Birgit Van Puymbroeck (Vrije Universiteit Brussel)


Birgit Van Puymbroeck is Assistant Professor of Literature in English and Research Methodology at Vrije Universiteit Brussel. Her research interests include modernism, literary networks, and print and sound media. She is the author of Modernist Literature and European Identity (Routledge, 2020) and co-editor of the Edinburgh Companion to First World War Periodicals (Edinburgh University Press, 2023), with Marysa Demoor and Cedric Van Dijck. Her articles have appeared in PMLA, Modernism/modernity, Modernist Cultures, English literature in Transition, 1880-1920, and Biography: An Interdisciplinary Quarterly a.o. Together with Inge Arteel, she currently co-directs the FWO-funded project “Broadcast Biographies: Innovations in Genre and Medium, 1945-2000”.

Modernism’s Afterlives on Radio: Katie Hims’s Luxembourg Gardens and Mary Cooper’s Edith Sitwell in Scarborough

This paper aims to revisit modernism’s afterlives through the lens of twenty-first-century radio drama. The past few years have seen a rise in radio drama being devoted to modernist topics and figures, especially in the genre of the radio biography. To give an example, the BBC collection Behind the Author’s Desk focuses on W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, Louis MacNeice, Edith Sitwell, Katherine Mansfield, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and others. While individual radio plays differ in how they present their subject, the collection shows an ongoing interest in modernist literature and culture that matches current trends in print.

This paper aims to investigate how biographically-themed radio plays engage with the legacies of modernism in both content and form. It starts from the dual observation that biography is inherently concerned with memory and legacy, linking the past to the present, and that radio, in many ways a ‘modernist’ medium, can provide new insights in early twentieth-century and contemporary literary experiment. Rather than providing a general overview, the paper proposes to focus on two case studies: Katie Hims’s Luxembourg Gardens (BBC Radio 4, 2022), which imagines Katherine Mansfield’s final day in Paris, and Mary Cooper’s Edith Sitwell in Scarborough (BBC Radio 4, 2020), in which Sitwell visits her childhood home and younger self.

Through homage, reinscription, and thematization, these plays keep the memory of modernist literature and culture alive, while alerting us to the possibilities of radio drama. They not only point to the further institutionalisation of modernism and its canonical figures, but also inquire into modernism’s meaning and significance for the twenty-first century.