Of angels and animals: Sexuality, spirituality, and social contexts in Rebecca West's modernist novels

Leslie Danel Batty, Purdue University


This dissertation examines the intersection of sexuality and spirituality in literary modernism, focusing this inquiry through the lens of Rebecca West’s modernist novels and her concurrent journalism, literary criticism, and personal correspondence. This project begins with a survey of West’s coverage of (and personal involvement with) the women’s suffrage movement, including her interpretations of the political significance of the voluntary spinster. This historical overview surveys the cultural contexts that gave rise to West’s first novel, The Return of the Soldier. From there, I read this novel as West’s meditation on the relationship between sexual initiation and spiritual and epistemological development. This project then turns to an examination of wartime sexual panic, post-war cultural nostalgia, and the rise of sexology. An understanding of early-20 th-century British sexology and theories of biological determinism informs my subsequent reading of what is arguably West’s most overtly modernist novel, Harriet Hume. I argue that this novel stands as an attempt to work out systems of connection between sexuality and spirituality—in particular, a dualistic system in which West posits sexual engagement as a prerequisite for reconciliation, cooperation, and peace between natural opposites.




Linett, Purdue University.

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