Document Type


Date of Degree


Degree Name

PhD (Doctor of Philosophy)

Degree In


First Advisor

Mary Lou Emery


Mystical Compositions of the Self: Women, Modernism, and Empire explores women's early 20th-century literary inscriptions of mysticism's entanglement with empire and the figure of the female at the center of each. Through an examination of selected texts by Evelyn Underhill, Eva Gore-Booth, May Sinclair, Sylvia Townsend Warner, Mary Butts, and Virginia Woolf, Mystical Compositions argues that the discourse of mysticism underwrites modernist aesthetic strategies and ethical questions, particularly the pressing concerns of the self's relation to gendered, religious, colonial, and socioeconomic others within the strictures of British imperialism.

Employing a combination of postcolonial, feminist, and religious studies methodologies, this dissertation begins by briefly tracing the discursive history of "mysticism" from ancient mystery religions to its late 19th- and early 20th-century "revival" in British culture, paying particular attention to the prominent use of Woman as a figure of mystical unity in modernist literature and imperial scholarship and propaganda. The project then argues that selected women writers lace their characters' lives with mystical discourses in ways that suggest the skepticism and hopeful longing of living within an imperial system of inequalities and interactions: mysticism can engender connection with others and can offer counter-cultural resistance to the oppressive powers of state, empire, and patriarchal family. It also comes with the potential for minimizing the consumption of the other and for losing the self during a historical moment when women are organizing to actualize their political selfhood through suffrage campaigns, World War I efforts, and non-conscription movements.

Instead of providing a taxonomy of mysticism or a singular categorical definition, the project's chapter studies present a prismatic array of the various mysticisms, the diverse "mystical compositions of the self" that proliferate through the dynamic of modernism's ambivalent relation to empire. The dissertation then proposes that these compositions operate, to varying degrees, within a "mystical economy of the impossible," in which the willing offering of the self to others paradoxically brings about self-abundance. Ultimately, Mystical Compositions highlights the mutually-shaping nature of early 20th-century British mystical, modernist, and imperial discourses and considers the gifts and costs of collaborations between politics, art, corporate religion, and personal spirituality.


empire, modernism, mysticism, women


vi, 264 pages


Includes bibliographical references (pages 251-264).


Copyright 2010 Cory Bysshe Hutchinson-Reuss