The writings of Virginia Woolf have always been admired by discriminating readers, but her work has suffered, as has that of many other major authors, periods of neglect by the literary establishment. She was, as she herself put it, always a hare a long way ahead of "those hounds my critics." It was difficult to find copies of her books during the 1950s and 1960s, and they were rarely included on syllabuses for literature classes. However, even before 1972, when her nephew Quentin Bell's bestselling biography introduced her to a larger public, there were signs of quickening of scholarly interest. The extensive and serious treatment given Virginia Woolf's novel To the Lighthouse (1927) in Erich Auerbach's much-esteemed book Mimesis (translated into English in 1953), was a presage and perhaps one of the causes of the turnaround. Oddly enough, her very name has become a household word because of the catchy title of Edward Albee's 1962 play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Her many readers today would answer Albee's enigmatic question with a resounding no one. Her works seem much more accessible than they did to her contemporaries. Though there is now an enormous critical apparatus available, "common readers," as Virginia Woolf called them (borrowing the term from Samuel Johnson), need feel no fear in approaching her novels on their own. Secondary material should be used to enhance rather than impede or replace the reading of her work.
Nonetheless, the advantages of the recent critical and popular attention are manifold. Her novels are now in print again, in a variety of editions, often with introductions in homage by today's writers. They have been translated into more than fifty languages. Her essays, reviews, and short stories have been collected. Fragments of unpublished manuscripts have been pieced together and published, giving general readers access to valuable material such as Woolf's autobiographical writing, edited by Jeanne Schulkind in the collection Moments of Being (1976). And then there is the vast delight of the many volumes of letters and diaries, all scrupulously edited, copiously footnoted, and indexed. Even her reading notes are being published.
This new attention to Virginia Woolf has been paralleled by an increasing interest in the so-called Bloomsbury Group, which had its origins at Cambridge among some undergraduates who were under the influence of the philosopher G. E. Moore. At the instigation of Thoby Stephen, Virginia's brother, these college friends continued to meet in London, in Bloomsbury, and the group evolved to include Virginia, her sister Vanessa, and others.
For a reliable introduction to the memoirs and manifestos issuing from these fertile minds, see S. P. Rosenbaum's anthology, The Bloomsbury Group (1975). He includes a section called "Bloomsbury Criticisms and Controversies," which gives some perspective on how this group of intimates was perceived by such master controversialists as Wyndham Lewis, D. H. Lawrence, the Leavises ,and others. His bibliography testifies to the enormous amount of Bloomsbury material now available. Noel Annan pointed out in a 1978 article in the New York Review of Books, "Virginia Woolf Fever," that we are witnessing "a documentation in detail of a kind never before seen in English letters: so that by the time it is completed we shall know more about the members of the Bloomsbury Group than of any other set of people in English literary history." Their lives and their work are revealed to have, as Virginia Woolf's has, special resonance for readers today.
From the turn of the century until World War II the members of Bloomsbury, as individuals and in various groupings, were grappling with many of the questions which still preoccupy us--for example: they sought to understand the complex relationships between freedom and form, between the object and its abstraction, between gender and sexual preference, between friendship and love; they studied the costs of imperialism, alternatives to war, the possibilities of socialism, the imperatives of feminism; they practiced, most of them, pacifism, and they mistrusted nationalism, patriotism, religionism, fanaticism of all kinds; they were proindividualism and prized personal relations above all other allegiances. Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Roger Fry, and Clive Bell were active in the art world and in an artists' collective called the Omega Workshop. John Maynard Keynes was influential in the world of international politics and finance. Lytton Strachey applied Freud in his Eminent Victorians (1918), thereby revolutionizing the art of biography. These and other "members" of that elusive entity called the Bloomsbury Group were in the forefront of the progressive political and aesthetic thought of the time, and part of their importance was that they helped to provide Virginia Woolf the stimulating ambiance of candid exchange and support so valuable to an emerging writer.
Virginia Woolf's own story starts much earlier, nineteen years before Queen Victoria's death, in the respectable purlieus of Kensington, at the household of Leslie Stephen, who was himself an exemplar of that Victorian phenomenon--a man of letters. It seems especially fitting to prepare an entry in this biographical series for Adeline Virginia Stephen Woolf, as her father was the primary editor of the prototype of all such reference books, the Dictionary of National Biography. Indeed, Virginia Woolf was always to claim that she had been cramped in the womb by the weight of those heavy volumes. While Leslie Stephen was eventually persuaded to give up this stressful task by his ever solicitous wife, Julia, his interests in literary history continued, and it was he who encouraged his youngest daughter's omnivorous reading, giving her free access to his excellent library. She was to have very little formal education, but she described her father's influence in this way: "To read what one liked because one liked it, never to pretend to admire what one did not--that was his only lesson in the art of reading. To write in the fewest possible words, as clearly as possible, exactly what one meant--that was his only lesson in the art of writing. All the rest must be learnt for oneself." The young Virginia also benefited from the Who's Who of writers who came to call at 22 Hyde Park Gate: James Russell Lowell, George Meredith, Thomas Hardy, Henry James, Aunt Anny (Anne Thackeray Ritchie, the novelist), and many others.
Virginia Stephen was the third of four children of Leslie and Julia Stephen--Vanessa, Thoby, Virginia, and Adrian; there were three other children from Julia Stephen's first marriage living in the house--George, Stella, and Gerald Duckworth--and, in the early days, Laura Stephen, the mentally deficient daughter of Leslie Stephen's first marriage, to Minnie Thackeray, who had died in 1875. The lives of this large family at Hyde Park Gate were filled with the usual Victorian comforts and discomforts. As a young don at Cambridge, Leslie Stephen had experienced a crisis of faith and as a result, refused to sign the Thirty-Nine articles of the Church of England, thus cutting himself off from what would have probably been a secure academic life. While this courageous stand eased his conscience in some ways (and according to Katherine C. Hill, set an example which "predisposed his daughters to cultural revolt"), the resultant financial worries preyed upon him, especially after his second wife's death in 1895.
The disastrous effects of the death of that "creator of felicity," as Julia Stephen was seen by her family, reverberated seismically throughout all seven floors of 22 Hyde Park Gate. As part of the aftershock, thirteen-year-old Virginia suffered her first nervous breakdown. The "cure" of rest, reading, milk, and long walks was to be the healing ritual used all of her life during recurrent bouts with what she called madness; critics now quarrel over the terminology, the treatments, and the consequences of a too-general or incorrect diagnosis, but the alternating rhythms of well-being, collapse, convalescence became a pattern in her life.
During these early years, tragic event followed upon tragic event, testing Virginia's remarkable recuperative powers. First, Stella Duckworth, who had done her best to serve as a substitute mother, died, and then Sir Leslie (he had been knighted in 1902) in 1904, after a protracted illness. His death freed the younger generation to sell the Hyde Park Gate house; the Stephen contingent decided to move to the unfashionable but conveniently located area of Bloomsbury, with low rents, easy access to the British Museum, and, best of all, independence from hovering relatives.
At 46 Gordon Square, in a house that still stands today, by early 1905 the Bloomsbury Group, or groupings, can be said to have begun, with Thoby Stephen's "Thursday evenings." Virginia Stephen was teaching adult-education classes in English literature and history at Morley College. She was also, as she put it in a triumphant letter to her favorite correspondent at this time, Violet Dickinson, "realising the ambition of our youth, and actually making money" through writing reviews for such periodicals as the Guardian and the Times Literary Supplement.
In November 1906, Thoby Stephen, the young man of promise and the adored elder brother, died at twenty-six, of typhoid contracted on holiday in Greece. Again the repercussions were earthshaking. Two days after Thoby Stephen's death, Vanessa Stephen finally agreed to marry her brother's friend, Clive Bell; the marriage constituted for Virginia yet another loss. Leaving 46 Gordon Square to the newlyweds, Virginia and Adrian Stephen were reduced to housekeeping together at 29 Fitzroy Square. They were still living in Bloomsbury and still holding the Thursday-evening gatherings, but nothing was ever quite the same.
This precarious phase, marked by Virginia Stephen's beginning on her first novel and marred by illness, was to last for five years or so. Of the many events occurring during this relatively independent--and restless and reckless--time in her life, Virginia Stephen enjoyed retelling the story of the notorious Dreadnought Hoax. With her brother Adrian, Duncan Grant, and assorted other young pranksters, she had dressed up in full oriental regalia and blackface to pay a ceremonial visit to H.M.S. Dreadnought, the pride of the British Navy. They claimed to be emissaries from Abyssinia and, despite the incongruity of their physiognomies and dialects, were accepted as advertised, offered a twenty-one-gun salute, hospitality, and a complete tour of the so-secret ship. It was only later when the full story was leaked to the press that reproaches fell round the ears of the unrepentant participants and security was tightened on all British battleships. As Virginia Woolf said dryly, in an account she wrote of the incident years later, "I am glad to think that I too have been of help to my country." This escapade can be seen as a mock foray into the patriarchy's bastion, an emperor's-clothes fable, and the moral was not lost on the future author of Three Guineas (1938).
Marriage was one of the vexatious issues to be resolved during this period. Virginia Stephen's letters were full of complaints that ever since Thoby Stephen's death, her woman friends were after her to marry, but she too worried that she might never have a proposal and claimed to dread merely being "a virgin, an aunt, an authoress." Proposals did come, the most surprising, even to the suitor himself, being from Lytton Strachey, an avowed homosexual. The offer was quickly rescinded and this miscue did not damage their friendship. It was Strachey who first thought of Leonard Woolf as a likely prospect for Virginia Stephen, and it was to him that Virginia Stephen wrote a card with the single message "Ha! Ha!" when she finally overcame her own ambivalence and accepted Leonard Woolf's offer of marriage. She then triumphantly announced her engagement, describing Leonard Woolf as "one of Thoby's greatest friends" and "a penniless Jew" and noting that "he wants to find out about labour and factories and to keep outside Government and do things on his own account"; "He has also written a novel, and means to write as well as be practical." Especially important to her was that "L.thinks my writing the best part of me." Later she was to write in her diary: "Had I married Lytton I should never have written anything.... He checks and inhibits in the most curious way. [Leonard] may be severe, but he stimulates. Anything is possible with him."
Leonard Woolf had been one of the original members of the Cambridge phase of Bloomsbury, but, after leaving Cambridge, he had accepted a post in the civil service. He served seven years in Ceylon, where he fulfilled his duties with distinction all the while formulating his strong anticolonial position. On leave and in love in 1912, his decision to resign from the service was in some ways analogous to Leslie Stephen's principled withdrawal from the don's life. Leonard Woolf too became a freelance man of letters and found himself accepting onerous tasks to make ends meet. He helped Roger Fry with the controversial postimpressionist exhibit (which opened in November 1910), worked for the Labour party and for the Fabians, acted as literary editor of the Nation and later as editor of the Political Quarterly, among other things. This hardworking man would certainly never have foreseen at this turning point in his career in 1912 the two tasks for which he is now best-known--the nurturing of his wife's genius and the management of the Hogarth Press. It was Leonard Woolf's support of her writing and the publishing house itself that combined in the symbiotic relationship that allowed Virginia Woolf to exult in her diary in 1925: "I am the only woman in England free to write what I like."
How did the Woolfs get into the publishing business? "Almost in spite of ourselves," said Leonard Woolf, in an interview with Mary Gaither, on which she reports in her introduction to A Checklist of the Hogarth Press (1976). In 1917 they bought a small handpress, with a booklet of instructions, and set up shop on the dining-room table in Hogarth House, their lodgings in Richmond. They planned to print only some of their own writings and that of their talented friends. Leonard Woolf hoped the manual work would provide a relaxing diversion from the stress of writing for Virginia Woolf. Had either of them known then what this hobby was to turn into, probably even their courage would have failed them. It is a tribute to their combined business acumen and critical judgment that this small independent venture became, as Mary Gaither recounts, "a self-supporting business and a significant publishing voice in England between the wars." Lelia Luedeking adds: "Through the medium of the Hogarth Press she and Leonard made works available to the public in subjects highly controversial at the time. They published many writers whose works otherwise would have had difficulty seeing the light of day--Russians, socialists, labor organizers, women, experimental poets, psychoanalysts, and anti-imperialists." And, aside from publishing the works of Sigmund Freud, John Maynard Keynes, Harold Laski, Roger Fry, Robert Graves, H. G. Wells, T. S. Eliot, E. M. Forster, Katherine Mansfield and many others, the "dear old Press" (no longer small enough to sit on the dining-room table, but still housed with the Woolfs) published Virginia Woolf's own work and the reputations of her work and the publishing house enhanced one another. When we consider the effects of being a co-owner of the Hogarth Press, combined with the literary tea parties at Hyde Park Gate and the Thursday evenings at Bloomsbury, along with the sustaining influence of her husband/publisher/ agent/nurse, we can begin to understand the special circumstances that made Virginia Woolf such a prolific and experimental writer.
While always a mixed blessing to the Woolfs, as is documented in Virginia Woolf's diaries, Leonard Woolf's autobiographies, John Lehmann's several accounts, and caricatured amusingly in Richard Kennedy's A Boy at the Hogarth Press (1972), the press did offer Virginia Woolf the immeasurable advantage of unlimited access to print. Also, being both a publisher and a publishing author meant that she could follow her books through all their stages, from the first ecstatic making them up in her head on long walks, to the actual tying them up in mailing packages. Reading piles of manuscript submitted for publication, though it took a great deal of her time, did help to keep her in touch with different intellectual and literary trends. It was through the press that the Woolfs made friends with T. S. Eliot and Katherine Mansfield. Virginia Woolf found with Mansfield, who was to die tragically young, "something in common which I shall never find in anyone else," and she always valued the "priceless talk" they had together, despite some rivalry and backbiting. The press imposed on both of the Woolfs a quasi-parental role, which they accepted conscientiously,as advice givers to the younger generation of aspiring authors. The quality of that advice can be seen in a letter Virginia Woolf wrote to Gerald Brenan on Christmas Day 1922 and in A Letter to a Young Poet (separately published in 1932 and collected in The Death of the Moth, 1942).
Still, the major advantage of the press to Virginia Woolf herself was that she was free to write and to publish what she liked. Certainly being one's own publisher made it much easier for Virginia Woolf to pursue her experimental bent. She had abhorred taking the manuscripts of even such relatively conventional novels as her first two, The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919), to her half brother's publishing firm, Duckworth and Company. "I don't like the Clubman's view of literature," she recorded in her 1919 diary account of the experience. One wonders what Gerald Duckworth would have made of the antiwar portions of Jacob's Room (1922) or of Sally Seton's kissing Clarissa Dalloway in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), and he would have been puzzled indeed by the radical style of To the Lighthouse (1927) and Orlando (1928).
Fortunately for Virginia Woolf and for modern literature, she did not have to persuade someone to publish her experimental fiction. Each novel could therefore be an exploration of some uncharted territory of fiction, and each required the enormous effort that is involved in creating without direct models. The images used in her diaries to describe her daily writing task are always taken from the hyperbolic language of risk, making her seem a veritable Hotspur of pen and ink: "feeling each day's work like a fence which I have to ride at," "a quick and flourishing attack," "flogging my brain." She resisted all pressures to develop a formula for success for her novels, asserting early on, "They have to be new to be experiments."
What did new mean to the daughter of Leslie Stephen in the first part of the twentieth century? During this same period Ezra Pound had taken to wearing a scarf emblazoned with some Chinese calligraphy which, when translated, said: "Make it New!" The much-heralded move into the twentieth century made artists of all persuasions determined to do something different from what had been done in the past. They wanted to cast off what Harold Bloom has called "the anxiety of influence."
Virginia Woolf responded to this imperative directly in an often-reprinted essay called "Character in Fiction" ( Criterion, July 1924; later that year published as a pamphlet, Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown), where she asserted that "on or about December, 1910 human character changed." The very arbitrariness of the date and the daringness of the overstatement show her mood--she is out, if not to kill the father, at least to prove him obsolete: "I think that after the creative activity of the Victorian age it was quite necessary, not only for literature but for life, that someone should write the books that Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy have written. Yet what odd books they are! Sometimes I wonder if we are right to call them books at all. For they leave one with so strange a feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction." In this essay she is concentrating on demolishing Arnold Bennett's claim that the young novelists of the era cannot draw convincing characters. Using his novel, Hilda Lessways (1911), she demonstrates to her satisfaction at least that building up a complete material setting for the heroine no longer works: "One line of insight would have done more than all those lines of description." She warns that "the Edwardian tools are the wrong ones for us to use" and in a much-later fable, "The Shooting Party" ( A Haunted House, 1943), she tumbles down the whole Edwardian house of fiction.
As early as 1919, in an essay called "Modern Novels" (slightly revised as "Modern Fiction," The Common Reader, 1925), Virginia Woolf was designating Edwardian novelists as "materialists," certainly a more prejudicial label than "realists." It is in this essay that she asks the all important questions: "Is life like this? Must novels be like this?" For her the connections between fiction and life were vital, and for both to be "new," newly honest and free of illusions, fiction must, paradoxically, tell the truth. It must not promise in thirty-two perfectly balanced chapters that the material world is the real world, but it must give the sense of the internal world as well as the external. It must not end on a dominant tonic, "happily ever after." "Is life like this?" Its form must change too. Once the novelist--and the reader--escape the tyrannical demands of mere representation of reality and from the tyranny too of the plot, we are advised to: "Look within.... Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions--trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant show of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; the moment of importance came not here but there; so that if a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, no tragedy, no love interest in the accepted style, and perhaps not a single button sewn on as the Bond Street tailors would have it. Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end."
Because Virginia Woolf was free to write what she chose and not what she must, she went on to enact many of the principles in this manifesto. Indeed, her first collection of short fiction, published by the Hogarth Press in 1921, was entitled Monday or Tuesday , and a close reading of these short pieces will show that she used them as a testing ground for her experiments with the novel form. The difficulty of character portrayal and the elusive nature of Mrs. Brown are considered in "An Unwritten Novel"; the internal life of a character, like Mrs. Brown, is taken into account, along with the principle of retaining in the narrative only those details that are essential. "Kew Gardens" works with point of view and with interior monologue, which has been misleadingly labeled her "stream of consciousness technique." Virginia Woolf is too much the consummate artist to trust to free association for her effects. She is seeking in this story, and in her later work too, a form to encompass "Silence ... or the things people don't say," and while she sometimes simulates stream of consciousness, the results are quite different from those in the writings of Dorothy Richardson, James Joyce, Edouard Dujardin. "A Society" is a lively harbinger of A Room of One's Own (1929) and other such pieces."A Haunted House" leads to the "Time Passes" section of To the Lighthouse and thence to the interludes in The Waves (1931). "String Quartet" contains elements later found in Orlando and The Waves. "The Mark on the Wall" is a conte philosophique which argues against generals and generalizations, men of action and housekeepers. Here too she describes her theory of history--"once a thing's done, no one ever knows how it happened"--thus proving the necessity for fictional recreations.
Aside from their connections with the novels, these short pieces are in themselves interesting, and other writers especially admire them. Curiously, despite all the attention Virginia Woolf's work now receives, the short fiction has yet to be "taken to heart," as she complained in an early diary. Most of these early stories, along with some important later ones, were republished in 1943 by Leonard Woolf in the collection A Haunted House and Other Short Stories, and interested readers can check to see if indeed Jacob's Room, her first novel not "in the accepted manner," is "'Mark on the Wall,' 'K. G.' and 'Unwritten Novel' taking hands and dancing in unity," as she predicted. In general, these short stories seemed to serve the function of limbering up her style and giving her a respite from the elevation of spirits which she always felt when working on a novel.
The Voyage Out , first published in 1915 and a maiden voyage in every sense, did not show the full effect of this new theory of fiction, but when Virginia Woolf was revising it for publication in the United States five years later, she had written most of the Monday or Tuesday short stories. Perhaps some of that experimentation influenced the revision noticed by Louise DeSalvo and others in the description of her motherless heroine, Rachel. The first version sees Rachel as "a bride going forth to her husband, a virgin unknown of men ... for as a ship she had a life of her own." In the version published in the United States, she is still a bride and a virgin, but the ship simile has been dropped and Rachel is herself "worshipped and felt as a symbol." A significant shift in poetic technique, certainly, though the outcome (Rachel's death) remains the same. The tragedy does not, however, overshadow the many Bildungsroman encounters that Rachel has, including some quite explicit conversations questioning the roles and education of young women in society of the time.
The same questions are taken up in Night and Day , and here there is a sympathetic spinster character who works for the suffrage movement. The focus, however, is on the conventionally inevitable young couples, all mismatched at the beginning of the book and reordered more successfully through the action of the novel. What is unconventional about the novel is the heroine, a sensitive young mathematician, with a passion for privacy, whose patience is tried by the tea table demands made upon her by her charming but scatterbrained mother, Mrs. Hilberry, in their excessively literary household. Katherine Mansfield reviewed this book as a regression to Jane Austen, and Virginia Woolf herself was to call it later "a book that taught me much, bad though it may be."
The next novel, Jacob's Room , is usually heralded as a major breakthrough and indeed Virginia Woolf so considered it, as we see from the following extract from her diary: "The day after my birthday; in fact I'm 38. Well, no doubt I'm a great deal happier than I was at 28; & happier today than I was yesterday having this afternoon arrived at some idea of a new form for a new novel ... the approach will be entirely different this time: no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen; all crepuscular, but the heart, the passion, humour, everything as bright as fire in the mist...."
The approach may be different, but the theme is much like that of The Voyage Out, a failed "education of the young prince" novel--it is not the young prince that fails, but society which will fail him by its wars. Jacob's last name is, ominously, Flanders, and Virginia Woolf, in what we will come to see as a typical reversal, uses the Bildungsroman expectations to dramatize this wanton destruction of the carefully educated young man of promise. Thus Arnold Bennett and others who have regretted the lack of fullness in the hero's character are missing the point of the novel, which is an elegy to the missing heroes, the terrible loss of that World War I generation.
As we know from Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, she did feel characters were elusive. She also felt that they deserved some privacy and, as her novelist persona says in Jacob's Room: "It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, nor yet entirely what is done ...."
If with Night and Day she had learned how to put it all in, with Jacob's Room she showed that she had learned the lesson in "An Unwritten Novel": "But this we'll skip ... skip, skip ...." The transitions are agile, and the unity comes from the repetition of images, with ever-increasing resonance, until we feel the same sense of loss that we might from a more traditionally structured war novel; the end does not escape sentimentalism, and Virginia Woolf suffered the usual modern difficulty (as described by Frank Kermode in The Sense of Ending) with the endings of all her early novels.
Mrs. Dalloway , published in 1925, has often been compared to, and indeed said to have been influenced by, Joyce's Ulysses (1922), which the Woolfs were reading at T.S. Eliot 's request in 1922, close to the time Virginia Woolf was writing "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond St." (Dial, July 1923), one of the stories which branched into the novel. It is true that the action of the book takes place in twenty-four hours and includes a walk about London reminiscent of Joyce's Leopold Bloom's stroll through Dublin, but the similarities seem at this distance due to what they had in common rather than to direct influences.
An original feature of this skillfully woven pattern of urban life is Septimus Smith, a tragic war-torn figure who acts as a counterpart or double to Clarissa Dalloway. This ingenious invention enabled Virginia Woolf to write of her own madness and suicide attempts in the novel while maintaining some psychical distance. Clarissa herself is not Virginia Woolf but the prototype of the society hostess figure which fascinated her. Virginia Woolf said in her diary that she wanted in this book to "show the despicableness of people like Ott" (Lady Ottoline Morrell) who invite poor embroideresses to her parties to be kind. In order to make Mrs. Dalloway less shallow and "tinselly," Virginia Woolf "invented her memories," and one of them is the vibrant Sally Seton scene in which Clarissa feels "only for a moment; but it was enough" what men felt, when Sally "picked a flower; kissed her on the lips."
In this novel Virginia Woolf said she wanted to give "life and death, sanity and insanity": "I want to criticise the social system, & to show it at work, at its most intense." Perhaps the press of "almost too many ideas" is what led her into allegory, a method she basically distrusted as lending itself to preaching. There are a Miss Kilman, a Hugh Whitbread, names suspiciously prejudicial, and also a long and passionate diatribe against doctors and all who "force the soul." In the elaborate party scene at the end Virginia Woolf hoped to "sum it all up" in the central figure who, "very white since her illness ... very upright" has her own sort of gallantry in the face of death.
Brilliantly conceived and beautifully written, Mrs. Dalloway concentrates on the real feelings beneath the social surface, thus turning upside down the novel of manners. It was, and is, widely admired, but perhaps the compliment she appreciated the most was a backhanded one from her old antagonist, Arnold Bennett. He admitted that the book "beat" him: "I could not finish it, because I could not discover what it was really about, what was its direction, and what Mrs. Woolf intended to demonstrate by it. To express myself differently, I failed to discern what was its moral basis."
It was the next novel, however, To the Lighthouse , that established Virginia Woolf as a major novelist. Even her enemies liked this book. (The Leavises, in their anti-Bloomsbury journal, Scrutiny, pronounced it "the only good one in which her talent fulfills itself in a satisfactory achievement.") Why does it reach everyone so deeply? Because it is about the family? Actually, the genre is once again used to destroy itself; this is a family novel which reveals like an autopsy the painful cancers of family politics. And after the great dinner scene of communion over the steaming tureen of boeuf en daube ("a specially tender piece of eternity"), Virginia Woolf asks the difficult question: but can such moments endure? Answer: no, except in memory and in art. Are such moments then enough? Answer: that depends upon the person, but they are all we have.
Virginia Woolf felt that in writing this most obviously autobiographical of all her novels (it is set in a lightly disguised Tallant House, the St. Ives vacation place of her youth), she had laid to rest the ghosts of her parents. Perhaps that is what readers hope to achieve as well. But it is important when reading of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay not to take sides. Virginia Woolf herself tried scrupulously to give both personalities their due, not to be partisan, and it is a misreading to impose one's biases on this account, of which her artist sister, Vanessa Bell, wrote: "as far as portrait painting goes you seem to me the supreme artist ...." Lily Briscoe is another memorable portrait in the book, providing the spinster-artist perspective so often found not only in Woolf's works but in other books by women. It is Lily who as the high priest, the artist, declares, using the last words of the mass, "It is finished."
The novel is consciously cast in the three-part, elegiac-ode form. Most people remember the first section when they think back on the novel, and that is the section so exhaustively analyzed by Auerbach. The "Time Passes" mid-section, in which no human figure appears on the stage for pages and pages and the haunted house begins its decay, should be read aloud to appreciate fully its power and its poetry and the Lear-like emphasis on nothingness. The last section has been variously interpreted. It satisfies some readers and puzzles others. An entire collection of critical interpretations of this one novel was edited in 1970 by Thomas Vogler. It is this novel of Woolf's which is the most frequently taught in college classes, and it is probably often misread. Though disguised as a Victorian family novel, it subtly subverts the solidity of the institution and the genre.
In Orlando the subversive use of genre is overt--Virginia Woolf subtitled this anomalous book "A Biography" to manifest all her criticism of conventional biography. It is the novel genre which best gives the "spirit of the times" and shows how a single human being can be the product of his or her past. These pronouns become especially slippery in this book, where the usual boundaries of gender, time, and tragic consequence are transcended in a light-hearted Ovidian skating over the same questions that will engulf the reader in the more Homeric The Waves. Sailing boats do not sink here as they do in so many of her other books. The mood is comic, and everything is to be mocked, as Woolf said in her plans, "even my own lyric vein." (Beware of that banana-peel preface upon which so many critics have slipped.) Certainly she is mocking the heavyhanded Kulturegeshichte critics, but just as certainly she is enjoying trying her hand at this kind of criticism herself, thus deriving a double kick from the parody. Her description of the coming of the Victorian Age has been often anthologized, as has The Great Frost scene, which has even been adapted as an animated cartoon for television. Androgyny, creativity, nationalism, metamorphoses, immortality, and more are skated around in Orlando .
Vita Sackville-West's life story and aristocratic lineage, which so fascinated Virginia Woolf, became the underlying myth upon which the other themes are woven. Indeed, the whole book is a kind of love letter tribute to Virginia and Vita's passionate friendship, which flourished from about 1925 to 1929. (It is certainly a tribute both to Vita and to her husband, Lord Harold Nicolson, that they never asked to see the book before publication.)
To read Orlando it does help to know something of the history of Knole, Vita Sackville-West's ancestral home, and there are some "in" jokes, as Elizabeth Bowen warns in her afterword to the Signet edition. But the lively pacing of the book, filled with surprising turns and twists, gives even the casual reader a treat. Like so many comic works, Orlando asks all the hard questions and, as Bowen suspected, it cleared the way by a kind of play therapy for The Waves, that "eyeless, mystical book," as Virginia Woolf called it.
While each of the novels has its adherents, most people agree with Leonard Woolf's early assessment that The Waves is her masterpiece. The hardest of all the books to summarize (as Virginia Woolf explained, "I am writing to a rhythm and not to a plot"), The Waves too asks the question "but what endures?" and answers, even more baldly than before: nothing but mutability and metamorphosis. Each human life is no more than a wave which, after arching its back and reaching forward, will break upon the shore and be dispersed back into the sea. The philosophical equilibrium of the book is extraordinary, balanced between defiance and acceptance, despair and exaltation. The Waves is beyond optimism and pessimism, a truly modern book. The compelling rhythm of the prose and the beauty of the form make reading the work a life-affirming experience, however stripped of illusions the message may be.
The form took her some time to find, a quest testified to in the holograph versions transcribed and edited by John W. Graham. Her long-felt objections to conventional dialogue are finally resolved into a series of soliloquies or interior monologues by six friends, three men and three women, all centered upon one heroic figure called, appropriately, Percival. He will, of course, disappear, as has the traditional concept of the hero in the twentieth century, and the friends are left to mourn and to discover what, if anything, holds them together after Percival's mock-heroic death. Again the message undercuts the genre, as Woolf uses epic form to describe the absence of the hero. In a series of dinner parties quite different from Mrs. Dalloway's carefully choreographed party or from the family table of the Ramsays, the members of the chorus see if they can take up the action in this epic of twentieth-century life. The wars are different from Homer's, but the stakes are similar--survival with honor.
The italicized interludes, like still-life paintings, which preface each "human" section, are reminiscent of the "Time Passes" section in To the Lighthouse. They interweave with the patterns in the rest of the book, reflecting different times of the day, a succession of seasons, and the movement from childhood to old age. Even those who have difficulty reading the novel, finding the characters' voices monotonous, acknowledge the remarkable precision and power of Woolf's observation of the natural and the social world. For example, Bernard, mid-monologue, notices his friend Neville: "You are making some protest, as you glide with an inexpressibly familiar gesture, your hand along your knee. By such signs we diagnose our friends' diseases .... 'Stop,' you say, 'Ask me what I suffer.'" And the lyric eye of the interludes observes at high noon: "The sun fell in sharp wedges inside the room. Whatever the light touched became dowered with a fanatical existence." The book, which opens in Eden, an Eden disturbed by the primal kiss, combines the double realities of the archetypal and the social (as do, to a lesser degree, Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse). Rhoda realizes at the end of yet another painful party scene, "I am the foam that sweeps and fills the uttermost rims of the rocks with whiteness; I am also a girl, here in this room."
Critics have too often misread this book, as startled by its stark message as by its unusual form, so one must beware of the secondary sources. Virginia Woolf's essay called "The Narrow Bridge of Art," reprinted in Granite and Rainbow, serves almost as a self-interview about her intentions in The Waves, as does a letter she wrote to John Lehmann on 17 September 1931, reprinted in volume four of The Letters of Virginia Woolf. There is also an account she wrote to herself in her diary when she was putting her method to this stretch: "The idea has come to me that what I want now to do is to saturate every atom. I mean to eliminate all waste, deadness, superfluity: to give the moment whole; whatever it includes. Say that the moment is a combination of thought; sensation; the voice of the sea. Waste, deadness, come from the inclusion of things that don't belong to the moment; this appalling narrative business of the realist: getting on from lunch to dinner: it is false, unreal, merely conventional. Why admit any thing to literature that is not poetry--by which I mean saturated? Is that not my grudge against novel[ist]s--that they select nothing? The poets succeeding by simplifying: practically everything is left out. I want to put practically everything in; yet to saturate. This is what I want to do in The Moths [an earlier title for The Waves ]. It must include nonsense, fact, sordidity: but made transparent." It is interesting to compare this private statement to her already-quoted manifesto from "Modern Fiction," of nearly ten years before. How consistent her struggle against mere realism, how committed she is to that intense moment of being, of vision, which has been called the modern epiphany. This combination of the senses and the liberation from narrative time which Woolf achieves in her moments of being are closely analogous to what the imagists hoped to achieve by their use of images in early twentieth-century poetry.
In her next novel, Virginia Woolf would seem to be eschewing these poetic techniques; indeed, she originally called The Years (1937) an "essay-novel." In this most extensively revised of all her books, she sought to juxtapose the inner and outer, the real and the symbolic: "But the Pargiters [working title of The Years]. I think this will be a terrific affair. I must be bold & adventurous. I want to give the whole of the present society--nothing less: facts, as well as the vision. And to combine them both. I mean, The waves going on simultaneously with Night & Day. Is this possible? ... And there are to be millions of ideas but no preaching--history, politics, feminism, art, literature--in short a summing up of all I know, feel, laugh at, despise, like, admire hate & so on."
A tall order--and though The Years was a publishing success, its goals have not been fully understood until recently, when thanks to the work of Mitchell Leaska, Grace Radin, and others, the book is coming into focus. Some of the excised manuscript portions have been published in a book of their own called The Pargiters (1977), and many of the social concerns present in her work since The Voyage Out are here developed in considerable detail.
The Years itself, building on the genre of the generation novel, moves from 1880 to the present day with the Pargiter family. While their tea table forms the center stage, bombs and other intrusions from the world's troubled history can be heard prophetically in the distance. The central figure, Eleanor, is a spinster who never breaks with her father or with her class but who manages nonetheless to live her life, to survive with honor. The servant figure, brilliantly described in her bitter obsolescence, the younger generation whose gains in freedom seem somehow unsatisfactory, and the war itself are all themes in this rich, mild-mannered book. At the last party everyone gathers for incomplete toasts and incomprehensible songs and interrupted conversations--all the advantages of modern civilization, in short. Yet at the end, Eleanor watches from the window (as so often the Pargiter women do) while an anonymous young couple get out of a cab and enter a house together: "The sun had risen, and the sky above the houses wore an air of extraordinary beauty, simplicity, and peace."
This peaceful moment does not endure, as we will see in the next novel, which was published posthumously without her usual last revisions. Between the Acts (1941) is a tough-minded book, with each character walled into his or her own territory. A village pageant of British history is trying to draw them together, but the record player gets stuck on the line "dispersed are we ...," and the last scene of the pageant features the cast holding up mirrors which reflect back the fragmented audience in an alienation device worthy of Brecht. Another of Woolf's frustrated artist figures, the dramatist Miss LaTrobe, in despair over the failure of her vision, goes off to a pub. The action then shifts back to the "real" people, again a couple. John Lehmann admits the last confrontation still has the power to "make frissons run through him." Between the Acts shows the dynamics of Isa's and Giles's struggles as somehow related to the coming war. Virginia Woolf understood the connections between the personal and the political.
Indeed, it is as if the devastating losses of her life, "the erosion of life by death" as Leonard Woolf called it, were echoed by the bloody history of the twentieth century, confirming her preoccupation with the theme of the lost hero. It is chilling to realize that her first novel was published during World War I and the last, posthumously, during World War II. Like another great artist working in that period " entre les deux guerres," Käthe Kollwitz, Virginia Woolf was able in her art to generalize her sense of personal loss into the universal. Like Käthe Kollwitz too, she, her family, and many of their friends were pacifists, not an easy position to maintain in England at any time, but especially during World War II, if one's husband was a Jew. Perhaps these contradictions contributed to her deep weariness, the problem of disembodiment which led her to take her own life in March 1941.
Her awareness of the risks the world was taking with its young men had been exacerbated by the death in the Spanish civil war of her nephew, Julian Bell, whose life and death seem to have been eerily foretold in Jacob's Room , written when Julian was just a boy.Certainly Vanessa Bell was the most affected, becoming a kind of pietà figure mourning this loss of her firstborn, but to the aunt goes the credit of discovering the archetype, of mourning for the holocaust that was ahead as well as for the blood sacrifice of Flanders field.
Virginia Woolf's understanding of the causes of war was political as well as symbolic, however, and in Jacob's Room she describes the horrors of modern technological warfare:
The battleships ray out over the North Sea, keeping their stations accurately apart. At a given signal all the guns are trained on a target which (the master gunner counts the seconds, watch in hand--at the sixth he looks up) flames into splinters. With equal nonchalance a dozen young men in the prime of life descend with composed faces into the depths of the sea; and there impassively (though with perfect mastery of machinery) suffocate uncomplainingly together. Like blocks of tin soldiers the army covers the cornfield, moves up the hillside, stops, reels slightly this way and that, and falls flat, save that, through fieldglasses, it can be seen that one or two pieces still agitate up and down like fragments of broken match-stick.
These actions, together with the incessant commerce of banks, laboratories, chancellories, and houses of business, are the strokes which oar the world forward, they say.
"They" are all those who try to rationalize war as inevitable, and the irony in her tone deepens into anger as she ascribes the blame and sharpens the analysis in A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas . In these important nonfiction works, which continue to influence readers, despite those who try to discount them, Virginia Woolf recognizes the dangers of fascism, its origins and its appeal. Much of this material she may well have gleaned from conversations with Leonard Woolf, who had also written on the underlying causes of war. Their library contained many books on the subject. Much of the fire and the facts came from her own feminist analysis and from her identification with the outsiders of this world (in ways reminiscent of the twentieth century philosopher and mystic Simone Weil). But at base the awareness seems intuitive, with the systematic argumentation built up later. She saw the fragility of the social contracts, the need and oppression and sorrow that await us.
In one of her last pieces, "Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid" (New Republic, 21 October 1940), reprinted in the collection called The Death of the Moth, Woolf makes an impassioned plea for women to fight what Blake called "the mental fight," which means "thinking against the current, not with it." She wants women, by thinking, to free both men and women, both German and British, from the prison of war: "We can see shop windows blazing; and women gazing; painted women; dressed up women; women with crimson lips and crimson fingernails. They are slaves who are trying to enslave. If we could free ourselves from slavery we should free men from tyranny. Hitlers are bred by slaves."
In this deep concern, she takes her place with the writers and artists now studied under the rubric of modernism. But what separates her from many of her fellow modernists and what constitutes the triumph of her vision and of her style is that--even after accepting the nothingness, the loss of self, the eclipse of color and meaning, and the lack of benevolence in nature--the writer and her readers too emerge feeling not only the beauty of the world, so soon to perish, but also what Virginia Woolf calls again and again that "sense of effort" that prevails. Hermione Lee, in her determinedly balanced approach to the novels, has summed up as follows: "Virginia Woolf is often praised for sensitivity and lyricism and criticized for ineffectuality and preciousness. There is truth on both sides, but such praise and blame sidestep equally the determined pursuit of control and authenticity which invigorates even the slightest of her work, and makes her major achievements solid with integrity and rich with inventiveness." Professor Lee also says that even had Woolf written no novels, she would have "a place in the twentieth century letters as a considerable essayist." A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas are deft, witty, carefully thought-out polemics against what Woolf saw as the chief perils of the times. Indeed, Woolf's comic gift is never done full justice. Some of the scenes in the novels as well as in the essays are wonderfully humorous. Other essays along less serious lines, such as "Street Haunting" and "On Being III," are classics of their kind and reward reading and rereading.
Her literary essays and weekly reviews are still marvelously accessible, charming, and daring, adjectives not usually applied to the more academic critics. When read as a whole, these articles reveal an unorthodox, unified philosophy of criticism. Woolf was not ashamed to use biography and even gossip to help convey the spirit of the times. René Wellek speaks of Virginia Woolf as critic, admiring her "lively historical sense, a feeling for the color of England in different ages, and a feeling--rare at that time--for the changes in the audience of literature and the interplay between the author and reader, text and response." She was also a forerunner of the movement to look to the minor and often minority figures for intuitions about a period. Her essays "Lives of the Obscure" provide good examples of the rewards to be gained from resurrecting these marginal figures. Woolf's special attentiveness to all the women writers she could find, from the Pastons to Dorothy Richardson, continues to be consciousness-raising for students (and their teachers) reading mainly from the traditional canons. It was she who helped readers see Dorothy Wordsworth and Sara Coleridge as people and writers in their own right. Of course, she also speaks of Flush as a person in his own right (in her biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning's cocker spaniel). Virginia Woolf, despite her deceptively light tone when referring to her nonfiction, intended her essays quite seriously, and they are now being taken seriously by such critics as René Wellek, Mark Goldman, and others.
Generally it can be said that the criticism of Woolf's work in all its aspects has improved in quality as well as quantity since the 1970s epidemic of "Virginia Woolf Fever." Her work attracts many different sorts of minds, from psychologists to novelists to phenomenologists.
Many of the best critical essays on Woolf have been collected in useful series such as Twentieth Century Views and Contemporary Views, and anthologies of new essays are being edited by such longtime Woolf scholars as Ralph Freedman and by such lively new ones as Jane Marcus. The Critical Heritage Series volume on Woolf, edited by Majumdar and McLaurin, republishes for easy perusal contemporary critical reactions to her works as they appeared. There are concordances planned to all the major novels, tools now made feasible by computer technology. Beverly Ann Schlack has provided a treasury of Virginia Woolf's use of literary allusion. Extremely interesting too for specialists are the variant studies, looking at Woolf's creative process as revealed in the successive manuscript versions leading to her published works. There is much to be learned from this "following the footsteps in the author's mind," as Charles Abbott has called manuscript study. The serious sustained critical attention to her work has made us all better readers of Virginia Woolf and has raised the standards of criticism not only for Woolf's work but for that of other experimental twentieth-century writers as well.
One of the most vital impulses behind the revaluation of Virginia Woolf and her work has been provided by readers and scholars with feminist perspectives. There are some conflicts between these critics and those who feel she should be read as a universal rather than a woman writer, as there are between those who concentrate on the biography rather than on close stylistic scrutiny. The phenomenologists have one way of viewing Virginia Woolf's mental and physical condition and the family and friends another. There is probably an England/America split; France feels it understands her best; Japan finds in her work a literary affinity based on the pillow-book tradition and Lady Murasaki; India has a number of devoted Woolf scholars; Italy planned an impressive centennial conference in her honor. From being the most neglected major writer of her age, she has become now a prize to be fought over, and of course all this attention from so many different quarters is good for the critical dialogue. A newsletter called the Virginia Woolf Miscellany strives to keep all these different factions in touch with one another. Its mailing list includes many libraries and more than 1,000 names in thirty-two different countries. Journals devote special issues to her, scholarly meetings are held in her honor, and there are boeuf en daube dinners, trips to lighthouses, and walks around Bloomsbury and Sussex held in celebration of what Woolf has given us. Her work has also stimulated creative efforts from artists in other media, and plays, concerts, and dance performances are being created in homage.
Thus we see how far her reputation has come from the Leavises' early "invalid lady of Bloomsbury" image as well as from the narrowly partisan readings of her enemies and friends, and from the 1960s when a French newspaper translated the title of Albee's play as "qui a peur des loups de Virginie." Virginia Woolf now belongs securely to the world, and the influence of her life and of her work will continue to be felt in all future generations of "common readers."
From: Wilson, J. J. "(Adeline) Virginia Woolf." British Novelists, 1890-1929: Modernists, edited by Thomas F. Staley, Gale, 1985. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 36.