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1. Portrait of a Journal Aged Twenty
III/ e-Editors : La parole aux éditrices et éditeurs invités

Modernist Non-fictional Narratives and Beyond (e-Rea 15.2, 2018)

Christine REYNIER

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1A few years ago, I co-edited a first issue of e-Rea on modernist non-fictional prose. It came as the joint and somewhat indirect result of a long-term personal work on Virginia Woolf’s essays as well as a series of crucial academic encounters. While working on Virginia Woolf’s short stories (Reynier 2009), I had come to be interested in the way in which the author theorised the short story genre in her essays; this turned into an article some time later (Reynier 2015) and confirmed in a way Stephen Ross’s statement in his introduction to Modernist Theory (2009), that “Modernist writing thinks theoretically and theory writes modernistically” (2). Our guest on a regular basis in the University Paul-Valéry Montpellier3 and an active collaborator in several of our research projects over the last decade, Stephen Ross, through extremely stimulating talks and discussions, encouraged me to pursue this work. It led me to explore further Woolf’s essays and over the years, to write a book on Virginia Woolf’s Good Housekeeping Essays (2019), ‘little articles’, according to their author (Woolf, Diary IV, 9 March 1931), that unexpectedly proved to have both a theoretical as well as an aesthetic reach, and to be far less marginal than initially thought when set within the larger landscape of Woolf’s essays. Although addressed to readers of a magazine conceived ‘to teach middle-class women how to run their homes’ (Lessing 7), these essays straddle ‘the great divide’ (Huyssens) between high and low culture, and display great respect for their readers, Woolf assuming like French philosopher Jacques Rancière (2009), that there is an ‘equality of intelligence’ among readers, if not of knowledge. Far from being simply cultural essays, these sparkling reader-friendly pieces are also creative ones that enter into a dialogue with various art forms – literature, photography, and architecture –, in a thought-provoking way that sharpens the reader’s mind, as Hazlitt the thinker and the artist does in his own essays, models Woolf meant to emulate (Woolf 2009, 171).

2This interest in essays was gradually enlarged to nonfiction and during David Bradshaw’s 2014 residence in the University Paul-Valéry Montpellier3, we discussed its importance in the understanding of modernist writings and planned a future collaboration within an ESSE (European Society for the Study of English) seminar that would be dedicated to the topic. Fate decided otherwise: the seminar was held in the National University of Ireland, Galway, in 2016 but with David Bradshaw’s former student, Adrian Paterson, as co-convenor. This collaboration led to our first co-edited issue of e-Rea, ‘Modernist Non-fictional Narratives: Rewriting Modernism’ (2018) – itself a homage to our colleague David Bradshaw –, which was followed two years later by ‘Modernist Non-fictional Narratives of War and Peace (1914-1950)’ (2020), the outcome of the 2018 ESSE seminar held in the Mazaryk University of Brno (Czech Republic).

  • 1 In her doctoral thesis, ‘Modernism and non-fiction: place, genre and the politics of popular forms’ (...)

3Building on the work Adrian Paterson had been doing on Yeats and mine on Woolf, these issues of e-Rea attempt to look beyond these writers to other Modernists. As their titles suggest, they mean to look at the genre of the essay while embracing other non-fictional genres, what is generally called non-fictional prose, a particularly rich and variegated form of writing that is still understudied, as my work on Woolf’s essays had taught me, or that needs to be reread with a new method and in the light of new theories so as to tease out their ‘subjugated knowledges’ (Brake). Non-fictional prose is an umbrella term that cuts across literary genres and encompasses essays and reviews, diaries and letters, articles and manifestos and other non-fictional prose texts1. It is not, as stated in the introduction to the 2018 issue, a very satisfactory term (as acknowledged by Richard Aldington) but used for want of a better one. Indeed, the term itself suggests a negative definition of non-fiction as second only to fiction and as being constituted by what fiction is not, that is, the literary genres novels, short fiction, poetry and drama don’t cover. However, it concomitantly opens onto a wide range of genres.Non-fictional prose thus appears to be an unstable category just as the genres it encompasses are themselves unstable. As Leila Brosnan has shown in Reading Virginia Woolf’s Essays and Journalism, the distinction between reviewing and journalism is unstable. The distinction between non-fiction and fiction is unstable too; Virginia Woolf notoriously brings the two together in such essays as ‘Reading’ (1919), where the fictional or semi-autobiographical tale of moth hunting becomes a metaphor of reading (Reynier 2011), or the more famous A Room of One’s Own (1929), where fictional characters appear alongside historical figures and the fictional doings of the narrator are woven into the reflections on women and literature. The borderlines between fiction and nonfiction become similarly blurred in such narratives as Siegfried Sassoon’s Memoirs of an Infantry Officer (1930), Robert Graves’s Good Bye to All That (1929), and George Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia (1938), as examined by Barbara Puschmann-Nalenz, and life-writing can also morph into poetry, as Andrea Rummel shows. This very instability is a welcome challenge for the critic just as it is for the writer.

4However, non-fictional prose remains a somewhat understudied facet of modernism that still begs to be explored further. Except perhaps for T. S. Eliot, canonical modernist writers are often referred to as novelists (such is the case of James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, D. H. Lawrence, E. M. Forster or Elizabeth Bowen) or poets (as it is the case with W. B. Yeats and Ezra Pound), rarely as non-fiction writers, journalists or essayists. But we should remember that Woolf was first known in her time as an essayist; as Winifred Holtby writes in her 1936 Virginia Woolf. A Critical Memoir, the first critical study in English devoted to Woolf’s work, ‘Virginia Stephen began her career as a reviewer for the Times Literary Supplement. It is as a critic that many still prefer to regard Virginia Woolf’ (37). As Patrick Collier argues, ‘the distinction between journalism and literature was part of the structure of thought through which contemporaries viewed the print marketplace, part of the intellectual matrix in which modernism took shape’ (202) and most modernist practitioners, like their Victorian and Edwardian forebears, seized the opportunities offered by the press. Many writers published regularly essays, reviews and chronicles in various magazines: if T. S. Eliot founded and wrote for the Criterion, Leonard Woolf published in the New Statesman and Virginia in the Times Literary Supplement as well as in Vogue or Harper’s Bazaar, Rebecca West worked for The Freewoman, May Sinclair wrote for The Egoist and The Little Review, and Vita Sackville-West published in the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society. If Woolf’s essays have begun to be analysed (Brosnan, Gualtieri, Saloman), there is still ample work to be done in that field, as Rosenberg and Dubino pointed out (1-24), just as there is for D. H. Lawrence’s or E. M. Forster’s non-fictional texts, to take but two examples. Writers initially known as ‘journalists’ rather than ‘essayists’, as was the case for Rebecca West or Winifred Holtby, have often been downrated for a long while and deprived of the label ‘modernist’. Assessing their non-fictional prose would reopen the debate on their belonging or not to modernism and above all, shed a new light on their work.

5The non-fictional prose writings of the modernist period, because they were most often originally published in periodicals, were ephemeral and meant to be discarded; like most ephemerae (Einhaus), they have not always been reprinted. If T. S. Eliot’s essays have always been in print, Woolf’s were only made fully available when the Hogarth Press published the last of her sixth volumes in 2011, D. H. Lawrence’s non-fictional works were only published in 2009 in a revised and complete form in The Cambridge Edition of the Letters and Works D.H. Lawrence and The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot which gathers in its eight volumes the collected, uncollected, and unpublished prose of the writer, came out between 2014 and 2019. The correspondence of some Modernists became available only recently, as it is the case with Dorothy Richardson’s Selected Letters (1995) or Katherine Mansfield’s Collected Letters (2008). Some of the non-fictional production of the modernist period has been made available again in digital form (from Sassoon’s War Journals to modernist journals and magazines, in projects of the same name) but there is still a lot to be done that way. It is true that The Little Review and other modernist magazines have attracted a lot of attention in the past few years (Ardis, Latham and Scholes, Collier, Brooker and Thacker, etc.) and been at the origin of several projects and databases (Brooker and Thacker, Scholes, etc.); a historicised reading of modernism has been promoted (Bornstein), archival work developed and the links between modernism and the press explored, starting with McGann’s work, but the non-fictional writings of the Modernists have not yet been systematically studied for their own sake, with the probable exception of T.S. Eliot. These two issues of e-Rea meant to highlight this and to draw attention to non-fictional prose writings as literary ones.

6The 2018 issue and the following one attempted to prompt a similar method to that used in Virginia Woolf’s Good Housekeeping Essays. This method which consists in bringing together a historical approach of non-fictional prose with a literary and a theoretical one, proved fruitful to read Woolf’s essays and has been implemented here by several contributors. Studying nonfiction in the context in which it was published, as print culture studies do, while taking into account the poetics of the texts, their aesthetic import as well as their possible ethical, political and theoretical purport, is particularly telling, as can be seen, for instance, in the contribution of Alice Borrego on Katherine Mansfield’s own response to the war in her letters, journals and criticism where her sense of ethical responsibility and the development of a ‘new word’ are deeply intertwined, or of Ivana Trajanoska on Dorothy Richardson whose unconventional way of dealing with current political and social events is examined in her correspondence.

7Reading essays in the context of the media in which they were first published can be fruitful and alter the perception we may have of the author’s outlook on a specific subject. As Xavier Le Brun shows, comparing the Yale Review version of Woolf’s ‘How Should One Read a Book?’ with the Common Reader one, the change from periodical to book-form essay alters Woolf’s depiction of reading; he thus confirms what Faye Hammil and Mark Hussey stated in Modernism’s Print Cultures: ‘One of the primary insights of print culture studies is that the artwork has a different meaning, and is valued differently, according to its publication context’ (17). Thereis also undoubtedly much to be said about the unacknowledged formal as well as political or ethical effects of journalism, essayism and non-fictional writings in general on the works of the writers of the period. If non-fictional prose writings may be seen as a testing ground for the writer’s aesthetics (as Annalisa Federici claims) or as the privileged locus of the writer’s ‘presence’ – a concept encapsulating her own essayistic ideal that Woolf forged in reaction to Eliot’s ‘impersonality theory’ (as Paolo Bugliani contends), they can also interact with the other non-fictional texts of the same writer, as W.B. Yeats’ A Packet for Ezra Pound (1929) does, according to Adrian Paterson, and thus shed a light on them. Essays and letters may also be connected with the fiction of their authors, giving useful insights into the genesis of their novels or short stories, or hints about their intended meaning or at least, the writer’s motivations and purpose in writing them. As Paterson points out in the above-mentioned paper on W.B. Yeats, such a conversational quality may nourish the creative – if provocative – quality of the text and be conducive to its straddling several literary genres. Since they belong to a writer’s œuvre, essays, reviews, chronicles and other non-fictional texts cannot be neglected. They can shed another light on her whole work or illuminate some specific points, as my own essay on Vita Sackville-West’s Non -Fictional Wartime Writing (2020) shows.

8A writer’s nonfiction can also be caught in a network of cross-references with other writers’ essays, reviews or manifestos. Such is the case for T. S. Eliot and E. M. Forster, as Jason Finch argues, charting anew their literary relationship and the influence they exerted on each other via their non-fiction and their commentaries upon each other; or for Samuel Beckett whose essay ‘Dante . . . Bruno. Vico..Joyce’, analysed here by Julie Bénard, engages with James Joyce’s Work in Progress. Julie Bénard also shows that, while conversing with Joyce, Beckett exposes in his essay his own theory of language as visual and aural, and implements an innovative form of writing. She thus emphasises the theoretical potential of non-fictional prose. Essays in particular, often tackle concepts that philosophers developed in their own way: Woolf’s ‘bewilderment’, as expounded in ‘Modern Fiction’ (Essays IV 183) when commenting on Chekhov’s short stories, resonates with Spinoza’s Admiratio (Reynier 2009, 32); Eliot’s ‘objective correlative’, ‘dissociation of sensibility’, and ‘impersonal voice’ echo the Deleuzean concept of art as the producer of ‘affects and percepts’, according to Zekiye Antakyalioglu; Woolf’s essays and their silent registration of war seem to align with Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (1921), as Velid Beganović claims. Essays can also be forward-looking and deal, for example, with writing and reading in a way that foreshadows reader-response theories: Woolf’s ‘passive participant’ may hark back to Wordsworth while anticipating Derek Attridge’s ‘creative reading’ (Reynier 2009, 33). As we conclude in our introduction, ‘many of the modernists’ concepts still resonate in contemporary criticism and philosophy’ (Paterson and Reynier 2018, 14).

9Non-fictional texts can also bring a new perspective on the period they were written in, comforting or deflating some ingrained ideas. Ideas about war, for example, as came out in the 2020 issue devoted to ‘Modernist Non-fictional Narratives of War and Peace (1914-1950)’. Studying the impact of World War One on Ford Madox Ford’s writings, Isabelle Brasme goes against the grain and shows that the shock of the war, far from radically changing Ford’s way of writing, enabled him to renew and refine his technique and theory of impressionism. Reading non-fictional works may also bring some correctives to our vision of modernism, and first of all, help to question the boundaries of modernism. A key figure like T. S. Eliot suddenly appears differently, when read through the lens of theology, as Anna Budziak does, and his modernism turns into an anti-modernism: a paradoxical, unexpected and valuable conclusion. Canonical writers certainly feature large in the first two e-Rea issues but the importance of writers long dwarfed by the figures literary history had chosen to retain is acknowledged, through papers on May Sinclair, Dorothy Richardson or Vita Sackville-West that shed another light on the period and bring out its fertility and complexity while calling into question the very categorisation of modernism.

10Although on a small scale, the work done in these e-Rea issues helps to question and even deconstruct some tenets of modernism, thus pursuing the work done by new modernists studies and helping to map modernism plurally and differently. One of the main tenets of modernism that nonfiction seems to go against is its novelty, the novelty so many Modernists insisted upon following Ezra Pound’s imperative, ‘Make it New’. The Modernists’ nonfiction examined here often goes back to its predecessors. If some non-fictional texts, like Flann O’Brien’s anti-manifestos that Julian Hanna (2018) studies, foreground a ‘language of rupture’ (Perloff), most are haunted by reminiscences of their predecessors. Just as I showed that Woolf goes back to William Hazlitt, John Ruskin or Leslie Stephen to write her essays for Good Housekeeping (Reynier 2019), Isabelle Brasme traces continuities between the Brontës and May Sinclair (2018). These ghostly influences can be connected with the continued presence of the occult and the supernatural that several essays in the 2018 e-Rea issue mention. Stephen Ross theorises such continuities in terms of ‘disavowal’ (2018), a concept borrowed from Freud which captures the attraction to the supernatural and the concomitant retraction at work in such Modernists as Joseph Conrad and Virginia Woolf, and more generally, encapsulates and illuminates the contradictions of modernism; he thus invites the reader to rethink modernism itself as a mode of disavowal.

11These reflections led me to pursue this work and co-edit a new issue of e-Rea with Victorianist Bénédicte Coste (Université de Bourgogne), ‘Revisiting the Periodical Essay (1860-1940)’ (2023); based on the 2021 ESSE seminar which was held online at the Université de Lyon (France), it emphasises the discontinuities as well as the continuities between Victorian and modernist periodical essays. Coming as a sort of follow-up to the book we edited with Catherine Delyfer on Reconnecting Aestheticism and Modernism. Continuities, Revisions, Speculations (2017), it narrows the field of non-fictional prose to Victorian and modernist writers’ literary essays that were initially published in periodicals and subsequently republished or forgotten. How the context of easily discarded media affected their meaning, compared to later republications, is one of the concerns of this issue which also means to bring a modest contribution to the study of the transition between the Victorian periodical essay and its modernist counterpart. Periodicals are now a favourite research field of Victorian studies which offers such a wealth of material that it is far from being exhausted, and as concerns modernism, this issue means to act as a prompt for further studies that would lay greater emphasis on the poetics of the texts than the thriving print culture studies have done so far. Our guiding principle is also that Victorian and modernist non-fictional prose has a lot to tell us about various subjects, especially topical ones like the environment: how does it define and register the environment? In what ways can this impact our own perception of and relation to the environment today? This will be the theme of a forthcoming seminar in the 2024 Lausanne ESSE conference and hopefully, of another e-Rea issue.

12Collaborative work, not only with co-editors but also with scholars from various universities in Europe and Canada, is extremely stimulating and one of the main assets of our academic world. In this case, it has allowed us all to bring a fresh outlook on non-fictional writings, a humble and necessarily piecemeal contribution to the field but we hope, a stimulating one that will encourage other scholars to pursue the work. Since these issues on non-fictional prose writings have been published, a growing awareness of the necessity to explore modernist non-fictional works seems to have developed, perhaps in the wake of the publication of The Oxford Critical and Cultural History of Modernist Magazines by Peter Brooker and Andrew Thacker. Young scholars like Xavier Le Brun or Marie Laniel have been probing further Woolf’s essays, Isabelle Brasme has brought out the literary qualities of war prose pieces in her sensitive close reading of Ford Madox Ford’s War Prose, May Sinclair’s A Journal of Impressions in Belgium, Siegfried Sassoon’s war diaries and Mary Borden’s nurse war narrative, The Forbidden Zone in Writers at War (2023). New work is in progress on, for example, D. H. Lawrence’s non-fictional writings (Gupwell) or those of Vita Sackville-West, especially her horticultural chronicles (Laburthe-Tolra). Together, these scholars help to question further the limits of modernism and bring out its many ties with its nineteenth-century predecessors, themselves studied from new angles by similarly bright promising scholars, as the work of the Victorian societies in France (the SFEVE, Société Française d’Études Victoriennes et Édouardiennes) and abroad points out. Their work will certainly feed into new issues of e-Rea in the near future.

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1 In her doctoral thesis, ‘Modernism and non-fiction: place, genre and the politics of popular forms’ (Exeter University, 2017), Stephanie Jane Boland extended the understanding of non-fiction to such popular genres as cookbooks, travel guides and radio programs.

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Christine REYNIER, « Modernist Non-fictional Narratives and Beyond (e-Rea 15.2, 2018) »e-Rea [En ligne], 21.1 | 2023, mis en ligne le 15 décembre 2023, consulté le 21 juin 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Christine REYNIER

Université Paul-Valéry Montpellier3, EMMA

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