Gothic Modernisms

By Andrew Smith; Jeff Wallace | Go to book overview

6
‘Thick Within Our Hair’:
Djuna Barnes's Gothic Lovers 1
Deborah Tyler-Bennett

Djuna Barnes's literary output was varied, ranging from plays and poems, to short stories, novellas, novels, almanacs, and visual art. Yet, literary critiques of her work often pigeonhole the author, until she becomes viewed as chiefly a novelist and, at best, one who is celebrated for a single work, Nightwood (1936). This exploration of a doomed lesbian love affair is set against expatriate night-life in 1920s Paris and Berlin, and appears to brand Barnes as an archetypal female modernist – composing a text which identifies the fragmentary nature of modern life, with characters whose lives and psyches are devoured by hostile urban environments (night-clubs, bars, dance halls etc.). Despite Barnes's longevity (1892–1982), and the eras of literary experimentation through which she lived, and in spite of feminist analyses of novels such as Ryder (1926), her output has been most often critically defined using terms derived from T. S. Eliot's original introduction to Nightwood. 2 This defined the text as being both gloomy and Jacobean. Feminist critics, such as Mary Lynne Broe and Sheryl Stevenson, have explored Barnes's texts as referencing ideas both of the grotesque body and of the carnivalesque. 3 Whilst such readings possess much to recommend them, it is worth noting that few theorists have considered Barnes's use of the Gothic as a key to reading her texts.

Yet, Barnes often deployed images from Gothic texts and visual art, and these inform and shape many of her works, from well-known pieces such as Nightwoodto largely unexplored early poems. Gothic influences on such texts range from nineteenth-century vampire fiction, to Pre-Raphaelite morbidity, and early European horror cinema. For example, in an early text such as A Book (1923), Barnes creates images of lovers ‘doomed’, not by their chosen gender orientation or objects of desire, but by an enclosingly Gothic sense of mortality. 4 Such

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