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Parties and the comic novel in interwar Britain

Murphy, EJ ORCID: 0000-0003-4750-9157 2020 , 'Parties and the comic novel in interwar Britain', PhD thesis, University of Tasmania.

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Abstract

Parties feature centrally in British interwar novels. Frequent references to and accounts of parties are used by writers in these works to express concerns about the self and its relationship with society in the early twentieth century. Shifting social and economic relations, combined with the aftermath of the First World War and the growth of leisure, gave rise to a body of literature that examined parties in detail. In particular, this thesis argues, the comic mode’s inherent concern with the social—through its observation and policing of human behaviour through laughter—made it an ideal vehicle for interwar writers to consider the party.
While Mikhail Bakhtin’s theory of carnival is the most influential theory used in scholarly examinations of festivity in literature, this thesis contends that Bakhtin’s account cannot fully characterise the divergent representations of the party between the wars. The thesis instead offers a study of the modern party that identifies and examines its people, places, and things. By analysing the elements that constitute parties and their interrelation—such as hosts and guests, clothing and appearance, food and drink, location and décor—this thesis yields new knowledge about how writers perceived the evolution of sociability during a period of increased mobility and change.
In order to situate the deployment and representation of parties, the thesis reads exemplary fictional texts in tandem with a collection of interwar nonfiction texts, including fashion periodicals, newspapers, cookbooks, and etiquette guides. This approach, grounded in cultural history, explores the socially and culturally loaded meanings of the structuring components of interwar festivity, locating the novels within the contexts in which they were first written, published, and read.
The thesis examines a selection of novels by four British writers of comedy: Evelyn Waugh, Stella Gibbons, Nancy Mitford, and E. F. Benson. It offers close readings of how each writer responded to the party in their work. In Waugh’s novels, he positions the relationship between host and guest as the central logic that governs a party’s coherency: without it, sociability descends into chaos. For Gibbons, parties contain transformative and aspirational potential, operating as sites of social mobility for both her heroines and middlebrow readers alike. Mitford’s focus on specialty festive occasions such as Christmas reveals how the aristocracy use parties to reaffirm ideas of tradition, Englishness, and nationalism—a type of nostalgia that Mitford comically deflates as bathetic. Benson’s Mapp and Lucia series, meanwhile, critiques the rigidity of performances at parties through the repetitive narrative structures inherent to the novel series as a form. When taken together, the texts analysed in this thesis reveal the live tensions in interwar British sociability between tradition and modernity.

Item Type: Thesis - PhD
Authors/Creators:Murphy, EJ
Keywords: parties, comedy, interwar Britain, sociability, E. F. Benson, Stella Gibbons, Nancy Mitford, Evelyn Waugh
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Copyright 2020 the author

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