Review: Edwardian Radicals and Literary Modernism

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Anne Fernihough, Freewomen and Supermen: Edwardian Radicals and Literary Modernism (Oxford University Press, 2013)

Flicking through the suffragist journal Votes for Women (1907-1918) today, a striking feature is the amount of space dedicated to advertisements for suffragist merchandise. ‘Wonderful Bargains in Electioneering Gowns’, announces an advertisement from January 1910, listing dresses with such names as ‘The Mildred’, ‘La Russe’, and ‘The Moscow’. In later issues there are suffragist banners, items of jewellery, and, perhaps most delightfully, Christmas crackers in suffragist colours (one wonders at the gifts and jokes they may have contained). Such merchandise, of course, helped to raise valuable funds and broaden the profile of the cause; harder to explain are the advertisements for ‘yougourt agents’, with accompanying articles extolling the health benefits of this vegetarian food. At first glance these advertisements can appear rather anachronistic: yogurt is hardly a convenient snack to take on a march, and does not obviously signify one’s suffragist allegiance in the same way as a ‘Votes for Women!’ pendant in purple, white and green. Yet during the Edwardian era radical politics and a healthy diet were often part and parcel of the same thing: a desire to attain an apparently higher, more evolved and more humane state of being.

The relationship between progressive thinking and individual development is the subject of Anne Fernihough’s exciting new study, Freewomen and Supermen: Edwardian Radicals and Literary Modernism. Fernihough’s book contributes to the burgeoning field of scholarship about the Edwardian cultural-political climate, re-examining the familiar coalition of figures centred around Dora Marsden, editor of the Freewoman (later the New Freewoman and the Egoist) and A. R. Orage, editor of the New Age. Freewomen and Supermen reveals how the Edwardian era didn’t unfold languidly during one long garden party, but rather played out in a lively, politicised fashion across the metropolis and the pages of radical literature.

While purporting to be anti-intellectual, the radicals of Fernihough’s study were inspired by high-brow thinkers such as Friedrich Nietzsche and Henri Bergson. Fernihough explores how Marsden, Orage and their circle were particularly inspired by the Nietzschean concept of the Übermensch, or overman, an individualist philosophy that stressed the limitless capacity of individual, as well as by Bergson’s ‘vitalist’ discourses, which, Fernihough explains, ‘seemed to point to teleological and holistic properties of life which could not be explained in [rationalist] terms’.  Thus the freewomen and supermen of Fernihough’s title were inspired to do away with convention, from nuclear families to traditional schooling, seeking instead to forge new models of gender relations and new forms of ontology. This anti-intellectual and anti-conventional stance was often, Fernihough points out, anti-democratic and elitist, not least because the very concept of the Übermensch required a contrasting Untermensch, or ‘underling’ against which to flourish (it is worth noting that Marsden was anti-suffrage on a similar basis, viewing the preoccupation with suffrage as a red-herring: her ideal ‘freewomen’ were focussed on higher concerns). Fernihough is excellent at teasing out the contradictions between these thinkers’ progressive ideals on the one hand and their reactionary attitudes on the other, reminding the modern reader that during the 1900s ‘progressive ideologies’ such as socialism and feminism ‘were self-divided and politically unstable, pointing towards left and right’ in ways that can seem baffling to us today. Fernihough’s is a nuanced and historically-attuned study, and she is particularly impressive when charting the incongruities and developments of particular individual’s ideologies across the period.

Freewomen and Supermen also provides an important reminder of the need to challenge conventional historiographical narratives that have tended to look upon the Edwardian era as a coda between the Victorian age and the modernist period. Fernihough provides us with an ‘aube-de-siècle’ Edwardianism that was forward-looking rather than nostalgic. While this aube-de-siècle has been considered by historians such as Lucy Delap, Fernihough points out, it has received less attention in literary history, where the fin-de-siècle remains the dominant concept when thinking about turn-of-the-century artistic and literary culture. This focus on a fin- rather than an aube-de-siècle has obscured the ways in which Edwardian artists, thinkers and writers inspired and influenced the modernists who followed, and Fernihough is persuasive in mapping these influences across a range of modes and disciplines.

If some of Fernihough’s argument might seem familiar (there has perhaps been more of a history of uncovering politicised Edwardians than Freewomen and Supermen acknowledges), the strength of her study lies in the fact that it is so assuredly interdisciplinary. Fernihough has a commanding grasp of philosophical, historical, literary and art historical knowledge, and approaches these with an astute literary-critical eye. My personal favourites were the chapters dealing with sex, the body, and diet reform; in an age when you can buy quinoa salads and probiotic yogurts at motorway service stations, it is illuminating to be reminded of the ways in which such foods were once associated with radical philosophies and activities. These chapters exemplify how Fernihough deploys her interdisciplinary approach in interesting ways. She is particularly suggestive on the relationship between attitudes to diet reform and developments in literary modes, drawing upon the Barthesean concept of the ‘writerly text’ to explore how during this period realist works were considered less appealing than modernist ones because they required less active work on the part of the reader, and so were either ‘indigestible on the one hand [or] pre-digested on the other’; modernist works, by contrast, were viewed as preferable because they required the reader’s active digestion.

Freewomen and Supermen itself makes for rich and satisfying reading, combining lively prose with comprehensive examples and informed argument. I would have preferred more discussion about religion thrown into the mix, particularly given that recent scholarship by Mark Freeman and Ian Packer, amongst others, has drawn attention to the ways in which political activity often coalesced with religious affiliation and conviction during this period. Fernihough tantalisingly mentions in passing that Edwardian radicals were the heirs of early nineteenth-century millenarianism, for example, and reports that the Edwardian interest in diet reform overlapped in some cases with spiritualism and Christian Science, but more could have been made of these connections. I kept thinking of the figure of Harriet Shaw Weaver, the wealthy Quaker who bankrolled The Egoist and much of James Joyce’s career, but who makes only a brief appearance in Fernihough’s study. It seems hard to believe that the idealistic, left-wing radicals of Freewomen and Supermen had nothing to say on the subject of nonconformist belief and practice. But of course one book can only encompass so much, and Freewomen and Supermen, with its dazzling array of material and scrupulous attention to historical and philosophical detail, provides ample food for thought.

Sarah Shaw, January 2014

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