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About this book

This collection of original essays on Virginia Woolf by leading scholars in the field opens up new debates on the work of one of the foremost modernists of the twentieth century.

The collection also looks at some of Woolf's own essays, discussing her theory of fiction and devotion to 'stream of consciousness' writing. Its thirteen contributors place this discussion of Woolf's artistic theory and practice within the context of her association with the Bloomsbury Group and her interest in spirituality, feminism, homosexuality, pacifism and psychoanalysis.

Table of Contents

1. Introduction

Virginia Woolf ’s Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927) are two of the twentieth century’s most highly regarded novels. However, they were not universally acclaimed by contemporary reviewers, and to this day are regarded by many people as dauntingly difficult. One of the reasons for this is that they depart radically from the conventions of Victorian and Edwardian fiction: to understand why they are unconventional we must turn to two essays that Woolf wrote at about the same time, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’ (1924) and ‘Modern Fiction’ (1925). What the essays reveal is that Woolf considered the inner world of the mind to be of greater interest than the outer world—the world at large—and for that reason believed that novels should reveal more of their characters’ inner than of their outer experience. In practice this meant that she highlighted her characters’ thoughts and feelings in her novels, presenting them in what William James refers to as a ‘stream of consciousness’.
James Acheson

2. Mind-wandering and Mindfulness: A Cognitive Approach to Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse

Responding, in 1931, to an article on fiction by Bloomsberrian Desmond MacCarthy, Virginia Woolf wrote, ‘Oh I was annoyed with Desmond’s usual sneer at Mrs. Dalloway—woolgathering’ (D IV, 42).1 In To the Lighthouse, Woolf herself used the offensive word with similarly deprecating connotations, but here Mrs. Ramsay employs it defensively to deflect her husband’s intrusive criticism of her thoughts: ‘He did not like to see her look so sad, he said. Only wool-gathering, she protested, flushing a little’ (TL, 57). In Orlando, the word crops up humorously, to describe the indescribable process of writing: ‘this mere wool-gathering; this thinking; this sitting in a chair day in, day out, with a cigarette and a sheet of paper and a pen and an ink pot’.2 And in her diaries, Woolf self-identifies as a wool gatherer, describing her mind as ‘woolgathering away about Women & Fiction’ (the early title for A Room of One’s Own), ‘racing up & down the whole field of [her] lecture’ (D III, 175).
Melba Cuddy-Keane

3. Spirituality in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse

At the age of fifteen or sixteen, as she recalled in her diary, Virginia Woolf wrote a long essay on the Christian religion ‘proving that man has need of a God; but the God was described in process of change’ (D III, 271; entry for 8 December 1929). The topic of spirituality in Woolf’s fiction may seem counterintuitive, given that Woolf was surrounded by agnostics and sceptics all her life and frequently expressed marked hostility to institutional religion, particularly as embodied in a patriarchal Church of England. Her letters and diaries reveal, however, that despite her agnostic upbringing, Woolf continued to read the Bible and wrestle with Christianity throughout her life. She was unafraid to use language that had connotations of the sacred, explaining once to Ethel Smyth: ‘irreligious as I am (to your eyes) I have a devout belief in the human soul’ (L IV, 208).
Heather Ingman

4. Victorian Roots: The Sense of the Past in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse

In Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘How It Strikes a Contemporary’—published in 1923, the year in which Mrs. Dalloway is set—she wrote: We are sharply cut off from our predecessors. A shift in the scale—the sudden slip of masses held in position for ages—has shaken the fabric from top to bottom, alienated us from the past and made us perhaps too vividly conscious of the present. Every day we find ourselves doing, saying, or thinking things that would have been impossible to our fathers … No age can have been more rich than ours in writers determined to give expression to the differences which separate them from the past and not to the resemblances which connect them with it. (E III, 357) This sense of a great rupture is remarked upon in Mrs. Dalloway (1925) by Peter Walsh, the expatriate Indian administrator, recently returned to England and observing London on a gorgeous June day. Rather than locate the source of the split between past and present in the First World War, Peter places it a little later.
Kate Flint

5. Modernism and Bloomsbury Aesthetics

In 1904, following the death of their father, Sir Leslie Stephen, Virginia and her three siblings, Vanessa, Thoby and Adrian, chose to rent a house in the then-unfashionable Bloomsbury district of London. Once established there, Thoby sought to continue the stimulating discussions he had had at Cambridge University with members of the Apostles, a student society dating back to 1820 and boasting an impressive list of current and former members.1 His Apostle friends included Leonard Woolf (later to be Virginia’s husband as well as an author, critic and co-founder of the precursor to the United Nations, the League of Nations), John Maynard Keynes (who would become one of the most important economists of the twentieth century), Lytton Strachey (later to become an influential writer), Roger Fry (soon to become a ground-breaking art critic and a well-received painter) and E.M. Forster (soon to be recognised as a major novelist).
Gabrielle McIntire

6. ‘Women Can’t Write, Women Can’t Paint’: Art and the Artist in To the Lighthouse

Artists appear in several of Woolf’s novels, but nowhere else in her writings are the painter’s formal choices, and the special challenges faced by women artists, more fully and sensitively viewed than in To the Lighthouse. The painter Lily Briscoe is an important contributor to the opening and closing parts of this novel. Having joined the Ramsay family on summer holiday on the Isle of Skye, she serves as an interpreter of the physical setting and its personal dynamics, while demonstrating her own struggles with her painting. In Part I, she sets about painting a view looking toward the house, where Mrs. Ramsay sits in the dining room window with her youngest child, James. Through Lily’s perceptions and recent recollections, we become aware of the children’s vigorous activities, the imposing figure of Mr. Ramsay, and the viewpoints of other guests. Lily thinks intently about her intimate friendship with Mrs. Ramsay, who both holds valuable secrets for this younger woman, and advocates less appealing, traditional ideals of marriage and maternal devotion, while failing to take Lily’s painting seriously.
Bonnie Kime Scott

7. On the Death of the Soul: a Jungian Reading of Mrs. Dalloway

Carl Jung was a Swiss psychiatrist who for six years collaborated with Sigmund Freud to develop the new science of psychoanalysis. In 1912 they parted ways after a somewhat acrimonious disagreement about the nature of the unconscious. Freud believed that the unconscious is the repository of repressed desires and wishes, and Jung thought that view too narrow. Jung proposed that in addition to the personal unconscious, we have a deeper stratum called the collective unconscious, an inherited trove of archetypes, or drives—towards feeling, reasoning, spirituality, maternity, paternity, power and so on—that comprise all the potentials, capacities and energies that define what it is to be human. Jung went on to draw from many fields—anthropology, folklore, comparative religion, alchemy—to develop an extensive picture of the archetypes and their influence on the psyche. Contemporary neuroscience, with its imaging capabilities, is continually verifying Jung’s findings.
Katherine Tarbox

8. On Not Being Able to Paint: To the Lighthouse via Psychoanalysis

In an essay called ‘Freudian Fiction’ (1920), Woolf objects to psychoanalysis for imposing a doctrinal ‘key’ on literature: Our complaint is … that the new key is a patent key that opens every door. It simplifies rather than complicates, detracts rather than enriches. The door swings open briskly enough, but the apartment to which we are admitted is a bare little room with no outlook whatever. (E III, 197) In this well-known denunciation, Woolf is attacking reductive Freudians rather than Freud himself, whose work she claimed not to have read until 1939. This avoidance must have cost her some effort, given that her husband Leonard Woolf was an early champion of Freud, her brother Adrian Stephen and his wife Karin were practising psychoanalysts, and James Strachey, brother of her close friend Lytton, had travelled to Vienna with his wife Alix to be analysed by Freud, and the couple had returned as Freud’s official English translators.1 Their translations, moreover, were published by the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press, along with nearly seventy volumes of the International Psycho-Analytical Library. As Matt ffytche has pointed out, psychoanalysis was ‘woven into the daily life’ of Woolf’s Bloomsbury.2
Maud Ellmann

9. Mrs. Dalloway and the War that Wouldn’t End

The Great War scarred Virginia Woolf for life. Her friend, the poet Rupert Brooke, died in action, as well as two of her cousins and a brother-in-law, Cecil Woolf, who was killed by the same shell that left his brother Philip severely wounded. In addition she experienced a number of German air raids first-hand, during which she and the servants took refuge in the coal cellar of her London home. The closest she came to being killed in a raid was in January 1918, as she wrote to her sister Vanessa: ‘Well, you almost lost me. Nine bombs on Kew; seven people killed in one house, a hotel crushed’ (L II, 214). The War haunts her third novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), mainly by its absence; her fourth novel, Mrs. Dalloway (1925), by its refusal to go away; and her next novel, To The Lighthouse (1927), by the poignancy of the death of Andrew Ramsay as a young man. Her opposition to war grew steadily over the years. In an extended essay, Three Guineas (1938), she proclaimed that ‘War … is an abomination; a barbarity; war must be stopped at whatever cost’ (R/TG, 165). How to express this view satisfactorily in her writing was a challenge that she faced in each of her novels in succession.
Brian Finney

10. Mrs. Dalloway and the Reinvention of the Novel

In a letter to David Garnett in 1917, Virginia Woolf wrote that ‘Novels are frightfully clumsy and overpowering of course; still if one could only get hold of them it would be superb. I daresay one ought to invent a completely new form’ (L II, 167). Of special interest here is the way Woolf hovers between wanting to ‘get hold of’ the novel and wanting to ‘invent a completely new form’. On the one hand, she knew that, historically, the novel itself was almost without prescribed form, a baggy genre that Mikhail Bakhtin was to describe as no genre at all but, at its best, the enemy of genre, dedicated to formal sabotage.1 To ‘get hold of it’, then, was to write a novel in the same spirit as the radical innovators of the form. On the other hand, by 1917 the novel appeared to have run its course. As Woolf wrote two years later in a searing critique, ‘Modern Novels’, the novel had become a thing without life. The term ‘novel’ in other words had been so abused that it was barely viable.
H. Porter Abbott

11. Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse: The Novel as Elegy

Virginia Woolf lived at a time when the twentieth century’s early upheavals seemed to demand new approaches and forms of expression. Writing in her diary in the midst of composing To the Lighthouse in 1925, she reflects that ‘I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant ‘novel’. A new _____ by Virginia Woolf. But what? Elegy?’1 Significantly, Woolf’s evocation of elegy shapes the form and some of the major concerns of two of her novels, To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway, fusing her desire to make it new with the elegy’s preoccupation with the past, absence and loss. While some studies have considered Woolf’s adaptation of elegy with respect to its formal features, there has been a shift in recent Woolf criticism to consider the secular elegiac mode that emphasises the vicissitudes of time, silence and narrative separations in perspective. As a text that is written as a kind of suspended parallel narrative, her novels deal with fragmentary recollection and problems attendant on return and survival in the wake of the Great War.
Daniel Bedggood

12. ‘What is a woman? I assure you, I do not know’: Woolf and Feminism in the 1920s

Virginia Woolf was not regarded as a major feminist thinker until the late 1960s, when Second Wave feminists proved a receptive audience for her two book-length essays, A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf argues that the successful woman writer must be in possession of the same income and degree of privacy as her male counterparts: she ‘must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction’. In Three Guineas Woolf is again concerned with gender equity: here she describes being approached for a donation by a pacifist group, a women’s college and a group devoted to promoting the entry of women into the professions. As a pacifist and advocate of the rights of women she decides to donate a guinea to each. But just as the pacifist movement was unable to prevent the outbreak of the Second World War, so the feminists of the 1920s and 1930s were unable to establish equal rights for women.
Patricia Moran

13. The Warp and the Weft: Homoeroticism in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse

In the early twentieth century in England, to engage in a male homosexual act was a criminal offence. The trials of Oscar Wilde in 1895, and his sentence to prison with hard labour, had seared this truth into the hearts and minds of homoerotically inclined men throughout Britain. Socially, homoerotic desires and homosexual acts were considered unspeakable and degenerate. For example, in E.M. Forster’s novel Maurice, written in 1913–1914 but not published until 1971, after Forster’s death, Maurice Hall’s Greek tutor calls homosexuality ‘the unspeakable vice of the Greeks’.1 The family doctor to whom Maurice confides, ‘I’m an unspeakable of the Oscar Wilde sort’, replies, ‘Never let that evil hallucination, that temptation from the devil, occur to you again’ (Maurice, 159). Same-sex desire between women was even more suppressed in the cultural psyche. Terry Castle, in The Apparitional Lesbian: Female Homosexuality and Modern Culture, argues that Western culture has ‘ghosted’ lesbian desire and lesbians themselves.
Diana L Swanson

14. The Cambridge Woolf

When Susan Sellers and I were commissioned by Cambridge University Press to take on the General Editorship of the works of Virginia Woolf, we followed the press’s standard, rigorous procedures; set up our editorial board; and took advice at every step from the considerable expertise made available to us by senior editors and officers of this august, historic publisher. Approval of all our volumes is arrived at through the many stages of scholarly scrutiny, including that of our editorial board as well as anonymous peer review and ultimately, the Syndics—representatives of Cambridge University Press specially chosen to evaluate our work. Woolf and her husband founded the Hogarth Press in 1917, and had in-depth experience of preparing for publication texts of every kind, whether formal and scholarly or avant-garde and creative. Her avantgarde writing is shaped as much by that experience and knowledge as by her extensive reading in every genre, including the scholarly edition.
Jane Goldman, E. H. Wright
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