War trauma in women’s First World War poetry and autobiographical writing

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Hanley, Edel
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University College Cork
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Near-contemporaries, H.D. and Vera Brittain are both major women writers of the twentieth century who engage with war in their poetry and in prose yet have seldom been considered comparatively. In bringing them together, this thesis questions the binary that too often still applies in literary canons between Georgian and modernist modes, and between First World War writing and modernism. H.D. and Brittain contest the conventional criteria for inclusion in the First World War canon, and, in H.D.’s case, the Second World War canon. Women have been excluded from canonical First World War scholarship like Paul Fussell’s The Great War and Modern Memory (1975) due to their civilian status, and H.D. is doubly excluded from the critical canon, as Fussell constructs it, as a woman and as an experimental writer. Expansions of First World War literary scholarship post-Fussell have not fully bridged the divide between First World War and modernist writing, a rule proved by significant exceptions to it such as Vincent Sherry’s The Great War and the Language of Modernism (2007). However, women and civilian writers are now included in the literary history of the First World War. This thesis argues that women writers of opposing camps, and who are rarely examined together, adopt and adapt both Georgian tropes and experimental techniques to articulate war. It examines the poetry of mourning and loss in women’s war writing, considering the ways in which women delineate the lived experience of bereavement. This thesis thus crosses the divide between modernist and Georgian war writing in pointing out the similarities between women writing in different idioms. This research examines the ways in which war trauma inflects H.D.’s poetry and prose, prompting her rewriting of classical myths to address women’s subjectivity and her own wartime losses. Brittain’s poetry and autobiographical writing is discussed in comparison with that of H.D. and this thesis argues that Brittain deploys modernist and Georgian tropes to represent prolonged war trauma. Women writers use a range of genres and idioms to articulate war: H.D. makes use of poetry in Imagist and epic modes from Sea Garden (1916) to Trilogy (1946), and novel/autobiography in her war novels, Asphodel (1921) and Bid Me to Live (1960), while Brittain draws on experimental techniques in the poems of Because You Died (1934), memoir in Testament of Youth (1933), diary in Chronicle of Youth (1981), and letter/correspondence in Letters from a Lost Generation (1999). Brittain had served as a Voluntary Aid Detachment nurse in England, Malta, and France and this thesis explores nurses’ status as civilians and first-hand witnesses to battle, again challenging the binary between (male) combatants and (female) non-combatants, while also exploring the ways in which nurse writers use modernist strategies to reveal that women’s war writing exceeds and resists, as well as utilising, traditional modes of representation.
First World War , War trauma , Modernism , Women's writing , 20th century poetry , Autobiography
Hanley, E. 2022. War trauma in women’s First World War poetry and autobiographical writing. PhD Thesis, University College Cork.
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