“She is in love with life”: Winifred Holtby’s Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir

holtby-woolfIn my post on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship, I quoted a passage Brittain includes from Holtby’s letters, addressing her decision to write a critical biography of Virginia Woolf:

I took my courage and curiosity in both hands and chose the writer whose art seemed most of all removed from anything I could ever attempt, and whose experience was most alien to my own. . . . I found it the most enthralling adventure–to enter, even at second-hand, that world of purely aesthetic and intellectual interests, was to me as strange an exploration as it would have been for Virginia Woolf to sit beside my mother’s pie and hear my uncles talk fat-stock prices and cub-hunting. I felt that I was learning and learning with every fibre of such brain as I have.

The result of this open-minded effort, Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir (1932,) is as generous as I’m coming to expect from Holtby. Though at times it’s clear she has reservations about the potential limits of Woolf’s emphasis on art as “an end in itself,” or Woolf’s opposition to “materialism” in the novel (Holtby cites, for instance, “Modern Fiction,” with its critique of Bennett and Wells and Galsworthy for being “concerned not with the spirit but with the body”), and sharp as Holtby is, too, about “the advantages of being Virginia Stephen” (the title of a chapter in which, among other things, she lightly mocks Woolf for concluding “Every second Englishman reads French” — “that particular hyperbole was only possible to a woman brought up as Leslie Stephen’s daughter had been brought up”)–despite all this and the differences in her own life and aims, Holtby writes with energetic appreciation, sometimes even rapture, about Woolf’s development from a writer with an abstract and difficult idea about the novel to a novelist who has found the freedom and technique to realize her vision.

Holtby finds broad continuities of theme across Woolf’s oeuvre: an interest in life and death (especially death), in women and men (especially women), in the meaning of life, in the possibilities of art. She also finds a continuity of aesthetic effort, a movement towards a different kind of fiction. She sees it taking Woolf a while to figure it all out, to achieve unity of form and concept in a single work. So The Voyage Out shows signs of what will come, especially in its characters and thematic interests, but “here she has curbed her fancy, and accepted the traditional novel form.” Holtby’s chapter on Night and Day is called “Virginia Woolf is not Jane Austen”: she reads this novel as Woolf’s experiment in writing “a domestic story on the Jane Austen model.” She quotes a passage from Woolf’s essay “On Not Knowing Greek” (a passage I quoted too, in my piece on Woolf’s essays for Open Letters), about Austen choosing “the dangerous art where one slip means death”: “Mrs. Woolf, in Night and Day, chose it and failed.” It’s not, Holtby is quick to say, that the novel itself is dead, not altogether: “It has beauty and gravity, nobility of theme and high distinction.” But in it, Holtby believes, Woolf followed the wrong master for her own gifts and for her own time:

Her technique is the technique of experiment, not of tradition. Her hunting-ground lies among the subtle gradations of sentiment, memory and association to which less delicate sight is blind. She was, in Night and Day, playing a game which was a good game, which had been played almost perfectly, which she could play better than most; but it was not her game. She was a disciple here, not a master; a follower, not a maker of the law.

More specifically, she thinks “a comedy of restrictions” (such as she believes Austen writes) does not suit a writer who is “a rebel against restrictions.” Austen had the “peculiar fortune to live at a time and in circumstances ideally suited to her talent.” Woolf, in contrast, stood in a critical a relation to her age, and “it is this implied criticism, this straining towards some larger life, some more liberal standard of values, which disturbs the quiet and enclosed perfection of the comedy.” So for all its virtues, Night and Day is a failure–but “the measure of its failure was, perhaps, a mercy,” Holtby concludes, as “it drove Mrs. Woolf to seen new forms of expression. It marked the end of her apprenticeship to tradition.” (Another exhibit for our case that failure is necessary to greatness?)

Holtby finds in Woolf’s essays experiments in the fictional techniques that will finally free her: the “cinematic,” in which the “perspective shifts from high to low, from huge to microscopic, to let figures of people, insects, aeroplanes, flowers pass across the vision and melt away” (Holtby sees this as the aesthetic style of “Kew Gardens,” for instance, or “The Mark on the Wall”) and the “orchestral,” in which “senses, thoughts, emotions, will, memory, fancies, the impact of the outside world, action and conversation each play a different instrument.” The result of this freedom to create in new forms, when Woolf finally achieved it, was to be superb:

If her knowledge of life was narrow, it was profound. There was no fear, no sorrow, no ecstasy, and no limitation that she could not penetrate. And now she had an entirely new technique. She could compensate herself for all the things she did not know by arranging in a thousand new patterns the things she did.

Once free, she learns “an entirely new note”: gaiety. “She did not use it for long; her sense of life is tragic rather than comic,” Holtby says; “But having discovered it, she never lost it again. Perhaps laughter is the first gift of freedom.”

Though her discussions of Woolf’s later books is extraordinarily sensitive to the tragedy in them, the remaining chapters echo with Holtby’s appreciation of Woolf’s delight in both the world and her own expanding art. There’s an inevitable poignancy in that, not just because when we reach the last chapter, “The Waves–and after?” we know, as Holtby could not, that there was to be only one more major novel, and that published posthumously after Woolf’s suicide, but because we also know that Holtby herself did not live to read it (she died in 1935, leaving her own last novel, South Riding, also to be published posthumously). But there’s also something exhilarating in reading about Woolf from someone who can focus on what is life-affirming in her work without any sense of impending doom. Holtby’s focus is deliberately on the novels, not the life, and that design plus her ignorance of Woolf’s illness and death  lets us too revel in what is triumphant and joyful about the writing.

Holtby’s commentaries are persistently articulate and interesting. Like Woolf’s own critical essays, they are more impressionistic than analytical, though I was struck by how attentive Holtby is to technique, and particularly to the congruencies between the forms and the ideas of the novels. Holtby’s own fiction is so formally straightforward it could give the impression of a certain artistic naivete, but reading this book confirmed for me what Marion Shaw argues (in the essay I quoted from in my post on Brittain’s Honourable Estate)–that documentary realism was a deliberate option, not a default for writers who could not conceive of alternatives. Jacob’s Room was, Holtby observes, “a triumphant experiment in a new technique”;

But now that we can set it beside Mrs. Woolf’s later work, beside Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and The Waves, we know that it was not the best that she could do. The cinematographic style was brilliantly effective, but it was not as subtle as the orchestral effect which she was to use in To the Lighthouse; she was to obtain a surer control over her material in Mrs. Dalloway. She was to adventure further into obscure realms of human consciousness in The Waves. The contrasts, perhaps, in Jacob’s Room are too violent. There are obscurities which even the most diligent study cannot penetrate. The effect created is very largely visual. Later she would plunge into the nerves, the brains, the senses of her characters, exploring further, yet binding the whole more closely into a unity of mood.

So Jacob’s Room too is seen as a step towards Woolf’s greatest work:

She had thrown overboard much that had been commonly considered indispensable to the novel: descriptions of places and families, explanations of environment, a plot of external action, dramatic scenes, climaxes, conclusions, and almost all those link-sentences which bind one episode to the next. But much remained to her. She had retained her preoccupation with life and death, with character, and with the effect of characters grouped and inter-acting. She had kept her consciousness of time and movement. She knew how present and past are interwoven, and how to-day depends so much upon knowledge and memory of yesterday, and fear for or confidence in to-morrow. She was still preoccupied with moral values; she was immensely excited about form and the way in which the patterns of life grow more and more complex as one regards them. And she was more sure now both of herself and of her public. She dared take greater risks with them, confident that they would not let her down.

The chapter on To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway is called “The Adventure Justified,” and it treats the novels as the culmination of a dangerous but ultimately triumphant experiment. In them Holtby finds a unity “far more profound than anything that can be obtained by a trick of reference. . . . It is a metaphysical unity, the unity which the old scholastic philosophers saw binding creature to creature and all created things to God. It was also a psychological unity, such as the most modern Viennese psychologists see binding infancy to age.” In these novels “her characters play now a double purpose”:

They are themselves and they are symbols. They are part of the visible universe and they are its interpretation. Her metaphors have grown more fluid, and they have overflowed into the action of the novel. The motion of time, light, change, the passage of wind through a house, have all assumed a spiritual quality.

About To the Lighthouse Holtby is ecstatic, almost as if caught up herself in the final vision of the novel:

Its characters move in a radiant, half-transparent atmosphere, as though already suffused into the spiritual world. The action takes place out at sea, on an island; because it is there, away from the land, on a ship, out at sea, on an island, that Mrs. Woolf sees humanity with detachment. From that vantage point she can look back on life, look back on death, and write her parable. Its quality is poetic; its form and substance are perfectly fused, incandescent, disciplined into unity. It is a parable of life, of art, of experience; it is a parable of immortality. It is one of the most beautiful novels written in the English language.

Orlando and A Room of One’s Own do not move her to such raptures, though she seems them as complementary completions of long-running preoccupations of Woolf’s. Reading her discussion of Room I was expecting more polemical engagement, but I think in the end it’s to Holtby’s credit that she keeps her focus on Woolf’s theories, particularly on sorting out Woolf’s arguments about man-womanly and woman-manly collaboration as part of her overall vision for art and creative freedom.

I wish Holtby had lived to write about Three Guineas. But her last section is about The Waves, and again, her appreciation for Woolf’s experimental form–her interest in what it reaches and enables–is strikingly open-minded and generous, as well as attentive to its place in contemporary literature:

We know, externally, very little about [the characters]. They are the cultured, well-to-do characters common to most of Mrs. Woolf’s novels, but their external lives, their relations to each other, are barely indicated. Yet we know almost everything about them. For the drama takes place not in the external world of speech and action, but in the subconscious world, below the articulate thoughts and spoken words with which most novels are concerned. Down there, in the submarine cave of which Mrs. Woolf’s characters are always dreaming, moves the strange, subtle confusion of memory, experience, contact and imagination which forms the running stream below our surface thoughts. It is a world hitherto largely neglected by the English novelist. James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, and D. H. Lawrence have adventured there; but their voyages of discovery have not been followed by a general conquest. The territory is uncharted and extremely hazardous, for only the most intent and penetrating observation of human behaviour can make a writer free of the unformed thoughts and impulses of his characters. Yet these are as much a part of “character” as their external acts . . . .They inhabit a land where the law of reason does not run; and Mrs. Woolf acknowledges allegiance to the law of reason. Yet in spite of these difficulties she has essayed the task, crossed the borders, and, finding the new land still sunk beneath a tossing sea, plunged bravely down to discover and reclaim.

If you find that extended metaphor a little florid, note that Holtby turns neatly to technical specifics: “The method that she has used to re-create this world is not entirely strange to her. Each character speaks in a kind of recitative, recording an individual current of subjective thought . . . . personality, drama and development emerging slowly from the sequence of conscious and unconscious thought and memory.” In The Waves, she concludes, Woolf has achieved “the music and subtlety of poetry.” The Waves, she believes, has not just its own internal unity but “is bound in that strange unity which is the artist’s mind, to Mrs. Woolf’s other novels.” And in it, too, she finds “an affirmation of life”: “Death is the enemy; death, not only of the body, but of the mind, the perceptive spirit, the faculty by which man recognises truth.”

Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir ends by wondering where Woolf will go next: “We cannot predict what problem will attract, what beauty entrance her next”–though Holtby anticipates continued growth “in breadth and power.” But Holtby speculates that Woolf “is unlikely ever to command the allegiance of a wide contemporary public”: “at present there is still only a minority which prefers To the Lighthouse with its demands upon the reader’s intelligence and imagination, to a novel such as [J. B. Priestley’s] The Good Companions, which tells a pleasant, full and easy tale.” That’s ironic in a way, of course, because Woolf’s name is well known to a wide public today, while Holtby’s much more accessible novels are largely unread–though it remains true, surely, that To the Lighthouse is a minority taste. In fact, I have never read it myself, though I have started it several times. I have always found Woolf’s fiction much more elusive than her non-fiction; until a couple of years ago I hadn’t read Mrs. Dalloway either. I felt I didn’t know how to read the novels (and frankly, reading Orlando didn’t help much with that!), and the academic criticism I read about them was typically intimidating rather than encouraging. Holtby’s book, on the other hand, has an infectious enthusiasm along with a lot of smart and useful discussions of what Woolf is doing and why. Now I feel that I too should take my “courage and curiosity in both hands” and “learn and learn with every fibre of such brain as I have.”

Holtby’s final passages stand as both a celebration and, unintentionally, a worthy epitaph, generously offered from one artist and woman to another:

For all her lightness of touch, her moth-wing humour, her capricious irrelevance, she writes as one who has looked upon the worst that life can do to man and woman, upon every sensation of loss, bewilderment and humiliation; and yet the corroding acid of disgust has not defiled her. She is in love with life. It is this quality which lifts her beyond the despairs and fashions of her age, which gives to her vision of reality a radiance, a wonder, unshared by any other living writer. . . . It is this which places her work, meagre though its amount may hitherto have been, slight in texture and limited in scope, beside the work of the great masters.

Social Revolutions: Vera Brittain, Honourable Estate

I finally finished reading Vera Brittain’s 1936 novel Honourable Estate. I read Part I a few months back and described it as “not particularly artful” but “emotionally quite intense,” and unsurprisingly, it continues that way to the end. Part I told the unhappy story of Janet and Thomas Rutherford, their marriage destroyed either by Janet’s unreasonable commitment to the suffragist cause or by Thomas’s inability to accommodate Janet’s needs and ambitions within marriage, depending on whose perspective you take. Parts II and III take up the story of their son Denis and of Ruth Allendeyne, daughter of a local squire who herself matures into a feminist and then a pacifist. Ruth’s life story has clear parallels with Brittain’s own, including the sad fate of a brother who seeks death on the battlefield to avoid a court martial for a homosexual affair (this was apparently true of Vera’s beloved brother Edward, though it is not discussed in Testament of Youth).

Denis and Ruth represent a new generation, trying to live with as well as complete the social revolutions that their parents’ generation fought for or against. First they must pass through the crucible of the war, however, and much of the last section of Honourable Estate explicitly addresses the painful challenge of building a future so much loss and disillusionment. Ruth especially, who loses a lover as well as a brother, initially feels no purpose in her continued existence, and it’s Denis whose kindness as well as political commitment helps her embrace her responsibility to use her life in a meaningful way. She ends up running for Parliament as a Labour candidate, aware all the time of the irony that her party is helping to destroy the squirearchy represented by her family home, which is, aptly and symbolically, demolished at the novel’s end. She’s also a mother, and here Brittain brings us back to Janet to contrast the suffering endured by both mother and child because of an unwanted but inescapable pregnancy–in one of the nice “coming full circle” touches of the novel’s construction, Ruth reads Janet’s diaries and reflects on the tormented life of “a normal woman whose talents had been thwarted, whose natural affections had been starved, whose maternal instinct had been assailed and vitiated before it reached maturity.” She is particularly captivated and saddened by the story of Janet’s friendship with the playwright Ellison Campbell, a relationship which initially brought her “consolation and reassurance” but ended in bitterness. (It’s hard not to read this as a gesture towards the potentially great gift of friendship exemplified by Brittain’s friendship with Winifred Holtby.)

What kind of world should we strive for, knowing what we know, having seen what we have seen, having lost what we have lost? This question, which motivated Brittain’s own post-war life, motivates Honourable Estate too. The novel is ambitious in the sweep of time it embraces and effective in showing how great the transition is from its earliest events to its conclusion. Janet and Ruth are effectively counterpoised, with Denis the fulcrum between them: he takes Ruth to Janet’s grave, explaining,

‘In some ways you’re so like her – and then your work and everything you stand for are precisely what she herself wanted to do and be. . . . your very existence in relation to hers gives me a new sense of hope. It’s made me believe that people’s ideals are sometimes fulfilled in the end, only not necessarily in one life or one generation.’

That’s the overall lesson of Honourable Estate: that transitions are painful and difficult, but that it is important to try to see the larger picture. At the end, Ruth reflects,

‘I suppose if we took a long enough view, we should feel that any sorrow bears its own compensation which enlarges the scope of human mercy. Some of us, perhaps, can never reach our honourable estate – the state of maturity, of true understanding – until we have wrested strength and dignity out of humiliation and dishonour.’

That’s the true ‘honourable estate,’ not marriage, then: the irony of Part I was that marriage as an institution kept women from their essential dignity, and the celebration of the final parts (amidst the sorrow) is that significant change has already come:

‘To-day men and women, but especially women, live in a very different world from that of 1870, or 1900, or 1910. Even since 1914, we’ve passed through a whole series of social revolutions. There are others to come which I shall not see, for reason and mercy will have to fight their battle with passion and injustice for ever. Hatred and cruelty and perhaps even war will come again, in my children’s time and the time of their children; they’re the dark forces from our barbaric beginnings which are always being conquered and always rising again. But with every generation we know them better for what they are. We know more clearly what we should withstand and how we should build.’

As you can perhaps tell from these excerpts, though Brittain works hard to embody her ideas dramatically, their working out in the novel is somewhat effortful and long-winded. Her people have a tendency to talk like textbooks. Here’s Denis, for instance, responding to Ruth’s revelation, when he proposes to her, that she’s not a virgin: “To my mind the pitiless condemnation of sex-offences illustrates exactly that self-indulgent evasion of fundamentals which society’s capable of at its worst.” (As an aside, I was surprised–unfairly so?–that the novel is pretty explicit about Ruth’s sexual experience, as well as about her brother’s homosexuality. And I was also surprised–perhaps out of ignorance–that Ruth [and possibly also Brittain] explains her brother’s affair as at least partly the result of his having been isolated from female company while in the army. Her fear that her lover will succumb in the same way is one of the reasons she resolves to have sex with him before he returns to the front. Was this a common theory about homosexuality in the thirties? Ruth is very clear that she does not see her brother’s affair as a moral offense, though: she is bitter that they live in a world where “giving expression to your love for a person whom the law didn’t permit you to feel about in that way” is considered a crime while war, cruelty, and exploitation are not. Finally, I was surprised at the very direct discussion of birth control in the novel. A lot has changed, obviously, since the Victorian novels I’m used to reading, where everything is so carefully coded and so much cannot be thought of at all.)

Since I read Part I of this novel, I’ve been doing some reading in related critical and literary historical material, and as a result I have been thinking a bit differently about the lack of fictional artfulness in Brittain’s and Holtby’s novels. Just recently, for instance, I read an essay by Marion Shaw called “”Feminism and Fiction between the Wars: Winifred Holtby and Virginia Woolf.” Shaw argues that Holtby is very aware of contemporary debates about whether women’s writing is inherently different from men’s–debates turning on arguments from psychology, for instance, about gender differences–and of a split in feminism between those who emphasized equality and those who emphasized difference. There was a strongly male-identified tradition of the novel at the time, exemplified by Bennett, Wells, and Galsworthy. In pursuit of a female aesthetic, she suggests, women writers such as Woolf, Richardson, and Mansfield deliberately turned against this tradition. Shaw’s point is that this was a deliberate choice on their part, and that because this choice was highly visible and self-conscious, it meant that choosing to continue in a more traditional style was also a deliberate choice: not a conservative or inartistic default, but a decision by a writer about how best to make the novel serve the ends she had in mind. Shaw notes (and the evidence certainly backs her up) that the writers who made the choice to be experimental and break away from the more traditional novel forms have gotten pretty much all the attention and thus critics haven’t done justice to the congruity between means and ends chosen by the other writers. In the case of Holtby, her major example, the ends of fiction were social and political: “What Holtby fears is that the refinement, interiority and introspection of what she perceives as a feminine aesthetic may result in a gender-bound, class-bound uselessness and passivity. In Holtby’s view, literature should be an agent of change.”

Though this analysis seems to me unnecessarily polarizing, it also seems useful, because it cautions us (me!) against underestimating the art of a novel like Honourable Estate. Shaw makes a good point that once there really are clear alternatives and they are not just aesthetically but politically charged, there’s nothing necessarily casual or inartistic about writing documentary realism. Any reader of Woolf’s “Modern Fiction” or “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” knows what a brilliant advocate Woolf is for her own artistic priorities, but her eloquence doesn’t make her absolute. I’m currently reading Holtby’s Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir, and Holtby is pretty sharp so far. Shaw’s commentary helps me see what the contexts and stakes might be for these very different writers as they chose the forms of their own fictions.

My Somerville Summer: Update

Six weeks into my ‘Summer of Somerville,’ it seems like time to take stock. In my previous post, I identified two main areas I need to focus on: pedagogical strategies (concrete course-planning things like readings, schedules, and assignments) and research in a whole range of topics (my own expertise will be needed partly to inform the class but also, more important, to guide and direct the students in their own work). I’ve been doing both at once, reading source materials related to some of the topics on the list I had brainstormed, and jotting down ideas for possible exercises and assignments.

In terms of course design, at this point I have in mind a basic structure along the lines of what I’ve done in my seminar on Victorian sensation fiction a couple of times: front-loading the assigned reading in the first half or two-thirds of the term, using that early phase to establish a core of common ideas and questions, and then doing hands-on workshops and break-out groups to work on a more diverse set of projects that are then brought back for presentation to the whole class at the end of term. In this case, I’ve ordered four texts that will be our core reference points: Testament of Youth, South Riding, Gaudy Night, and The Constant Nymph. It’s a disparate group of books, and making sense of (or questioning) them as a coherent group will be a running theme and one that will, I hope, help us build up a set of broader questions about periodization, canonicity, genre, and women’s writing as a category, as well as generating good discussion about thematic and contextual issues particular to each book. Right now I like the idea of building a collaborative wiki for our major course project, one that we would conceptualize together and then build with groups working on each specific section. Workshops would focus on the how-to aspects of wiki creation and then on the specific components we want to include.

Because I can’t assume anything in particular about the background preparation of students in the class, I think I have to start the term with some kind of orientation session. In the sensation fiction seminar, I usually talk about the history of the 19th-century novel and then about the appearance, definition, and reception of sensation novels as a subcategory (this includes some discussion of whether they really are a distinct subcategory, though that discussion is sometimes best held at the end of term when we’ve gone through our examples). In this case I think I’ll start with a skeletal history of women’s higher education, some generalizations about women’s social and political position around the time “our” writers went to Oxford (with special reference to the suffrage movement, and to the impact of World War I), and some comments on the literary history of “our” period (which I’ll probably define, for simplicity, as 1914-1939), with reference in particular to the ‘rise of Modernism’ narrative that still, I think, dominates. This would serve to introduce, in a preliminary way, the issues that were most immediately important to the writers we’ll be studying and that frame most of the scholarly work on them. The reading I’ve been doing is helping me build up my own understanding of these contexts. So far I’ve mostly focused on education, with books like Judy Batson’s very thorough Her Oxford, but I’m moving into literary-historical material and also commentaries on the ‘Great War’ and its effects on women and on literature (yesterday I read Sandra Gilbert’s essay “Soldier’s Heart: Literary Men, Literary Women, and the Great War,” for instance).

I’ve been thinking of ways to bring in some of the multitude of other related authors and works I’ve been reading, or reading about. One of my assignment ideas is an individual project on a book not assigned for everyone to read, including preparing a wiki entry and giving a short class presentation, so each student would have the experience of becoming expert and producing knowledge to add to the cumulative learning project of the class. It’s not hard to come up with a list of 20 or so options, and I can imagine students enjoying making their individual selections and taking ownership of them, but I’m worried that overall the results might be too diffuse for us to discuss productively as a group. An alternative would be small group projects on a narrower set of alternative texts, but then I might need to rethink the overall idea for the class wiki. My experience is that students vary in their enthusiasm for group work, so I want to be sure there’s a good balance of individual components too. I also expect to require a critical essay, probably involving one of our four common texts, but the relationship of the essay to our other work is something I’m still thinking about.

As I brood about possible assignments, what I’m most concerned about is finding a good balance between curiosity-driven exploration and well-defined expectations. I really do want the students to share my sense of discovery, and I’d love a high degree of “buy-in,” self-motivation, and self-direction from them, but at the same time, I know that most students appreciate plenty of structure and clear ground-rules: they flourish when they feel confident working within the framework established by the syllabus. I also have to consider some realities of my own: I’ll be teaching three courses with a total of around 150 students in the fall term, with no TA support, and I need to manage my own time and workload, which means among other things being able to stagger deadlines across my courses and having made things clear and specific enough for students at the start of term that they don’t need constant consultation with me to move forward with their work outside of class. For my own peace of mind, that probably means not doing things like letting students set their own deadlines or devise individual assignment contracts or portfolios with unpredictable or widely varying components.

Now I’m starting to feel anxious rather than enthusiastic, not least because writing that last paragraph reminded me that I haven’t yet done any concrete preparations for my other fall classes. I’d better get back to work! Right now I’m reading the rest of Brittain’s Honourable Estate, which continues to surprise me with its raw, angry edginess.

Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

It’s hard to spot similarities between Virginia Woolf and the Somerville novelists I’ve been looking at if you focus on Woolf’s fiction. Winifred Holtby wrote a book about Woolf, and as I noted in my post about Testament of Friendship, she did so deliberately because she knew Woolf was such a different novelist: “I took my courage and curiosity in both hands and chose the writer whose art seemed most of all removed from anything I could ever attempt, and whose experience was most alien to my own.”

A Room of One’s Own, with its framing focus on women’s education and particularly on the material differences between women’s colleges and their male counterparts, brings out an important point of convergence, if also another distinction, as unlike Holtby and Brittain and Kennedy and Sayers, Woolf did not go to university herself. It’s in Three Guineas, though, as I have just (belatedly, I know) discovered, that Woolf really shows herself their contemporary, as the issues she focuses on are very much those that dominate their non-fiction as well. Woolf’s arguments offer nothing like the sharp direct hits of Holtby and Brittain’s social and political journalism: as in A Room of One’s Own, she is indirect, circuitous, ironic; she ventriloquizes both questioners and audiences, sets up targets only to slyly destroy them, hypothesizes, imagines, projects. Her conclusions are not single and direct but layered and proliferating. I have taught A Room of One’s Own several times. Once, in a course evaluation, a student raged that it made her “want to gouge [her] eyes out with an ice pick.” Ridiculous! A Room of One’s Own  is a (arguably, the) great work of non-fiction prose. But at the same time, if you go to books like these expecting the orderly presentation of an argument that proposes and then supports a straightforward thesis, well, I can see how you  might end up a little frustrated. But what a trip it is when you follow her along those byways of her thought–not as exhilarating, perhaps, as her literary essays, but with the same effect of provoking surprise and argument and active thought as you go.

In this case what I tripped across most often was her careful restriction of her arguments to “the daughters of educated men,” a class specificity for which she makes some careful arguments (mostly in the notes) but which I think raises a lot of questions about the economics of the ideals she holds out in the book. She is ruthless about the moral corruption of writing for money, for instance (poor Mrs. Oliphant, who “sold her brain, her very admirable brain, prostituted her culture and enslaved her intellectual liberty in order that she might earn her living and educate her children” – the underlying point is that she ought not to have to sell herself in this way, but isn’t there another version of this story by which writing is a good enough way to make a living? and in Mrs. Oliphant’s case at least, do we really imagine that freed of the need to make money she would have turned her “intellectual liberty” in some particularly brilliant direction?). By and large Woolf seems to characterize money as weakening to the moral fiber–though at the same time she is passionate about the need, the right, to be economically independent. You should want enough to sustain yourself, I think is the idea, but not otherwise pursue financial reward, as all too quickly then you will interest yourself in what pays best rather than what is best.

There’s lot more to be considered about the economics of Three Guineas (its whole conceit, after all, is “where shall I bestow these three precious coins?”). Given that I’m reading it as part of my “Summer of Sommerville,” though, I am particularly interested in ways it resonates with the other things I’ve been reading. On women’s education, she offers a curt history but also a trenchant commentary on the investment women across the centuries have made in the education of their brothers:

For have not the daughters of educated men paid into Arthur’s Education Fund* from the year 1262 to the year 1870 all the money that was needed to educate themselves…? Have they not paid with their own education for Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, and all the great schools and universities on the continenent…? Have they not paid so generously and lavishly if so indirectly, that when at last, in the nineteenth century, they won the right to some paid-for education for themselves, there was not a single woman who had received enough  paid-for education to be able to teach them?

She is similarly pointed on women’s enthusiasm for the first World War:

So profound was her unconscious loathing for the education of the private house with its cruelty, its poverty, its hypocrisy, its immorality, its inanity that she would undertake any task however menial, exercise any fascination however fatal that enabled her to escape. Thus consciously she desired ‘our splendid Empire’; unconsciously she desired our splendid war.

The support rests, then, not on patriotism, but on rebellion, and in fact a continuing theme of the book is women’s very different relationship to the country that expects their loyalty and service:

She will find that she has no good reason to ask her brother to fight on her behalf to protect ‘our’ country. ‘ “Our country,” ‘ she will say, ‘throughout the greater part of its history has treated me as a slave; it has denied me education or any share in its possessions. “Our” country still ceases to be mine if I marry a foreigner. “Our” country denies me the means of protecting myself, forces me to pay others a very large sum annually to protect me, and is so little able, even so, to protect me that Air Raid precautions are written on the wall. Therefore if you [men] insist on fighting to protect me, or “our” country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect either myself of my country. For,’ the outsider will say, ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.’

For Woolf, as for Holtby, it’s not so much the military-industrial complex that is a threat to her freedom as the military-patriarchy complex: both writers make a strenuous case for recognizing the links between the masculine will to power (which Woolf analyzes in one section of Three Guineas, with stinging condescension, as “infantile fixation”) with Fascism. In Holtby’s 1934 essay “Black Words for Women Only” she observes that Nazism has rolled back all the progress made by women between 1918 and 1933:

There is little hope for ambitious young women in Nazi Germany, where the brightest contribution of constructive economic thought towards the solution of the unemployment problem appears to have been the expulsion of large sections of the community from paid work, as a penalty for being women, Socialists or Jews, and their replacement by unobjectionable loyal male Aryans. Individual women have protested against this mass campaign to restore their economic dependence and drive them back to the kitchen. . . .

Throughout history, whenever society has tried to curtail the opportunities, interests and powers of women, it has done so in the sacred names of marriage and maternity. Exalting women’s sex until it dominated her whole life, the State then used it as an excuse for political or economic disability. . . . Today, whenever women hear political leaders call their sex important, they grow suspicious. In the importance of the sex too often has lain the unimportance of the citizen, the worker and the human being. The ‘normal’ woman knows that, given freedom and equality before the law, she can be trusted to safeguard her own interests as wife, mother, daughter, or what you will.

Pondering the contaminated “atmosphere” created by the unwanted intrusion of women into professional life (“it is likely that a name to which ‘Miss’ is attached will, because of this odour, circle in the lower spheres where the salaries are small rather than mount to the higher spheres where the salaries are substantial”) Woolf demands, in her turn, “is not the woman who has to breathe that poison and to fight that insect, secretly and without arms, in her office, fighting the Fascist or the Nazi as surely as those who fight him with arms in the limelight of publicity?” The Fascist dictator is simply the oppressive patriarch gone national:

He has widened his scope. He is interfering now with your liberty; he is dictating how you shall live; he is making distinctions not merely between the sexes but between the races. You are feeling in your own persons what your mothers felt when they were shut out, when they were shut up, because they were women. Now you are being shut out, you are being shut up, because you are Jews, because you are democrats, because of race, because of religion. It is not a photograph that you look upon any longer; there you go, trapesing along in the procession yourself. And that makes a difference. The whole iniquity of dictatorship, whether in Oxford or Cambridge, in Whitehall or Downing Street, against Jews or against women, in England, or in Germany, in Italy or in Spain is now apparent to you.

The dictator is only the extreme version of “Man himself, the quintessence of virility, the perfect type of which all the others are imperfect adumbrations”: “He is called in German and Italian Führer or Duce; in our own language Tyrant or Dictator. And behind him lie ruined houses and dead bodies – men, women, and children.”

The key lesson of Three Guineas is “that the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected; that the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.” But from this connection Woolf draws hope, and a recipe for social and political transformation:

It suggests that we cannot dissociate ourselves from that figure but are ourselves that figure. It suggests that we are not passive spectators doomed to unresisting obedience but by our thoughts and actions can ourselves change that figure. A common interest unites us; it is one world, one life. How essential it is that we should realize that unity the dead bodies, the ruined houses prove. For such will be our ruin if you, in the immensity of your public abstrations forget the private figure, or if we in the intensity of our private emotions forget the public world. Both houses will be ruined, the public and the private, the material and the spiritual world, for they are inseparably connected.

I think that this desire for men and women to recognize and stand together in a united front (“now we are fighting together. The daughters and sons of educated men are fighting side by side”) lies behind her rejection of the word “feminism” (“a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete”), though this was another of the things I stumbled against, reading along. Given her insistence precisely on women’s “outsider” status, and on the particularities of their experiences and perspectives, why oppose language that identifies their cause as sex-specific? “They [those called ‘feminists’] were fighting the same enemy that you are fighting and for the same reasons,” she says; “They were fighting the tyranny of the Fascist state.” But that rather erases that until the rise of the Fascist state, and indeed for those not living in a Fascist state, different groups in fact have different antagonists. She wants to make a distinction between men as private people (she is eloquent, for instance, about the excellent relationships of brothers and sisters in private life) and men as social beings: “we look upon societies as conspiracies that sink the private brother, whom many of us have reason to respect, and inflate in his stead a monstrous male, loud of voice, hard of fist . . . [who] enjoys the dubious pleasures of powers and dominion.” But men and brothers, and societies, do not exist in the abstract, and as her own examples of the ‘infantile fixation” of fathers with controlling their daughters show, the tyranny actual individual women fought was very much the tyranny of their own families, a fact that no analogy or extension to Hitler and Mussolini should erase.

But that’s what Woolf does: she provokes argument even as she compells you with the intelligence and elegance of her writing. I know she met Holtby but did not warm to her (actually, she was quite snooty about her in her letters), but I don’t know if she met Brittain (she read Testament of Youth “with extreme greed”). Do you remember the old TV show “Meeting of Minds,” hosted by Steve Allen? An episode featuring these three would absolutely bristle with intellectual excitement, political commitment, and aesthetic contrasts.

*The explanation for this is in my favorite line of the book: “You, who have read Pendennis, will remember how the mysterious letters A.E.F. figured in the household ledger.” OK, fine, Virginia, I will read Pendennis this summer!

The Summer of Somerville

Now that the dust has mostly settled from the teaching term, I’ve begun organizing my plans for the summer. One of my top priorities is preparing for my new seminar on ‘The Somerville Novelists,’ which is the first official academic manifestation of the reading I’ve been doing about Vera Brittain, Winifred Holtby, and Margaret Kennedy. Oh, and Dorothy Sayers, except that my interest in her goes back longer and I’ve taught Gaudy Night several times before, so there I don’t feel I am starting so much from scratch.

As I wrote in a previous post about the way reading changes when it becomes research, I am having to think now not just about what I’m interested in but also about what I need to know to do the job. But since there’s no pre-existing definition of “the job,” this early phase has to be both open-ended and creative: ‘there’s the whole “tempting range of relevancies called the universe,” and then there’s your part of it, but where that begins and ends, and why, is something that, in literary research at least, is rarely self-evident.’

I’ve actually been thinking that I’d like to preserve that lack of definition going into the course, rather than trying to get everything under control according to a template of my own. I’m enjoying the sense of discovery as I read in this new (to me) material, and ideally that’s something the students will feel too: that together we are finding things out, rather than that they are trying to catch up with my expertise. I don’t think my seminars are usually stifling, but they do often focus on material I know very well and have gone through often with students. This has the advantage that I can steer our discussions in what I know will be significant directions and give guidance on research and assignments that I feel confident about, but it has disadvantages too, not least of which is that there aren’t a lot of surprises, and the level of personal commitment from students isn’t that high. I don’t mean that students don’t work hard and aren’t often very engaged, because I’ve had some great seminar groups and usually the students are enthusiastic about them (at least judging from their course evaluations). But I’d like to see them working together on something they think is important–on something they feel collectively responsible for, rather than accountable to me for.

I’m going to be thinking through the summer about how to organize the course to create this kind of atmosphere, and especially about what kinds of assignments and course requirements to include. I’ve been thinking in terms of class projects – a wiki, perhaps, to go public at the end of term, or a collaborative Prezi (I’ve seen some that cover an enormous amount of content in really interesting ways). I’m also thinking less about critical essays or research papers of the conventional academic kind and more about writing projects that show off the class material for a general audience. If anyone has suggestions, especially of assignment sequences that have worked well when exploring non-canonical material for which there simply aren’t a lot of academic resources, I’d be very interested!

In the meantime, I’m brainstorming lists of things I need to know about that will probably become part of our class discussion, including historical, biographical, and literary contexts and connections. Here’s the list so far, in all its unpolished open-endedness:

  • Individual writers from our list (Brittain, Holtby, Sayers, Kennedy)
  • Core readings (Testament of Youth, South Riding, Gaudy Night, The Constant Nymph)
  • Other books by them not officially assigned to class (perhaps for student projects or presentations)
  • critical / theoretical approaches and contexts
  • History of Somerville / women at Oxford (perhaps women in Canadian universities?)
  • Boer War
  • WWI, especially women in the war (nursing)
  • Suffragist movement
  • Women’s / feminist press, e.g. Time and Tide
  • Other contemporary writers–Olive Schreiner, Rebecca West, Virginia Woolf, Robert Graves, maybe D H Lawrence?
  • Genres, e.g. autobiography
  • Literary movements, e.g. modernism, in relation to our writers
  • Virago Press

I’m thinking in terms of a giant Venn diagram, with all these topics overlapping in different ways. The central artifice of the course is that there’s something coherent about our group of four, but part of what’s so interesting is that there isn’t, really, except that they all went to Somerville at roughly the same time and all became novelists. I’m used to organizing courses that are much more strongly unified by some kind of internal logic, usually thematic (the one I’ve offered most often is ‘The Victorian “Woman Question,”” for instance). Probably (though it’s too early to be sure) we will return regularly to the question of whether we’re doing something that makes any sense, and whether that matters. The diffusion of topics could lead to confusion in the course, so one of my jobs this summer is to bring it under control without spoiling the fun. You can expect lots of updates as I explore.

I’ve started, because it seemed pretty fundamental, with the history of women at Oxford, which has been really interesting to learn about. One of the first things I realized was that this aspect of the new class actually follows much more closely than I had realized from my usual teaching, including the  ‘Woman Question’ seminar, because an instigating factor in the movement of women into Oxford was the pressure to educational reform stimulated by the difficult situation of governesses in the mid-Victorian period (Jane Eyre!) and the statistical imbalance between men and women highlighted in the 1851 census and of increasing concern towards the end of the century (The Odd Women!). Many of the names of early advocates for women’s education are moderately familiar to me from my 19th-century studies: Emily Davis, Barbara Leigh Smith (later Bodichon), Matthew and Thomas Arnold, Mary (Mrs. Humphrey Humphry) Ward. George Eliot donated to the founding of Girton College, Cambridge — a modest £50 only, but evidence of the precedence she gave to education over political rights.

And on that note, it’s back to the Oxford History of Oxford!