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Lost in the (National) Archive: The Modern Girl and the Magazine

“Times have changed, and so have merchandise and business methods,” The Western Home Monthly declared in its July 1919 editorial, as the visuality of modern design and advertising began to enter its pages after two decades of continuous publication, and as it made other strategic changes in apparent attempts to capture a modernizing readership.[1] Rather than addressing a wide-open swath of “the great middle classes” it had sought to attract in its early days at the turn of the century, the magazine now pledged itself to the service of “the thousands of women in this country who were no longer satisfied with the idea that things were good enough ‘because mother did it that way’” and promised that it would seek to satisfy “the human needs of a woman’s life.”[2] No doubt hoping to avoid alienating older long-time male readers, such as the “Octogenarian” whose letter of praise addressed the magazine as “Dear Old W.H.M.,” the periodical nonetheless began to court a younger, predominantly female audience.[3] While WHM remained largely a household magazine, addressing, as Faye Hammill and Michelle Smith have identified, “women of several different generations” and “all the members of a middle-class family,” the age of the Modern Girl was dawning on the prairie, and her image began appearing throughout the pages of the periodical where she registered as both the object and subject of address.[4] Characterized by her bobbed hair, increasing use of cosmetics, a willing embrace of glamour and commodity culture, and her frank acknowledgment of inner life, her image emblazoned the cover of magazines with increasing frequency in the late 1920s and heightened intensity in the early 1930s. This was true of Canada’s The Western Home Monthly (1899–1932) as much as elsewhere, though her absence in Canadian literary history is particularly acute. Her presence in this Canadian publication potentially challenges established narratives of the Canadian literary past, and destabilizes established hierarchies of cultural value, as she not only appeared as a commercial icon but also infiltrated literary aspects of the magazine, including its illustrated serialized novels and short stories.

Thus the Modern Girl is the topic of this self-reflexive essay, and the lens through which I have approached my search for her in the pages of Canada’s historical prairie magazine, The Western Home Monthly, is literary studies. I want to understand how much and in what ways she appeared as a symbol of transnational modernity on the horizons of Canadian readers who are very often tacitly assumed, by scholars of Canadian literature, to have been predominantly shaped by colonial or national reading paradigms and tastes. I want to know how nationally distinct she might have been, and how generic she was as well, in a context in which modern, globalizing media forms and products proliferated before the rise of literary cultural nationalism in Canada. And finally, in terms of what this magazine’s literary content and wider status as a cultural artefact can offer to scholars of Canadian literary modernity, I want to consider the affordances and limitations of tracing her appearance in a typical Canadian mainstream magazine read by a broad, local audience in this period.

I am drawn to this task because an abundance of scholarship on the Modern Girl emerging from the field of cultural history is counterbalanced by an almost equal and opposite dearth of research on this figure in literary studies, especially in the literatures that I focus on—those of Canada and Australia. Despite cultural historical scholarship such as The Modern Girl Around the World, the historical scholarship of Canadian women’s studies scholar Jane Nicholas, and exemplary Australian research by historians Liz Conor and Jill Julius Matthews, the recovery of the figure of the Modern Girl from relative obscurity has hardly challenged accepted paradigms of national literary history at all in either Australian or Canadian literary studies.[5] In fact, her disappearance from literary history is so absolute that for a student of Canadian or Australian literature of the interwar period, it would be logical to assume that a local version of the American flapper or the British bright young thing did not exist. Yet, as the contributors of the Modern Girl Around the World Research Group have noted, “The Modern Girl emerged quite literally around the world” as “a global phenomenon of the 1920s and 30s” who was incarnated in “specific manifestations” in vernacular contexts.[6]

Carole Gerson’s feminist recuperation work on Canada’s women writers of the interwar period suggests that her missing figure in the literary archive may be attributable to her active exclusion from the national canon, rather than any actual absence from Canadian literary culture of the period. As Gerson observes, issues of modern womanhood were regular topics of Canadian narratives of the interwar period.[7] Yet the novels in which they were found, and especially those by women, were largely overlooked or dismissed by influential male nationalist critics who promulgated the “dominant view that the great Canadian narrative concerned man’s contest with nature,” and have consequently been forgotten (Gerson, “Mid-Century,” 345). Hammill has also considered how the dynamics of gender inflected literary culture of the interwar period in ways that came to subsquently distort understandings of Canadian literary modernity. Hammill’s scholarship implies that inattention to the Modern Girl in Canadian literary history is at least partly attributable to the commercial success of narratives associated with her in their own time. Some of these, she notes, were hit “sensations” by female authors of their day, whose narratives and reputations were later relegated to the sphere of commercial, non-serious culture because of their success.[8] It may be the case that the Modern Girl’s stronger relationship to the (increasingly commercialized, commodified, and globalizing) marketplace compared to the (stereotypically masculine and rural) nation-space marks her as a figure who is difficult to understand within established paradigms of national literature. After all, as the authors of the Modern Girl Around the World project acknowledge, “the Modern Girl, perhaps like no other figure of the twentieth century, reveals the complexity of global economic and cultural processes” (52).

Looking for her figure in the nation’s magazine print culture as a way to find out about Canada’s literary equivalent of the American flapper or the British bright young thing is thus not a straightforward case of redressal, in the way that Gerson addresses the lost voices of Canada’s forgotten female poets (347). In seeking to understand the Modern Girl in relation to Canada’s broader literary culture through this magazine, a multi-faceted approach is required. For this endeavour, it would be fruitless to focus on telling examples, single authors, well-known writers, or selected stories of imputed quality, as literary studies may once have done, at the expense of the whole structure of the magazine. The Modern Girl was not exclusively, if at all, a literary figure, nor are the writers who have been remembered in Canadian literary history known to have taken her up. Further, as Robert Scholes and Cliff Wulfman have pointed out in their helpful chapter “How to Study a Modern Magazine,” to mine a magazine for its literary content alone risks overlooking the larger network of meaning in which it was embedded, which often gives clues to the readership and cultural milieu which it addressed and in which it circulated.[9]

For these reasons, I was drawn to the model provided by the Modern Girl Around the World Research Group, which offers the figure of the Modern Girl as an “heuristic device,” embodied not in one singular example or all-encompassing definition but rather as an aggregate of numerous iconic elements that emerge in conversation (Modern Girl, 2–3). As Alys Eve Weinbaum et al. explain, to take on the challenge of analyzing the Modern Girl is to reckon with her materialization as an effect of fantasy: the girl in an advertisement, the face on the magazine cover, the character in the dime store novel or magazine story, the starlet in a feature film, or the parvenue in need of cultural refinement and moral correction, subject of earnest discussion and intense public debate. It is also to come to terms with the way in which these imagined incarnations of the figure affected real women who adapted her poses or fashioned themselves in her image. To trace the Modern Girl in specific manifestations in local culture, the authors of The Modern Girl Around the World thus insist on the dialogic relation between fantasy and reality, as well as between image and text. They also insist on teasing out the complex relationship between her general circulation as a figure within an emerging transnational traffic in global images and her particular manifestation at local sites of exchange. These concerns model ways to approach the Modern Girl as a specific kind of effect over time and place, in relation to larger and more generalized patterns, and to understand that effect in relation to literary culture, not as a product of it.

To begin with, then, I felt the need for a distant survey of the whole corpus of the magazine, taking note of stories and authors, whilst also looking more broadly at changing tables of contents, recurring and unique advertisements, and various kinds of non-fiction features, for continuities and shifts over time, with the attitude of a distant observer. I aimed to do this first before circling back for a second, closer reading, and then considering more deeply the relationship between the magazine and the culture of readers, consumers, and literature beyond its pages which contextualized it and which it reciprocally addressed. It is this iterative, process-based approach to the act of reading for and through the heuristic device of the Modern Girl that the rest of this article documents. This is a reading process that revises and revises again, thinking along the way about how each encounter with the magazine reveals something new.  

From Diachronic to Synchronic Reading

Perusing diachronic structural changes in the tables of contents and in the cover images, then, was my first approach to getting a sense of shifts over time and of the whole of the magazine across its entire corpus of publication. The act of surface reading, flipping through magazine covers and skimmning tables of contents, quickly revealed that the Modern Girl emerged in this context gradually, in the mix of diffuse material in a magazine that addressed a heterogeneous readership in a busy, complex culture. Even as her image began to appear with more regularity on covers (as in the later issues of 1931, including  September and November), her visage in each case was flanked by a more homely and family-oriented cover in alternating months, suggesting the way in which the magazine still remained a household publication despite its growing orientation to younger female readers. In the tables of contents, certain structural changes that registered in the 1930s suggested larger shifts in the magazine and its target readership: the regular department “Women and the Home” contracted, and even disappeared from some issues in opposite proportion to the expansion of the magazine’s cinema feature, the “Shadowland Section,” to which it added new and expanded elements, such as “Our Canadian Album,” dedicated to Canadian starlets who had made successful careers; “Little Rambles in Hollywood”; “Criticisms, Favourable and Otherwise”; and, by September 1932, “Radioland.” In the 1930s, in The Western Home Monthly, “the readership of the magazine shifted,” as Hannah McGregor confirms, and it became clear to me that the the magazine witnessed the emergence of something new.[10]

Establishing that this most intensively gendered shift in address occurred in the 1930s allowed for a more focused synchronic approach to perusing the most modern iteration of the magazine, in its final year of publication before its rebrand as The National Home Monthly in October 1932. This decision was driven by the logic that an annual print cycle not only allows for a kind of slice approach to an otherwise large and unwieldy archive of a long-running middlebrow magazine, but also for an approximation of the experience of what a young female reader herself might have observed across the course of her year’s subscription. Like McGregor, I am acutely aware that my own reading, remediated by a digital archive, produces its own reframing of the material. It is because of this that I refrained from using the corpus search function, to look for the word “flapper,” for example, as Rebecca Preston has in Australian newspapers using Trove.[11] Instead I perused the magazines casually, lingering for an impression of encounter and contact. In reading this way, after flicking quite quickly through the corpus of the whole magazine and then returning to a second more focused reading of one annual print run, I allowed myself to skim and scan, and for my eye to be caught. After all, as Conor has noted, the glamorous “modern appearing woman” often served as either the object of address or as subject of agency through her “spectacular” and seductive display (Spectacular, 1, 2). Conor observes that modernity was defined by a “visually intensified scene” in which the figures associated with the Modern Girl, such as the screen star, flapper, or beauty contestant, were “manifestly, though not soley, constructed around their visibility” (7). Weinbaum et al. concur, noting her association with “numerous iconic visual elements,” such as “bobbed hair, painted lips, provocative clothing, elongated body, and an open, easy smile” (Modern Girl, 2).

Whilst my literary training has imparted to me an embarrassing lack of visual literacy and little to no understanding of the history of illustration (which I have recently begun to teach myself in the Australian context), here I surrendered to the magazine design and visuals, allowing these elements to lead my reading experience. This act of surrender in itself upended traditional hierarchies of cultural value that characterize literary studies, and which are particularly acute in modernist scholarship, where ocularcentric culture is more firmly associated with cinema. Nonetheless, as the Modern Girl was at least partly an effect of an increasingly image-obsessed society, I suspected I was right in letting the visual iconography lead my reading. I reflected that that the spectacle of the Modern Girl would have itself caught the attention of the young female reader, and that in this action of arrest, the role of illustration played a kind of orienting as well as advertising function, not just an aesthetic role. In this action itself, the line between advertising and narrative fiction begins to become blurred.  In skimming through the issues beginning in October 1931, my first definite encounter with the Modern Girl in the January 1932 issue was in the story by Anita Gabrielle LaVack, the Québécoise writer of light magazine fiction. It was indeed Helga Berggren’s illustration, “A Girl Needs a Trousseau,” that captured my attention as I casually perused the pages (fig. 1). Here the Modern Girl is portrayed as a seductive, curvaceous female, glamorously made-up, fashionably dressed, and sporting her tell-tale bob.

The Modern Girl Illustrated by Helga Berggren, for “A Girl Needs a Trousseau,” by Anita Gabrielle LaVack, Western Home Monthly, January 1932, 6.
Fig. 1. The Modern Girl Illustrated by Helga Berggren, for “A Girl Needs a Trousseau,” by Anita Gabrielle LaVack, Western Home Monthly, January 1932, 6. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces (peel.library.ualberta.ca), a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.

Her petite figure is enveloped by her dashing male dance partner, yet she is clearly in command of her charm and secure in the power of her own seduction. LaVack’s plot is light and humorous, reminiscent of the frivolity and satirical tone of Anita Loos’s Jazz Age comic novel Gentleman Prefer Blondes (1925). Similar to the characters Lorelei and Dorothy of Loos’s novel, this story features two resourceful working girls, Gee-Gee and Brown Eyes, who turn the tables on a snobbish Mont-Royal high society set and win their men. The typographic design of the title font immediately announces the modernity of this story, as does the suggestive angle of the illustration, emphasizing the curvaceous, yet compact silhouette of the dancer. The effect of this image and its accompanying one on the next page as well as the light, modern tone of the tale is a noticeable leavening of the magazine’s heretofore heavy tone. The tone set by the text-dense editorial, focused on its usual diet of current affairs topics across the areas of politics, empire, nation, and religion, is softened, and Laura Goodman Salverson’s historical romance serial “Ye Rebel Glory!” also gains new salience, drawing the reader’s attention to the rebellious nature of the heroine in an historical romance set against the backdrop of the American Revolution.

A further tale in this issue, “The Run Across,” also centres on a Modern Girl scenario. At first I wondered if this was a genre story set in the northern, frigid waters of Atlantic Canada, but the image of the girl with the cloche hat and bobbed hair in the story’s illustration gave me pause. In allowing myself to be arrested by such images, I realized that my reading of the magazine was embodied. I was conscious not only of the reader that these attractive pages may have hoped to seduce through the deployment of the image of the Modern Girl, but also of myself and my own reading experience, which was again a radically different approach to reading than that which I had been trained to adopt as a literary scholar.

The Modern Girl Illustrated by Herbert Rudeen, for “The Run Across,” by Louis Arthur Cunningham, Western Home Monthly, January 1932, 12.
Fig. 2. The Modern Girl Illustrated by Herbert Rudeen, for “The Run Across,” by Louis Arthur Cunningham, Western Home Monthly, January 1932, 12. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces (peel.library.ualberta.ca), a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.

LaVack’s tale muses upon the stigma against the working woman amongst the moneyed classes, while also attributing street-smarts and resourcefulness to the character, who wins over her antagonists with her charms. Similarly, Cunningham’s narrative confers positive traits on its working girl heroine. In it, the successful and independent Dorothy, who has accumulated “hard-won common-sense resulting from five years of working for a living and making a good one” faces the daunting prospect of relinquishing her independence to marry, and learns to trust her instincts in ways that allow her a narrow escape.[12]

As to be expected, given her links with transnational modernity, the Modern Girl found in these stories is not quintessentially Canadian. In some of these stories where I spotted her figure she is marked by Canadian settings or tropes, such as the frigid North Atlantic in “The Run Across,” but the ease with which her figure moves across borders opposes the critical orthodoxy of Canadian isolation in this period, and defies the standard assumption that Canada was somehow not part of an emerging global modern culture. The association between modernity and mobility that Hammill and Smith have traced thoughout Canadian magazines is evidenced by these stories and reinforced by other design elements that enhance this thematic link in the fiction and throughout the magazine.[13]

Embellishment for “The Run Across,” Western Home Monthly, January 1932, 46. I
Fig. 3. Embellishment for “The Run Across,” Western Home Monthly, January 1932, 46. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces (peel.library.ualberta.ca), a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.
Illustrations emphasising various modes of modern transportation. “Travel Section,” Western Home Monthly, January 1932, 25.
Fig. 4. Illustrations emphasising various modes of modern transportation. “Travel Section,” Western Home Monthly, January 1932, 25. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces (peel.library.ualberta.ca), a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.

Cunningham’s story is a travel tale, in which its female protagonist, successful in business and pleasure, glides easily between New York, Montreal, and England using various modes of modern transportation. It is one of many instances in these pages in which the Modern Traveling Girl appears, an icon Sarah Galletly finds regularly in the Canadian and Australian magazine fiction of the period and which she reads in the context of cultural fantasies and anxieties about changing cultural affiliations (away from Empire and toward America) and new forms of gendered social mobility linked to the self-determining female subject in command of new ways of making her way in the world.[14] The icon of the independent traveling girl and her facility with modern modes of transport obviously also challenges the stereotype of “man’s contest with nature” that Gerson notes generally characterizes canonized Canadian literature of the period.

Yet this impulse toward gendered freedom is constrained by and in productive tension with advertisements for beauty products that crowd the pages of the magazine across 1932, and which address another related incarnation of the glamorous Modern Girl: the Modern Sexual Girl. Playing on anxiety about women’s sexual attractiveness and ability to attract and keep a man, these ads perform the function of coaching women in how to mold their bodies, groom their hair, and cosmetically enhance their faces. Images of glamorous women intersperse the fiction and articles, often providing the most elaborate and colourful aspects of the whole magazine. Their eye-catching visuals invite and elicit pleasure, despite their potentially oppressive messages.

Palmolive Soap Advertisement, Western Home Monthly, February 1932, inset cover.
Fig. 5. Palmolive Soap Advertisement, Western Home Monthly, February 1932, inset cover. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces (peel.library.ualberta.ca), a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.

Even more apparently progressive advertisments such as those for “feminine hygiene products” manipulate women into accepting toxic messages (and substances) that trade on anxiety: “Women must break down barriersZontite boldly proclaimed.[15] One way of doing so, they counseled, was to seek their “Frank Advice” which presumably encouraged women to inject themselves with their carbolic acid-based douche.[16] Encouraging frank talk about bodies and sexuality on the one hand, while offering poisonous tonics or restrictive corsets to cleanse and contain unruly female bodies on the other, the messages these magazines thus conveyed were often incongruous and inconsistent. They align with Margaret Beetham’s conclusions, in her study of nineteenth-century magazines, about the way in which “[t]he ‘womanliness’” a magazine might produce is “always contradictory.”[17] They also reinforce her observation that the collisons across a magazine’s heterogenous pages render the periodical as “a place where meanings are contested and made” (Beetham, A Magazine of Her Own, 5).

Aware that “the texts of and in magazines must always be read in terms of their relationship to each other and to other texts” as “part of a field of other texts and a field of power relations,” I have attempted to understand the effect of reading the Modern Girl in advertisments and non-fiction features alongside her portrayal in illustrated stories (5). Read as a whole, this material indicates a measure of cultural ambivalence toward the Modern Girl, as a figure who suggested new possibilities but who needed to be managed and advised or restrained; perhaps more significantly, however, this material signals a broader fascination with her in general. As the Modern Girl emerges as an “heuristic” across advertisments, non-fiction features, and stories, these cumulatively suggest a level of cultural literacy about her that also existed more broadly in various tiers of Canadian culture, which the magazine no doubt contributed to and helped shape. I start to allow myself to imagine that the stories I have begun to uncover in WHM signal a treasure trove of other Modern Girl material worth serious consideration, both inside and outside the magazine, lost in the archive of Canadian literature.

Close Reading 1932

Finding some evidence of forgotten stories of Modern Girls which have been excluded from even feminist revisionist accounts of Canadian literature, I begin to conjecture that the number of titles of interwar Canadian novels that Gerson has mentioned in relation to their frank portrayal of women’s lives may barely scrape the surface of the number of Canadian narratives that were written about the Modern Girl, by female and male authors, of this time. This body of writing may be scattered across many magazine pages and titles, shaped as much by editorial agendas and commercial imperatives as by authorial intent. Further, it not only challenges the very boundary of what is considered securely literary, as well as masculine nationalist paradigms that linked Canadian literature with a project of nation narration tied to the land, but also problematizes models of reading typically driven from outside the magazine (by the search for telling examples and famous writers). Reading outward from the magazine into a broader, reconceptualized field of Canadian interwar writing and publishing might very well reveal many more long-forgotten texts and authors of various kinds featuring the Modern Girl in a Canadian context. But the size and shape of the field remains unclear, as does the mode of approach. It is here I decide to go for a third pass over the magazine, for a closer examination of its print run of 1932. My aim is to consider with deeper scrutiny exactly what its stories and serialized novels might be able to tell me about the potential existence of any such scattered archive of Canadian Modern Girl texts and and their authors, within and outide the covers of this magazine.

Almost immediately upon embarking on it, this third pass over the literary material suggests that my first flush of enthusiasm might have been naïve. Whatever their message and effect on their imagined reader, the prominent position of advertisements and material featuring the Modern Girl would seem to suggest that The Western Home Monthly had indeed become by late 1932 a predominantly feminized space. Yet the more the magazine contained images of attractive-looking modern women, the more actively the magazine also seemed to focus on ways it could deploy other features, articles, or departments to attract and keep the modern man as a reader, too. One feature on home decorating, in February 1932, suggests the logic of this design approach, noting that where atmosphere is “overwhelmingly feminine,” “[i]t seems that a definite attempt must be made to create a room for a man” (20).

Home decoration advice: make “A Room for a Man,” Western Home Monthly, February 1932, 20.
Fig. 6. Home decoration advice: make “A Room for a Man,” Western Home Monthly, February 1932, 20. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces (peel.library.ualberta.ca), a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.

Advertisements at the back of the magazine indicated upcoming fiction features that would be sure to have strong appeal to the man of the house, such as a war tale by Canadian expatriate Hollywood screen writer Garnet Weston or the “virile writings” of John Middleton Ellis (figs. 7 and 8).

Advertising fiction that has, despite its register of romance, some definite male appeal. Advertisement for “Dark Seas” by Garnet Weston, Western Home Monthly, February 1932, 54.
Fig. 7. Advertising fiction that has, despite its register of romance, some definite male appeal. Advertisement for “Dark Seas” by Garnet Weston, Western Home Monthly, February 1932, 54. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces (peel.library.ualberta.ca), a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.
Advertising a new serial from an author “who is noted for his virile writings.” Advertisement for “Out of the Woods” by John Middleton Ellis, Western Home Monthly, April 1932, 70.
Fig. 8. Advertising a new serial from an author “who is noted for his virile writings.” Advertisement for “Out of the Woods” by John Middleton Ellis, Western Home Monthly, April 1932, 70. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces (peel.library.ualberta.ca), a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.

The fiction, too, was a key site where the magazine attempted to appeal to and retain a male reader.

Dashing around in motorcars and expecting her father to come up with her college tuition, Polly is a financial drain on her father whose woes dominate the story. Embellishment for “The Blank Wall” by Ellis Parker Butler, Western Home Monthly, Feb 1932, 8.
Fig. 9. Dashing around in motorcars and expecting her father to come up with her college tuition, Polly is a financial drain on her father whose woes dominate the story. Embellishment for “The Blank Wall” by Ellis Parker Butler, Western Home Monthly, February 1932, 8. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces (peel.library.ualberta.ca), a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.

Transitioning from surface reading to deep reading, and applying a closer analysis to all the stories that were published in 1932, I became aware that the presence of what I would consider “The Modern Girl” story—the tale of the artful and canny traveling or working girl, such as “A Girl Needs a Trousseau” and “The Run Across” in the January issue —proved to be much more the exception than the rule as the year wore on. I returned to my previous concern about the role that illustration played in blurring the boundary between advertising and fiction. This time when I read more carefully the periodical fiction decorated by illustrations of the Modern Girl, I found many instances in which the story did not in fact feature her in any significant way at all. More often, her image would attract a reader to a story that centred on a male protagonist. For instance, in “The Blank Wall” by prolific American writer Ellis Parker Butler, a pop-out visual detail highlighted the attractive Polly, who turns out to be a secondary character in a story about her father’s financial woes, which are resolved by various circumstances, including his daughter’s decision to drop out of university and marry.

Similarly, the serial “Out of the Woods” centers on the activities of logging in the Adirondacks and boxing in New York City. It is decorated by modern-looking girls, though their presence in the tale remains marginal. In general, stories like these suggested something for everyone, but emphasized a masculine approach.

Kitty Fallon is introduced at the end of the second instalment of “Out of the Woods.” Embellishment for “Out of the Woods,” Western Home Monthly, May 1932, 7.
Fig. 10. Kitty Fallon is introduced at the end of the second instalment of “Out of the Woods.” Embellishment for “Out of the Woods,” Western Home Monthly, May 1932, 7. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces (peel.library.ualberta.ca), a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.

These instances, and many more, such as “Black Water” by W. Redvers Dent (a pen name of Canadian writer Raymond Knister) showcase the way the Modern Girl was used as an icon to attract readers to increasingly slick, fast-paced genre stories that seem to have had a largely male audience in mind (fig. 11).

Title illustration and accompanying page illustration for “Black Water,” an adventure tale by W. Redvers Dent (Canadian writer Raymond Knister). Set in the Great Lakes, it centers on fast action as a sinking tanker en route from Thunder Bay.
Fig. 11. Title illustration and accompanying page illustration for “Black Water,” an adventure tale by W. Redvers Dent (Canadian writer Raymond Knister). Set in the Great Lakes, it centers on fast action as a sinking tanker en route from Thunder Bay, Canada, to Cleveland, U.S.A., containing bushels of “Number One Northern Wheat” is the object of a tricky salvage mission. Into this mix an attractive working girl, the captain’s daughter, comes into play. Western Home Monthly, April 1932, 16, 17. Image courtesy of Peel’s Prairie Provinces (peel.library.ualberta.ca), a digital initiative of the University of Alberta Libraries.

These stories show that even where the trope of the Modern Girl did appear, she was an icon who was deployable across a range of settings and formulas for a variety of audiences, and that she appeared among other sorts of stylized stories. Further, the intensification of commodity culture and the widening transnational market for genre fiction meant that her star rose along with it in ways that make her hard to classify and understand, but which challenge existing paradigms of national literature and Canadian literary modernity. Her image was used, it seems, to sell. Thus, she appears not only in Modern Girl stories, but also as attractive eye-candy for a range of literary products, from Hollywood-influenced plots, to masculine tales, to slick genre fiction penned by authors from all over the world.

Conclusion

In encountering the work of historians on the Modern Girl in Canada, and finding her for myself in countless pictures and stories featuring the iconic bobbed-hair, cloched-hat, lipsticked girl in the pages of these magazines, I began what seemed at first a relatively simple task: to reflect on the absence of the figure of the Modern Girl in established histories of Canadian literature, and on her exclusion from revised feminist histories of literary modernity, through tracing her figure in magazine imagery and fiction. But as I have embarked on outlining a larger project—which might seek to extrapolate outward from her presence within the pages of magazines into a broader, reconceptualized terrain of Canadian culture, as a way to understand her relationship to Canadian readers, the nation’s literature, and Canadian modernity—the magazine has proven an unwieldy and unsteady cultural object.

As Victorian periodical scholars discovered before those of us working with the modernist magazines, to fall into the pages of magazine scholarship is to encounter profound disorientation. In this case it is to encounter an archive that looks starkly different from orthodox accounts of Canadian literature. Further, in the modern magazine that coincides with—and possesses an intermedial relationship to—new technologies and new forms of cultural expression, such an approach requires putting aside the orderly disciplined world in which literature, cinema, media, illustration and commercial culture fit neatly into separate fields of literary studies, screen studies, media studies, illustration history, and cultural studies. It is to begin to consider how these technologies have intersected in ways that are as yet incompletely understood. It is to become intensely conscious of the way advertising, fiction, and editorial material addresses an absent reader, and to register that the distinction between these categories is not always stable. It is also to acknowledge that the contributors to any magazine are not necessarily nationals, and that their subjects and settings may not be either. It is to become aware of the way in which the readership of a magazine shifts over time, and of the editorial decisions that may have been made in attempts to recapture or keep male readers of a household as magazine and commodity culture became increasingly feminine.

I have found the Modern Girl to be a particularly difficult shape shifter, whose contours, and shapes, are so subject to revision that my own project of tracing her has repeatedly caused me to retrace my own tracks, and revise my revisions. Looking outward onto the terrain of Canadian regional modernity from the pages of The Western Home Monthly brings the Modern Girl into view, but her place and image in relation to the project of national literature remains blurry at best. It is not despite the difficulty of revising the place of the Modern Girl in relation to modern literary culture and national literature, however, but because of the difficulty of this project, that I maintain it is nonetheless worthwhile. Beckoning from seductive pictures splashed across the fiction and advertising pages of interwar magazines, the Modern Girl challenges us to re-read our own narratives of national literature and reframe our approaches to it: to consider bodies and images, as well as readers, markets, media, authors, and gender, in relation to transnational modernity in vernacular local contexts.


Notes

[1] “A Chat With Our Readers,” The Western Home Monthly, July 1919, 1.

[2] “To Our Readers,” The Western Home Monthly, May 1901, 8; “A Chat With Our Readers,” The Western Home Monthly, August 1919, 1.

[3] “A Chat With Our Readers,” The Western Home Monthly, February 1919, 1.

[4] Faye Hammill and and Michelle Smith, “Mainstream Magazines: Home and Mobility,” in The Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature, ed. Cynthia Sugars (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015), 352–68, 355.

[5] See Jane Nicholas, The Modern Girl: Feminine Modernities, the Body, and Commodities in the 1920s (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2015), Liz Conor, The Spectacular Modern Woman: Feminine Visibility in the 1920s. (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2004), and Jill Julius Matthews, Dance Hall and Picture Palace: Sydney’s Romance with Modernity (Sydney, Australia: Currency Press, 2005).

[6] Alys Eve Weinbaum, Lynn M. Thomas, Priti Ramamurthy, Uta G. Poiger, Madeleine Yue Dong, and Tani E. Barlow (The Modern Girl Around the World Research Group), The Modern Girl Around the World: Consumption, Modernity, and Globalization (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2008), 2, 4.

[7] Carole Gerson, “Mid-Century Modernity and Fiction by Women,” in The Oxford Handbook of Canadian Literature, 337–51, 343.

[8] See Faye Hammill, “The Sensations of the 1920s: Martha Ostenso’s Wild Geese and Mazo de la Roche’s Jalna,” Studies in Canadian Literature 28, no. 2 (2004), 66–84.

[9] See Robert Scholes and Cliff Wulfman, Modernism in the Magazines (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2010), 143­–67.

[10] Hannah McGregor, “Remediation as reading: digitising the Western Home Monthly,” Archives and Manuscripts 43, no. 3 (2014): 248–257, 250–51.

[11] See Rebecca Preston “From ‘Precocious Brat’ to ‘Fluffy Flapper’: The Evolution of the Australian Flapper,” Lilith: A Feminist History Journal 21 (2015), 33–48.

[12] Louis Arthur Cunningham, “The Run Across,” The Western Home Monthly, January 1932, 12–13, 46–47, 13.

[13] See Faye Hammill and Michelle Smith, Magazines, Travel, and Middlebrow Culture: Canadian Periodicals in English and French, 1925–1960 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015).

[14] See Sarah Galletly, “The Spectacular Traveling Woman: Australian and Canadian Visions of Women, Modernity, and Mobility Between the Wars,” Transfers: Interdisciplinary Journal of Mobility Studies 7, no. 1 (2017): 70–87, 70.

[15] Zontite Corporation, Advertisement, The Western Home Monthly, September 1932, 1.

[16] Zontite Corporation, Advertisement, The Western Home Monthly, April 1932, 1.

[17] Margaret Beetham, A Magazine of Her Own? Domesticity and Desire in the Woman’s Magazine, 1800–1914 (London: Routledge, 1996), viii.

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