The Improper Negotiation of Thresholds in Modern British Literature

Abstract for paper presented at ‘The Space Between: Literature and Culture, 1914-1945‘, ( Institute of Advanced Studies, University of London, July 2014 ).

The Great War brought a significant change in cultural understandings of architecture’s use in organizing social encounters, introducing a revolutionary new interest in private domestic space that quite literally restructured life for women and the growing middle classes. As a mark, perhaps, of its wide-ranging impact, this cultural transformation was mirrored almost instantaneously in the literature of the period, and domestic architectural space became a recurrent trope for surveying the uncanny modern world. Drawing on examples from Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) and Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1945), this paper will consider, specifically, the role of the threshold in domestic architectural space, and the ways in which the improper crossing of these thresholds speaks to the unspeakable or intangible anxieties of post-war society. Mrs Dalloway commences with the doors of a Westminster home about to be literally taken off their hinges, and reaches its clearest sense of a climax with Septimus Warren Smith’s self-defenestration. Waugh’s novel is punctuated by numerous moments of seemingly improper or indecorous negotiations of domestic portals: Sebastian Flyte throwing up through a window while standing outside; Anthony Blanche reciting The Waste Land not to those surrounding him, but with a megaphone out into Christ Church meadow; and, perhaps most provocatively, the path through the ‘low door in the wall’ that represents, to Charles Ryder, an invitation to the society of aesthetic and erotic delight. Reading these examples from Woolf and Waugh alongside the architectural theories of Palladio, Ruskin, and Bachelard, this paper will seek to articulate the role of thresholds in modern British writing, and the stark implications of characters negotiating such boundaries in an ‘improper’ or socially-unauthorized way.

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