H. D.’s prose fiction is often read as a corollary of her poetry. Her novels contain tropes and resonances with which readers of her poetry will be familiar: her reworking and revisioning of her personal life through a war (the first), a miscarriage, romantic betrayal, visions and escape; her use of symbols, mythologies and mystical correspondences to effect these reworkings and revisionings; and her self-examination and auto-psychoanalytic investigations. This reading of H. D. implies that she is first and foremost a poet, and that it is her experience of the First World War, and the personal upheaval she experienced at that time, that makes her work significant to literary history. Lara Vetter’s examination of H. D.’s ‘late modernist prose’, then, presents a different H. D. to the one we are most often confronted with. Vetter places the writer squarely in the world. Her account of H. D.’s post-war writings is one of a deeply politically engaged individual, whose self-reflexive and autobiographical narratives are simultaneously critiques of war, of empire, and of nationalism. H. D.’s The Sword Went Out to Sea is thus a tale of one woman’s time-travelling experience of ‘several different eras of war and imperialism’ (p. 68); in By Avon River Shakespeare is a bourgeois and unoriginal puppet of the state; and in White Rose and the Red the historical Elizabeth Siddall is suffering from war trauma and the Pre-Raphaelites are the British imperialists to her exploited India. H. D.’s characters are exposed to war and become traumatized, and they respond to that trauma in a political way. H. D. is still concerned with the self and its manifestations, but she positions that self firmly in the dangerous and militarist political world. These narratives are also, Vetter shows, radical rejections of authority. The state is always militaristic and statesmen are always prone to start wars. Vetter’s book stands as an important corrective to accounts of H. D. as ethereal and disconnected. She shows, carefully and persuasively, that H. D.’s engagement with politics was not merely the interest of a woman who happened to live through some seismic shifts in political and national history, but that H. D. was engaged to the extent of the imaginative construction of possible social and political futures. Delia Alton, in Sword, has a vision of a Third World War, in which ‘geographical boundaries were bombed away’ (p. 169). She laments divisions between nations and between people and projects a future in which the destructive separatism of state apparatus can be dissolved as archaic and unnecessary. This book makes a useful contribution to H. D. studies too in its analysis of H. D.’s experiments with literary genre. The first section of the book examines the ways in which H. D. appropriated and adapted tropes from autobiography, ghost story, fairy story, science fiction and historical fiction (we might add travel narrative and biography) to tell her stories about the self in the world. As Vetter outlines in her penultimate chapter, H. D.’s aim, post-war, was to construct ‘an ethical system for living in a postwar world that allows her to confront private and public trauma by accepting the permeability of the boundary between self and other’ (p. 160). This H. D. is not merely naval-gazing, but intrinsically concerned with morality, responsibility and possibilities for political change. This is the H. D. who, exiled in Switzerland, continually begged her partner Bryher for ‘the real news of London’ and describes her daily ‘dash down to my best kiosk’ for the daily papers (p. 141). This H. D. too is concerned with the ways in which history repeats itself and the ways in which society develops and changes. Her borrowings from historical fiction, the uncanny ghost story and science fiction enable her to chart cycles in history and in human civilization, and to explore the dangers and horrors of nationalism, militarism and war. The fairy tale and the historical novel, Vetter points out, are always concerned with the construction of nation and the construction of a people. H. D.’s use of these pre-existing structures, however, is one in which the structures themselves are only partially applied and so are undermined. H. D. does not want to tell the story of a nation or a people; she wants to tell the stories of nations and peoples. She wants to chart correspondences and connections, and weave in and separate out particular places and individuals. Vetter reconstructs and contextualizes those connections with admirable skill, and shows that H. D.’s experiments with deconstructing a ‘self/other binary’ are triggered by her realization of the horrors of the Second World War’s us/them binary (p. 169). In H. D.’s post-war fiction, Vetter shows, the personal is political and the political is personal. H. D. becomes, in Vetter’s account, a post-modern late modernist. She deals with fragments and ruptures in both history, form and the self. She begins by looking for meaning behind the fragments of story that she plucks out from world events and herstory and ends by constructing her own meaning. The fragments are patchworked together, and they are looped and overlapped in a non-linear pattern. Vetter sets out H. D.’s engagements with history in her fiction as a resistance of ‘chronological time’ as ‘sweeping, upward, linear progress’, a concertinaed ‘Z-line’ of historical narrative (p. 92). The foregrounding of H. D.’s own overlaying of patterns and correspondences across time enables Vetter to make her own ‘Z-line’ connections between the post-war fiction and H. D.’s poetry, and between her World War I reflections and those of World War II. It will enable future scholars to do the same. © The Author 2017. Published by Oxford University Press 2017; all rights reserved This article is published and distributed under the terms of the Oxford University Press, Standard Journals Publication Model (https://academic.oup.com/journals/pages/about_us/legal/notices)
The Review of English Studies – Oxford University Press
Published: Dec 8, 2017
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