Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Feminism, Modernism and the Russian Revolution: Dorothy Richardson and Rebecca West

I'm going to be giving a paper at the Feminism: Activism: Modernism conference at University College Cork on 14th-15th September - it looks set to be a very interesting conference. My paper is called 'Feminism, Modernism and the Russian Revolution: Dorothy Richardson and Rebecca West'.

Here's a summary of what I'm planning to talk about:

Reflecting on her visit to the Soviet Union in 1933, Ella Winter wrote that ‘for the first time in the history of the world, a country is abolishing all discrimination on the ground of sex between women and men.’ Like Winter, many British feminists saw revolutionary Russia – where the laws governing marriage, divorce and abortion had been radically relaxed – as a guiding light in women’s struggle for emancipation and equality. Suffragettes including Sylvia Pankhurst and Joan Beauchamp played prominent roles in the CPGB and other pro-Soviet organisations.
            With this context in mind, this paper focuses on two feminist writers who were conflicted about the Russian Revolution (Dorothy Richardson) or passionately anticommunist (Rebecca West), situating their work within a debate about the relationship between feminism and Bolshevism. Both developed distinctively modernist, literary responses to communism that mark them apart from activists such as Winter, Beauchamp and Pankhurst.
            In Richardson’s Revolving Lights (1923), the protagonist Miriam encounters a group of Russian revolutionaries and recoils from their ‘scornful revolutionary eyes’. The Russians ‘lived for an idea’, where Miriam feels happier with her ‘hoard of contradictory ideas’. Richardson’s style – with its prioritisation of sensory immediacy over narrative or conceptual framing – developed in tandem with her political preference for an English socialism that seemed less ideologically monolithic than the Russian version.
            West’s anticommunism was more strident, and she isolated herself from feminists and socialists by immediately condemning the Bolshevik revolution in 1917, then offering friendship and support to the anarchist and anti-Bolshevik activist Emma Goldman during her visit to Britain in 1924. West’s later fiction and journalism involved a complex but deeply felt anticommunism that again had an aesthetic dimension.
            This paper asks what drew feminists to bolshevism and what led them to reject it. It also explores how the work of these two innovative writers was shaped by the complex relationship between feminism, modernism and anticommunism.  

Hope to see you there!