If Death Becomes Cheap

Alice Kelly, Commemorative Modernisms: Women Writers, Death and the First World War

Edinburgh University Press, 304pp, £80.00, ISBN 9781474459907

reviewed by Lizzie Hibbert

The death of somebody you love changes everything. In her meditation on the unexpected death of her son, Time Lived, Without Its Flow (2012), Denise Riley writes that in the moments after the news of a loss, ‘[n]othing has changed, and yet it all has.’ You hang up the phone call that broke the bad news to find that the room has shifted around you somehow; you step outside the hospital, after saying goodbye, into air that smells strange and new. The next morning, when you wake up, the sun will have risen as usual, but the light will be streaming through the curtains and onto your sheets at a wholly different angle than it did before. It is you who has changed: ‘You are returned after your brush with another’s death,’ writes Riley, ‘and you’ve been returned differently.’

Of the sixty million troops who fought in the First World War, around ten million died. Taking into account a conservative estimate of seven million civilian deaths, it is thought that between 28 July 1914 and 11 November 1918 at least seventeen million people died as a direct result of the war. They died not only in the mud-filled trenches of Flanders and Picardy, but also in waters from the Atlantic to the port of Tsingtao, atop the Dolomites and the Carpathians, and under the sweltering suns of the Sahara, the Kalahari and the Gaza Strip. They died from shell blasts, artillery wounds and poison gas; of typhoid, influenza and starvation. ‘The days passed into weeks, the weeks into months,’ writes the imagist poet Richard Aldington in his war novel Death of a Hero (1929), ‘[a]nd every incident seemed to beat on [the] brain Death, Death, Death.’ It is no wonder that Katherine Mansfield felt ‘in the profoundest sense’ on the eve of the first anniversary of the Armistice, as she wrote to her husband John Middleton Murry, ‘that nothing can ever be the same’: death changes people; and the First World War brought ‘Death, Death, Death’ to everybody.

In the same November 1919 letter, Mansfield declares that ‘artists [. . .] are traitors’ if they fail to recognise the ‘change of heart’ that the war provoked, and that they therefore ‘have to take it into account and find new expressions[,] new moulds for our new thoughts & feelings.’ This is the epigraph and premise of Alice Kelly’s magnificent debut monograph, Commemorative Modernisms: Women Writers, Death and the First World War. To Kelly, ‘much of what we call modernist experimentation in terms of death can be traced to its specific sociohistorical wartime and postwar context.’ In its insistence on the continuity of the so-called ‘high modernist literature’ of the 1920s and 1930s with First World War writing and earlier literary cultures, Commemorative Modernisms places itself within a distinct, if not dominant, strand of modernist scholarship – one which takes the war to be modernism’s major inciting incident. Kelly’s examination of the ‘conservative literary tropes for depicting the war dead’, for instance, which comprises the first half of the first chapter, tracks the development of ‘deathbed scenes, burial rituals and cemetery scenes’ from the ‘Victorian culture of death’, through nurses’ accounts of field hospitals, to postwar works by paradigmatic modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf and H. D. (Hilda Doolittle).

This genealogical analysis sets the stage for one of Kelly’s essential themes: the tension, in representing the war dead, ‘between tradition and change’. On the one hand, encountering death prompted ‘an attempted return to earlier conventions, sites and tropes of literary death and memorialisation’; on the other, it presented an opportunity ‘for imaginative experimentation.’ Kelly’s insistence on this abiding ‘tension’ supplies a convincing answer to what she calls the ‘debate’ over whether the war was ‘a break with, or continuation of, historical and literary development’, which has dominated the study of First World War writing since Paul Fussell’s hugely influential The Great War and Modern Memory (1975). At the same time, Kelly’s refusal to accept the binary premise of the ‘debate’ keeps her from getting entangled in the scholarly weeds; it means she does not need to retread the same half-dozen texts which seem to crop up in the introduction to every previous monograph on the subject.

This is not to say that Commemorative Modernisms refrains from intervening in the critical landscape. Far from it: Kelly’s framing of the First World War as, above all else, a collective ‘brush with another’s death’ and of the interwar period as a ‘crisis in attitudes towards death’ is more radical than it may at first appear. From its inception, scholarship on First World War writing has been strangely euphemistic – even evasive – when it comes to the topic. In a 1976 essay on Ford Madox Ford’s Parade’s End tetralogy (1924-1928) and John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (1930-1936), for example, Malcolm Bradbury concludes that Ford (who fought in the Battle of Passchendaele and suffered the lifelong effects of trauma) ‘saw the war’ as, above all else, ‘a movement away from historical realism, a desubstantiation of life which would be mimed in a modern style.’ Three decades later, Vincent Sherry’s The Great War and the Language of Modernism (2003) argued that the First World War manifests itself in the works of noncombatant modernist writers such as Ezra Pound, T. S. Eliot and Virginia Woolf primarily through echoes of ‘the prodigal logic of Liberal war policy.’

The problem is not exactly that critics have themselves occupied this cool, analytical position with regard to the First World War’s devastating death toll, but that they have too often ascribed this attitude to contemporaries. Kelly, in contrast, is acutely alert to the sense, as Middleton Murry wrote back to Mansfield on 11 November 1919, that those who lived through the war ‘have really known, do really know, what sorrow and pain are.’ Commemorative Modernisms recognises – simply, brilliantly – that the war’s main bequest to the culture of the 1920s and 1930s was sadness. In a chapter on ‘Woolf and Mansfield in the Postwar World’, Kelly quotes a diary entry by Woolf from August 1920. This entry, written ostensibly in relation to what she saw as ‘the sadness, the satire’ of Don Quixote, asks whether sadness is ‘essential to the modern view’. In this innocuous statement, the ‘impact of the war on the whole postwar world, including civilians, is clear’: whatever attitudes to ‘modern style’ or ‘Liberal war policy’ the postwar world may have had, these grew out of that sadness.

Commemorative Modernisms’s most original – and most moving – moments come when Kelly observes the persistence of grief’s extremity and strangeness, even at a time when death was common to the point of mundanity. In an early section on ‘wartime death’, she notes that the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (CWGC) designed its 2’6” by 1’3” Portland limestone headstones, of which there were 400,000 by 1927, with ‘democratic uniformity’ in mind. If the identity of the fallen soldier was known, it was unobtrusively engraved on his headstone along with his regimental badge, rank, unit, age and date of death, along with a crucifix, a Star of David, an Om or a star and crescent as appropriate. ‘The one element of personalization,’ writes Kelly, ‘was the possibility of a sixty-six character inscription (with a fee per character),’ subject to approval by the CWGC. Kelly lists a few examples of such inscriptions, all of which defy the ‘democratic uniformity’ the cemeteries sought to impose, insisting instead on the specificity of each death and of each bond that death severed: ‘EVER IN MY THOUGHTS / MY ONLY CHILD / MOTHER’; ‘FORGIVE O LORD / A MOTHER’S WISH / THAT DEATH / HAD SPARED HER SON’; and, most heartbreaking, ‘“I’M ALL RIGHT MOTHER / CHEERIO”’ (which, Kelly informs us, is ‘quoting a letter home’ from the lost son). For Kelly, these inscriptions demonstrate ‘the cultural construction of women as primary mourners’: the emphasis in each falls on ‘MOTHER’. Mourning here is a mutually constructive process for the (female) mourner and the (male) mourned, which asserts both parties’ persistent selves, even in the face of slaughter on an industrial scale.

In her chapter on ‘Deathbeds, Burial Rites and Cemetery Scenes in Nurses’ Narratives’, Kelly turns her attention to frontline nurses. It was the practice of these nurses to follow a strictly regimented routine for ‘Laying Out the Dead’: the 1912 British Red Cross Society Nursing Manual lists ten steps from ‘throw the sheet over the corpse, covering the face as well as the body’ to ‘tie the feet together’. Despite this uniformity, shows Kelly, they took care to ‘particularis[e] the scene’ of any death; in these nurses’ narratives, ‘all deaths are individual deaths’. In A Diary Without Dates (1917), her account of the year-and-a-half she spent as a member of the Voluntary Aid Detachment (V.A.D.) nursing a seemingly endless stream of gravely wounded British soldiers, Enid Bagnold poses an explicit question: ‘Can one grow used to death?’ She immediately answers herself: no, it would be ‘unsafe to think of this. . . For if death becomes cheap it is the watcher, not the dying, who is poisoned.’ Bagnold’s sense – that if men had a responsibility to risk dying to protect their country, then women had an equal responsibility to protect death from being made cheap – is also implicit in many of the texts Kelly examines by civilian modernist writers.

It is a conviction which comes across particularly strongly in Kelly’s chapter on Katherine Mansfield, whose brother Chummie’s death appears to have spurred her towards a dramatic ethical and aesthetic realignment. Despite the fact, as Middleton Murry wrote in 1918, that ‘no single one of Katherine’s friends who went to the war returned alive from it’, Mansfield’s grief for Chummie was unique in nature and intensity. In a journal entry written shortly after his death in October 1915, she wrote that ‘life is over for me’: that ‘though he is lying in the middle of a little wood in France and I am still walking upright [. . .] I am just as much dead as he is.’ Mansfield’s portrayal of herself – complete with the curly fringe and lacy collars she sports on dust-jackets – lying next to her uniformed brother on the Western Front is a potent image of how grief for and commemoration of the dead were understood to be a coequal form of service for women, both during and after the war. It is also illustrative of what Kelly calls one of her ‘underlying premises’: that, as Allyson Booth writes in Postcards From the Trenches (1996), the modernist literature of the 1920s and 1930s ‘handle[d] the bones of the war dead.’

In an ‘unofficial modernist manifesto’ she produced November 1919, Mansfield wrote that those who had survived the war had ‘died and lived again’, endowing them with a form of ‘tragic knowledge’ which they must use to ‘face death [. . .] through Life’. Through its meticulously researched details and inspired close readings, Kelly’s ultimate argument is this: that the true animating principle of literary modernism was not Ezra Pound’s call to ‘Make it New!’, but Mansfield’s call to ‘face death [. . .] through Life’.

In 2020, during the spring peak of the coronavirus pandemic, NHS palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke wrote for the Guardian that ‘when the statistics threaten to throw me off balance – the unprecedented number of deaths for peacetime – I try to keep things as small as I can.’ This was in May, when, as now, every day brought with it an incomprehensible new death toll: 709 on the first, 587 on the second, 291 on the third (a Sunday). ‘The way out of this pandemic cannot entail the sacrifice of those deemed less worth saving,’ said Clarke. Such sentiment, she held, would be ‘grotesque’. This (unheeded) warning is eerily reminiscent of Enid Bagnold’s entreaty in 1917 that death must not be allowed to become ‘cheap’. Like Bagnold before her, Clarke insisted that none of her patients was ‘a statistic’, that each was ‘loved and cherished.’ The pandemic, she wrote, ‘is a matter of flesh and blood. It unfolds one human being at a time.’

What makes Commemorative Modernisms so compelling, and so vital in the context of contemporary debates around the politics of death and remembrance, is the way it reminds us that the First World War, too, unfolded ‘one human being at a time’. Remembering this fact is a powerful rejoinder to nationalistic hijacking of mourning and commemorative practices. Kelly writes of how, like the many today who spurn the Poppy Appeal, Katherine Mansfield ‘loath[ed]’ the ‘conservative celebration of military power’ she saw on the first Armistice Day in London, with its ‘portraits eight times as large as life of Lloyd George & Beatty blazing against the sky’, its ‘drunkenness and brawling & destruction’. She wrote to her friend Ottoline Morrell that, ‘seeing all these horrors […] my mind fills with the wretched picture I have of my brother’s grave’. The Armistice Day parade offended Mansfield because it flattened the huge, singular grief she felt for her beloved brother into a mere portion of a large, generic sentiment everybody shared. The pictures of the prime minister, the waving union flags, and the cheering crowds were all alien, because, for her, the war had never been a matter of victory and defeat, of Britain and Germany, or of glory and dishonour. For Mansfield, and for countless others, the First World War meant only that the person she had loved most in the world now lay dead in a distant land. No parade, no applause, and no two-minute silence would ever bring him back.

Lizzie Hibbert is a PhD candidate at King’s College London, writing about deep time, memory, and the First World War. She is editor of the Still Point literary journal.