Becoming a war heroine: Feminist revision and cultural resistance in women's literature of the First World War

Date of Completion

January 2004


Biography|Literature, American|Literature, English




The past fifteen years have seen an explosion in scholarship on First World War literature, especially from feminists who focus on women's texts overlooked by studies such as Paul Fussell's Great War and Modern Memory. These feminist studies have coincided with theoretical debates surrounding Modernism as the main paradigm to understand the literary period around the war. The modern period has been redefined temporally and thematically to include authors and texts traditionally left out of Modernism in its narrow definition as formal experimentation. With its juxtaposition of modernist and realist texts by canonical and obscure women writers, my dissertation brings together modernist debates, feminist theory, and war literature. I examine the shock of modern war in its literary representations by Anglo-American women writers such as Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf, Rose Macaulay, and H.D.; I argue that these authors and others resisted predominant wartime discourses about femininity and used their war experience to revise traditional plots. This interdisciplinary project reads historical events, social expectations, and cultural contexts as indispensable texts in dialogue with the literary works under study. ^ Each chapter juxtaposes two contrasting writers or texts and underscores their similarities in narrative purpose and thematic concerns. The first chapter looks at mature heroines encountering war in fictional and autobiographical works by May Sinclair and Edith Wharton. Chapter two focuses on the younger generation of women who sought purpose in active war service with an analysis of Vera Brittain's Testament of Youth and Evadne Price's Not So Quiet… Rebecca West's Return of the Soldier and H.D.'s Bid Me To Live, featured in chapter three, both focus on the emotional impact of damaged men on female consciousness. Chapter four examines the trope of the artist figure in wartime in Rose Macaulay's Non-Combatants and Others and Edith Wharton's Son at the Front. The final chapter compares the wartime diaries and Thirties novels of Irene Rathbone and Virginia Woolf to highlight the way private writings can be transformed into public works of testimony. ^