The Modernist Party began as a teaching idea. In my previous job, at the University of Glasgow, I was looking for a way to introduce students to Modernist literature – a notoriously difficult, though richly rewarding, set of works by writers such as Virginia Woolf, T. S. Eliot and James Joyce. In the first class, we began with a general discussion of parties (show me the student who hasn’t been to one). After exploring how people might feel before, during and after attending a party, we moved on to discuss parties in some famous Modernist texts: Joyce’s ‘The Dead’, Woolf’s To The Lighthouse and Katherine Mansfield’s ‘The Garden Party’, investigating how these scenes work formally and thematically. The students had already each researched a modernist figure – a writer, artist, dancer, musician, philosopher – and I then asked them to role-play him or her at an imagined party taking place in the 1920s. (I played Ernest Hemingway and was asked why I’d written such a gloomy ending to A Farewell to Arms.) Still sitting round the seminar table, the students and I introduced ourselves in character and made small-talk. At the end, we discussed what we’d learned about our Modernist fellow-guests and how the role-playing had felt. ‘Awkward’, ‘fun’, ‘embarrassing’, ‘hard to keep up the pretence’ were among the responses: useful things to have learned about modernist experiences. I repeated the class the following year at Glasgow and this time we stood up and moved about as we mingled, which made the experience more realistic. When I came to Birkbeck, I used the format as the opening seminar of my course on English Literary Modernism. The fact that, like all Birkbeck seminars, it was taking place in the evening made for even greater verisimiltude. This time, I dimmed the lights and provided soft drinks. A student commented:
I personally found the mock party very productive. It was a great way of making someone understand how they might feel at a party. I loved it because it made me feel nervous, anxious and coward, but I also found it enjoyable. I guess these feelings are common to most people in modernist party, and making someone actually experience the feelings and experiences of modernist party gives a more clear idea of the modernist party as you are not simply reading or hearing something but experiencing it.
I’m delighted to have found a format that gives students experience of Modernism from the inside, as it were, and I’m enormously grateful to the Birkbeck and Glasgow classes for playing along so sportingly.
It’s always gratifying to an academic when teaching and research come together, and at the same time as experimenting with the Modernist party in the classroom, I have been assembling a volume of essays on the subject for publication. The Modernist Party is published this month by Edinburgh University Press. In 12 chapters internationally distinguished scholars explore the party both as a literary device and as a forum for developing modernist creative values, opening up new perspectives on materiality, the everyday and concepts of space, place and time. There are chapters on Conrad and domestic parties, T. S. Eliot’s ‘Prufrock’ and performance anxiety, the party vector in Joyce’s ‘The Dead’ and Finnegans Wake, Katherine Mansfield’s party stories, Virginia Woolf ’s idea of a party, the textual parties of Proust, Ford Madox Ford and Aldous Huxley and the real-life parties of Sylvia Beach, Adrienne Monnier, Natalie Barney and Gertrude Stein, the black ‘after-party’ of the Harlem Renaissance and the party in extremis in D. H. Lawrence’s Women in Love.