In March of 1923 Arnold Bennett, then one of England’s most popular and acclaimed novelists, wrote thus of a novel which had appeared the previous year:I have seldom read a cleverer book than Virginia Woolf’s Jacobs’ Room, a novel which has made a great stir in a small world. It is packed and bursting with originality, and it is exquisitely written. But the characters do not vitally survive in the mind because the author has been obsessed by details of originality and cleverness. I regard this book as characteristic of the new novelists who have recently gained the attention of the alert and the curious, and I admit that I cannot yet descry any coming big novelists.
Few critics could have singled out Jacobs’ Room, James Joyce’s Ulysses, and T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land as three literary events of 1922 that marked a turning point in literature. It seems likely that Bennett, who had published novels at the rate of better than one a year for a quarter century, thought he was doing well by Woolf’s third novel. He had deemed her book original, well written, capable of attracting the alert. Could he have guessed how inevitably his remarks would fire her indignation? Her book was a curiosity in a small world, obsessively clever. She could not create character. Virginia Woolf knew a put-down when she read one.
Her first public response appeared in the New York Evening Post in November of the same year in the form of a short essay called “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” and was soon reprinted in Boston and London periodicals. It was not the essay with which her readers are now most familiar. In May of 1924 Woolf read an expanded version to the Cambridge Heretics Society; two months later a further revision graced T. S. Eliot’s The Criterion under the caption “Character in Fiction.” Finally on October 30 Leonard and Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press issued the Criterion essay as a pamphlet under its original title. Its proclamation that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” has been often and variously interpreted, but its main argument, a vigorous counterattack against Bennett’s notion of character and characterization in fiction, is well known. Subsequent developments have vindicated Woolf in her contention that Bennett’s was a frequently superficial realism which detailed the circumstances and surroundings of his characters but gave little sense of any inner life.
One of the great merits of Andrew McNeillie’s edition of Woolf’s essays is that he has printed all three versions of this essay including, as an appendix, a transcript of the much revised typescript of the Cambridge Heretics paper along with notes which permit the reader to follow the gestation of this important critical essay. The now familiar version appears, consistently with McNeillie’s editorial method, as “Character in Fiction,” a title less catchy than the usual one but incidentally more reflective of its author’s overriding determination to defend her method. Meanwhile she was exemplifying that method in Jacob’s Room and in Mrs. Dalloway (1925), written during the latter years covered by this third volume of the essays.
The essays of this period confirm her conviction, shared with Bennett, that characterization is crucial to the novel, and her profound disagreement with representative novelists of Bennett’s generation as to the means of achieving it. In April of 1919 she had labeled Bennett, H. G. Wells, and John Galsworthy “materialists” in a Times Literary Supplement essay, “Modern Novels” (a forerunner of her later “Modern Fiction”). Bennett’s characters live, she conceded, but “what do they live for?” They lived to travel luxuriously in railway coaches to even more luxurious resort hotels. Reviewing in the same year a reissue of a novel she admired, Samuel Butler’s The Way of All Flesh (1903), she objected nevertheless to the thinness of the characterizations. Passing remarks in reviews of minor novels repeatedly illustrate her psychological interest—often tempered, however, by her recognition that the externals so dear to Bennett could not be entirely neglected. “The balance between the outer and the inner is, after all, a terribly precarious business,” she notes in a review of a now-forgotten novel. Such remarks document her determination to hold other writers and herself to the highest standard. Forty years old when her first important novel appeared, she was still struggling to realize artistic convictions developed from years of reading and writing.
The year 1920 provides early instances of another development of importance, her feminism. She plunged into a controversy occasioned by a Parliamentary attempt to ban the importation of birds’ feathers used primarily to decorate women’s hats. While sympathetic to the Plumage Bill, as it came to be called, she boiled over at a magazine editor’s lament that so many birds had “to be shot in parenthood for child- bearing women to flaunt the symbols of it. But what do women care?” Observing that on five occasions the male constituency of the committee to which the bill was entrusted failed of a quorum, she hurled the rebuke back: “What do men care?”
In the same year she participated in an exchange on the intellectual status of women. As letters to an editor, they do not qualify for inclusion in the volume under review (they form part of The Diary of Virginia Woolf: Volume II, 1920-1924, on which McNeillie assisted), but it is interesting that Arnold Bennett again supplied much of the provocation in his book...
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