‘I am an artist, sir. And a woman’
: Representations of the Woman Artist in Modernist Literature

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


The figure of the artist-hero has dominated literary narratives since the Romantic period. With the development of the first wave of feminism and the New Woman, the artist- heroine began to emerge in the literature of the twentieth century. This marks a shift from the traditional Bildungsroman narrative, which typically ends in marriage, to the Künstlerroman as female protagonists were increasingly depicted as autonomous artists. Modernist women writers, in particular, engaged with the figure of the woman artist, and issues surrounding gender and artistry. This thesis explores the intersection of modernism, gender and creativity in the work of Virginia Woolf, Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair and Vita Sackville-West.
Often misclassified as Bildungsromane, the question of whether the female protagonists in these novels are read as developing artists is not a mere issue of taxonomy: it is about women’s autonomy, education, professionalisation, and their right to individual self-expression as artists. Whilst some critics believe the boundary separating these two genres is virtually nonexistent, there is, in fact a dividing line which women have been barred from crossing as professional artists. These modernist women writers, in their representation of the woman artist, engage in much wider questions about the patriarchal, imperial and national narratives which contain and define women and their artistic endeavours. In The Voyage Out, for example, Rachel Vinrace’s death operates as a refusal of a system which would define her as imperial wife and mother, but would also limit her musicality.
These writers explore the division between the amateur and the artist, the training and public role of the woman artist at the turn of the twentieth century. Furthermore, they examine and reinterpret the necessary conditions needed to achieve artistic fulfilment. The thesis situates this writing in the context of women’s education; May Sinclair’s Mary Olivier (1919), for example, questions the boundaries of acceptable female education by focusing specifically on Mary’s interest in Greek studies. In Pilgrimage (1915-67), Richardson radically redefines what constitutes the art object through the creative process of everyday life. The question of marriage and motherhood recurs throughout these texts and, except for Lady Slane in All Passion Spent (1931), the other artist-heroines reject these domestic roles. These authors, including Sackville-West, examine the compatibility of the professional life of the woman artist with wifehood and motherhood. Crucially, this thesis investigates the stylistic choices— whether stream of consciousness, the second person perspective—these modernist writers employ to investigate women and creative expression.
Date of Award2013
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorAnna Snaith (Supervisor) & Richard Kirkland (Supervisor)

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