Watching Testament of Youth

testamentposterVera Brittain’s Testament of Youth made a great impression on me when I finally read it several years ago. My interest in it led me to read more by and about Brittain, as well as more by and about her close friend Winifred Holtby, and then to research and eventually offer a seminar on a cluster of the “Somerville Novelists,” including Brittain, Holtby, Dorothy L. Sayers, and Margaret Kennedy. In addition to the many blog posts I wrote on this material, I published an essay on Holtby in 3:AM Magazine and a short piece on “10 Reasons to Love Vera Brittain” at For Books’ Sake. I find the intellectual vitality and political passion of these women inspiring, and I have both reveled in and puzzled over their writing, which is not always aesthetically satisfying but never fails to be interesting. So naturally I have been waiting eagerly to see the 2014 adaptation of Testament of Youth — and last night I finally got the chance. (Hooray for Video Difference: may it never close down!)

Overall, I was pretty impressed. The acting (and the casting) is excellent, especially Alicia Vikander as Vera; the productions values are very high; and I thought it made a good effort to cover the central aspects of Brittain’s story. It didn’t include quite everything: in it, she doesn’t go to Malta, for example (which, just cinematically, seems like a lost opportunity). But it does incorporate both some of the poetry that was so important to Brittain and her four young men and some of their letters, including the very poignant one from Geoffrey in which he observes the unexpected beauty of the setting sun reflected in the shell craters at the front.

Still, the film wasn’t quite my version of Testament of Youth. It was a bit too slow-paced, and the artsy nature shots and pensive stares the director favored didn’t seem true to Brittain’s tough-mindedness. Though it is an emotional book, I found it particularly significant as an intellectual Bildungsroman, and though the plot of the film did follow this progression, the mood of the film turned it into more of a sentimental journey. Perhaps the concern was that Brittain herself might not be a very sympathetic heroine if this “bluestocking” aspect were emphasized any more than it was. I did find when I taught Testament that the students did not warm to her. She certainly is no Bridget Jones: hers is a life defined by competence, ambition, and self-assertion, and we do still seem to have trouble embracing these as heroic female qualities.

I would also have liked more emphasis on the context that led these young men to their doom: the ebullient nationalism and glorification of war are touched on only a couple of times and so the theme of disillusionment that’s so important to Brittain’s account is not as evident or painful. There’s plenty of contrast in the film between the golden pre-war days and the horrors of the battlefield, but the ideology of it all seemed muffled by the personal story in a way that Brittain never allows. I did appreciate that the film ended with the emergence of her as a public speaker and a pacifist.

I assume they didn’t film at the actual Somerville College because it doesn’t look enough like people’s dreams of Oxford. And yet its novelty among the other colleges is part of the point!

“The sword in the hand of humanity”: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-1917

youngrebecca“Boldness is Rebecca West’s strength,” Jane Marcus says in  her edited collection The Young Rebecca: Writings of Rebecca West 1911-1917; “She polished the weapons of invective and denunciation into the tools of a fine art.” That combination of boldness and artfulness makes West irresistibly quotable: people who hang out with me on Twitter may have noticed that I, at least, couldn’t resist sharing some of her erudite zingers. As most of the essays and reviews in this volume are fairly short, it’s West herself that makes the biggest impression, though cumulatively her political and aesthetic commitments are clear: as Marcus outlines them, “the young Rebecca West stood for revolution, free love, equal pay, the working class, votes for women, and the most advanced ideas in literature.” Some samples — and keep in mind that between 1911 and 1917 West (b. 1892) was between 19 and 25:

On The Considine Luck by H. A. Hinkson, The Spinster by H. Wales, and The Trespasser by D. H. Lawrence.

The baldness and badness of popular novels is as touching as the ugliness of a cherished rag doll. What overflowing tenderness must be in the heart of the child who loves this monstrosity, we think. And so with the people who read these novels — what tireless imaginations they must have, to perceive joy in these bare chronicles! We superior persons are too feeble to go searching for beauty on our own like that. We wait idly until Thomas Hardy comes back from witnessing fierce wars between the flesh and the spirit, and Conrad sails home from the strangest and most distant tropic. But the common man picks up some artless work such as The Considine Luck by H. A. Hinkson and creates his own beauty. He takes the puppet heroine, Grace Smith, and paints her wooden cheeks with the flush of his sensuous dreams; he lights her eyes with the radiance he has seen in unattainable women in pictures or at theatres, till Grace Smith is more fair than his first love. In a sense he writes his own book. . . .

It is not unkind to say that the above two books need never have been written. Of course, one is glad that they have been written, just as one is glad that there are dog shows at the Horticultural Show, even though one never goes near the place oneself. One likes to think of all those jolly little puppies; and similarly one is glad that Mr. Wales feels up to his work, and quite certain that a lot of people will get ingenuous pleasure out of Mr. Hinkson’s book.

 On J. M. Kennedy’s English Literature, 1880-1905.

He misses the really high purpose which the Yellow Book school fulfilled. These young men of artistic ambition came into the world to find that style was held in contempt. Dickens had dragged the English language through the mud, Browning had thrown bricks at it, Trollope was sit on its chest and reading the lessons to it. The house of art was full of men who had magnificent messages, but nevertheless ate peas with their knives. This revolted Wilde, possibly because, coming from Ireland, he was accustomed to hear good, clean, English; but in any case he and his followers set about imposing style on English literature. That was the purpose of their existence, and they fulfilled it. There was no new philosophy in the air, so they had no new gospel to preach. But they improved our manners. It is thanks to them that we are as fastidious about words as we are about personal cleanliness.

 On The Carnival of Florence by Marjorie Bowen.

There are two kinds of historical novel: the dietetic and the dressy. In the first one cries ‘Tush!’ and calls for nut-brown ale and a pasty. In the second one sighs ‘Ah God, my lord!’ and wimples, when one does not stomacher. In both cases local colour is not the complexion of the story but an impediment in its speech, but the latter has attracted a higher type of intellect by the delicious opportunity it affords of spending the afternoon in museums, looking at pretty things in glass cases and pretending that one is doing a good day’s work. For the literary mind enjoys almost everything except its work. Chief among the students of upholstery of the past is Miss Marjorie Bowen, who brings to the research enormous romping vitality and a love for beauty of language in which one would believe more thoroughly if she did not so frequently split her infinitives neatly down the middle.

On The World of H. G. Wells, by Van Wyck Brooks.

 Mr Van Wyck Brooks is one of those young American writers who would have made excellent wives and mothers. He fails from sheer excess of the housewifely qualities. He is saving: just as in happier circumstances he would have put every scrap into the stockpot, so now he refuses to throw away the very driest bone of thought, and insists on boiling it up in his mental soup He is hospitable; the deadest idea does not get turned away from his doorstep. He is cleanly: his bleached, scentless style suggests that he hung out the English language on the line in the dry, pure breezes of Boston before he used it.

On Hatchways by E. Sidgwick.

With the possible exeption of Angela Carranza (condemned by the Inquisition of Lima in 1684), who claimed to have written her revelations with a quill from the wings of the Holy Ghost, Miss E. Sidgwick is the most pretentious woman writer who ever lived.

One more, on The Good Soldier, by Ford Maddox Ford (to show that she could praise as well as condemn).

 It is as impossible to miss the light of its extreme beauty and wisdom as it would be to miss the full moon on a clear night. Its first claim on the attention is the obvious loveliness of the colour and cadence of its language, and it is also clever as the novels of Mr Henry James are clever, with all sorts of acute discoveries about human nature; and at times it is radiantly witty. And behind these things there is the delight of a noble and ambitious design, and behind that again, there is the thing we call inspiration — a force of passion which so sustains the story in its flight that never once does it appear as the work of a man’s invention. It is because of that unison of inspiration and the finest technique that this story, this close and relentless recital of how the good soldier struggled from the mere clean innocence which was the most his class could expect of him to the knowledge of love, could bear up under the vastness of its subject. For the subject is, one realises when one has come to the end of this saddest story, much vaster than one had imagined that any story about well-bred people, who live in sunny houses with deer in the park, and play polo, and go to Nauheim for the cure, could possibly contain. . . . Indeed, this is a much, much better book than any of us deserve.

 Oh, OK, just one more, on The Lion’s Share, by Arnold Bennett (because it’s impossible not to think about Woolf’s much more famous essay “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown” while reading this — though Woolf’s appears eight years later).

It is now the fashion in many intellectual circles to despise Mr Bennett, as it is the fashion to despise all authors who have performed the crude act of publishing anything. But it is interesting to notice that because has has worked so hard at the craft of writing, at the art of inventing the dreams of a not wild imagination with beauty, he cannot help but achieve good writing and beauty even in a book written without much devotion and with a light intention.

 Oh, and this one too, on Love and Lucy by Maurice Hewlett (because it takes up a pet theme of mine).

But Mr. Hewlett would probably object, the girl had charm. Yet can anybody who cannot grasp that the angles at the base of an isosceles triangle are equal have charm? Can anybody who cannot – to take a simple and revealing test of intelligence — fold up a deck-chair, have charm? Lucy, one feels, could not have passed either of these tests. Isn’t it a sign of commonness, like buying a watch with a handsome exterior and cheap works, to be able to regard such a person as charming? Isn’t intelligence not a separate inserted quality but a necessary condition of beauty, at once a manifestation of a subtle and healthy nervous system and a power which organizes mere physical perfection into beauty that stirs the soul?

 rwestAll of these reviews are, in their own ways, epigrammatically delightful. But they also have a quality of self-display that is in fact slightly wearing after a while: it is perhaps a symptom of West’s precocity, indicative of the youthful zest for being right, or of a critical sensibility compromised (as is so often the case today as well) by the journalistic need to be both pithy and memorable. To be quotable, that is, is not the same as to be impressive, and I find her reviews here more impressive when she tones things down and speaks less from her head and more from her heart. I quoted before from her essay on the death of Emily Davison, for instance; along with the suffering of the suffragettes, it’s the war about which she is most eloquent. Here are some excerpts from her review of May Sinclair’s  A Journal of Impressions in Belgium:

The contrast between the manner of Miss Sinclair’s genius and its achievements is difficult to define. It is as though the usual literary process had been reversed and a mouse had produced a mountain. She writes about life as though she were a little girl sitting on a tin trunk at a railway station and watching the people go by; she writes as though at the  most hopeful estimate she might be another Miss Mitford; and out of this piteousness and diffidence and round-eyed observation there amazingly comes a fierce, large vision of reality. It is entirely characteristic of Miss Sinclair that this record of seventeen days spent in Belgium, which is largely a record of humiliations, and is told with the extremest timidity and a trembling meticulosity about the lightest facts, should be one of the few books of permanent value produced by the war.

Partly it is because her meticulosity makes her describe what writers more accustomed to the battlefield leave one to take for granted. . . . And partly it is because she writes of such a company of heroes as never lived before: of girls of nineteen who trudge over turnip-fields among the bullets to look for the wounded, not in any sudden flame of courage, but as a daily occupation; of women who stayed in Antwerp at their posts till the red skies fell in on them. . . .

And against this background, which is a miracle of of dreadfulness, there moves the Ambulance Corps, which is a miracle of human splendour. It is merciful that, just as one discovers that the world is capable of being infinitely more noble. One perceives quite clearly that some members of this Ambulance Corps must have been intolerable as individuals: ‘practical’ women who use their common sense to rasp their neighbours’ shins and regard suavity as a part of incompetence. And yet, united by their collective purpose of courage, they become an organisation so magnificent in its fearlessness that one accepts as a real tragedy the personal grief which makes this book muted like words spoken by one who holds back the tears. No triumph of good work that may come to Miss Sinclair will ever make up to her for the discovery that the artist is unfit for the life of action. And yet every page of this gallant, humiliated book makes it plain that while it is glorious that England should have women who walk quietly under the rain of bullets it is glorious too that England should have women who grieve inconsolably because the face of danger has not been turned to them.

 Faced with that ‘miracle of dreadfulness,’ West is angrily impatient with wishful “emotional” solutions or simplistic pacifism, such as the proposal by Ellen Key’s Women, Peace and the Future that “mere femaleness is going to end the war”:

 Mere platitudinous assertions as to the niceness of peace and the nastiness of war are useless in such crises, and the ‘motherly’ advice of Miss Key that the belligerent nations should refrain from denouncing the sins of others and should turn their attention to their own defects, is actively mischievous.

If we refrain from regarding the invasion of Belgium as a crime, we foment a state of public opinion which would tolerate England’s commission of a similar crime if the occasion arose. It is alert and vigorous thinking about specific points, it is the very quality of intelligence which Miss Key belittles, which brings an end to war. The intellect is the sword in the hand of humanity, without which its tears and laughter are as impotent as the tears and laughter of children. That is why Miss Key’s feminism, this woman-worship that would have women cultivate laxness of mental tissue so that they shall dissolve into a hot emotional vapour that shall act as a Turkish bath to the Superman, is an offence not only against women but against the race.

Reading through this collection I was frequently reminded of Testament of a Generation: what years these were of passionate, uncompromising, yet humane writing in the service of both political and literary ideals! How well did West know Holtby and Brittain? Marcus’s introduction notes that to Brittain West was “the embodiment of the feminist cause, the twentieth-century successor to Mary Wollstonecraft.” The Berry / Bostridge biography mentions West’s friendly treatment of Brittain at a party in 1933 and there are scattered further references to letters and meetings. How stimulating it would have been to share in their conversations — and yet I’ve also been thinking, as I read West’s ruthless pronouncements, that this is not the kind of person I might like best in real life (West sounds difficult, if not quite as challenging a personality as Olivia Manning). Also, much as I appreciate West’s rhetorical flair, this is not the kind of writing I seek out in contemporary contexts, when I tend to find it tiresome. Though I certainly identify as a feminist, I let my Ms. subscription lapse in the mid 90s. I wonder why I enjoy polemics so much more at some historical distance. Or is it that these particular polemicists bring something to their work that isn’t there in the contemporary equivalents? Who would be the equivalents today of this “Fleet Street feminism” anyway? Jezebel? Feministing? What critics would you point to who combine strong political critique with a strong literary sensibility?

“It is only War in the abstract that is beautiful”: Letters from a Lost Generation

poppyIn remembrance, from the Novel Readings archive.


This volume is subtitled “The First World War Letters of Vera Brittain and Four Friends: Roland Leighton, Edward Brittain, Victor Richardson, Geoffrey Thurlow.” The editors, Alan Bishop and Mark Bostridge, explain in their ‘Note to the Text’ that they have abridged the letters, sometimes significantly, in order to “lay bare the vivid and moving personal stories they tell, against the historical background of a cataclysm that destroyed four of the five writers.” In their ‘Introduction,’ they sum up the story the letters tell, one of “idealism, disillusionment, and personal tragedy.” Though excerpts always make me wonder whether the material omitted might have changed the story, there’s no doubt that the letters as presented here do follow just that arc. The four young men in the correspondence are all products of the British public school system which taught them the values they lived and then died for: “traditions of chivalry,” the editors explain, “the values of self-sacrifice, fair play, selfless patriotism, honour, duty.” War, in their view, was the ultimate proving ground for these qualities as well as their defense. Remnants of what can only look to us like a narrow-minded as well as naive idealism linger on throughout their letters, especially in their poignant wish to show courage in the face of incessant horror and imminent death: “I only hope I don’t fail at the critical moment,” writes Geoffrey, in what turns out to be his last letter to Vera, “as truly I am a horrible coward: wish I could do well especially for the School’s sake.” But it doesn’t take long for the realities of the trenches to disillusion them about war itself. “I used to talk of the Beauty of War,” Vera’s fiancé Roland writes to hear early in August 1915, “but it is only War in the abstract that is beautiful.”

After Roland’s death, in late December 1915, Vera’s brother Edward writes to her that Roland “considered that in War lay our one hope of salvation as a Nation, War where all the things things that do not matter are swept rudely aside and one gets down to the rock-bottom of the elementary facts of life.” Their friend Victor, the most militaristic of them (Geoffrey, in contrast, is the least militaristic, telling Vera that “he objects to War on principle”) argues at one point to Edward that “the Allies are God’s instrument by which He will remove that spirit and doctrine which is the cause of such Wars as this one.” To Vera, Victor writes that “The thing one appreciates in the life here more than anything else is the truly charming spirit of good fellowship & freedom from pettiness that prevails everywhere.” But these theoretical, wishful, or compensatory arguments are inadequate bulwarks against passages like this one:

I have been rushing around since 4 a.m. this morning superintending the building of dug-outs, drawing up plans for the draining of trenches, doing a little digging myself as a relaxation, and accidentally coming upon dead Germans while looting timber from what was once a German fire trench. This latter was captured by the French not so long ago and is pitted with shell holes each big enough to bury a horse or two in. The dug-outs have been nearly all blown in, the wire entanglements are a wreck, and in among this chaos of twisted iron and splintered timber and shapeless earth are the fleshless, blackened bones of simple men who poured out their red sweet wine of youth unknowing, for nothing more tangible than Honour or their Country’s Glory or another’s Lust [for] Power. Let him who thinks that War is a glorious thing, who loves to roll forth stirring words of exhortation, invoking Honour and Praise and Valour and Love of Country with as thoughtless and fervid a faith as inspired the priests of Baal to call on their own slumbering deity, let him but look at a little pile of sodden grey rags that cover half a skull and a shin bone and what might have been Its ribs, or at this skeleton lying on its side, resting half crouching as it fell, supported by one arm, perfect but that it is headless and with the tattered clothing still draped around it; and let him realise how grand & glorious a thing it is to have distilled all Youth and Joy and Life into a foetid heap of hideous putrescence. Who is there who has known & seen who can say that Victory is worth the death of even one of these? (Roland to Vera, 11 September 1915)

“It seems to me now,” Vera writes back soon after, “that this War is scarcely for victory at all, for even if victory comes it will be at the cost of so much else, so many greater things, that it will be scarcely worth having. No, this War will only justify itself if it puts an end to all the horror & barbarism & retrogression of War for ever.” After Roland’s belongings are returned to his family, Vera writes to Edward,

I was glad that neither you nor Victor nor anyone else who may some day go to the front was there to see. If you had been you would have been overwhelmed by the horror of war without its glory. For though he had only worn the things when living, the smell of those clothes was the smell of graveyards & the Dead. The mud of France which covered them was not ordinary mud; it had not the usual clean pure smell of earth, but it was as though it were saturated with dead bodies – dead that had been dead a long, long time. All the sepulchres and catacombs of Rome could not make me realise mortality and corruption as vividly as did the smell of those clothes.

“Dear child,” Edward writes to Vera after the news of Geoffrey’s death, “there is no more to say; we have lost almost all there was to lose and what have we gained?”

What’s so surprising and touching about their letters is not what was gained or lost, but what was somehow retained–in spite of everything, you never lose the awareness that they are just (just!) five young people making their way forward a day at a time, in the best way they can find. They have school memories and career ambitions, favorite novels and poems, families that frustrate as well as comfort them. They worry, too, about how the war might be changing them. “I don’t think,” Roland writes to Vera, “that when one can still admire sunsets one has altogether lost the personality of pre-war days. I have been looking at a bloodred bar of sky creeping down behind the snow, and wondering whether any of the men in the trenches on the opposite hill were watching it too and thinking as I was what a waste of Life it is to spend it in a ditch.” Geoffrey’s final letter (paraphrased in Testament of Youth) includes an evocative description  of the trenches in the setting sun, a line of men “outlined against a pale yellow sky with dark purple clouds low down in the sky: over to the right tall trees astride a river also looking gold in the last rays of the sun and beyond the river more ruined houses from which occasionally flashed a large gun.” Though his life will so shortly be wasted, he at least has not lost his ability to appreciate that “it was all quite beautiful.”

geoffreyGeoffrey’s letter ends with lines from Rupert Brooke’s sonnet “Safety” – “War knows no power safe shall be my going / Safe tho’ all safety’s lost, safe where men fall / And if these poor limbs die, safest of all.” (Vera to Edward: “I had a letter from him, within 3 days before his death, which was in all ways a farewell. . .. it made you feel that Death could not conquer a person of such fine & courageous natures.”) He had written earlier to Vera about Brooke: “Yes! I love Rupert Brooke & took him up with some of the other verses which Edward gave to me, to the trenches the last time but owing to wet, mud and squashed cake in my pack, which, the cake, seemed to permeate everything my edition is somewhat dilapidated now tho’ the dearer for that.” But much of their daily life is much more mundane than poetry, and that’s really where we realize “the pity of war.” There’s the long saga of Edward’s missing valise, for instance. Apparently claiming lost luggage wasn’t any easier in the trenches than it is with Air Canada: “I have got various papers on which to write my claim but I don’t konw when I shall have time to write it all out as it will probably take about 2 hours as it has to be done in duplicate,” he writes in some frustration to Vera, asking her to send along new shorts and sundries. Then there are his confidential remarks to Vera that he never seems to meet any “decent girls”–“Can you throw any light on the matter and do you think I shall ever meet the right one because at present I can’t conceive the possibility?” (Vera replies, “I think very probably that older women will appeal to you much more than younger ones”). These are the moments that restore these painfully young men to the normalcy that their extraordinary circumstances have stripped away, the moments that help us see them as our own sons or brothers or loved ones. “The reason why your last letter was so beautiful,” Victor writes to Edward in May 1916, “was because it was so very human. And after all to be human is better, and greater, and more beautiful than anything else.”

Originally posted March 14, 2012

“I believe we are lost”: Erich Maria Remarque, All Quiet on the Western Front

All Quiet on the Western Front is as bleak and compelling a version of the “lost generation” narrative of World War I as I’ve read so far. In fact, Paul Bäumer, the novel’s narrator, comments explicitly, repeatedly, and bitterly on the chasm between the generation fighting in the trenches and the older generation far away from the front lines. “We agree that it’s the same for everyone,” Paul and his comrades conclude;

not only for us here, but everywhere, for everyone who is of our age; to some more, and to others less. It is the common fate of our generation.

Albert expresses it: “The war has ruined us for everything.”

Though the novel is replete with vivid vignettes, from the tedium of training to the camaraderie of trench life and the horrific chaos of bombardments, the most poignant moments arise when the young men (and they are so very young, most of them, just the age of so many of the first-year students I’m about to meet) reflect on the war’s catastrophic effect on normalcy:

To-day we would pass through the scenes of our youth like travellers. We are burnt up by hard facts; like tradesmen we understand distinctions, and like butchers, necessities. We are no longer untroubled–we are indifferent. We might exist there; but should we really live there?

We are forlorn like children, and experienced like old men, we are crude and sorrowful and superficial–I believe we are lost.

They can’t even imagine what they will do when it ends: even if they are lucky enough to survive at all, much less intact, what’s the value of a life from which all meaning has been stripped? The physical violence ultimately comes across as peripheral–collateral, even–to the other damage they endure:

The first bomb, the first explosion, burst in our hearts. We are cut off from activity, from striving, from progress. We believe in such things no longer. We believe in the war.

Battle is terrible, but it allows no time for reflection; Paul (and the reader) hurtles along, transformed from a thinking being to a “wild beast”:

We do not fight, we defend ourselves against annihilation. It is not against men that we fling our bombs, what do we know of men in this moment when Death is hunting us down–now, for the first time in three days we can see his face, now for the first time in three days we can oppose him; we feel a mad anger. No longer do we lie helpless, waiting on the scaffold, we can destroy and kill, to save ourselves, to save ourselves and to be revenged. . . . [C]rouching like cats we run on, overwhelmed by this wave that bears us along, that fills us with ferocity, turns us into thugs, into murderers, into God knows what devils; this wave that multiplies our strength with fear and madness and greed of life, seeking and fighting for nothing but our deliverance. If your own father came over with them you would not hesitate to fling a bomb at him.

 It’s when you stop to think that the true madness of war overwhelms you, because of course it is against men that you fling your bombs, and only the decisions of other men far removed from the consequences have turned ordinary people into enemies. “Just you consider,” observes Paul’s mate Katczinsky,

“almost all of us are simple folk. And in France, too, the majority of men are just labourers, workmen, or poor clerks. Now why would a French blacksmith or a French shoemaker want to attack us? No, it is merely the rulers. I had never seen a Frenchman before I came here, and it will be just the same with the majority of Frenchman as regards us. They weren’t asked about it any more than we were.”

“Then what exactly is the war for?” asks Tjaden.

Kat shrugs his shoulders. “There must be some people to whom the war is useful.”

“Well, I’m not one of them,” grins Tjaden.

“Not you, nor anybody else here.”

But it is dangerous to think this way, or to think at all, as Paul discovers during a turn guarding a group of Russian prisoners. In the trenches, the enemy is abstract until he is upon you, and then your common humanity becomes irrelevant in the desperate struggle to survive. But face to face, what you perceive is “the suffering of the creature, the awful melancholy of life and the pitilessness of men”:

A word of command has made these silent figures our enemies; a word of command might transform them into our friends. At some table a document is signed by some persons whom none of us knows, and then for years together that very crime on which formerly the world’s condemnation and severest penalty fall, becomes our highest aim. But who can draw such a distinction when he looks at these quiet men with their childlike faces and apostles’ beards. Any non-commissioned officer is more of an enemy to a recruit, any schoolmaster to a pupil, than they are to us. And yet we would shoot at them again and they at us if they were free.

Paul pulls himself up short here: “I am frightened: I dare think this way no more. This way lies the abyss.” Yet he realizes, too, that he needs these thoughts: “I will not lose these thoughts, I will keep them, shut them away until the war is ended.” Though it is these thoughts that make the war unbearable, it is also these thoughts–these moments of recognition–that he hopes give him “the possibility of existence after this annihilation of all human feeling.”

Human feeling surfaces again when, hiding in a shell hole during an enemy attack (and how odd and salutary it is, just by the way, to be on the German side for once in my reading), Paul stabs a Frenchman who tumbles in on top of him. He had expected this moment, prepared for it (“If anyone jumps in here I will go for him … at once, stab him clean through the throat so that he cannot call out; that’s the only way”), but he is not, in fact, prepared (how could he be?) for this moment when killing becomes intimate. He strikes without thinking and feels “how the body suddenly convulses, then becomes limp, and collapses.” The man does not die, however–at least, not at once, and Paul is trapped in the shell hole with a man who now seems, not his enemy, but his victim. This way, indeed, lies the abyss:

These hours. . . . The gurgling starts again–but how slowly a man dies! For this I know–he cannot be saved, I have, indeed, tried to tell myself that he will be, but at noon this pretence breaks down and melts before his groans. . . . By noon I am groping on the outer limits of reason. . . . every gasp lays my heart bare. This dying man has time with him, he has an invisible dagger with which he stabs me: Time and my thoughts.

 At last he dies: what a relief! “I breathe freely again. But only for a short time.” At least his dying was a distraction: “My state is getting worse, I can no longer control my thoughts.” Insanely, pathetically, beautifully, he tells his dead companion what he is thinking:

“Comrade, I did not want to kill you. If you jumped in here again, I would not do it, if you would be sensible too. But you were only an idea to me before, an abstraction that lived in my mind and called forth its appropriate response. It was that abstraction I stabbed. But now, for the first time, I see you are a man like me. I thought of your hand grenades, of your bayonet, of your rifle; now I see your wife and your face and our fellowship. Forgive me, comrade. We always see it too late. Why do they not tell us that you are poor devils like us, that your mothers are just as anxious as ours, and that we have the same fear of death, and the same dying and the same agony–Forgive me, comrade; how could you be my enemy? If we threw away these rifles and this uniform you could be my brother just like Kat and Albert. Take twenty years of my life, comrade, and stand up–take more, for I do not know what I can even attempt to do with it now.”

After he finally brings himself to leave the shell hole, Paul is restored to reason (or what passes for it during war) by Kat showing him the snipers gleefully picking off enemies. “What else could you have done?” ask his friends. “That is what you are here for.” “It was only because I had to lie there with him so long,” Paul says; “After all, war is war.”

That simple tautology says everything that is to be said, and at the same time it says nothing, offers no meaning, no consolation. There is nothing to be said, Paul thinks, as, recovering from a wound, he looks at the wreckage of young lives passing in a ceaseless stream through the hospital:

And this is only one hospital, one single station; there are hundreds of thousands in Germany, hundreds of thousands in France, hundreds of thousands in Russia. How senseless is everything that can ever be written, done, or thought, when such things are possible. It must be all lies and of no account when the culture of a thousand years could not prevent this stream of blood being poured out, these torture-chambers in their hundreds of thousands. A hospital alone shows what war is.

 Paul’s testimony–Remarque’s novel–shows that too, with harrowing simplicity. For Paul (for Remarque) war is definitive. It is everything. Beyond it, for those who have experienced it, there is nothing:

And all men of my age, here and over there, throughout the whole world see these things; all my generation is experiencing these things with me. What would our fathers do if we suddenly stood up and came before them and proffered our account? What do they expect of us if a time ever comes when the war is over? Through the years our business has been killing;–it was our first calling in life. Our knowledge of life is limited to death. What will happen afterwards? And what shall come out of us?

I have been interested in reading All Quiet on the Western Front for many years, but I’m reading it at this particular moment as part of my preparation for my Somerville Novelists seminar. It is an example of what Testament of Youth is not: a soldier’s story, a first-hand (if fictionalized) account of fighting and survival and tactics and rations and brothers in arms. It is the masculine story of the war, and as many of the critics I’ve been reading point out, that’s the valorized story, the “authentic” one. Brittain knew these aspects of the war only second-hand, through the letters she received from the front and through her experience as a nurse. There are many points of convergence, though. Above all, both tell a story of lost innocence. And both focus almost exclusively on the personal, on individual disillusionment, devastation, and loss–but both lead us towards political conclusions by making it impossible to understand what cause could possibly be worth such a price. Outside their books, we might well feel there’s an argument to be had about that. Reading them, though, it’s hard to do anything but mourn.

“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.

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!