Modernism and Cultural Conflict, 1880-1922

By Ann L. Ardis | Go to book overview

Introduction: rethinking modernism, remapping the turn
of the twentieth century

Rachel Vinrace, the heroine of Virginia Woolf s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), reads “modern books, books in shiny yellow covers, books with a great deal of gilding on the back, which were tokens in her aunt's eyes of harsh wrangling and disputes about facts which had no such importance as the moderns claimed for them. ” 1 She reads Ibsen and George Meredith's Diana of the Crossways as well during her three-month stay in South America, but the narrator's physical and thematic characterization of this reading matter in Chapter Ten strongly suggests that she is readingfin-de-siècle British titles: Bodley Head publications such as John Lane's “Keynotes” fiction series, bound volumes of the Savoy with bold yellow covers and gilding on the covers and spines. 2 Such texts were touchstones in the British debates about New Women, New Hellenism, and the cultural work of literature in the 1880s and 90s. Yet Rachel is encouraged by everyone she knows to read something else.

Her aunt, for example, encourages her to read “Defoe, Maupassant, or some spacious chronicle of family life” (130), and Mrs. Dalloway gives her Jane Austen. Her uncle allows her unlimited access to his library, while St. John Hirst lends her his copy of Gibbon's Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, hoping thereby to begin the process of making up for her lack of a public school education and Oxbridge training. Most telling for my purposes is Terence Hewet's advice the morning he interrupts her piano-playing to demand that she listen while he reads aloud his own notes “under the heading Women” (323). As her fiancé, and as an aspiring young novelist intent on writing a book about Silence, Hewet is annoyed with Rachel in this scene for refusing to endorse his revelations concerning “the secrets of her sex” (324). When she objects to his interruption, he responds by chiding her, not for her piano-playing but for her reading habits: “Rachel, you do read trash! …And you'e behind the times too, my dear. No one dreams of reading this kind of thing now — antiquated problems plays, harrowing descriptions of life in the east

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