Non-Accredited Book Reviews: Virginia Woolf.

Woolf, Virginia. A Room of One’s Own. Selected Works of Virginia Woolf. London: Wordsworth, 2005. 531-634.

Though I haven’t written much on Virginia Woolf of late [i], I have been continuing my plan to read her major works. I finished A Room of One’s Own as I was recovering from my ear infexions last month, and am currently working my way through The Years. Reading is slow, what with Ben, articles (on Ben), Derrida essays, and my repeated efforts to create an argument that brings all these together in a cohesive whole [ii]. Woolf, though, proves consistently hilarious rest from Ben and theory.

Woolf’s skill at irony — satire and just plain sarcasm — is adept: a problem I find intriguing considering one her repeated advice to or indictments of female novelists and writers is the problem of including anger in one’s work. Comparing the writing of Austen and Charlotte Brontë, Woolf declares Austen the finer writer:

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, opening Jane Eyre and laying it beside Pride and Prejudice.

I opened it to Chapter Twelve and my eye was caught by the phrase, ‘Anybody may blame me who likes.’ What are they blaming Charlotte Brontë for? I wondered. And I read how Jane Eyre used to go up on to the roof when Mrs. Fairfax was making jellies and looked over the fields at the distant view. And then she longed — and it was for this that they blamed her — […] ‘for a power of vision which might overpass that limit; which might reach the busy world, towns, regions full of life I had heard of but never seen: that then I desired for practical experience than I possessed. […] When thus alone I not unfrequently heard Grace Poole’s laugh…

That is an awkward break, I thought. It is upsetting to come upon Grace Poole all of a sudden. The continuity is disturbed. One might say, I continued, laying the book down beside Pride and Prejudice, that the woman who wrote those pages had more genius in her than Jane Austen; but if one reads them over and marks that jerk in them, that indignation, one sees that she will never get her genius expressed whole and entire. Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted? (605-606)

I have found this passage puzzling for awhile. Charlotte Brontë’s writing might end up auto-biographical and more “deformed” than Austen’s work, but if it is, it is justifiably so.

Woolf spends the first two books of A Room of One’s Own contrasting the rooms, dining halls and the intellectual company at the male-dominated Oxbridge University and the women’s Fernham College. While male scholars have access to university libraries, women are denied this access (unless accompanied by a male chaperone). Too, male scholars are consistently better fed and given better living conditions than women, and thus possess all the material conditions that foster free intellectual thought and interesting, innovative writing.

Similarly, in what may be the most frequently-discussed chapter of Woolf’s essay, Judith Shakespeare (Chapter Three) commits suicide when the material and legal conditions of her society prevent her from following the same career as her illustrious brother (a fate that is prescient of Woolf’s own suicide in 1941). Brontë/Jane Eyre’s frustration, then, at being denied the intellectual freedom and experiences that men possess, seems a position with which Woolf herself would sympathise; to hide that anger under a “perfectly natural, shapely sentence” (611), as Woolf claims Austen does, seems an unethical and insincere approach to Austen’s characters and her audience.

Admittedly, a female writing when she is angry (particularly in Woolf’s society) might find herself facing charges of irrationality, or writing due to emotion [iii]; however, such anger might also act as revelatory gesture, exposing the oppressive social conditions for women. The reader must ask, then, what is to be lost by writing angrily. For Woolf, anger, by a male or female writer is simply rhetorically ineffective:

But while I pondered I had unconsciously, in my listlessness, in my desperation, been drawing a picture where I should, like my neighbour, have been writing a conclusion. I had been drawing a face, a figure. It was the face and the figure of Professor von X engaged in writing his monumental work entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex. He was not in my picture a man attractive to women. […] His expression suggested that he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing it; and even so, some cause for anger and irritation remained. […] Whatever the reason, the professor was made to look very angry and very ugly in my sketch, as he wrote his great book upon the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women. Drawing pictures was an idle way of finishing an unprofitable morning’s work. Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top. A very elementary exercise in psychology, not to be dignified by the name of psychoanalysis, showed me, on looking at my notebook, that the sketch of the angry professor had been made in anger. Anger had snatched my pencil while I dreamt. But what was anger doing there? Interest, confusion, amusement, boredom—all these emotions I could trace and name as they succeeded each other throughout the morning. Had anger, the black snake, been lurking among them? Yes, said the sketch, anger had. It referred me unmistakably to the one book, to the one phrase, which had roused the demon; it was the professor’s statement about the mental, moral and physical inferiority of women. My heart had leapt. My cheeks had burnt. I had flushed with anger. There was nothing specially remarkable, however foolish, in that. One does not like to be told that one is naturally the inferior of a little man […] Soon my own anger was explained and done with; but curiosity remained. How explain the anger of the professors? Why were they angry? For when it came to analysing the impression left by these books there was always an element of heat. This heat took many forms; it showed itself in satire, in sentiment, in curiosity, in reprobation. But there was another element which was often present and could not immediately be identified. Anger, I called it. But it was anger that had gone underground and mixed itself with all kinds of other emotions. To judge from its odd effects, it was anger disguised and complex, not anger simple and open […] I knew that he was angry by this token. When I read what he wrote about women—I thought, not of what he was saying, but of himself. When an arguer argues dispassionately he thinks only of the argument; and the reader cannot help thinking of the argument too. If he had written dispassionately about women, had used indisputable proofs to establish his argument and had shown no trace of wishing that the result should be one thing rather than another, one would not have been angry either. One would have accepted the fact, as one accepts the fact that a pea is green or a canary yellow. So be it, I should have said. But I had been angry because he was angry. (582-584)

Though Woolf confesses to her anger during her reading experience, her transcription of the event is rational, and indeed, self-reflective: her commentary on men’s treatment of women in literature and science is made through an interrogation of her own responses to the texts she reads. Her critique, though satirical, progresses logically through her line of thought, and involves textual examples (that is, “proof”) to convince her readers. [iv]

Indeed, throughout A Room of One’s Own, Woolf maintains control over her work, and despite her fear that the topic “women in fiction” will be too variable to cover adequetly in a series of lectures, manages to discuss “women and what they are like, […] women and the fiction that they write; […] women and the fiction that is written about them, [and] all three […] inextricably mixed together,” (565) and does so in a logically unfolding narrative. Her comparative meals at Oxbridge and Fernham lead Woolf to wonder “Why did men drink wine and women water? Why was one sex so prosperous and the other so poor? What effect has poverty on fiction? What conditions are necessary for the creation of works of art?” (579). In order to research these questions, Woolf visits the British Museum where she encounters the book by Professor X which causes her anger; to allay this emotion, Woolf muses that contemporary conditions for women have improved signifcantly since Brontë’s time, a musing which leads her to consider a social history of women, the writing conditions and products of Shakespeare, Austen, and Brontë, to compare the evolving literary styles of women, as well as the genres open to women in her society. Having predicted that opportunities for women will only become increasingly available, Woolf then offers her suggestion of how literature ought to develop, a suggestion which, considering the topic of Orlando, and her praise of both Shakespeare and Austen for refusing to allow their circumstances and mind to enter their writing (a character she labels “integrity”), is unsurprising:

And I went on amateurishly to sketch a plan of the soul so that in each of us two powers preside, one male, one female; and in the man’s brain the man predominates over the woman, and in the woman’s brain the woman predominates over the man. The normal and comfortable state of being is that when the two live in harmony together, spiritually co–operating. (623-624)

Woolf’s suggestion for the cultivation of the “androgynous mind” is one that attempts to relieve the oppression of one gender not by inverting the power relationship between men an women, but by eliminating this power relationship: that is, Woolf suggests eliminating the cause of anger between men and women altogether.

Realistically, however, Woolf also suggests that a leveling of gender will not occur for span of decades, as women must actively labour to overcome their present state in which they are “dreadfully ignorant” (632), and they must do so from within their material and social limitations. This is a process which, she predicts, will take another century, at least. While it’s heartening to note that many of Woolf’s predictions about burgeoning gender equality have been realised, it can also be dismaying to realise that Anglo-American feminist literary criticism has tended to ignore or reject Woolf, reconsigning her to the obscurity which left her frustrated and angry.

End Notes:

[i] of late. It seemed incongruous writing about her during Ben’s birthday week, that old misogynist.

[ii] a cohesive whole. A process which follows the pattern: type, delete, type, delete, delete, expletives, head-on-desk-in-despair-utter-utter-despair, walk the dog, type type delete.

[iii] due to emotion. A declamation which is itself unfair, given that males, as Woolf notes at various points in her essay, are permitted to write angrily without being declared similarly irrational. Woolf cites the example of a male scholar naming Rebecca West an “arrant feminist” for writing that men are “snobs”: in response to which Woolf offers the indignant observation that “The exclamation, to me so surprising—for why was Miss West an arrant feminist for making a possibly true if uncomplimentary statement about the other sex?—was not merely the cry of wounded vanity; it was a protest against some infringe ment of his power to believe in himself” (585).

[iv] her readers. In this way, Woolf is comparable to Austen who, though she is often satirical and sarcastic, is never irrational.

25 June 2008 ~ Niagara Falls


4 thoughts on “Non-Accredited Book Reviews: Virginia Woolf.

  1. I apologise terribly for that long quote in the middle. They never look quite that in edit.

    I apologise (also) for this article being more exposition than analysis: Woolf’s narrative really deserves more than I have time to offer at the moment — did want to write something before I moved too far into The Years.

    Finally, I apologise for my sporadic posting this week and (probably) next week while I work my way through my Ben readings.

  2. “Brontë/Jane Eyre’s frustration, then, at being denied the intellectual freedom and experiences that men possess, seems a position with which Woolf herself would sympathise; to hide that anger under a “perfectly natural, shapely sentence” (611), as Woolf claims Austen does, seems an unethical and insincere approach to Austen’s characters and her audience.”

    This is one of my favourite pieces of Woolf’s work.
    To me, though, the comparison is not about sincerity or insincerity. I think Austen is perfectly sincere. The question is, which of the works discussed is more successful / effective? And personally, I don’t find Jane Eyre a particularly successful book.

    The comparison, I think, to her sister’s Wuthering Heights helps make my position somewhat more clear. Both are about anger and resentment. I feel like Emily’s book knowingly demonstrates the effects of that, while Jane Eyre is the symptom itself. Is that clear? What I’m trying to say is, Wuthering Heights shows us anger and resentment, while Jane Eyre IS (most notably through the author having a vendetta against anyone who does anything wrong to Jane…You hurt her? You’re dead. You hurt her? You lose an arm and your sight. And, because Charlotte feels the anger herself and takes care of it like that, Jane never has to be the resentful one, never has to have those consequences).

    I feel very deeply about Jane Eyre, though, because I read it during a time when I was very resentful and angry, and it literally did scare me out of it. So, thank you Charlotte, for sacrificing your book to that. But it doesn’t make it a good one.

  3. “Admittedly, a female writing when she is angry (particularly in Woolf’s society) might find herself facing charges of irrationality, or writing due to emotion”

    I think this still very true, much of the time.

    A really nice post — even if it’s a great deal of exposition. I love this particular book, even as I tend to criticize it. (I also just love Woolf!)

  4. I quite agree, Woolf is concerned with effective writing. Your comment does make me want to return to Charlotte’s book, Faith (I will confess I never made it all the way through, and would like to, if at east to get a fuller understanding of Woolf’s critique).

    I also like Woolf’s point that effective, rational writing need not belong to a purely male mind, though I do think that, since Comte’s work in the 18th century, this association (rational=male) has tended to maintain itself (given that I’ve had a male tell me that successful women in academics must have “masculine minds).

    This is a scary thought, especially having just spent the last week reading “ancient” Greek medical writings that claim women’s excess of blood and phlegm, along with their tendency to possess wandering wombs, causes their excessive passions (mood swings) and inability to achieve rational thought. Maybe not so ancient after all…

    I do love Woolf though, and am looking forward to reviewing The Years!

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