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Name: Matilda Blackwell

Faculty: Department of English Literature

Thesis Title: Closet Spaces: Reading the Bathroom in Early Twentieth-Century Literature


Thesis Description:

‘The background to your day - your bathroom,’ writes one 1929 advert for Wolff’s Plumbing Fixtures; slogans like this littered early twentieth-century catalogues, magazines and publishers’ lists as the bathroom invaded the domestic sphere. Paralleling a rise in consumer culture and an ideology of hygiene, public and domestic landscapes were permanently altered by new, private spaces for bathing, grooming and managing bodily waste. My thesis explores the bathroom’s function in early twentieth-century fiction, charting the evolution of this everyday space by drawing together literature and lived experience. I read the literary bathroom through a historical and material lens, to dissect the the tensions of this dirty space dedicated to keeping clean.

I argue that the bathroom in the early years of the twentieth century was a highly ubiquitous, yet largely forgotten, and often unspoken, space. I consider a cultural shift from a Victorian obsession with cleanliness and purity to a modernist fascination with filth which has never before been read through the bathroom and its objects. I explore five unique bathroom spaces that played a key part in early twentieth-century Britain and America as a way to interrogate their abject connotations. I consider the different spatial implications of the asylum bathroom, the cafe lavatory, the hotel bathroom, the shared lodging-house bathroom and the middle-class family bathroom, re-situating these sites as ambivalent spaces of refuge for modernity’s ‘dirty’ individuals – rendered abject through age, sexuality, class and/or sex.

My thesis recognises the hitherto unnoticed ubiquity of the bathroom across early twentieth-century literary cultures. This project engages with research questions that seek to account for this ‘closeted’ presence, revealing the new spaces that modernism forms for ‘dirty’ bodies. Focusing on the bathroom as a subversive location for dirt and abjection, within discourses of hygiene and the tensions of the embodied subject’s attempts to mediate these poles, I ask: How does the bathroom provide a space for those marked by dominant culture as dirty or abject? How and why is the narrative of hygiene refused, mediated or embraced? How might this reading offer useful ways of theorising forms of political and social engagement and resistance by modernist writers? How does this literary tradition engage with concurrent experience in early twentieth-century society?


Conference Papers:

  • Modernism and Multiple Temporalities, MSIA2 International Conference, Aoyama Gakuin University, Tokyo, Japan, 12-14 September 2019: 'Fluid Temporalities, Subversive Spaces and Queer Female Community in the Asylum Bathroom'
  • Spaces and Places: An Inclusive Interdisciplinary Conference, Bruges, Belgium, 13-14 April 2019: 'Therapeutic Spaces, Fluid Sexualities & Female Community'
  • Katherine Mansfield: New Directions, Birkbeck University, 28-29 June 2018: 'Queering the Water-Cure: Fluid Sexualities in Katherine Mansfield’s Turkish Bath'
  • Medical Humanities Workshop, University of Lancaster, 19 April 2018: 'Queering the Water-Cure: Fluid Sexualities in the Therapeutic Bathroom Spaces of Emily Holmes Coleman, Antonia White and Katherine Mansfield'
  • Queer Modernism(s) II, University of Oxford, 12-13 April 2018: 'Queering the Water-Cure: Fluid Sexualities in the Therapeutic Bathroom Spaces of Emily Holmes Coleman, Antonia White and Katherine Mansfield'
  • New Work in Modernist Studies Conference, University of Leeds, 15 December 2017: 'Closet Spaces: Reading the Bathroom in Early Twentieth-Century Literature'


Professional Activities:

  • Organiser of the Modernism in the Home Conference, July 2019
  • Founding member of the Modern and Contemporary Forum
  • Member of the British Association of Modernist Studies
  • Member of the Katherine Mansfield Society
  • Member of the Midlands Modernist Network
  • Student Advisory Forum Representative, M3C
  • Partners Advisory Forum Student Representative, M3C
  • Schools Outreach Workshop Leader, UoB Outreach
  • Spark Young Writers Assistant Writer, Writing West Midlands
  • SADAA Archive Assistant, Birmingham Museum and Gallery


Other Research Interests:

  • Domestic space
  • Queer theory
  • Medical humanities
  • Middlebrow fiction
  • The Bloomsbury Group 
  • Sussex modernism
  • Forgotten women writers


Key Words: bathroom, domestic, modernist, modernism, literature, abject, queer, women, dirt, body, gender, sexuality, hotel, asylum, cafe, public toilet, bath.




Twitter: @tillllls


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