Few writers have been able to hold the reins of popular imagination quite as unwaveringly as Virginia Woolf. Living at a time when women were still looked upon, to use Queen Victoria’s words, as men’s helpmates, she first found independence through her literary reviews for the TLS, then founded her very own printing press and published several ground-breaking novels, short stories, and essay collections. Acutely sensitive to the changes brought forward by the new era, she believed that literature should do justice to the complexities of modern consciousness — and she revolutionised the form of the novel.
Her fame is all but misplaced, yet there is something to be said about the one-sided nature of criticism of Woolf since the revival of her work by feminist academics in the 1960s. Where a modernist masterpiece like Joyce’s Ulysses isn’t immune to at least some disparagement, Woolf’s greatness in all aspects of her work seems indisputable, and to contradict it means to expose oneself to controversy — the occasional critic of Woolf will very likely be dismissed as being only interested in devaluing women writers on the basis of sex.
Woolf has become a champion for whatever people need her to be
Perhaps because of the wealth of writing by and about Woolf, many feel a sense of intimacy and, most importantly, identification with the author that denying her greatness undermines not just Woolf, but the underclasses that she’s been elected to represent. The fascination with Woolf as a personality somewhat outshines the preoccupation with her artistry, and makes Woolf into a champion for whatever people need her to be: of feminism and lesbianism; of non-monogamous wedlock; of sexual assault survivors; of sufferers from mental disorders. If they are ever read, her novels are celebrated not so much in light of their literary merit, but through the reductionist lens of identity politics.
In her espousal of a new novelistic form, Woolf proposed to relieve literature from all those things which had thus far weighed it down — an overbearing fondness for material details; a traditional plot; dramatic stunts; a single narrator, a towering hero, and an important theme. Literature, Woolf thought, should hold a mirror up to life, and life is far from conducting itself on a beginning-middle-end trajectory. Life is erratic and the task of the modern novelist is to convey its fluctuations — such, at least, is the task she was determined to achieve through her own fiction. And so, novels like Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, and The Waves ensued, which convey the musings, impressions and whims of ordinary people on an ordinary day, intersect the unremarkable with the profound, and don’t pretend that spirit could be easily translated through conventional linguistic codes.
There is, however, no underlying method, and each novel is to be taken as the execution of an idea in constant evolution, as the testing of techniques that never culminated into a final poetics. If, thanks to her constant experimentation, the novel was never the same again, there is room to debate whether her innovative use of techniques of speech, thought and consciousness may mainly have worked its charm on scholars. The common reader, having dabbled in trivial chit chat and commonplace incidents all day, may not be all that delighted, having finally chance to evade the dullness of his daily commute to and from work, to find himself reading about budding primroses, the shops in Bond Street, and Louis’s embarrassment with his un-English accent.
There is a reason that the common reader likes stories to have a beginning and an end, and literary critic Frank Kermode explains this better than I ever could when he says that traditional narrative structure is there to respond to a very specific human need for meaning. Thrown in and out of the world midway through eternity, we reach out for fiction in which happenings have a finality and the anxiety created by everyday contingency becomes temporarily suspended.
Woolf’s objection to the traditional form has its charms; but when referring, in “Modern Fiction”, to it as an “unscrupulous tyrant” to which the author is shackled like a “slave”, she sounds like a recalcitrant teen. Yes, it is fine, even necessary to rebel against your ancestors’ outdated rules (Harold Bloom coins this necessary rebellion “anxiety of influence”); but it should also be recognised that the author is a slave regardless — a slave to his readers, from whose praise or tedium, like it or not, he will never be totally emancipated. And to be completely rid of convention is to be left stranded, and to proceed tentatively.
There is a value to convention, that consists in lending you a guiding hand until you’re mature enough to stand on your own two feet. And Woolf, I think perhaps controversially (though by no means incontestably), let go of that guiding hand way too soon, and condemned herself to proceeding by trial and error.
Woolf’s promotion of the liberated writer has paved the way to an inexplicably popular type of bad writing
A further unfortunate consequence of Woolf’s promotion of the liberated writer, and her insistence that there is no such a thing as “the proper stuff of fiction”, is that it has paved the way to an inexplicably popular type of bad writing. This specific type of bad writing, more generously defined as experimental, is best exemplified by Booker Prize winning Girl, Woman, Other: a caricatural collection of preachings floating on the page punctuation-free. Or by The Grassling, a hybrid work of poetic prose blending memoir and nature writing by self-professed eco poet (sighs) Elizabeth-Jane Burnett. Evaristo and Burnett have clearly come across Woolf’s words and taken them to mean that any self-righteous banality, or descriptive ejaculation, from the interminable impression of the length of a blade of grass, to Amma’s trite opinions on generational wars, slavery, global waste, the patriarchy, the evils of capitalism, and so on and so forth, are entitled to occupy the page and even to account for great literature. We should, from now on, be more unambiguous on the fact that they emphatically do not.
Coming back to Woolf, her long-term quest for the form or technique most suitable to reproducing life makes her most celebrated work feel, ironically, somewhat lifeless. Life is not as aphoristic, not as finely wrought; life does not stop in search for the perfect turn of phrase; there is only so much life that unravels in isolation, and even then reflective melancholy is often replaced by hot temper, or a rash thought; by instinct, feeling, sensuality. “What does the brain matter compared to the heart?”, wonders Sally Seton in Mrs Dalloway — in her novels, Woolf used too much of the former to the exclusion of the latter. In a letter to her friend Madge Vaughan, she herself recognised it:
My only defense is that I write of things as I see them; & I am quite conscious all the time that it is a very narrow, & rather bloodless point of view. I think — if I were Mr. Gosse writing to Mrs. Green! — I could explain a little why this is so from external reasons, such as education, way of life, &c. And so perhaps I may get something better as I grow older. George Eliot was near 40 I think, when she wrote her first novel, the Scenes [of Clerical Life].
But my present feeling is that this vague & dream like world, without love, or heart, or passion, or sex, is the world I really care about, & find interesting. For, though they are dreams to you, & I can’t express them at all adequately, these things are perfectly real to me.
But please don’t think for a moment that I am satisfied, or think that my view takes in any whole. Only it seems to me, better to write of the things I do feel, than to dabble in things I frankly don’t understand in the least. That is the kind of blunder — in literature — which seems to me ghastly & unpardonable: people, I mean, who wallow in emotions without understanding them.
While her social milieu gifted Woolf with a room of her own and plenty of time to devote to thinking deeply about things, to reading plenty, and to writing, it did nothing to teach her about emotional expression and life and character beyond one’s parlour. For as thrilling as it was, sustained exposition to intellectual debate probably contributed to Woolf’s insularity from the outside world, culminated, in The Waves, in her near-complete immersion in symbolism, what she refers to as “something mystic, spiritual”, and that could be absolutely anything.
Let us now make space for the diaries and the essays in which her heart is poured with unfaltering ardour
If we weren’t so afraid to cast a truly critical eye on a canonical author deserving of the same objectivity as any T.S. Eliot or Samuel Beckett, we’d recognise that Woolf’s novels are characterised by an unresolved tension, felt keenly by both writer and reader — it is the tension of the innovator, of the life-long experimenter, who by making attempts, also exposes herself to failure. If the techniques developed by Woolf succeeded to be revolutionary, some of her works are unripe. Hence, many of Woolf’s novels are filled with possibilities which go unfulfilled, emotions that remain inarticulate. Let us now make space for the diaries and the essays, in which her heart, her passion, is instead poured with unfaltering ardour. To discuss the shortcomings of an author doesn’t need to do harm; this time let it be an act of elevating spirit.
Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print
Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10Subscribe