Queen of arts - Virginia Woolf

At one point in The Value of Virginia Woolf, Madelyn Detloff talks about variations in categories of identity. She gives examples of relatively new ones (such as intersex, queer, or transsexual) and points out that the arrival or departure of viable statuses is not in itself a new phenomenon. “It was simply not possible to identify as an American, for example, before the seventeenth century.” This must have been hard. Even more unexpectedly, she continues: “Nor is it possible today to identify as the King of France, although the category certainly existed in the seventeenth century”. I don’t know how many people are (or were) personally affected by this cancellation of potential. But there is at least one king of France who has been alive and well for some time. Bertrand Russell brought him into legitimate existence as a logical problem of reference, with the announcement, in an article of 1905, that “The present King of France is bald”. Thus exposed in a wigless twentieth-century world, this French monarch has nonetheless continued to enjoy a high level of recognition in the pages of philosophy journals and student essays ever since.

Virginia Woolf was attuned to the shifting ambiguities of identity and identification. In A Room of One’s Own, she speculates about a day to come, a century into the future, when people might well exclaim in surprise at the sight of a woman. Even the most commonplace, common-sense categories, in other words, may disappear or be superseded by other modes of existence or classification. Post-American, for instance; or, at the opposite, King-of-France-end of the spectrum, a new kind of uniqueness may emerge from a category currently without any occupant. In the same essay, Woolf invents a fictional non-fictional sister of Shakespeare – who didn’t exist in reality, but might have, and if so would not, Woolf insists, have survived in the real time of early modern London.

A successful sixteenth-century Judith Shakespeare would be a contradiction in historical possibility, and Woolf does not try to imagine her. Instead, she gives a brief but detailed and poignant story to show how the life of a gifted young woman born into the same world as Will would have run an entirely different course from his, even after a childhood in which reading and thinking were not out of reach. Not only would she not have been able to get involved in theatrical productions in the same way as a male counterpart, but being a woman she would have come up against every form of sexual discrimination and harassment (as they weren’t yet called in the early twentieth century, let alone in the sixteenth). But she would also have experienced such external barriers as a conflict within her own mind, so that, all told, “To have lived a free life in London in the sixteenth century would have meant for a woman who was poet and playwright a nervous stress and dilemma which might well have killed her”.

Judith’s real-life brother, meanwhile, was not constrained in these ways, and Woolf is rapturous in her description of his unbounded capacities: “his poetry flows from him free and unimpeded. If ever a human being got his work expressed completely, it was Shakespeare. If ever a mind was incandescent, unimpeded, I thought, turning again to the bookcase, it was Shakespeare’s mind”. Yet the great man’s existence comes over as somehow less interesting than the woman’s. The sister’s story has tensions and tragedies, a miniature blighted Bildungsroman that takes its thwarted heroine from a home where she reads in the apple loft to all the dramatic risks of the big city. Shakespeare, back in the bookcase, just “got his work expressed completely” – job done.

Shakespeare is today, as he was for Woolf, the peerless figurehead of English literature. And as Woolf was already able to report, the prospects for gifted sisters have improved, with women writing about modern lives like their own; the creation of Judith is itself a symptom of that continuing change. In the later part of the twentieth century a further movement began. A multiplicity of causes converged to make women’s writing a primary focus of literary-critical attention, not least on school and college syllabuses. Woolf acquired a prime position, becoming something like a queen in the widening world of women and literature. There had been a more doubtful period when her writings were sometimes disparaged or downgraded, and her Bloomsbury associations might detract from her status as a thinker. But by the time she came out of copyright for the first time in 1992, she was all set for the long canonical haul: ripe for instant endowment with the footnotes of scholarly and studently editions. She could be called on at any time and in most contexts for a challenging, memorable quotation – not just about women or literature, but about any topic of current or universal interest, from war to love to money to colonialism to class. Alongside Shakespeare, Woolf is a literary celebrity, to be found in every corner of cultural consciousness and public or private space: from mugs to T-shirts to films and plays. On the purely textual front, as with him, there is a steady output of Woolf books and articles. No other non-male writer has received anything like this degree of recognition and attention. It is not clear whether this is more of a consummation or an irony, but without a doubt Woolf has herself become Shakespeare’s sister.

Now that she has attained this extraordinary status, there is no reason to think that the volume of books on her – her life, her works, her connections with just about anything – is likely to diminish. Of this recent batch, Ira Nadel’s Virginia Woolf, a mini-biography, is the oddest. It begins with the bright idea of telling the Woolf story by way of the houses she lived in, but in practice that angle is not so visible. What we get instead is an often incoherent rehash of well-known elements, interspersed with partial descriptions of some of her works. Bad writing is a constant source of confusion. At the start of one chapter: “Monk’s House, purchased for £700 by the Woolfs in 1919 and owned until 1969, was constantly improved by the Woolfs as monies permitted”. As well as the uncanny suggestion of posthumous property management (one of them having died in 1941), the repeated “by the Woolfs” makes the sentence even stranger. Throughout the book there are paragraphs harbouring phrases or sentences that seem to have been cut and pasted in without subsequent checking, so that you have to keep going back to try to work out what might have been meant. Did no one read the thing through?

A second Virginia Woolf, edited by James Acheson, is announced on its cover as “A collection of all new critical essays by contem­porary scholars”, almost as if the writing might have been run through an online plagiarism checker to be sure, with the scholars meanwhile being put through a quick and secure validation process. In fact, though there isn’t a subtitle to say so, the book’s essays are focused on Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, the two novels most often assigned for study. So the collection essentially looks like an up-to-date textbook, one of those periodic upgradings of the Woolfian wheels to fit the current critical vehicles. But it is a fine book. All the essays are lucidly written, and most have something new and suggestive to offer. H. Porter Abbott, for instance, in a chapter on Mrs Dalloway, looks freshly at Woolf’s mistrust of the standard narrative protocols of her time in the context of her preoccupation, always, with questions of biographical writing. Patricia Moran has a sharp and sensitive chapter on the complex topic of Woolf’s relation to feminism, in her own time and in the subsequent use of her work. The collection is particularly strong in its focus on visual representations, as in Kate Flint’s essay, which considers the two novels’ various depictions of the relation between the post-war, post-Victorian present and its pasts. Bonnie Kime Scott discusses different manifestations in Woolf of the artist figure, and Maud Ellmann places To the Lighthouse alongside the psychoanalyst Marion Milner’s writing about painting. There is an engaging two-part discussion – by E. H. Wright and then by Jane Goldman, editor-in-progress of To the Lighthouse – of the aims and implications of the scholarly Cambridge University Press edition of Woolf’s works.

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