Critical Editions Produced by Students at Rider University
Christina Farrell and Rebecca Foulks
English 347 – 20th Century British Literature
May 5, 2016
Introduction to Blast: Volume One
When Blast first hit the literary scene in the summer of 1914, it was groundbreaking in terms of the contributors’ desire to ‘blast’ apart the norms of British society and start a revolutionary era that would be heralded by brand new literature, art, and cultural opinions. The early 1900’s were an important time period of British history. Queen Victoria, who had reigned over the country for over sixty years, had passed away. The previously held norms of societal conventions and proper conduct were beginning to be called into question as new ideas and points of view began to spring up all over the country like flowers in the spring. Writers, artists, sculptors, philosophers, and playwrights began to craft a vision which promised a new beginning. This new beginning was the advent of what we call modernism.
During this time multiple new magazines were created, of which Blast was just one. Blast differed from other magazines not only due to the extremity of its modernist ideals however, but in its physical appearance as well. Its bright magenta cover and bold printed headlines and outspoken words set it apart from magazines such as The Egoist and The Transatlantic Review. The magazine features a wide selection of various pieces of Vorticist artwork, poetry, short stories, a play, a manifesto listing the ideals and standards that the editors and contributors wished to promote, and passages that ‘blast’ and ‘bless’ certain aspects of society and culture which modernists either condemn or applaud. Blast’s editor, Wyndham Lewis, had hoped that the magazine would reach a wide audience and would be mass produced so that people from all walks of life would have it readily available. In its brief life, the magazine didn’t reach the heights that Lewis had originally envisioned. While he had hopes for it reaching a large demographic, in actuality it reached less than a thousand people, which was a very small audience for that time period. However, Blast still remains one of the most famous magazines that appeared in the early 20th Century and offers a unique insight into Vorticism and Modernism.
Unfortunately, the advent of the Great War had a destructive impact on the magazine and after the second volume it ceased publication. However, despite its short run, there is still a plethora of insight one can glean from Blast. Of particular interest is the issue of gender, especially within the first volume of the magazine. Gender is represented in a curious and contradictory way. On one hand, it is easy to see the influence that suffragist activities had on Blast. Women were growing stronger in their confidence of their own self-worth and began to demand not only respect but the right to vote and have their own unique voice heard. On the other hand, the domineering hand of masculinity is still quite visible throughout the publication as well.
One of the most illuminating and fascinating pieces in volume one is the contribution by feminist Rebecca West, who was herself a big supporter of the suffragist movement. About West it is said that “she wrote her way into the major cultural dilemmas of the twentieth century: suffrage, socialism, women’s employment, sexual liberation, war, treason, and communism. She grappled constantly with the laws of patriarchy, and was obsessed with dualism” (Scott 169).
It seems fitting then that her first short story should be published in Blast, since the magazine itself claimed to be adamant about clearing away the stagnant debris left over from the Victorian age and heralding in a bright and transformative future for the new century. West’s story, “Indissoluble Matrimony” is an appropriate addition to the magazine, as it brings the themes of violence against women and the disproportionate gender roles within marriage to the surface.
West’s story, which shows the darker side of both masculinity and femininity, is a good example of the strange dichotomy that exists within the rest of the first volume of the magazine. There are pieces written by women, and women signatures on the manifesto. With the suffrage movement gaining much attention and helping women to gain their independence from a patriarchal society by obtaining the right to vote, it seems as if Blast was a great place for women to express themselves through literature and art. However there are also instances in which women are described or depicted in a negative light within the magazine. They are also sorely underrepresented, with only two of the eleven people signing the manifesto being women. Within the following essays, we will explore not only the influence that feminist ideals and the suffragist movement had on Blast, but also the shifting relevance of masculinity and femininity throughout the various pieces in the first volume.
Is There Any Room for Women in ‘Blast’?
Blast was one of a number of literary magazines that debuted in the early 1900’s which paved the way for the birth and development of modernism and vorticism. In addition, it also gave women a place to express themselves creatively. This early part of the twentieth century also saw the rise of the suffragist movement, which in turn, helped many women to gain the confidence to take control of their own lives instead of having their lives dictated to them. However, despite the magazine’s promise to blast away the old world order and create something new, when one reviews the first issue of the magazine through the lens of gender, a disheartening familiar trend appears. Not only are women minimally represented, but when they are represented, it is done in a way which trivializes them and shows them to be inferior to men.
The first evidence of this appears in the very first section of Blast, which is entitled Long Live the Vortex! In this portion of the magazine, the contributors attempt to demonstrate their willingness to push past the long cherished beliefs of the past and create something new. In the first entirely capitalized sentence they say, “we need the unconsciousness of humanity-their stupidity, animalism, and dreams.” They also claim that, “Blast will be popular, essentially. It will not appeal to any particular class, but to the fundamental and popular instincts in every class and descriptions of people, to the individual.” And further down in the section, “We only want the world to live, and to feel it’s crude energy flowing through us.” These words seem to overflow with passionate intentions, with all the enthusiasm of emotion and the yearning for a better tomorrow. Also speckled throughout this first page however, are sentiments that seemingly contradict the earlier remarks. They want to leave “men and nature alone.” They claim that they are not the “wives and tailors” of the Futurists. So where does that leave women? Where does that leave the wives? Shouldn’t women be included in this new world of creativity which is to be guided by instinct? (Blast 9)
In the following two sections, certain characteristics, places, and groups of people are either praised or deemed unworthy of this new creative intelligence. In the “Blast” section, it is noted that snobbery “is the disease of femininity” (Blast 15). However, a few pages later, in the “Blessed” section, “females” and “female qualities” are given as examples as parts of society and culture that are worth saving (Blast 25). This fluctuation between valuing woman and devaluing women is dizzying and confusing. Unfortunately, this trend continues throughout the rest of the first volume of the magazine.
The major female contribution to this issue is the short story, “Indissoluble Matrimony”, by Rebecca West. West was a prolific author and a tremendous supporter of the suffragist movement and of women’s rights in general. She never hesitated to express her opinion, no matter how unpopular. In her story, which centers around the issue of marital abuse, the relationship between Mr. and Mrs. Silverton erupts in a violent clash after years of repressed hostility and displaced jealousy built up until hitting the boiling point. This is a story that doesn’t disguise the intricacies of marriage with false romanticism. It is dark and gritty, and extremely realistic. But West’s moral doesn’t seem to be to get us to sympathize completely with Mrs. Silverton. Rather, her own faults, namely docility and submissiveness, cause us to loathe her almost as much as her husband.
This complicated issue of gender is seen further on in the issue as well, when studying two of Wyndham Lewis’s poems. In “Women Before a Shop”, he summarizes his opinion of women in two lines. Within this short poem, he describes a gaggle of women being attracted to faux jewelry in a shop window, because like attracts like. He uses the word ‘false’ twice, to reiterate the fact that he believes women to be vain, shallow, and utterly fake, much like the jewelry they are lusting over. (Blast 49) In “Pastoral”, Wyndham Lewis paints a beautiful picture of a young woman with beautiful hands who is combing her hair. He is bold, in watching her, not embarrassed in the least about watching her and being snared by her utter beauty. Her laugh however, is what breaks this spell. It is so harsh and abrasive that it scares a bystander and kills a cat (Blast 50). The sentiment that is felt, though not expressed explicitly, is that women are perfect creatures until they open their mouths. Therefore, Lewis suggests they should be valued only for their physical attributes and not their thoughts or words.
Lastly, the first volume ends on a note specifically meant for those women participating in the suffragist movement. The magazine tells women that, “in destruction, as in other things, stick to what you understand.” However, they do inform the suffragists that “we admire your energy. You and artists are the only things (you don’t mind being called things?) left in England with a little life in them” (Blast 151). This last statement praises the suffragists while at the same time making sure they don’t take themselves too seriously. It leaves one feeling as if they do not know where they stand in the grand scheme of things. Should those women feel proud, as suffragettes? Or should they feel debased and scolded? The words could be interpreted as playful banter, of course, but it doesn’t take a wild imagination to sense the sneer beneath the well-polished words.
Why is Blast still so fragmented in terms of masculine and feminine identity? Part of the reason could be that men and women are, at this point, still thinking and writing as separate and distinct entities. Instead of people, they are writing as genders. Mary Gordon states in the introduction of Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, that to Woolf, “it is particularly difficult for a modern writer to transmit reality. Modern women are frustrated and angry, their experience is limited; modern men are obsessed with the letter “I”; their writing is full of self-conscious indecency, self-conscious virility. It is essentially sterile. Thus, unless men and women can be androgynous in mind, literature itself will be permanently flawed” (Gordon xii).
But what does this mean, having an androgynous mind? It means that as a writer, one must look past the personal experience of gender and write from both perspectives, rather than from one or the other. But this is quite a difficult task, especially in the early twentieth century. Because it’s not just a problem with the men in society and how they treat and think about women. The women are to blame, as well, with their inherited and compliant natures. As Rebecca West’s Evadne shows us in “Indissoluble Matrimony’, their imbued docility causes them to unconsciously submit to men’s control over them, physically and intellectually, since that is what they have been taught for the entirety of their lives. “In a gender-stratified society, what men do is usually valued more highly than what women do because men do it. When gender is a major component of structured inequality, the devalued genders have less power, prestige, and economic rewards than the valued genders” (Lorber 123). Women have been essentially programed to be subservient to the demands of men. It is only logical to then understand and empathize with the fact that many would be afraid to express themselves in this way, after being oppressed for so long. In Talia Schaffer’s essay about modernist female writers she cuts to the quick and quickly gets to the heart of the matter. There are “two drives,” she says, “the need to stay safe, protected, and private, and the equally importunate wish to publish her strongest emotions” (Ardis & Lewis 23).
Despite the suffragist movement being such a prevalent and important aspect of early twentieth century, the lack of the presence of women in the first issue of Blast is disturbing. Furthermore, the fact that they are, for the most part, regarded in such a careless and trivial way is disheartening, especially since this was a time period where old antiquated notions of gender and relationship roles were supposed to be steadily transforming. One would expect to see a plethora of poetry and stories from women in such an innovative magazine. But there isn’t. So what does all this mean? It could be that men were reacting to this new clamoring for women’s rights by asserting their own status as the dominant gender in the literary sphere. As Virginia Woolf said in A Room of One’s Own, “without self-confidence we are as babes in the cradle. And how can we generate this imponderable quality, which is yet so invaluable, most quickly? By thinking that other people are inferior to oneself. By feeling that one had some innate superiority over other people. Women have served all these centuries as looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of men at twice its natural size” (Woolf 35). This would indicate that men, being the dominant player in the gender war, are not entirely willing to allow women the equality that they desire, despite their insistence on creating a new literary experience.
The Suffragist Movement and Blast
The early 1900s were an extremely important time in English history. Not only was it a time of war, it was also a time of change and improvement. World War I was only one event that took place during the year 1914. The Suffragist Movement and the fight for women’s rights were also going strongly during this year. These issues and struggles can clearly be seen in the 1914 publication of Blast. Though it was originally started by a male, Blast printed works by both male and female writers. By looking at specific pieces of fiction published by authors of each gender, it can be understood that men and women had different views on the suffragist movement and showed their opinions in these pieces in Blast.
Woman’s suffrage was a movement that fought for the rights of women and the ability to run for office. The movement started in the 19th century and continued well into the 20th century with the strongest and most notable efforts being made in the United States and Britain. There were many groups that formed in order to work towards this goal such as the International Council of Women (ICW), the International Women Suffrage Alliance (IWSA), and the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies which was formed by Millicent Fawcett (Women’s Suffrage Movement). These groups fought to overcome the prejudices towards women that were occurring during this time, similar to what was going on in America. They believed in peaceful protest and felt that violence would cause men to believe that women could not be trusted to help make political decisions. However, some people were not satisfied with these sorts of methods, feeling that nothing was getting accomplished, and became more militant in their actions (Trueman).
In 1903, Emmeline Pankhurst, with the help of her daughters Christabel and Sylvia, founded the Women’s Social and Political Union. This group wanted women to have the right to vote and they were not willing to wait. The people that joined this group were referred to as ‘suffragists’ and they “heckled politicians, practiced civil disobedience, and were frequently arrested for inciting riots” (Women’s Suffrage). Until 1905 the group was relatively peaceful, but after a political meeting in Manchester ended with Emmeline Pankhurst and Annie Kenney getting arrested, everything changed. The Suffragettes fought violence with violence, burning buildings, breaking windows, shouting abuse to those they passed, and making public displays of protest (Trueman).
One of the works included in the 1914 edition of Blast speaks directly to these suffragettes and their harsh methods. Titled “To Suffragettes,” this specific article is dedicated to these people and speaks both with admiration for their dedication to the movement but also disdain about their methods and practices in doing so. It points out their ignorance of art and asks them to not destroy it during their more activities, specifically saying “you might some day destroy a good picture by accident” (Lewis 151). The blow of this criticism is lessened with the quote “Mais soyez bonnes filles! Nous vous aimons!” (Lewis 151) which roughly translates to “But be good girls! We love you!” The article compares these people to the art they were destroying, claiming that they and the artwork are the only things left with any sort of life left in them. While fighting for the suffragist movement in general was a very good thing, these people were simply going about it in the wrong way and had to know that their actions were doing harm as well as good. Having been written by a man, it is important to note that support for the cause was being provided, and that the only disagreement was with the methods being used.
Another piece of writing in the first issue of Blast that can relate to the suffragist movement was Rebecca West’s “Indissoluble Matrimony.” This particular piece was a depiction of a socialist and activist woman Evadne, winning the sex war against her husband George. Compared to many other modernist women writers, there is a masculine tone present in West’s writings that show independence, motivation, and intelligence of women. “Her female protagonists often speak in a tone of authority that can be taken as masculine” (Scott 170). These leading ladies that West writes about tend to be strong, beautiful women who break gender norms. In “Indissoluble Matrimony,” Evadne is a combative female that is fighting for her identity as a spokeswoman for socialism. This story shows one night in the life of a strong woman overcoming a man, and portrays a feminine vision that goes beyond being violent and the aestheticized violence of vorticism (Scott 1693-185).
By examining the implications of gender and beauty, Rebecca West is able “to offer an idea of modernism that challenge the repetition of wasted lands, culturally and economically impoverished lives, and sexual and class warfare” (Scott 187). In “Indissoluble Matrimony” there is an evident example of a defiance of structure and a push towards liberating behaviors, which therefore makes it perfectly clear why it was included in the first issue of Blast. This story shows different racial and gender inequalities that were present during the early 20th century, which therefore makes it relatable to the suffragist movement that was also taking place (Rohman 27-28).
Having been written from a female perspective, it is clear that there is an importance placed on the fact that Evadne was an intelligent woman and that her husband was trying to repress her, just as how women at this time were fighting for their rights to vote and were being repressed. The stereotypical gender roles here are reversed, making the woman be the strong and assertive character while the male is weak and cowardly. The entire work was written in third person, but was limited because it followed the thoughts of George, who would have had similar thoughts as many people during the early 1900’s. People, men especially, did not want women to gain rights, and especially did not want them to vote. This is something clearly seen throughout this short story and is the prime reason that West wrote it and had it published in this magazine. Not only was the world changing, but the suffragist movement was having an effect on people, both men and women.
Another work that was printed in this edition of Blast was “The Saddest Story” by Ford Maddox Heuffer. Also known as Ford Maddox Ford, this short story was only a portion of his much longer work The Good Soldier. This story is about a man named John Dowell who, with his wife Florence, had a nine year acquaintance with the couple Edward and Leonora Ashburnham. It is written in first person from Dowell’s perspective and jumps around from present to past many times throughout the four sections that were printed here. One of the main ideas of this story is that reality is not always as it seems. None of these characters are who they say they are. Edward is not actually a good soldier, Florence is not a faithful wife, and Leonora is not an upright woman who lacks emotion. The story ends up following Dowell’s realizations of people and the sad truth about reality, and that it is really only one person’s view of reality and not necessarily fact.
What connects this story to the idea of the suffragist movement at this time was the way in which Dowell saw the women throughout the story. Before he found out about what his wife and friends were all up to, Dowell believed that everyone was normal and rule abiding citizens of society. When he instead realizes just how abnormal the people around him are however, Dowell believes that they will pose a threat to society, similar to how women during this time in history were posing a threat to the way things had always been. Dowell was forced to eventually realize that change happens and that while passion can be a threat to society, and while he may not like society, the two will continue to be affected by one another and will continue on (Gose 495-496).
The early 20th century was a time of great change for women around the world. It was at this time that the suffragist movement was taking place and people, men and women alike, were campaigning for women’s right to vote. The year 1914 was an especially important year in British history. Not only was it the year that World War I began, it was also a year in which many suffragist groups were lobbying for rights and the year that the first issue of Blast was printed. It was no coincidence that some of these events happened at the same time, and that they affected one another. By looking at works written by Wyndham Lewis, Rebecca West, and Ford Maddox Heuffer, it is clear that the current events of the time affected people of all genders in varying ways. By publishing their opinions in Blast, these authors, and the many others that wrote for the magazine, all played a very important role in the spreading and preserving of the thoughts and feelings of the 20th century suffragist movement.
A Warning to Suffragists by Cicely Hamilton (The End)
Suffragist Poster from the early 1900’s.
Portrait of Rebecca West drawn by Wyndham Lewis. The drawing demonstrates Lewis’s skill as a draughtsman and his ability to capture the features of his sitters. The portrait combines elegance and irregularity, and reflects Lewis’s views on personality as complex and various.
A reading of Rebecca West’s “Indissoluble Matrimony.”
A video about the life of Rebecca West and her importance in the 20th century.
Ardis, Ann L., and Leslie W. Lewis. Women’s Experience of Modernity: New Voices, NewViews, 18751945. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 2002. Print.
Gose, Elliot B. “The Strange Irregular Rhythm: An Analysis of the Good Soldier.” PMLA. 3rd ed. Vol. 72. Modern Language Association, 1957. 494-509. Print.
Lewis, Wyndham. Blast: Review of the Great English Vortex. Vol. 1. London: John Lane The Bodley Head. 1914. Print.
Lorber, Judith, and Susan A. Farrell. The Social Construction of Gender. Newbury Park, CA: Sage Publications, 1991. Print.
Martin, P. Y. “Gender As Social Institution.” Social Forces 82.4 (2004): 1249-273. Web.
Richards, Jill. “Model Citizens and Millenarian Subjects: Vorticism, Suffrage, and London’s Great Unrest.” Journal of Modern Literature 37.3 (2014): 117. Web.
Rohman, Carrie. “On Marrying A Butcher: Animality And Modernist Anxiety In West’s ‘Indissoluble Matrimony’.” Mosaic: A Journal For The Interdisciplinary Study Of Literature 40.1 (2007): 27-43. Print.
Scott, Bonnie Kime. “Refiguring the Binary, Breaking the Cycle: Rebecca West as Feminist Modernist.” Twentieth Century Literature 1991: 169-191. Print.
The Modernist Journals Project (Blast). Brown and Tulsa Universities, ongoing. http://www.modjourn.org.
Trueman, C. N. “Suffragettes.” History Learning Site. 17 Mar. 2015. Web. 02 May 2016.
West, Candace. “Doing Gender.” Gender and Society 1.2 (1987): 125-51. JSTOR. Web. 02 May 2016.
Martin, P. Y. “Gender As Social Institution.” Social Forces 82.4 (2004): 1249-273. Web.
“Women’s Suffrage.” History of Women’s Suffrage | Scholastic.com. Web. 02 May 2016.
“Women’s Suffrage Movement | HistoryNet.” HistoryNet. Web. 02 May 2016.