Woolf, Virginia: General Commentary

views updated

VIRGINIA WOOLF: GENERAL COMMENTARY

HERBERT MARDER (ESSAY DATE 1968)

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

BARBARA CURRIER BELL AND CAROL OHMANN (ESSAY DATE 1974)

SOURCE: Bell, Barbara Currier, and Carol Ohmann. "Virginia Woolf's Criticism: A Polemical Preface." In Feminist Literary Criticism: Explorations in Theory, second edition, edited by Josephine Donovan, pp. 48-60. Lexington: University Press of Kentucky, 1989.

In the following essay, which originally appeared in the journal Critical Inquiry in 1974, Bell and Ohmann examine Woolf's body of literary criticism, describing the methods and principles that inform it.

In her novels, and those are what most of her readers know best, Virginia Woolf habitually aims at creating moments of freedom, moments when the self, breaking bonds and vaulting bounds, arrives at an unqualified intensity of thought and emotion. Clarissa Dalloway, on a London morning in spring, feels herself lifted on "waves of divine vitality." "It [is] very, very dangerous," she thinks, but without any regret, "to live even one day." Lily Briscoe, toward the close of To the Lighthouse, is oppressed by Mr. Ramsay's demands: he is a widower, and hence aggrieved; she is a woman and owes him, he would insist, solace. She cannot, she will not oblige: she'd gotten up that morning to paint. But suddenly, forgetting him and forgetting herself, she sees, and remarks, that his boots are beautiful. For the moment Lily and Mr. Ramsay are unlocked from the past and convention. They reach, together, "the blessed island of good boots." Percival, in The Waves, has a power over the other characters that may surely be tied to the image he appears to present of perfectly habitual, perfectly unconscious self-expression. He need not study Shakespeare's plays; he simply understands them; he appears to be at home, and at large, in a brave new world. And even Eleanor Pargiter, in The Years, wakes from the constriction of nearly a lifetime to ask, "And now?…And now?" She is at once ripe and ready.

As a novelist, Virginia Woolf has taken, and takes, some wrist-slapping. By some of her contemporaries she was viewed, as E. M. Forster said, in an image that condensed many a small-minded complaint: she was viewed as the Invalid Lady of Bloomsbury. And we have heard that just a few seasons ago, when the idea was first put to them, the committee of assorted academic eminences that plans the programs for the English Institute said no to a suggestion for a series of papers on Woolf; she was, some of them asserted, not good enough for the Institute, which has traditionally assembled at Columbia and, most recently, at Harvard. But time may do much and indeed has already done very much to praise Virginia Woolf as the creator of Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Waves, and Between the Acts.

Our purpose is to discuss her criticism, and at the same time to praise, even to celebrate, that. Her criticism is less well known than her fiction. It's been neglected, and deserves much more attention than it's gotten.1 In passing, we might make the guess—we consider it quite a reasonable one—that it has been easier for professional academics to praise, or even only to notice, a woman novelist, than it has been to accept a woman critic.

As a critic, Virginia Woolf has been called a number of disparaging names: "impressionist," "bellelettrist," "raconteur," "amateur." Here is one academic talking on the subject: "She will survive, not as a critic, but as a literary essayist recording the adventures of a soul among congenial master-pieces.…The writers who are most downright, and masculine, and central in their approach to life—a Fielding or a Balzac—she for the most part left untouched.…Herown approach was at once more subterranean and aerial, and invincibly, almost defiantly, feminine."2 In other words: Virginia Woolf is not a critic; how could she be? She is a woman. From its beginning, criticism has been a man's world. This is to say not only that males have earned their living as critics, but, more importantly, that the conventionally accepted ideals of critical method are linked with qualities stereotypically allotted to males: analysis, judgment, objectivity. Virginia Woolf has had a poor reputation as a critic not merely because her sex was female, but because her method is "feminine." She writes in a way that is said to be creative, appreciative, and subjective. We will accept this description for the moment, but will later enlarge on it, and even our provisional acceptance we mean to turn to a compliment.

Virginia Woolf's difference from conventional critics is precisely one reason, we would argue, why she should be praised. She is not almost defiantly feminine; she is beyond a doubt defiantly feminine. She is in revolt against the established terms and tones of literary study. Researching for a book on literary history, she had this experience, which she records in her diary:

Yesterday in the Public Library I took down a book of X.'s criticism. This turned me against writing my book. London Library atmosphere effused. Turned me against all literary criticism: these so clever, so airless, so fleshless ingenuities and attempts to prove—that T. S. Eliot for example is a worse critic than X. Is all literary criticism that kind of exhausted air?—book dust, London Library, air. Or is it only that X, is a second hand, frozen fingered, university specialist, don trying to be creative, don all stuffed with books, writer?… I dipped for five minutes and put the book back depressed. The man asked, "What do you want, Mrs. Woolf?" I said a history of English literature. But was so sickened I couldn't look. There were so many.3

Or again, she writes:

[Do not] let us shy away from the kings because we are commoners. That is a fatal crime in the eyes of Aeschylus, Shakespeare, Virgil, and Dante, who, if they could speak—and after all they can—would say, "Don't leave me to the wigged and gowned. Read me, read me for yourselves." They do not mind if we get our accents wrong, or have to read with a crib in front of us. Of course—are we not commoners, outsiders?—we shall trample many flowers and bruise much ancient grass.… [But] let us trespass at once. Literature is no one's private ground; literature is common ground.4

No other twentieth century critic has approached literature with less explicit "system" and more sympathy than Virginia Woolf. Trespassers, she knew, had to stay aloof from all critical schools, to differ from them all. In her diary, she frequently expressed a wish to break new ground.

I feel … at the back of my brain that I can devise a new critical method; something far less still and formal than [what has been done before].… There must be some simpler, subtler, closer means of writing about books, as about people, could I hit upon it.5

Although she was never finally satisfied with herself, she did write criticism that is truly revolutionary. In what follows, we will try to describe the most significant terms of her revolt.

She solves, first of all, the problem of how to address her readers amiably and unpretentiously, and her solution is crucial to her overall success as a critic. For she is not traditionally authoritarian, not an eminence, not a lecturer in her mode of relationship to her audience. Instead of the stance of omniscience, which is a stance that is often uncongenial to women writers (it never did Charlotte Brontë any good, Emily avoided it, and George Eliot assumed it with success only, perhaps, because her dominant emotional tone was one of suffering compassion and hence not altogether at odds with conventional requirements for women)—instead of the stance of omniscience, Woolf invents "the common reader," and employs that persona convincingly. When she says "we," she means we, rhetorically asserting the existence of a community, but, in fact, by that rhetoric and the other devices we will note, working to create a community.

"We" are readers, not critics or scholars. "We" are English men and women who read for pleasure and for inspiration when "we" can get it. "We" are tolerant but not permissive; "we" laugh and cry but "we" are not fickle, "our" sentiments have limits; "we" believe in common virtues; "we" like fantasy in measurable doses; "we" are worldly-wise but not world-weary; "we" are of "our" age but ours could be any age;6 "we" constantly question and argue with writers the minute they assume too much, or pretend wisdom, or get too far from the facts of daily life. "['We' are] guided by an instinct to create for ['ourselves'], out of whatever odds and ends ['we'] can come by, some kind of whole—a portrait of a man, a sketch of an age, a theory of the art of writing."7 But "we" do not like labels. "We" do not care about the difference between the pre-Romantics and the post-Romantics, or between a novelist of manners and a novelist of sentiment. "We" may, in the end, accept assumptions, or morals, or fantasies, but not without good reason. "We" are suspicious of books "for we have our own vision of the world; we have made it from our own experience and prejudices, and it is therefore bound up with our own vanities and loves. It is impossible not to feel injured and insulted if tricks are played and our private harmony is upset."8 When we do make a judgment, we make it forthrightly and simply.

The Edwardians 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.9

Her "common reader" helps Woolf to produce critical essays that are exceptionally readable, clear, and vivid. Thanks to "us," her essays move smoothly and quickly, for the common reader's reactions seem to dictate most of her commentary, even though the truth, of course, is exactly the opposite: she has shaped or elicited the reactions she posits.10 Her continual consciousness of "the common reader" is especially useful to Woolf in essays on abstract aesthetic topics. "We" prevent her from becoming too general, or pedantic, or confusing. "We" ask hard questions like "What is art?" or "How should one read a book?" and demand outright answers. Also, "we" are a source that generates imagery. Woolf, of course, uses a great deal of imagery in her criticism; the fact has been often observed, but by no means (or seldom) connected with the common reader. First of all, we like imagery. In an effort to please us, Woolf uses it as liberally as cooks use seasoning. Second, we need imagery. Many of the ideas Woolf puts forth, particularly in the aesthetic essays, are essentially abstruse, and images are the fastest, most concrete and effective means of explanation—that is, if they are of a certain kind: either simple, or striking, or both.11

An essay titled "The Elizabethan Lumber Room" will do as an extended example here.12 It offers an introduction to Woolf's favorite period, discussing the zeitgeist, the quires of poetry, prose, and drama, and their characteristic evolution. It might be a syllabus for a seminar at Columbia or Harvard. But it is more winning than most seminars. It offers a highly imaginative alternative to conventional literary criticism.

The essay is a review of Hakluyt's famous book, Early Voyages, Travels, and Discoveries of the English Nation. In her very first sentence, Woolf puts herself on our level of acknowledging, "These magnificent volumes are not often, perhaps, read through." We nod. We have not often, or even ever read through Hakluyt; we do belong in the community that Woolf invokes. Then, Woolf involves us further with her metaphor of the lumber room; it is exactly the simple and striking kind of image we like and need:

[Hakluyt] is not so much a book as a great bundle of commodities loosely tied together, an emporium, a lumber room strewn with ancient sacks, obsolete nautical instruments, huge bales of wool, and little bags of rubies and emeralds. One is for ever untying this packet here, sampling that heap over there, wiping the dust off some vast map of the world, and sitting down in semi-darkness to snuff the strange smells of silks and leathers and ambergris, while outside tumble the huge waves of the uncharted Elizabethan sea.

Hakluyt's expeditions, Woolf goes on to tell us, were manned by "apt young men" who loved to explore and trade for treasure. They told the mysterious and wondrous tales that Hakluyt recorded as truth. Here, knowing our liking not only for imagery but also for narrative, Woolf tells us some of these tales.

The Earl of Cumberland's men, hung up by adverse winds off the coast of Cornwall for a fortnight, licked the muddy water off the deck in agony. And sometimes a ragged and wornout man came knocking at the door of an English country house and claimed to be the boy who had left it years ago to sail the seas.…He had with him a black stone, veined with gold, or an ivory tusk, or a silver ingot, and urged on the village youth with talk of gold strewn over the land as stones are strewn in the fields of England.

At one level, Woolf is entertaining us, but at another, she is instructing us, for these tales were, after all, a major source for Elizabethan literature. "All this," she writes, "the new words, the new ideas, the waves, the savages, the adventures, found their way naturally into the plays which were being acted on the banks of the Thames." The extravagant spirit that fabricated them is the same extravagant spirit that buoys us up through so many Elizabethan writings. In the words of the essay:

Thus, with singing and with music, springs into existence the characteristic Elizabethan extravagance; the dolphins and lavoltas of Greene; the hyperbole, more surprising in a writer so terse and muscular, of Ben Jonson. Thus we find the whole of Elizabethan literature strewn with gold and silver; with talk of Guiana's rarities, and references to that America … which was not merely a land on the map but symbolized the unknown territories of the soul.

The next section of the essay, in which Woolf weighs two important Elizabethan genres against each other, effortlessly continues from her opening metaphor. The magic spirit of the lumber room inspired poetry, but was bad for prose. She writes, "Rhyme and metre helped the poets to keep the tumult of their perceptions in order. But the prose writer, without these restrictions, accumulated clauses, petered out interminable catalogues, tripped and stumbled over the convolutions of his own rich draperies." From this point, Woolf moves to the next with another image, "The stage was the nursery where prose learnt to find its feet."

Now, having covered prose, poetry, and drama, and having explained the reason for drama's importance, she begins slowly to trace the evolution out of Elizabethan literature: "The publicity of the stage and the perpetual presence of a second person, were hostile to that growing consciousness of one's self … which, as the years went by, sought expression." As necessarily as a pendulum swing, the pressure of the outside world caused writers to reflect upon themselves, but with the old imagery intact. Woolf quotes Sir Thomas Browne: "'The world that I regard is myself; it is the microcosm of my own frame that I cast mine eye on; for the other I use it but like my globe, and turn it round sometimes for my recreation.'" "'We carry with us the wonders we seek without us; there is all Africa and her prodigies in us.'" She leads us to sympathize with Browne: she involves us with her picture of him in the same way she involved us with her picture of Hakluyt, his covers shut before his conclusion. "In short, as we say when we cannot help laughing at the oddities of people we admire most, he was a character, and the first to make us feel that the most sublime speculations of the human imagination are issued from a particular man, whom we can love." Again, we nod; we identify; we fully consent to her use of "we."

At the very end of her essay, Woolf repeats the lumber room metaphor. Only now, instead of being an image for Hakluyt's book—the outside world that so excited Elizabethans—it is an image for the mind of Sir Thomas Browne—the inside world that so intrigued writers of the seventeenth century. "Now," she writes, "we are in the presence of sublime imagination; now rambling through one of the finest lumber rooms in the world—a chamber stuffed from floor to ceiling with ivory, old iron, broken pots, urns, unicorns' horns, and magic glasses full of emerald lights and blue mystery." The lumber room has served to beguile us in the beginning of the essay, to guide us throughout, and to give us a rich sense of unity at the end. Yet, like the symbols of great poetry, it has never preached to us directly.

Though "the common reader" was Virginia Woolf's most dramatic critical innovation—and probably the most important to her—she made other experiments in criticism to escape tradition. She pushed, for example, a certain kind of biographical criticism to its frontier. "Try to become the author," she advises herself, and thinks further, "Were I another person I would say to myself, Please write criticism; biography; invent a new form for both."13 Woolf's search for a new combination of criticism and biography might be thought of as representing her attachment to that old critical dictum, "The style is the man." In a number of her essays, she personifies the works of a writer; so she presents us not with a series of texts but with some one, a man or a woman.

She makes a person, for instance, out of Goldsmith's essays, and calls the person Goldsmith. "The Citizen [in Goldsmith's volume The Citizen of the World] is still a most vivacious companion as he takes his walk from Charing Cross to Ludgate Hill … Goldsmith keeps just on the edge of the crowd so we can hear what the common people are saying and note their humours. Shrewdly and sarcastically he casts his eye, as he saunters on, upon the odd habits and sights that the English are so used to that they no longer see them."14 The point is that "Goldsmith," in this passage, is actually Goldsmith's book.

Woolf had sense enough to think about the appropriateness of her technique carefully, so that the debate about biographical criticism has been enriched by her thoughts. Considering Henley, a man who, according to her, wrote the most mechanical sort of biographical criticism, she said, "There are times when we would sweep aside all biography and all psychology for the sake of a single song or a single poem expounded and analysed phrase-by-phrase."15 Finally in favor of her biographical tendencies as a critic, however, she said that a writer never stops being a writer, even when he does not write; "the pith and essence of [a person's] character … shows itself to the observant eye in the tone of a voice, the turn of a head, some little phrase or anecdote picked up in passing."16 If the tiniest, vaguest clues can show a person's essence, then Woolf was surely justified in reading from book to author and back again. In her essay "Personalities," she analyzes again her brand of criticism, offering the following justification and quite sensible reservation about it:

The people whom we admire most as writers … have something elusive, enigmatic, impersonal about them.…In ran sacking their drawers we shall find out little about them. All has been distilled into their books. The life is thin, modest, colourless, like blue skimmed milk at the bottom of the jar. It is the imperfect artists who never manage to say the whole thing in their books who wield the power of personality over us.17

In other words, bringing the life of the writer to the work or deducing personality from a work may be more or less appropriate, more or less revelatory, according to the nature of the biography or the oeuvre under scrutiny. Woolf may not have succeeded in inventing a new form in her mixture of biography and criticism: at the least, we remember Johnson's Lives of the Poets, Lamb's Essays of Elia, or Hazlitt's Table Talk, and we may even recall Hours in a Library, written by Sir Leslie Stephen, Woolf's father. She did, however, overtake her predecessors in the devotion and the grace with which she practised it.

Of course, Woolf habitually moved out of criticism coupled with biography into pure biography. Many of her essays review letters, memoirs, autobiographies, biographies. Her interest in these latter stretches further, and is a further instance of her revolt against tradition: she writes repeatedly on works outside the standard canon of English literature. She suggests that the word "literature" might well be redefined, as we find it undergoing redefinition today, to include popular or miscellaneous writing of all periods.18 And she takes women writers quite seriously, going out of the conventional way to notice them and give notice of them. Roughly 20 percent of her published essays are about women writers directly. Roughly the same proportion again are indirectly concerned with the frustrating limits that conventional society places on women's personal and literary lives. An essay on Dorothy Osborne's Letters, for example, stresses that the literary talents of women could only begin, historically, to find expression in what we might call "underground" writing. In "Madame de Sévigné," she looks anew at a famous "token woman"; in "Sara Coleridge," sketches the difficulties of a literary daughter; and in "Poe's Helen," emphasizes Helen far more than Poe.

The features of Woolf's criticism we have been concerned with are all, we would argue, strategies in a single campaign: an effort to take books down from library shelves and put them into the hands of her ideal community, the common readers. And to talk about them outside the walls of lecture rooms. And to talk about them, finally, in such a way that they matter, not in literary history, but in our lives.

Woolf has, as we noted at the beginning, been called "subjective," and we accepted the term with its apparently pejorative overtones. But the acceptance was only temporary, and we want now to return to it so as to redefine it.

In 1923, beginning to revise a number of essays for publication in the collection she titled The Common Reader, Woolf wrote in her diary, "I shall really investigate literature with a view to answering certain questions about ourselves."19 Not "myself," but "ourselves." She is not a subjective critic in the sense that she refers to her own life in her critical essays.20 She does not, for instance, mention that she knew some of the contemporary authors she wrote about; and, as an early biographer remarked, "No one would guess from reading 'The Enchanted Organ' that the woman whose selected letters she was reviewing had been not only Miss Thackeray, Mrs. Richmond Ritchie but also Aunt Annie [the sister of Sir Leslie Stephen's first wife]."21 It would be impossible to learn from Woolf's criticism about her daily routine or her friends or her marriage or her mental illness or her work for the Women's Cooperative Guild. Yet her work may be called subjective in this broader sense, that she sees literature as a series of personal transactions, a series of encounters between people writing and people reading, and she urges us to see both literature and popular culture that way ourselves.

Learning, she knows, is by no means necessarily a humanizing experience. In the biography of Dr. Bentley, head of Trinity College, Cambridge, she tells us, Bentley is described as extraordinarily learned, knowing Homer by heart, reading Sophocles and Pindar the way we read newspapers and magazines, spending his life largely in the company of the greatest of the Greeks. And yet, in his life, she says, "we shall [also] find much that is odd and little that is reassuring.…Them an who should have been steeped in beauty (if what they say of the Classics is true) as a honey-pot is ingrained with sweetness was, on the contrary, the most quarrelsome of mankind."22 He was aggressive; he was coercive; he bullied and threatened his academic staff at Trinity and beyond a doubt did the same to students. Did the Society of Trinity College dare to think he spent too much of the college funds on the staircase of his own lodging? Did they perceive that he stole food, drink and fuel from the college stores? Then let them look at their jobs and their other preferments. And so on and on and on.

Nonetheless, Woolf's essays imply, over and over again, that learning can be a humanizing experience. And here we turn back to our beginning. Far from merely recording the adventures of a soul among masterpieces, Woolf's criticism always exerts a standard of judgment, seldom explicit but nonetheless there, informing her essays, evident in the selection of her details as well as the choices of her persona and her rhetoric. In A Room of One's Own, she speaks of Shakespeare's mind as a mind without "obstacle," a mind "unimpeded" and "incandescent," free to produce works of art. Such works "seem to stand there complete by themselves," which is to say not only that form and content beautifully accord, but that the works do not break or unseam to show, say, an anger that is only personal or a grievance merely local. And John Paston, reading in Norfolk with the sea to his left and the fen to his right, saw in Chaucer fields and skies and people he recognized, but seldom rendered more brightly, more clearly, "rounded and complete." Chaucer's mind, too, was "free to apply its force fully to its object."23 On the other hand, reading Charlotte Brontë's novels,24 Woolf finds material not germane to fictional design, not consistent with the predominant point of view and style. There are interpolations of self-defense and interjections of indignation—indignation about, for example, the lot of the English governess. The explanation for these anomalies, Woolf suggests, can be found by moving back beyond the work of art to the mind that made it, and there is the life "cramped and thwarted," pressed into uncongenial services and attitudes that frustrated the impulse of genius to express itself, "whole and entire." While Woolf's criticism of Brontë is in some ways adverse, it is, nonetheless, basically sympathetic. What was, evokes hauntingly the image of what might have been. And more, what should have been. The critical ideal applied to Shakespeare, Chaucer and Brontë is the same ideal of the free self that Woolf expresses in her novels, a self breaking bonds and vaulting bounds, a self arriving at the furthest intensity of thought and emotion.

In this last sense, then, Woolf's criticism may without injury be called subjective or personal. Its function is to humanize our lives, to urge a liberation and wholeness of self. It is a brilliant and graceful protest against any narrower, more abstract, or merely professional critical purpose. To put the case concretely, as she habitually did, it is a brilliant and graceful protest against one of the pictures she drew in A Room of One's Own : Professor von X., engaged in writing a "monumental work." Professor von X. is heavy in build, his eyes are very small, his complexion is red with anger, and he "jabs" with his pen at his paper "as if he were killing some noxious insect."25

Notes

  1. Not many readers of Woolf know how much criticism she published: somewhere near 400 articles. Her first publications were reviews, and at certain times in her life she financed her novels with her criticism. Of her critical work, produced for leading journals and sometimes anonymous, only about one-third has been published in collections.
  2. Louis Kronenberger, The Republic of Letters (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1955), p. 249.
  3. A Writer's Diary, ed. Leonard Woolf (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1953), p. 337.
  4. "The Leaning Tower," The Moment and Other Essays, ed. Leonard Woolf (1st ed., 1947), reprint (London: Hogarth Press, 1964), p. 125.
  5. A Writer's Diary, p. 172.
  6. Woolf knew that the way people read depends on the age they belong to, but she could evoke the spirit of each age so strongly as to make her readers peripatetic through time. See "The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia" and "The 'Sentimental Journey'" on Sidney's Arcadia and Sterne's Sentimental Journey in The Common Reader, 2d ser. (London: Hogarth Press, 1932).
  7. "The Common Reader," The Common Reader, 1st ser. (Harvest ed.; New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956), p. 1.
  8. "Robinson Crusoe," Common Reader, 2d ser., p. 53.
  9. "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," The Captain's Death Bed, ed. Leonard Woolf (London: Hogarth Press, 1950), pp. 103-4.
  10. In considering whether or not Woolf is successful at making us identify with "we," the common reader, one should constantly remember how cautious Woolf herself was about claiming success. To her, the common reader was always an experiment, never a foregone conclusion. In entries for 1929, 1930, 1931, 1933, 1937, 1940, her diary contains constant self-doubts as she challenges herself to do better. See Writ-er's Diary, pp. 140, 156, 172, 203-4, 275, 324.
  11. The process by which Woolf shaped her essays around key images can be pieced together through a reading of her ms. drafts, many of which can be found in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library. It is fascinating. She would start out with a subject, begin writing down information and thoughts on it more or less at random, trying several different ways into it. As she rambled along, invariably an image would turn up. When it did, and if it was a good one, she would seize on it. From that moment, she would know she had the key to the essay it seems, for the essay's final form would usually be determined by the image's being placed at its opening, climax, end, or any combination of those.
  12. Common Reader, 1st ser., pp. 40-48.
  13. A Writer's Diary, p. 272.
  14. "Oliver Goldsmith," Captain's Death Bed, p. 12.
  15. "Henley's Criticism," Times Literary Supplement, February 24, 1921, p. 123.
  16. "Sterne," Granite and Rainbow, ed. Leonard Woolf (London: Hogarth Press, 1960), p. 167; "The New Biography," ibid., p. 153.
  17. The Moment and Other Essays, p. 138.
  18. In an article called "Towards a Feminist History," Female Studies V: Proceedings of the Conference Women and Education: A Feminist Perspective, ed. Rae Lee Siporin (Pittsburgh: KNOW, 1972), pp. 49-52, Linda Gordon describes a radical new perspective on history which she illustrates at one point by writing, "Imagine, if you can, the story of the court of Louis XIV as told by one of his scullery maids, based on kitchen rumors and occasional glimpses of the lower edges of the court hierarchy." Virginia Woolf fostered just this kind of radical perspective on literature by emphasizing the role of affect in writing. She operated on the assumption that literature is not just the "great works," but is anything people write to fulfill themselves, whatever that means, in whatever way.
  19. A Writer's Diary, p. 59.
  20. Woolf's private point of view is as carefully hidden in her criticism as it is in her novels. In that sense, her achievement in one form is much the same as that in the other.
  21. Aileen Pippett, The Moth and the Star (Boston: Little, Brown, 1953), p. 188.
  22. "Outlines (II: Dr. Bentley)," Common Reader, 1st ser., p. 195.
  23. "The Pastons and Chaucer," Common Reader, 1st ser., p. 14.
  24. A Room of One's Own (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929), pp. 71-72.
  25. Ibid., p. 52.

TORIL MOI (ESSAY DATE 1985)

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

[This text has been suppressed due to author restrictions]

HAROLD BLOOM (ESSAY DATE FALL 1994)

SOURCE: Bloom, Harold. "Feminism as the Love of Reading." Raritan 14, no. 2 (fall 1994): 29-42.

In the following essay, Bloom centers on Woolf's passion for reading as the defining feature of her literary criticism, demonstrating the influence of Walter Pater's aestheticism upon her feminist politics.

Sainte-Beuve, to me the most interesting of French critics, taught us to ask as a crucial question of any writer in whom we read deeply: What would the author think of us? Virginia Woolf wrote five remarkable novels—Mrs. Dalloway (1925), To the Lighthouse (1927), Orlando (1928), The Waves (1931), and Between the Acts (1941)—which are very likely to become canonical. These days she is most widely known and read as the supposed founder of "feminist literary criticism," particularly in her polemical A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). Since I am not yet competent to judge feminist criticism, I will center here upon only one element in Woolf's feminist writing, her extraordinary love for and defense of reading.

Woolf's own literary criticism seems to me very mixed, especially in her judgment of contemporaries. To regard Joyce's Ulysses as a "disaster," or Lawrence's novels as lacking "the final power which makes things entire in themselves," is not what we expect from a critic as erudite and perceptive as Woolf. And yet one could argue that she was the most complete person of letters in England in our century. Her essays and novels expand the central traditions of English literature in ways that freshen beyond any possible reach of her polemics. The preface to Orlando begins by expressing a debt to Defoe, Sir Thomas Browne, Sterne, Sir Walter Scott, Lord Macaulay, Emily Brontë, DeQuincey, and Walter Pater, "to name the first that come to mind." Pater, the authentic precursor, or "absent father," as Perry Meisel calls him, might have headed the list, since Orlando is certainly the most Paterian narrative of our era. Like Oscar Wilde's and the young James Joyce's, Woolf's way of confronting and representing experience is altogether Paterian. But other influences are there as well, with Sterne perhaps the most crucial after Pater. Only Pater seems to have provoked Woolf to some anxiety; she very rarely mentions him and ascribes the model for her "moments of being" not to Pater's "privileged moments" or secularized epiphanies but rather oddly to Thomas Hardy, or to Joseph Conrad at his most Paterian. Perry Meisel has traced the intricate ways in which Pater's crucial metaphors inform both Woolf's fiction and her essays. It is an amiable irony that many of her professed followers tend to repudiate esthetic criteria for judgment, whereas Woolf herself founded her feminist politics upon her Paterian estheticism.

There may be other major writers of our century who loved reading as much as Woolf did, but no one since Hazlitt and Emerson has expressed that passion so memorably and usefully as she did. A room of one's own was required precisely for reading and writing in. I still treasure the old Penguin edition of A Room of One's Own that I purchased for ninepence in 1947, and I go on musing about the passage I marked there, which brings together Jane Austen and Shakespeare as a kind of wished-for, composite precursor:

I wondered, would Pride and Prejudice have been a better novel if Jane Austen had not thought it necessary to hide her manuscript from visitors? I read a page or two to see; but I could not find any signs that her circumstances had harmed her work in the slightest. That, perhaps, was the chief miracle about it. Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching. That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought, looking at Antony and Cleopatra; and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare. If Jane Austen suffered in any way from her circumstances it was in the narrowness of life that was imposed upon her. It was impossible for a woman to go about alone. She never travelled; she never drove through London in an omnibus or had luncheon in a shop by herself. But perhaps it was the nature of Jane Austen not to want what she had not. Her gift and her circumstances matched each other completely. But I doubt whether that was true of Charlotte Brontë, I said …

Was Woolf, in this respect, more like Austen or more like Charlotte Brontë? If we read Three Guineas with its prophetic fury against the patriarchy, we are not likely to decide that Woolf's mind had consumed all impediments; yet when we read The Waves or Between the Acts we may conclude that her gift and her circumstances matched each other completely. Are there two Woolfs, one the precursor of our current critical maenads, the other a more distinguished novelist than any woman at work since? I think not, although there are deep fissures in A Room of One's Own. Like Pater and like Nietzsche, Woolf is best described as an apocalyptic esthete, for whom human existence and the world are finally justified only as esthetic phenomena. As much as any writer ever, be it Emerson or Nietzsche or Pater, Virginia Woolf declines to attribute her sense of self to historical conditioning, even if that history is the endless exploitation of women by men. Her selves, to her, are as much her own creation as are Orlando and Mrs. Dalloway, and any close student of her criticism learns that she does not regard novels or poems or Shakespearean dramas as bourgeois mystifications or as "cultural capital." No more a religious believer than Pater or Freud, Woolf follows her estheticism to its outer limits, to the negativity of a pragmatic nihilism and of suicide. But she cared more for the romance of the journey than for its end, and she located what was best in life as her reading, her writing, and her conversations with friends, preoccupations not those of a zealot.

Will we ever again have novelists as original and superb as Austen, George Eliot, and Woolf, or a poet as extraordinary and intelligent as Dickinson? Half a century after Woolf's death, she has no rivals among women novelists or critics, though they enjoy the liberation she prophesied. As Woolf noted, if ever there has been Shakespeare's sister, it was Austen, who wrote two centuries ago. There are no social conditions or contexts that necessarily encourage the production of great literature, though we will be a long time learning this uncomfortable truth. We are not being flooded with instant masterpieces these days, as the passage of even a few years will show. No living American woman novelist, of whatever race or ideology, compares in esthetic eminence to Edith Wharton or to Willa Cather; nor have we a current poet within range of Marianne Moore or Elizabeth Bishop. The arts are simply not progressive, as Hazlitt noted in a wonderful fragment of 1814, where he remarks that "the principle of universal suffrage … is by no means applicable to matters of taste"; Woolf is Hazlitt's sister in sensibility, and her immense literary culture shares little with the current crusade mounted in her name.

It is difficult, at this time, to maintain any kind of balance or sense of proportion in writing about Woolf. Joyce's Ulysses and Lawrence's Women in Love would seem to be achievements well beyond even To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts, and yet many current partisans of Woolf would contest such a judgment. Woolf is a lyrical novelist: The Waves is more prose poem than novel, and Orlando is best where it largely forsakes narrative. Herself neither a Marxist nor a feminist, according to the informed testimony of her nephew and biographer, Quentin Bell, Woolf is nevertheless an Epicurean materialist, like her precursor Walter Pater. Reality for her flickers and wavers with every fresh perception and sensation, and ideas are shades that border her privileged moments.

Her feminism (to call it that) is potent and permanent precisely because it is less an idea or composite of ideas and more a formidable array of perceptions and sensations. Arguing with them is to sustain defeat: what she perceives and what she experiences by her sensibility is more finely organized than any response I can summon. Overwhelmed by her eloquence and her mastery of metaphor, I am unable—while I read it—to dispute Three Guineas, even where it makes me wince. Perhaps only Freud, in our century, rivals Woolf as a stylist of tendentious prose. A Room of One's Own has a design on its reader, and so does Civilization and Its Discontents, but no awareness of the design will save the reader from being convinced while he or she undergoes the polemical magnificence of Freud and of Woolf. They are two very different models of persuasive splendor: Freud anticipates your objections and at least appears to answer them, while Woolf strongly insinuates that your disagreement with her urgency is founded upon imperceptiveness.

I am puzzled each time I reread A Room of One's Own, or even Three Guineas, as to how anyone could take these tracts as instances of "political theory," the genre invoked by literary feminists for whom Woolf's polemics have indeed assumed scriptural status. Perhaps Woolf would have been gratified, but it seems unlikely. Only by a persuasive redefinition of politics, one that reduced it to "academic politics," could these works be so classified; and Woolf was not an academic, nor would she be one now. Woolf is no more a radical political theorist than Kafka is a heretical theologian. They are writers and have no other covenant. The pleasures they give are difficult pleasures, which cannot be reduced to categorical judgments. I am moved, even awed, by Kafka's aphoristic circlings of "the indestructible," yet it is the resistance of "the indestructible" to interpretation that becomes what needs to be interpreted. What most requires interpretation in A Room of One's Own are its "irreconcilable habits of thought," as John Burt put it back in 1982.

Burt showed that the book presents both a "feminist" central argument—the patriarchy exploits women economically and socially in order to bolster its inadequate self-esteem—and a Romantic underargument. The underargument gives us women not as looking glasses for male narcissism but (Woolf says) as "some renewal of creative power which it is in the gift only of the opposite sex to bestow." This gift has been lost, Woolf adds, but not because of the depredations of the patriarchy. The First World War is the villain, but what then has happened to the book's overt argument? Was the Victorian Period the bad old days or the good old days?

Burt's summary seems to me eminently just:

The two arguments of A Room of One's Own are not reconcilable, and any attempt to reconcile them can be no more than an exercise in special pleading. A Room of One's Own, however, is not an argument but, as Woolf proclaims in its opening pages, a portrayal of how a mind attempts to come to terms with its world.

Woolf comes to terms only as Pater and Nietzsche did: the world is reconceived esthetically. If A Room of One's Own is characteristic of Woolf, and it is, then it is almost as much a prose poem as The Waves, and as much a Utopian fantasy as Orlando. To read it as "cultural criticism" or "political theory" is possible only for those who have dismissed esthetic concerns altogether, or who have reserved reading for pleasure (difficult pleasure) for another time and place, where the wars between women and men, and between competing social classes, races, and religions, have ceased. Woolf herself made no such renunciation; as a novelist and literary critic she nurtured her sensibility, which included a strong propensity for comedy. Even the tracts are deliberately very funny, and thereby still more effective as polemics. To be solemn about Woolf, to analyze her as a political theorist and cultural critic, is to be not at all Woolfian.

Clearly this is an odd time in literary studies: D. H. Lawrence actually was a rather weird political theorist in The Crown essays, in his Mexican novel The Plumed Serpent, and his Australian Kangaroo, another Fascist fiction. No one would wish to substitute the political Lawrence, or the somewhat more interesting cultural moralist Lawrence, for the novelist of The Rainbow and Women in Love. Yet Woolf is now more often discussed as the author of A Room of One's Own than as the novelist who wrote Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse. Orlando 's current fame has nearly everything to do with the hero-heroine's sexual metamorphosis and owes very little to what most matters in the book: comedy, characterization, and an intense love of the major eras of English literature. I cannot think of another strong novelist who centers everything upon her extraordinary love of reading as Woolf does.

Her religion (no lesser word would be apt) was Paterian estheticism: the worship of art. As a belated acolyte of that waning faith, I am necessarily devoted to Woolf's fiction and criticism, and I therefore want to take up arms against her feminist followers, because I think they have mistaken their prophet. She would have had them battle for their rights, certainly, but hardly by devaluating the esthetic in their unholy alliance with academic pseudo-Marxists, French mock philosophers, and multicultural opponents of all intellectual standards whatsoever. By a room of one's own, she did not mean an academic department of one's own, but rather a context in which they could emulate her by writing fiction worthy of Sterne and Austen, and criticism commensurate with that of Hazlitt and Pater. Woolf, the lover of the prose of Sir Thomas Browne, would have suffered acutely confronting the manifestos of those who assert that they write and teach in her name. Herself the last of the high esthetes, she has been swallowed up by remorseless Puritans, for whom the beautiful in literature is only another version of the cosmetics industry.

Of Shelley, whose spirit haunts her works, particularly in The Waves, Woolf observed that "his fight, valiant though it is, seems to be with monsters who are a little out of date and therefore slightly ridiculous." That seems true of Woolf's fight also: where are those Edwardian and Georgian patriarchs against whom she battled? Approaching millennium, we have been abandoned by the monsters of the patriarchy, though feminist critics labor at conjuring them up. Yet Shelley's greatness, as Woolf rightly saw, prevailed as "a state of being." The lyrical novelist, like the lyrical poet, abides now as the re-imaginer of certain extraordinary moments of being: "a space of pure calm, of intense and windless serenity."

Woolf's quest to reach that space was more Paterian than Shelleyan, if only because the erotic element in it was so much reduced. The image of heterosexual union never abandoned Shelley, though it turned demonic in his death poem, the ironically entitled Triumph of Life. Woolf is Paterian or belated Romantic, with the erotic drive largely translated into a sublimating estheticism. Her feminism once again cannot be distinguished from her estheticism; perhaps we should learn to speak of her "contemplative feminism," really a metaphorical stance. The freedom she seeks is both visionary and pragmatic and depends upon an idealized Bloomsbury, hardly translatable into contemporary American terms.

The Penguin American edition in which I first read Orlando, in the autumn of 1946, begins its back cover by saying, "No writer was ever born into a more felicitous environment." Woolf, like her feminist followers, would not have agreed with that judgment, but it possesses considerable truth nevertheless. It did not retard her development to have John Ruskin, Thomas Hardy, George Meredith, and Robert Louis Stevenson trooping through her father's house, or to count the Darwins and Stracheys among her relatives. And though her polemics urge otherwise, the intricately organized Virginia Stephen would have broken down even more often and thoroughly at Cambridge or Oxford, nor would she have received there the literary education provided for her by her father's library and by tutors as capable as Walter Pater's sister.

Her father, Leslie Stephen, was not the patriarchal ogre portrayed by her resentment, though one would not know this by reading many of our current feminist scholars. I am aware that they follow Woolf herself, for whom her father was a selfish and lonely egotist who could not surmount his own consciousness of failure as a philosopher. Her Leslie Stephen is the Mr. Ramsay of To the Lighthouse, a last Victorian who is more of a grandfather than a father to his children. But Leslie Stephen's particular difference from his daughter centers upon her estheticism and his empiricism and moralism, indeed his violent repudiation of the esthetic stance, including a virulent hatred for its great champion, Pater.

In reaction to her father, Woolf's estheticism and feminism (again, to call it that) were so fused that they could never again be pulled apart. Probably an ironic perspective is best these days in contemplating how Woolf's disciples have converted her purely literary culture into a political Kulturkampf. This transformation cannot work, because Woolf's most authentic prophecy was unwilled by her. No other twentieth-century person of letters shows us so clearly that our culture is doomed to remain a literary one in the absence of any ideology that has not been discredited. Religion, science, philosophy, politics, social movements: are these live birds in our hands or dead, stuffed birds on the shelf? When our conceptual modes abandon us, we return to literature, where cognition, perception, and sensation cannot be wholly disentangled. The flight from the esthetic is another symptom of our society's unconscious but purposeful forgetting of its dilemma, its slide toward another Theological Age. Whatever Woolf may have repressed at one time or another, it was never her esthetic sensibility.

That books are necessarily about other books and can represent experience only by first treating it as yet another book, is a limited but real truth. Certain works lift the limitation entirely: Don Quixote is one, and Woolf's Orlando another. The Don and Orlando are great readers, and only as such are surrogates for those obsessive readers, Cervantes and Woolf. In life history, Orlando is modeled upon Vita Sackville-West, with whom Woolf was, for a time, in love. But Sackville-West was a great gardener, a bad writer, and not exactly a reader of genius, as Woolf was. As aristocrat, as lover, even as writer, Orlando is Vita and not Virginia. It is as a critical consciousness, encountering English literature from Shakespeare to Thomas Hardy, that Orlando is the uncommon common reader, the author of his/her book.

All novels since Don Quixote rewrite Cervantes' universal masterwork, even when they are quite unaware of it. I cannot recall Woolf mentioning Cervantes anywhere, but that scarcely matters: Orlando is Quixotic, and so was Woolf. The comparison to Don Quixote is hardly fair to Orlando ; a novel far more ambitious than, and as well-executed as, Woolf's playful love letter to Sackville-West would also be destroyed by the comparison. The Don lends himself endlessly to meditation, like Falstaff; Orlando certainly does not. But it helps to set Woolf against Cervantes in order to see that both books belong to Huizinga's order of play. The ironies of Orlando are Quixotic: they ensue from the critique that organized playfulness makes of both societal and natural reality. "Organized playfulness" in Woolf and Cervantes, in Orlando and the Don, is another name for the art of reading well, or in Woolf's case for "feminism," if you must have it so. Orlando is a man, or rather a youth, who suddenly becomes a woman. He is also an Elizabethan aristocrat who, with no more fuss made about it than about his sexual change, is pragmatically immortal. Orlando is sixteen when we meet him, thirty-six when we leave her, but those twenty years of literary biography span more than three centuries of literary history. The order of play, while it prevails, triumphs over time, and in Woolf's Orlando it persists without travail, which may be one reason why the book's one flaw is its too-happy conclusion.

Love, in Orlando, is always the love of reading, even when it is disguised as the love for a woman or for a man. The boy Orlando is the girl Virginia when he is represented in his primary role, as a reader:

The taste for books was an early one. As a child he was sometimes found at midnight by a page still reading. They took his taper away and he bred glow-worms to serve his purpose. They took the glow-worms away, and he almost burnt the house down with a tinder. To put it in a nutshell, leaving the novelist to smooth out the crumpled silk and all its implications, he was a nobleman afflicted with a love of literature.

Orlando, like Woolf (and quite unlike Vita Sackville-West), is one of those people who substitute a phantom for an erotic reality. His/her two grand passions, for the improbable Russian princess, Sasha, and for the even more absurd sea captain, Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine, can best be regarded as solipsistic projections: there is really only one character in Orlando. Virginia Woolf's love of reading was both her authentic erotic drive and her secular theology. Nothing in Orlando, beautiful as the book is, equals the concluding paragraph of "How Should One Read a Book," the final essay in The Second Common Reader :

Yet who reads to bring about an end however desirable? Are there not some pursuits that we practise because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt, at least, that when the Day of Judgment dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards—their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon imperishable marble—the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, "Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading."

Those first three sentences have been my credo ever since I read them in my childhood, and I urge them now upon myself, and all who still can rally to them. They do not preclude reading to obtain power, over oneself or over others, but only through a pleasure that is final, a difficult and authentic pleasure. Woolf's innocence, like Blake's, is an organized innocence, and her sense of reading is not the innocent myth of reading but the disinterestedness that Shakespeare teaches his deeper readers, Woolf included. Heaven, in Woolf's parables, bestows no reward to equal the blessedness of the common reader, or what Dr. Johnson called the common sense of readers. There is at last no other test for the canonical than the Shakespearean supreme pleasure of disinterestedness, the stance of Hamlet in act 5 and of Shakespeare himself in the most exalted moments of his sonnets.

Woolf has finer works than Orlando, but none more central to her than this erotic hymn to the pleasure of disinterested reading. The fable of dual sexuality is an intrinsic strand in that pleasure, whether in Woolf or in Shakespeare, or in Woolf's critical father, Walter Pater. Sexual anxiety blocks the deep pleasure of reading, and for Woolf, even in her love for Sackville-West, sexual anxiety was never far away. One senses that for Woolf, as for Walt Whitman, the homoerotic, though the natural mode, was largely impeded by solipsistic intensity. Woolf might have said with Whitman, "To touch my person to someone else's is about as much as I can stand." We don't believe in Orlando's raptures, whether with Sasha or with the sea captain, but we are persuaded by his/her passion for Shakespeare, Alexander Pope, and the possibility of a new literary work. Orlando may indeed be the longest love letter ever penned, but it is written by Woolf to herself. Implicitly, the book celebrates Woolf's preternatural strength as a reader and a writer. A healthy self-esteem, well earned by Woolf, finds its accurate release in this most exuberant of her novels.

Is Orlando a snob? In current parlance, that would be a "cultural elitist," but Woolf herself has a candid essay, "Am I a Snob?" that she read to the Memoir Club, a Bloomsbury gathering, in 1920. Its self-mockery clears away the charge, while containing a fine phrase characterizing the Stephens: "an intellectual family, very nobly born in a bookish sense." Orlando's family is certainly not intellectual, but there can be few descriptions of Orlando so clarifying as "very nobly born in a bookish sense." The bookish sense is the book; no one need look for an underplot in Orlando ; there is no mother-daughter relationship hidden in this spoof of a story. Nor does Orlando love reading differently after he becomes a woman. It is the female Orlando whose estheticism becomes wonderfully aggressive and post-Christian:

The poet's then is the highest office of all, she continued. His words reached where others fall short. A silly song of Shakespeare's has done more for the poor and the wicked than all the preachers and philanthropists in the world.

Disputable as that last sentence must be, Woolf stands behind it, in passion as well as humorously. What if we rewrite it slightly so as to fit our present moment: A silly song of Shakespeare's has done more for the poor and the wicked than all the Marxists and feminists in the world.

Orlando is not a polemic but a celebration that cultural decline has made into an elegy. It is a defense of poetry, "half laughing, half serious," as Woolf remarked in her diary. The joke that goes on too long is its own genre, which has never had a master to rival Cervantes—not even Sterne, who is an authentic presence in Woolf's novels. Don Quixote is far vaster than Orlando, yet even the Don cannot run away from Cervantes, as Falstaff perhaps got away from Shakespeare, and as Orlando, except for the book's weak conclusion, pulls away from Woolf. Neither Vita nor Virginia, Orlando becomes the personification of the esthetic stance, of what it means for the reader to be in love with literature. Soon such a passion may seem quaint or archaic, and Orlando will survive as its monument, a survival Woolf intended: "Indeed it is a difficult business—this time-keeping; nothing more quickly disorders it than contact with any of the arts; and it may have been her love of poetry that was to blame for making Orlando lose her shopping list."

Timekeeping, as in Sterne, is antithetical to the imagination, and we are not expected to ask, at the book's conclusion: Can Orlando ever die? In this mockery of a book, this holiday from reality, everything is shamanistic, and the central consciousness exemplifies a poetry without death. But what can that be? The novel astutely defines poetry as a voice answering a voice, but Woolf avoids emphasizing that the second voice is the voice of the dead. Determined for once to indulge herself as a writer, Woolf removes every possibility of anxiety from her story. Yet she does not know how there can be poetry without anxiety, nor do we. Shakespeare is a presence throughout Orlando, and we wonder how he can be there without introducing something problematic into the novel, something that must be resisted as an authority, since every kind of authority except the literary variety is put into question or mocked in the course of the book. Woolf's anxiety about Shakespeare's poetic authority is subtly handled in Between the Acts but evaded in Orlando. Yet the evasiveness belongs to what I have called the novel's shamanism; it works, as nearly everything does in this testament to the religion of poetry, to the exaltation of sensation and perception over everything else.

The idiosyncratic in Woolf, the enduring strangeness of her best fiction, is yet another instance of this surprisingly most canonical of all literary qualities. Orlando is unlike Woolf in supposedly transcending the quest for literary glory, but a holiday is a holiday, and Woolf was unrelenting in her quest to join herself to Sterne and to Hazlitt, to Austen and to the hidden paradigm, Pater. Her estheticism is her center, figured most richly in A Room of One's Own as a Shakespearean intimation that the art itself is nature: "Nature, in her most irrational mood, has traced in invisible ink on the walls of the mind a premonition which these great artists confirm; a sketch which only needs to be held to the fire of genius to become visible."

Personality, for Woolf as for Pater, is the highest fusion of art and nature and far exceeds society as the governing determination of the writer's life and work. At the conclusion of To the Lighthouse, the painter Lily Briscoe, Woolf's surrogate, looks at her canvas, finds it blurred, and "With a sudden intensity, as if she saw it clear for a second, she drew a line there, in the centre. It was done, it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision."

Perhaps a time yet will come when we will all find our current political stances archaic and superseded, and when Woolf's vision will be apprehended as what it most centrally was: the ecstasy of the privileged moment. How odd it would seem now if we spoke of "the politics of Walter Pater." It will seem odd then to speak of the politics, rather than the literary agon, of Virginia Woolf.

About this article

Woolf, Virginia: General Commentary

Updated About encyclopedia.com content Print Article Share Article