Professor Virginia Richter

Visiting Research Fellow


February - May 2018      

Home Institution: University of Bern          

Project: At the Seaside: Littoral Space in Modernist Literature

If human character changed in or about December 1910, as Virginia Woolf famously claimed, one of the sites where this change took place and became most conspicuously visible was the seaside. In modernism the seaside became a privileged space for experimental practices that marked a break with the preceding era. As a heterotopia in which the rules of everyday life were temporarily suspended, it enabled new modes of physical pleasure and different technologies of the self. Swimming, beach sports, sunbathing and nudism were devices of performative identity construction which contributed to a new view of the human body. As a vacation site, but also a site of international commerce, it was a casual meeting-place for members of different classes, professions, nations, religious denominations and political allegiances. But the seaside was not simply an unregulated contact zone. It was also a contested site of political, and increasingly racial, conflict and exclusion; for example, several Baltic seaside resorts advertised themselves as judenfrei – free of Jews – some years before the Nazis’ advent to power.

In my projected monograph, it is my aim to analyse the seaside as an important meta-geography and heterotopia of European modernism. The corpus will include novels, tales, diaries, letters and memoirs by authors from the modernist canon – James Joyce, Virginia Woolf, Christopher Isherwood, Thomas Mann, Eduard von Keyserling, and others – but also by authors with a wider popular appeal, such as Daphne Du Maurier, Dorothy Sayers and Agatha Christie. My study will also include the dark side of littoral space: the transformation of the seaside, in the late 1930s, from a site of pleasure to a fortified border area, an endangered departure zone – for the refugees desperately waiting for their transit visa in Marseille and other ports – and, ultimately, a potential site of invasion on the eve of the Second World War.