Katharine Burdekin and collective speech: Politics, chorus and liturgy

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This paper explores the phenomenon of collective speech (or speaking in unison) in the fiction of Katharine Burdekin (1896–1963), focussing on The Rebel Passion (1929), Proud Man (1934) and Swastika Night (1937) (the latter two novels were initially published under the pseudonym ‘Murray Constantine’). Highlighting Burdekin’s abiding concern with religious rituals, it suggests that the political dimensions of Burdekin’s oeuvre can be profitably read in relation to a set of liturgical debates that go back to the English Reformation. The Book of Common Prayer, which features in some way in all three of these novels, proves a profitable site to focus questions about collective speech, its rituals seeming to model a kind of communal collectivity, but one that was imposed by political force. The negative connotations of collective speech are particularly evident in the Nazi liturgy at the heart of Swastika Night, which combines elements of the prayer book with features of the Nazi Thingspiele. Whereas Proud Man seemed to want to counter enforced rituals of collective belonging with a retooled ‘unselfish individualism’, both Swastika Night and The Rebel Passion seek to mobilise more positive forms of speaking in unison to counter dangerous conformity and authoritarianism. Burdekin even innovates a form of narration that can be referred to as ‘collective interior monologue’, as she explores the relationship between individual consciousness and collective belonging. The paper thus builds on the valuable scholarship of Elizabeth English, Daphne Patai, Glyn Salton-Cox, Adam Stock and Keith Williams, positioning Burdekin as an important and innovative novelist of ideas whose historical, religious and philosophical interests are unusually wide-ranging.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)384-400
Number of pages17
JournalWomen: A Cultural Review
Issue number4
Early online date26 Dec 2020
Publication statusPublished - Dec 2020

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