Margaret Storm Jameson: Writing in Dialogue
Editor: Jennifer Birkett and Chiara Briganti
Date Of Publication: May 2007
From her birth in Whitby in 1891, to her death in Cambridge in 1986, Margaret Storm Jameson’s life and writing spanned the greater part of the twentieth century. She was, in every sense, a woman of her time, speaking to the long series of generations she lived through of their collective present, past and future. Out of her own life-history she created a mirror reflecting the long twentieth-century transformation of Europe.
This collection of essays, the first volume to be devoted entirely to Jameson, brings together a distinguished group of academics to analyse the impressive range and variety of her work. Their studies follow the chronology of her career from the 1920s to the 1960s. They review the different modes in which she wrote (fiction, journalism, autobiography), and show how effectively her writing engages with the contested issues of the period (socialism, fascism, pacifism, exile, communism, colonialism) and with key historical events (the First World War, the General Strike, the Munich Pact, the Second World War, the Cold War). They place her writing in relation to other writers of the day, both her English connections and her European models, in order to underline its relevance, recover forgotten networks of activism and collaboration, and restore Jameson to the pivotal role she played during her lifetime. In the process, the conventional categorisations of twentieth-century writing come under pressure: reviewing Jameson’s links with early modernist journals, and highlighting overlooked connections between British and Continental modernisms, these essays help redefine the field of modernist studies. The collection closes with a sequence of unpublished letters from Jameson to the feminist, historian, and social activist Hilary Newitt Brown, a lively, first-hand account of literary, political and everyday life in England during the Second World War.
Jameson was first and foremost a stylist, whose work on the relations of aesthetics and politics challenges simplistic critical divides between modernism and documentary realism. She was a key activist in politics and cultural politics, and an analyst of feeling, and the part it plays in both politics and everyday life. Last but not least, she was a chronicler of public life, and of the collective experience of England and Europe in the twentieth century. This volume proposes a re-assessment of Jameson’s overall significance in the writerly landscape of her time; in the process, it suggests perspectives in which that landscape is itself ripe for revision.
"For someone who published so many novels, among them ones of real distinction, Storm Jameson was unusually prone to self doubt. ‘Its singular badness proves that I was not a born novelist’, she remarked of her early and very interesting novel, The Pot Boils (1919), and in her autobiography, Journey From the North, she more than once suggests that her chosen career was a mistake, or at all events led to no great achievement. That she rarely made much money from her novels is true. Yet as every page of the autobiography shows, and as a cache of letters included in the present book further reveals, Jameson was a born writer. These letters, which have never before been published and which perhaps provide the book’s high point, were written over a period of some fifty years to her close friends, Hilary Newitt Brown and Harrison Brown, an English couple who, foreseeing the coming of the Second World War, in 1937 settled in British Columbia and to whom Jameson could talk with unabashed candour – for example, of her fearful loathing of Hitler and fascism, of her contempt for most politicians, and of her sense of outrage at the pusillanimity, backsliding and ill faith of officialdom in wavering about whether to grant refugee status to writers and intellectuals she was trying to get out of continental Europe before the Nazis got to them. Jameson was deeply involved in P.E.N., whose English president she became in 1939, but this alone won’t account for her hard work on behalf of other writers. These letters are vivid testimony of the tensions, fears and difficulties of the times, both before, during and after the war. But what makes them so appealing is Jameson’s often excoriating wit. Of Chamberlain’s relationship with the French government in 1938, she remarks: ‘it isn’t true C let the French down. He didn’t have to this time. They were taking the lift down so fast he had to run to get into it’ (p.185). And, in 1940, with Britain under siege, she notes, ‘I don’t know where the Munich spirit is, I mean, what stone it has crawled under. No doubt you could lift a stone or two and find things come crawling out. I know where one or two such stones lie. But the ordinary people are fine’ (p.193).
The essays that make up Writing in Dialogue rightly consider some of the ways in which Jameson finds fictional form in which to explore her awareness that the worth of ‘ordinary people’ is threatened by forces that they must try to control or be controlled and oppressed by. Her writing career more or less coincides with what Eric Hobsbawm has called ‘The Age of Extremes’ – that is, 1913-1989 – and her novels try to account for the age’s dark, violent forces, and at the same time, and despite a period as a pacifist and although she was a committed socialist, try not to buy into any of what Orwell, with pugnacious relish, called ‘the smelly little orthodoxies that contend daily for our souls.’
As the editors remark in their Introduction, ‘Jameson has suffered from the tendency in feminist scholarship to focus solely on female writing for its representation of women’s lives and to ignore their political work except in terms of their feminism’ (p. 3). In this context, it is notable that Rosamond Lehmann is quoted as finding Jameson’s ‘Munich’ novel, Europe to Let, ‘electrifying and ferocious’, and motivated by a ‘a passionate disgust and indignation combined with a masculine intelligence.’ I’m surprised that Kate McLoughlin, who quotes this in her interesting essay, ‘Voices and Values: Storm Jameson’s Europe to Let and the Munich Pact’, doesn’t consider the implications of that phrase ‘masculine intelligence’; but other essays engage with the formal consequences of Jameson’s determination to produce novels of ideas. Hence, Briganti’s ‘Mirroring the Darkness: Storm Jameson and the Collective Novel’ – though in any discussion of the trilogy Mirror in Darkness (1934-36) I would have thought it worthwhile to consider Dos Passos’s 1920s U.S.A. trilogy, given the impact it made overseas as well as in America, and in view of its author’s professed communist sympathies. Hence, too, Sharon Ouditt’s valuable essay on the ‘Men, Women and World War I in the Fiction of Storm Jameson’ – though, if, as Ouditt shows, Jameson had to overcome the prejudice against women being non-combatants and thus ‘at best peripheral to war’ (p. 57), I don’t see why Arnold Bennett’s The Pretty Lady (1918) shouldn’t come into the reckoning, given that Bennett was also a non-combatant and yet for my money produced one of the very best novels to emerge from that period, one that deals quite brilliantly with the effects of war on the home front. Hence, too, Jennifer Birkett’s insistence that Jameson looked to writers outside England for her peers. In her pages on ‘The Shape of Evil: Before the Crossing and The Black Laurel’, and especially in her telling remark on Jameson’s ‘self-flagellating insight into the necessary cruelty of authorial vision’ (p. 130), Birkett as good as buries Angus Wilson’s contention in The Wild Garden (1963) that English novelists have been unable to write about evil. Given Dickens’s novels, this was anyway a fairly daft claim. But Wilson’s intention was to rebuke English readers not so much for a complacent humanism as for their indifference to those novels of ideas he associated with continental Europe. As a corrective to such indifference he could have looked closer to home. He could and indeed should have looked to Jameson. And as someone who himself could be properly satiric about the pretensions and venality of the literary life, Wilson should have been much taken by Jameson’s 1962 novel, The Road From the Monument, a most subtle dissection of male vanity, egoism, and self-deception.
This late novel isn’t discussed in Writing in Dialogue. Nor are quite a few others. I grant that not all are important. Others however are, and it would have been good to see them at least mentioned. (The so-called comedies are for the most part ignored.) Still, you can’t have everything and Writing in Dialogue gives us a good deal. The essays are consistently interesting, readable, informative, and without an air of special pleading. With their publication we can reasonably hope that the reputation of this important novelist is now on the mend."
—John Lucas, Key Words, A journal of Cultural Materialism - Nottingham Trent University
Jennifer Birkett holds the established Chair of French Studies at the University of Birmingham. Her publications include books and articles on nineteenth-century Decadence and on twentieth-century women's writing in French and English. She is co-author of the Macmillan Guide to French Literature and co-editor of the Longman Critical Reader on Samuel Beckett. She has been publishing research on Storm Jameson since 1992, and has recently completed a literary biography foregrounding Jameson's triple commitment to her regional, national and European heritage.
Chiara Briganti has been Professor of English and Women's and Gender Studies at Carleton College, U.S.A, and is now Research Fellow at Kings College London and Visiting Lecturer at New York University-London. She has published on Victorian and Modern British literature and postcolonial literatures. Her books include Anche tu, figlia mia: figlie e padri nelle letterature anglofone and Domestic Modernism, the Interwar Novel and E. H. Young with Kathy Mezei, with whom she has also co-edited "Rethinking Domestic Space: A Forum" for the journal Signs.
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