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MR. BENNETT AND MRS. BROWN
Virginia woolf, published by leonard and virginia woolf at the hogarth press tavistock square london w.c.i, mr. bennett and mrs. brown .
It seems to me possible, perhaps desirable, that I may be the only person in this room who has committed the folly of writing, trying to write, or failing to write, a novel. And when I asked myself, as your invitation to speak to you about modern fiction made me ask myself, what demon whispered in my ear and urged me to my doom, a little figure rose before me—the figure of a man, or of a woman, who said, "My name is Brown. Catch me if you can."
Most novelists have the same experience. Some Brown, Smith, or Jones comes before them and says in the most seductive and charming way in the world, "Come and catch me if you can." And so, led on by this will-o'-the-wisp, they flounder through volume after volume, spending the best years of their lives in the pursuit, and receiving for the most part very little cash in exchange. Few catch the phantom; most have to be content with a scrap of her dress or a wisp of her hair.
My belief that men and women write novels because they are lured on to create some character which has thus imposed itself upon them has the sanction of Mr. Arnold Bennett. In an article from which I will quote he says: "The foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else. . . . Style counts; plot counts; originality of outlook counts. But none of these counts anything like so much as the convincingness of the characters. If the characters are real the novel will have a chance; if they are not, oblivion will be its portion. . . ." And he goes on to draw the conclusion that we have no young novelists of first-rate importance at the present moment, because they are unable to create characters that are real, true, and convincing.
These are the questions that I want with greater boldness than discretion to discuss to-night. I want to make out what we mean when we talk about "character" in fiction; to say something about the question of reality which Mr. Bennett raises; and to suggest some reasons why the younger novelists fail to create characters, if, as Mr. Bennett asserts, it is true that fail they do. This will lead me, I am well aware, to make some very sweeping and some very vague assertions. For the question is an extremely difficult one. Think how little we know about character—think how little we know about art. But, to make a clearance before I begin, I will suggest that we range Edwardians and Georgians into two camps; Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy I will call the Edwardians; Mr. Forster, Mr. Lawrence, Mr. Strachey, Mr. Joyce, and Mr. Eliot I will call the Georgians. And if I speak in the first person, with intolerable egotism, I will ask you to excuse me. I do not want to attribute to the world at large the opinions of one solitary, ill-informed, and misguided individual.
My first assertion is one that I think you will grant—that every one in this room is a judge of character. Indeed it would be impossible to live for a year without disaster unless one practised character-reading and had some skill in the art. Our marriages, our friendships depend on it; our business largely depends on it; every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help. And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that on or about December 1910 human character changed.
I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910. The first signs of it are recorded in the books of Samuel Butler, in The Way of All Flesh in particular; the plays of Bernard Shaw continue to record it. In life one can see the change, if I may use a homely illustration, in the character of one's cook. The Victorian cook lived like a leviathan in the lower depths, formidable, silent, obscure, inscrutable; the Georgian cook is a creature of sunshine and fresh air; in and out of the drawing-room, now to borrow The Daily Herald , now to ask advice about a hat. Do you ask for more solemn instances of the power of the human race to change? Read the gamemnon , and see whether, in process of time, your sympathies are not almost entirely with Clytemnestra. Or consider the married life of the Carlyles, and bewail the waste, the futility, for him and for her, of the horrible domestic tradition which made it seemly for a woman of genius to spend her time chasing beetles, scouring saucepans, instead of writing books. All human relations have shifted—those between masters and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human relations change there is at the same time a change in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. Let us agree to place one of these changes about the year 1910.
I have said that people have to acquire a good deal of skill in character-reading if they are to live a single year of life without disaster. But it is the art of the young. In middle age and in old age the art is practised mostly for its uses, and friendships and other adventures and experiments in the art of reading character are seldom made. But novelists differ from the rest of the world because they do not cease to be interested in character when they have learnt enough about it for practical purposes. They go a step further; they feel that there is something permanently interesting in character in itself. When all the practical business of life has been discharged, there is something about people which continues to seem to them of overwhelming importance, in spite of the fact that it has no bearing whatever upon their happiness, comfort, or income. The study of character becomes to them an absorbing pursuit; to impart character an obsession. And this I find it very difficult to explain: what novelists mean when they talk about character, what the impulse is that urges them so powerfully every now and then to embody their view in writing.
So, if you will allow me, instead of analysing and abstracting, I will tell you a simple story which, however pointless, has the merit of being true, of a journey from Richmond to Waterloo, in the hope that I may show you what I mean by character in itself; that you may realise the different aspects it can wear; and the hideous perils that beset you directly you try to describe it in words.
One night some weeks ago, then, I was late for the train and jumped into the first carriage I came to. As I sat down I had the strange and uncomfortable feeling that I was interrupting a conversation between two people who were already sitting there. Not that they were young or happy. Far from it. They were both elderly, the woman over sixty, the man well over forty. They were sitting opposite each other, and the man, who had been leaning over and talking emphatically to judge by his attitude and the flush on his face, sat back and became silent. I had disturbed him, and he was annoyed. The elderly lady, however, whom I will call Mrs. Brown, seemed rather relieved. She was one of those clean, threadbare old ladies whose extreme tidiness—everything buttoned, fastened, tied together, mended and brushed up—suggests more extreme poverty than rags and dirt. There was something pinched about her—a look of suffering, of apprehension, and, in addition, she was extremely small. Her feet, in their clean little boots, scarcely touched the floor. I felt that she had nobody to support her; that she had to make up her mind for herself; that, having been deserted, or left a widow, years ago, she had led an anxious, harried life, bringing up an only son, perhaps, who, as likely as not, was by this time beginning to go to the bad. All this shot through my mind as I sat down, being uncomfortable, like most people, at travelling with fellow passengers unless I have somehow or other accounted for them. Then I looked at the man. He was no relation of Mrs. Brown's I felt sure; he was of a bigger, burlier, less refined type. He was a man of business I imagined, very likely a respectable corn-chandler from the North, dressed in good blue serge with a pocket-knife and a silk handkerchief, and a stout leather bag. Obviously, however, he had an unpleasant business to settle with Mrs. Brown; a secret, perhaps sinister business, which they did not intend to discuss in my presence.
"Yes, the Crofts have had very bad luck with their servants," Mr. Smith (as I will call him) said in a considering way, going back to some earlier topic, with a view to keeping up appearances.
"Ah, poor people," said Mrs. Brown, a trifle condescendingly. "My grandmother had a maid who came when she was fifteen and stayed till she was eighty" (this was said with a kind of hurt and aggressive pride to impress us both perhaps).
"One doesn't often come across that sort of thing nowadays," said Mr. Smith in conciliatory tones.
Then they were silent.
"It's odd they don't start a golf club there—I should have thought one of the young fellows would," said Mr. Smith, for the silence obviously made him uneasy.
Mrs. Brown hardly took the trouble to answer.
"What changes they're making in this part of the world," said Mr. Smith looking out of the window, and looking furtively at me as he did do.
It was plain, from Mrs. Brown's silence, from the uneasy affability with which Mr. Smith spoke, that he had some power over her which he was exerting disagreeably. It might have been her son's downfall, or some painful episode in her past life, or her daughter's. Perhaps she was going to London to sign some document to make over some property. Obviously against her will she was in Mr. Smith's hands. I was beginning to feel a great deal of pity for her, when she said, suddenly and inconsequently,
"Can you tell me if an oak-tree dies when the leaves have been eaten for two years in succession by caterpillars?" She spoke quite brightly, and rather precisely, in a cultivated, inquisitive voice.
Mr. Smith was startled, but relieved to have a safe topic of conversation given him. He told her a great deal very quickly about plagues of insects. He told her that he had a brother who kept a fruit farm in Kent. He told her what fruit farmers do every year in Kent, and so on, and so on. While he talked a very odd thing happened. Mrs. Brown took out her little white handkerchief and began to dab her eyes. She was crying. But she went on listening quite composedly to what he was saying, and he went on talking, a little louder, a little angrily, as if he had seen her cry often before; as if it were a painful habit. At last it got on his nerves. He stopped abruptly, looked out of the window, then leant towards her as he had been doing when I got in, and said in a bullying, menacing way, as if he would not stand any more nonsense,
"So about that matter we were discussing. It'll be all right? George will be there on Tuesday?"
"We shan't be late," said Mrs. Brown, gathering herself together with superb dignity.
Mr. Smith said nothing. He got up, buttoned his coat, reached his bag down, and jumped out of the train before it had stopped at Clapham Junction. He had got what he wanted, but he was ashamed of himself; he was glad to get out of the old lady's sight.
Mrs. Brown and I were left alone together. She sat in her corner opposite, very clean, very small, rather queer, and suffering intensely. The impression she made was overwhelming. It came pouring out like a draught, like a smell of burning. What was it composed of—that overwhelming and peculiar impression? Myriads of irrelevant and incongruous ideas crowd into one's head on such occasions; one sees the person, one sees Mrs. Brown, in the centre of all sorts of different scenes. I thought of her in a seaside house, among queer ornaments: sea-urchins, models of ships in glass cases. Her husband's medals were on the mantelpiece. She popped in and out of the room, perching on the edges of chairs, picking meals out of saucers, indulging in long, silent stares. The caterpillars and the oak-trees seemed to imply all that. And then, into this fantastic and secluded life, in broke Mr. Smith. I saw him blowing in, so to speak, on a windy day. He banged, he slammed. His dripping umbrella made a pool in the hall. They sat closeted together.
And then Mrs. Brown faced the dreadful revelation. She took her heroic decision. Early, before dawn, she packed her bag and carried it herself to the station. She would not let Smith touch it. She was wounded in her pride, unmoored from her anchorage; she came of gentlefolks who kept servants—but details could wait. The important thing was to realise her character, to steep oneself in her atmosphere. I had no time to explain why I felt it somewhat tragic, heroic, yet with a dash of the flighty, and fantastic, before the train stopped, and I watched her disappear, carrying her bag, into the vast blazing station. She looked very small, very tenacious; at once very frail and very heroic. And I have never seen her again, and I shall never know what became of her.
The story ends without any point to it. But I have not told you this anecdote to illustrate either my own ingenuity or the pleasure of travelling from Richmond to Waterloo. What I want you to see in it is this. Here is a character imposing itself upon another person. Here is Mrs. Brown making someone begin almost automatically to write a novel about her. I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character—not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved. To express character, I have said; but you will at once reflect that the very widest interpretation can be put upon those words. For example, old Mrs. Brown's character will strike you very differently according to the age and country in which you happen to be born. It would be easy enough to write three different versions of that incident in the train, an English, a French, and a Russian. The English writer would make the old lady into a 'character'; he would bring out her oddities and mannerisms; her buttons and wrinkles; her ribbons and warts. Her personality would dominate the book. A French writer would rub out all that; he would sacrifice the individual Mrs. Brown to give a more general view of human nature; to make a more abstract, proportioned, and harmonious whole. The Russian would pierce through the flesh; would reveal the soul—the soul alone, wandering out into the Waterloo Road, asking of life some tremendous question which would sound on and on in our ears after the book was finished. And then besides age and country there is the writer's temperament to be considered. You see one thing in character, and I another. You say it means this, and I that. And when it comes to writing each makes a further selection on principles of his own. Thus Mrs. Brown can be treated in an infinite variety of ways, according to the age, country, and temperament of the writer.
But now I must recall what Mr. Arnold Bennett says. He says that it is only if the characters are real that the novel has any chance of surviving. Otherwise, die it must. But, I ask myself, what is reality? And who are the judges of reality? A character may be real to Mr. Bennett and quite unreal to me. For instance, in this article he says that Dr. Watson in Sherlock Holmes is real to him: to me Dr. Watson is a sack stuffed with straw, a dummy, a figure of fun. And so it is with character after character—in book after book. There is nothing that people differ about more than the reality of characters, especially in contemporary books. But if you take a larger view I think that Mr. Bennett is perfectly right. If, that is, you think of the novels which seem to you great novels— War and Peace, Vanity Fair, Tristram Shandy, Madame Bovary, Pride and Prejudice, The Mayor of Casterbridge, Villette —if you think of these books, you do at once think of some character who has seemed to you so real (I do not by that mean so lifelike) that it has the power to make you think not merely of it itself, but of all sorts of things through its eyes—of religion, of love, of war, of peace, of family life, of balls in county towns, of sunsets, moonrises, the immortality of the soul. There is hardly any subject of human experience that is left out of War and Peace it seems to me. And in all these novels all these great novelists have brought us to see whatever they wish us to see through some character. Otherwise, they would not be novelists; but poets, historians, or pamphleteers.
But now let us examine what Mr. Bennett went on to say—he said that there was no great novelist among the Georgian writers because they cannot create characters who are real, true, and convincing. And there I cannot agree. There are reasons, excuses, possibilities which I think put a different colour upon the case. It seems so to me at least, but I am well aware that this is a matter about which I am likely to be prejudiced, sanguine, and near-sighted. I will put my view before you in the hope that you will make it impartial, judicial, and broad-minded. Why, then, is it so hard for novelists at present to create characters which seem real, not only to Mr. Bennett, but to the world at large? Why, when October comes round, do the publishers always fail to supply us with a masterpiece?
Surely one reason is that the men and women who began writing novels in 1910 or thereabouts had this great difficulty to face—that there was no English novelist living from whom they could learn their business. Mr. Conrad is a Pole; which sets him apart, and makes him, however admirable, not very helpful. Mr. Hardy has written no novel since 1895. The most prominent and successful novelists in the year 1910 were, I suppose, Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy. Now it seems to me that to go to these men and ask them to teach you how to write a novel—how to create characters that are real—is precisely like going to a bootmaker and asking him to teach you how to make a watch. Do not let me give you the impression that I do not admire and enjoy their books. They seem to me of great value, and indeed of great necessity. There are seasons when it is more important to have boots than to have watches. To drop metaphor, 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 order to complete them it seems necessary to do something—to join a society, or, more desperately, to write a cheque. That done, the restlessness is laid, the book finished; it can be put upon the shelf, and need never be read again. But with the work of other novelists it is different. Tristram Shandy or Pride and Prejudice is complete in itself; it is self-contained; it leaves one with no desire to do anything, except indeed to read the book again, and to understand it better. The difference perhaps is that both Sterne and Jane Austen were interested in things in themselves; in character in itself; in the book in itself. Therefore everything was inside the book, nothing outside. But the Edwardians were never interested in character in itself; or in the book in itself. They were interested in something outside. Their books, then, were incomplete as books, and required that the reader should finish them, actively and practically, for himself.
Perhaps we can make this clearer if we take the liberty of imagining a little party in the railway carriage—Mr. Wells, Mr. Galsworthy, Mr. Bennett are travelling to Waterloo with Mrs. Brown. Mrs. Brown, I have said, was poorly dressed and very small. She had an anxious, harassed look. I doubt whether she was what you call an educated woman. Seizing upon all these symptoms of the unsatisfactory condition of our primary schools with a rapidity to which I can do no justice, Mr. Wells would instantly project upon the windowpane a vision of a better, breezier, jollier, happier, more adventurous and gallant world, where these musty railway carriages and fusty old women do not exist; where miraculous barges bring tropical fruit to Camberwell by eight o'clock in the morning; where there are public nurseries, fountains, and libraries, dining-rooms, drawing-rooms, and marriages; where every citizen is generous and candid, manly and magnificent, and rather like Mr. Wells himself. But nobody is in the least like Mrs. Brown. There are no Mrs. Browns in Utopia. Indeed I do not think that Mr. Wells, in his passion to make her what she ought to be, would waste a thought upon her as she is. And what would Mr. Galsworthy see? Can we doubt that the walls of Doulton's factory would take his fancy? There are women in that factory who make twenty-five dozen earthenware pots every day. There are mothers in the Mile End Road who depend upon the farthings which those women earn. But there are employers in Surrey who are even now smoking rich cigars while the nightingale sings. Burning with indignation, stuffed with information, arraigning civilisation, Mr. Galsworthy would only see in Mrs. Brown a pot broken on the wheel and thrown into the corner.
Mr. Bennett, alone of the Edwardians, would keep his eyes in the carriage. He, indeed, would observe every detail with immense care. He would notice the advertisements; the pictures of Swanage and Portsmouth; the way in which the cushion bulged between the buttons; how Mrs. Brown wore a brooch which had cost three-and-ten-three at Whitworth's bazaar; and had mended both gloves—indeed the thumb of the left-hand glove had been replaced. And he would observe, at length, how this was the non-stop train from Windsor which calls at Richmond for the convenience of middle-class residents, who can afford to go to the theatre but have not reached the social rank which can afford motor-cars, though it is true, there are occasions (he would tell us what), when they hire them from a company (he would tell us which). And so he would gradually sidle sedately towards Mrs. Brown, and would remark how she had been left a little copyhold, not freehold, property at Datchet, which, however, was mortgaged to Mr. Bungay the solicitor—but why should. I presume to invent Mr. Bennett? Does not Mr. Bennett write novels himself? I will open the first book that chance puts in my way— Hilda Lessways. Let us see how he makes us feel that Hilda is real, true, and convincing, as a novelist should. She shut the door in a soft, controlled way, which showed the constraint of her relations with her mother. She was fond of reading Maud ; she was endowed with the power to feel intensely. So far, so good; in his leisurely, surefooted way Mr. Bennett is trying in these first pages, where every touch is important, to show us the kind of girl she was.
But then he begins to describe, not Hilda Lessways, but the view from her bedroom window, the excuse being that Mr. Skellorn, the man who collects rents, is coming along that way. Mr. Bennett proceeds:
"The bailiwick of Turnhill lay behind her; and all the murky district of the Five Towns, of which Turnhill is the northern outpost, lay to the south. At the foot of Chatterley Wood the canal wound in large curves on its way towards the undefiled plains of Cheshire and the sea. On the canal-side, exactly opposite to Hilda's window, was a flour-mill, that sometimes made nearly as much smoke as the kilns and the chimneys closing the prospect on either hand. From the flour-mill a bricked path, which separated a considerable row of new cottages from their appurtenant gardens, led straight into Lessways Street, in front of Mrs. Lessways' house. By this path Mr. Skellorn should have arrived, for he inhabited the farthest of the cottages."
One line of insight would have done more than all those lines of description; but let them pass as the necessary drudgery of the novelist. And now—where is Hilda? Alas. Hilda is still looking out of the window. Passionate and dissatisfied as she was, she was a girl with an eye for houses. She often compared this old Mr. Skellorn with the villas she saw from her bedroom window. Therefore the villas must be described. Mr. Bennett proceeds:
"The row was called Freehold Villas: a consciously proud name in a district where much of the land was copyhold and could only change owners subject to the payment of 'fines,' and to the feudal consent of a 'court' presided over by the agent of a lord of the manor. Most of the dwellings were owned by their occupiers, who, each an absolute monarch of the soil, niggled in his sooty garden of an evening amid the flutter of drying shirts and towels. Freehold Villas symbolised the final triumph of Victorian economics, the apotheosis of the prudent and industrious artisan. It corresponded with a Building Society Secretary's dream of paradise. And indeed it was a very real achievement. Nevertheless, Hilda's irrational contempt would not admit this."
Heaven be praised, we cry! At last we are coming to Hilda herself. But not so fast. Hilda may have been this, that, and the other; but Hilda not only looked at houses, and thought of houses; Hilda lived in a house. And what sort of a house did Hilda live in? Mr. Bennett proceeds:
"It was one of the two middle houses of a detached terrace of four houses built by her grandfather Lessways, the teapot manufacturer; it was the chief of the four, obviously the habitation of the proprietor of the terrace. One of the corner houses comprised a grocer's shop, and this house had been robbed of its just proportion of garden so that the seigneurial garden-plot might be triflingly larger than the other. The terrace was not a terrace of cottages, but of houses rated at from twenty-six to thirty-six pounds a year; beyond the means of artisans and petty insurance agents and rent-collectors. And further, it was well built, generously built; and its architecture, though debased, showed some faint traces of Georgian amenity. It was admittedly the best row of houses in that newly settled quarter of the town. In coming to it out of Freehold Villas Mr. Skellorn obviously came to something superior, wider, more liberal. Suddenly Hilda heard her mother's voice. . . ."
But we cannot hear her mother's voice, or Hilda's voice; we can only hear Mr. Bennett's voice telling us facts about rents and freeholds and copyholds and fines. What can Mr. Bennett be about? I have formed my own opinion of what Mr. Bennett is about—he is trying to make us imagine for him; he is trying to hypnotise us into the belief that, because he has made a house, there must be a person living there. With all his powers of observation, which are marvellous, with all his sympathy and humanity, which are great, Mr. Bennett has never once looked at Mrs. Brown in her corner. There she sits in the corner of the carriage—that carriage which is travelling, not from Richmond to Waterloo, but from one age of English literature to the next, for Mrs. Brown is eternal, Mrs. Brown is human nature, Mrs. Brown changes only on the surface, it is the novelists who get in and out—there she sits and not one of the Edwardian writers has so much as looked at her. They have looked very powerfully, searchingly, and sympathetically out of the window; at factories, at Utopias, even at the decoration and upholstery of the carriage; but never at her, never at life, never at human nature. And so they have developed a technique of novel-writing which suits their purpose; they have made tools and established conventions which do their business. But those tools are not our tools, and that business is not our business. For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death.
You may well complain of the vagueness of my language. What is a convention, a tool, you may ask, and what do you mean by saying that Mr. Bennett's and Mr. Wells's and Mr. Galsworthy's conventions are the 'wrong conventions for the Georgian's? The question is difficult: I will attempt a short cut. A convention in writing is not much different from a convention in manners. Both in life and in literature it is necessary to have some means of bridging the gulf between the hostess and her unknown guest on the one hand, the writer and his unknown reader on the other. The hostess bethinks her of the weather, for generations of hostesses have established the fact that this is a subject of universal interest in which we all believe. She begins by saying that we are having a wretched May, and, having thus got into touch with her unknown guest, proceeds to matters of greater interest. So it is in literature. The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognises, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to co-operate in the far more difficult business of intimacy. And it is of the highest importance that this common meeting-place should be reached easily, almost instinctively, in the dark, with one's eyes shut. Here is Mr. Bennett making use of this common ground in the passage which I have quoted. The problem before him was to make us believe in the reality of Hilda Lessways. So he began, being an Edwardian, by describing accurately and minutely the sort of house Hilda lived in, and the sort of house she saw from the window. House property was the common ground from which the Edwardians found it easy to proceed to intimacy. Indirect as it seems to us, the convention worked admirably, and thousands of Hilda Lessways were launched upon the world by this means. For that age and generation, the convention was a good one.
But now, if you will allow me to pull my own anecdote to pieces, you will see how keenly I felt the lack of a convention, and how serious a matter it is when the tools of one generation are useless for the next. The incident had made a great impression on me. But how was I to transmit it to you? All I could do was to report as accurately as I could what was said, to describe in detail what was worn, to say, despairingly, that all sorts of scenes rushed into my mind, to proceed to tumble them out pell-mell, and to describe this vivid, this overmastering impression by likening it to a draught or a smell of burning. To tell you the truth, I was also strongly tempted to manufacture a three-volume novel about the old lady's son, and his adventures crossing the Atlantic, and her daughter, and how she kept a milliner's shop in Westminster, the past life of Smith himself, and his house at Sheffield, though such stories seem to me the most dreary, irrelevant, and humbugging affairs in the world.
But if I had done that I should have escaped the appalling effort of saying what I meant. And to have got at what I meant I should have had to go back and back and back; to experiment with one thing and another; to try this sentence and that, referring each word to my vision, matching it as exactly as possible, and knowing that somehow I had to find a common ground between us, a convention which would not seem to you too odd, unreal, and far-fetched to believe in. I admit that I shirked that arduous undertaking. I let my Mrs. Brown slip through my fingers. I have told you nothing whatever about her. But that is partly the great Edwardians' fault. I asked them—they are my elders and betters—How shall I begin to describe this woman's character? And they said, "Begin by saying that her father kept a shop in Harrogate. Ascertain the rent. Ascertain the wages of shop assistants in the year 1878. Discover what her mother died of. Describe cancer. Describe calico. Describe——" But I cried, "Stop! Stop!" And I regret to say that I threw that ugly, that clumsy, that incongruous tool out of the window, for I knew that if I began describing the cancer and the calico, my Mrs. Brown, that vision to which I cling though I know no way of imparting it to you, would have been dulled and tarnished and vanished for ever.
That is what I mean by saying that the Edwardian tools are the wrong ones for us to use. They have laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there. To give them their due, they have made that house much better worth living in. But if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it. Therefore, you see, the Georgian writer had to begin by throwing away the method that was in use at the moment. He was left alone there facing Mrs. Brown without any method of conveying her to the reader. But that is inaccurate. A writer is never alone. There is always the public with him—if not on the same seat, at least in the compartment next door. Now the public is a strange travelling companion. In England it is a very suggestible and docile creature, which, once you get it to attend, will believe implicitly what it is told for a certain number of years. If you say to the public with sufficient conviction, "All women have tails, and all men humps," it will actually learn to see women with tails and men with humps, and will think it very revolutionary and probably improper if you say "Nonsense. Monkeys have tails and camels humps. But men and women have brains, and they have hearts; they think and they feel,"—that will seem to it a bad joke, and an improper one into the bargain.
But to return. Here is the British public sitting by the writer's side and saying in its vast and unanimous way, "Old women have houses. They have fathers. They have incomes. They have servants. They have hot water bottles. That is how we know that they are old women. Mr. Wells and Mr. Bennett and Mr. Galsworthy have always taught us that this is the way to recognise them. But now with your Mrs. Brown—how are we to believe in her? We do not even know whether her villa was called Albert or Balmoral; what she paid for her gloves; or whether her mother died of cancer or of consumption. How can she be alive? No; she is a mere figment of your imagination."
And old women of course ought to be made of freehold villas and copyhold estates, not of imagination.
The Georgian novelist, therefore, was in an awkward predicament. There was Mrs. Brown protesting that she was different, quite different, from what people made out, and luring the novelist to her rescue by the most fascinating if fleeting glimpse of her charms; there were the Edwardians handing out tools appropriate to house building and house breaking; and there was the British public asseverating that they must see the hot water bottle first. Meanwhile the train was rushing to that station where we must all get out.
Such, I think, was the predicament in which the young Georgians found themselves about the year 1910. Many of them—I am thinking of Mr. Forster and Mr. Lawrence in particular—spoilt their early work because, instead of throwing away those tools, they tried to use them. They tried to compromise. They tried to combine their own direct sense of the oddity and significance of some character with Mr. Galsworthy's knowledge of the Factory Acts, and Mr. Bennett's knowledge of the Five Towns. They tried it, but they had too keen, too overpowering a sense of Mrs. Brown and her peculiarities to go on trying it much longer. Something had to be done. At whatever cost of life, limb, and damage to valuable property Mrs. Brown must be rescued, expressed, and set in her high relations to the world before the train stopped and she disappeared for ever. And so the smashing and the crashing began. Thus it is that we hear all round us, in poems and novels and biographies, even in newspaper articles and essays, the sound of breaking and falling, crashing and destruction. It is the prevailing sound of the Georgian age—rather a melancholy one if you think what melodious days there have been in the past, if you think of Shakespeare and Milton and Keats or even of Jane Austen and Thackeray and Dickens; if you think of the language, and the heights to which it can soar when free, and see the same eagle captive, bald, and croaking.
In view of these facts—with these sounds in my ears and these fancies in my brain—I am not going to deny that Mr. Bennett has some reason when he complains that our Georgian writers are unable to make us believe that our characters are real. I am forced to agree that they do not pour out three immortal masterpieces with Victorian regularity every autumn. But instead of being gloomy, I am sanguine. For this state of things is, I think, inevitable whenever from hoar old age or callow youth the convention ceases to be a means of communication between writer and reader, and becomes instead an obstacle and an impediment. At the present moment we are suffering, not from decay, but from having no code of manners which writers and readers accept as a prelude to the more exciting intercourse of friendship. The literary convention of the time is so artificial—you have to talk about the weather and nothing but the weather throughout the entire visit—that, naturally, the feeble are tempted to outrage, and the strong are led to destroy the very foundations and rules of literary society. Signs of this are everywhere apparent. Grammar is violated; syntax disintegrated; as a boy staying with an aunt for the weekend rolls in the geranium bed out of sheer desperation as the solemnities of the sabbath wear on. The more adult writers do not, of course, indulge in such wanton exhibitions of spleen. Their sincerity is desperate, and their courage tremendous; it is only that they do not know which to use, a fork or their fingers. Thus, if you read Mr. Joyce and Mr. Eliot you will be struck by the indecency of the one, and the obscurity of the other. Mr. Joyce's indecency in Ulysses seems to me the conscious and calculated indecency of a desperate man who feels that in order to breathe he must break the windows. At moments, when the window is broken, he is magnificent. But what a waste of energy! And, after all, how dull indecency is, when it is not the overflowing of a superabundant energy or savagery, but the determined and public-spirited act of a man who needs fresh air! Again, with the obscurity of Mr. Eliot. I think that Mr. Eliot has written some of the loveliest single lines in modern poetry. But how intolerant he is of the old usages and politenesses of society—respect for the weak, consideration for the dull! As I sun myself upon the intense and ravishing beauty of one of his lines, and reflect that I must make a dizzy and dangerous leap to the next, and so on from line to line, like an acrobat flying precariously from bar to bar, I cry out, I confess, for the old decorums, and envy the indolence of my ancestors who, instead of spinning madly through mid-air, dreamt quietly in the shade with a book. Again, in Mr. Strachey's books, "Eminent Victorians" and "Queen Victoria," the effort and strain of writing against the grain and current of the times is visible too. It is much less visible, of course, for not only is he dealing with facts, which are stubborn things, but he has fabricated, chiefly from eighteenth-century material, a very discreet code of manners of his own, which allows him to sit at table with the highest in the land and to say a great many things under cover of that exquisite apparel which, had they gone naked, would have been chased by the men-servants from the room. Still, if you compare "Eminent Victorians" with some of Lord Macaulay's essays, though you will feel that Lord Macaulay is always wrong, and Mr. Strachey always right, you will also feel a body, a sweep, a richness in Lord Macaulay's essays which show that his age was behind him; all his strength went straight into his work; none was used for purposes of concealment or of conversion. But Mr. Strachey has had to open our eyes before he made us see; he has had to search out and sew together a very artful manner of speech; and the effort, beautifully though it is concealed, has robbed his work of some of the force that should have gone into it, and limited his scope.
For these reasons, then, we must reconcile ourselves to a season of failures and fragments. We must reflect that where so much strength is spent on finding a way of telling the truth the truth itself is bound to reach us in rather an exhausted and chaotic condition. Ulysses, Queen Victoria, Mr. Prufrock—to give Mrs. Brown some of the names she has made famous lately—is a little pale and dishevelled by the time her rescuers reach her. And it is the sound of their axes that we hear—a vigorous and stimulating sound in my ears—unless of course you wish to sleep, when, in the bounty of his concern. Providence has provided a host of writers anxious and able to satisfy your needs.
Thus I have tried, at tedious length, I fear, to answer some of the questions which I began by asking. I have given an account of some of the difficulties which in my view beset the Georgian writer in all his forms. I have sought to excuse him. May I end by venturing to remind you of the duties and responsibilities that are yours as partners in this business of writing books, as companions in the railway carriage, as fellow travellers with Mrs. Brown? For she is just as visible to you who remain silent as to us who tell stories about her. In the course of your daily life this past week you have had far stranger and more interesting experiences than the one I have tried to describe. You have overheard scraps of talk that filled you with amazement. You have gone to bed at night bewildered by the complexity of your feelings. In one day thousands of ideas have coursed through your brains; thousands of emotions have met, collided, and disappeared in astonishing disorder. Nevertheless, you allow the writers to palm off upon you a version of all this, an image of Mrs. Brown, which has no likeness to that surprising apparition whatsoever. In your modesty you seem to consider that writers are of different blood and bone from yourselves; that they know more of Mrs. Brown than you do. Never was there a more fatal mistake. It is this division between reader and writer, this humility on your part, these professional airs and graces on ours, that corrupt and emasculate the books which should be the healthy offspring of a close and equal alliance between us. Hence spring those sleek, smooth novels, those portentous and ridiculous biographies, that milk and watery criticism, those poems melodiously celebrating the innocence of roses and sheep which pass so plausibly for literature at the present time.
Your part is to insist that writers shall come down off their plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown. You should insist that she is an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety; capable of appearing in any place; wearing any dress; saying anything and doing heaven knows what. But the things she says and the things she does and her eyes and her nose and her speech and her silence have an overwhelming fascination, for she is, of course, the spirit we live by, life itself.
But do not expect just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment of her. Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction—we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown.
 A paper read to the Heretics, Cambridge, on May 18, 1924.
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18 The Essays
Beth C. Rosenberg is Professor of English at the University of Nevada, Las Vegas. She is the author of Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson: Common Readers (1995) and co-editor of Virginia Woolf and the Essay (1997). She is currently working on a comparative study of Virginia Woolf and Elena Ferrante.
- Published: 11 August 2021
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Woolf’s essays fall into many genres, including book reviews, literary criticism, biography, memoir, and occasional pieces. As a student of the essay and its history, she studied the form from Montaigne, Hazlitt, Pater, and Beerbohm and through their work she learned to make the essay her own, reinventing the genre to argue for a uniquely female and feminist perspective. Woolf’s deep understanding of the essay’s form, her drive to construct a female literary history and female narrative form, culminate in A Room of One’s Own (1929), where she employs a feminist rhetoric of affect and emotion. Woolf’s particular contribution to the essay includes a new kind of literary history that focuses on women, gender, and politics. Hers is a uniquely feminine and feminist voice created through a visceral and sensual rhetoric that addresses the body’s response to experience and exploits emotions in order to persuade her readers.
Virginia Woolf’s essays fall into many genres, including book reviews, literary criticism, biography, memoir, and occasional pieces. Her topics range from the home of Thomas Carlyle in ‘Great Men’s Houses’ (1932) to aerial battles in ‘Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid’ (1940) to the nature of sickness in ‘On Being Ill’ (1926). She documents seemingly trivial events, like a moth’s struggle to escape a window frame in ‘The Death of the Moth’ (1942) or a walk to a stationer’s store in ‘Street Haunting’ (1927). Her memoirs ‘A Sketch of the Past’ (1939) and ‘Am I a Snob?’ (1936) are highly personal narrative essays. She theorizes the nature of fiction in ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1923) and ‘Modern Fiction’ (1925). She writes the biographical essays in ‘Lives of the Obscure’ and essays on women writers who were unstudied in Woolf’s time, such as ‘Mary Wollstonecraft’ and ‘Dorothy Wordsworth’, as well as women writers she revered like ‘Jane Austen’ and ‘George Eliot’. Woolf’s deep understanding of the essay’s form and history, her drive to construct a female literary history and female narrative form, culminate in A Room of One’s Own (1929), where she employs a feminist rhetoric of affect and emotion. Woolf’s particular contribution to the essay includes a new kind of literary history that focuses on women, gender, and politics. Hers is a uniquely feminine and feminist voice that is created through a visceral and sensual rhetoric that addresses the body’s response to experience and exploits emotions in order to persuade her readers.
As a student of the essay and its history, Woolf studied the form from the only models available to her, and these were almost exclusively male. Montaigne, Hazlitt, Pater, and Beerbohm are among her greatest models—and through their work she learns to make the essay her own, turning from the masculine tradition that she was trained in and reinventing the genre to argue for a uniquely female and feminist perspective. Woolf’s theory of the essay, what it should say and do, includes an emphasis on voice and personality, a conversational tone, and a style that is clear yet visual and aesthetic. Ultimately, she breaks from her predecessors by expanding nineteenth-century aestheticism to include tropes of emotion—anger, love, and enthusiasm, among others—that are commonly associated with women. Rather than weaken her rhetoric, the use of emotion empowers it, making her prose appeal to a visceral and bodily knowledge in the reader.
Woolf’s essays do not deploy the detached critical tone or a sense of absolute authority that her friend T.S. Eliot affected. Compared to her contemporaries, Woolf’s essays were considered impressionistic and antiquarian. Her casual conversational tone, where the reader is her peer, and her subjective responses to art and life were misunderstood and dismissed. She strove for a personal voice that the common reader understands. She refers to the soul, the inner self, but it is really the psychological and aesthetic self that she describes; Woolf’s inner self is defined by her gender and, through style and voice, she presents a female experience. She also uses fictional techniques, creating story out of her subject, to engage the reader and stimulate both the imagination and emotions. Her form of argumentation is based on an intuitive logic, where she emphasizes affective responses to cultural and economic conditions. This mode of writing, for Woolf, is the antidote to the masculine essay of reason, logic, and ego, flaws she found even in the male essayists she adored.
Woolf’s earliest exposure to the essay was through her father, Leslie Stephen. Stephen, an influential essayist and biographer in his own right, introduced the idea of the essay as an integral part of literary history. Not only did he write full-length biographies of figures such as Samuel Johnson and George Eliot, but he published essays on literature, history, biography, and agnosticism. Woolf was intimately familiar with his Hours in a Library (1874–1879), An Agnostic’s Apology and Other Essays (1893), Studies of a Biographer (1898–1902), and his contributions as editor to The Dictionary of National Biography (1882–1891). Through Stephen, Woolf was introduced to the notion of literary history, which is not only a guiding principle of many of her essays but essential to her use and critique of the essay form.
Woolf began her essay-writing career as a book reviewer. 1 While she published reviews as early as 1904, and while, from the start, she strove to do more than simply assess a book but to put it in a larger context and develop her point of view as a critic, she always had the essay and its form in mind. Some of her early works, such as ‘Haworth, November, 1904’ (1904), ‘Journeys in Spain’ (1904), and ‘A Walk by Night’ (1905), take the tone of her later more personal and occasional essays. The style of the book reviews is more conventional, limited to space, topic, and an editor’s hand. The essays, on the other hand, have a clear and definitive voice, point of view, and personality, and they engage with the reader in a more affective and sensory way. Her apprenticeship in essay writing taught Woolf to use greater aesthetic and visual language to make abstract ideas and experiences concrete; she also develops and refines the novelist’s sense of story and character in her non-fiction. It is in the essays too that she follows her attraction to nineteenth-century aestheticism, which she learns from Pater and Hazlitt, and where she vividly articulates the rhetoric of emotional response to and in non-fiction.
Woolf revised and collected some of her reviews and published them as collections of essays, The Common Readers , first series (1925) and second series (1932). Anne Fernald notes the ‘difficulty in comprehending this impressive collection as a whole’, arguing that the essays are organized according to a voice and point of view that belong to ‘a kind of every person, a blank common reader’ and yet Woolf ‘slips in’ women writers and unknown female histories. 2 Future work on Woolf’s self-edited collections will help us to understand her as an essay writer with agency and purpose, one who makes her own aesthetic and structural choices, not the passive, imitative subject of a male-dominated literary history.
Early critics such as Winifred Holtby and Ruth Gruber recognized the significance of Woolf’s essays. 3 Leonard Woolf would later collect the essays in four volumes and publish them between 1966 and 1967. 4 Leonard’s Collected Essays , as Andrew McNeillie points out, was a kind of extended Common Reader , 5 without annotations or even notes on date and place of first publication. However, in 1989 McNeillie began to edit a six-volume series of collected essays, including footnotes and appendixes. It took over twenty years for the collection to be completed, with Stuart N. Clarke editing the last two volumes. 6
The 1970s and 1980s focused more on Woolf’s feminism, politics, and novels. 7 None address Woolf’s use of the essay to create literary history, let alone a specifically female history. Woolf began to articulate her theories of the essay long before she wrote her own. Her focus, throughout her essay-writing career, was on voice and the speaking ‘I’. She rejected what she calls the ‘egotistical’ I of her contemporaries to argue for a more authentic personality that could communicate her experience to her audience, whether that experience was aesthetic, personal, or in the world. Woolf believed that essays should deal with truth, not fact, reflect the movement and change of our being, be passionate and emotional, have a ‘fierce attachment to an idea’ ( E 4 224), and, ultimately, give pleasure to their readers. In the 1920s, she not only refined her first-person voice but brought a more self-consciously gendered perspective, first by writing about women and their unknown histories, and then by finding the means to create a uniquely feminine subjective voice and rhetorical style.
The female voices and styles she creates in ‘Street Haunting’ and ‘The Death of the Moth’, for example, illustrate her innovative approach to the essay. Both essays are ostensibly about small, trivial subjects and use first person to suggest an intimacy with the narrator’s thoughts and feelings. Though the underlying themes about death and the nature of the self are abstract, the language she uses in both essays is concrete and specific. The power of a moth that struggles against death is compared to the human struggle: ‘One could watch the extraordinary efforts made by those tiny legs against an oncoming doom which could, had it chosen, have submerged an entire city, not merely a city, but masses of human beings; nothing, I knew, had any chance against death’ ( E 6 444). Woolf is concerned with the metaphysical, and her use of first person brings a personal tone often associated with the feminine. A walk to buy a pencil can allow us to ‘leave the straight lines of personality and deviate into those footpaths that lead beneath brambles and thick tree trunks into the heart of the forest where live those wild beasts, our fellow men’ ( E 4 490–1). Here the narrator talks of empathy for ‘those wild beasts, our fellow men’, also a traditionally female emotion. Metaphor and connotation, diction, the appeal to the reader’s senses to see, hear, and feel what she is describing, allow her style to become highly aesthetic as it persuades on intuitive and emotional levels through the colour of her prose.
To write her own feminine and feminized version of the essay, Woolf culled from her male predecessors techniques that they themselves did not identify as ‘feminine’. From Pater, Beerbohm, Montaigne, and Hazlitt, she learns techniques that bring a confidential trust between the author and her reader: a voice that reflects the personality of the author, the desire to create pleasure for the reader with a conversational and accessible tone, movement of thought, artful, sensuous, and emotional language, and the use of a painter’s visual imagery. Though she gives the most detailed attention to male essayists, she is aware of her own historical position. Woolf applies the lessons she learns to many essays about individual woman writers and the obscure women who made writing possible for men, including ‘Lives of the Obscure’, ‘The Duchess of Newcastle’, and ‘Outlines’ in The Common Reader , but it is not until A Room of One’s Own that she confronts the problems of writing as a woman about women through a distinctly female rhetoric where emotion and affect become modes of persuasion.
Woolf’s more detailed thoughts on the essay’s power to move its readers are sketched out in ‘The Modern Essay’, written in 1922 for the Times Literary Supplement ( TLS ), which covers fifty years of essay writing, is historical and chronological in structure, and theoretically frames Woolf’s ideas about how ‘certain principles appear to control the chaos’ ( E 4 216) of the essay’s form. In this essay she writes of two Victorian essayists, Pater and Beerbohm, whom she greatly admires. She spends a considerable amount of space defining the history and nature of the essayist’s audience. According to Woolf, the most significant change in audience came at the turn of the nineteenth century, when the Victorian reader changed to a modern one. The change ‘came from a small audience of cultivated people to a larger audience of people who were not quite so cultivated’ ( E 4 220). The modern ‘public needs essays as much as ever … The demand for the light middle not exceeding fifteen hundred words, or in special cases seventeen hundred and fifty, much exceeds the supply’ ( E 4 222). The ‘light middle’ brow reader wants to read but hasn’t the time to wade through a beautifully wrought essay of more than fifteen hundred words. Woolf states that to ‘write weekly, to write daily, to write shortly, to write for busy people catching trains in the morning or for tired people coming home in the evening, is a heart-breaking task for men who know good writing from bad’ ( E 4 223). The challenge for the modern essayist is how to bring pleasure to a reader preoccupied by modern life while revealing the true personality of the writer.
The guiding principle of the essay is that it should ‘give pleasure’, and everything in the essay ‘must be subdued to that end’. A good essay will ‘lay us under a spell with its first word’ and in ‘the interval we may pass through the most various experiences’. It must ‘lap us about and draw its curtain across the world’. This is seldom accomplished by the essayist, Woolf claims, though the reader is partially to blame: ‘Habit and lethargy have dulled his palate’. To produce pleasure in the reader, the essayist must know ‘how to write’. This is not just a matter of reproducing knowledge on a page, but an essay ‘must be so fused by the magic of writing that not a fact juts out, not a dogma tears the surface of the texture’ ( E 4 216). Though the essay’s purpose is to reproduce knowledge, pleasure is derived from the writer’s ability to communicate knowledge while nothing blatant, explicit, or jarring appears on the writing’s surface.
The knowledge communicated is ‘some fierce attachment to an idea. It is on the back of an idea, something believed in with conviction or seen with precision and thus compelling words to shape it’. The good essay ‘must have this permanent quality about it; it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in, not out’ ( E 4 224). The way the essay does this is to let the personality of the writer come through and embrace the reader, an act seemingly so easy but difficult to achieve. How does an essay achieve its ‘permanent quality’? It is through concrete and visual language, according to Woolf, that the essayist can provoke an affective response from her reader. No phrase is wasted, no word is lost. Her study of the essay’s history, and her attention to her male precursors, taught her how to use language to move her reader’s emotions.
The first writer who taught Woolf how to appeal to affect is Walter Pater, and her response to him defines a style she tries to achieve in her own essays. Perry Meisel’s study on Woolf and Pater establishes Pater’s influence on Woolf by way of Pater’s aestheticism. He traces Pater’s figurative language, particularly the image of the ‘hard gemlike flame’ of aesthetic experience, in Woolf’s novels. 8 Her notion of the ‘moment’, Meisel argues, is Pater’s influence. 9 Woolf also learned from Pater the power of nineteenth-century aestheticism, its use of colourful rhetoric as well as its focus on the reader’s visceral and bodily experience of language. Woolf borrowed from Pater techniques that make her prose appeal to our senses—taste, sight, sound, touch—to give something other than a concrete fact. It is through our bodies’ senses that Woolf communicates to us. If our senses help to define our experience, then the emphasis of emotions, too, are expressions of our physical bodies and part of the vocabulary of aestheticism.
Woolf describes Pater’s aestheticism and how he uses it in his essay on Leonardo da Vinci:
[H]e has somehow contrived to get his material fused. He is a learned man, but it is not knowledge of Leonardo that remains with us, but a vision. … Only here, in the essay, where the bounds are so strict and facts have to be used in their nakedness, the true writer like Walter Pater makes the limitations yield their own quality. Truth will give it authority; from its narrow limits he will get shape and intensity. ( E 4 218)
Even within the conventions of the essay, which limits Pater to ‘facts’, he is able to give these facts their own quality that Woolf names ‘vision’ and ‘truth’. These abstract qualities—not objective facts—are what the essay writer must strive for. Even as Woolf moves through the history of the essay into the twentieth century, she demands these qualities and ultimately passes harsh judgement on the essay writer who can’t achieve them.
Woolf goes on to quote images from Pater’s work, like ‘ “the smiling women and the motion of the great waters” ’, as examples of how Pater’s concrete language appeals to our senses and emotions; his writing reminds us ‘that we have ears and we have eyes’. Pater’s style is one where ‘every atom of its surface shines’ ( E 4 218), a style Woolf finds grounded in the physical world and is also found in her own intensely visual style, her use of metaphor and connotation, and her desire to give the reader a visceral, bodily experience of language. If Pater has flaws for Woolf, it is his insistence on detachment and objectivity in his tone and his inability to write as himself, to use the human, individual voice to speak to his audience.
Unlike Pater, Woolf’s essays distinguish themselves by their constant intimate tone, loaning itself to a more feminine point of view. Her use of first person, singular and plural, is deliberate. It is a rhetoric that appeals to affect and emotion, the visceral response that moves the reader along a train of thought. She learns this from Beerbohm who, unlike Pater, is an essayist who cultivates a speaking voice in his essays. Woolf writes that in Beerbohm’s essays readers of the 1890s found themselves ‘addressed by a voice which seemed to belong to a man no larger than themselves’. Beerbohm uses the ‘essayist’s most proper but most dangerous delicate tool’ by bringing ‘personality into literature’. He does so ‘consciously and purely’ ( E 4 220). We know that the ‘spirit of personality permeates every word he writes’. It is only ‘by knowing how to write that [Beerbohm] can make use in literature of [the] self; the self which, while it is essential to literature, is also its most dangerous opponent’. There are many essayists who show ‘trivial personalities decomposing in the eternity of print’, though Beerbohm ‘possessed to perfection’ the art necessary to bring personality to the essay ( E 4 221). Although the use of first person, especially to write about experience, is typically understood as the feminine mode of writing, Woolf learns from Beerbohm how to bring personality and voice to her writing. Her use of a personal voice is most obvious, for example, in ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924), where she speaks in first person to pull her reader into her experience of observation on the train. In this essay she also brings to our attention the imaginative impulse that goes into creating a personality, as she does with the character of Mrs Brown, whose personality is so clearly defined that it resonates in the mind long after we have finished reading.
Woolf continued to develop her narrative voice and personality studying other essayists. Two years after publishing ‘The Modern Essay’ Woolf published ‘Montaigne’, which was first a review of Essays of Montaigne for the TLS in 1924 and later published in The Common Reader . She explains the vitality of voice in Montaigne’s essays. We ‘never doubt for an instant that his book was himself’ ( E 4 72). He brings art to ‘this talking of oneself, following one’s own vagaries, giving the whole map, weight, colour, and circumference of the soul in its confusion, its variety, its imperfections’ ( E 4 71). The revelation of the self, to ‘tell the truth about oneself, to discover oneself near at hand’ through language is ‘not easy’ ( E 4 71). Montaigne teaches Woolf that the essayist does not condescend or tell others how to live their lives, but rather traces the flexibility of identity and its ability to reflect self-consciousness in the narrative.
When Woolf writes of Montaigne’s determination to represent his ‘soul’, she is referring to his subjective self, his personality, his voice. This inner self is ‘the strangest of creatures … so complex, so indefinite’ that a man might spend his life trying to discover her ( E 4 74). Yet there is the ‘pleasure of pursuit’ of the self. Montaigne can say nothing of ‘other people’s souls’ since he can ‘say nothing … about his own’ ( E 4 74). Woolf learns from Montaigne how to focus on her personality, her own truth and perception of the world and experience; it is the art of presenting a unique self through the writer’s voice that Woolf practices throughout her essay-writing career.
Montaigne’s essays are then an ‘attempt to communicate a soul’ for ‘Communication is health; communication is truth; communication is happiness’ ( E 4 76). A version of this assertion will reappear in Mrs Dalloway (1925), when Septimus contemplates suicide and his message for the world in Regents Park ( MD 75). The ability to communicate the self is healthy, truthful, and brings contentment. But real communication is difficult. The successful essayist can share her thoughts, ‘to go down boldly’ into the self and ‘bring to light those hidden thoughts which are most diseased; to conceal nothing; to pretend nothing’, to tell her own truth and therefore connect with others ( E 4 76). The essayist’s most authentic communications reveal what is most difficult for the reader to acknowledge—dark thoughts that potentially tell us things about ourselves we don’t want to be aware of. We are all ‘ordinary men and women’ in Montaigne’s essays ( E 4 77). Montaigne shows Woolf how to look deeply into her own responses and feelings, to communicate those to her readers without demanding that they follow her.
For Woolf, William Hazlitt brings together voice and style, and he models for her how to make her language visual and engaging. His essays are written with the language of a visual artist and stylist. It is Hazlitt’s self-consciousness as he writes that Woolf feels is his greatest contribution to the essay form. In her essay ‘William Hazlitt’, a revised TLS review that was republished in The Common Reader: Second Series , she introduces Hazlitt’s essays favourably: ‘His essays are emphatically himself. He has not reticence and he has no shame. He tells us exactly what he thinks’ ( E 5 494). He also tells us ‘exactly what he feels’ ( E 5 494) and has ‘the most intense consciousness of his own experience’ ( E 5 494).
In addition to Hazlitt the thinker there is ‘Hazlitt the artist’. This man is ‘sensuous and emotional, with his feeling for colour and touch … with his sensibility to all those emotions which disturb the reason’ ( E 5 498). As she did with Pater, Woolf comments on the aesthetic qualities of Hazlitt’s essays. She calls attention to the sensuality and emotionality of his language, his ‘feeling for the colour’ of language, and how his ‘sensibility’ is open to all ‘emotions’ that overcome reason ( E 5 499). Hazlitt’s inner conflict is reflected in his style as he vacillates between thinker and artist. In his essays, we sense the movement of his thought: ‘[H]ow violently we are switched from reason to rhapsody—how embarrassingly our austere thinker falls upon our shoulders and demands our sympathy’ ( E 5 499). It is this movement of tone and mood, from logic to emotion, which Woolf admires.
It is Hazlitt’s visual language that Woolf attempts to imitate. Hazlitt has the ‘great gift of picturesque phrasing’ that allows him to “float … over a stretch of shallow thought’ ( E 5 500). He has the ‘freest use of imagery and colour’ and the ‘painter’s imagery’ that keeps his reader engaged. And though there are weaknesses in his essays—they can be ‘dry, garish … monotonous’—each essay has ‘its stress of thought, its thrust of insight, its moment of penetration’. His aim is to ‘communicate his own fervour’, and according to Woolf he succeeds ( E 5 501). Hazlitt’s ability to articulate his ideas through his visual language, to pursue his ideas in the finest detail, allow ‘the parts of his complex and tortured spirit [to] come together in a truce of amity and concord’ ( E 5 502). In the end, there ‘is then no division, no discord, no bitterness’. Hazlitt’s ‘faculties work in harmony and unity’. His sentences are constructed with determination and energy: ‘Sentence follows sentence with the healthy ring and chime of a blacksmith’s hammer on the anvil’. His ‘words glow and the sparks fly; gently they fade and the essay is over’ ( E 5 503). Hazlitt is a craftsman who cobbles his words together with such expertise that they explode with energy. He brings passion to his essays through his imagery, figurative language, and consistency of style. The tension between the thinker and artist is refined and unified with his prose. These qualities become useful for Woolf’s essays and her feminist rhetoric.
Woolf adapts the essay form to express a woman’s experience, sometimes her own, sometimes others’, in literature, education, marriage, and the domestic sphere. From her male precursors and teachers she borrows their more ‘feminine’ and unconventional techniques of style and rhetoric. The freedom to use an individual voice and personality, to show thoughts moving and changing, to communicate a truth that is not a fact, to use language visually and sensually to appeal to our visceral senses are the lessons she learned. These things are used most forcefully in A Room of One’s Own , which on the one hand is a personal essay that utilizes first person, and other hand is a treatise, a call for a collective history of women in culture, meant to appeal to a woman’s sensibility and experience. She not only lists a range of writers who might be considered part of her great tradition of women’s writing—Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontës, among others—but she analyses the historic and socioeconomic conditions of women in society. Woolf introduces specific themes, such as female friendship and love, women’s education, the desire to write, and the inability to do so, financial, social, and economic barriers the female artist must confront. These themes have been well discussed by feminist and modernist literary scholars from the time of its publication to the present. In addition to the critical issues that confront women writers, Woolf addresses other innovative and provocative qualities in this long and experimental essay. It is Woolf’s reinvention of the essay form that really reflects her genius and ingenuity. Unlike male essayists before her, she brings gender to her understanding of form, and she goes beyond their influences by adding to and amplifying the rhetoric of affect and emotions.
Written in 1929, A Room of One’s Own challenges our understanding of the personal essay with its mixture of non-fiction and fiction. 10 From the first paragraphs, Woolf undermines our assumptions about the narrator in her essay. Based on a series of lectures Woolf gave in 1928 at Newnham and Girton, the essay immediately calls into question the authority of the speaker: ‘ “I” is only a convenient term for somebody who has not real being’ ( ARO 4). It contains a full-voiced narrative persona whose thought represents the movement of an active and lively mind in direct conversation with her audience.
The accessibility of the speaker is found in her playful tone: ‘But, you may say, we asked you to speak about women and fiction—what has that got to do with a room of one’s own?’ ( ARO 3). The first sentence is an equivocation, an uncertainty, a small rebellion. We know from the start that Woolf does not plan to make us secure in her meaning. Her narrative wanders like the river she sits by to contemplate her subject. The narrator alludes to Montaigne’s tenet that truth and fact are not the same things. She will not be able to tell her audience the ‘truth’ about women and fiction; nor will she be able to hand them ‘after an hour’s discourse a nugget of pure truth to wrap up between the pages of [their] notebooks’ ( ARO 3). This is because ‘fiction here is likely to contain more truth than fact’, and she proposes ‘making use of all the liberties and licences of a novelist’ to tell the ‘story’ of the two days that preceded her lecture ( ARO 4).
She tells us that hers is an ‘opinion upon one minor point’, an idea she is fiercely attached and loyal to throughout the essay, ‘that a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’ ( ARO 3). Like Hazlitt, she will develop in our presence (if we as readers should consider ourselves part of her audience) ‘as fully and freely’ as she can ‘the train of thought that led [her] to think this’ ( ARO 4). At this point she undermines any confidence the reader might have that Woolf is the narrator or that the speaking ‘I’ is identified with the author. The ‘I’ in A Room of One’s Own becomes a fictional construct, one meant to engage and entertain the reader. In fact, ‘lies will flow’ from her lips, though ‘there may be some truth mixed up with them’ ( ARO 4). It is her audience’s responsibility to ‘seek out this truth and to decide whether any part of it is worth keeping’ ( ARO 4). Here the influence of her predecessors is clear—the essay is meant to address truth, reflect a mind in process, and contain a clear speaking voice (even if the ‘I’ of the narrative is fictional).
She begins to narrate the extended argument A Room of One’s Own will make about the importance of a female literary tradition for women writers. It is not only what she says, but the way she presents her case by appropriating the techniques of essayists like Montaigne and Hazlitt; she never dwells too long on any subject, and her thoughts move along to Oxbridge, an invented university modelled on Oxford and Cambridge. Also invented is Fernham, the women’s college she compares with Oxbridge. Her aesthetic and sensory language to make a socioeconomic argument provokes readers into a visceral and instinctual realm, the realm of connotative and fictive language, where we can see, taste, and feel the differences in social class. The narrator walks by the library at Oxbridge and admires the grand spires and buildings of this awe-inspiring institution. She contemplates how much gold and silver it has taken to build it and eventually describes the sumptuous meal she eats. These images are tangible, vivid, and appeal to a range of senses. In comparison, the language used to describe the women’s college is stark, empty, and has no aesthetic attraction. Colourful, concrete, sensory language is associated with the power and authority of one institution while the lack of aesthetic description reflects the powerlessness of the other. This is done to make an argument, using a more feminine, concrete language to point to inequities of experience.
The use of aesthetic language in her essays, encouraged by Pater and Hazlitt, resembles what we find in Woolf’s great novels from the 1920s, Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (1927), where she also tries to convey some abstract truth for her readers. What we do not find in those novels, or in many of her earlier essays, is a tone of disaffection with the status quo . What begins in A Room of One’s Own as a kind of restlessness, like the narrator who unconsciously walks off the path, quickly grows into discontent and frustration, dissension, hostility, and anger, and then back. In this essay, Woolf alludes to and describes a range of emotions and uses them as rhetorical tropes to persuade her readers of a female logic, one that is visceral, sensual, and bodily. For Woolf, emotions are the body’s response to experience, and aestheticism’s attachment to the senses is a way Woolf exploits emotions to her purpose.
A Room of One’s Own appeals to the reader’s emotions, names and discusses emotions, and employs tropes of emotion and affect to move the reader to a female and feminist point of view. There is the appeal to enthusiasm, for example, found at the end of the essay when Woolf calls on her readers to work in ‘poverty and obscurity’ ( ARO 86) to help Judith Shakespeare come into being. The most powerful and disturbing affect that Woolf invokes is anger. It is the affect of anger, an emotion that is most provocative, aggressive, inappropriate, and unreasonable that she uses most successfully. Woolf names anger, both in women and men, when she visits the British Museum to research the history of women.
Woolf’s representation of anger has been discussed by feminist critics Jane Marcus and Brenda Silver, among others, who argue that Woolf’s anger (emotion) is repressed, sublimated, or destructive. 11 These readings view anger as a psychological construct rather than a rhetorical figure. They see these passages as Woolf’s expression of her personal anger instead of a rhetorical trope functioning within the tradition of the essay. Rhetorician and feminist Barbara Tomlinson argues for a ‘socioforensic discursive analysis’. 12 Discursive analysis, by focusing on how emotions function rhetorically, allows us to reveal underlying ideologies and authority in social discourse. It demands that we analyse ‘textual emotion in the light of larger discourses about social power’. 13 Narratives move through a ‘modulation’ of emotion, some moments stronger than others, and textual markers of anger in Woolf’s essay reveal what Tomlinson calls its ‘textual vehemence’, a critique of the institutional forces that undermines traditional modes of writing and argument. 14
Sara Ahmed’s work on emotion and affect also helps us to look at what she calls the ‘emotionality of texts’. 15 Her method calls on us to investigate how ‘texts name or perform different emotions’. 16 Most important to understanding Woolf’s use of emotion is Ahmed’s ideas that emotions are ‘performative’ and that they ‘involve speech acts’. She argues that emotion is not ‘in’ texts, but rather ‘effects of the very naming of emotions’. 17 Woolf’s essay names anger, her own and others’, and by doing so reveals and exposes what is hidden under the rhetoric she critiques. In what ways does she ‘perform’ anger in her essay and how does it affect the reader?
In A Room of One’s Own , Woolf hypothesizes that emotions, while expressed through the body’s physical responses and grounded in an aesthetic ethos, are tools of persuasion. In acknowledging the rhetorical power of emotion, Woolf reverses a Victorian taboo against emotional prose, tempts her critics to dismiss her, and, at the same time, evokes an older history of the essay as a genre open to recording a range of responses. The contribution Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own makes to the history of the essay is an increased awareness that we cannot separate gender from personality, voice, and point of view, since these things are a function of the body. Building on Pater’s aestheticism and Hazlitt’s painterly language, Woolf writes a careful, sensual, sensory, detailed prose; in addition to the reader’s aesthetic response, Woolf hopes for an emotional one, where emotion resides in the interaction between the naming of emotion and emotion itself. Woolf’s representation of emotions reveals the ways she makes her own theory of personality in non-fiction; not only does her essay contain a distinct voice and strong sense of audience but she also uses affect to communicate the power of her experience.
The first time we see the representation of anger is in the second chapter of A Room of One’s Own . We find the narrator at the British Museum researching her talk on women and fiction. Woolf takes us through her argument that institutions of great literature, like the British Museum, contain nothing to help the female writer develop as an artist and individual—there is no tradition for her to follow. Her frustration is revealed in her unconscious sketching of Professor X, and the sketch itself reflects her own, as yet unacknowledged, anger. She describes her sketch of the Professor: ‘His expression suggested that he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote. … Whatever the reason, the professor was made to look very angry and very ugly’ ( ARO 24). In the physical expression of his body, we see his anger as he jabs his pen, a phallic allusion, to kill the ‘noxious insect’ he condescends to write about. Not only is he angry, but his anger makes him ‘ugly’, much in the same way women’s anger has historically been represented.
Woolf consciously uses the trope, if not of the ‘angry feminist’, then of the ‘angry woman’. She subverts this highly charged metaphor to argue against the ideological power of the male intellectual institutions by making the Professor angry too, with all the traditional associations of irrationality and inappropriateness. Not only does the narrator become aware of men’s anger toward women, but with a conscious reflection on the sketch, she becomes aware of her own. The narrator knows that what she has done is transfer her anger onto her drawing. The sketch is a manifestation of an emotion, a symptom communicated through her body with her pen to her page. When she reads about the inferiority of women the first thing she notices is her bodily response: her ‘heart leapt’, her ‘cheeks had burnt’, and she was ‘flushed’. Not only are her emotions felt through her body but she understands how it is an anger that ‘mixed itself with all kinds of emotions’ ( ARO 25). The narrator’s anger is expressed through her body and senses and is inextricably linked to the aesthetic response Woolf wants to inspire in her reader. Her sketching begins the act of naming emotion.
Where Professor X is angry at women, and the narrator becomes aware of her anger toward him, the story of Judith Shakespeare escalates anger to violence and rage. Through this visual anecdote Woolf comments on the psycho-manipulation of anger toward women by men. Judith Shakespeare endures her father’s anger through his violence: ‘She cried out that marriage was hateful to her, and for that she was severely beaten by her father. Then he ceased to scold her. He begged her instead not to hurt him, not to shame him in this matter of her marriage’ ( ARO 36). Judith’s ‘hate’ is manifested through her cries, and her body becomes the site of emotion and severe punishment. Knowing that his anger will not change Judith’s mind, her father turns her pain into his ‘hurt’ and ‘shame’, emotions he uses to persuade her. These appeals do not stir pathos in Judith, but rebellion. Judith seeks freedom, circumstances lead to suicide, and the narrator asks: ‘[W]ho shall measure the heat and violence of the poet’s heart when caught and tangled in a woman’s body?’ ( ARO 37). Anger is trapped in the body, which literally feels the sensation of ‘heat’, of passion and fury, but finds no expression. However, Woolf has expressed it for us, by naming the emotion and connecting it to female experience and allowing the reader to feel Judith’s rage through a language that is sensory, visceral, and undoubtedly female.
Woolf writes in A Room of One’s Own that it is ‘useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure’, just as she goes to the male essayists Montaigne, Pater, Beerbohm, and Hazlitt for pleasure. She too ‘may have learnt a few tricks from them and adapted them to her use’ ( ARO 57). From the history of male essayists Woolf inherited—and reinvented for her own use—the sensual, visceral, and painterly language of aestheticism. Hers is a rhetoric of affect and emotion, and she makes a literary space for herself and the women essayists who follow through a decidedly female strategy—the employment of emotions that in the past were considered weak and unconvincing. The narrator’s anger at the Professor and Judith’s anger with her father reverses conventional readings of the trope of the angry woman by showing how anger moves the subject to action. By making anger explicit, Woolf gives it new power. It is an anger of one’s own and is used both as resistance and a vehicle for change.
Not only does she use anger and rage to illustrate the socioeconomic inequities women suffer but Woolf’s notion of a female literary history also hinges on the emotion of anger. In chapter 4 of A Room of One’s Own , Woolf begins to piece together her literary history. Intense emotions, like anger and fear are flaws in the fiction of women who precede Woolf. She begins with the seventeenth-century poet Lady Winchilsea. Woolf finds her poetry ‘bursting out in indignation’ ( ARO 44). Had she ‘freed her mind from hate and fear and not heaped it with bitterness and resentment’ ( ARO 45) her poetry would have been much better. By the nineteenth century women writers had ‘training in the observation of character, in the analysis of emotion’ ( ARO 51 ). She praises Jane Austen for writing ‘without hate, without bitterness, without fear’ ( ARO 71), while she finds Charlotte Brontë unable to transcend her emotions in writing. Describing Brontë’s anger, Woolf cites a long passage from Jane Eyre that explains how ‘women feel just as men feel … they suffer from too rigid a restraint, too absolute a stagnation, precisely as men would suffer’ ( ARO 52). The entrance of Grace Poole at this point in the novel is an ‘awkward break’ that represents the ‘marks and jerks’ of the novel, and by noticing these ‘one sees that [Brontë] will never get her genius whole and entire’. Woolf finds that Brontë writes ‘in a rage where she should write calmly’ ( ARO 52). But Woolf also acknowledges that ‘she puts her finger exactly not only upon her own defects but upon those of her sex at that time’ ( ARO 53). For Woolf, anger is a deformity in women’s fiction—it scars and stains it.
Woolf was conflicted about the purpose and role of emotions in women’s writing, but she knew that it is through affect that the woman writer writes. Naming emotion engages the reader and influences her to see the world differently. Like the ‘dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister’, the contemporary woman essayist must draw ‘her life from the lives of the unknown who were her forerunners’ ( ARO 86). Woolf sees herself as part of a cultural family, where the physical body expresses the emotions of experience. Using the techniques of clear prose, the speaking voice, the portrayal of a mind in the process of thought, and concrete and aesthetic imagery to help express the passionate intensity of her subject, she creates A Room of One’s Own , an essay that has profoundly influenced female essayists of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
Woolf’s late nineteenth-century education in biography, history, and literary criticism creates a foundation for her interest in genealogy, lineage, and canon formation. Her own essays helped her to understand the tradition and development of the genre. She disregarded gender in her evaluations of male essay writers because, beyond techniques and formal qualities she found helpful to her own writing, there were no allusions to gender in their work. She uses her inheritance from Montaigne, Pater, Beerbohm, Hazlitt, and others to create in her own essays, including A Room of One’s Own , what she herself lacked, a defined tradition of women’s essay writing that allows further possibilities in content and form.
Brosnan, Leila , Reading Virginia Woolf’s Essays and Journalism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999 ).
Dubino, Jeanne , ‘Virginia Woolf from Book Reviewer to Literary Critic, 1904–1918’, in Beth Carole Rosenberg and Jeanne Dubino , eds, Virginia Woolf and the Essay (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997 ).
Fernald, Anne , ‘ A Room of One’s Own, Personal Criticism, and the Essay’, Twentieth Century Literature 40, no. 2 (Summer 1994 ), 165–89.
Goldman, Mark , The Reader’s Art: Virginia Woolf as a Literary Critic (Paris: Mouton & Co., 1976 ).
Gualtieri, Elena , Virginia Woolf’s Essays (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000 ).
McNees, Eleanor , ed., Virginia Woolf: Critical Assessments , 4 vols. (Mountfield: Helm Information, 1994 ).
Rosenberg, Beth , and Jeanne Dubino , eds, Virginia Woolf and the Essay (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997 ).
Saloman, Randi , Virginia Woolf’s Essayism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014 ).
For more on Woolf as a reviewer, see Chapter 17 ‘Woolf as Reviewer-Critic’ in this volume, where Eleanor McNees describes in detail Woolf’s history as a book reviewer. See also Jeanne Dubino , ‘Virginia Woolf from Book Reviewer to Literary Critic, 1904-1918’ in Beth Carole Rosenberg and Jeanne Dubino , eds, Virginia Woolf and the Essay (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1997), 25–40 .
Anne Fernald , ‘ “Writing for everybody, for nobody, for our age, for her own”: The Common Reader as Writer’s Manual’, in Eleonora Basso , Lindsey Cordery , Emilio Irigoyen , Claudia Pérez , and Matías Núñez , eds, Virginia Woolf en América Latina: Reflexiones desde Montevideo (Montevideo: Librería Linardi y Risso, 2013), 219–43 .
Ruth Gruber , Virginia Woolf: The Will to Create as a Woman (New York: Avalon Publishers, 1935) ; Winifred Holtby , Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir (London: Bloomsbury, 2007) .
Virginia Woolf , Collected Essays , ed. Leonard Woolf , 4 vols (London: Hogarth Press, 1967) .
Andrew McNeillie , Introduction to The Essays of Virginia Woolf 1904-1912 , vol. 1 (New York: Harcourt, 1989) explains the need for republishing Woolf’s essays. Since the publication of Leonard’s 1967 collection, Woolf’s journals, diaries, and shorter fiction, as well as her reading notebooks and a bibliography and guide to her literary sources and allusions have been published. McNeillie’s and Stuart N. Clarke’s editions of the essays are complete with annotations and references.
For a survey of earlier criticism of Woolf’s essays, see Mark Goldman , The Reader’s Art: Virginia Woolf as a Literary Critic (Paris: Mouton & Co., 1976), 1–6 . See also Eleanor McNees , ed., Virginia Woolf Critical Assessments , 4 vols (Mountfield, East Sussex: Helm Information, 1994) .
A series of studies began to emerge in the mid-1990s that re-evaluated the importance of the essays, including Beth Rosenberg and Jeanne Dubino , Virginia Woolf and the Essay (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 1997) and Leila Brosnan , Reading Virginia Woolf’s Essays and Journalism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999) ; Elena Gualtieri , Virginia Woolf’s Essays (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2000) ; and Randi Saloman’s Virginia Woolf’s Essayism (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2014) . These works situate Woolf within the traditions of the essay and non-fiction prose and illustrate Woolf’s deep understanding of the genre. They focus primarily on the aesthetic nature of her essays, her feminism, her journalistic impulses, and the influence of European ‘essayism’.
Walter Pater , Conclusion to The Renaissance , in Harold Bloom , ed., Selected Writings of Walter Pater (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), 60 .
See Perry Meisel , The Absent Father: Virginia Woolf and Walter Pater (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1980) .
Anne Fernald , ‘ A Room of One’s Own, Personal Criticism, and the Essay’, Twentieth Century Literature 40, no. 2 (Summer, 1994), 165–89 . Fernald outlines the qualities of personal prose, which she distinguishes from personal criticism and autobiography. Woolf wrote about ‘thinking as a deeply personal act in her criticism’ (168). Fernald’s discussion ‘of the personal in Virginia Woolf emphasizes thought’ and why ‘various readers come to take Woolf so personally’ (172).
Jane Marcus , Art and Anger: Reading Like a Woman (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988) . Brenda Silver , Virginia Woolf Icon (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999) .
Barbara Tomlinson , Feminism and Affect at the Scene of Argument: Beyond the Trope of the Angry Feminist (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2010), 19 .
Tomlinson, Feminism and Affect , 19.
Tomlinson, Feminism and Affect , 57.
Sarah Ahmed , The Cultural Politics of Emotion (New York: Routledge, 2004), 13 .
Ahmed, The Cultural Politics of Emotion , 13.
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Home — Essay Samples — Literature — Writers — Virginia Woolf
Essays on Virginia Woolf
Prompt examples for virginia woolf essays, the stream of consciousness technique.
Explore Virginia Woolf's use of the stream of consciousness narrative technique in her works. How does this literary style enhance the reader's understanding of the characters and their inner thoughts and emotions?
The Role of Women in Woolf's Novels
Analyze the portrayal of women and their roles in Virginia Woolf's novels. How does she challenge traditional gender norms and expectations? Discuss the ways in which her female characters assert themselves and seek independence.
The Bloomsbury Group and Literary Influence
Discuss Virginia Woolf's association with the Bloomsbury Group and its influence on her writing. How did her interactions with other writers and artists shape her literary style and themes?
Depictions of Mental Health
Examine how Virginia Woolf portrays mental health and psychological states in her works, particularly in novels like "Mrs. Dalloway" and "To the Lighthouse." How does she explore the inner workings of the human mind?
The Concept of Time
Explore the theme of time in Woolf's novels. How does she manipulate time, memory, and the passage of years in her narratives? Discuss the significance of time as it relates to the characters and their experiences.
Woolf's Contribution to Modernist Literature
Analyze Virginia Woolf's role in the modernist literary movement. How does she exemplify the characteristics of modernist literature, including experimentation with narrative structure and a focus on individual consciousness?
Feminism in Mrs Dalloway and Portrayal of Death
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Feminism in Mrs Dalloway: Struggle of Female Identity
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Gender Topic in The Works of James Joyce and Virginia Woolf
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The Life of Virginia Woolf and Her Feminist Ideas
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January 25, 1882, Kensington
March 28, 1941, Lewes, United Kingdom
Novelist, Essayist, Publisher, Critic
- Mrs Dalloway (1925)
- To the Lighthouse (1927)
- Orlando (1928)
- A Room of One's Own (1929)
- The Waves (1931)
- "A woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."
- "As a woman I have no country. As a woman my country is the whole world."
- "One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well."
25 January 1882 – 28 March 1941
Virginia Woolf was an English writer, considered one of the most important modernist 20th-century authors and a pioneer in the use of stream of consciousness as a narrative device.
Mrs Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), A Room of One's Own (1929), The Waves (1931)
Before the Second World War and long before the second wave of feminism, Virginia Woolf argued that women's experience, particularly in the women's movement, could be the basis for transformative social change. Woolf has become an iconic feminist in both pop culture and academic circles.
Virginia Woolf (1882–1941) is recognised as one of the most innovative writers of the 20th century. She was best known for her novels, especially Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927). She also wrote pioneering essays on artistic theory, literary history, women’s writing, and the politics of power.
“Books are the mirrors of the soul.” “Why are women... so much more interesting to men than men are to women?” “If you do not tell the truth about yourself you cannot tell it about other people.”
- William Shakespeare
- Benjamin Banneker
- Leonardo Da Vinci
- Maya Angelou
- Langston Hughes
- E.M. Forster
- Barbara Kingsolver
- Ernest Hemingway
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