Literary Criticism

Woolf and Murry: Impressionism and authority

Woolf’s opposition to scholarship and the canon, and her upholding of a method of reading that was emphatically non-institutional, make her search for an authorial persona and an appropriate critical method- ology seem less the product of gender alone than the result of a complex set of intellectual and institutional factors, in which gender neverthe- less played an important part. It is certainly significant that there are parallels between Woolf’s criticism and that of John Middleton Murry, who was also faced with the ‘bewildering variety’ of audiences that resulted from the break-up of the reading public, and who experi- enced his own sense of exclusion from many of these audiences. The diversity of Murry’s career reflects the multiplicity of critical forms that existed in the early twentieth century, and hints that the easy division between ‘man of letters’ and academic is difficult to sustain. He edited the Modernist periodical Rhythm from 1911 to 1913 and the Athenaeum from 1919 to 1921; he founded the Adelphi, and published a vast number of essays in journals that included the Times Literary Supplement and the Nation. He also wrote monographs such as Fyodor Dostoevsky (1916) and Keats and Shakespeare (1925), and was invited to deliver a series of lectures to undergraduates in the School of English at Oxford in the summer of 1921, which were later published as The Problem of Style (1922). This multiplication of roles can be linked to the search for an audi- ence that has been identified by Josephine M. Guy and Ian Small as the central problem facing the ‘amateur’ (or non-academic) critic in the early twentieth century.64 The general public could no longer be seen as the natural audience for literary criticism, and the withdrawal of intel- lectual debate into the academic community meant that the amateur critic was becoming increasingly marginalised. Murry’s journalism and editorial work coincided with a time when the circulation figures for literary periodicals were in decline: the Adelphi struggled financially under his editorship, and the Athenaeum’s circulation fell significantly. He also felt, for most of his life, that his background and ideals made him an ‘outsider’. He was not part of the ‘intellectual aristocracy’ to which Woolf belonged, but neither was he willing to embrace the opportunities offered by the expanding market for ‘lowbrow’ journalism, as indicated by his rejection of the ‘bitter world of the cash-nexus’ and lament for the loss of the ‘precise and exacting standards of honour and integrity’65 that he saw as an essential element of journalistic dignity. Yet Murry was also sceptical about many of the practices and values of academic literary criticism, especially its attempt to lay claim to the objectivity possessed by other disciplines. In The Problem of Style, he rejected ‘the fantastic dream that [criticism] might be reduced to the firm precision of a science’, and drew attention to the fascination of a form of criticism whose terms were ‘fluid and uncertain’, defined not by academic convention but by the ‘invention’ of the individual critic.66 Elsewhere, in an essay entitled ‘The Courage of Criticism’, he argued that criticism should be open to all, rather than ‘a highly specialised

profession like medicine or the law’: ‘Every reader is a potential critic, and in so far as he reads well an actual one.’67 Murry’s assertion that every reader had the potential to be a critic was shaped by the particular intellectual circumstances in which he was working. Guy and Small state that ‘the obvious response to [the processes of professionalisation and specialisation] was to redefine the nature of literary value so that it drew upon “common” (that is, non-specialized) knowledge and experience’;68 and it is significant that much of Murry’s work, like Woolf’s, draws attention to a kind of reading that takes place in a quotidian setting and is underpinned by values that are personal rather than institutional. The essays collected in Pencillings (1923), which Murry originally published in The Times, the Nation and the Athenaeum, are written in a gossipy, confidential tone that recalls Woolf’s emphasis of the personal, domestic nature of reading, foregrounding the persona of the author as he overhears conversations in the street, ponders the connec- tion between Dr Johnson and a flight of swallows, and turns to popular fiction after suffering from ‘a surfeit of literature’. In these essays, Murry depicts reading as a pleasurable, humanising force that operates through a close relationship between the text and a reader who, like Woolf’s ‘common reader’, possesses a certain amount of leisure. When writing on Dickens, for example, Murry grounds his appreciation in emotion, rather than in an intellectual reaction:
Jonas Chuzzlewit makes our nights miserable, and Mrs. Gamp our days a delight […] we simply know that we enter an amazing and extraordinary world, and that once we have abandoned ourselves to it the only wonder is that we could ever have been such fools as to remain outside, even for a single year.69
If the tone of such statements recalls that of the old men of letters, then this may not be accidental. The subtitle of this volume, ‘Little Essays on Literature’, makes it sound like the reminiscences of a much older man, even though Murry would only have been in his early thirties when the essays it contains were written. While he notes that the title was not his own choice, it certainly suggests a conscious re-creation of the values of a previous age.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.