Come along to the first London Modernism Seminar of 2017!

The first London Modernism Seminar of 2017 will take place on Saturday 4 February, 11-1pm in Room 349 at Senate House. The theme is Speculative Modernism and we are very pleased to welcome as speakers Kate Macdonald (University of Reading) and Elizabeth English (Cardiff Metropolitan University).

About the seminar

The seminar is free and open to everyone interested in modernism. Postgraduate students are especially encouraged to attend. Directions to the venue can be found here.


About the papers

Kate Macdonald (University of Reading), ‘My mind reels before Vita and the universe’: Absurdity and speculation in Vita Sackville-West’s Grand Canyon (1942)

Grand Canyon is set in a speculative future in which Nazi Germany has defeated Europe, and is about to attack America, with whom it has already signed a non-aggression pact. Looking closely at this novel in its historical and literary context, I use evidence from correspondence from the Hogarth Press archive, held by the University of Reading Special Collections, to investigate Leonard Woolf’s criticisms of the novel. Vita Sackville-West used three distinct speculative modes in this novel, deploying science fiction, mysticism, narrative innovation and an unflinching challenge to her readers. Like many of the speculative authors of the late 1930s and early years of the war, Grand Canyon imagines a future conquest by Hitler, to be received as a vision of the future by their readers. The reception of the novel and the intent of the author, is thus actively related to warning, rather than passively being merely horrified.

I discuss speculation as a narrative technique in world-building, and the speculations that contribute elements of classical science fiction, and fantasy, to the novel. I also discuss Woolf’s warning that the novel, and Vita, risked being thought defeatist were it to be published, as a lens to consider how Vita used a speculation of an England defeated and an America on the brink as an act of war work. In this iteration, speculation is Vita’s Dreadful Warning to wartime readers that a Nazi victory could happen, and that it had to be stopped.

Kate Macdonald teaches British literature and publishing history in the Department of English Literature at the University of Reading. She researches twentieth-century British book culture, publishing history and popular reading, on which she has published widely. She blogs about reading, writing and publishing at


Elizabeth English (Cardiff Metropolitan University)  ‘she worships H.E.’: The Sacred and the Secular in Katharine Burdekin’s Sexological Utopias

Late 19th and early 20th century sexologists conceptualised same-sex desire, or sexual inversion, as an erroneous assignment of soul to body. Under this scheme, gender traits and characteristics were used to explain and justify sexual preferences. As Richard Von Krafft-Ebing put it, the female invert felt ‘the masculine soul, heaving in the female bosom’. Many modernist women, including the speculative fiction writer Katharine Burdekin, turned to these theories, constructed by men such as Kraftt-Ebing and Havelock Ellis, to make sense of their own desires and identities. According to H.D., Burdekin ‘worshipped’ Ellis and, indeed, the effect of his and other sexologists’ theories can be keenly felt throughout Burdekin’s corpus. However, unlike Ellis, Burdekin advocated the repression of sexual instincts and this tendency can be attributed to her interest in spiritual tenets. Rather than view this promotion of asceticism as somehow regressive or out of step with modernity, this talk reads Burdekin’s work through her connection with the Theosophical Society. By more intricately situating her work within a network of scientific and spiritual discourses, I argue that Burdekin consecrates sexological theories to come to a utopic, spiritualised understanding of sexual identity and desire.

Dr Elizabeth English is a Lecturer in English at Cardiff Metropolitan University. Her research focuses on modernist and early twentieth-century popular fiction with a particular interest in women’s writing. Her first monograph, Lesbian Modernism: Censorship, Sexuality and Genre Fiction, was published by Edinburgh University Press in 2015 and is out in paperback in April 2017. In addition to this, she is the author of a number of published essays and articles and is the Treasurer for the Modernist Network Cymru (MONC), which brings together scholars and professionals working on modernism in Wales to encourage collaboration and communication.

Organising committee

Suzanne Hobson, Queen Mary, University of London,

Tim Armstrong, Royal Holloway, University of London,

David Ayers, University of Kent, David Ayers,

Peter Fifield, Birkbeck University of London, p.

Helen Carr, Goldsmiths, University of London,

Clara Jones, Kings College London,