I used to be in the modernist camp of Virginia Woolf groupies. What changed my mind? The snobbery.
I am still a fan. I adore The Years (which I wrote about here), To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts. But a recent rereading of some of W’s early work reminded me of her unsubtle early “classism.” Is anyone more annoying than Katharine Hilbery, the patrician heroine of Night and Day? Katharine has a sense of humor, but is she intelligent? Woolf writes, “The quality of her birth oozed into Katharine’s consciousness from a dozen different sources as soon as she was able to perceive anything. Above her nursery fireplace hung a photograph of her grandfather’s tomb in Poets’ Corner, and she was told in one of those moments of grown-up confidence which are so tremendously impressive to the child’s mind, that he was buried there because he was a ‘good and great man.'” Naturally, Denham, the earnest young man Katharine dislikes on their first meeting, falls in love with Katharine instead of the plainer Mary Datchet, the radical office worker who is the only really interesting character in the novel. But beauty, class, and dullness win. And that makes Woolf more traditional in her first books than were some of her female predecessors, like George Eliot.
Woolf writes so beautifully. Does anyone write more beautifully? But I prefer her essays to her novels these days. The Common Reader is deceptively simple, a book of Woolf’s literary criticism that doesn’t sound like criticism. Now that I’m older, I realize the ideas are not always original, but the style is. Who has better summed up the problems in translation, in any language, than Woolf in “The Russian Point of View”? And I dearly love her brilliant essay about the even more brilliant George Eliot.
But Woolf is so snide. She is malicious in “The Patron and the Crocus” about Henry James, the American who tries too hard but doesn’t really understand England, in her view, and she is horrifically snobbish in “Modern Fiction” about the realistic fiction of Galsworthy, Wells, and Bennett. She writes, “If we fasten, then, one label on all these books, on which is one word materialists, we mean by it that they write of unimportant things; that they spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring.”
Well, I love modernism, but I so much prefer D. H. Lawrence to Woolf. Woolf may be a lesbian, which is part of her appeal these days, but Lawrence was equally elegant and more egalitarian.
And I am very keen on “the materialists,” who do not write as well as Woolf but deserve better than that slinging of arrows. Surely “the quality of…birth” doesn’t have to “ooze.” Woolf is brilliant, but I find I can’t read more than one of her books a year now. And, honestly, I have to ask, Has she stood the test of time? For most, but not for me.