The leaven, regarding the lump : feminism and cinematic spectatorship in H.D.'s writing on film
The poet and novelist H.D. (Hilda Doolittle) published eleven essays on
the cinema in the film journal Close Up between 1927 and 1929. This thesis
analyses H.D.' s writing on film from a feminist perspective. It also explores the
connections between her commentary on film and the feminist aspects of some of
her fictional works. Largely based upon archival film research, this thesis
incorporates a much greater amount of film history than has yet been brought to
the study of H.D. Placing her within the cultural context of the time, it also
represents the first extended examination of H.D. in relation to popular culture.
The thesis is structured in three parts, each comprising two chapters and
considering H.D.' s writings on film from a different viewpoint. In the first part,
H.D.'s cultural position as a woman and film critic is debated. In assessing the
impact of gender upon H.D.' s construction of a public, critical voice it is argued
that the association of the feminine with popular forms of entertainment led H.D.
to exaggerate her difference from the mass of cinema spectators. Evidence of
H.D.' s contradictory position is found in the discrepancies between the highculture
stance adopted in her film writing, and in the feminist themes and implied
authorial positions in her novels Bid Me to Live (written in 1939) and Her (written
In the central section, H.D.' s critique of women in film is examined in the
context of representations of women in silent cinema. Her commentary on film is
found to contain astute remarks on the commodification of women on the screen,
as well as a sophisticated and sustained attempt to theorize the position of the
feminine in the visual economy, which bears comparison with contemporary
feminist film scholarship. It is argued that H.D.'s feminist critique of the
cinematic gaze re-emerges in the subversive narrative strategies of two novellas:
Nights (1935) and 'Kora and Ka' (1935).
In the third part, the focus narrows to analyse H.D.'s response to one
particular film actress, namely Greta Garbo. The extent to which H.D. 's
continuing re-evaluation of the cultural significance of the figure of Helen of Troy
was inspired by Garbo's star image is deliberated. From the first encounter with
Garbo's image on screen recorded in Close Up in 1927, to the meditations on a
Garbo-like figure in The Usual Star (1934) and finally in the reworking of the
myths of Helen in Helen in Egypt (1961) it is suggested that Garbo's screen career
provided H.D. with a prototype on which to base increasingly complex ideas
about women, narrative and identity.
The strategy adopted in each section is to establish the feminist issues
raised by H.D.' s essays on film, and then go on to explore these same issues as
they arise in her fictional texts. Repeatedly, it is found that H.D.'s fictional work
takes up a question treated with relative simplicity in Close Up and develops it
into a complex meditation on the inter-relation between gender, power and art.