Ana Parejo Vadillo. Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism: Passengers of Modernity. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005. ISBN: 978-1403935380. Price: US$85[Notice]

  • Julia F. Saville

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  • Julia F. Saville
    University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Ana Parejo Vadillo’s Women Poets and Urban Aestheticism: Passengers of Modernity is a sophisticated hybrid study combining literary critical and feminist recovery work with urban studies and cultural history in a project that has as much to offer scholars of fiction and non-fiction prose as to poetry enthusiasts. The four figures who are the prime focus of her attention (Amy Levy, Alice Meynell, Graham R. Tomson, and Michael Field) will already be familiar to Victorianists from the pioneering work of Angela Leighton, Margaret Reynolds et al. in the 1990s. Vadillo enhances our appreciation of such poets with an intricately textured account of the spatio-temporal milieu within which they lived and the defining features of the modern urban poetics they variously invented in response. In a dense, but accessible introductory chapter, Vadillo immerses us in a fin-de-siècle London where the deaths of Robert Browning (1889) and Alfred, Lord Tennyson (1892), the expansion of urban mass transportation, and middle-class women’s intellectual activism all converge. Vadillo situates her study within the intersection of urban studies (in particular, the literary critical field emerging from the simultaneous appearance in 1973 of H. J. Dyos and Michael Wolff’s The Victorian City, Raymond Williams’s The Country and the City, and the English translation of Walter Benjamin’s Charles Baudelaire); theories of urban space (such as Michel de Certeau’s The Practice of Everyday Life and Michel Serres’ Atlas); and a constellation of critical works that followed them, most significantly those that examine women’s participation in the formation of a literature of urban rambling and consumerism (for example, Deborah Epstein Nord’s Walking the Victorian Streets, 1995 and Erika D. Rappaport’s Shopping for Pleasure, 2000). Against the idea of the wandering spectator-flaneuse, Vadillo sets the trope of the urban passenger: literally the beneficiary of burgeoning mass-transit systems (including horse-drawn omnibuses, trains, and the underground) and figuratively, one who experiences poetic transport as imaginative crossing of conceptual boundaries. With this many-layered methodological framework in place, she considers her passenger-poets—each of whom she also considers in the light of other literary genres—experiencing transport as a mechanized prosthetic that opens up new ways of engaging city life. In the process of mapping modes of specular detachment and aesthetic immersion Vadillo traces the ongoing dismantling of the nineteenth-century private/public divide through urban women’s everyday experience of Walter Pater’s aesthetic of flux. The study is organized into four chapters, each reading the work of a woman poet in relation to the spatio-temporal texture distinctive to the urban community of her residence. The first chapter (“Amy Levy in Bloomsbury: The Poet as Passenger”) unfolds Levy’s nomadic urban aesthetic in dialogue with the bohemian, transitional avant-gardism of Bloomsbury, where low rents attracted aspiring artists, intellectuals, and litterateurs. This chapter will have special charm for any scholar who has walked through the squares, crescents, and gardens of Bloomsbury on the way to the British Library. Vadillo’s reproduction of a fin-de-siècle map of the district (49)—an aid she provides for each chapter—invites readers to identify with the community of intellectuals who congregated around the British Museum and its legendary reading room from the late 1850s onward. Vadillo’s account of Bloomsbury’s intellectual milieu equips us for a fresh appreciation of the allusive, sometimes opaque simplicity of poems from Levy’s last collection, A London Plane-Tree and Other Verse (1889) published posthumously after the poet’s suicide that year. Uncovering the sexist and anti-Semitic assumptions underlying the dismissal of Levy as a “very minor or even minimous” poet (58), Vadillo’s readings suggest the odd suitability of the “minor” to conveying the modern individual’s common experience …

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