For Britons during World War II, war was in the air, in the form of bombing raids, but also on the air, in the form of news and propaganda on the radio. “Everyday War” shows how Virginia Woolf and Sylvia Townsend Warner respond to war in the air by turning to the English countryside, reworking the conventions of pastoral under the pressure of the national emergency. Woolf's posthumous novel Between the Acts, written from 1939 to 1941, portrays a “remote village in the very heart of England” on the brink of war; Warner's The Corner That Held Them (1948), also written during the war years, chronicles the collective life of an isolated medieval convent in the Norfolk Broads. Neither author addresses air war directly, but air itself looms large in both their works—in the “airy world” of Poyntz Hall, as Woolf describes the rural setting of Between the Acts, and in the pestilential atmosphere of the Black Death in The Corner That Held Them. Disaffected with subjectivism, both writers look for new ways to open up their fiction to collective, “choral” consciousness. What they seek in the pastoral tradition is not a pristine national identity unsullied by miscegenation but a common folk culture inhering in the habits and ceremonies of everyday life. By focusing on the rhythms of communal existence rather than the inner life of their protagonists, these wartime novels exemplify the “outward turn” that Thomas S. Davis and others identify as characteristic of late modernism.
Everyday War: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Virginia Woolf in World War II
maud ellmann is Randy L. and Melvin R. Berlin Professor of the Development of the Novel in English at the University of Chicago. Her books include The Nets of Modernism (2010), Elizabeth Bowen (2003), The Hunger Artists (1993), and The Poetics of Impersonality (1987). She is the general editor of the new book series Midcentury Modern Writers at Edinburgh University Press and is currently writing a study of psychoanalysis and literature in World War II Britain and France.
Maud Ellmann; Everyday War: Sylvia Townsend Warner and Virginia Woolf in World War II. Novel 1 May 2017; 50 (1): 77–96. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00295132-3854299
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