Modernist Literary Luggage

LuggageIn this research conversation, Dr Emily Ridge discusses her PhD thesis on From House to Case of Fiction: A Study of Modernist Literary Luggage. The abstract for her thesis can be viewed through Durham University Library’s etheses service.

Your thesis looks at the representation of luggage in modernist literature. “Luggage” seems quite a specific topic. What inspired you to start on this line?

The inspiration for this topic goes right the way back to my undergraduate dissertation which looked at subject-object relations in modernist fiction and I chose to hone in on the suitcase and the portrait as specific object-examples. This was a somewhat arbitrary choice at the time but I became absolutely fascinated by luggage – its suggestion of adventure but also dispossession, mobility as well as obstruction, contents to discover but equally to hide, a framework for continual character reconstruction as much as for an essential self to be protected in flight – and found material which extended well beyond the bounds of a single dissertation.

I continued to accumulate material throughout my MA at University College London and in the year to follow until I realised there was a thesis to be written (or, at least, something to get out of my system!). Luggage is specific, yes, but it generates discussion in a wide range of directions, not least material cultures, travel and forms of mobility (from exploratory voyages to refugee displacement), gender (why, for example, are women always associated with bags?), as well as more abstract questions of metaphorical carriage, semantic or emotional.

Luggage, and more general ideas of transport and travel, are of course not new themes in literature. So what is it that means they come to especial prominence around the end of the nineteenth century and the beginning of the twentieth?

My primary focus in the thesis was on the use of luggage as a model for fictional form in modernist writing; for instance, analogies between packing and writing or conceptions of a novel as a case or a packed bag.

I wanted to present and explore an alternative to the familiar model of the house of fiction, a model more suitable for framing the dislocated experiences of the exiles and émigrés of the early twentieth century. I am far from suggesting that luggage suddenly appeared in literature at that time. Houses and cases have always co-existed in the literary imagination and my thesis indeed identifies a long tradition of invoking luggage in literature. What is interesting about this literary period in particular is that the condition of alienation and dispossession becomes an artistic aspiration rather than a narrative problem to be resolved, as in the Victorian novel, broadly-speaking.

Luggage expresses what Georg Lukács famously called the “transcendental homelessness” of the modern novel; a desire to make it new elsewhere, a forward-looking, forward-moving, forward-thinking impetus. Yet, it also conveys obstruction and an inability to let go of the past through the conception of the case as a memorial archive in transit. It is in its encapsulation of the contradictory impulses and imperatives of modernity that luggage is such a compelling object for study in modernism, one that has been overlooked to date.

You say that in the early twentieth century luggage seems to act as a metaphor for exiled or dislocated writers. What writers in particular? Was this something that became particularly acute in the wake of the War?

I mapped luggage imagery across an extensive range of texts, beginning with Dickens all the way up to Graham Greene and Samuel Beckett.

Early modernist luggage imagery often suggests possibility and innovatory adventure. Examples of this would be Max Beerbohm’s 1909 essay “Ichabod,” a celebration of the luggage label and the exhilaration of modern forms of travel, and Dorothy Richardson’s Pilgrimage sequence, in which Miriam Henderson’s saratoga trunk evokes a new and exploratory form of narrative.

Invocations of luggage as a material manifestation of a “make it new” mentality endure into the 1920s yet the “pack up your troubles” taint of wartime travel never quite disappears from luggage after the First World War. Disgruntled and suspicious customs officers loom large over later interwar luggage and it is shown, more often than not, to be rather more obstructive than enabling in works by authors like Elizabeth Bowen, Henry Green, George Orwell and Christopher Isherwood.

“The ‘pack up your troubles’ taint of wartime travel never quite disappears from luggage after the First World War”

The suitcase also becomes, of course, an emblem for the refugee or evacuee by the outbreak of the Second World War and for certain politically displaced writers, like Vladimir Nabokov, Irene Némirovsky and Stefan Zweig, it figures less as a promising beacon of new textual forms and experimental identities to be discovered and more as a memorial to a lost self made up of salvaged remnants.

You also mentioned gender, and the stereotypical association of women and bags. So do female authors in particular make reference to bags as a way of presenting their feminist concerns?

Women have long been associated with forms of mobile property, from the dowry to the handbag. Writers, as early as Freud and as recently as Steven Connor, have pointed to a likeness between bags and wombs and this is certainly an intriguing line of enquiry.

“The woman’s bag was reclaimed as an important symbol for female self-sufficiency and emancipation”

I was more interested in my thesis in setting this association in the historical context of changing women’s property rights. What I found is that the woman’s bag was reclaimed as an important symbol for female self-sufficiency and proprietorial emancipation with the emergence of the New Woman towards the end of the nineteenth century, as set against an older derogatory conception of women as “baggage,” dependent and impedimental bodies, in other words. This turnaround can be traced back to the figure of Nora in Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, a woman who walks out on her family with a single hand-held carrier bag, a gesture signalling autonomy but also drawing attention to the reality of women’s proprietorial dispossession for much of the nineteenth century.

This symbolic gesture of a woman’s packing and carrying her own bag was foregrounded by a number of writers, male and female, at the fin de siecle and into the early twentieth century, and was rendered in positive, satirical and contentious terms. I suppose I was mainly concerned with showing here that before the woman’s struggle for “A Room of One’s Own” came the struggle for her bag.


Lastly, where do you want to take this research next?

At the moment, I am working on turning my thesis into a monograph.

Related to this, I am conducting the research for a further article which will consider the relationship between women’s mobility and maternity through looking more closely at those bag-womb analogies in the works of a selection of early-twentieth-century women writers, specifically Frieda Lawrence, Katherine Mansfield and Edith Wharton. Building on my doctoral research, I have developed an interest in the politics of hospitality in late modernist writing – the ways in which representations of host-guest exchanges in literature of the 1930s and 1940s invoke and reflect upon acts of political diplomacy and the reception of refugees across Europe – and this will form the focus of my next research project.


One response to “Modernist Literary Luggage

  1. Pingback: Biographical Beginnings: The Anatomy of the Woman’s Bag | READ | Research in English at Durham·

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