulfilled his desire for her and has therefore become for him, "ineffective and improvident" (78). When she makes no move to learn to cook, and even as she succumbs to her husband's embrace, Antonia comes to terms with her own desire and her own vision of this war. Her actions relieve "the selfish private panic" which defined the "frivolous inconsequent dream" of her pre-war life (76).

At this pivotal moment in her marriage, however, with internal and world war threatening her every movement, Antonia sacrifices a sustained enactment of her desires to a futile hope for continuity. The end of the novel retrospectively brings this futility full circle. At a party, Antonia meets the man who is to become her husband. The scene is evocative of popular romance; on the last step of a staircase, a nameless man speaks gently, pronouncing her fate: "'This isn't the end: it may very well be the beginning': and picked up her hand again as though it was a piece of essential equipment without which neither of them could begin to move from the end of the staircase" (352). Like the myths inscribed in "The Sleeping Beauty" or "Snow White," rescue by the prince is predicted by the form.

Howard's tale, however, like her circular staircase, curls back to a beginning which signifies that the prince's rescue, the "beginning" of his tale, is not a journey to happily ever after. If Antonia makes her own destiny by offering her hand, the backward movement of the novel shows how the mixed messages of her traditional background make this inevitable. Even as the wartime experience fostered women's independence, by 1950, when this novel begins, it is clear, as Karen Anderson points out, that the war also "generated confusion, insecurity, and anxiety," out of which grew an "ambivalence" which is no more surprising than "the attempt to reconcile conflicting values and behavior with the strident certitudes of the postwar 'feminine mystique'" (111).

Women's entrapment in the domestic myths legitimized by World War II also forms the center of Betty Miller's novel, On the Side of the Angels (1945). In this work the Carmichael family relocates to a house in a provincial town where the husband serves as medical officer at an army installation. The contrast between the "family life" established among the officer corps and what takes place in the family home provides the method by which Miller creates a scathing critique of the social morality of the English upper middle class and the domestic novel.

War, in On the Side of the Angels, is both an experience and the subject of debate for the two central female characters. Typical of the English novel, two sisters (Claudia and Honor) represent different responses to the dislocations which are exposed at the heart of the English middle-class society. In a "state of perpetual civil war," Claudia is a portrait of ambivalence (99). She is "irritated" by "all this male pirouetting" and by her older married sister's "complacency, accepting everything" (18). Yet despite the fact that she is a teacher of history, its lessons are lost on her when she is seduced into a romance starring a tall, dark commando, the enigmatic Neil Herriot. Claudia searches for her own point of view between two traditional tales which inscribe the constraint of women. Engaged to Andrew, a young man with a weak heart, she is expected to become part of his tradition-bound family home, but in her vision of it as "the future," she is already "opposed" to the "cherished" past" of "the temperate life at Honey-bourne" (23, 72). Although some critics have argued that Miller supports Andrew's attitudes, actually the novel charts Claudia's unsteady course between two positions: Andrew's eloquent arguments about universal emotions becoming war when projected outward and the life or death rhetoric of her impostor commando, Herriot (Cooper, Munich & Squier 17). At the end, Claudia joins Andrew to temper their equally romantic if opposed views of war. This alliance between a man with a damaged heart and a woman who is a "potential source of unrest" reflects a feeling of "affectionate irony" toward the future of their nation (40, 238).

Claudia and her sister struggle against men's stories about war. Unlike Claudia, however, Honor rarely speaks openly for herself, living only in the expectation that she will embroider herself into the texture of a man's world. In the split society of home and army, the home is expected to function like a garage, a place where broken men come to be mended. Miller, however, unearths a conflict between the interests of domestic and army life in the scene where Colin Carmichael, out walking with his Colonel, is "humiliated" by his wife's (Honor's) unexpected presence: "A male world, without loyalties outside the rigid artifact of military life" confronts the housewife's "complacent challenge" (38-39). Burning with shame, Honor becomes aware of her dishonor: her "femininity … the slipshod contours, of all that was inchoate, ununiformed about her: that which was capable of giving offense … to the men before her" (39).

Even categorical distinctions between "domestic" and "wild," between woman as "anarchy" or as mother can be dispensed with here, for the woman does not count; the object of male desire lies well outside the confines of the kitchen garden (72). As Colin vies with Herriot, the imposter, for the Colonel's attentions, it is clear that the family home is only a breeding station for male bonding. Miller shows that what World War II really provided was basically a morally and psychologically justifiable outlet for the reification of a patriarchal society. Nurtured by the family home but free of its constraints, men thrive in the games of war. As Simon Featherstone observes, the community of men who "protect 'the sleeping English hills and fields and homesteads'…is represented as and for England … for a single purpose. The action of gathering together transforms the village community into the 'wartime community', with the effect that traditional values are preserved and even heightened by a new singularity of social and hence national purpose" (156).

Miller's novel shows the casualties of that national purpose and women's redefinition of it. Like Virginia Woolf's angel, Honor is "free" to help herself to scraps "once everyone else was served" (205). She cannot, however, follow Woolf's call in Three Guineas to join a Society of Outsiders. Miller's Honor is in the double bind of wanting to preserve her life with her children while suffering the deprivation it affords. Whereas Woolf declared, "As a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world" (103), Honor's slogan might be, "As a woman I want a country. As a woman my country is the home front."

Honor's performance on the home front, however, is not as compliant as her sister claims, for her "lethargy and benevolence alike, seemed to sanction a certain fertile disorder" (119). Drawn in opposition to Andrew's mother, who "by instinct of class preservation" stands for old values in old domestic novels, Honor disrupts the house she rents from the conservative couple who preserve themselves by moving to a hotel (70). As Honor recognizes the cost of her servitude, she begins to imagine what her country might be like, to feel her husband's absence as "something positive: a leaden weight from the oppression of which she did not know how to escape" (205). At the end of the novel, when Colin calls to say he will be having supper with his Colonel, the narrative focus turns to a child's lead soldier, a "tiny Guardsman, faceless, shouldering resolutely his damaged rifle" (237).

The differing positions of Claudia and Honor intersect with the experience of the war in an incident at the heart of the novel, the shooting down of an enemy plane. As the townspeople bury the German pilot, the only reaction given expression is that of the Carmichael's nursemaid: "Edith, who knew no values, who, solitary, had nothing to lose or gain by the betrayal of her emotions … unguardedly expressed, the very ecstasy of love itself" (161). When Colin accuses her of feeling that "the enemy is really her ally," that she has displaced the hate she must feel for "us all," he exposes the unbridgeable gulf between his experience of war and that of the women. Relying on old categories of them and us, his analysis guarantees that women, like the enemy, are "the other."

The empathy expressed by Edith is similar to that expressed by Margaret Kennedy in her memoir of wartime domestic life, Where Stands a Winged Sentry. Her fears for her children's lives and future led her to recognize the uniqueness of World War II: "We discovered unsuspected passions and loyalties. We realised which things we valued most"; "Surely," Kennedy continues, "[i]t must … be all right to pray that both England and Germany may be delivered from the Nazis" (22). The values Kennedy openly expresses are the same as those which Colin is incapable of reading in Edith or in Honor. These are the values which Honor embodies at the end of the novel, alone, wanting to and having to protect her baby, but representing as well, an empathetic commitment to a relationship which defines family and homeland in opposition to her husband. Susan Suleiman sees such an opposing force as figured in terms of "the mother's body … a place of disorder and extreme singularity in relation to the collective order of culture" (368). In this sense, Honor's "absent and rapt" oneness with her baby is not in the service of patriarchal war but, in its expression of love and empathy, in opposition to it (238). According to Suleiman, the mother's body must also be "the link between nature and culture, and as such must play a conserving role" (368). Because the mothers in these domestic novels are confronted with a war on the home front, they are conserving only what they need in order to imagine a culture based on a mother's empathy.

Elizabeth Taylor's At Mrs Lippincote's is another testament to the way definitions of home and homeland are feminized in these wartime domestic novels. The protagonists, Julia and Roddy Davenant, have moved to a rented house in a provincial town near his army base with their son Oliver. Like Honor, Julia discovers through the dislocation of war that the home front is besieged by irreconcilable differences in the couple's expectations of each other and of marriage and family purpose. Like Colin Carmichael, Roddy finds the camaraderie of army life more congenial than family intimacy. Like Honor, Julia "leaves disorder" in her wake and is challenged by the different vision of another woman relative, Roddy's cousin Eleanor (6).

As in Miller's novel, in At Mrs Lippincote's the contiguous communities of home and army are seen to reflect an uneasy alliance, a cold war which questions the purpose of a nation. Through the expression of power and patriotism represented by army life, women are shown to be manipulated into believing that they must repress their needs for individuation and submit to the higher purpose of protecting the nation.

At Mrs Lippincote's is structured as a process of Julia awakening to her individuality by testing herself against women's traditional roles. A wife and mother, she has "no life of her own, all she could hope for would be a bit of Roddy's—" (20). Moreover, she is responsible for weaning her son from the intimacy they share and grooming him for the higher purposes of the world she cannot enter: "Could [Julia] have taken for granted a few of those generalizations invented by men and largely acquiesced in by women (that women live by their hearts, men by their heads, that love is woman's whole existence and especially that sons should respect their fathers), she would have eased her own life and other people's." Julia's lot is therefore not an easy one because she makes a revolutionary discovery, that "I love myself" (26).

One way Taylor dramatizes Julia's development is by having her read earlier women's novels. In order to assess the governing conventions of her life, Julia must become a critical reader, reinterpreting the conventions of romance and realist fiction. At first, Julia passively responds to Jane Eyre as romance. Feeling oppressed and in need of rescue, she identifies the Wing Commander who befriends her as Mr. Rochester. Only when she decides to leave her house for a walk by herself does she recognize the potentially transformative aspects of Bronte's text. Thus when she and the Wing Commander compare recipes from favorite novels, Julia is able to express her preference for the boeuf en daube from To the Lighthouse, a text which he finds too modern. Similarly just as she comes to see the tropes of rescue tales as self-imprisoning, so she later rejects the moral of Flaubert's realist fable: "I never wanted to be a Madame Bovary. That way for ever—literature teaches us as much, if life doesn't—lies disillusion and destruction. I would rather be a good mother, a fairly good wife, and at peace" (204). Such an alternative, however is equally self-defeating.

As Nancy Armstrong has observed, Taylor's novel suggests that domestic fiction is a successful form of those chapbooks that prescribe the formation of female character according to traditional codes of conduct. Domestic fiction appeals to women readers in a self-justifying way: it inscribes a romance that conforms to beliefs women have internalized about needing "to be brave and competent, look their best and stand by—or possibly behind—their men. Family life must be held together …" (Waller & Vaughan-Rees 13). In wartime, the message is as loud and clear as a poster proclaiming "Your courage / Your cheerfulness / Your resolution / WILL BRING US VICTORY" or the Queen's tribute to women's "readiness to serve … the State in a work of great value" (Minns 11, 28). Such propaganda turns out to be just as deadly as either accepting or rejecting Madame Bovary's romantic fantasies and interpreting Jane Eyre's quest for selfhood as a rescue by Mr. Rochester. As she corrects her reading, Julia forms a consciousness which heals what Gilbert and Gubar describe as the split personality imagined by woman writers as a saving grace (Madwoman 16). At the same time that she rejects the Wing Commander's copy of Wuthering Heights as the gift of "an incurable sentimentalist," she also tears up all her letters from Roddy (206). The "borrowed hearth" has shown her that to be its angel, accepting "the little rules" which are supposed to keep the nation safe, has been like "skat[ing] on thin ice" (214, 105, 213).

Julia's growing opposition to Roddy parallels her antipathy toward his cousin Eleanor. A romantic who would like to see Lord Byron in the sickly Mr. Aldridge, Eleanor's odyssey comes to a dead end. Despite her view of Mr. Aldridge's communist cell as courageous and interdependent, Eleanor finds herself "bored" and "depressed" with its "courage" and "interlaced" lives. Likewise, her idealization of Roddy as "always braver and nobler" leads to devaluing herself and feeling "shut away in [the] air-tight compartments" of his home (126, 123). Frustrated finally by the failure of her romantic vision, she explodes. Like the evacuees in The Long View, and like the war itself, her rage exposes the emotional isolation of middle-class women. Projecting her anger onto her sister-in-law, Eleanor accuses Julia of being responsible for Roddy's infidelities, but in so doing, she forces Julia to express her own anger, which she had denied for the sake of stability.



Launched by Margaret Anderson in 1914, the Little Review was a monthly avant-garde magazine of literature and the arts. Anderson founded the magazine to "reach people with ideas" and to "offer the best conversation the world has to offer." The magazine was successful, making literary history with almost every issue, publishing the new, the provocative, and the untried, including work by writers Sherwood Anderson, Ernest Hemingway, T. S. Eliot, Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams, Gertrude Stein, and Jean Cocteau. Anderson, an ardent feminist, also used the Little Review to espouse the cause, by publishing or reviewing the works of Olive Shreiner, Emma Goldman, and other feminists of the early twentieth century.

The most familiar and noteworthy achievement of the Little Review was its serialization, beginning in 1918 with James Joyce's Ulysses. Declared obscene, four issues of the Little Review in which Joyce's work appeared were burned by the United States Postal Service, and Anderson and her associate editor, Jane Heap, were convicted of obscenity charges. The magazine became a quarterly in 1921, the year of the obscenity charges, and appeared at irregular intervals thereafter. Anderson moved the magazine to Paris in the early 1920s and by 1929, faced with continual financial struggles and weary of the magazine, allowed its demise.

Julia's refusal to acquiesce to "the little rules" which unify the life of a house signals the breakdown of the power of domestic ideology (105). Seeing through the myths of home and hearth gives her the critical language to dissect the romantic legends which keep women in their separate sphere. Written at the end of the war, the novel marks an important rupture in an ideology which had assumed immense power over women's lives. Jane Lewis describes the contradictory message involved here for middle-class women: having won more mobility, legal freedom and increased expectations of sexual pleasure by World War II, they had also to yield to "staunchly defended strict separation of spheres" (135-36). As in Miller's novel, however, the maternal sphere here is also a saving grace. Only Julia can save her son from the lingering illness which, like the war, he inherits from his father. If it turns out that Oliver is not "good at games," that is, his father's war games, it is because of his mother's tutelage (31).

If Julia, like Honor and Antonia, cannot begin to imagine alternatives for herself outside the domestic sphere, it is because in a total war these women are able to rebel enough to recognize a newly developed sense of themselves, but not enough to threaten the fabric of a nation that they would like to save for their children. In their unhappiness and self-recognition, the war also assumes a different meaning for these women. It is no longer about global domination, but about the sharing of power which begins in the family home.

One Fine Day (1946) by Mollie Panter-Downes presents the English domestic scene in the form of a bittersweet elegy to values which had to be disturbed. The war cannot be viewed as a passing disruption, but as the external correlative of a society endangered from within. As Stephen and Laura Marshall try to adjust to their different expectations when he returns from the war, the assumptions which kept them mutually dependent before are exposed as anomalies. The props supporting a privileged society tumble when women, like the servant class, are shown to share an awakening self-consciousness about a need for self-definition. They discover life outside the "domestic chalk line." Panter-Downes uses a wealth of domestic detail to inscribe women's experience of stifling sameness "bound to the tyranny of [the] house" (45). In contrast with its now undomesticated, wild garden and with Barrow Down to which Laura briefly escapes, the house is shown to be crumbling as a result of husband and wife being at odds with its imperatives.

The post-war period of One Fine Day reels from the battles of domestic life exposed by the war. The rationing which shapes English life after the war becomes a metaphor for the emptiness Laura feels in attempting to rebuild a sense of stability and continuity in her home. Like The Long View, One Fine Day looks backward and forward, but just as it follows a sequential line from past to future, it is also more optimistic. In 1946, shortly after the end of the war, there is much to look forward to. Yet despite the exclamation that Laura "was feeling so extremely happy" (184), Panter-Downes clearly has reservations: nowhere in this novel is there a sign that women will have more than "dead food" to nourish their sense of a life outside the family domain (65). Just as Laura's daughter is named Victoria, the traditions of the past have not been destroyed by the war, but "could be seen here as something living which did not stop abruptly, but went on, stretching out to the present, on into the future" (110). Unlike the satiric domestic scenes in Evelyn Waugh's Put Out More Flags, these novels see nothing funny about the role of tradition in women's lives on the home front. Panter-Downes sees tradition as a pressure on women to keep "The British Empire [which] seemed to have contracted into the modest white house" from turning to "dust and ashes" (73, 182).

Yet the potential for change is embedded in Laura's character. Just as she never learns how to dust, so she possesses a nature always in conflict with domesticity. Like Antonia's recognition of her own desires, Honor's affirmation of mother love, and Julia's critical reading, Laura is envisioned as a woman contained in her own becoming.

All four novels present ambivalence as a first step toward the possibilities for change in English domestic society. Basically this ambivalence takes the form of juxtaposing mothers who recognize their exploitation but adhere quietly to their family responsibilities with "wild women" and those who explode in protest. Yet, ambivalence is also portrayed in the mothers themselves, who at each novel's end are seen managing their domestic duties, but whose sense of a blunted self is abetted by the urgent need to save their children from the very real horrors that Audrey Beecham images in her poem, "Eichmann":

incense of Belsen is stench in the nostrils of heaven
Ashes of Ravensbruck idly drift over the air
Lightly touch down in the teacups of innocent parties
Dusting with grey the blondest of teenage-dyed hair.

Far from being indicative of passive maternal impulses, the concern in these novels with the victims of war is a sign of "subjectivity, agency, or initiative" (Greene 8).

In these novels mothers act on several fronts at once. They hold down the home front in order to protect their children, but like Honor, they also protest the war by redefining domestic priorities as a commitment to an interdependent love which they hope will reshape the core of their nation: "It was as if the focus of peace that was Honor with the child at her breast, deepening, permeated the whole house: as if from her body there radiated a beneficent influence which … was detected by senses that were incapable at the same time of recognizing its source" (232). This is not a "mother who is overly invested in her child, powerless in the world," the figure whom contemporary feminists worry about (Greene 8). This is a woman whose definition of family and nation represents both an alternative to war and her own reasons for holding down the home front. Rosamond Lehmann's story, "When the Waters Came," dramatizes the way motherhood provides initiative to reimagine a nation's fate. Imagining the flood epic as a domestic tale of World War II casts a woman in the role of transforming natural and political disaster into a vision of regeneration. When the earth thaws after an ice storm which deadens the earth, a mother saves her drowning daughter and, in so doing, saves her world.

Thus instead of being an anti-liberationist factor, "the physical and emotional experience of motherhood and of maternal love" becomes the means whereby women realize that they have been exploited by a patriarchal order which must be reimagined in order to save what they value (Suleiman 370). In her agony over the war, Margaret Kennedy embeds political protest in an expression of maternal love: "The future of all these children, of all the children in the world perhaps, is in the balance.…There has never been any moment quite like this before in the whole of history … and we have no power, no power, to save them from a most hideous fate. We can only wait for tomorrow" (104). To wait may seem passive and compliant, but as a position which holds the ground supporting the lives of children, it holds fast against internal as well as external dangers.

Ambivalent and complex, the women in these novels interrogate what feminist critics point to as "the essentialist assumptions" of the conventional war text (Cooper 15). In their redefinitions of the home front, they can not be reduced to either apolitical nurturing figures or politically compliant victims of culture. These women struggle to distinguish their idea of home and family from that which they inherited or married. They represent the reconstruction of female character in the course of an historical crisis their writers recognized as threatening to the lives of women and their children, both of whom are the keys to change.

Works Cited

Anderson, Karen. Wartime Women: Sex Roles, Family Relations and the Status of Women During World War II. Westport, CT: Greenwood, 1981.

Armstrong, Nancy. Desire and Domestic Fiction: A Political History of the Novel. New York: Oxford UP, 1986.

Beecham, Audrey. "Eichmann." Reilly 17.

Bloom, Ursula. "Courage." Women in Wartime: The Role of Women's Magazines 1939-1945. Ed. Jane Waller and Michael Vaughan-Rees. London: Optima, 1987. 33.

Bowen, Elizabeth. The House in Paris. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987.

Calder, Angus. The People's War: Britain 1939-45. London: Cape, 1969.

Clark, Lois, "Picture From the Blitz." Reilly 27.

Cooper, Helen, Adrienne Munich, and Susan Squier. "Arms and the Woman: The Con[tra]ception of the War Text." Arms and the Woman: War, Gender, and Literary Representation. Ed. Helen Cooper et al. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 1989. 9-24.

Costello, John. Love, Sex and War: Changing Values 1939-45. London: Collins, 1985.

Featherstone, Simon. "The Nation as Pastoral in British Literature of the Second World War." Journal of European Studies 26 (1986):155-68.

Florence, Mary Sargant, Catherine Marshal, C. K. Ogden. Militarism Versus Feminism: Writings On Women and War. Ed. Margaret Kamester and Jo Vallacott. London: Virago, 1987.

Fryckstedt, Monica C. "Defining the Domestic Genre: English Women Novelists of the 1850's." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 6 (1987): 9-25.

Gilbert, Sandra M., and Susan Gubar. The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination. New Haven: Yale UP, 1979.

——. No Man's Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century. 2 vols. New Haven: Yale UP, 1988, 1989.

Gubar, Susan. 'This Is My Rifle, This Is My Gun: World War II and the Blitz on Women.' Behind the Lines: Gender and The Two World Wars. Ed. Margaret Randolph Higonnet et al. New Haven: Yale UP, 1987. 227-59.

Greene, Gayle. "Family Plots." The Woman's Review of Books 7 (1990): 8-9.

Howard, Elizabeth. The Long View. London: The Reprint Society, 1957.

Huston, Nancy. "The Matrix of War: Mothers and Heroes." The Female Body in Western Culture. Ed. Susan R. Suleiman. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1986. 119-36.

Jameson, Storm. "In Courage Keep Your Heart." Waller and Vaughan-Rees 14-15.

——. Journey From the North II. London: Virago, 1984.

Kennedy, Margaret. Where Stands a Winged Sentry. New Haven: Yale UP, 1941.

Lehmann, Rosamond. "When the Waters Came." Wave Me Goodbye: Stories of the Second World War. Ed. Anne Boston. London: Virago, 1988. 1-5.

Lewis, Jane. Women in England 1870-1950: Sexual Divisions and Social Change. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1984.

Lister, Elizabeth. "Goering and Beethoven." The Listener 18 Sept. 1941: 403.

Marcus, Jane. "The Asylums of Antaeus. Women, War and Madness: Is There a Feminist Fetishism?" The Difference Within: Feminism and Critical Theory. Ed. Elizabeth Meese and Alice Parker. Philadelphia: Benjamins, 1989. 49-84.

Miller, Betty. On The Side of The Angels. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Minns, Raynes. Bombers & Mash: The Domestic Front 1939-45. London: Virago, 1980.

Panter-Downes, Mollie. One Fine Day. New York: Penguin, 1986.

Reilly, Catherine. Chaos of the Night: Women's Poetry and Verse of the Second World War. London: Virago, 1984.

Smith, Stevie. Me Again: Uncollected Writings. Ed. Jack Barbera and William McBrien. New York: Vintage, 1983.

——. Over the Frontier. New York: Pinnacle, 1982.

Suleiman, Susan Rubin. "Writing and Motherhood." The (M)other Tongue: Essays in Feminist Psychoanalytic Interpretation. Ed. Shirley Nelson Garner, Claire Kahane, and Madelon Sprengnether. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1985. 352-77.

Taylor, Elizabeth. At Mrs Lippincote's. London: Davies, 1945.

Taylor, Eric. Women Who Went to War: 1938-46. London: Hale, 1988.

Townsend, Colin, and Eileen Townsend. War Wives: A Second World War Anthology. London: Grafton, 1989.

Tylee, Claire M. "'Maleness Run Riot'—The Great War and Women's Resistance to Militarism." Women's Studies International Forum 11 (1988):199-210.

Waller, Jane, and Michael Vaughan-Rees. Women in Wartime: The Role of Women's Magazines 1939-1945. London: Optima, 1987.

Woolf, Virginia. Three Guineas. New York: Harcourt, 1966.

——. "Thoughts On Peace In An Air Raid." The Death of the Moth and other Essays. London: Hogarth, 1942. 154-57.


[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]



Noted for her subtle, evocative novels and short stories, Elizabeth Bowen is compared with such novelists of sensibility as Jane Austen, Henry James, and Virginia Woolf. Bowen was born on June 7, 1899, in Dublin, Ireland. After her father was hospitalized with mental illness and her mother died from cancer in 1912, she was sent to boarding school in Kent, England, and later to the London Council School of Art, which she left after two terms in 1919. It was during this period, when she was living on her own in London, that Bowen began to write seriously. Her first short story collection, Encounters, was published in 1923. By 1929 she had published two more volumes of short stories and two novels, establishing a rate of production she maintained much of her life. During the 1930s Bowen began to associate with Woolf and the Bloomsbury circle in London. Her experiences living and working as an air-raid warden in the besieged city during World War II inspired what many critics consider her finest short story collection, The Demon Lover (1945), which explores war's insidious effects on the human psyche. She is perhaps best known for her novel The Death of the Heart (1938), and critics point to that phrase as an apt summation of Bowen's recurrent theme: the inevitable disillusionment inherent in human relationships, particularly as innocent characters make the painful passage to experience. Critics praise Bowen for her descriptive, finely pitched style, and they often compare her with Katherine Mansfield for her extreme sensitivity to perceptions of light, atmosphere, color, and sound. Like Mansfield, Bowen is considered expert at presenting the emotional dynamics of a situation and then swiftly illuminating their significance.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]



While much of Muriel Rukeyser's poetry is marked by intense emotion—outrage over social injustices and hope for overcoming them—she is also known for poems about technology and more personal issues, such as motherhood, sexuality, the poetic process, and death. Born in New York City, Rukeyser attended Vassar College, where she co-founded and edited the Student Review, an undergraduate literary magazine that protested the policies of the Vassar Review. As an undergraduate at Vassar, Rukeyser was awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize for her first poetry collection, Theory of Flight (1935). While working at the Student Review, Rukeyser covered the 1932 Scottsboro trial in Alabama in which nine African American youths were accused of raping two white girls. She based her poem, "The Trial," on this experience. Rukeyser supported the Spanish Loyalists during the Spanish Civil war, and was jailed in Washington, D.C., for protesting the Vietnam War. From 1975 to 1976, when she was in her early sixties and in frail health, Rukeyser served as president of the American Center for PEN, an organization that supports writers' rights worldwide. During her presidency, she traveled to South Korea to voice her opposition to the death sentence of poet Kim Chi-Ha. This experience served as the basis of one of her last poems, "The Gates." Though she never identified herself overtly in her writing as a lesbian, many of her poems explore lesbian sexuality and society's resistance to it, and in the primary relationships in the latter part of her life, women played a significant role. Poems like "Despisals" explicitly identify the "despised" in society, including homosexuals, and expose the fear that perpetuates oppression.

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

About this article

Women's Literature from 1900 to 1960: Impact of the World Wars

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article


Women's Literature from 1900 to 1960: Impact of the World Wars