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Author ORCID Identifier



Open Access Dissertation

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Degree Program


Year Degree Awarded


Month Degree Awarded


First Advisor

Laura Doyle

Subject Categories

Literature in English, Anglophone outside British Isles and North America | Literature in English, British Isles


Queer writers in Britain during the early twentieth century found themselves in a fraught geopolitical context formed by imperial violence and the First World War. In this dissertation, I argue that many queer modernist artists employed performative strategies in order to navigate the increasingly narrow vision of WWI-era British national culture that accompanied this historical context. While performance allowed them to express queer politics and desires without risking total exposure and persecution, their performative aesthetic depended on a problematic use of racial tropes through which these desires were channeled. By attending to moments of national and gendered performances in the texts, my approach critically engages the conflicted and conflicting racialized ideologies buttressing these modernists’ radical queer politics. I call this aesthetic approach “queer nationalism” to capture the ambivalence of these artists to state power: at once critical of patriarchal and imperial ideologies, these artists benefitted from racial and class privilege afforded by the state. Beginning with Oscar Wilde’s role in defining modern homosexuality, I then examine the case of Maud Allan, a dancer who caused outrage at the end of the First World War in her attempt to perform the eponymous role in Wilde’s play, Salomé. Her Orientalist performances triggered fears of the foreign Other in the British cultural imagination, and eventually led to accusations of espionage and lesbianism, prompting the infamous “Cult of the Clitoris” trial. I then examine Virginia Woolf’s role in the Dreadnought Hoax, in which she wore blackface to impersonate an Abyssinian prince. I analyze her use of racialized performance in both the hoax and her novel Orlando in order to illustrate how Woolf eroticizes African figures to communicate queer desire. The third and fourth chapters move to the years just before the Second World War, examining two writers’ responses to fascist threats. I argue that Djuna Barnes’ Nightwood employs circus imagery as a vehicle for disability tropes. Deployed to challenge fascist notions of degeneracy (which also implicated queer, Jewish, and non-white bodies), disability tropes challenge the Nazi vision of a homogenous national community, yet also reveal Barnes’ problematic exploitation of disability as an aesthetic. I finally return to Woolf to examine her use of performative disidentification in Between the Acts as a way to critique the dominant narrative of national heterosexuality (yet not its racializing force). Contributing to conversations positing race as a central framework of modernist literary form, this dissertation argues that within expressions of radical queer politics, currents of race and sexuality coalesce to form a uniquely performative modernist literary aesthetic.