Literary Criticism

Virginia Woolf: Criticism as private experience

It is difficult to approach Virginia Woolf without being conscious not only of her Modernism, but also of her relationship to the concept of a feminine sensibility. Because many of Woolf’s subjects are women, and because the method of reading she advocates is linked closely to her attempts to explore the ‘unknown and uncircumscribed spirit’13 of woman, it is easy

to see how her criticism has been read as wholly feminist in direction, devoted to a concern for women writers and women’s experiences. Such a view – whether it focuses on her opposition to the male-dominated world of the universities, her recovery of the ‘lives of the obscure’ or the importance she places on the role of subjectivity in creating a feminised method of reading – is emphasised by her critics and biographers, and casts an uneasy shadow over any attempt to see Woolf in a different light. Rachel Bowlby has summarised the ways in which differing inter- pretations of Woolf have been made to serve a feminist agenda:
She is celebrated as a modernist breaking with formal literary conven- tions, and thereby also with the normative structures of patriarchal- or phallocentric-language; she is also celebrated as a realist, by appeal to her authentic description of women’s lives and experiences, and her commitment to the end of patriarchal society […] There is also the question of biography […] in the very extremity of its outlines, the tale can become either a demonstration of common female oppression – the norm revealed at its outer edges – or proof of her exceptional status.14
Such interpretations extend to Woolf’s criticism and to the methods it employs. Hermione Lee, for example, sees Woolf’s critical writing in terms of its opposition to the ‘(male) cultural coteries’ of ‘professors, editors [and] literary hacks’; an opposition in which Woolf asserts the import- ance of ‘a kind of reading as a woman which is different from “the man’s way”’, metaphorised in feminine terms as ‘slipping, skipping, loitering’.15 Maria DiBattista’s reading of Woolf is less explicitly gendered, yet still draws attention to the ‘otherness’ of Woolf’s criticism in describing the ‘necromantic powers’ that allow her to revive the lives of forgotten authors.16 It is important to emphasise that I do not seek to negate the importance of gender as a dominant force in Woolf’s literary criticism. Indeed, there are certain, and crucial, points when gender and critical method are inex- tricable, most obviously in A Room of One’s Own, where the narrator’s exclusion from the male-dominated world of the university and the fact that she has consequently ‘been drawing a picture where I should, like my neighbour, have been writing a conclusion’17 act as an appropriate symbol of Woolf’s decision to approach her subjects through image and metaphor rather than conventional academic prose. Where my interpre- tation differs is in attempting to interpret Woolf’s literary writings in the context of the changing nature of criticism as a whole, rather than in terms of a simple gendered opposition. DiBattista’s claim that Woolf was ‘somewhat dazed, as both novelist and reviewer-critic, by the break up of the reading public into a “bewildering variety” of audiences’, and that she reacted to this by demonstrating ‘the special authority and unique advantage of those stationed on the periphery of officialdom’, attests to the ways in which she was influenced by the decline of the certainties of the Victorian men of letters, and the increasing importance of academic literary criticism – a form of ‘officialdom’ to which Woolf was clearly opposed.18 However, while this ‘officialdom’ may have been predomi- nantly masculine, Woolf’s opposition cannot just be seen in terms of gender: it has much in common, for instance, with the early work of John Middleton Murry and with a tradition of aesthetic criticism that stretches back to Pater in its resistance of academic norms. Seen in this light, Woolf’s criticism appears less of an isolated phenomenon than many readings of her work might suggest. Two recent studies of Woolf’s writing have offered different approaches to the feminist interpretations outlined above, setting Woolf’s non-fiction in its cultural and generic contexts with regard to conventions of both journalism and essay-writing. Elena Gualtieri’s Virginia Woolf’s Essays: Sketching the Past (2000) focuses initially on Woolf’s anxiety about whether she was able to convey the ‘true reality’ of life or whether she was simply writing about herself.19 Gualtieri uses these doubts to place Woolf within a Continental tradition of thought that emphasises the nature of the essay as ‘pure discourse’, a form that calls attention to its own status as art as well as to its content. Drawing on the words of Georg Lukács, Gualtieri describes the essay as a kind of writing that ‘asks the fundamental ontological questions, “what is life, what is man, what is destiny?”, but provides them not with “the answers of science or, at purer heights, those of philosophy” but with a form, a “symbol”’ .20 Gualtieri’s work also draws on Graham Good’s The Observing Self (1988) in describing the essay’s mimicking of ‘a scattered and only loosely connected self’ as making it ‘the most suitable form with which to combat both the homogenisation of individual consciousness by mass culture and the systematic reduction of that consciousness to an abstract entity in the theories of the human sciences’.21 Gualtieri’s analysis therefore places Woolf’s essays at ‘the intersection between a feminist critique of patriarchal power structures and a Marxist analysis of the ideological formations of capitalism’,22 seeing them as an anti-authoritarian form of writing that foregrounds conversational and personal modes of thought and address. A more documentary approach is taken by Leila Brosnan, whose Reading Virginia Woolf’s Essays and Journalism (1997) highlights Woolf’s ‘somewhat dazed, as both novelist and reviewer-critic, by the break up of the reading public into a “bewildering variety” of audiences’, and that she reacted to this by demonstrating ‘the special authority and unique advantage of those stationed on the periphery of officialdom’, attests to the ways in which she was influenced by the decline of the certainties of the Victorian men of letters, and the increasing importance of academic literary criticism – a form of ‘officialdom’ to which Woolf was clearly opposed.18 However, while this ‘officialdom’ may have been predomi- nantly masculine, Woolf’s opposition cannot just be seen in terms of gender: it has much in common, for instance, with the early work of John Middleton Murry and with a tradition of aesthetic criticism that stretches back to Pater in its resistance of academic norms. Seen in this light, Woolf’s criticism appears less of an isolated phenomenon than many readings of her work might suggest. Two recent studies of Woolf’s writing have offered different approaches to the feminist interpretations outlined above, setting Woolf’s non-fiction in its cultural and generic contexts with regard to conventions of both journalism and essay-writing. Elena Gualtieri’s Virginia Woolf’s Essays: Sketching the Past (2000) focuses initially on Woolf’s anxiety about whether she was able to convey the ‘true reality’ of life or whether she was simply writing about herself.19 Gualtieri uses these doubts to place Woolf within a Continental tradition of thought that emphasises the nature of the essay as ‘pure discourse’, a form that calls attention to its own status as art as well as to its content. Drawing on the words of Georg Lukács, Gualtieri describes the essay as a kind of writing that ‘asks the fundamental ontological questions, “what is life, what is man, what is destiny?”, but provides them not with “the answers of science or, at purer heights, those of philosophy” but with a form, a “symbol”’ .20 Gualtieri’s work also draws on Graham Good’s The Observing Self (1988) in describing the essay’s mimicking of ‘a scattered and only loosely connected self’ as making it ‘the most suitable form with which to combat both the homogenisation of individual consciousness by mass culture and the systematic reduction of that consciousness to an abstract entity in the theories of the human sciences’.21 Gualtieri’s analysis therefore places Woolf’s essays at ‘the intersection between a feminist critique of patriarchal power structures and a Marxist analysis of the ideological formations of capitalism’,22 seeing them as an anti-authoritarian form of writing that foregrounds conversational and personal modes of thought and address. A more documentary approach is taken by Leila Brosnan, whose Reading Virginia Woolf’s Essays and Journalism (1997) highlights Woolf’s ambivalent relationship to the world of journalism. Brosnan points out that while Woolf’s letters and diaries indicate that she was acutely conscious of her dependence on editors and publishers, her fame as a journalist also brought her considerable pleasure.23 Woolf’s diary of 1918 records her feelings of being ‘pressed & important & even excited a little’ on being asked to write reviews, and in her more optimistic moments she saw such work as ‘a great stand by – this power to make large sums by formulating views on Stendhal & Swift’.24 Brosnan also argues that while it is easy to see the male-dominated world of literary journalism as a restrictive force, contemporary editorial practices led Woolf to d
evelop an allusive, metaphorical style that would allow her to express a range of potential meanings, forming ‘a suggestive subtext that undercuts [her essays’] surface conformity to editorial expectations’.25 For Brosnan, the ‘inventive rewriting’26 that Woolf carried out in her reviews was a liber- ating force, unleashing a subjective voice that was able to claim a particular kind of writerly authority for itself. Brosnan’s work is important in that it represents a revisionist attempt to see Woolf’s literary journalism as benefiting from, rather than being stifled by, the circumstances in which it was written. It also uses substan- tial historical evidence to break down simplistic views of a gender-based opposition between Woolf and her editors, arguing that the world of the Edwardian literary periodicals was shaped by class and family allegiance rather than gender.27 As a result, it offers a way of reading Woolf’s work against a background of conventions and expectations that I shall return to later. Nevertheless, both Brosnan and Gualtieri stop short of carrying out a detailed examination of Woolf’s relationship with academia. While Gualtieri’s highly theoretical approach does encompass Woolf’s engage- ment with the practices of contemporary journalism, it does not deal in detail with Woolf’s equally complex relationship with the normative structures of the new academic disciplines. Brosnan, meanwhile, does refer briefly to the emergence of English studies, claiming (in a discussion of the generic conventions of the essay) that the rise of English ‘saw the rebirth of the essay as an instrument of […] literary criticism’.28 She also draws attention to George (‘Dadie’) Rylands’s feeling of being ‘unsettled’ by Woolf’s essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek’, seeing his comment that Woolf ‘read[s] Greek differently’ and his querying of her omission of Pindar as representing a clash of expectations between Rylands’s scholarship and Woolf’s emphasis on subjectivity.29 Nevertheless, this latter incident is treated rather as a collision between two opposing views of the essay – a generic opposition – rather than as an institutional clash between the values of amateur and professional. While the two are easy to conflate, I want to argue that separating them allows Woolf’s critical strategy to be seen less as the product of individual choice than as part of an ongoing struggle between two differing views of critical authority, one of which includes Woolf but is by no means restricted to her. Placing Woolf in this institutional context may deny her the pioneering role that many feminist interpretations have sought to bestow on her, but it also restores a sense of her historicity – and raises the largely ignored question of how her criticism was shaped by her awareness of the practices that were developing in the universities. Woolf’s sense of her distance from the status and privilege represented by the universities is easy to document. One of the most famous images in her writing is of the narrator of A Room of One’s Own, forced to remain outside the libraries of Oxbridge: conversely, her letters and diaries are full of examples of the scorn Woolf felt for professional scholars and the institutions to which they belonged. On the one hand, Woolf protested that ‘I do not believe that gifts, whether of mind or character, can be weighed like sugar and butter, not even at Cambridge, where they are so adept at putting people into classes and fixing caps on their heads and letters after their names.’30 She also boasted that she had persuaded T. S. Eliot ‘to go some way with me in denouncing Oxford & Cambridge’, and noted with pleasure that they had ‘agreed about the infamy of teaching English; the idiocy of lectures; the whole hierarchy of professor, system & so on’.31 This ‘infamy’ was something on which Woolf was prepared to elaborate at length. In a letter to her nephew Julian Bell about Dadie Rylands’s election to a lectureship in English at Cambridge, she com- mented that ‘all one can do is to herd books into groups, and then these submissive young, who are far too frightened and callow to have a bone in their backs, swallow it down; and tie it up; and thus we get English literature into ABC; one, two, three; and lose all sense of what its about’.32 She also knew, however, that this world was one in which she could not participate and that this exclusion placed certain limits on the critical methodologies available to her. The student at the British Museum, criticised in A Room of One’s Own for ‘wear[ing] a ready-made tie’ and breathing noisily, nevertheless possessed ‘some method of shepherding his question past all distractions as a sheep runs into its pen’, while for the untrained researcher ‘the question far from being shepherded into its pen flies like a frightened flock hither and thither, helter-skelter, pursued by a whole pack of hounds’.33 Similarly, for all Eliot’s sympathy with her views, Woolf had to concede that ‘I daresay though he will become Prof of Poetry at Oxford one of these days’34 – a recognition that Eliot was able to move in circles from which Woolf herself was excluded.

Nevertheless, the techniques adopted by Woolf suggest that she was able to use this sense of exclusion as a means of creating a different kind of literary criticism. It is significant, for example, that Woolf’s critical personae are often leisured, free of the pressures of time and procedure to which journalists and academics were subjected. Many of her essays mention acts such as looking up from a book, gazing out of the window and listening to the sounds of the world outside, with their casual, almost careless nature standing in marked contrast to the developing norms of academic study. In ‘How Should One Read a Book?’ Woolf’s images are drawn from the leisured and relaxed rhythms of her everyday life, placing reading within a domestic and unstructured sphere in a passage that begins with a very Paterian formulation:
We must pass judgment upon these multitudinous impressions; we must make of these fleeting shapes one that is hard and lasting. But not directly. Wait for the dust of reasoning to settle; for the conflict and questioning to die down; walk, talk, pull the dead petals from a rose, or fall asleep. Then suddenly without our willing it, for it is thus that Nature undertakes these transitions, the book will return, but differently. It will float to the top of the mind as a whole. And the book as a whole is different from the book received currently in separate phrases. Details now fit themselves into their places. We see the shape from start to finish; it is a barn, a pig-sty, or a cathedral. Now then we can compare book with book as we compare building with building.35
That this persona is also gendered must not be forgotten: this essay was first delivered as a lecture at a private girls’ school at Hayes Court in Kent in January 1926, and this context suggests an advocacy of a kind of reading that is implicitly more suited to the lives and minds of women. Yet it is clear that alongside this gendering is an awareness of the reader’s amateur status, reflecting Woolf’s validation of ways of reading that are distanced from the professional processes of the university. Much of her critical work, as Brosnan indicates, takes the form of an imaginative engagement with the text that enables the reader to apprehend the ‘essence’ of an author, and thereby to enter into the relationship with the past that Woolf placed at the centre of her artistic philosophy. A common Woolfian strategy is to create an impressionistic vision of an author’s life as a means of illustrating their preoccupations and the influence of the age in which they lived. In her essays, authors are given a new sense of being through narratives that recreate an impression of their inner lives. Of Jane Austen, she writes that

one of those fairies who perch upon cradles must have taken her a flight through the world directly she was born. When she was laid in the cradle again she knew not only what the world looked like, but had already chosen her kingdom. She had agreed that if she might rule over that territory, she would covet no other. Thus at fifteen she had few illusions about other people and none about herself […] Her gaze passes straight to the mark, and we know precisely where, on the map of human nature, that mark is. We know because Jane Austen kept to her compact; she never trespassed beyond her boundaries. Never, even at the emotional age of fifteen, did she round upon herself in shame, obliterate a sarcasm in a spasm of compassion, or blur an outline in a mist of rhapsody. Spasms and rhapsodies, she seems to have said […] end there; and the boundary line is perfectly distinct. But she does not deny that moons and mountains and castles exist – on the other side.36
Because of its focus on women’s experience, it is easy to see this technique as evidence of the gendered nature of Woolf’s criticism. However, it may also owe something to Woolf’s reading of Pater, and in particular to her interest in his depiction of the luminary qualities of the artist in ‘Notes on Leonardo da Vinci’, which she saw as being more important than empirical ‘fact’: ‘it is not knowledge of Leonardo that remains with us, but a vision’.37 This quotation could easily stand as a manifesto for Woolf’s own criticism, a vindication of the impressionistic style that she herself chose to adopt. Even so, it is important to recognise that Woolf’s comment is based, to some extent, on a misreading of Pater, as the kind of ‘vision’ he communicated in The Renaissance was inevitably grounded in knowledge, and in a concept of the ‘scholar writing for the scholarly’.38 It is also clear that Woolf’s reading of Pater is a feminised one. Pater’s ideal of scholarship was essentially masculine, as he makes clear in ‘Style’:
The literary artist is of necessity a scholar, and in what he proposes to do will have in mind, first of all, the scholar and the scholarly conscience – the male conscience in this matter, as we must think it, under a system of education which still to so large an extent limits real scholarship to men.39
In contrast, Woolf privileges a more instinctive form of sympathy that is emphatically non-scholarly, existing beyond the reach of any system of education. However, the Paterian elements of Woolf’s thought are important, as they link her to the aesthetic theory of the late nineteenth

century and to the early attempts to separate the private sphere of aesthetic experience from the more public concerns of academia. This private sphere is often foregrounded through Woolf’s emphasis of the sensual pleasure associated with the act of reading, with the use of plural pronouns drawing the reader into the narrator’s own reactions to the text. When reading George Eliot’s early novels, for example,
we feel the delicious warmth and release of spirit which the great creative writers alone procure for us. As one comes back to the books after years of absence they pour out, even against our expectation, the same store of energy and heat, so that we want more than any- thing to idle in the warmth as in the sun beating down from the red orchard wall.40
In Woolf’s work, the effect of such a technique is to present the reader with what could be described as the ‘emotional truth’ of a particular experience of reading, as opposed to the objective ‘truth’ represented by a form of academic enquiry that privileged empirical research, verifiable evidence and the accumulation of facts. The centrality of this ‘emotional truth’ stems from Woolf’s concern with the ‘moments of being’ that she famously saw as a truer record of an individual’s essence than the dry facts of ‘clock-time’; an attempt to bring to life the ‘luminous halo’ of individ- ual existence.41 Using a distinction drawn from Gertrude Stein’s ‘What is English Literature?’, DiBattista has described this critical method as Woolf’s attempt to present literature as ‘a history of you’, not ‘a history of it’: an unmistakable return to the primacy of the individual and to a form of authority that was opposed to that which was represented by the structures and methods of academia.42 As well as validating a concern for the ‘inner lives’ of her subjects, Woolf was also attempting to validate an approach to literature that lay outside the bounds of academic inquiry. In doing this, Woolf’s criticism builds, whether consciously or not, on Pater’s engagement with changing forms of intellectual authority. Pater’s definition of the aesthetic experience as lying within the act of percep- tion rather than in the art-object itself has been described by Ian Small as being central to his ‘attempt to relocate the authority for the assessment and appreciation of a work of art within the individual’,43 a vital part of Pater’s challenge to the development of disciplinary structures. Faced with the decline in eminence of the mid-Victorian man of letters, and the absence – as yet – of an adequate academic alternative, Pater, in the 1870s, was evolving a form of writing that sought to eschew the scholarly devices of the newly professionalised discipline of history, such as the use of externally verifiable sources and reliable methods of citation and annotation. Small interprets this as an unwillingness ‘to seek in or grant to that academic community a final intellectual authority’;44 and such a reading of Pater may help to explain Woolf’s desire to locate the signifi- cance of an author in the relationship between text and reader, which emphasises the value of individual acts of reading. Woolf’s own hostility towards the academic world, and her use of domestic images and meta- phors of leisure and idleness, can therefore be seen as a revisiting of Pater’s methods and concerns.

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