Lecture XI.-- The Modern Novel: Virginia Woolf and the Word


    Pablo Picasso

    La Vie (Life), 1903, oil on canvas, Cleveland Museum of Art. 

    Graphic Reproductions of Spanish Cubists from CGFA 

    Music:  Mack the Knife from Midifarm


    Take-Home Final Exam

    The Modern Novel--Virginia Woolf and the Word

    In the eleventh class session we will examine the roots of the modern novel.  At the dawn of the Twentieth Century, the sensibilities of the past were discarded by many writers--and the change in attitude was also reflected in novel form, language, and structure.  Women, of course, embraced the chance to upend traditional story patterns--eager for a chance to create literature that was closer to their experience of life.  

    While World War I. has faded in the common, popular consciousness to "just another war." In the historical chain of incessant wars, however, it was not viewed that way by the people of the time.  The Great War was seen as a watershed, the end of an old, gracious, ordered, monarchical, patriarchic, familiar world.  In its place, there quickly arose a world of the new, the savage, the disordered, the democratic and demagogic, dictatorial, formless, and unfamiliar world.  Writers and artists quickly realized that the "old world" ideas were embedded in the old world practices, and they began searching for new methods to reflect the environment they inhabited.  Cubism, surrealism, expressionism were all attempts of the plastic arts to respond to Twentieth Century conditions - and writers like Virginia Woolf were doing the same for literature. 

    Desiring truth, awaiting
    it, laboriously distilling a
    few words, for ever
    desiring—(a cry starts
    to the left, another to
    the right. Wheels strike
    divergently. Omnibuses
    conglomerate in
    conflict)—for ever desiring.
    Virginia Woolf

    The popular attention that has been directed to Virginia Woolf seems to have consisted of two different brands.  On the one hand, there is the really romantic and daring "legend material" of the Bloomsbury Group.  In this scenario, Virginia Woolf presides, in London, over the literati glitterati.  Here we have a select group of writers and artists who gather to talk esthetic notions and engage in sophisticated doings and undoings.  Essentially, this has been the version of Virginia Woolf that has dominated popular culture.  It arises out of our own Romantic Movement, the precepts of which we are fairly familiar, by now.  46 Gordon Square was where the Stephen sisters, Vanessa and Virginia, held court over Bloomsbury. The year was 1905. 

    Vanessa Stephen Bell

    Thoby Stephen
    (1880-1906; brother)

    Virginia Stephen Woolf

    Adrian Stephen
    (1883-1948; brother)

    Clive Bell
    (art critic; married Vanessa)

    Leonard Woolf
    (political writer; married Virginia)

    Roger Fry
    (1866-1934; art critic and painter)

    Duncan Grant
    (1885-1978; painter)

    Dora Carrington
    (1893-1932; Omega/Hogarth artist)

    Thursday evening attendees could include Shaw, Yeats, Arnold Bennett as well as luminary Lytton Strachley, the biographer, journalist/editor Desmond MacCarthy and his wife Molly, enigmatic civil servant Saxon Sydney-Turner, artist Marion Richardson, novelist E.M. Forster and economist John Maynard Keynes. Later John Lehmann, Frances Marshall, Raymond Mortimer, sculptor Stephen Tomlin, and Vanessa's son Quentin Bell could all be considered part of the New Bloomsbury group.  The French Post-Impressionists (like Cezanne and Matisse) were a major influence on the painters and art critics of the group. Young artist Duncan Grant was thrilled by a Manet exhibit and wrote:  It was really a moment which brought together all the younger painters in England into a sort of mass movement. They agreed that something had happened that they must cope with and I think that is what led eventually to the Omega.

    In 1913, with artist Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant as his co-directors, artist and art critic Roger Fry started the Omega Workshops (at Fitzroy Square, Bloomsbury). In the spirit of William Morris, the Omega Workshops were set up as a place where artists could make a little money, shed a little art on the stale decorating and design scene, and with one rule: no artist could spend so much time at the Omega that it would take away from their own art.

    The idea of the select group of painters and artists had been a familiar one in the 19th Century, as well.  We did not go into detail about the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood, among whom Christina Rosetti was a prominent member.  But this notion of artists and writers somehow forming "groups" with "manifestos" was to become increasingly popular in the 20th Century.  The Cubists were one such group, under the leadership of Pablo Picasso.  

    Pablo Picasso:  Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, 1907, Giraudon, Paris. 

    The Surrealists, often associated with Marcel Duchamp, was another.  (In our presentation last week, we saw that Mary Hunter Austin wished to be admitted to one such group in California, but was rebuffed because she was not good-looking enough!)

    Why did this happen?

    In 1917, Leonard bought a printing press, partly to distract his wife from her "glooms," and set up the Hogarth Press in the basement. Later, Hogarth Press was the first to publish Sigmund Freud in English (greatly inspiring Virginia). They also published T.S.Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, Maxim Gorky and of course all of Virginia's writing-- with cover art exclusively by her sister Vanessa.

    Her writing was seminal in its day. The feminism was logical and unapologetic. Her characters, often based on her own family, were psychological and authentic. At her best, she could write "to a rhythm" rather than a conventionally structured plot ("The Waves"). In that sense, her writing opened the door for today's modern literature.

    While the Bloomsbury Group itself was formed as early as 1905, and WW I. did not begin until 1914, there was a general sense, in Europe, that all was not well even during the very early years of the century.  Movements like those in art - Cubism for example - carried a message that things were fragmenting.  The notion that the safe, ordered Victorian world - a world of hierarchical order, paternalistic justice, and the idea of progress - was somehow fragmenting were present well before the war began.  However, the advent of World War I, which was far more brutal and terrifying than any previous war, and the following in quick succession of the collapse of empires, cemented this notion in the popular mind.  While movements for suffrage and rights continued, they did so against the backdrop of a persistent pessimism in western culture.  While of course, not everyone was gloomy all of the time, even the good years were shadowed by the conviction that all of this was somehow aberrant, and that the world everyone knew was in grave danger of disappearing.  In fact, it already had.

    Miro - Dutch Interior 

    "The compensation of growing old, Peter Walsh thought, coming out of Regent's Park, and holding his hat in his hand, was simply this; that the passions remain as strong as ever, but one has gained--at last!--the power of taking hold of experience, of turning it round, slowly, in the light."

    Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway 

    I begin with the information on the Bloomsbury Group, and Virginia as the key member, more as a move to get it out of the way than to stress its importance to the progress of Women in Literature - or women's writing.  The other side of Virginia Woolf did not get much attention until the 1970's, when the Feminist Movement gathered strength.  At that point, Woolf's "A Room of One's Own" became mandatory reading for all women writers, and critics began to look more closely into the deeper meanings of her work.

    Miro - Catalan Landscape

    Imaginative work...is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners....But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers
    that these webs are not spun in midair by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering, human
    beings, and are attached to the grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in. 

    A Room of One's Own

    We are reading A Room of One's Own.  This essay is not, of course, the wonderful fiction for which Virginia Woolf is best remembered.  However, it stands as an important document for us as we look at the history of women's writing.  In a sense, Woolfe captures in this piece the things that women writers must have been thinking all along, but did not have the language or the illumination to express.  It sets down, in much the same measured, careful way, the argument that literature does not simply arise from nothing - that it is the product, and influenced by, all of the environmental factors in an author's life.  As we look further into the "Modern" writers - women about whom we know considerably more that we did about Aphra Behn, for example - we can begin to see the truth of this essay at many levels.  

    From  A Room of One's Own

    For it is a perennial puzzle why no woman wrote a word of that extraordinary literature when every other man, it seemed, was capable of song or sonnet. What were the conditions in which women lived, I asked myself; for fiction, imaginative work that is, is not dropped like a pebble upon the ground, as science may be; fiction is like a spider's web, attached ever so lightly perhaps, but still attached to life at all four corners. Often the attachment is scarcely perceptible; Shakespeare's plays, for instance, seem to hang there complete by themselves. But when the web is pulled askew, hooked up at the edge, torn in the middle, one remembers that these webs are not spun in midair by incorporeal creatures, but are the work of suffering human beings, and are attached to grossly material things, like health and money and the houses we live in. 

    I went, therefore, to the shelf where the histories stand and took down one of the latest, Professor Trevelyan's History of England. Once more I looked up "Women", found "position of," and turned to the pages indicated. "Wife-beating," I read, "was a recognized right of man, and was practiced without shame by high as well as low....Similarly," the historian goes on, "the daughter who refused to marry the gentleman of her parents' choice was liable to be locked up, beaten and flung about the room, without any shock being inflicted on public opinion. Marriage was not an affair of personal affection, but of family avarice, particularly in the 'chivalrous' upper classes.... Betrothal often took place while one or both of the parties was in the cradle, and marriage when they were scarcely out of the nurses' charge." That was about 1470, soon after Chaucer's time. The next reference to the position of women is some two hundred years later, in the time of the Stuarts. "It was still the exception for women of the upper and middle class to choose their own husbands, and when the husband had been assigned, he was lord and master, so far at least as law and custom could make him. Yet even so," Professor Trevelyan concludes, "neither Shakespeare's women nor those of authentic seventeenth-century memoirs...seem wanting in personality and character."...Indeed, if woman had no existence save in the fiction written by men, one would imagine her a person of the utmost importance; very various; heroic and mean; splendid and sordid; infinitely beautiful and hideous in the extreme; as great as a man, some think even greater. But this is woman in fiction. In fact, as Professor Trevelyan points out, she was locked up, beaten and flung about the room. 

    A very queer, composite being thus emerges. Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all butn absent from history. She dominates the lives of kings and conquerors in fiction; in fact she was the slave of any boy whose parents forced a ring upon her finger. Some of the most inspired words, some of the most profound thoughts in literature fall from her lips; in real life she could hardly read, could scarcely spell, and was the property of her husband. 

    Virginia's Last Note to Leonard Woolf

    Tuesday [18? March 1941]

    I feel certain that I am going mad again: I feel we cant go through another of  those terrible times. And I shant recover this time. I begin to hear voices, and cant concentrate. So I am doing what seems the best thing to do. You have given me the greatest possible happiness. You have been in every way all that anyone could be. I dont think two people could have been happier till this terrible disease came. I cant fight it any longer, I know that I am spoiling your life, that without  me you could work. And you will I know. You see I cant even write this properly. I cant read. What I want to say is that I owe all the happiness of my life to you. You have been entirely patient with me and incredibly good. I want to say that--everybody knows it. If anybody could have saved me it would have been you.  Everything has gone from me but the certainty of your goodness. I cant go on spoiling your life any longer.

    I dont think two people could have been happier than we have been.


    Virginia Woolf Resources:

    The Virgnina Woolf Society

    Mrs. Dalloway's London

    Monday or Tuesday, A Collection of Virginia Woolf Short Stories.

    Cause for Fear: Sexual Apprehension in the Writings of Virginia Woolf   by Lydia Tracy Pottle


Continue with Lecture XI.


Literature 45  - Women in Literature :  

Marjorie C. Luesebrink, MFA


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