Virginia Woolf

Start Free Trial

Herbert Marder (Essay Date 1968)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 9769

SOURCE: Marder, Herbert. “Causes.” In Feminism & Art: A Study of Virginia Woolf, pp. 5-30. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1968.

In the following essay, Marder discusses Woolf’s personal philosophy and ideas about women and feminism in rela-tion to developments in English social history and the beginnings of the feminist movement.


In the years immediately preceding Virginia Woolf’s birth, the legal status of English women was essentially the same as it had been in the middle ages. Their rights as individuals were severely limited. Married women could not dispose of the money they earned, or enter into valid contracts. They could be deprived of a say in the upbringing of their children. In one celebrated case, a husband, upon being estranged from his wife, sent the children to live with his mistress and refused to permit the mother to see them. He was entirely within his rights, and the act which was passed in 1839 as a result of this case only permitted the Lord Chancellor to grant custody to the mother until the children were seven years old. The law continued to assume that there could be no divergence of interest between man and wife. A woman could not sue her husband or hold him to an agreement that would have been legally binding under any other circumstances. “By marriage,” says Blackstone, “the very being or legal existence of the woman is suspended, or at least it is incorporated or consolidated into that of the husband, under whose wing, protection and cover she performs everything.... My wife and I are one and I am he.”1

If these facts do not prove Virginia Woolf’s claim that English women have always been an oppressed class, they at least suggest that the state was willing to aid and abet domestic tyranny. A distinction must be made, of course, between kinds of behavior that are legally permissible and kinds of behavior that are common or habitual. But where the law discriminates, people will usually be found to take advantage of the fact. Midnineteenth-century criminal records in England show an average of nearly fifteen hundred cases a year of aggravated assault committed by husbands against their wives. There must have been a great many more incidents that were never reported. No matter how brutally a husband treated his wife, she was legally bound to keep his house and share his bed.

Nevertheless, it is difficult to generalize about the position of women during this period. It was a time of social change. Whatever the restrictions placed upon Victorian women, there were also new opportunities open to them. Setting aside Victoria herself, the careers of the Brontë sisters, Florence Nightingale, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and George Eliot show that a woman of genius was no longer doomed to die in obscurity and be buried at the crossroads, as Virginia Woolf said would have happened to Shakespeare’s sister if she had had a gift for dramatic literature. There is another indication that Victorian women had some power and influence in the many reforms that were enacted during the last two decades of the nineteenth century, while Virginia Woolf was growing up. The year of her birth, 1882, was also the year of The Married Women’s Property Act, an important step in the economic emancipation of women. One of its provisions was that “a married woman shall be capable of acquiring, holding and disposing by will . . . of any real or personal property as her separate property . . . without the intervention of any trustee.”2 Three years later, a crusading newspaper editor revealed the existence of a thriving white slave trade which sent young British girls to houses of prostitution abroad. By setting the age of consent at thirteen, the law in effect encouraged seduction, making things easier for the pimps and madames. When this became widely known, the age of consent was raised to sixteen. The following year women for the first time won the right to act as guardians of their own children in case of the father’s death. In 1891 the courts decided that “a husband had no right to carry off his wife by force or to imprison her until she submitted to his wishes.”3 If the British patriarch could no longer legally treat his wife as chattel, custom still gave him a powerful influence over all her actions. But by the beginning of this century, when Virginia Woolf was eighteen, “British women were, in the main, free, both in their persons and their properties . . . and the Women’s Movement was nearing its height.”4

The effects of this growing women’s movement are apparent in the literature of the time. Many important writers were influenced by feminist ideas, and a significant part of the social criticism in Victorian novels has to do with the grievances of women. Novelists and poets created a succession of remarkable female characters such as Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, George Eliot’s Dorothea Brooke, Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the d’Urbervilles. Probably the most effective literary statement of the feminine dilemma was A Doll’s House, which was first performed in 1879. The example of Ibsen’s Nora could not be so easily ignored as the protests of feminists, and that is why A Doll’s House aroused so much indignation among conservatives. More and more people were seeing the point, that although women might be quiet, they were not necessarily satisfied with their lot in life.

Ibsen’s conclusions were similar to those which Virginia Woolf stated, fifty years later, in A Room of One’s Own. Jotting down some “Notes for the Modern Tragedy,” before beginning to write A Doll’s House, Ibsen observed that

there are two kinds of spiritual law, two kinds of conscience, one in man, and another, altogether different, in woman. They do not understand each other; but in practical life the woman is judged by man’s law as though she were not a woman but a man.

The wife in the play ends by having no idea of what is right or wrong; natural feeling on the one hand, belief in authority on the other, have altogether bewildered her.

A woman cannot be herself in the society of the present day, which is exclusively masculine society, with laws framed by men and with a judicial system that judges feminine conduct from a masculine point of view.5

By the 1890’s Ibsen’s plays were being produced in London, where Hardy was shocking middle-class readers with his attacks on the prevailing sexual morality, and a self-styled Ibsenite, George Bernard Shaw, was writing Mrs. Warren’s Profession and Candida.

The “new woman” was making her appearance in popular novels such as Grant Allen’s The Woman Who Did and H. G. Wells’s Ann Veronica. The provocative title of Allen’s 1895 bestseller is a fair clue to its content. This book capitalized on advanced ideas about marriage and female emancipation by combining them with a melodramatic plot. H. G. Wells’s heroine, like Grant Allen’s, is determined to retain her independence and freedom of action, but both young women soon find themselves involved in love affairs, and events unfold in predictable fashion. There is an element in Ann Veronica which was absent from the earlier novel. While Herminia Barton of The Woman Who Did found it necessary to suffer alone for the sake of her principles, Ann Veronica, a few years later, can join a feminist society. When her love life becomes too complicated, she takes part in a militant protest which results in her being sent to prison. This is no tragedy, however, merely a prelude to connubial bliss.

Virginia Woolf (then Virginia Stephen) read Wells’s books, and agreed with the liberal and high-minded sentiments which they expressed. Nevertheless, she had reservations about Wells as a novelist because of what seemed to her his misguided attempts to combine art and propaganda.6 Although she was determined to have her say in the controversy about women’s rights, she was equally determined to keep didacticism out of her novels.

The generation to which Virginia Stephen belonged was the first to enjoy on a large scale the freedoms for which the feminists had been fighting. Her youth coincided with a turning point in the history of the feminist movement. She had been born early enough to know Victorian England from personal experience, as well as from contact with her elders. Her memories of that patriarchal society, ruled by a queen who was implacably hostile to the feminist movement, were vivid and disturbing. In their home life the Stephens, like most middle-class Victorian families, composed a patriarchal society in miniature. The father, a somewhat distant and majestic figure, was the center around whom everything revolved, the arbiter whose austere judgments shaped his ambitious daughter’s opinion of herself. By the time that young girl had become a young woman her world had changed almost beyond recognition. Women had won the vote and penetrated the masculine professions. The girl herself was becoming known as a writer—a writer, moreover, whose aestheticism was at the furthest possible remove from her father’s philosophy.

But such breaks with the past are rarely as complete as they seem. Leslie Stephen’s daughter, like many of her contemporaries, rejected Victorian ideas of propriety, but in doing so she displayed a form of moral earnestness derived from the Victorians themselves. Her pursuit of the good and the beautiful was in keeping with her father’s example; her intense intellectuality revealed the influence of that irascible and kindly old man. Her career itself seems vaguely to echo his. Leslie Stephen was an eminent man of letters who had overcome a nervous weakness in his youth by means of strict self-discipline. When Virginia was born, he was the editor of one of the most respected British periodicals, the Cornhill Magazine, and she grew up in the midst of fashionable literary society. The family’s friends were dignitaries and famous men, such as James Russell Lowell (her godfather), Thomas Hardy, Henry James, George Meredith. In making her way in the world as a young woman, Virginia had to contend with her own mental instability. She managed, nevertheless, to establish herself at the center of literary society. Bloomsbury friends such as E. M. Forster, Lytton Strachey, Maynard Keynes, and Roger Fry formed a brilliant group, comparable to that which had frequented her father’s house. The more closely one looks, the more clearly one perceives in her career, the effects of the training which she received as a girl. All of her attitudes, including her feminism, as it developed in later life, are related to this class and family background—particularly the influence of her father and his ideas.

One writer, in emphasizing the importance of this paternal inheritance, has pointed out that although “in her physical beauty, temperament and imagination she certainly resembled her mother . . . such an endowment may be greatly modified by environment. Leslie Stephen, like other strong, opinionated Victorian men, was a formidable piece of environment.”7 It must be kept in mind that her mother died when Virginia was thirteen. From that time until Leslie Stephen’s death in 1904, he was the dominant influence in her life. After the loss of her mother, Virginia, who had always been delicate, suffered a nervous breakdown, and it was decided that she should be educated at home. Her father was her intellectual guide, she read the books on his shelves, and those which he brought home for her from the London Library. Leslie Stephen was a distinguished literary critic and biographer, as well as the historian of English thought in the eighteenth century and the utilitarians. Young Virginia read all of English literature, and her first impressions were colored by memories of her father’s terse judgments, and his disconcerting way of chanting poetry to himself. The fictional portrait which she drew of him many years after his death in To the Lighthouse reveals the complexity of the emotions which he aroused in her. She commented on his influence—and her own ambivalence—in her dairy: “Father’s birthday. He would have been 96, 96, yes, today and could have been 96, like other people one has known: but mercifully was not. His life would have entirely ended mine. What would have happened? No writing, no books;— inconceivable. . . . I must read him some day. I wonder if I can feel again, I hear his voice, I know this by heart.”8 Especially in his later years, Stephen was at times a household tyrant like Mr. Ramsay. Within the limits determined by his principles, he was a broadminded man, but his attitude toward women and the family, like his relationship with his children, displays some interesting contradictions.

As a political liberal Stephen believed that women should be assured equality under the law. In writing the life of his friend, Henry Fawcett, he described a point of view with which he sympathized. Fawcett, he said, was “a chivalrous supporter of women’s rights.” Whether or not women were actually the equals of men in any particular field of endeavor seemed to him beside the point. The competition should give “the prize to the most vigorous, but [Fawcett] was righteously indignant when it was so contrived as to impose additional burdens on the feeblest.” Stephen further explained his friend’s views in another passage: “He did not, I think, anticipate any great change in the ordinary career of women—he admitted that, for the most part, it would continue to lie chiefly in the domestic circle; but his sense of justice revolted against the virtual condemnation of a large number of women in every class to inability to use their faculties freely.”9

The cautiously progressive sentiments of this passage were echoed by Stephen in his essay on “Forgotten Benefactors.” He was very willing to grant women all sorts of rights, but he was not enthusiastic about the prospect of their using them. He believed that women’s place was in the home. This attitude is implicit in an anecdote he told about a friend who had confided to him that she felt ashamed when she compared the scope of her own work in the domestic sphere with that of her husband, a politician. Stephen was not inclined to see the matter in this light. He wrote:

No one, I hope, could assert more willingly than I, that the faculties of women should be cultivated as fully as possible, and that every sphere in which their faculties can be effectively applied should be thrown open to them. But the doctrine sometimes tacitly confounded with this, that the sphere generally assigned to women is necessarily lower or less important than others is not to be admitted.... The domestic influence is, no doubt, confined within narrower limits; but then, within those limits it is incomparably stronger and more certain of effect. The man or woman can really mould the character of a little circle, and determine the whole life of one little section of the next generation.10

Stephen was more interested in defining the value of domestic service than in considering the implications of his friend’s complaint. In proving the dignity and importance of woman’s work, he tended to ignore or minimize the dissatisfaction of the women who had to do it.

A belief in the importance of domestic life and the integrity of the family formed an important part of Stephen’s philosophy. In “Forgotten Benefactors” he wrote: “The degree in which any ethical theory recognizes and reveals the essential importance of the family relation is, I think, the best test of its approximation to the truth.... To those activities which knit families together, which help to enlarge the highest ideal of domestic life, we owe a greater debt than to any other kind of conduct.... The highest services of this kind are rendered by persons condemned, or perhaps I should say privileged, to live in obscurity.”11 Whatever his sympathy for women who felt that they had been prevented from using or developing their faculties, Stephen could not wholeheartedly support reforms that would give them a chance to do so. The family relation was of paramount importance to him, and domestic life, as he understood it, could not exist unless women stayed at home.

In another passage of “Forgotten Benefactors,” Stephen expressed his veneration for his second wife, the mother of Virginia and the prototype of Mrs. Ramsay. “A lofty nature which has profited by passing through the furnace acquires claims not only upon our love but upon our reverence.... We cannot attempt to calculate the value of this spiritual force which has moulded our lives, which has helped by a simple consciousness of its existence to make us gentler, nobler, and purer in our thoughts of the world . . . which has constantly set before us a loftier ideal than we could frame for ourselves.”12 He went on to liken this ennobling influence to the light of the sun, of whose essential importance to us “we are apt to be unconscious . . . until some accident makes us realize the effect of its eclipse.” In a letter written to his children after the death of his second wife he ranked her achievement in life high above his own: “Had I fully succeeded and surpassed all my contemporaries in my own line, what should I have done? I should have written a book or two which might be read by my contemporaries and perhaps by the next generation.... Now I say, advisedly, that I do not think such an achievement as valuable as hers.”13 “That man is unfortunate,” he believed, “who has not a saint of his own.”14

Leslie Stephen’s veneration of his second wife, and the importance which he attributed to the domestic sphere were obviously related. The home was the precinct in which his saint was enshrined; its existence made possible the operation of her special kind of sanctity. The family was needed to call forth her qualities, as she was needed to fill it with her ennobling influence. But a desire to worship woman as a higher moral influence tends, in real life, to restrict her freedom almost as much as a conviction of her inferiority. It is not uncommon to wish one’s saint to remain on her pedestal so that one can go on worshipping her. The Victorian father often claimed to be protecting his wife or daughter when he was really protecting his image of her. Leslie Stephen, though on the whole a reasonable man, was capable of becoming a grim and threatening incarnation of the Victorian father.

As far as sex was concerned Stephen’s position was that of the strict moralist. Once again, his strictures were connected with his belief in the importance of the domestic sphere, for sexual purity was the basis of stable family life. Noël Annan says as much in his study of Stephen: “Like other Victorian moralists [Stephen] sees looseliving and lust as the hooks which clutch at man and make him lower than the angels. Man can be saved from himself by woman: feminine innocence will rouse man from sensuality.... Because the institutions of marriage and the family will perish, and society with them, unless we eradicate ‘brutalizing and anti-social instincts’ all social forces must be directed to the inculcation of chastity.”15 The pattern is clear: the need to believe in the moral superiority of women; the faith in the sanctity of the family; the prohibition against loose-living lest the purity of women and the stability of the home be endangered—these attitudes made Leslie Stephen cling to the Victorian proprieties. He remained faithful, emotionally at least, to the old order which was rapidly becoming a thing of the past.

Stephen’s attitude toward sex also entered into his position as a critic. He prized masculinity very highly and despised effeminacy. Thus, one of the most serious defects which he found in the works of such women novelists as the Brontës and George Eliot was their failure to create believable male characters. Their “men were often simply women in disguise.”16 The corresponding failures of male writers to create plausible female characters seem to have troubled him far less. For Leslie Stephen, writes Annan, “the opposite of masculine is not feminine but morbid.”17

Stephen’s response to effeminacy was that of the red-blooded Victorian Englishman. The slightest hint of inversion provoked the bully in him. In her mature years Virginia Woolf rebelled against this attitude. Her circle of artists and intellectuals included a number of homosexuals, and she and her friends took it for granted that a person’s sex life is a private matter concerning only himself. Leslie Stephen’s whole concept of sexual attributes, and especially his belief in the importance of masculinity, was repugnant to her. But while she rejected her father’s ideas, Virginia Woolf found it harder to discard the emotional legacy he had left her. Here and there in her books she displays traces of severity, not to say priggishness, befitting the daughter of a knighted Victorian moralist. Her novels, too, are marked by a more than average reticence about sex. Leslie Stephen measured the value of works of art by their moral significance. His daughter’s aestheticism, like her belief in sexual freedom, contained a considerable degree of ambivalence. Perhaps it is precisely because her aestheticism was an overreaction against her father’s moralizing that she could not, within its limits, do full justice either to her social interests or her artistic values. The need to moralize remained strong in her, but it was submerged and displaced. In the 1920’s, and even later, when she had become a novelist with an international reputation, she still carried on the struggle with her father’s ghost. The composition of To the Lighthouse, with its fictionalized portraits of both her parents, was a rite she needed to perform in order to free herself. “I used to think of him and mother daily,” she noted, “. . . I was obsessed by them both, unhealthily; and writing of them was a necessary act.”18 Shortly after finishing To the Lighthouse she produced her most extravagant book, Orlando, and wrote in A Room of One’s Own that the creative faculty is based on the union of masculine and feminine elements. The artist’s mind is androgynous, and not, as Leslie Stephen had contended, solidly masculine or feminine.

In 1932 Virginia Woolf wrote a brief reminiscence of her father. She described him affectionately but with a considerable degree of detachment. He was a man, she said, who could be alarmingly opinionated and admirably magnanimous, who inspired both love and resentment. “His daughters, though he cared little enough for the higher education of women,” had the same freedom as his sons to follow whatever professions they chose. “If at one moment he rebuked a daughter sharply for smoking a cigarette—smoking was not in his opinion a nice habit in the other sex—she had only to ask him if she might become a painter, and he assured her that so long as she took her work seriously he would give her all the help he could. He had no special love for painting; but he kept his word. Freedom of that sort was worth thousands of cigarettes.”19 After the death of her father, Virginia Woolf became a habitual smoker of cigars.

The generation to which Virginia Woolf belonged was in revolt against Victorianism. Mrs. Woolf was extremely sensitive to the present, that is to say, to the spirit of modernism. She was also linked to the past by unusually strong bonds. Her father had believed in a certain kind of moral strenuousness, and although Virginia and her friends were serious young people, it was almost a point of honor with them to adopt an attitude as far removed as possible from that of their elders. Here is the way John Maynard Keynes expressed it in an essay entitled, “My Early Beliefs”: “We repudiated entirely customary morals, conventions, and traditional wisdom. We were, that is to say, in the strict sense of the term, immoralists. We recognized no moral obligation on us, no inner sanction, to conform or to obey.”20 Virginia Woolf’s iconoclasm differed somewhat from that of her friends in being based on a feminist rationale. Moreover, her commitment to the present was modified by her need to preserve her ties with the past. This conjunction of modernism and traditionalism was responsible for the characteristic tone of her prose, and for its special fascination.

Almost every writer on Virginia Woolf has commented on the fundamental dualism in her work. Unlike some of her contemporaries, she wished not only to criticize the tradition which she had inherited, but in a sense to renew it. Her goal was to write in such a way as to satisfy the utilitarian philosophy of her father, while remaining true to the artistic mood of her own generation. The former demanded that her books contribute something to the welfare of mankind, the latter taught her that every work of art is autonomous, a purely aesthetic skirmish in the struggle to achieve “significant form.” The moralist in Virginia Woolf is most in evidence in her feminist writings, and the aesthete in her novels; neither is entirely lacking in anything she wrote.21


Leslie Stephen’s death in 1904 led to a dramatic change in his daughter’s way of life. She moved from Kensington to Bloomsbury, that is, from middle-class domestication to high-brow bohemianism. Other things being equal, there is no doubt about which of these worlds she preferred. The loss of her father was a harrowing experience, but in later life she looked back upon it almost with a sense of relief. As she observed in her diary,22 she was now free to have the career that would otherwise have been denied her. The four orphaned Stephen children, all in their twenties, set up house together. Soon Virginia was getting to know a group of Thoby’s brilliant Cambridge friends, among them Leonard Woolf, her future husband. The sensitive, sheltered girl suddenly found herself an independent woman who could earn one pound ten shillings and sixpence by scribbling a few pages and sending them to an editor, a fact that amazed and delighted her. She sold her first reviews and was encouraged to think seriously of becoming a writer.

This crucial moment in Virginia Stephen’s life coincided, almost exactly, with the beginning of the heroic phase of the women’s movement. Suffrage societies had been in existence for about forty years, but they had attracted relatively little attention. In 1903 a new society, the Women’s Social and Political Union (WSPU) was founded by Emmeline Pankhurst in Manchester. Mrs. Pankhurst and her followers were radicals. They believed that women must fight for their emancipation, using whatever means were available to them. To be sure, they could not overthrow the government, but they could infiltrate meetings and heckle speakers who were opposed to their cause. They could demand that every candidate for public office commit himself on the subject of women’s rights. They could march on Parliament in tens of thousands, provoking the police to arrest them and filling the prisons. In short, they could keep up a steady, vigorous harassment of the authorities who had prevented women’s suffrage bills from being enacted in Parliament. Mrs. Pankhurst’s militant policy came to be selfsustaining. The more violent the militants grew, the more police action they provoked, the more publicity they attracted. Notoriety did no harm at all to the WSPU; its membership grew rapidly. Money flowed into the national office, making possible still more spectacular protests which in their turn generated still more publicity. With its emphasis on civil disobedience, Mrs. Pankhurst’s movement inevitably produced its martyrs: one woman threw herself under the horses’ hoofs at a fashionable race course and was killed. Many others, imprisoned for resisting police or throwing rocks through windows, went on hunger strikes and were forcibly fed. For nine years, from 1905 to 1914, the militants kept the cause of women’s rights in the public eye. Again and again their demands were rejected, but it was impossible to ignore them, or to deny the fanatical heroism of their leaders.

The period 1911-13, when the militant agitation reached its peak, was another time of transition for Virginia Stephen. In 1912, the year of her marriage to Leonard Woolf, social critic and socialist, she was thirty years old and finishing her first novel.23 As her husband soon discovered, Virginia Woolf’s mental equilibrium, which had broken down several times during her youth, was still extremely precarious. Not only did the condition of her health preclude any strenuous activity, such as taking part in protests and rallies, but it made even a normal active life potentially dangerous. She would always have to avoid undue excitement.

Leonard Woolf has movingly described his wife’s mental illness and the precautions which they had to take throughout their married life. As long as Virginia Woolf lived “a quiet, vegetative life, eating well, going to bed early . . . she remained perfectly well.”24 But if she were subjected to any mental or physical strain “serious danger signals” would appear—“a peculiar ‘headache’ low down at the back of the head, insomnia, and a tendency for the thoughts to race.” If these symptoms were not checked at once by rest and seclusion in a darkened room they would grow much worse. Four times in her life they led to nervous breakdowns which continued for months or years. An attack came on not long after her marriage. At one point she fell into a coma for two days and at another tried to commit suicide by taking an overdose of veronal. While in the depressive state, she was subject to delusions and fits of violence, and required the care of two trained nurses. There was constant danger, during these periods of insanity, that she would try to kill herself.

Aside from her health, there was another important factor which kept Virginia Woolf from joining public demonstrations. As much as she sympathized with the aims of the suffragists, she could not share their enthusiasm for political action; she found something antipathetic in the idea of marching in a protest or even sitting on a committee. She was a lady and a highbrow— aristocratic, aloof. On the other hand, she was unusually sensitive to any slight on account of her sex. The mere thought of being discriminated against could make her physically ill. This extreme sensitivity brought her close, at times, to the militant suffragists, though she differed from them in many of her assumptions.

Her attitude toward the question of women’s rights was never simple and straightforward. Her energies were directed differently from the majority of feminists who were concerned mainly with eliminating specific abuses and not much interested in trying to discover the causes of tyranny. If her attitude was less practical than theirs, her vision was more comprehensive. Long after women had won the vote she was at work with her pen, shaping a role for herself, making her own contribution to “The Cause.” Her labors resulted in the two long and impassioned essays, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. These books are not merely tracts, but, in one way or another, touch on all the matters that vitally concerned her. And because she would never restrict herself to one genre at a time, they often have something in common with her novels. The tracts fade into fiction, the fiction echoes the tracts; and the continuity is so pronounced that it seems necessary to read every book by Virginia Woolf in the context of her work as a whole. Her attitude as a feminist was intimately bound up with her attitude as an artist. When we unravel the intricacies and describe the contradictions of the one, we are led toward an understanding of the other.

Virginia Woolf’s first two novels contain most of the important themes of her fiction, themes which reveal her preoccupation with the problems of women. They also seem to reveal uncertainties connected with her early married life. The heroines of The Voyage Out and Night and Day are both afraid to marry. In each case the crucial question is whether a young woman can succeed in satisfying her emotional and intellectual needs within the framework of married life. The question is never satisfactorily answered. The conclusion of The Voyage Out seems, from one point of view, to reflect an inability to come to grips with the heroine’s dilemma. Rachel Vinrace, a talented girl devoted to her books and music—and given to dreaming—goes on a voyage to South America, where she meets, and eventually becomes engaged to, an aesthetic young man. The lovers are dismayed by the social pressures on them to transform their relationship into a conventional courtship. They are deeply apprehensive about marriage, but before they can discover whether their fears are justified, Rachel grows ill and dies. This ending, which emphasizes the arbitrariness of fate, is not altogether satisfactory. The reader suspects that Rachel was too jealous of her independence to marry anyone, and that the novelist has evaded the implications of this fact. One critic has summed up the theme as “the hesitation a girl of spirit and breeding felt at yielding in marriage to one of the traditionally dominant sex.”25

Night and Day deals even more explicitly with the problems of marriage. In general outline it is a social comedy about lovers who are separated by a series of misunderstandings, and finally united when their true feelings become known. But Night and Day is more reminiscent of one of Shaw’s problem plays than it is of Evelina or Pride and Prejudice. It is an intellectual romance. The main obstacle separating the lovers is Katharine Hilbery’s inability to make up her mind, because what she wants out of life is apparently so different from what society expects her to want. Like Rachel Vinrace, she is terrified of marriage. She is so confused, moreover, that she has permitted herself to become engaged to a conventional male who expects his wife to devote herself to raising children and managing servants. Katharine finally escapes this life by breaking off her engagement and marrying Ralph Denham, an angry young man who believes that men and women need not interfere with each other even though married. Night and Day is a kind of fictional laboratory in which the author is testing ways of adapting old social forms to new needs. Unfortunately, Virginia Woolf once again stops short of answering the crucial question. Katharine and Ralph’s experiment, the marriage in which they are to live both together and apart, is to take place in a nebulous future after the close of the novel. Like The Voyage Out, Night and Day ends with an evasion.

The feminist movement is a definite presence in both these books. In Night and Day one of the main characters works as the unpaid secretary of a suffrage society. Having been disappointed in love, Mary Datchet decides to devote her life to the cause, to become a professional feminist. Virginia Woolf contrasts the drab existence of the social reformer with Katharine’s more glamorous private experiment in self-reform. Mary’s suffrage society is mainly an object of satire. The total effect is interesting; women’s problems are taken seriously, but the feminist societies are not. Both too much and too little is made of feminism as a theme— too much for it to remain mere background; too little for it to become a significant part of the fictional pattern. It seems that the writer has failed to resolve her own uncertainties and achieve a coherent point of view.

In method and outlook The Voyage Out and Night and Day belong to the pre-1914 era. But most of Virginia Woolf’s working life fell in the interim between the two world wars, in the years after women had won the vote. And after her first novels she rarely commented directly on social problems in her fiction. She confined such comments to the essays she regularly wrote. Works of art, she believed, should say what cannot be said by other means. They should reveal the hidden realities from which social problems spring, without engaging in social analysis. Virginia Woolf tried in her mature novels to penetrate unexplored regions of the ordinary and habitual. Fear and tyranny begin, she observed, in the casual moments that compose people’s lives from hour to hour, from day to day. The most esoteric truths are concealed in the most commonplace experiences. As she pursued these truths, Virginia Woolf’s novels became increasingly plotless, fragmented, and evocative.

Night and Day had dealt with the problem of marriage somewhat analytically—by isolating it for study. Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse dealt with it impressionistically. These novels of the decade following World War I contain vivid pictures of family life and domestic tyranny, but they do not converge on a central “problem.” Virginia Woolf was attempting here to capture moments of sensibility in order to reveal the inner lives of her characters. She wished to convey, as precisely as possible, what it feels like to be a particular individual—Clarissa Dalloway or Mrs. Ramsay—at half past two on an ordinary day. Her awareness of social problems is still present, but it has been absorbed into a broader range of ideas, connected with many levels of experience. The advantage lies with the maturer novels. There is more reality in the delicate impressions and convolutions of To the Lighthouse than in the elaborate representation of Night and Day. Nevertheless, in spite of this new emphasis on the texture of experience, Virginia Woolf never allows us to forget that her characters have suffered certain disadvantages, if women, and enjoyed certain privileges, if men. The essential differences between these two “classes,” as she called them, were always on her mind.

In Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse it is mainly her descriptions of masculine tyranny which remind us that Virginia Woolf was a feminist. These books of her middle period reveal an increasing interest in the minds of the oppressors. The desire for power over others, she seems to be saying, always does incalculable harm. One suspects that Mr. Ramsay, for instance, is at least partially responsible for his wife’s untimely death. An even more representative patriarch is Sir William Bradshaw, the fashionable doctor whose insensitivity plays a decisive part in causing the suicide of Septimus Smith. Behind these portraits there is a sense of general evil: Septimus has been shellshocked in a war that confirmed the feminist charge of masculine brutality. Virginia Woolf’s preoccupation with the causes of this evil finally led her beyond the bounds of fiction.

Having completed To the Lighthouse she began working on a fantasy in a much lighter vein, which became Orlando. At the same time she was preparing two lectures, delivered at Newnham and Girton in 1928, which became the basis of A Room of One’s Own. Orlando and A Room of One’s Own represent a summing up of Virginia Woolf’s feminist ideas as of the late twenties. The two books have in common not only their emphasis on the bi-sexuality of the artist but their good humor and whimsicality; in writing A Room of One’s Own Virginia Woolf was fully aware of the dangers that beset the controversialist and made every effort to avoid them. But, though she carefully excluded strident tones, her commitment to the cause of women’s rights was perfectly serious.

In Orlando, fantasy became a means of emphasizing the inner life of her hero-heroine; liberated from the demands of strict rationality, Virginia Woolf could glance satirically at the position of women in different ages and poke fun at masculine pedantry. Orlando’s famous change of sex about halfway through the novel allowed her to comment shrewdly on relations between the sexes. It is only in A Room of One’s Own, however, that the broader outlines of her feminist doctrine begin to appear. The original subject of the lectures here revised and expanded was “Women and Fiction,” but Virginia Woolf had used this subject as a point of departure for a general discussion of the woman question. The resulting tract, constantly enlivened, or diluted, with fiction, can be described as a feminist fantasy. It begins with the story of a visit to two colleges, one for men, the other for women. In the men’s college, the narrator says, she dined on sole, partridge, and “a confection which rose all sugar from the waves.” The same evening, in the dining hall of the women’s college, she had been served a supper of beef, custard and prunes. Two scenes had been evoked in her mind, the first of “kings and nobles” bringing “treasure in huge sacks” and the second of “lean cows and a muddy market and withered greens.”

Virginia Woolf’s main contention in this book is that in order to write “a woman must have money and a room of her own.” That is, she must have the same opportunities as men to pursue her interests, to be free of material cares. Trying to answer the question, “Why are women so poor?” Virginia Woolf discusses the trouble they have had in earning a living. She comments indignantly on the position of English women at various times in history and glances at the books written about them, mainly by men. On the whole, women have failed to create great works of art, she says, because they have been denied an opportunity to develop their faculties. The one field in which they have made substantial contributions is literature—and for very good reasons. It was possible to keep them out of academies and institutes, but no one could bar them from the writing-desk or forbid the use of pen and paper. Nevertheless, in spite of the genius of women like Jane Austen, George Eliot, the Brontës, the exploration of truly feminine modes of expression has never seriously been attempted. Such an undertaking, Virginia Woolf predicted, would have important implications for the art of fiction as a whole. Here her feminism and her attitude as a critic came into conjunction. For she believed that novelists, especially women novelists, had often been misled by the prevailing masculine bias, and that in order for creation to take place there must be a meeting, a fusion of masculine and feminine elements. One-sidedness causes the spirit to atrophy. Ideally, the artist should be androgynous, like Orlando. Virginia Woolf concluded, therefore, by emphasizing the importance of cooperation between the sexes. She looked forward to a time when life would become ordered and harmonious, when men and women would finally succeed in sharing their wisdom.

On the whole A Room of One’s Own creates an impression of wit and urbanity. In spite of misgivings about the patriarchs, Virginia Woolf could still permit herself to be optimistic. In her later works this was no longer true. As the 1930’s wore on she became increasingly appalled by social injustice. She could not look at the world with equanimity. Her old horror of masculine authority was magnified by constant reports of tyranny and aggression. She no longer felt the inclination to indulge in literary “escapades,” such as the one that had produced Orlando. She could not be good-humored about concentration camps, and she was more concerned than ever about injustices to women. For the condition of her sex seemed to her a sign of a universal danger that was growing steadily greater.

The Years and Three Guineas, works which are the culmination of her writings on women, reveal this darker mood. Published in 1937 and 1938, they may be considered companion volumes, like Orlando and A Room of One’s Own: Virginia Woolf actually referred to them as “one book” in her diary.26 These two pairs of companion volumes complement each other, presenting her ideas about women from different points of view. They range from sociology to fictional biography, from saga to fantasy, and occasionally approach poetry. Between them they contain essentially all of Virginia Woolf’s ideas about the position of women. A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas are deliberate formulations of these ideas; Orlando and The Years are fictional and do not teach anything (Virginia Woolf was a firm believer in the separation of art and propaganda) but nevertheless reflect the thought of the essays. While Orlando and A Room of One’s Own pay a great deal of attention to the inner life, the emphasis in the two later books is explicitly on women in relation to society. Their total effect, however, is not to exclude psychological comment; on the contrary, in The Years Virginia Woolf succeeded brilliantly in revealing the minds of her characters by indirect methods.

The Years is a fictional saga tracing the disappearance of the Victorian system of family life which had been described in To The Lighthouse; it is documentation, in a sense, for Three Guineas, in which Virginia Woolf formulated a feminist program based on her observations of society. To put it another way, we can infer the state of mind that inspired the program set forth in Three Guineas from this grim view of society. The novel follows members of three related family groups from 1880 to “the present day,” that is, 1937. The Victorian family (the Pargiters have seven children), which seems to be so stable at the beginning of the novel, is shown to be in a state of decadence. The father visits his mistress while his wife lies dying; the daughters are frustrated and desperate. Although the rituals of respectability continue to be practiced, no one is quite sure any longer what they mean. People hide their dissatisfaction, even from themselves; Victorian society is sinister—a world in which lies fester. By the end of the novel the various family groups have been all but disbanded, many of the children have remained unmarried, most are living in isolation; the evils inherent in the old tradition have done their work. In the last chapter all the surviving characters and their children and grandchildren gather at a party, a kind of family reunion, which serves to sharpen our sense of time passing and of that revolution in society which has shaken and dispersed the Pargiters.

Given the simple chronological scheme of The Years and its emphasis on physical realities, it was possible for Virginia Woolf to bring in the movement for social and political reforms in a way that would have been jarring in her earlier novels. Eleanor is active in philanthropic organizations and the feminist movement; one sister has romantic dreams of becoming a revolutionary; another goes to jail as a suffragette. Changes in the status of women are suggested during the finale by the introduction of Eleanor’s niece—a young lady doctor who is dedicated to her work and interested in little else. An awareness of political and social issues pervades The Years, as it does so many works of the thirties. The reforming societies, moreover, in spite of their activity, have not succeeded in getting at the root of the problem, and we are aware, as the book closes, that England is threatened by dictatorship from abroad.

The rise of fascism appalled Virginia Woolf. She consistently interpreted this political development in terms of her ideas about the position of women. Thus, when she set out to discuss the causes of the European crisis in Three Guineas, the book, as it were of itself, became an exposition of feminist doctrine. Improving the lot of women and opposing tyranny were identified in her mind. The early feminists had been fighting in essentially the same cause, she maintained, as contemporary democrats and anti-fascists.

Three Guineas opens with an anecdote. Virginia Woolf has received a letter asking her to contribute to a society for the prevention of war. The book is in the form of a reply, explaining why she has decided to send money elsewhere first—to a fund for rebuilding a women’s college, to a society for helping women enter the professions— before considering the appeal of the antiwar society. Her position is that the causes of war are to be found in the conventional education given to young people. They are brought up, for instance, to accept the exploitation of the female sex. Furthermore, women are excluded from national office, which results in an imbalance in the state, an inherent bias in favor of masculine traits such as acquisitiveness and pugnacity. The evil must be attacked, she concludes, at the points where it originates. The “room of one’s own” demanded in the earlier tract here has become an education that accords realistically with the feminine nature; the emphasis on an independent income has been transformed into an appeal for equal opportunity in the professions. In the course of her argument Virginia Woolf presents a documented survey of women’s grievances. She casts a critical eye on essentially masculine institutions, such as the universities, the church, the army, and asserts that the fascist state is the apotheosis of virility. Finally she presents a series of practical proposals to the “daughters of educated men” based on her contention that woman has always been essentially an “outsider,” a second-class citizen deprived of wealth and power. The exclusion of women from leadership in the state has helped them to preserve their moral superiority and fitted them to undertake a civilizing mission. Women in the professions, she says, should form a new, semimonastic, noncompetitive order; they should help to educate young people in the arts of peace. Since they are by nature pacifists, they should engage in passive resistance to all preparations for war and refuse in any way to abet the belligerent males. If necessary, women should decline, like Lysistrata, to breed sons for cannon fodder.

Both A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas were written at a time when the ardor of the feminists had died down and public interest had waned. In 1936 one feminist leader wrote: “Modern young women know amazingly little of what life was like before the war, and show a strong hostility to the word ‘feminism’ and all which they imagine it to connote.”27 For many young women feminism was a dead issue, or perhaps a kind of reproach—something they had to live down. For Virginia Woolf, who belonged to an earlier generation, it was still very much alive. The world crisis, which made the claims of the feminists seem trivial to most people, only confirmed for her the importance of the women’s movement. She was deeply interested in social and political issues, but she brought her own interpretation of history to bear on them. The position of her sex was a principle axis along which she attempted to plot contemporary events. Attitudes deriving from the pre-World War I era of militant feminism seem to have remained latent in her, coming to the surface during the twenties and thirties. She had never had a chance to work off her resentments in political action. E. M. Forster may have been implying something of the kind when he said, a bit apologetically: “In my judgment there is something old-fashioned about this extreme feminism; it dates back to her suffragette youth of the 1910’s, when men kissed girls to distract them from wanting the vote, and very properly provoked her wrath.”28 We must come back to the fact that Virginia Woolf’s youth coincided with the pioneering era of feminism in order to see her attacks on the patriarchy in perspective. When she touched on the subject of women’s rights, she frequently displayed the intensity, the touchiness, the “angularity,” as she herself expressed it, of the pioneer.

Virginia Woolf considered the subjugation of women both cause and symptom of a fundamental imbalance in society. Her concern began with a sense of personal grievance; it ended with a consciousness of public responsibility. Inequality in the home had its counterpart in the political sphere; the problems of the family reflected those of the state. Lack of wholeness in the modern world was an implicit theme in almost everything she wrote. In her books she attempted to reconcile fact and imagination, masculine reason and feminine intuition. The following chapters are about her efforts to do so.


1. Quoted by Ray Strachey, The Cause (London, 1928), p.


2. Great Britain, Parliamentary Papers (1882), Bills: Public, vol. 4, p. 13.

3. W. Lyon Blease, The Emancipation of English Women (London, 1913), p. 140.

4. Strachey, The Cause, pp. 223-24.

5. Quoted by Donald Clive Stuart in The Development of Dramatic Art (New York, 1937), p. 575.

6. See her well-known attacks on Wells, Galsworthy, Bennett, in “Modern Fiction,” The Common Reader, and “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” The Captain’s Death Bed.

7. Hilda Ridley, “Leslie Stephen’s Daughter,” Dalhousie Review, 33 (Spring, 1953): 65.

8. A Writer’s Diary, November 28, 1928, p. 135.

9. The Life of Henry Fawcett (London, 1886), pp. 173, 177.

10. Social Rights and Duties (London, 1896), 2: 249-51.

11. Ibid., 2: 244, 245-46.

12. Ibid., 2: 256, 258.

13. Quoted by Desmond MacCarthy in Memories (New York, 1953), pp. 93-94.

14. “Forgotten Benefactors,” Social Rights and Duties, 2:


15. Leslie Stephen: His Thought and Character in Relation to His Time (Cambridge, Mass., 1952), p. 228.

16. “George Eliot,” Hours in a Library (New York, 1904), 4:


17. Leslie Stephen, p. 226.

18. A Writer’s Diary, November 28, 1928, p. 135.

19. “Leslie Stephen” in The Captain’s Death Bed, p. 71. In spite of Leslie Stephen’s tolerance of his daughter’s artistic ambitions, he appears at times to have been less than reasonable. “When Stephen discusses sex,” Noël Annan observes, “he begins to shriek: then he rushes in, fists milling, like a small boy in a temper, and most of his blows go wide” (Leslie Stephen, p. 229). Aileen Pippett recounts a typical incident in the family life of the Stephens, after Virginia’s mother had died: “When her father made a scene and almost reduced Vanessa to tears, it was terrible for Virginia to have to excuse him for being so majestic and so unreasonable. It was also belittling to his real dignity that they knew he would be sorry later on and would reproach himself bitterly and need to be comforted because he was such an unkind father.” The Moth and the Star: A Biography of Virginia Woolf (Boston, 1955),

p. 26.

20. Essays and Sketches in Biography (New York, 1956), p.


21. Clive Bell comments on Virginia Woolf’s occasional tendency to discourage her friends from pursuing the arts: “Sometimes it seemed to me that Virginia had

inherited from her immediate ancestors more than their beauty and intelligence. Every good Victorian knew that a young man should have a sensible profession, something solid and secure, which would lead naturally to a comfortable old age and a fair provision for the children. In her head Virginia knew perfectly well that to give such advice to Lytton [Strachey] or Duncan [Grant] was absurd; but Virginia, like the merest man, was not always guided by reason.” Old Friends (New York, 1957), p. 100.

22. See p. 11 above.

23. The Voyage Out was completed in February, 1913, and published in 1915. See Leonard Woolf, Beginning Again (New York, 1964), p. 87.

24. Ibid., p. 76.

25. Edwin Berry Burgum, “Virginia Woolf and the Empty Room,” The Novel and the World’s Dilemma (New York, 1947), p. 125.

26. “That’s the end of six years floundering, striving, much agony, some ecstasy: lumping The Years and Three Guineas together as one book—as indeed they are.” A Writer’s Diary, June 3, 1938, p. 284. Cf. the entry for May 21, 1935 (pp. 240-41): “Oddities of the human brain: woke early and again considered dashing off my book on Professions [Three Guineas], to which I had not given a single thought these 7 or 8 days. Why? This vacillates with my novel [The Years]— how are they both to come out simultaneously.”

27. Ray Strachey, “Introduction,” Our Freedom and Its Results (London, 1936), p. 10.

28. “Virginia Woolf,” Two Cheers for Democracy (New York, 1951), p. 255.


1 By Virginia Woolf

(Where an edition other than the first has been used, the original date of publication is given in parentheses.)

Between the Acts. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1941.

The Captain’s Death Bed and Other Essays. London: Hogarth Press, 1950.

The Common Reader. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1925.

The Common Reader. 2nd ser. London: Hogarth Press, 1948 (1932).

Contemporary Writers. New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, 1966.

“A Cookery Book,” Review of The Cookery Book of Lady Clark of Tillypronie, edited by Catherine Frances Frere. TLS, November 25, 1909, p. 457.

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1942.

Flush: A Biography. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1933.

Granite and Rainbow: Essays. London: Hogarth Press, 1958.

A Haunted House and Other Short Stories. London: Hogarth Press, 1953 (1943).

“The Intellectual Status of Women.” Letter to the editor, New Statesman, October 16, 1920, pp. 45-46.

“Introduction,” Mrs. Dalloway. New York: Modern Library, 1928.

Jacob’s Room. London: Hogarth Press, 1960 (1922).

“Julia Margaret Cameron.” Introduction to Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women, by Julia Margaret Cameron. London: Hogarth Press, 1926.

“Lady Hester Stanhope.” Review of Lady Hester Stanhope, by Mrs. Charles Roundell. TLS, January 20, 1910, p. 20.

“Men and Women.” Review of La Femme anglaise au XIXe Siècle et son Evolution d’après le Roman anglais contemporain, by Leonie Villard. TLS, March 18, 1920, p. 182.

The Moment and Other Essays. London: Hogarth Press, 1952 (1947).

Monday or Tuesday. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1921.

“More Carlyle Letters.” Review of The Love Letters of Thomas Carlyle and Jane Welsh, edited by Alexander Carlyle. TLS, April 1, 1909, p. 126.

Mrs. Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press, 1960 (1925).

Night and Day. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1931 (1919).

Orlando: A Biography. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1928.

Roger Fry: A Biography. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1940.

A Room of One’s Own. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1929.

“A Scribbling Dame.” Review of The Life and Romances of Mrs. Eliza Haywood, by George Frisbie Whicher. TLS, February 17, 1916, p. 78.

Three Guineas. London: Hogarth Press, 1952 (1938).

To the Lighthouse. New York: Harbrace Modern Classics, 1959 (1927).

Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey: Letters. Edited by Leonard Woolf and James Strachey. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1956.

The Voyage Out. New York: Blue Ribbon Books, 1920 (1915).

The Waves. London: Hogarth Press, 1955 (1931).

A Writer’s Diary (Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf). Edited by Leonard Woolf. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1953.

The Years. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1937.

Virginia Woolf (Review Date 25 January 1905)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 820

SOURCE: Woolf, Virginia. Review of The Feminine Note in Fiction, by W. L. Courtney. In The Essays of Virginia Woolf, 1904-1912, Volume I, edited by Andrew McNeillie, pp. 15-17. London: Hogarth Press, 1986.

In the following review, which originally appeared in the newspaper Guardian on January 25, 1905, Woolf rebuts the principal points of Courtney's argument concerning women's writing, concluding that the book raises more questions than it answers.

Mr Courtney is certain that there is such a thing as the feminine note in fiction; he desires, moreover, to define its nature in the book before us, though at the start he admits that the feminine and masculine points of view are so different that it is difficult for one to understand the other. At any rate, he has made a laborious attempt; it is, perhaps, partly for the reason just stated that he ends where he begins1. He gives us eight very patient and careful studies in the works of living women writers, in which he outlines the plots of their most successful books in detail. But we would have spared him the trouble willingly in exchange for some definite verdict; we can all read Mrs Humphry Ward, for instance, and remember her story, but we want a critic to separate her virtues and her failings, to assign her right place in literature and to decide which of her characteristics are essentially feminine and why, and what is their significance. Mr Courtney implies by his title that he will, at any rate, accomplish this last, and it is with disappointment, though not with surprise, that we discover that he has done nothing of the kind. Is it not too soon after all to criticise the 'feminine note' in anything? And will not the adequate critic of women be a woman?

Mr Courtney, we think, feels something of this difficulty; his introduction, in which we expected to find some kind of summing-up, contains only some very tentative criticisms and conclusions. Women, we gather, are seldom artists, because they have a passion for detail which conflicts with the proper artistic proportion of their work. We would cite Sappho and Jane Austen as examples of two great women who combine exquisite detail with a supreme sense of artistic proportion. Women, again, excel in 'close analytic miniature work;'2 they are more happy when they reproduce than when they create; their genius is for psychological analysis—all of which we note with interest, though we reserve our judgment for the next hundred years or bequeath the duty to our successor. Yet it is worth noting, as proof of the difficulty of the task which Mr Courtney has set himself, that he finds two at least of his eight women writers 'artists'3—that two others possess a strength which in this age one has to call masculine, and, in fact, that no pair of them come under any one heading, though, of course, in the same way as men, they can be divided roughly into schools. At any rate, it seems to be clear according to Mr Courtney that more and more novels are written by women for women, which is the cause, he declares, that the novel as a work of art is disappearing. The first part of his statement may well be true; it means that women having found their voices have something to say which is naturally of supreme interest and meaning to women, but the value of which we cannot yet determine. The assertion that the woman novelist is extinguishing the novel as a work of art seems to us, however, more doubtful. It is, at any rate, possible that the widening of her intelligence by means of education and study of the Greek and Latin classics may give her that sterner view of literature which will make an artist of her, so that, having blurted out her message somewhat formlessly, she will in due time fashion it into permanent artistic shape. Mr Courtney has given us material for many questions such as these, but his book has done nothing to prevent them from still remaining questions.


  1. A review in the Guardian, 25 January 1905, of The Feminine Note in Fiction (Chapman & Hall, 1904) by W. L. (William Leonard) Courtney (1850-1928), philosopher, journalist, and sometime fellow of New College, Oxford. See Editorial Note, p. xxii.
  2. Courtney, Intro., p. xxxv.
  3. The two writers Courtney describes as artists are Mrs Humphry Ward (Mary Augusta Ward, 1851-1920): p. 32, where he talks of her work in terms of the visual arts, and p. 40, where he refers to the 'artistic excellence' of Lady Rose's Daughter (1903); and John Oliver Hobbes (Mrs Pearl Craigie, 1867-1906): p. 51, and p. 53, where she is described as 'an artist assured of her powers'. The other writers he discusses are: Lucas Malet, Gertrude Atherton, Margaret Louisa Woods, Mrs E. L. Voynich, Elizabeth Robins (see 'A Dark Lantern' below), and Mary E. Wilkins (see 'The Debtor' below).


Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1104

A critically acclaimed novelist and essayist, Woolf was a founding member of the intellectual circle known as the Bloomsbury Group. Her most famous works include the novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), and the essay A Room of One's Own (1929).


Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen on January 25, 1882, in London. Her parents were Leslie Stephen, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography and Julia Prinsep Jackson Duckworth Stephen. Both parents had been married before and had children from those unions. Together, the Stephens had three other children in addition to Virginia: Vanessa, born in 1879; Thoby, born in 1880; and Adrian, born in 1883. Woolf was educated at home where she had free access to her father's extensive library. In 1895 her mother died, and Woolf experienced the first of many psychological breakdowns that would plague her throughout her life. Her half sister Stella, thirteen years Woolf's senior, assumed management of the household, a position she relinquished to Vanessa two years later. In 1904 Leslie Stephen died, and Woolf attempted suicide after suffering a second psychological crisis. During her recuperation, her sister Vanessa moved the family to the bohemian Bloomsbury section of London, where Woolf began her writing career and where the Thursday evening gatherings with Thoby's Cambridge friends constituted the beginning of the Bloomsbury Group. During this time the four Stephen siblings traveled, in 1904 to Paris and Italy, and two years later to Greece, where Woolf and Thoby both contracted typhoid fever; the illness proved fatal for Thoby.

In 1912 Woolf married Leonard Woolf—one of the original Bloomsbury members recently returned from a seven-year period of civil service in Ceylon. Soon afterwards suffered a serious mental breakdown involving another suicide attempt; she remained in severe mental distress for the next three years. During this period, Woolf completed her first novel, The Voyage Out, published in 1915. Two years later, the Woolfs established their own publishing company in the basement of their home; the Hogarth Press published not only Woolf's work, but those of T. S. Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, and Sigmund Freud, among others. In 1920, through a series of letters to the editor of the New Statesman, Woolf engaged in a dispute over women's intellectual abilities with Desmond MacCarthy, a member of the Bloomsbury Group who wrote under the name "Affable Hawk." She pursued the subject in greater depth at the end of the decade with her feminist essay A Room of One's Own. Throughout the 1920s and 1930s, Woolf continued writing and publishing, producing several more novels and a number of essays. In 1941, fearing the onset of another psychological breakdown, Woolf committed suicide by filling her pockets with rocks and drowning herself in the River Ouse.


Although Woolf wrote a number of short stories, her best-known fiction has always been her novels, particularly Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and to a lesser extent, Orlando (1928) and The Waves (1931). Mrs. Dalloway, frequently compared to James Joyce's 1922 work Ulysses, is an expansion of "Mrs. Dalloway in Bond Street," a short story Woolf produced for Dial magazine in 1923. The events of the plot occur over a period of twenty-four hours in the life of society hostess Clarissa Dalloway and culminate in a large, elaborate party. The work is not only a critique of the social system, but deals as well with issues of madness and suicide through Woolf's characterization of Septimus Smith, a psychological casualty of the war. To the Lighthouse, a family novel with obvious connections to Woolf's own early life, involves Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, thinly disguised versions of her parents. Notwithstanding the subtitle's claim that Orlando is a biography, it is, in fact, a novel featuring an androgynous main character said to be modeled after Woolf's friend and reputed lover, Vita Sackville-West. The Waves, a complicated exploration of the inevitable mutability of human life, is perhaps Woolf's most complex work, considered by some, including her husband, to be her masterpiece.

Woolf explored issues of sex, gender, and feminism to some degree in her novels, particularly Orlando, and in her short stories, particularly "A Society." However, she most thoroughly articulated her ideas on the equality of women in her essays, especially A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas (1938). Both books explore male power and the injustices associated with it; Woolf especially criticizes the lack of legal rights, educational opportunities, and financial independence for women. Unlike some of her contemporaries, however, Woolf did not believe that women should strive to be like men. She believed, rather, that men should take on some of the characteristics associated with women.


Woolf's works were well received during her lifetime, and recent interest in specific Woolf texts has been revived by feminist scholars who claim Woolf as one of their own. Most current feminist scholarship centers on her A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas. Harold Bloom has claimed "puzzled" when these essays are considered "political theory, the genre invoked by literary feminists for whom Woolf's polemics have indeed assumed scriptural status." For Bloom, Woolf's "religion (no lesser word would be apt) was Paterian estheticism: the worship of art," rather than feminism. Herbert Marder cautions that the two texts should not be considered merely tracts and that they have a great deal in common with Woolf's novels. For Marder, "the tracts fade into fiction, the fiction echoes the tracts; and the continuity is so pronounced that it seems necessary to read every book by Virginia Woolf in the context of her work as a whole" in order to fully appreciate her as a feminist. Thus Marder traces the development of her feminist theories from her earliest novels, The Voyage Out and Night and Day (1919). Similarly, Toril Moi situates the early articulation of Woolf's concept of androgyny in the novel To the Lighthouse, in which the author "illustrates the destructive nature of a metaphysical belief in strong, immutably fixed gender identities—as represented by Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay." It was clear to Woolf, Moi asserts, "that the goal of the feminist struggle must precisely be to deconstruct the death-dealing binary oppositions of masculinity and femininity." Rachel Bowlby (see Further Reading) contends that Woolf's work is both embraced and derided by critics in general and by feminist critics in particular. According to Bowlby, feminist scholars who celebrate her work consider her "exemplary both in the sense of exceptional … and as an example," while Woolf's detractors claim that her work fits in "all too well with patriarchal norms, literary or social, to which authentic women's writing should by definition be opposed." Bowlby herself characterizes Woolf as a feminist writer who questioned masculinity and patriarchy in all aspects of her work.

Barbara Currier Bell And Carol Ohmann (Essay Date 1974)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5278

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


  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.

Virginia Woolf (Letter Date 16 October 1920)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1364

SOURCE: Woolf, Virginia. "Letter to the Editor, The New Statesman." In Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters of Virginia Woolf, edited by Joanne Trautmann Banks, pp. 124-27. London: Hogarth Press, 1989.

In the following letter, which originally appeared in the magazine New Statesman on October 16, 1920, Woolf responds to comments made by Desmond MacCarthy—"Affable Hawk"—regarding the intellectual inferiority of women by offering a number of historical precedents that contributed to such a conclusion.

To The Editor, The New Statesman

[Hogarth House, Richmond]

[16 October 1920]1


To begin with Sappho. We do not, as in the hypothetical case of Burns suggested by 'Affable Hawk', judge her merely by her fragments.2 We supplement our judgement by the opinions of those to whom her works were known in their entirety. It is true that she was born 2,500 years ago. According to 'Affable Hawk' the fact that no poetess of her genius has appeared from 600 B.C. to the eighteenth century proves that during that time there were no poetesses of potential genius. It follows that the absence of poetesses of moderate merit during that period proves that there were no women writers of potential mediocrity. There was no Sappho; but also, until the seventeenth or eighteenth century, there was no Marie Corelli and no Mrs Barclay.3

To account for the complete lack not only of good women writers but also of bad women writers I can conceive no reason unless it be that there was some external restraint upon their powers. For 'Affable Hawk' admits that there have always been women of second or third rate ability. Why, unless they were forcibly prohibited, did they not express these gifts in writing, music, or painting? The case of Sappho, though so remote, throws, I think, a little light upon the problem. I quote J. A. Symonds:

Several circumstances contributed to aid the development of lyric poetry in Lesbos. The customs of the Aeolians permitted more social and domestic freedom than was common in Greece. Aeolian women were not confined to the harem like Ionians, or subjected to the rigorous discipline of the Spartans. While mixing freely with male society, they were highly educated and accustomed to express their sentiments to an extent unknown elsewhere in history—until, indeed, the present time.4

And now to skip from Sappho to Ethel Smyth.

'There was nothing else [but intellectual inferiority] to prevent down the ages, so far as I can see, women who always played, sang and studied music, producing as many musicians from among their number as men have done,' says 'Affable Hawk'. Was there nothing to prevent Ethel Smyth from going to Munich [Leipzig, actually]? Was there no opposition from her father? Did she find that the playing, singing and study of music which well-to-do families provided for their daughters were such as to fit them to become musicians? Yet Ethel Smyth was born in the nineteenth century. There are no great women painters, says 'Affable Hawk', though painting is now within their reach. It is within their reach—if that is to say there is sufficient money after the sons have been educated to permit of paints and studios for the daughters and no family reason requiring their presence at home. Otherwise they must make a dash for it and disregard a species of torture more exquisitely painful, I believe, than any that man can imagine. And this is in the twentieth century. But, 'Affable Hawk' argues, a great creative mind would triumph over obstacles such as these. Can he point to a single one of the great geniuses of history who has sprung from a people stinted of education and held in subjection, as for example the Irish or the Jews? It seems to me indisputable that the conditions which make it possible for a Shakespeare to exist are that he shall have had predecessors in his art, shall make one of a group where art is freely discussed and practised, and shall himself have the utmost of freedom of action and experience. Perhaps in Lesbos, but never since, have these conditions been the lot of women. 'Affable Hawk' then names several men who have triumphed over poverty and ignorance. His first example is Isaac Newton. Newton was the son of a farmer; he was sent to a grammar school; he objected to working on the farm; an uncle, a clergyman, advised that he should be exempted and prepared for college; and at the age of nineteen he was sent to Trinity College, Cambridge. (See D.N.B.)5 Newton, that is to say, had to encounter about the same amount of opposition that the daughter of a country solicitor encounters who wishes to go to Newnham in the year 1920. But his discouragement is not increased by the works of Mr Bennett, Mr Orlo Williams and 'Affable Hawk'.

Putting that aside, my point is that you will not get a big Newton until you have produced a considerable number of lesser Newtons. 'Affable Hawk' will, I hope, not accuse me of cowardice if I do not take up your space with an enquiry into the careers of Laplace, Faraday, and Herschell, no compare the lives and achievements of Aquinas and St Theresa, nor decide whether it was Mill or his friends who was mistaken about Mrs Taylor.6 The fact, as I think we shall agree, is that women from the earliest times to the present day have brought forth the entire population of the universe. This occupation has taken much time and strength. It has also brought them into subjection to men, and incidentally—if that were to the point—bred in them some of the most lovable and admirable qualities of the race. My difference with 'Affable Hawk' is not that he denies the present intellectual equality of men and women. It is that he, with Mr Bennett, asserts that the mind of woman is not sensibly affected by education and liberty; that it is incapable of the highest achievements; and that it must remain for ever in the condition in which it now is. I must repeat that the fact that women have improved (which 'Affable Hawk' now seems to admit), shows that they may still improve; for I cannot see why a limit should be set to their improvement in the nineteenth century rather than in the one hundred and nineteenth. But it is not education only that is needed. It is that women should have liberty of experience; that they should differ from men without fear and express their difference openly (for I do not agree with 'Affable Hawk' that men and women are alike); that all activity of the mind should be so encouraged that there will always be in existence a nucleus of women who think, invent, imagine, and create as freely as men do, and with as little fear of ridicule and condescension. These conditions, in my view of great importance, are impeded by such statements as those of 'Affable Hawk' and Mr Bennett, for a man has still much greater facilities that a woman for making his views known and respected. Certainly I cannot doubt that if such opinions prevail in the future we shall remain in a condition of half-civilised barbarism. At least that is how I define an eternity of dominion on the one hand and of servility on the other. For the degradation of being a slave is only equalled by the degradation of being a master.

Yours, etc., Virginia Woolf


  1. 'Affable Hawk' (Desmond MacCarthy) had not been convinced by Virginia's arguments and had written a rebuttal, to which Virginia replied the following week.
  2. MacCarthy had suggested that Robert Burns too might be considered a great poet if, like Sappho, his work had survived only in fragments.
  3. The popular novelists Marie Corelli (Mary Mackay, 1855-1924) and Florence Barclay (1862-1921).
  4. From John Addington Symonds' Studies of the Greek Poets (1873).
  5. The Dictionary of National Biography, whose first editor, 1882-91, was Leslie Stephen.
  6. Mrs Taylor, whom MacCarthy used to support his argument along with the others named in this sentence, married John Stuart Mill in 1851. The philosopher thought her his superior in every way, but his friends disagreed with him.

Principal Works

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 172

The Voyage Out (novel) 1915

Two Stories [with Leonard Woolf] (short stories) 1917

Kew Gardens (short stories) 1919

Night and Day (novel) 1919

Monday or Tuesday (short stories) 1921

Jacob's Room (novel) 1922

Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (essay) 1924

The Common Reader (criticism) 1925

Mrs. Dalloway (novel) 1925

To the Lighthouse (novel) 1927

Orlando: A Biography (novel) 1928

A Room of One's Own (essay) 1929

The Waves (novel) 1931

The Common Reader: Second Series (criticism) 1932

Flush: A Biography (fictional biography) 1933

The Years (novel) 1937

Three Guineas (essays) 1938

Roger Fry: A Biography (biography) 1940

Between the Acts (novel) 1941

The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays (essays) 1942

A Haunted House, and Other Short Stories (short stories) 1943

The Moment, and Other Essays (essays) 1947

The Captain's Death Bed, and Other Essays (essays) 1950

A Writer's Diary (journal) 1953

Hours in a Library (essay) 1957

Granite and Rainbow (essays) 1958

Collected Essays. 4 vols. (essays) 1966-67

Mrs. Dalloway's Party: A Short Story Sequence (short story) 1973

The Diary of Virginia Woolf. 5 vols. (diaries) 1974-84

The Letters of Virginia Woolf. 6 vols. (letters) 1975-80

Moments of Being (autobiographical essays) 1976

The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf (short stories) 1985

Toril Moi (Essay Date 1985)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4253

SOURCE: Moi, Toril. “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? Feminist Readings of Woolf.” In “Mrs. Dalloway” and “To the Lighthouse”: Virginia Woolf, edited by Su Reid, pp. 87-97. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1993.

In the following excerpt, which comprises the second part of the introduction to her 1985 treatise Sexual/Textual Politics, Moi outlines a way of reading Woolf’s texts according to French feminist theories, which significantly diverge from the aesthetic categories of most Anglo-American feminist critics.

Woolf seems to practise what we might now call a ‘deconstructive’ form of writing, one that engages with and thereby exposes the duplicitous nature of discourse. In her own textual practice, Woolf exposes the way in which language refuses to be pinned down to an underlying essential meaning. According to the French philosopher Jacques Derrida, language is structured as an endless deferral of meaning, and any search for an essential, absolutely stable meaning must therefore be considered metaphysical. There is no final element, no fundamental unit, no transcendental signified that is meaningful in itself and thus escapes the ceaseless interplay of linguistic deferral and difference. The free play of signifiers will never yield a final, unified meaning that in turn might ground and explain all the others.1 It is in the light of such textual and linguistic theory that we can read Woolf’s playful shifts and changes of perspective, in both her fiction and in Room, as something rather more than a wilful desire to irritate the serious-minded feminist critic. Through her conscious exploitation of the sportive, sensual nature of language, Woolf rejects the metaphysical essentialism underlying patriarchal ideology, which hails God, the Father or the phallus as its transcendental signified.

But Woolf does more than practise a nonessentialist form of writing. She also reveals a deeply sceptical attitude to the male-humanist concept of an essential human identity. For what can this self-identical identity be if all meaning is a ceaseless play of difference, if absence as much as presence is the foundation of meaning? The humanist concept of identity is also challenged by psychoanalytic theory, which Woolf undoubtedly knew. The Hogarth Press, founded by Virginia and Leonard Woolf, published the first English translations of Freud’s central works, and when Freud arrived in London in 1939 Virginia Woolf went to visit him. Freud, we are tantalisingly informed, gave her a narcissus.

For Woolf, as for Freud, unconscious drives and desires constantly exert a pressure on our conscious thoughts and actions. For psychoanalysis the human subject is a complex entity, of which the conscious mind is only a small part. Once one has accepted this view of the subject, however, it becomes impossible to argue that even our conscious wishes and feelings originate within a unified self, since we can have no knowledge of the possibly unlimited unconscious processes that shape our conscious thought. Conscious thought, then, must be seen as the ‘overdetermined’ manifestation of a multiplicity of structures that intersect to produce that unstable constellation the liberal humanists call the ‘self’. These structures encompass not only unconscious sexual desires, fears and phobias, but also a host of conflicting material, social, political and ideological factors of which we are equally unaware. It is this highly complex network of conflicting structures, the anti-humanist would argue, that produces the subject and its experiences, rather than the other way round. This belief does not of course render the individual’s experiences in any sense less real or valuable; but it does mean that such experiences cannot be understood other than through the study of their multiple determinants—determinants of which conscious thought is only one, and a potentially treacherous one at that. If a similar approach is taken to the literary text, it follows that the search for a unified individual self, or gender identity or indeed ‘textual identity’ in the literary work must be seen as drastically reductive.

It is in this sense that Elaine Showalter’s recommendation to remain detached from the narrative strategies of the text is equivalent to not reading it at all. For it is only through an examination of the detailed strategies of the text on all its levels that we will be able to uncover some of the conflicting, contradictory elements that contribute to make it precisely this text, with precisely these words and this configuration. The humanist desire for a unity of vision or thought (or as Holly puts it, for a ‘noncontradictory perception of the world’2 ) is, in effect, a demand for a sharply reductive reading of literature—a reading that, not least in the case of an experimental writer like Woolf, can have little hope of grasping the central problems posed by pioneering modes of textual production. A ‘non-contradictory perception of the world’, for Lukács’s Marxist opponent Bertolt Brecht, is precisely a reactionary one.

The French feminist philosopher Julia Kristeva has argued that the modernist poetry of Lautréamont, Mallarmé and others constitutes a ‘revolutionary’ form of writing. The modernist poem, with its abrupt shifts, ellipses, breaks and apparent lack of logical construction is a kind of writing in which the rhythms of the body and the unconscious have managed to break through the strict rational defences of conventional social meaning. Since Kristeva sees such conventional meaning as the structure that sustains the whole of the symbolic order—that is, all human social and cultural institutions—the fragmentation of symbolic language in modernist poetry comes for her to parallel and prefigure a total social revolution. For Kristeva, that is to say, there is a specific practice of writing that is itself ‘revolutionary’, analogous to sexual and political transformation, and that by its very existence testifies to the possibility of transforming the symbolic order of orthodox society from the inside.3 One might argue in this light that Woolf’s refusal to commit herself in her essays to a so-called rational or logical form of writing, free from fictional techniques, indicates a similar break with symbolic language, as of course do many of the techniques she deploys in her novels.

Kristeva also argues that many women will be able to let what she calls the ‘spasmodic force’ of the unconscious disrupt their language because of their strong links with the pre-Oedipal motherfigure. But if those unconscious pulsations were to take over the subject entirely, the subject would fall back into pre-Oedipal or imaginary chaos and develop some form of mental illness. The subject whose language lets such forces disrupt the symbolic order, in other words, is also the subject who runs the greater risk of lapsing into madness. Seen in this context, Woolf’s own periodic attacks of mental illness can be linked both to her textual strategies and to her feminism. For the symbolic order is a patriarchal order, ruled by the Law of the Father, and any subject who tries to disrupt it, who lets unconscious forces slip through the symbolic repression, puts her or himself in a position of revolt against this regime. Woolf herself suffered acute patriarchal oppression at the hands of the psychiatric establishment, and Mrs. Dalloway contains not only a splendidly satirical attack on that profession (as represented by Sir William Bradshaw), but also a superbly perspicacious representation of a mind that succumbs to ‘imaginary’ chaos in the character of Septimus Smith. Indeed Septimus can be seen as the negative parallel to Clarissa Dalloway, who herself steers clear of the threatening gulf of madness only at the price of repressing her passions and desires, becoming a cold but brilliant woman highly admired in patriarchal society. In this way Woolf discloses the dangers of the invasion of unconscious pulsions as well as the price paid by the subject who successfully preserves her sanity, thus maintaining a precarious balance between an overestimation of so-called ‘feminine’ madness and a too precipitate rejection of the values of the symbolic order.

It is evident that for Julia Kristeva it is not the biological sex of a person, but the subject position she or he takes up, that determines their revolutionary potential. Her views of feminist politics reflect this refusal of biologism and essentialism. The feminist struggle, she argues, must be seen historically and politically as a three-tiered one, which can be schematically summarised as follows:

1 Women demand equal access to the symbolic order. Liberal feminism. Equality.

2 Women reject the male symbolic order in the name of difference. Radical feminism. Femininity extolled.

3 (This is Kristeva’s own position.) Women reject the dichotomy between masculine and feminine as metaphysical.

The third position is one that has deconstructed the opposition between masculinity and femininity, and therefore necessarily challenges the very notion of identity. Kristeva writes:

In the third attitude, which I strongly advocate— which I imagine?—the very dichotomy man/ woman as an opposition between two rival entities may be understood as belonging to metaphysics. What can ‘identity’, even ‘sexual identity’, mean in a new theoretical and scientific space where the very notion of identity is challenged?4

The relationship between the second and the third positions here requires some comment. If the defence of the third position implies a total rejection of stage two (which I do not think it does), this would be a grievous political error. For it still remains politically essential for feminists to defend women as women in order to counteract the patriarchal oppression that precisely despises women as women. But an ‘undeconstructed’ form of ‘stage two’ feminism, unaware of the metaphysical nature of gender identities, runs the risk of becoming an inverted form of sexism. It does so by uncritically taking over the very metaphysical categories set up by patriarchy in order to keep women in their places, despite attempts to attach new feminist values to these old categories. An adoption of Kristeva’s ‘deconstructed’ form of feminism therefore in one sense leaves everything as it was—our positions in the political struggle have not changed—but in another sense radically transforms our awareness of the nature of that struggle.

Here, I feel, Kristeva’s feminism echoes the position taken up by Virginia Woolf some sixty years earlier. Read from this perspective, To the Lighthouse illustrates the destructive nature of a metaphysical belief in strong, immutably fixed gender identities—as represented by Mr and Mrs Ramsay—whereas Lily Briscoe (an artist) represents the subject who deconstructs this opposition, perceives its pernicious influence and tries as far as is possible in a still rigidly patriarchal order to live as her own woman, without regard for the crippling definitions of sexual identity to which society would have her conform. It is in this context that we must situate Woolf’s crucial concept of androgyny. This is not, as Showalter argues, a flight from fixed gender identities, but a recognition of their falsifying metaphysical nature. Far from fleeing such gender identities because she fears them, Woolf rejects them because she has seen them for what they are. She has understood that the goal of the feminist struggle must precisely be to deconstruct the death-dealing binary oppositions of masculinity and femininity.

Title page of Mrs. Dalloway, published in 1925.

In her fascinating book Toward Androgyny, published in 1973, Carolyn Heilbrun sets out her own definition of androgyny in similar terms when she describes it as the concept of an ‘unbounded and hence fundamentally indefinable nature’.5 When she later finds it necessary to distinguish androgyny from feminism, and therefore implicitly defines Woolf as a non-feminist, her distinction seems to be based on the belief that only the first two stages of Kristeva’s threetiered struggle could count as feminist strategies. She acknowledges that in modern-day society it might be difficult to separate the defenders of androgyny from feminists, ‘because of the power men now hold, and because of the political weakness of women’6 but refuses to draw the conclusion that feminists can in fact desire androgyny. As opposed to Heilbrun, I would stress with Kristeva that a theory that demands the deconstruction of sexual identity is indeed authentically feminist. In Woolf’s case the question is rather whether or not her remarkably advanced understanding of feminist objectives prevented her from taking up a progressive political position in the feminist struggles of her day. In the light of Three Guineas (and of A Room of One’s Own), the answer to this question is surely no. The Woolf of Three Guineas shows an acute awareness of the dangers of both liberal and radical feminism (Kristeva’s positions one and two), and argues instead for a ‘stage three’ position; but despite her objections she ends up firmly in favour of women’s right to financial independence, education and entry into the professions—all central issues for feminists of the 1920s and 1930s.

Nancy Topping Bazin reads Woolf’s concept of androgyny as the union of masculinity and femininity—precisely the opposite, in fact, of viewing it as the deconstruction of the duality. For Bazin, masculinity and femininity in Woolf are concepts that retain their full essential charge of meaning. She thus argues that Lily Briscoe in To the Lighthouse must be read as being just as feminine as Mrs Ramsay, and that the androgynous solution of the novel consists in a balance of the masculine and the feminine ‘approach to truth’.7 Herbert Marder, conversely, advances in his Feminism and Art the trite and traditional case that Mrs Ramsay must be seen as an androgynous ideal in herself: ‘Mrs Ramsay as wife, mother, hostess, is the androgynous artist in life, creating with the whole of her being’.8 Heilbrun rightly rejects such a reading, claiming that:

It is only in groping our way through the clouds of sentiment and misplaced biographical information that we are able to discover Mrs Ramsay, far from androgynous and complete, to be as onesided and life-denying as her husband.9

The host of critics who with Marder read Mrs Ramsay and Mrs Dalloway as Woolf’s ideal of femininity are thus either betraying their vestigial sexism—the sexes are fundamentally different and should stay that way—or their adherence to what Kristeva would call a ‘stage two’ feminism: women are different from men and it is time they began praising the superiority of their sex. These are both, I believe, misreadings of Woolf’s texts, as when Kate Millett writes that:

Virginia Woolf glorified two housewives, Mrs Dalloway and Mrs Ramsay, recorded the suicidal misery of Rhoda in The Waves without ever explaining its causes, and was argumentative yet somehow unsuccessful, perhaps because unconvinced, in conveying the frustrations of the woman artist in Lily Briscoe.10

A combination of Derridean and Kristevan theory, then, would seem to hold considerable promise for future feminist readings of Woolf. But it is important to be aware of the political limitations of Kristeva’s arguments. Though her views on the ‘politics of the subject’ constitute a significant contribution to revolutionary theory, her belief that the revolution within the subject somehow prefigures a later social revolution poses severe problems for any materialist analysis of society. The strength of Kristevan theory lies in its emphasis on the politics of language as a material and social structure, but it takes little or no account of other conflicting ideological and material structures that must be part of any radical social transformation. It should nevertheless be emphasised that the ‘solution’ to Kristeva’s problems lies not in a speedy return to Lukács, but in an integration and transvaluation of her ideas within a larger feminist theory of ideology.11

A Marxist-feminist critic like Michèle Barrett has stressed the materialist aspect of Woolf’s politics. In her introduction to Virginia Woolf: Women and Writing, she argues that:

Virginia Woolf’s critical essays offer us an unparalleled account of the development of women’s writing, perceptive discussion of her predecessors and contemporaries, and a pertinent insistence on the material conditions which have structured women’s consciousness.12

Barrett, however, considers Woolf only as essayist and critic, and seems to take the view that when it comes to her fiction, Woolf’s aesthetic theory, particularly the concept of an androgynous art, ‘continually resists the implications of the materialist position she advances in A Room of One’s Own’ (p. 22). A Kristevan approach to Woolf, as I have argued, would refuse to accept this binary opposition of aesthetics on the one hand and politics on the other, locating the politics of Woolf’s writing precisely in her textual practice. That practice is of course much more marked in the novels than in most of the essays.

Another group of feminist critics, centred around Jane Marcus, consistently argue for a radical reading of Woolf’s work without recourse to either Marxist or poststructuralist theory. Jane Marcus claims Woolf as a ‘guerrilla fighter in a Victorian skirt’,13 and sees in her a champion of both socialism and feminism. Marcus’s article ‘Thinking back through our mothers’, however, makes it abundantly clear that it is exceptionally difficult to argue this case convincingly. Her article opens with this assertion:

Writing, for Virginia Woolf, was a revolutionary act. Her alienation from British patriarchal culture and its capitalist and imperialist forms and values, was so intense that she was filled with terror and determination as she wrote. A guerrilla fighter in a Victorian skirt, she trembled with fear as she prepared her attacks, her raids on the enemy.14

Are we to believe that there is a causal link between the first and the following sentences— that writing was a revolutionary act for Woolf because she could be seen to tremble as she wrote? Or should the passage be read as an extended metaphor, as an image of the fears of any woman writing under patriarchy? In which case it no longer tells us anything specific about Woolf’s particular writing practices. Or again, perhaps the first sentence is the claim that the following sentences are meant to corroborate? If this is the case, the argument also fails. For Marcus here unproblematically evokes biographical evidence to sustain her thesis about the nature of Woolf’s writing: the reader is to be convinced by appeals to biographical circumstances rather than to the texts. But does it really matter whether or not Woolf was in the habit of trembling at her desk? Surely what matters is what she wrote? This kind of emotionalist argument surfaces again in Marcus’s extensive discussion of the alleged parallels between Woolf and the German Marxist critic Walter Benjamin (‘Both Woolf and Benjamin chose suicide rather than exile before the tyranny of fascism’15). But surely Benjamin’s suicide at the Spanish frontier, where as an exiled German Jew fleeing the Nazi occupation of France he feared being handed over to the Gestapo, must be considered in a rather different light from Woolf’s suicide in her own back garden in unoccupied England, however political we might wish her private life to be? Marcus’s biographical analogies strive to establish Woolf as a remarkable individual, and so fall back into the old-style historicalbiographical criticism much in vogue before the American New Critics entered the scene in the 1930s. How far a radical feminist approach can simply take over such traditional methods untransformed is surely debatable.

We have seen that current Anglo-American feminist criticism tends to read Woolf through traditional aesthetic categories, relying largely on a liberal-humanist version of the Lukácsian aesthetics, against which Brecht so effectively polemicised. The anti-humanist reading I have advocated as yielding a better understanding of the political nature of Woolf’s aesthetics has yet to be written. The only study of Woolf to have integrated some of the theoretical advances of poststructuralist thought is written by a man, Perry Meisel, and though it is by no means an anti-feminist or even an unfeminist work, it is nevertheless primarily concerned with the influence on Woolf of Walter Pater. Meisel is the only critic of my acquaintance to have gasped the radically deconstructed character of Woolf’s texts:

With ‘difference’ the reigning principle in Woolf as well as Pater, there can be no natural or inherent characteristics of any kind, even between the sexes, because all character, all language, even the language of sexuality, emerges by means of a difference from itself.16

Meisel also shrewdly points out that this principle of difference makes it impossible to select any one of Woolf’s works as more representative, more essentially ‘Woolfian’ than any other, since the notable divergence among her texts ‘forbids us to believe any moment in Woolf’s career to be more conclusive than another’. It is a mistake, Meisel concludes, to ‘insist on the coherence of self and author in the face of a discourse that dislocates or decentres them both, that skews the very categories to which our remarks properly refer’.17

The paradoxical conclusion of our investigations into the feminist reception of Woolf is therefore that she has yet to be adequately welcomed and acclaimed by her feminist daughters in England and America. To date she has either been rejected by them as insufficiently feminist, or praised on grounds that seem to exclude her fiction. By their more or less unwitting subscription to the humanist aesthetic categories of the traditional male academic hierarchy, feminist critics have seriously undermined the impact of their challenge to that very institution. The only difference between a feminist and a non-feminist critic in this tradition then becomes the formal political perspective of the critic. The feminist critic thus unwittingly puts herself in a position from which it becomes impossible to read Virginia Woolf as the progressive, feminist writer of genius she undoubtedly was. A feminist criticism that would do both justice and homage to its great mother and sister: this, surely, should be our goal.


[Toril Moi’s Sexual/Textual Politics: Feminist Literary Theory made a wide range of readers and students aware that the work of Hélène Cixous, Luce Irigaray, and, especially, Julia Kristeva might be directly related to the reading of other texts. The essay printed here is most of the second half of Moi’s Introduction. In the first half Moi laments the lack of admiration accorded, at her time of writing, by feminist critics to Woolf, whom she calls ‘this great feminist writer’ (Sexual/Textual Politics, p. 2) and ‘the greatest British woman writer of this century’ (p. 8). She argues that critics such as Elaine Showalter, whose influential A Literature of Their Own (1977) had accused Woolf of failing to present readers with a strong representation of her suffering as a woman, are making naïve demands of Woolf’s texts. With Showalter’s work she specifically groups Patricia Stubbs’s Women and Fiction. Feminism and the Novel 1880-1920 (Brighton, 1981) and Marcia Holly’s essay ‘Consciousness and Authenticity: Toward a Feminist Aesthetic’ (1975) (see note 2 below). Comparing these three with the Marxist critic Georg Lukács (see note 9 below), Moi argues that they work from the ‘humanist’ belief that individuals are fixed entities who have defined experiences which can be objectively observed; and that they simplistically demand that women’s writing should give an ‘authentic’ and realistic account of women’s observed experience.

In the second part of her Introduction, reprinted here, Moi opposes this idea of the individual to that of the French theorists. Here she argues that consciousness is fluid, and constructed by forces of which the individual is unaware. She proposes a way of reading that sees the text as a place in which consciousness is enacted, not as a representation of objective experience; and argues that Woolf’s writing must be read in this way. Ed.]

1. [In her original note Moi refers readers, for an introduction to Derrida’s thought and to other forms of deconstruction, to Christopher Norris, Deconstruction: Theory and Practice (London and New York, 1982). Ed.]

2. [Moi is referring to Marcia Holly, ‘Consciousness and Authenticity: Toward a Feminist Aesthetic’, in Josephine Donovan (ed.), Feminist Literary Criticism. Explorations in Theory (Lexington, 1975), pp. 38-47). Ed.]

3. [Moi writes, in a note to the original essay, that this presentation of Kristeva’s position is based on her La

Révolution du langage poétique (Paris, 1974). Selections from this, in translation, appear in Toril Moi (ed.), The Kristeva Reader (Oxford, 1986), pp. 89-136. Ed.]

4. [This quotation is from Kristeva’s essay ‘Le Temps des Femmes’ (Paris, 1979), translated as ‘Women’s Time’ in Toril Moi (ed.), The Kristeva Reader, p. 209. Ed.]

5. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, Toward Androgyny. Aspects of Male and Female in Literature (London, 1973), p. xi.

6. Ibid., pp. xvi-xvii.

7. Nancy Topping Bazin, Virginia Woolf and the Androgynous Vision (New Brunswick NJ, 1973), p. 138.

8. Herbert Marder, Feminism and Art. A Study of Virginia Woolf (Chicago and London, 1968), p. 128.

9. Toward Androgyny, p. 155.

10. Kate Millett, Sexual Politics (1969; London, 1977), pp. 139-40.

11. [In the earlier part of the Introduction (Sexual/Textual Politics, pp. 4-6) Moi compared Showalter’s demand for ‘a powerful expression of personal experience in a social framework’ in feminist writing with the ‘proletarian humanism’ of Lukács. Of Lukács’s work she particularly cites, in a note, his ‘Preface’ in Studies in European Realism. A Sociological Survey of the Writings of Balzac, Stendhal, Zola, Tolstoy, Gorki and Others

(London, 1972), pp. 1-19. Ed.]

12. Michèle Barrett (ed.), Virginia Woolf: Women and Writing (London, 1979), p. 36.

13. Jane Marcus (ed.), New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf (Nebraska and London, 1981), p. 1.

14. Ibid., p. 1.

15. Ibid., p. 7.

16. Perry Meisel, The Absent Father. Virginia Woolf and Walter Pater (New Haven, 1980), p. 234.

17. Ibid., p. 242.

Harold Bloom (Essay Date Fall 1994)

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4989

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.

Title Commentary

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 5342


SOURCE: Rosenman, Ellen Bayuk. "Difficulties and Contradictions: The Blind Spots of A Room of One's Own." In "A Room of One's Own": Women Writers and the Politics of Creativity, pp. 103-16. New York: Twayne, 1995.

In the following essay, Rosenman explicates inconsistencies in Woolf's thought at key points in A Room of One's Own, suggesting that some of the central issues raised by the essay remain disputed.

Thus far I have been taking A Room of One's Own at its word, explicating its intentions and presenting it as a coherent, persuasive whole. But the essay does present the reader with certain difficulties. At key points Woolf's thought is in conflict with itself, revealing ambivalence about some of the essay's central issues. It is no insult to suggest that some of the essay's issues remain unresolved or in dispute. To begin with, it is arguably the first feminist literary history, and we could hardly expect it to reflect the feminist thinking that would come after it. While what is often called the second wave of modern feminism, begun in the early 1970s, rescued the essay from obscurity, it has also brought new considerations to bear that Woolf's essay, not surprisingly, did not anticipate. Moreover, many of these issues are thorny ones. The idea of androgyny, for instance, has undergone considerable revision in the last 30 years, going in and out of fashion. The gaps between second-wave feminism and Woolf's essay, along with fluctations in recent feminist thinking, confirm her notion that intellectual and artistic labors are culturally conditioned and historically specific; they change over time as their contexts change. Finally, A Room of One's Own is one of Woolf's first political arguments. She is still in the process of working out and working through difficult issues. It makes sense to regard A Room of One's Own as a transitional work in which Woolf begins to divest herself of cultural beliefs about the transcendence of art—traces of which still color her thinking.

The most dramatic problem presented by A Room of One's Own is this: despite Woolf's insistence on a gender-specific tradition, she undercuts that notion in several ways. Two comments are widely quoted. One is about Mary Carmichael: "She wrote as a woman, but as a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman, so that her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself" (93). What can Woolf mean by this? Why is the path to womanhood unconscious of gender? This is an odd assertion in an argument that takes gender identity so seriously and sees its characteristics as socially constructed. Does Woolf assume that there is an innate femininity lodged in the unconscious that can only be retrieved through forgetfulness? We might wonder, too, what value her own book would have according to this quotation. So much of its purpose is to clarify women's consciousness of their sex and to undo repression. Should the woman writer then forget what she has learned, hoping that her unconscious has somehow assimilated this knowledge and will give it back to her in a more artistic form, without her being aware of it? My questions are meant to suggest how difficult it is to reconcile this passage with the very conscious emphasis on gender in Woolf's essay. Surely no one would imagine that A Room of One's Own was written by someone who had forgotten she was a woman.

A second, similar passage occurs toward the end of the essay, its importance underlined by the fact that it is the "very first sentence" that the narrator plans to write on the subject "Women and Fiction": "It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death" (104). Once again the writer is advised to be unconscious, although perhaps in a more narrow way. In this sentence, to speak consciously as a woman is to express a grievance. Perhaps we can interpret this as a rejection of polemic: Woolf does not want women writers to make speeches in their novels. But her essay often demonstrates the difficulty of not laying stress on a grievance and the unhealthy role of repression in maintaining equanimity.

We recall that the narrator avoids a sense of grievance at Oxbridge by internalizing injunctions against women's presence: having been banished from the grass and the library, she has "no wish" to enter the chapel (8). But this lack of desire is a dead end: she has simply acquiesced to patriarchal prohibitions—an act that would hardly free her to write without being conscious of her sex. Throughout much of A Room of One's Own, to be a woman is to be aggrieved, and with good reason. How do we judge the works of the women writers Woolf discusses, almost all of whom express anger at their plight? Are they all "doomed to death," unable to "grow in the minds of others" (104), as Woolf claims? Has only Jane Austen survived?

When Woolf introduces "conscious bias" into the passage she further complicates the issue. These terms are not equal; there is a slippage between consciousness of a particular identity, grievance "with justice," and bias. Gender identity, with its distinctive perspective, has degenerated into a distorted perception. Ironically, in this passage Woolf seems guilty of the same kind of misreading that patriarchy has always given women, as when the redoubtable Desmond MacCarthy calls Rebecca West "that arrant feminist" for saying that men are snobs—which Woolf calmly characterizes as "a possibly true if uncomplimentary statement about the other sex" (35). In this kind of misreading, women's protests against male authority are conveniently dismissed as hysterical, distorted, dogmatic, and self-serving. Women's focus on their own experience, including their grievances, is a kind of special pleading, while men's protests against women, in contrast, take on the status of fact. Having deconstructed the notion of objectivity in the British Museum chapter, Woolf seems to reintroduce it in this passage as an appropriate criterion for women's writing.

From these passages it seems clear that Woolf cannot completely divest herself of a belief in the value of transcendence in art even in the face of her more sustained gender-specific and materialist assumptions. In part, Woolf's aesthetic tastes underwrote this contradictory belief. In the essay "Modern Fiction" she praises the Russian writers as "spiritualists" rather than "materialists" (the label she gave her antagonist Arnold Bennett), because they capture "life or spirit, truth or reality" rather than focusing on the physical and historical details of their stories and characters.1 According to Woolf, spiritualists reject the depiction of the lives of people as they are embedded in a particular society and focus instead on more abstract philosophical questions: Does life have meaning? What makes us human? Of what does spiritual life consist? In the essay Woolf imagines a kind of primordial state of consciousness that is articulated into lived experience: "The mind receives a myriad of impressions—trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall,… they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday" (154).

As a novelist, particularly in the period before the publication of A Room of One's Own, Woolf obviously attempts to capture the shower of atoms and lets the life of Monday or Tuesday recede into the background—or, rather, she shows the process by which they shape themselves into the particularities of time, place, and individual experience. Woolf's love of the Russian novelists and her own philosophy as expressed here derive from a search for what transcends the here and now.

This viewpoint is clearly at odds with a focus on anything as specific as gender identity as historically constituted. The desire for transcendence runs as an undercurrent throughout A Room of One's Own. In her ideal representations of creativity, Woolf frequently uses metaphors of light. When she describes the inspirational effects of the Oxbridge meal, I have said that these metaphors point back to embodied experience. Elsewhere, however, their intangibility suggests a desire to escape from material life. Shakespeare, the ideal artist, is "incandescent" (56); his mind has consumed all impediments to a kind of perfect impersonality, much like that which T. S. Eliot describes in "Tradition and the Individual Talent." The "fire of genius" and the "inner light" that produce and discern great art are also part of the vocabulary of disembodied creativity (72).

Woolf likens the works of "these great artists" to messages written in invisible ink that become clear when held to the light. Somehow they contain what every reader has "felt and known and desired" (72). In place of a distinctive perspective Woolf posits a universal wisdom; in place of the broken sentence and sequence of Mary Carmichael's novel she envisions a kind of ur-truth that is perfectly, wonderfully, and almost mystically intelligible because it is, in some sense, already known, as if it were part of the human genetic code. The narrator's struggles with Mary's novel, her groping attempts to decide whether the novel is original or merely clumsy, drop out of sight. One might argue that Mary's novel has not attained the ideal of great art, otherwise it, too, would evoke this magical response, but Woolf works with an entirely different set of assumptions in these two versions of reading.

The invisibility of the ink suggests the degree to which Woolf's ideal leans toward a disembodied, ahistorical, transcendent version of art, represented as a private, esoteric transaction between writer and reader. On the other hand, Mary Carmichael's authorship, figured in the female rider taking a fence in a crowd of patriarchs, is thoroughly grounded in gender, history, the body, and society. It is not that Mary Carmichael's novel is not as good; it is that Woolf has changed the rules. Thinking of Milton's bogey and of Charles Lamb's incredulity that Lycidas was a product of fallible human effort rather than divine inspiration, one wonders whether even the greatest author can blot a line in invisible ink and still work his magic.

With these considerations in mind, it is interesting to return to one example of distorted women's writing—Charlotte Brontë's Jane Eyre—because the issue of anger presents another conflict between Woolf's transcendent and materialist beliefs. The narrator criticizes Brontë for allowing her anger to show; because of this slip, her novel is not the incandescent work it ought to be. We might question, however, whether this criticism is too simple, for the narrator's own anger was an important source of insight for her in the British Museum. While Woolf's disappointment with Brontë seems genuine, we should also be alert to the possibility of reading these awkward breaks in a different way. Rather than being only technical flaws, perhaps they are also gateways to a distinctively female point of view. The narrator complains about the "jerk" in the novel when Jane delivers an extended speech about women's need for freedom and hears the laugh that she thinks is the servant Grace Poole's but really belongs to Rochester's mad wife, Bertha, whom he has imprisoned in his house (69). The narrator says that "the continuity is disturbed" by this "awk-ward break"; Jane's speech has run away with Brontë because it expresses her own grievance about her narrow life, and she must wrest her narrative back on track (69). In constructing this passage Woolf assumes that there is no connection between Jane's speech and the laugh, but, even granting room for the possibility of different interpretations, we might still suggest that Woolf has missed the point of the passage.

In fact, as Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (1979, 349) have argued, the juxtaposition of Jane's speech and Bertha's laugh is thematically crucial; it contrasts the young girl's articulate but naive dreams of freedom with the sardonic and inarticulate yet powerful comment by the incarcerated mad wife, whose place Jane will shortly be asked to take when Rochester proposes. Brontë's "jerk" sharpens the irony of their relationship as both foils and doubles of each other. Jane Eyre is very much a cover story, like A Room of One's Own, encoding subversive messages about patriarchy and marriage in the figure of the mad wife. It is perhaps unfair to expect Woolf to deliver a particular interpretation of a novel, but it is certainly ironic that Woolf proves her own point with a critical lapse: she has missed the significance of the passage in Jane Eyre precisely because Brontë has disturbed the continuity or, to use Woolf's expression, has broken the sequence. Perhaps Woolf was distracted by the vexing issue of anger that the passage from Jane Eyre clearly represents, both in Jane's resentment and Bertha's madness. In any case, her insistence on an art free from grievance has led her to misread a now-classic example of women's writing as technically flawed rather than formally and ideologically meaningful.

Woolf's treatment of Jane Eyre obliquely and perhaps inadvertently suggests this. Woolf quotes Jane's angry speech at such length that its point commands our attention; in a sense, Woolf turns the stage over to Jane's anger even though she criticizes it. As Mary Jacobus says, this passage "opens up a rift in her own [Woolf's] seamless web. What she herself cannot say without a loss of calmness (rage has been banned in the interests of literature) is uttered instead by another woman writer. The overflow in Jane Eyre washes into A Room of One's Own. "2 Jacobus implies that Woolf's ambivalence about female anger acts itself out in this passage: She displays Jane's outburst as a covert way of expressing the resentments of the female writer without leaving herself open to charges of personal grievance. As is often the case in this essay, it is difficult to reduce Woolf's "real" point of view to a single attitude. The essay suggests both that Brontë's anger disfigures her writing and that anger is a legitimate, essential source of female self-expression.

This conflict was very much on Woolf's mind as she wrote the essay. On the one hand, writing A Room of One's Own was therapeutic for her: "I seem able to write criticism fearlessly. Because of a R. of ones Own I said suddenly to myself last night" (Diary, 4: 25). This comment implies that Woolf does not need to disguise her opinions or her emotions. At the same time, the multilayered, allusive narrative also protected Woolf from sensitive material. In a letter to a close friend she writes, "I'm so glad you thought it good tempered—my blood is apt to boil on this one subject … and I didn't want it to" (Letters, 4: 106). She worried that "if I had said 'Look here, I am uneducated because my brothers used all the family funds'—which is a fact—'Well,' they'd have said, 'she has an axe to grind.'"3 Woolf explained that she "forced myself to keep my own figure fictitious, legendary," to avoid the charge of personal grievance.4 Woolf's ceremony of investiture is not entirely symbolic; as a woman writer she shares the conflicts of her narrator.

While Woolf may have legitimate reason to fear expressing anger, her desire to mask her boiling blood beneath a good-tempered facade smacks of the advice of the Angel in the House. The essay's ambiguous use of anger as the source of both artistic blemishes and political insight reflects Woolf's ambivalence about her uncensored self-expression. While Woolf's "I" at the end of the essay has presumably worked through all the issues of the preceding pages, the issue of anger and writing remained unresolved for Virginia Woolf herself. Her sophisticated narrative succeeds perhaps too well in pulling its punches, as contemporary reviews that praise its charm and lightness suggest. Woolf encodes her own anger so completely that it almost disappears, fictionalized and absorbed into the narrator. A Room of One's Own can be seen as Woolf's own cover story, distancing her from dangerous material and deflecting her uneasiness as a politicized woman writer into a series of stories about dead and imaginary writers. Given Woolf's fame as a writer, we might regard this phenomenon as a testimony to the power of her insights. If a writer of her stature fears exposure, how might lesser writers feel?

Probably the most controversial aspect of A Room of One's Own is its treatment of androgyny—a subject related to the tension between the materialist and transcendent threads in Woolf's argument. Woolf describes an androgynous mind that is more complete and resourceful than a purely masculine or feminine one. While the biological sex determines the dominant gender of the mind, the mind ideally consists of male and female halves. Woolf does not trace out her idea systematically, so it is difficult to tell exactly what she has in mind. Given the unflattering portrait of the masculine mind in her discussion of Kipling, we might wonder what would happen when it meets with its feminine counterpart. Will the mind then be composed of masculinity plus femininity—two self-contained entities that will interact productively with each other? How would such opposites interact except in conflict? Or would each gender dilute the other, so that rather than have "the Flag" on one side of the mind and "Anon" on the other, the androgyne would speak with an assertive but flexible, empathic voice. The generality of Woolf's vision has left the essay subject to reevaluation according to changing perceptions of androgyny. Whether her vision perpetuates the reified gender categories of masculine and feminine or attempts to create a new identity has been at issue since the second wave of feminism recovered the essay in the first place.

Whether the essay is conservative or radical in its formulation of androgyny, the very presence of the idea runs counter to much of Woolf's argument. Having spent so much time and effort constructing a distinctively female style, self, and tradition, she seems to demote such achievements as provisional and imperfect when she promotes a selfhood that goes "beyond" female identity, which is subsumed in the androgynous ideal. Woolf's notion of a single-sex artistic creation as "a horrid little abortion," like her comment that gender consciousness is fatal, flies in the face of her valorization of women's writing (103). One wonders whether Jane Austen, that exemplary inventor of the female sentence, would pass the test of androgyny. Like the passage about the fatality of sex-consciousness, this one is hyperbolic enough to raise a question in the reader's mind about what is at stake. Woolf's strong language seems designed, perhaps unconsciously, to compromise her feminist leanings, to dilute her emphasis on the particularities of gender and creativity. Although the placement of her comments on androgyny toward the end of the book suggests that it represents the culmination of her thinking, it deflects her emphasis on women into a different argument altogether.

Woolf's treatment of androgyny raises other questions as well. In its emphasis on mental faculties, it also erases the body. It disconnects the "nerves that feed the brain" and the gendered body from the imagination, now composed of abstract properties that enter into a mysterious communion (78). Even Judith Shakespeare, prisoner of her body in life, undergoes a sublimation in death, when she is transmuted into a mystical body that women writers bring into being with their achievements. Both Judith Shakespeare's corporeal body and the actual bodies of future women writers disappear beneath the symbolic weight of such a mystical incarnation. It is as if this is the only resolution Woolf can find to the female body's vulnerability, despite her insistence that it forms the foundation of women's authorship. Because of the cultural meanings that are deeply inscribed within it, the body remains an ambiguous source of inspiration. Woolf must insist on its reality, both to retrieve women from Victorian stereotypes of purity and to undo women's oppression. At the same time, however, the body remains haunted by disability and danger, and Woolf longs to escape from its complications. The book's final image, of the woman writer putting on and taking off the body of Judith Shakespeare, figures the essay's vacillation between embodiment and transcendence.

Woolf's construction of androgyny also has the disquieting effect of exalting heterosexual relations. A surprising vision inaugurates the section: a man and a woman enter a taxicab together, prompting the narrator to observe, "One has a profound, if irrational, instinct in favour of the theory that the union of man and woman makes for the greatest satisfaction, the most complete happiness" (98). However one might feel about this instinct in one's own life, it is difficult to reconcile with the unions of men and women that appear in the essay: authoritarian fathers and rebellious daughters; cavalier theater managers and their pregnant, despairing mistresses; selfish kings and their discarded—if not beheaded—wives. The language of the androgyny passage relies heavily on metaphors of sexuality, childbirth, and marriage—hardly instances of female happiness throughout the essay. In the face of the image that comes to the narrator's mind in the previous chapter—that of a middle-aged woman and her elderly mother—it is disappointingly conventional in terms of both narrative and politics. We are back to "boy meets girl." The image is also conventional in relation to the subtext of lesbianism. One wonders how Woolf's writing of Orlando, inspired by her lover Vita Sackville-West, or the writing she did with Sackville-West's advice and encouragement could find a place in this theory of creativity.

Above the conflicts and inequities of the real world, the androgynous mind withdraws to "celebrate its nuptials in darkness" (104). Woolf imagines this mental life as magically exempt from patriarchy, a consummation of the taxicab scene and the narrator's belief that, despite its part in the oppression of women, heterosexuality is best after all. Perhaps, like the mystical body of Judith Shakespeare, these nighttime nuptials represent an attempted resolution as well as a contradiction, transposing heterosexuality into an abstract and imaginative power in order to rescue it from its dangerous, even fatal, consequences for women. It may also be exactly what Woolf says it is: "a profound if irrational" investment in the very social structures she sets out to criticize, reminding us how difficult it is to think of one's self out of one's culture.

Critics have raised two other significant objections to A Room of One's Own, both of which reflect changing ideas in contemporary literary criticism. First, it has been argued that Woolf's depiction of a female literary tradition is inaccurate and incomplete. No one could fault Woolf for not knowing about women authors and varieties of female experience that were unknown in her age, of course. The problem is that Woolf's essay has been so influential that it has shaped modern accounts of women's writing even in the face of contradictory evidence. Woolf tells a story of women's literature that consists of little but silence and suffering through the Renaissance; that barely begins until the eighteenth century, with Aphra Behn; and that posits an evolution in women's writing that depends in part on very specific criteria, such as commercial publication, the use of particular genres such as the novel, and public success.

According to Margaret Ezell, these assumptions are difficult to maintain in the light of modern scholarship.5 For one thing, efforts to recover women writers before the eighteenth century have succeeded beyond Woolf's imagination, although contemporary collections such as The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women continue to regard earlier periods as relative wastelands of women's literature.6 For another, Ezell argues, earlier women writers were prolific practitioners of forms such as religious essays, advice books, and prophetic writings, along with the diaries and letters that Woolf acknowledges, and that these forms had more prestige in their era than in ours. Imposing twentieth-century notions of which genres "count" is anachronistic. And even if these kinds of writing never enjoyed the status of the epic poem, we might still question the wisdom of applying a traditional hierarchy of importance to women's writing given Woolf's emphasis on difference. To judge it by the same standards is to misread it.

Woolf's essays on traditionally "minor" women authors as well as A Room of One's Own betray an allegiance to conventional standards, even as they set out to revise them. Woolf's ambivalence about figures such as the Duchess of Newcastle or Lady Winchilsea suggests that, while she wishes to acknowledge female achievement wherever it appears, she remains uneasy about promoting work that has traditionally been considered second-rate. As one critic says, "Woolf's own excavations [of forgotten women writers] were marked by a cultural wariness of and palpable disdain for 'minor' literary achievements."7

Moreover, Ezell, argues, many women writers of the Renaissance wrote poetry for circulation among a coterie of intellectuals and not for publication as we know it, just as their male counterparts did. In such circles manuscripts, not publications, are the index of achievement. Because Woolf focused on writing as a means of economic empowerment, she may have been less open to the value of other, less professionalized contexts for writing. She may also have underestimated the extent to which these women participated in literary culture. Judith Shakespeare may not be entirely representative of women writers in the Renaissance, isolated and silenced. Ironically, according to Ezell, because A Room of One's Own has achieved such fame, it has carried more authority than it deserves in shaping our modern understanding of women's writing in the past.

Finally, and extremely important, is the critique that women of color have made of Woolf. Woolf's inspiring model of a coherent, collective female voice, symbolized by Judith Shakespeare, has also effaced difference. Once again the point is not to blame Woolf for her failure to anticipate changes in modern feminist criticism but to note the ways in which the blind spots of this influential essay have moved others to continue its project of re-vision. Woolf herself may have been a powerful foremother for some writers, but her economic, class, and racial privilege make her a problematic ancestor for writers of different backgrounds. Woolf's critique of Empire has not erased all traces of racism, for example. When she praises women for not wishing to make an Englishwoman out of a "very fine negress," she implies that her reader is white and the Negress remains other—perhaps already commodified by the adjective "fine," often applied to the accoutrements of expensive living, such as fine wine and fine china.8 While Woolf's woman writer might not want to colonize the black woman, neither does she identity with her. The flexible selfhood of women writers does not, apparently, extend to other races.

The African-American writer Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, addresses this difficulty in her famous essay "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens." In many ways Walker's essay deliberately parallels Woolf's. Walker also seeks female creativity in unusual places in order to connect her artistic aspirations with the past. Like Woolf, Walker reevaluates forgotten women, including her own mother, whose gardens were the envy of everyone who saw them. Walker quotes A Room of One's Own directly, showing her sense of inheritance from Woolf as a woman writer and historian of creativity. At the same time, however, she revises Woolf's text by inserting her own race-specific additions. Considering the case of Phillis Wheatley, the eighteenth-century African-American poet, she writes,

Virginia Woolf wrote further, speaking of course not of our Phillis, that "any woman born with a great gift in the sixteenth century [insert "eighteenth-century," insert "black woman," insert "born or made a slave"] would certainly have gone crazed.…For it needs little skill and psychology to be sure that a highly gifted girl who had tried to use her gift for poetry would have been so thwarted and hindered by contrary instincts [add "chains, guns, the lash, ownership of one's body by someone else, submission to an alien religion"], that she must have lost her health and sanity to a certainty."9

With these insertions, Walker tells the story of the African-American woman writer, whose experience in slavery intensifies and alters the dynamics of oppression and repression that Woolf describes. There will be both common ground and divergence in the experiences of black and white women writers. Woolf argues that male standards have masqueraded as universal ones and that they leave out the story of women writers. Walker says that the standards of white women have masqueraded as universal ones for women, absorbing or marginalizing the works of African-American women just as British patriarchy silences women. Ironically, we find Virginia Woolf in the position of Arthur Quiller-Couch, arguing for an expanded understanding of the material conditions of creativity but leaving out a significant set of voices and experiences because of her own blind spot.

Thus while Woolf's essay has been deeply influential and is frequently cited as a classic text of feminist thought, it continues to inspire discussion and controversy. The essay's fame makes it worth fighting over, and with. It remains a text to be reckoned with, whatever its contradictions and blind spots. In many ways A Room of One's Own has set the agenda for modern feminist criticism. Therefore it is continually renewed, not by some mystical force that annoints masterpieces but by the sustained interest its historical significance provokes for women, and men, who enter the conversation from their own points of view and social positions.


  1. "Modern Fiction," in The Common Reader (1925; New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1953), 153; hereafter cited in text.
  2. Mary Jacobus, Reading Women: Essays in Feminist Criticism (New York: Columbia University Press, 1986), 35.
  3. Christopher St. John, Ethyl Smyth (London: Longmans Green, 1959), 229, 230; quoted in Jane Marcus, Art and Anger: Reading Like a Woman (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988), 112-13.
  4. Jane Marcus, "'No More Horses,'" in Art and Anger, 113.
  5. Margaret J. M. Ezell, "The Myth of Judith Shakespeare: Creating the Canon of Women's Literature," New Literary History: A Journal of Theory and Interpretation 21 (1990): 579-92.
  6. The Norton Anthology of Literature by Women: The Tradition in English, ed. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar (New York: W. W. Norton, 1985).
  7. Bradford K. Mudge, "Burning Down the House: Sara Coleridge, Virginia Woolf, and the Politics of Literary Revision," Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature 5 (1986): 231.
  8. Elizabeth Abel, "Matrilineage and the Racial 'Other': Woolf and Her Literary Daughters of the Second Wave," paper read at the Third Annual Virginia Woolf Conference, Jefferson City, Mo., 13 June 1993.
  9. Alice Walker, "In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens," in In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1983), 235; my ellipses.

Further Reading

Download PDF PDF Page Citation Cite Share Link Share

Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1247


Kirkpatrick, B. J. A Bibliography of Virginia Woolf, 4th Edition. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997, 472 p.

Updates the 1967 edition, reflecting the release of numerous diaries, drafts, and papers after the death of Leonard Woolf in 1969.

Majumdar, Robin. Virginia Woolf: An Annotated Bibliography of Criticism. New York: Garland, 1976, 118 p.

Comprehensive guide to Woolfian criticism, including books, articles, essays, and chapters on Woolf, introductions and prefaces to her works, memoirs and obituaries, correspondence, reviews of Woolf's works, miscellaneous references to Woolf in general studies, and additional bibliographical sources.


Bell, Quentin. Virginia Woolf: A Biography. London: Hogarth Press, 1972, 314 p.

Recalls Woolf's life from the perspective of her nephew, whom some critics have considered biased against Woolf in deference to her sister, Bell's mother.

Black, Naomi. "Virginia Woolf and the Women's Movement." In Virginia Woolf: A Feminist Slant, edited by Jane Marcus, pp. 180-97. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Focuses on the significance of Three Guineas to the evolution of Woolf's feminist writings and her participation in the women's movement.

Caws, Mary Ann. Virginia Woolf. London: Penguin, 2001, 136 p.

Biography of Woolf.

DeSalvo, Louise. Virginia Woolf: The Impact of Childhood Sexual Abuse on Her Life and Work. Boston: Beacon Press, 1989, 372 p.

Biographical study of Woolf's early life and analysis of her career.

Gordon, Lyndall. Virginia Woolf, A Writer's Life. New York: Norton, 1984, 341 p.

Provides interpretations of early life experiences shaping Woolf's writing career.

Gorsky, Susan Rubinow. Virginia Woolf: Revised Edition. Boston: Twayne, 1989, 150 p.

Studies Woolf's life and work in light of post-1979 scholarship and additional volumes of previously unpublished diaries, letters, fiction, and essays written by Woolf.

Leaska, Mitchell. Granite and Rainbow: The Hidden Life of Virginia Woolf. New York: Farrar, Straus, Giroux, 1998, 513 p.

Studies Woolf's life.

Lee, Hermione. Virginia Woolf. London: Chatto & Windus, 1996, 892 p.

A highly praised biography examining details of Woolf's life and career often overlooked in other biographies.

Marder, Herbert. The Measure of Life: Virginia Woolf's Last Years. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 2000, 418 p.

Biographical examination of Woolf's later years.

Reid, Panthea. Art and Affection: A Life of Virginia Woolf. New York: Oxford University Press, 1996, 570 p.

Highly regarded biography of Woolf examining her early life experiences, and providing psychological grounding for her artistic choices in her work.


Allan, Tuzyline Jita. "Mrs. Dalloway: A Study of Woolf's Social Ambivalence." In Womanist and Feminist Aesthetics: A Comparative Review, pp. 19-44. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1995.

Examines Mrs. Dalloway in terms of a dialectic between condemnation of and support for institutions of patriarchal domination that informs Woolf's feminist ideals on one hand and her upper-class literary and material privileges on the other.

Blain, Virginia. "Narrative Voice and the Female Perspective in Virginia Woolf's Early Novels." In Virginia Woolf: New Critical Essays, edited by Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy, pp. 115-36. London: Vision Press, 1983.

Explores the "intellectually unashamed female perspective" of Woolf's early fiction, concentrating on stylistic devices and narrative techniques in terms of gender differences.

Bowlby, Rachel. "'We're Getting There': Woolf, Trains and the Destinations of Feminist Criticism." In Feminist Destinations and Further Essays on Virginia Woolf, pp. 3-15. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997.

An essay originally published in 1988 relating the overt concerns with representation and sexual difference in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" to the principal issues of contemporary feminist criticism.

Goldman, Jane. The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism and the Politics of the Visual. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, 243 p.

Discusses the feminist implications of the aesthetics informing Woolf's writing career with respect to the influences of suffrage art and the English Post-Impressionist movement.

Harrison, Suzan. Eudora Welty and Virginia Woolf: Gender, Genre, and Influence. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1997, 158 p.

Compares the symbols, motifs, themes, and narrative strategies of American novelist Eudora Welty with those of Woolf.

Jackson, Bev. "'A Vicious and Corrupt Word': Feminism and Virginia Woolf." Dutch Quarterly Review of Anglo-American Letters 17, no. 4 (1987): 249-61.

Summarizes conflicting views of Woolf's critique of the word "feminist" in Three Guineas in terms of contemporary feminist literary theories and practices.

Jacobus, Mary. "Reading Woman (Reading)." In Reading Woman: Essays in Feminist Criticism, pp. 3-24. New York, N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Discussion of feminist literary interpretation as it relates to Woolf's Orlando.

Little, Judy. "Virginia Woolf: Myth and Manner in the Early Novels" and "The Politics of Holiday: Woolf's Later Novels." In Comedy and the Woman Writer: Woolf, Spark, and Feminism, pp. 22-65, 66-98. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983.

Investigates the subversive nature of the comic imagery in Woolf's novels, contrasting their narrative function with that of traditional comic forms.

Marcus, Jane. "Thinking Back through Our Mothers." In Art & Anger: Reading Like A Woman, pp. 73-100. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1988.

Surveys Woolf's oeuvre within the context of female artistic and socialist predecessors, paying particular attention to their influence upon the feminist concerns of "A Society," A Room of One's Own, and Three Guineas.

Maze, John R. "Mrs. Dalloway—A Questionable Sanity." In Virginia Woolf: Feminism, Creativity, and the Unconscious, pp. 61-84. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997.

Compares and contrasts the characterizations of Clarissa Dalloway and Septimus Smith in Mrs. Dalloway with respect to conventional distinctions between sanity and insanity.

Muller, Herbert J. "Virginia Woolf, and Feminine Fiction." In Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf, edited by Morris Beja, pp. 29-37. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985.

Originally published in 1937, an essay evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of Woolf's literary methods and materials, leading to an overall assessment of "feminine fiction."

Olano, Pamela J. "'Women Alone Stir My Imagination': Intertextual Eroticism in the Friendships/Relationships Created by Virginia Woolf." In Communication and Women's Friendships: Parallels and Intersections in Literature and Life, edited by Janet Doubler Ward and JoAnna Stephens Mink, pp. 45-63. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1993.

Discusses Woolf's perception of sexual differences between genders and the centrality of female companionship in her life.

Ratcliffe, Krista. "Minting the Fourth Guinea: Virginia Woolf." In Anglo-American Feminist Challenges to the Rhetorical Traditions, pp. 32-64. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996.

Speculates on Woolf's contributions to rhetorical history, theory, and practice by examining her critiques of women, language, and culture as well as her own writing strategies.

Rigney, Barbara Hill. "Objects of Vision: Women as Art in the Novels of Virginia Woolf." In Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf, edited by Morris Beja, pp. 239-47. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1985.

Analyzes the formation of the subjectivities and identities of various female characters in Woolf's fiction in terms of traditionally male definitions of beauty.


Additional coverage of Woolf's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 44; Beacham's Encyclopedia of Popular Fiction: Biography and Resources, Vol. 3; British Writers, Vol. 7; British Writers: The Classics, Vol. 2; British Writers Retrospective Supplement, Vol. 1; Concise Dictionary of British Literary Biography, 1914-1945; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 104, 130; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 64; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 36, 100, 162; Dictionary of Literary Biography Documentary Series, Vol. 10; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: British Edition; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied, Novelists; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Encyclopedia of World Literature in the 20th Century, Ed. 3; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literary Movements for Students, Vol. 2; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature and Its Times Supplement, Ed. 1; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Nonfiction Classics for Students, Vol. 2; Novels for Students, Vols. 8, 12; Reference Guide to English Literature, Ed. 2; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 4, 12; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 7; Twayne's English Authors; Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vols. 1, 5, 20, 43, 56, 101, 123, 128; World Literature and Its Times, Vol. 4; and World Literature Criticism.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access

Woolf, Virginia (Short Story Criticism)