Experiments in Decentralization: Suburban Spaces in the Writings of Early Twentieth-Century British Female Novelists
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My dissertation examines how Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, Vita Sackville-West, and Elizabeth Bowen utilize imagery of suburbia to formulate critiques of patriarchal gender norms. As lower-middle and working-class families relocated to suburbia in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they colonized a way of life that was specific to the affluent bourgeoisie. That such shifts in urban geography and demographics threatened the bourgeois identity is perhaps best observed through an analysis of the literary texts of the period, which featured suburbs as Gothic spaces of otherness, or as feminized lands of monotonous domesticity. John Carey and Andreas Huyssen argue that various male modernists’ artistic projects were partly a reaction to the perceived femininity and vulgarity of mass culture, which was repeatedly associated with suburban spaces. My project explores the relationship between these misogynistic discursive practices and the innovative representations of urban decentralization in the writings of the British female authors. My first chapter concerns a largely ignored fin-de-siècle literary interest in suburban masculinity, especially in detective Gothic stories by Arthur Conan Doyle and Arthur Machen. My other three chapters, which focus, respectively, on the works of Richardson and Woolf, Sackville-West, and Bowen, show how these authors subvert negative stereotypes of suburbia and traditional concepts of subjectivity and gender by portraying specific suburban spaces or the phenomenon of suburban growth as occasioning opportunities for women’s development of self-empowering personal privacy. While Michel Foucault’s ideas of the governmental management of space and deployment of sexuality enable me to study the links between suburban growth and gender, I also utilize Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of the chronotope or literary space-time; Henri Lefebvre’s differentiation between multiple modes of spatiality; Foucault’s idea of heterotopia; and Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari’s concepts of “smooth” and “striated” spaces and “becomings” to identify various degrees and combinations of destabilizing and rigidifying energies that exist in selected literary representations of suburbia. My project emphasizes the subversive energies galvanized by urban decentralization; analyzes the mutually productive relationship among spaces, gendered bodies, and class identities; and extracts a range of semantic possibilities from the history of suburbia.