Virginia Woolf

Virginia Woolf

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.

10 thoughts on “Virginia Woolf

  1. Couldn’t agree more. I’ve never liked her novels, though her letters and journals are some of the most wonderful in the English language. Modernism and snobbery are not an appealing combination.

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    • I am so glad you agree. There is such an enormous readership for Woolf that I thought, Oh God, am I being controversial?. The letters and diaries ARE excellent.

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  2. ‘ Surely “the quality of…birth” doesn’t have to “ooze.”’
    No, it doesn’t, but how far does Woolf mean the fact that it does ‘ooze’ into Katharine Hilbery’s ‘consciousness from a dozen different sources as soon as she was able to perceive anything’ to tell us something about Katharine and her background and assumptions? I don’t know, and my own taste is for Bennett, Wells and Lawrence as novelists, but I wonder if we aren’t underestimating Woolf’s awareness here – and often elsewhere, too.

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    • Woolf is being very witty. but there’s still something about Katharine. As the novel goes on, she changes her view of Denham and is very noble about her fiancé’s falling in love with her cousin. So she becomes more likable. But there’s a bit of oozing. I think Woolf did this all much better in The Years. Sent from my iPad

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  3. I guess I can’t agree. I’ve been having a kind of love affair with her for the past three years. I used to prefer her essays and life-writing to her novels. No more. I love it all. It’s taken me time and reading with a friend Hermione Lee’s biography to realize just how deeply egalitarian, anti-colonialist, anti-war, pro-humanity and deeply for women Woolf is. She writes l’ecriture-femme. DHLawrence I can no longer read. I agree that her behavior to individals is sometimes awful, and that Night and Day is an utter throw-back. I love her melancholy and just finished Jacob’s Room and Three Guineas. It’s not in the main characters but the whole of them and all the people we see fleetingly that the depth for me lies. Three Guineas is as important to read as Primo Levi’s If This Be Man and The Truce today. it helps also to read Leonard: I recommend Victoria Glendinning’s book on him.

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    • Oh, I used to love her, too. I do think she had a deeply conservative side, but of course she is a feminist. To me her character comes out in her dismissal of Mary D, whom she never quite develops, and in her lit crit. Sent from my iPad

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  4. For years, I tried to love her novels, but preferred her essays and journals. They are beautiful and expressive. Thanks for making me realize that I’m not alone!

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  5. beauty, class and dullness win – I think that’s exactly how VW would have seen it! Constantly being expected to fit the Victorian/Edwardian ideal by her brothers, and be a social success, and she loathing every minute. You’re right I think she can be very snobbish, but she talks about it and recognises it as a fault. She is a character of her time and I think bearing in mind her stifling early life it is wonderful how open to new ways of life and thinking she is – always supported Leonard, a true renaissance man.

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    • I do still love three of Virginia Woolf’s novels, but this time around I loathed Night and Day! Mind you, I thoroughly enjoyed it in my teens. But E. M. Forster and Katherine Mansfield were critical of N&@, especially Mansfield, because of Woolf’s leaving out the war. Clearly Woolf grew after this one.

      And I very much like Leonard’s Wise Virgins and his autobiography!

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