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Ivy and Bones: Ruins and Reversibility During the Blitz

Le lierre et les os: ruines et réversibilité pendant le Blitz
Sophie Aymes
p. 55-72


L’article « Le lierre et les os: ruines et réversibilité pendant le Blitz » s’attache à montrer que la représentation des ruines du Blitz est traversée par la tension esthétique et sémiotique entre abstraction, pureté moderniste et accrétion naturaliste et pittoresque. La notion de réversibilité sert de piste pour explorer la manière dont les destructions engendrées par la guerre ou encore le sentiment d’un déclin culturel s’inscrivent dans les œuvres de Elizabeth Bowen, Herbert Furst, Claire Leighton, Rose Macaulay, John Piper, et Virginia Woolf, tout en étant contrebalancés par des modes de compensation imaginaire. La figure de la réversibilité permet d’analyser certains sites où les conflits esthétiques sont réactivés, des espaces bombardés à la page du livre en tant qu’objet culturel emblématique et artefact moderniste menacé de disparition.

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1Fictional descriptions of blitzed London often rely on the paradoxical portrayal of the bony structure of buildings and of the remnants of past life still clinging to the ruins like ivy: ‘bomb-sites piled with stony rubble, houses like giant teeth in which decay had been drilled out, leaving only the cavity’, but in which ‘the wallpapers of various quite normal rooms would be visible, room above room, exposed, as on a stage’ (Spark 7). The ruins are not only symbols of destruction but also of organic growth. The cavities exposed by the bombs call for new fillings, while the standing walls become settings or backdrops for a metaphorical stage, a significant feature of the iconography of the Second World War.

2This article examines how the representation of ruins reflects the aesthetic tension between the modernist quest for purity—exemplified by Roger Fry’s advocacy of formalism, by abstraction and functional architecture—and vernacular visions of picturesque accretion—John Piper’s ‘pleasing decay’, the tenets of anti-scrape architects, or Virginia Woolf’s rehabilitation of ‘impure associations’ in her last writings. This tension cut across all spheres of British cultural life in the 1930s and 1940s. It built to a climax during the Blitz as the intensity of the occasion brought these debates to a head and it informed ambivalent discourses about post-war reconstruction. Herbert Mason’s famous picture of St Paul in the midst of the blitzed City surrounded by clouds of smoke reminiscent of the Great Fire epitomizes these conflicting narratives of cultural history, tradition and modernity.

3My argument is that this dialectic process is marked by reversibility. It manifests itself not only in the representation of ruins, but generally speaking in key sites of Englishness such as the land and the garden, the house and the book. In line with Jed Esty’s contention that the late modernist generation ‘interpreted [imperial] contraction as an opportunity for cultural repair’ (Esty 2004, 7), ruined spaces belong to these clusters of metonyms in which anxieties about cultural decline as well as the affirmation of national culture are encoded. In reflecting on the tension between growth and accretion as opposed to clearance and destruction, I will consider some of the sites where wartime destruction and/or the sense of cultural decline were recorded as well as counteracted, and where aesthetic conflicts were re-enacted, from blitzed spaces to the printed page.

4These aesthetic debates have been re-evaluated significantly over the last ten to fifteen years, in the light of Blitz literature and late modernism. Some of the works examined here are conspicuous titles in what constitutes a widely accepted critical corpus while others are less well-known but significant instances of modernist aesthetics and print culture.

Abstract and Picturesque

  • 1 This reads as a confirmation of the fear expressed by Virginia Woolf in her diary: ‘The prospect of (...)

5Elizabeth Bowen’s novel The Heat of the Day provides one of the well-known depictions of blitzed London that bears witness to the aesthetisizing responses to wartime destruction. Ruins are the material consequence of and give immediacy to the fragmentation and dehumanising processes of the age, ‘these fuming utter glissades of ruin’ and ‘cataracts of rubble’ (Bowen 1950a, 23).1

6However in her fiction bombed-out spaces are also clearly delimited spaces or enclosures, as ‘the ropings-off of dangerous tracts of street made islands of exalted if stricken silence’, and the same stillness is to be found in ‘parks suddenly closed because of time-bombs’ that become ‘mirages of repose’ (Bowen 1948, 91).

7These carefully delimited spaces can exemplify the tension between modernist purity and naturalistic picturesque accretion: such empty spaces are abstract; their emptiness and stillness signify the absence of narrative, memories and anecdote, in a way that ties in with Roger Fry’s advocacy of a ‘pure and as it were disembodied functioning of the spirit’ that frees art from associated ideas (Fry 242). Emptiness creates a paradoxical feeling of relief among the people that crowd ‘against the ropes to admire the sunny emptiness on the other side’ (Bowen 1948, 91) as if they were contemplating a non figurative painting.

8However, abstraction is only a temporary stage in the life of ruins and they soon turn into picturesque sites because there is no stopping ‘London’s organic power’ (91): ‘The first generation of ruins, cleaned up, shored up, began to weather’ (92). This is most eloquently recorded in the last part of Rose Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins written at a time when ruins were still part of the urban landscape and England was ‘a ruined nation’ (Macaulay 130):

But new ruins are for a time stark and bare, vegetationless and creatureless; blackened and torn, they smell of fire and mortality.
It will not be for long. Very soon trees will be thrusting through the empty window sockets, the rosebay and fennel blossoming within the broken walls, the brambles tangling outside them. Very soon the ruin will be enjungled, engulfed, and the appropriate creatures will revel. (237)

9The ultimate stage is reached when ‘everything [is] grown with ivy and becoming one with the devouring woods’ (131). Another striking instance of contemporary fictional accretion was provided by Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast, ‘lost beneath a hundred seasons of obliterating ivy, creepers and strangling weeds’ (Peake 451), a locus of extreme architectural and organic picturesque intertextuality.

10This process recalls the seasonal change that affected aesthetic debates in the course of the 1930s and that was marked for instance by the changing reception of Fry’s ideas, as shown by Alexandra Harris who explains how Woolf in her biography of Roger Fry reclaimed the ‘impure associations’ that he had dismissed, citing as an emblematic example the village churchyard complete with ‘its owl, its epitaphs and its ivy’ (Harris 103). Abstraction had freed artists from the representation of the natural sign, holding the ‘devouring woods’ at bay. Its liberating power derived from its idealistic and generalizing approach and from its ability to create what Ben Nicholson defended in 1941 as an ‘unlimited and universal language’ (Nicholson 276). However in the later years of the 1930s a number of artists had reverted to figurative art and embraced the literariness of landscape painting and the Englishness of the land’s palimpsest in order to retrieve the objects discarded by abstract art, and recuperate ruins (Wasson 138–39). Some of them, such as John Piper, chose blank, bare or liminal spaces such as the beach as the starting point in what was perceived as a process of semiotic salvage after a period of abstract experimentation (Aymes 2010, 69–81; see Piper 1937, 69–73, and Piper 1938, 41). Another convert to the native ‘romantic’ tradition of landscape painting, Paul Nash concurred:

I discern among natural phenomena a thousand forms which might, with advantage, be dissolved in the crucible of abstract transfiguration; but the hard cold stone, the rasping grass, the intricate architecture of trees and waves, or the brittle sculpture of a dead leaf—I cannot translate altogether beyond their own image, without suffering in spirit. (Nash 29)

  • 2 See for instance John Piper 1940, 207–10, and Piper 1947, 85–94. These oxymora were coined after Jo (...)
  • 3 What Bowen calls in the same essay the ‘unhauntedness’ (59) of such spaces is contrasted with her f (...)

11Bowen’s fictional ruins are one way of exploring the aesthetic and semiotic tension between abstraction and naturalism, between the bareness of place and the litter on the beach as well as the rubble in blitzed London. These oppositions informed the broad discursive space of reconstruction analysed by David Matless in his study of planner-preservationist policies (Matless 201–02). The debates about the future of ruins set modern functionalism against anti-scrape, best represented by John Piper who extolled the picturesqueness of ‘pleasing decay’ and ‘decrepit glory’ in the 1940s,2 as well as by Rose Macaulay who liked her ruins ‘picturesquely served up’ (Macaulay 201) and covered with ‘the weathered patina of age’ (237). Macaulay deplored the work of the ‘destroying hand of the ruin-clearers’, the way the ‘ruins [were] stripped of their creepers’ (201), just as Bowen in a concatenation that was typical of the time criticised modern housing which was seen as being as destructive as wartime bombings: ‘Where is the eye to linger, where is fancy to dwell? No associations, no memories have had time to gather around the new soaring blocks of flats, the mushroom housing-estates. And, will they ever do so?—where shall they find a foothold? Nothing rustles, nothing casts a feathery shadow’ (Bowen 1950, 59).3

Modes of Imaginary Compensation

12The aesthetic strategies that were defined over the previous forty years or so, were marked by constant negotiations and by reversibility. The conflicting trends towards abstraction and the picturesque shaped the complementary forms of imaginary compensation that were dispensed to come to terms with wartime loss and destruction, and that partly defined late modernism. Leo Mellor has underlined how ‘modernism appeared to have been utterly and hauntingly proleptic’ and he insists that the ‘ruined city was not only material for writers, but also the background and inescapable condition of possibility for late modernism itself’ (Mellor 5). It could be added that the debates of the previous decades provided the aesthetic categories that were used to describe ruins and build forms of representations that recorded the horror of destruction but also held it at bay. In this regard the trope of reversibility bears testimony to the acute awareness of material and ontological instability and lends its performative efficacy to rhetorical strategies.

13In her long eulogy and anatomy of the pleasure of ruins, Macaulay records the life of ruins as part of the larger cycle of the decline and fall of civilisations, which may in time serve as a recipe for solace and recovery—she was left ‘bookless, homeless’ in 1941 (Macaulay quoted in Mellor 189): once ‘mellowed, weathered’, ruins achieve ‘a unique emotional grandeur’ (Macaulay 116). Comparing the destruction of the abbeys and monasteries in the sixteenth century with wartime bombings, Macaulay reflects on the function of picturesque ivy as organic anaesthetic or ‘muffler’: ‘The destructive bestiality was the same; but usually the long years, the swathing ivy and the thrusting trees, the extreme beauty which the conditions of ruin can create, muffle the anger and the vexation’ (134). Its aesthetic counterpart is the artist’s work: ‘ruin pleasure must be at one remove, softened by art, . . . or centuries of time’, whereby temporal accretion, organic growth and coats of paint—she quotes Piper (238)—contribute to assuage the pain of direct confrontation with loss and death, and reinforce cognitive compensation: ‘Ruins must be a fantasy, veiled by the mind’s dark imaginings’ (238).

14Bowen’s fiction provides the anaesthetic as well as its alternative, that is to say ‘dessication’ (Bowen 1945, 96), a form of crystallisation—or freezing—that counteracts the organic strength of the soil sprouting new buds: instead of heralding the advance of Macaulay’s engulfing jungle, the autumn leaves are ‘drifting on to the grass stage—here and there one turned over, crepitating as though in the act of dying’ (Bowen 1948, 7), and they acquire the quality of glass: ‘This year, the leaves are swept up with glass in them’ (Bowen 1950a, 23) and the ‘icelike tinkle of broken glass [is] swept up among the crisping leaves’ (Bowen 1948, 93).

15As noted above, modern functional architecture was seen by some as a form of destruction. In the debates about reconstruction, the upholders of anti-scrape advocated the preservation of ruins along with the picturesque ivy, an aesthetic emblem that encapsulated cyclic organic growth, the reference to natural signs, and the continuity of cultural memory. David Matless has underlined that the ‘proximity of planning and bombing [in visions of reconstruction] could . . . imply some uneasy affiliations’ (212), and this also applies to the use of aesthetic categories. In this sense the policy of abstract art that strips the underlying structure of the natural referent can be seen as being symbolically re-enacted by the Blitz. But in Bowen’s fiction its perceived destructive aspect is reclaimed by aesthetic dessication, described in The Heat of the Day as the daily cycle of phoenix-like rebirth and transmutation of dust into crystal: ‘Out of mists of morning charred by the smoke from ruins each day rose to a height of unmisty glitter; between the last of sunset and first note of the siren the darkening glassy tenseness of evening was drawn fine’ (90). The eye of the beholder is attracted to the ‘crystal pure air’ (Bowen 1950a, 21), just as Macaulay’s imagination soars ‘into the high empyrean where huge episodes are tangled with myths and dreams’ (Macaulay 26), in an imaginary process that counteracts impermanence as well as the threat of tropical engulfment, and testifies to what Adam Piette and Leo Mellor have described as the purgative and redemptive flames of fire (Piette 39–46 and Mellor, chapter 2).

16John Piper’s career is a case in point because it significantly followed this process of sublimation of organic matter defining what Matless has called the ‘modern vernacular’ (Matless 215), from weeds to glass, from picturesque painting to the design of stained-glass windows. Crystallisation marks the acute historical sense of the end of an era, seen as a moment frozen in time, as underlined by J. M. Richards, in his architectural obituary The Bombed Buildings of Britain: ‘The destruction has been made to symbolise the spectacular end of an era that will not return. From this point of view the ruin . . . represents the apotheosis of the past—the intense experience of these active days crystallized into architectural shape’ (Richards 2). But it also partakes of the dialectics of naturalism and abstraction. Piper, who designed the stained-glass baptistery window for the new cathedral in Coventry consecrated in 1962, shows how stained glass reconciles a formalist and a picturesque approach:

Minute depressions . . . have been made in the surface and have filled with dirt, so that the characteristic shading is produced, giving each piece a quality and a character, a patin. . . . In any case this influences our half unconscious, automatic apprehension of the old and the weatherworn and the valuable, our sentimental feeling for ‘pleasing decay’. It can give unity to fragments and coherence, especially coherence of tone, to assemblages of ‘bits’. (Piper 1968, 158)

17Piper’s text underscores resolution and continuity against narratives of decline and rupture (Aymes 2006). The patina on stained glass provides an artistic counterpart to the mineral, natural process of decay affecting age-old buildings, which finds its ultimate expression in vitrification. The ruins of blitzed cities result from a dramatic acceleration of this process and derive the same aesthetic value as they ‘reveal the visible effects of history’ (Piper 1947, 85). The patina on stained glass also seems to hold the different parts together—the design on the glass and the lead structure forming an abstract network—thereby asserting the continuity between modernity and tradition in the same way as Nash’s ‘brittle sculpture of a dead leaf’, at once abstract, naturalistic and pastoral.

Digging for Victory

18How do you reclaim meaning, how do you secure permanence in a chaotic world where cultural memories may turn into mere relics? Writers such as Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf undertook to record the sense of impermanence, ontological instability and cultural decline while asserting rootedness. This last part looks in more details at some of the sites where reversibility from order to chaos or alternatively from destruction to preservation is played out. The soil, the land and the book’s printed page are anchored in a common fictional and material culture, and they contribute to define a problematic late modernist pastoral.

19Bowen, the writer of the ‘enforced return’ (Bowen 1946, 53), anchored her subtext in the fictional soil to secure a ‘foothold’ (Bowen 1950b, 59). Literary associations and personal memories are rooted in the soil, and never fully eradicated: the imagination, she writes in the essay ‘Out of a Book’ (1946) is ‘rooted in a compost of forgotten books’ (53). ‘Some ideas,’ she adds in The Heat of the Day, ‘like dandelions in lawns, strike tenaciously: you may pull off the top but the root remains, drives down suckers and may even sprout again’ (75). Likewise Macaulay observes how ‘Shells of churches gape emptily; over broken altars the small yellow dandelions make their pattern’ (Macaulay 237).

  • 4 About The Waste Land as central hypotext, see for instance Harris 113–14, Mellor 192–95 and Gillian (...)

20As soon as you start digging however, you have to come to terms with the rubble of past failures and compromises, as Matless has argued (Matless 211). Still, rootedness provides a form of anchorage at a time, writes Woolf in her diary in June 1940, when ‘[w]e pour to the edge of a precipice’ (Woolf 1984, 299). Although ‘[m]arriage with cousins . . . can’t be good for the teeth’, reflects Mrs Swithins in Between the Acts, and in spite of the fact that ‘the old families who had all inter-married, . . . lay in their deaths intertwisted, like the ivy roots, beneath the churchyard wall’ (Woolf 1941, 21, 7), roots retain the soil, prevent it from sliding away, and belie the sterility of the fragmentary waste land.4 In Woolf’s final novel the trees surrounding the stage of the pageant are compared to ‘the spaced pillars of some cathedral church’ (Woolf 1992, 108). They form stable landmarks around which swallows and sounds circulate, waiting for some form of musical resolution: ‘Yes, they barred the music, and massed and hoarded; and prevented what was fluid from overflowing’ (108). As such the trees obey the same structural principle as the lead in Piper’s stained-glass windows and partake of an effort to assert continuity.

  • 5 Not that Woolf condoned governmental injunctions. About Woolf, pageantry, the late modernists’ ‘bal (...)

21The recurrent song in Woolf’s pageant—‘digging and delving, ploughing and sowing they were singing, . . . hedging and ditching’ (75, 84)—although at times inaudible because the wind disperses the words, dovetails into the wartime pastoral, which includes the government’s economic injunction: ‘digging for victory’.5 The diggings of farmers and gardeners symbolically reverse the impact of bombed-out holes, and are inscribed within the discourse of national resilience. As such they also emulate the diggings of archaeologists revealing the layers of the land’s palimpsest now threatened with erasure, and preventing it from becoming unreadable—a vain endeavour according to Bowen who assesses the consequences of this ‘obliteration of so many tracks and landmarks’ in her essay ‘The Bend Back’ (56). Reversibility works both ways and this concept usefully embraces decay and loss, and on the other hand recovery. It also precludes confident closure.

22In Between the Acts reversibility provides a form of compensation with a grain of ironic salt. Indeed the novel’s opening page offers a glimpse of the land as palimpsest. Yet furrows can be carved by farmers as well as by enemy planes: ‘At any moment guns would rake that land into furrows’ (Woolf 1992, 34). Likewise, the cyclic pattern of the pastoral marked by the passing of the seasons spells out the certainty of eternal return—‘All passes but we, all changes . . . but we remain forever the same’ (84)—but also the certain downfall of civilisations: ‘Palaces tumble down (they resumed), Babylon, Nineveh, Troy . . .’, goes the pageant’s song (84), a dirge resumed in the opening pages of Macaulay’s Pleasure of Ruins when she evokes the mythical cities of the ‘stupendous past’ (Macaulay 26), and also the ‘falling towers’ of T. S. Eliot’s Waste Land (Beer 1992, x). In her introduction to Between the Acts, Gillian Beer has underlined the ‘contingent ironies’ in the text (ix-x), as when Woolf collapses pastoral imagery with a reference to wartime searchlights: ‘The future shadowed their present, like the sun coming through the many-veined transparent vine-leaf; a criss-cross of lines making no pattern’ (Woolf 1992, 70), whereas Bowen’s close-up description of leaves seems to offer a more optimistic vision—as long as the sun doesn’t set—thanks to or in spite of the ironic reference to Churchill’s famous speech: ‘the very soil of the city at this time seemed to generate more strength: in parks the outsize dahlias, velvet and wine, and the trees on which each vein in each yellow leaf stretched out perfect against the sun blazoned out the idea of the finest hour’ (Bowen 1998, 91).

  • 6 I am aware that Jerome McGann has demonstrated the link between the rag and bone shops—rather than (...)

23During the pageant in Between the Acts the breeze blows ‘gaps between [the] words’ (Woolf 1992, 84) which are typographically materialized by the suspension dots in the text, and which anticipate the description of the sounds circulating between the pillar-like trees. The suggestion that the typographic signs on the page evoke the trees planted in a garden now leads me to reflect on the printed page as an antithesis to the ruin, but also as a site where reversibility manifests itself. Books are central metonyms of the house—a legacy of Arts and Crafts design—and their role as symbolic bricks and mortar was upheld by modernist designers since, as the typographer and publisher Francis Meynell put it, ‘the walls and doors [of houses] are bound together in an amiable continuity by books’ (Meynell 7). They are also metonyms of the garden—as shown for instance by two particular works that I will now briefly consider: Claire Leighton’s Four Hedges (1935) and Herbert Furst’s Essays in Russet (1944) invite a comparison between the page and a garden or a ploughed field, which is incorporated into the wartime trope of England as besieged ‘garden-nation’, to borrow Piette’s quotation of Dorothy L. Sayers (Piette 265–66). Books may be bulwarks against chaos, they can also be reduced to ashes by bombs or by book-burners (Piette 47)—a threat reinforced by the organic, pastoral and symbolic kinship of paper leaves with the wood of trees, their ‘combustible fragility’ making them all the more precious (Mellor 2011, 189).6

24Essays in Russet is a collection of essays published in 1944 that takes up reversibility as its underlying theme. Along with Malcolm Salaman and Campbell Dodgson, Herbert Furst (1874–1945) had been one of the early critics who greeted and supported the revival of typography, fine printing and wood-engraving in the early decades of the century. In Essays in Russet, written shortly before his death, he describes himself as a gardener as well as ‘a wordmonger, . . . a word carpenter, or better still, a word cabinetmaker’, explaining that he loves ‘the grain of words, their surfaces, their polish, their veneer, and the marquetry and parquetry of patterns one can build with them’ (Furst 69–70), patterns which reproduce those of the fields in the countryside. Replacing his gardener who has joined the army, Furst does not so much dig, as hedge for victory: ‘I have just been doing a little hedging, hedging for victory as it were’ (43).

25Russet is the colour of autumn, the season of The Heat of the Day, before ‘obliteration of everything by winter’ (Bowen 1998, 145), where the ‘autumnal mould smell’ (126) evokes decay as much as the possibility of renewal since it is the smell of the wood’s compost, out of which new plants can grow. Essays in Russet is a short work steeped in nature writing, a thriving genre in the interwar period, that was associated with pastoral wood-engraved illustration, as shown by the fact that it is decorated with wood-engravings by one of the leading practitioners of the art, Agnes Miller-Parker (see Rogerson and Selborne). An outstanding pre-war example is Four Hedges, a biographical record of a year’s gardening by Claire Leighton (1898–1989), illustrated with her own wood-engravings, one of the publications that struck down roots which would provide safe anchorage in wartime.

26Four Hedges records how Claire Leighton and her partner turned an unkempt piece of land in the Chilterns Hills into a garden. The piece of land is in the south of England, and, like Furst’s place as we shall see, it is exposed ground but it provides a symbolic foundation: ‘Its soil is chalk. . . Dig into it just one spit, and you reach, as it were, a solid cement foundation. One might be hacking at the cliffs of Dover’ (Leighton 21). The land is as hard as bone and as white as a blank page, a space that is cleared to be cultivated, and where the furrows and diggings lend the same regularity to the garden as lines of type to a text, and where a diversity of grown species proliferate like weeds in the ruins. Like Nash’s leaf, it combines formal patterns and natural growth.

Illustration 1*

*I am most grateful to Mrs Ann Quickenden who gave me kind permission for the reproduction of the illustrations.

27A work which attempts to revive the pre-war rural idyll, Furst’s Essays in Russet open with the description of a piece of land also bought for restorative purposes: ‘We bought a view—for the good of our bodies and souls. Cooped up in town as we had been from infancy, we argued that the country would restore our nerves and enlarge our vision’ (Furst 9). The war however is omnipresent as a looming threat evoked more or less explicitly. The view itself offers ‘a glimpse into the very heart of England’ (12)—a statement followed by a Baldwinesque description of the countryside. ‘From this vantage point,’ he explains, ‘we were wont to gaze upon the view, the opposite hillside with its patches of meadows hedge-stitched and quilted with small woods’ (16), represented by an illustration which is doubly framed by the printed text as well as by the trees within the image (see Illustration 1). Two months later, he returns to find that the view has been obliterated: ‘Again we stood and gazed upon our carpet of vision. It was torn badly; it had seven large holes in it—bomb craters’ (18).

28Seeking restoration and solace, Furst envisages ways of coming to terms with reversibility. The view that he bought may be obliterated overnight, however he makes a virtue out of necessity and turns reversibility into a rhetoric strategy marked by constant punning. We are invited to look for implicit puns, and nowhere is this more obvious than in the essay ‘Runes of Wood and Trees’ (see Illustration 2), in which the page lay-out is the symmetrical reverse of that of the page containing his view (see Illustration 1), but the same as that of ‘Something out of nothing’ (see Illustration 3). In ‘Runes of Wood and Trees’ he reflects on his fondness for wood and launches into musings of linguistic archaeology: ‘Write a book: score a beech’, he writes, ‘For that is what your Anglo-Saxon meant when he talked of writing a book’. He adds that in German the letters of the words are called Buchstaben ‘in memory of the scorings on the staves of beech. The scorings are runes—whispers’ (36). Such remarks must be put back into the context of the theories on the common origins of writing and graphic arts, which cannot be examined here, but what is relevant is the implied comparison between the score on beech wood, the primitive scratch on surfaces (derived from John Ruskin’s lectures on engraving published as Ariadne Florentina, 1876) and the ploughed furrows in the fields, all of which create patterns holding chaos at bay—chaos which is a constant threat, as underlined by the implicit paronomasia: ‘runes’/‘ruins’.

29Beechwood gives the collection of essays their name, because of its ‘russet carpet’ (36) and because its organic growth makes up for destruction in blitzed cities: ‘Beechwood whispers; have you not heard them in the grey-pillared aisles of that loveliest of all cathedrals—The Beechwood with its russet carpet’ (36), a dead metaphor that nevertheless would have immediately recalled iconic ruins such as that of Coventry cathedral at the time. The shift from the cut showing the aisles of the wood (see Illustration 2) to the one representing the searchlights (see Illustration 3) dramatizes reversibility, mutability and impermanence in the same way as the pun on ruins/runes, with the searchlights making absence (the now absent trees) visible in a graphic oxymoron, while printed type and engraved illustration embody reversibility from a material and technical point of view.

Conclusion: the Shored-Up Island

30Standing in front of the library shelves in Between the Acts, Isa wonders: ‘What remedy was there for her at her age—the age of the century, thirty-nine—in books?’ Looking at the books like ‘a person with a raging tooth’ looks for a cure in a chemist’s shop, she reflects that ‘[n]one of them stopped the toothache’ (Woolf 1992, 15). However the interwar revival of printing and of wood-engraving had aimed to revive the book as cultural asset; as such it partook of the utopian modernism of design and architecture, but it was also literary and naturalistic.

31Because gardening is a form of inscription in landscape, Furst scores runes of his own in his plot of land, carving the word ‘PAX’ on the back of a bench, a piece of wood reclaimed like flotsam after the place has been bombed (see Illustration 4). But the elegiac tone of his essays tells of his awareness of what Marina Mackay has termed the ‘inbuilt obsolescence of the modernist artifact’ (Mackay 2007, 89). Books are embedded in the narratives of modernist new beginnings, and—like ruins—in the narratives of the end of modernism. Seeing the printed page as a shored-up island in the 1940s was a way of encoding cultural decline as well as the possibility of renewal within the same medium.

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1 This reads as a confirmation of the fear expressed by Virginia Woolf in her diary: ‘The prospect of another glissade after a minor stop into abyss’ (Woolf 1984, 173). About Woolf (and this particular extract), Rebecca West and the European scene, see Mackay 52–54.

2 See for instance John Piper 1940, 207–10, and Piper 1947, 85–94. These oxymora were coined after John Ruskin’s ‘parasitical sublimity’ in The Seven Lamps of Architecture (1849) (see Piper 1947, 93).

3 What Bowen calls in the same essay the ‘unhauntedness’ (59) of such spaces is contrasted with her fictional ruins, as for instance the remnants of Louie’s parents’ house in The Heat of the Day (329).

4 About The Waste Land as central hypotext, see for instance Harris 113–14, Mellor 192–95 and Gillian Beer, introduction to Virginia Woolf (1992). About sterility and decayed teeth, see T. S. Eliot, V, l. 339.

5 Not that Woolf condoned governmental injunctions. About Woolf, pageantry, the late modernists’ ‘balky reintegration into insular culture’ and the end of imperialism, see Esty 76–107.

6 I am aware that Jerome McGann has demonstrated the link between the rag and bone shops—rather than wood pulp—and the Pre-Raphaelite and Aesthetic roots of modernism. See McGann, introduction.

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Sophie Aymes, « Ivy and Bones: Ruins and Reversibility During the Blitz », Études britanniques contemporaines, 43 | 2012, 55-72.

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Sophie Aymes, « Ivy and Bones: Ruins and Reversibility During the Blitz », Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 43 | 2012, mis en ligne le 11 juin 2014, consulté le 27 juin 2017. URL : ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.1320

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Sophie Aymes

Université de Bourgogne.
Sophie Aymes-Stokes is Senior Lecturer at the Université de Bourgogne in Dijon (France) where she teaches English literature and visual culture. Her research focuses on intermediality in Britain in the first half of the 20th century and she has written articles on artists and/or writers such as Michael Ayrton, Benjamin Britten, Graham Greene, Peter Lanyon, Mervyn Peake, John Piper, and subjects such as illustration, Neo-Romanticism, stage design, and landscape. She co-edited issue 32 of Interfaces with Marie-Odile Bernez and Christelle Serée-Chaussinand on ‘Text and Image: Theory in the 21st Century’ (2011), as well as In and Out: Eccentricity in Britain, a collection of essays co-edited with Laurent Mellet (Cambridge Scholars Press, 2012). She is currently researching a book on modernist wood-engraving and print culture.

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