by Perry Meisel
Virginia Woolf is probably the most abused and misrepresented figure in all of modern literature. Quentin Bell's biography (1972) and Nigel Nicolson's memoir (1973) have transformed her into the unlikeliest of cult heroines, while the women's movement has found in A Room of One's Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938) a spokesmanship so urgent and complete that Woolf's name has lately come to signify little more than the achievement of a stunning polemicist and politician. To be sure, Woolf was not unlike the woman her various new admirers have chosen to idealize - a feminist, a sterling case study, and in all likelihood a socialist. But she was a writer first and last, and wanted to be remembered that way.
No doubt the elusive and uneven nature of the work itself has been a silent factor in the non-literary style of the Woolf revival that began some three or four years ago. Heartbreaking and endearing in its emotional appeal, Woolf's prose is nonetheless vague - to all appearances at least - and often irritating in its languor and indirection. Moreover, the novels are unsteady in their quality over the course of her career, and a strict or even a working canon has yet to be established with any real authority by her critics. Although Woolf's achievement as a novelist slackens in the years between Orlando (1928) and Between the Acts (1941), we are led to believe, usually by default, that her entire production is of a single excellence, and that the early novels, which are among her best - The Voyage Out (1915) and Night and Day (1919) - are merely exercises in something called the "conventional" mode of fiction, which is ridiculed, we are told, in the later, "experimental" books.
One byproduct of the failure to establish a canon is an economic one. The publishing firm, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, holds a virtual monopoly on Woolf's writing in the United States, and has done its best to reissue many of the same essays under different covers time and again. Even a fitful antic like Freshwater (1923-35), a brief dramatic entertainment written for friends, suddenly emerges in hardcover at the bookstores, together with new softcover editions of some of the novels' earliest criticism, largely plot-summary banalities, by Jean Guiguet, Dorothy Brewster, and Joan Bennett.
I suspect, then, that the joking that has accompanied the revival from the outside is not just a product of the usual sexism, but also a judgment on this literary neglect and its commercial consequences. Even critics and scholars devoted to the careful study of Woolf's novels (the essays still receive only minimum scrutiny) find their interpretations everywhere but in the texts they mean to elucidate. Rarely do they find their focus in what Woolf liked to call "the medium in which a novelist works." The phrase is from her 1927 essay on E.M. Forster's Aspects of the Novel, an essay in which she takes her friend Forster to task because "almost nothing is said about words" in what is, for Woolf at any rate, a rather disquieting book about the novelist's craft. What follows in the essay is cautionary advice to all critics of fiction, particularly to critics of her own prose:
"One might suppose, unless one had read them, that a sentence means the same thing and is used for the same purposes by Sterne and Wells. One might conclude that Tristram Shandy gains nothing from the language in which it is written. . . . Fiction is treated as a parasite which draws sustenance from life and must in gratitude resemble life or perish. In poetry, in drama, words may excite and stimulate and deepen without this allegiance; but in fiction they must first and foremost hold themselves at the service of the teapot and the pug dog, and to be found wanting is to be found lacking. Strange though this unaesthetic attitude would be in the critic of any other art, it does not surprise us in the critic of fiction."
Nor should it surprise us in the critic of Virginia Woolf. Though a few volumes in the last few years have begun to shift the balance toward Woolf the writer and her peculiar brand of literary language - notably James Naremore's World Without a Self (1973), Allen McLaurin's The Echoes Enslaved (1973), and Avrom Fleishman's Virginia Woolf: A Critical Reading (1975) - what comes before, and what continues to flow in a steady stream from the presses and the journals, constitutes one of the most inadequate bodies of criticism to accompany any major writer in English. Among these readers the meaning of the novels is variously reduced to elementary feminism (Herbert Marder), spurious phenomenology (Harvena Richter, Alice van Buren Kelley), or, at best, psychological poetics (Nancy Bazin). Even those informal perspectives we have inherited to account for Woolf's style from a supposedly technical point of view tend to prey upon outdated notions like "stream of consciousness," and give us the impression that there is no narrator at work in novels wholly dominated by the voice of an omniscient authorial presence.
What puzzles me most of all, however, is why Virginia Woolf's biography should exert such a fascination over people who have never read a scrap of her writing. Some degree of kneejerk curiosity is natural enough to students of the fiction and the essays, even if Woolf and her circle turn out to be infinitely duller than we like to assume. But for those readers who have experienced Woolf only secondhand, through Bell or Nicolson, or for those who know her only by hearsay and reputation, she comes alive, for some reason, like a pop star.
Admired for her boho behavior by these new admirers, she turns out to have retired most evenings at 10 after days spent writing, walking, perhaps printing with Leonard, and reading before bed. Praised, too, for her brilliant circle of London friends, Woolf and Lytton Strachey alone among the intimates (Forster is a bit removed) present literary capabilities of the first order. Even to say that Woolf realized her resources when Strachey did not would probably be to put too fine a point on the differences between them. Praised above all for her advanced views, she turns out to be rather formal and snobbish, despite her progressive tendencies, and to all appearances breaks with the traditions of her distinguished family far less than she continues them. As for the glamor of her intermittent madness, it is an absurdity that any reader of A Writer's Diary is unable to tolerate for long.
The recent publication of THE LETTERS OF VIRGINIA WOOLF: VOLUME II, 1912-1922, edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, $14.95) will, of course, deflect our attention from the writer once again and center it on the personality instead. Like the first installment of the Letters in this projected series of six, the newest one tells us little about Woolf's work and less about her reading - she seems to have reserved most of this for the Diary. Unlike Lawrence, or even Joyce, her correspondence is usually devoid of literary topics. Unlike her counterparts, too, Woolf was no exile, and had lots of friends, so that we are obliged to overhear in the Letters what often amounts to a catalogue of appointments - "Dear Poppies, let's have tea tomorrow at 6" - or a tedious round of gossip.
In any case, the interpreter who plans to search the Letters for "evidence" about the meaning of the work should be assured that most of the big "clues" in this sector have long been available in documents cited in the Bell biography, and in the Woolf/Strachey correspondence published in 1956. Meanwhile, exhumations of more Woolf papers proceed at archives in Sussex, New York, and Austin (the University of Texas is a major repository of Woolfians), even though it is unlikely that much besides Woolf's working drafts and manuscripts will prove helpful to us in the real tasks of interpretation. This particular packaging job, though, is especially important now that Chapel Hill's Harold Shapiro has discovered numerous discrepancies between English and American editions of the novels.
It goes without saying, of course, that such discoveries are of value only to those readers who will bother to examine the texture of Woolf's language. Yet it is no wonder that most readers turn away from the exigencies of Woolf's prose to seek their interpretations in the clearer air of biography, elementary politics, and pop psychoanalysis. As a novelist and essayist both, Woolf's language is not fixed but sliding, designed to monitor the various weights of meaning attached to particular words or word weights of meaning attached to particular words or word clusters. What the careful reader will find - Mrs. Dalloway (1925) is probably the most controlled example - is that Woolf's texts are structures of variable significance in which the same sign may participate in more than one order of meaning.
Hence the programmed multiplicity of what meaning is in a given novel or essay tends to neutralize any attempt to ground Woolf's language in the fixity of attitudes alien to it - in the reductions of biography, politics, and psychology, with their largely innocent view of language and with their lamentable belief in the certitude of explanation. Meaning in Woolf is always tenuous because the narrator renounces any claim to a rooted relation between language and the world. Instead, language becomes a play of relations within itself, generating resonances whose echoes grant the illusion of dimension to a tissue of discourse unable, strictly speaking, to achieve depth in the conventional heroic or psychological sense. This may explain, too, the prevailing sense of loss in Woolf's texts - Mrs. Ramsay's death in To the Lighthouse (1927) is the overriding example - a thematics of absence that has led more than one critic to characterize Woolf's imagination as an elegiac one.
But despite the isolation of the soul this feeling of loss may appear to signify, Woolf's characters - unlike the usual "isolates" of modern fiction - tend to lose their separate identities in the narrator's all-consuming embrace. In this way, the novels really seem to focus on the Woolfian speaker instead, hence allying the fiction and the essays through the medium of this common consciousness (Orlando lies precisely here), and making Woolf's total achievement one consistent weave of discourse, uniform in nature even though it is uneven in quality.
So Woolf in practice is a rather different writer from the super-realist of the "ordinary mind" that her aesthetic manifestos, "Modern Fiction" (1919) and "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1924) make her out to be. Woolf's cynicism about "life" in the essay on Forster's criticism makes more sense in this context, and suggests that she is an artist more for the sake of art than for the sake of plumbing experience as sincerely as her polemics lead us to believe. Nor is this Aestheticism an accident. Literary historians are largely silent on Woolf's relation to Pater, and Bloomsbury's relation to the Decadence and to the Pre-Raphaelites before that, chiefly because Bloomsbury did its best to cover the tracks that lead backwards to its progenitors. The motivation was probably the desire to maintain the pretense of Bloomsbury's newness, and also to sever what, after Wilde, were sordid intellectual connections too dangerous for the embattled Bloomsberries to acknowledge.
What all this suggests is that our usual notions of Woolf's modernity are less than adequate, too. She is a far more conservative writer than we are willing to admit, more in the line of the great Victorians, for example, than in opposition to it, and, as a learned author, clearly in the mainstream of historical tradition, alluding as she does to Keats and Wordsworth, Petrarch and Dante, and always to the Elizabethans, with whom she felt a special sort of kinship.
So there is more, and less, to Virginia Woolf than our current mythography is willing to let us see. We can at least be assured that there is, after all, a writer who lurks behind the biography and the politics, and that her work will survive even after the fashions that surround her name today will have made their peace with history.
Originally published in The Village Voice, December 20, 1976