“Romantic Moderns” – Alexandra Harris

I honestly have met a lecturer who is so engaging that it’s admirable; Alexandra Harris, the author of Romantic Moderns, came to lecture as a part of the “visiting speakers” seminar series that the English department is holding. Her lecture focussed on “Ancient and Modern: Landscapes in the 1930′s and 1940′s”. And it was honestly fantastic.

Professor Harris explored, in a very dynamic, engaging fashion, the relationship between artistic portrayals of the British landscape in mediums from advertisements for petrol, to abstract painters such as John Piper, and the literature and culture of Britain at the time. At the time, nationalism was prominent in Britain, and as the Second World War approached, it became only more vital in the consciousness of the nation. There was however an artistic disagreement between the classical and the surrealist in terms of what would best represent the cultural present of the United Kingdom; Paul Nash explored in particular the relationship between internationalism and indigenous works and used surrealism in conjunction with landscape portrayal. This created an inviting familiarity and at the same time disparity with the British landscape and what people believed they were aware of within it.

Professor Harris also however moved on to explore the relationship between Virginia Woolf specifically, and the landscape of Britain itself. Woolf used to speak her writing aloud as she walked on the moors, allowing them to become part of a very physical rhythm and construction and in this way, she connected her literature to the rhythm of her walks. She found a strong archaeological connection between half remember nursery rhymes, and texts that “bumped” into one another; her own individual perception of literature shaped her physical connection to it.

Literary pilgrimage is a phenomenon in itself, in that English Literature seems to have a landscape attached to it; consider for instance the physical movement over land in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or The Picture of Dorian Grey, which considers a more mental journey over landscape, specifically against the idea of the mentality of death. These pilgrimages therefore can be considered as both physical and mental and manifest themselves across most kinds of literature. Woolf herself considered both the landscape; in her unfinished work, The Waves, she examines physical landscape in conjunction with the mind; however in A Room of One’s Own, mentality is examined alongside the static nature of a home.

Harris’s lecture was fascinating; I feel distinctly privileged to have been able to meet such an admirable academic.

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