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Romantic Moderns

posted on 08 Dec 2017

Romantic Moderns: English writers, artists and the imagination from Virginia Woolf to John Piper  by Alexandra Harris

In the years between the end of World War One and the start of World War Two a new artistic and cultural sensibility swept across Europe. This was Modernism, a philosophy that aimed to banish the last vestiges of the Victorian and Edwardian decorative tendencies. In their place would be a sharp-edged, streamlined minimalism that celebrated the clean lines of the new, modern Europe. Writers experimented with form, often abandoning narrative structure and taking us into the thoughts and feelings of their characters, giving us a privileged chance to see the modern world through their eyes and their sensibilities.

This is the starting point for Alexandra Harris’s formidable enterprise that won The Guardian First Book Award back in 2010. But before you get too worried, this isn’t a dense or unapproachable book – Harris wears her learning lightly and makes the journey both exciting and oddly relaxing.

Harris is keen to explore the idea that the English adopted Modernism and almost immediately started adapting it into something she calls Romantic Modernism. What characterised this very English interpretation of Modernism was a sort of nostalgia for the past – but a very particular past. When she reviewed the book on its publication Kathryn Hughes described it this way:

They loved country churches, tea in china cups wreathed with roses, old manor houses, abandoned fishing smacks, Gypsy caravans and, just as important, the soft English rain that smudged the outlines of all these precious things. Above all, their sensibility was local. While the other modernism saw national boundaries as just one more example of pernicious Ruritanian debris, romantic moderns celebrated the way England's crinkled coast enclosed the rooted and particular. Trees, stones, bodies, walls: these were no longer the flotsam that needed to be excluded from art. They were what art was all about.

The traditional view of the inter-war years has often seen figures like John Betjeman, Beverley Nichols and especially Edith Sitwell as eccentrics, outlying figures that didn’t reflect the spirit of the times but Harris makes a case for seeing these figures as actually in the mainstream, reflections of a particular Romantic Modernism.

She also claims that it was in fact Modernists who, when they abandoned their strict adherence to the strict European credo, were able to redefine what it meant to be English. She uses both John Piper and Virginia Woolf as examples of how this came about and she puts together a really compelling argument.

Harris’s scope is truly impressive and there are very few spaces she doesn’t dig into. One of my very favourite innovations in the book is where the author inserts a couple of small diversions into the analytical narrative – one called A Break For Refreshments and the other An Hour In The Garden – and these are two of my favourite parts of book. A Break For Refreshments is especially entertaining and looks at the role cooking played in creation of the English Modern Romantic sensibility and how by dipping back into the past, into English country cooking recipes, the Modernist English kitchen could be as revolutionary in culinary terms as any French Provincial menu.

The book is also lavishly illustrated but the pictures are there strictly to cast further light on the text and not just for decoration and I found this admirable in its own right. This is an outstanding book and one you’ll almost certainly want to return to more than once because there are riches here that need to be savoured over time.

 Fantastically you’ll get a hard or paperback copy of this book for a little over £10 and it really is absurdly cheap for a book of this quality.

 

Terry Potter

December 2017