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The Bloomsbury Modernisms of Margaret Harkness and Olive Schreiner

Wednesday 2 November 2022, 5.00PM

Speaker(s): Jade Munslow Ong (Salford)

Bloomsbury’s fame as a uniquely privileged site of modernist innovation is largely based on the art, writing, relationships and philosophies of the Bloomsbury Group at their peak in the 1920s. Yet 40 years prior, the area hosted other writers and intellectuals who also contributed to the development of literary modernisms. Olive Schreiner and Margaret Harkness were two such antecedents, and were part of various and overlapping women’s clubs, friendship circles, debating societies and progressive organisations that comprised the Bloomsbury groups of the late-1880s. During this period, Harkness produced her first two novels and a number of short stories, and Schreiner wrote a series of allegories collected as Dreams (1890). Harkness’s second novel, Out of Work (1888), and Schreiner’s allegory ‘The Sunlight Lay Across My Bed’ (1890) are considered here in the context of the writers’ friendship, and as formally distinct, yet politically- and aesthetically related, works of proto-/modernist socialist literature. Connections between Harkness’s Naturalism, Schreiner’s use of allegory, and literary modernism are established through reference to Georg Lukács’ work on the ideology of modernism, which is expanded to address what Jed Esty describes as the ‘lacunae’ of his ‘relative lack of interest in women’s writing’, and ‘two other, perhaps interconnected, blind spots in Lukács: modernism and imperialism’ (Esty 2009, 367). Following Esty in globalising Lukács in order to read the overlapping and co-determined modernisms of Harkness and Schreiner, it becomes possible to see how their writings ‘transferred the unfolding dynamic of modern history from the national frame of reference to a global one, retaining a reality principle adequate to objective social conditions but jettisoning the Lukácsian norm of universal (if uneven) progress’ (Esty 2009, 369). As such, both Harkness and Schreiner’s writings represent classed experiences typically occluded or denied by dominant cultures; use distinctive narratorial voices and proto-/modernist perspectival shifts to dialectically explore diverse subject, cultural and political positions; and present street-level views and sounds of the industrialised metropole as a place for contemplation, connection, action and (potential) liberation.  

Jade Munslow Ong is Reader in English Literature at the University of Salford; Principal Investigator on a three-year AHRC-funded research project, South African Modernism 1880-2020; and a 2022 BBC/AHRC New Generation ThinkerShe is author of Olive Schreiner and African Modernism: Allegory, Empire and Postcolonial Writing (Routledge, 2018), and has two books forthcoming: a co-authored book with Matthew Whittle entitled Global Literatures and the Environment: Twenty-First Century Perspectives (Routledge, 2023), and a co-edited collection with Andrew van der Vlies entitled Olive Schreiner: Writing Networks and Global Contexts (Edinburgh University Press, 2023). 

Location: Treehouse, Berrick Saul Building, University of York Heslington West Campus