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The Age of Outrage
Aesthetics of Outrage

A Far Cry from Within: Virginia Woolf’s Poethics of Commitment

Un profond cri de l'intérieur : poéthique de l'engagement chez Virginia Woolf
Adèle Cassigneul

Abstracts

In Virginia Woolf’s work outrage does not manifest itself bluntly and is never assimilated to sharp animosity. Anger is a feeling she deems insincere in fiction and which eventually leads to the loss of ‘perfect integrity’. Woolf argues in favour of a subtle balance, a need to ‘attempt to alter the current scale of values’ through a different vision. A need to assert oneself as Other through the subversive power of words, to resist the prevailing order of things.
The aim of this paper is to see how socio-political concerns arise in Woolf’s essays and seep through her works of fiction to eventually be connected with literary aesthetics that engage the reader. I focus on the novel she wrote after the Great War, Night and Day (1919), to see in what ways the major themes of the novel (marriage and the status of women) strongly link public and private spheres and come to question both society and politics at the beginning of the 20th century. Following Meschonnic’s ideas in Modernité modernité, I argue that literature becomes the place of a textual crisis that witnesses the birth of the modern Subject.
In the article, I analyse the ways in which Woolf focuses on the figure of the New Woman, the embodiment of her rebellion against patriarchy, to tie up two contrasting sets of images—that of the idealised Victorian Angel in the House (Night and Day and photographs of Julia Margaret Cameron) and proliferating images that represent the triumph of patriarchy (Three Guineas and newspaper cuttings)—to overcome, question and redefine socio-political concerns linked to femininity and discourse.

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  • 1 The article has also been published under the title ‘The Artist and Politics’.
  • 2 Alex Zwerdling notes that Woolf’s allegiances and influences were determinedly on the suffragist, a (...)

1Reading both Virginia Woolf’s essays and fiction, it clearly appears that for her human beings are political animals (Aristotle’s zoon politikon), at once individuals, ‘voter[s], wage-earner[s], [and] responsible citizen[s]’ (Woolf 1979, 50). On December 14th 1936, seven years after her first socio-political essay A Room of One’s Own, she published ‘Why Art Today Follows Politics’ in the communist paper The Daily Worker, firmly asserting: ‘that the writer is interested in politics needs no saying . . . the artist is affected as powerfully as other citizens when society is in chaos’1 (Woolf 1993, 133, 136). And indeed, two years later, Woolf published Three Guineas, an eloquent cry against war and all the –isms it entailed at the dawn of the Second World War—patriotism, nationalism, fascism and even feminism.2

2Reading both Virginia Woolf’s essays and fiction, it also clearly appears that she understood that politics and literature have something in common, that both are strategies of representation, two different regimes of fiction. As Jacques Rancière underlines in Le Partage du sensible: ‘La politique et l’art, comme les savoirs, construisent des “fictions”, c’est-à-dire des réagencements matériels des signes et des images, des rapports entre ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on dit, entre ce qu’on fait et ce qu’on peut faire’ (Rancière 62). For Rancière, ‘reality must be fictionalised so as to be thought about’ (Rancière 61, my translation), just as for Woolf generic hybridity (fictional essays, image/texts) is required to come to grips with contemporary debates and to reach a deeper layer of truth. The white page of the writer-essayist is a virgin space where fiction meets socio-cultural and political considerations and representations, where different levels of discourse become intertwined to build a poethic text (Pinson 135). Woolfian commitment also entails an essential formal dimension.

  • 3 Suzanne Raitt writes about this in ‘Virginia Woolf’s early novels: Finding a voice’ (Sellers 29–48)
  • 4 On November 28th, 1919, Woolf writes in her diary: ‘A decorous elderly dullard she [K. Mansfield] d (...)

3But critics3 tend to consider that Woolf as a writer engaging with the ethics of literature was born in the early 1920s, and her early fiction, as opposed to her early essays, tend to be dismissed. Adopting a reverse reading, I would like to show how, far from being ‘Jane Austen up to date’4 (Woolf 1983, 313), Woolf’s second novel and its budding socio-political concerns crystallise and anticipate her later stark political commitment. As a space of negotiation, Night and Day may seem tame but already engages with a sense of outrage.

  • 5 On August 18th, 1908 Woolf writes to her brother in law Clive Bell: ‘I shall reform the novel and c (...)

4In her 1929 essay, ‘Women and Fiction’, Woolf underlines that twentieth-century women’s fiction ‘is perpetually wishing to alter the established rules [and] the current scale of values’ (Woolf 1979, 49). She plainly expresses an urgent need to refashion and reform fiction writing from within, to tap into a new subversive energy so as to fuel a transformed dissident literature.5 Arguing in favour of a literature by women, fundamentally different from that of men, Woolf establishes the literary text as a place of both a literary and eminently political—because primarily human—crisis.

5This may tie in with Henri Meschonnic’s 1988 essay, Modernité Modernité, where he sees modernity as a fight: ‘un combat. Sans cesse recommençant. Parce qu’elle est un état naissant, indéfiniment naissant, du sujet, de son histoire, de son sens’ (Meschonnic 9). In tune with Walter Benjamin’s conception of history, modernity is considered as a temporality that is endlessly shaping itself in the present, evolving by fits and starts and uninterrupted metamorphoses—somewhat like the flickering flash of images that instantly follow one another on a cinema screen. Modernity is a fleeting ephemeral presence that, paradoxically, stretches and survives—a present that remains present, says Meschonnic (16): La modernité telle que je l’entends . . . est une trans-historicité, un indicateur de subjectivité (238). It creates a fugitive spatio-temporal dimension where thoughts are articulated and individuals must take a stand—commitment and/or withdrawal—as citizens in the face of historical events or societal mutations.

  • 6 Reminiscent of the Austenian ironical stance, the first sentence reads as follows: ‘It was a Sunday (...)
  • 7 Ralph Denham’s very presence in the first scene of the text amounts to defiance as, to Katharine’s (...)

6Modernity literally bursts into the first page of Night and Day, embodied by the young attorney Ralph Denham who suddenly disrupts the peaceful and sophisticated Austen-like conversation piece of the Hilberys’s aristocratic tea-table ritual: ‘At the very same moment . . . the door was flung open, and a young man entered the room’ (Woolf 1978, 9). This brusque and impetuous irruption introduces a fascinating contrast—fascinating because violent and radical—between twentieth-century modernity and ancestral tradition. The modern Londoner, the narrator notes, has ‘his face slightly reddened by the wind, and his hair not altogether smooth’; a ‘strange young man’ who ‘would not be easily combined with the rest’ (Woolf 1978, 11), the narrator adds. Confronted with Victorian manners and mores—the mind-numbing, stilted and formal ‘tea-table manner’ (Woolf 1985a, 142) is presented as unnatural and constraining from the novel’s very first sentence6—, his disrupting and unconsciously defying7 presence can be seen as utter provocation.

7Throughout the novel, modernity is linked to urban hustle and bustle, socio-political commitment and social mutations (namely women’s movement, mobility of the lower educated middle-class). Prevailing outdoors and in the public sphere, it stands as the negative of the subdued and harmonious private sphere of the Hilbery Chelsea home: ‘With the omnibuses and cabs still running in his head, and his body still tingling with quick walk along the streets and in and out of traffic and foot-passengers, this drawing-room seemed very remote and still . . .’ (Woolf 1978, 10). Internalising the city dynamics, Ralph Denham stands as the figure of the modern Subject. A subject that is born of the friction between social classes—he is poor but works in the City and collaborates with upper-class influential patriarchs, among them Katharine’s father—and of the confrontation between different ways of defining the individual—individual freedom comes up against the inherited family conventions.

  • 8 In the novel wondering is equated with wandering, as the characters discuss and debate, muse and re (...)

8In her 1927 article, ‘The Narrow Bridge of Art’, Woolf postulates that the novel ‘will take the mould of that queer conglomeration of incongruous things—the modern mind’ (Woolf 1975, 19-20). And in 1919, she had already begun this innovative enterprise through her young characters (Katharine, Ralph, Mary and William) that appear as enunciators who assert their own subjectivity and make their stand through their quest for meaning. ‘Peut-être quelque chose de la modernité commence là où il n’y a plus de super-sujet. Là où le sujet se cherche. Et où il est traqué’, suggests Meschonnic (48). Indeed, Night and Day with its plethora of inquiring questions on the self, on the place of the individual and the marriage institution in turn-of-the-century metropolitan society8 can be read as a quest novel that topples literary tradition in the affirmation of the triumph of individual freedom.

  • 9 Conversely William Rodney and Cassandra Otway act as foils that endorse family traditions and do no (...)
  • 10 In the course of the novel Katharine, Ralph or Mary fantasise their future. They thus often oscilla (...)
  • 11 ‘La modernité est critique . . . Elle est provocation’ (Meschonnic 18).
  • 12 This is congruent with Bloomsbury ethics. In 1911, Roger Fry wrote in the Fortnightly Review: ‘A wo (...)

9Katharine secretly pursues her passion for mathematics. Mary is actively engaged in the fight for gender equality and the vote for women. Ralph pursues his job as junior attorney, wishing to write ground-breaking books. All three protagonists are going through periods of crisis, questioning the meaning and purpose of their lives.9 Through the complexity of their aspirations and their difficulties to accommodate them to their environment (the novel follows patterns of vision/illusion/disillusion),10 self-affirmation becomes drastic provocation and thus stimulates reflection. Indeed, it seems that for Woolf modernity must be critical, must be provocative.11 It implies an active literary involvement. The modern writer has to tackle contemporary questions that will make him or her adapt their style and force them to thoroughly modify literary genres without submitting the form to its contents.12 Reforming the traditional novel of manners, ‘Virginia Woolf's formal choices exceed aesthetics and branch out into politics and ethics’, writes Christine Reynier (124). Indeed, Woolf wrote Night and Day just after the Great War trauma, and even if the scars left by the war do not obviously appear in its pages either thematically or formally, something has irremediably changed and has shaken British Edwardian society to its roots. Following the movements and interrogations of the characters, we get intimations of subterranean issues at stake that Woolf will develop and explore in her later fiction—‘it is in this atmosphere of doubt and conflict that writers have now to create’, she writes in ‘The Narrow Bridge of Art’ (Woolf 1975, 12).

  • 13 See Elena Gualtieri and Vara Neverow’s articles.

10Outrage is unconventional and exceeds the limits of what is usual; it goes beyond accepted standards. It thus implies a rupture, turning toward the future to (hopefully) make things change. In this way, Woolf engages with patriarchal standards: ‘it’s an odd feeling though, writing against the current: difficult entirely to disregard the current’ (Woolf 1984, 189), she noted on November 22nd 1938, while she was busy elaborating Three Guineas. Between 1931 and 1937, coming to grips with ‘history in the raw’ (Woolf 1985b, 7), Woolf cut and pasted articles and images that she found in over six newspapers in three scrapbook volumes known as The Reading Notes for Three Guineas—‘a foundation of facts to sustain a political argument’ (Pawlowski 298). At the dawn of the Second World War, Woolf needed ‘some more energetic, some more active method’ (Woolf 1985b, 12) of condemning the horrors of war and voice out her eloquent cry against patriotic, misogynistic British patriarchy. She needed formal hybridity to voice out her outrage. Woolf fashioned an original semi-fictional image/text to subvert masculine rhetorical habits and bring to the fore the figure of the feminist New Woman.13

  • 14 As Sowon S. Park underlines Woolf's commitment to the suffrage cause: ‘In principle she was in favo (...)

11But we may contend that this figure had already made its first appearance in 1919 in the more polished and formally traditional Night and Day, with the character of Mary Datchet who yearns to chart new territories beyond that of domesticity. Mary works in the Russell Square office of an organization that campaigns for women’s suffrage. She rebels against middle-class stern patriarchal rule and pushes the limits set by a male-dominated society—she lives alone in a room of her own which is not a symbol of confinement but a free space, a refuge from the patriarchal world where the female character can seek shelter and emancipate herself. Just like H. G. Wells’ Ann Veronica, she looks for personal liberty. Woolf focuses on her anger and rebellion, which echo the writer’s own resentment, wanting to overcome, question and redefine socio-political concerns linked to femininity and discourse.14

12If in Night and Day outrage appears as a motif, it becomes a strategy of representation in her 1938 essay. In Three Guineas, Woolf deconstructs the masculine discourse that proliferates in the press, using words and images to dissect the fetish bodies of a male symbolism. Her experienced observant and critical eye deciphers the adorned and affected attires of men of the church and of the law, men of letters and men of arms. She makes the visible readable and the ‘admirable specimen of the Victorian educated man’ (Woolf 1985, 64) is turned into a gaudy insect under the scrutinising gaze of the writer-turned-entomologist who ‘must prise [him] open’ (Woolf 2003, 217). The image, as a representation of a decadent grandeur, triggers ‘a myriad points of amazement mixed with interrogation’ (Woolf 1985b, 19):

Your clothes in the first place make us gape with astonishment. How many, how splendid, how extremely ornate they are—the clothes worn by the educated men in his public capacity! Now you dress in violet; a jewelled crucifix swings on your breast; now your shoulders are covered with lace; now furred with ermine; now slung with many linked chains set with precious stones . . . Tabards embroidered with lions and unicorns swing from your shoulders; metal objects cut in star shapes or in circle glitter and twinkle upon your breasts. Ribbons of all colours—blue, purple, crimson—cross from shoulder to shoulder. After the comparative simplicity of your dress at home, the splendour of your public attire is dazzling. (Woolf 1985, 19)

  • 15 In Three Guineas, outrage is not only voiced out but is formally and rhetorically exposed in/by the (...)

13‘Your world, then, the world of professional, of public life, seen from this angle undoubtedly looks queer’ (Woolf 1985, 18). Woolf closely examines this masculine parade as if it were some absurd fashion show. She reproduces it through her montage of fixed images (five in total) which spread throughout the essay. With grandiloquent emphasis and pompous hyperboles, with a seemingly never-ending list, Woolf’s minute and ironic descriptions mimic the blinding experience. Her mimetic prose appropriates the prevailing discourse to wring it from the inside. Indeed Woolf weaves otherness at the heart of her text so as to enforce a point of view that at once exhibits, exposes and condemns.15 As Christine Reynier points out, it is ‘through aesthetics, through the autonomy of the form, that Virginia Woolf’s [texts] display some form of commitment’ (Reynier 116). Woolf reproaches patriarchy with what women are usually reproached with, the duty of social performance that turns beings into flat and lifeless images.

  • 16 Midway through her education, Katharine wishes to get married because she is convinced marriage wil (...)
  • 17 See Julia Margaret Cameron’s Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women, edited by Woolf’s (...)

14Yearning for a house of her own,16 Katharine Hilbery has difficulties in coping with social performances and clockwork rituals; she feels at odds with tea-table manners and age-old conventional traditions. The adored and idealised family past weighs on and numbs her—‘She very nearly lost consciousness that she was a separate being with a future of her own’ (Woolf 1978, 121). The paralysed fixity of her family environment comes to be symbolised by her grandfather’s photographic album. An album full of Victorian portraits of famous great men and fair virtuous women17 that recalls Woolf’s own collection of portraits-cartes de visite representing famous or anonymous Great Victorians (Humm 40–41).

The faces of these men and women shone forth wonderfully after the hubbub of living faces, and seemed, as her mother had said, to wear a marvellous dignity and calm, as if they had ruled their kingdoms justly and deserved great love. Some were of almost incredible beauty, others were ugly enough in a forcible way, but none was dull or bored or insignificant. The superb stiff folds of the crinolines suited the women; the cloaks and hats of the gentlemen seemed full of character. (Woolf 1978, 124)

  • 18 In the short fictional biography of her great-aunt, Woolf writes: ‘Suddenly, for the secret had bee (...)
  • 19 Cameron made over forty portraits of her favourite niece—portraits that the Stephen family held—whi (...)

15For sentimental Mrs Hilbery, who romanticises and worships the Great Tradition, the photographs evoke multiple stories and anecdotes. She mentions ‘Queenie Colquhoun . . . who took her coffin out with her to Jamaica’ (Woolf 1978, 124), strikingly echoing what Virginia Woolf’s great-aunt, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, actually did on her return to Ceylon at the end of her life.18 Her Victorian photography survives as a powerful pictorial third (Louvel 43), haunting the text with its poignant images. And we cannot help but recall Cameron’s ideal photographs of Woolf’s mother, Julia Jackson Stephen, perfect Madonna-like portraits of the Angel in the house19—a motif Woolf will thoroughly rework in To the Lighthouse. Images that have haunted Woolf’s fiction, as she explains in her 1931 article ‘Professions for Women’:

  • 20 See Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1873 photograph untitled The Angel in the House (Ford 122).

And while I was writing this review, I discovered that if I were going to review books I should need to do battle with a certain phantom. And the phantom was a woman, and when I came to know her better I called her after the heroine of a famous poem, the Angel in the House. It was she who used to come between me and my paper when I was writing reviews. It was she who bothered me and wasted my time and so tormented me that at last I killed her . . . Had I not killed her she would have killed me. . . . it was an experience that was found to befall all women writers at that time. Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of a woman writer.
(Woolf 1979, 58-60)20

16‘Killing the Angel in the House’ means to get rid of the dominant discourses and cliché images that circumscribe and poison femininity and women’s socio-political position. In Night and Day, Woolf summons Cameron’s photographs together with a whole Victorian feminine imagery in absentia; a visual unconscious that helps her denounce the symbolic gag that stifles and silences women and the social girdle that constrains them to remain trapped in the domestic sphere.

  • 21 See, for instance, Virginia Dodier’s Lady Hawarden. Studies from Life 1857–1864.
  • 22 One example among many: ‘She twitched aside the curtains, so that, on turning, she was faced by dar (...)
  • 23 ‘But in imagination perhaps we can see the educated man’s daughter, as she issues from the shadow o (...)

17Just like the ladies in Lady Hawarden’s photographs,21 the heroine of Night and Day is often portrayed gazing out of the drawing-room tall and clear windows, yearning to go outside and dreamily wander along the London streets.22 The window stands as an interface between the public and the private spheres, at once opening onto the outside and closing the domestic space—a leitmotif in Woolf’s fiction. Trapped in-between, Katharine remains inside with her mother most of the day, sometimes managing to escape, seduced by the city’s ‘trance of movement’ (Woolf 1978, 99). This intermediate position attributed to women foreshadows one of the main images of Three Guineas, that of the educated man’s daughter standing on the bridge that links the cloistered privacy of the middle-class home to the social public scene23—a bridge which sets them at odds with man’s world but nevertheless provides them with a special ‘bird’s eye view of the outside of things’ (Woolf 1985b, 22). Woolf notes that if women are marginalised from history, politics and society, they should take advantage of this eccentric position and create ‘the Outsiders’ Society’—‘That is not a resonant name, but it has the advantage that it squares with facts—the facts of history, of law, of biography’ (Woolf 1985b, 106). As she firmly asserts: ‘Though we see the same world, we see it through different eyes’ (Woolf 1985b, 18). This Outsiders’ Society opens an eccentric free space, a poethic space that offers new ways of inhabiting the world—‘But in imagination perhaps we can see the educated man’s daughter, as she issues from the shadow of the private house, and stands on the bridge which lies between the old world and the new . . . Through that light everything she saw looked different—men and women, cars and churches’ (Woolf 1985b, 16). The displaced and unusual point of view also allows for renewed modes of creation, new means for writers to reconfigure their own fiction.

  • 24 Here is an image of the young accomplished woman which may recall that of Georgiana Darcy, flawless (...)
  • 25 Mary C. Madden argues that there might be a homosexual attraction between the two characters which (...)
  • 26 Lets us recall: ‘Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, ju (...)
  • 27 According to Laurent Mattiussi, ‘un “marginal” est peut-être un asocial, il n’est pas complétement (...)

18The rhetorical twist in Three Guineas has a concrete characterised actualisation in Night and Day, through the unconventional and original position of two of its young feminine figures. Indeed, Katharine’s peculiar personality is underlined throughout the text: ‘subversive of her world’ (Woolf 1978, 90), she is ‘ill-adapted to her home surroundings’ (Woolf 1978, 88) and yearning for a ‘sense of adventure’ (Woolf 1978, 89); foreshadowing the androgynous Orlando, she makes ‘masculine’ (Woolf 1978, 145) gestures. Her cousin Cassandra, the paragon of the sweet and pure Angel in the House,24 thinks her ‘queer’, ‘strange’ and so ‘unlike other people’ (Woolf 1978, 430), a lighter avatar of Mary’s more radical, ‘rather clumsy but powerful and independent figure’25 (Woolf 1978, 237). Both women recall Jane Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet in Pride and Prejudice—another headstrong trespasser26—, her determined independent mind and articulated speech. Dismissing social pretence and falsity, both characters stand out as outsiders (but not outcasts)27 that wish to change their position in the world and yearn for more individual freedom within the given social frame.

  • 28 I am referring to the Points Signature edition, with a new translation by Catherine Naveau and a pr (...)
  • 29 For Woolf, writing must preserve its integrity by being impersonal or ‘indifferent’ (Woolf 1985, 10 (...)

19Rebellion appears in Mary’s articulate drastic speech and the cover of the 2011 French edition,28 which shows a 1909 poster signed Hilda Dallas advertising vote for women (‘Votes for Women Wanted Everywhere!’), illustrates this. In the text we can read: ‘But the words seemed to Mary Datchet shallow, supercilious, cold-blooded, and cynical all in one. All her natural instincts were roused in revolt against them’ (Woolf 1978, 291). A figure of the daring New Woman, Mary is a radical activist, dedicating her life and time to the feminist cause. If she appears as an attractive prominent figure in the novel, Woolf nevertheless leaves her somewhat aside, a solitary and lonely character, to focus more on Katharine’s gradual evolution. Mary could never be a Woolfian heroine! Indeed, in Woolf’s fiction outrage does not manifest itself bluntly and is never assimilated to sharp aggressive animosity. Contrary to Woolf’s ideal of impersonal writing,29 anger is a feeling she deems insincere as it

introduces a distortion and is frequently the cause of weakness. The desire to plead some personal cause or to make a character the mouthpiece of some personal discontent or grievance always has a distressing effect, as if the spot at which the reader’s attention is directed were suddenly twofold instead of single. (Woolf 1979, 47)

  • 30 ‘[I]nsincerity leaks in almost unconsciously. They adopt a view in deference to authority. The visi (...)
  • 31 Sowon S. Park underlines Woolf’s contradictory attitude towards suffrage commitment arguing that ‘f (...)

20Art and writing cannot serve any socio-political combat, cannot voice out any outspoken indignation—‘to mix art with politics [is] to adulterate it . . . instead of bread made with flour, we [are] given bread made with plaster’, writes Woolf (Woolf 1993, 134). Tackling the issue of marriage with all its clichéd paraphernalia of conventions and traditions, Woolf comes to grips with the question of individual freedom and integrity; an integrity which also comprehends that of the work of art.30 Fighting to be free does not need outspoken outrage. It needs a subtle balance that negotiates a common ground between the individual and the group and between commitment and withdrawal.31 It needs a constant working and reworking of crucial questions concerning the individual within the social frame.

  • 32 There are several references to Shakespeare’s As You Like It in the course of the novel.
  • 33 This is one of her arguments in Three Guineas: ‘we, remaining outside, will experiment not with pub (...)
  • 34 Katharine refuses to comply with the stock Victorian feminine ideal: ‘. . . I’m a humbug—I mean, I’ (...)

21Toying with the typical ending of the comedy of manners,32 at the end of Night and Day, ‘civilization ha[s] triumphed’ (Woolf 1978, 533) and Katharine assumes that she has finally answered the ‘immense riddle’ (Woolf 1978, 535) of freedom and marriage: ‘She held in her hands for one brief moment the globe which we spend our lives in trying to shape, round, whole, and entire from the confusion of chaos’ (Woolf 1978, 535). The novel does not say whether Katharine and Ralph eventually manage to preserve this fragile harmony. Echoing Gertrud Käsebierg’s 1904 photograph, ‘The Magic Cristal’, which pictures a woman gazing at a large translucent globe, this last image emphasises the transient and delicate quality of the compromise reached between individual freedom and social integration. As an indictment on traditional patriarchal marriage, Katharine’s union with Ralph closely connects the private sphere with the public sphere. When Katharine explains to her father that she will not marry William and is engaged in a relationship with Ralph, Mr Hilbery is shaken and upset: ‘Civilization had been very profoundly and unpleasantly overthrown that evening; the extent of the ruin was still undetermined . . . His house was in a state of revolution’ (Woolf 1978, 508). Virginia Woolf shows how the domestic may turn somewhat revolutionary,33 how the intimate nest of a couple may breed a new socio-political order. Feeling like ‘a wild animal caged in a civilized dwelling’ (Woolf 1978, 507), Katharine is a ‘wild bird’ (Woolf 1978, 524) wanting to be free outside marriage34 but not to entirely break off with her family (Raitt 39). More than a revolutionary, she becomes a trespasser, some kind of pioneer.

22In ‘The Leaning Tower’, an article Woolf published in 1940 in a period of tense and violent debate, Woolf summons her reader:

But let us bear in mind a piece of advice that an eminent Victorian who was also an eminent pedestrian once gave to walkers: ‘Whenever you see a board up with “Tresspassers will be prosecuted”, trespass at once’ . . . It is thus that English literature will survive this war and cross the gulf—if commoners and outsiders like ourselves make that country our own country, if we teach ourselves how to read and write, how to preserve, and how to create.
(Woolf 1974, 154)

  • 35 For Woolf Jacob's Room and The Waves acted as landmarks inaugurating new cycles of creation. In 192 (...)

23It seems that for Woolf the ultimate way of trespassing is to commit herself to literary creation, Night and Day behind a first beginning.35 But it also means to commit literature in its ‘problematics of language’ (Barthes 9, my translation). As Roland Barthes argues in Le Degré zéro de l’écriture, ‘La langue est pour l’écrivain l’ère d’une action, de la définition et l’attente d’un possible’ (Barthes 18). Away from straightforward outrage, Woolf suggests a subtle but radical commitment in the appropriation and subversion of a language that has always been masculine. Her feminine figures undermine contemporary beliefs (regarding marriage and individual freedom) to articulate a personal discourse that questions society and politics. Night and Day’s ‘hidden impulse, [its] incalculable force’ (Woolf 1978, 188) will eventually gather impetus and lead Woolf towards Barthes’s definition of literary modernity: ‘La modernité commence avec la recherche d’une littérature impossible’ (Barthes 58)—impossible because formally and thematically new, because radically innovative in its own time but still strikingly relevant and vividly present today. In this way, the Woolfian prose becomes eminently poethic as it embraces ethical issues (at once moral, political and social), tackles the question of ethos (the individual, the human) and leads to an aesthetic reflection (the subversion of dominant discourses, the building of intermedial texts). Texts, characters and writer gather to voice their far cry from within.

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Sellers, Susan, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf, Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2010.

Park, Sowon S., ‘Suffrage and Virginia Woolf: “The Mass behind the Single Voice”’, The Review of English Studies 56.223 (2005): 119–134.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘Julia Margaret Cameron’, Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women, ed. Tristram Powell, London: Hogarth Press, 1973, 13–19.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Lady in the Looking-Glass: A Reflection’, A Haunted House. The Complete Shorter Fiction, London: Vintage, 2003, 215–219.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Leaning Tower’, The Moment and Other Essays, New York: Harvest Book, 1974, 128–154.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Narrow Bridge of Art’, Granite and Rainbow, New York: Harvest Book, 1975, 11–23.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘Why Art Today Follows Politics’, The Crowded Dance of Modern Life, Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1993, 133–136.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘Women and Fiction’, Women and Writing, New York: Harvest Book, 1979, 43–52.

Woolf, Virginia, Moments of Being, New York: Harvest Book, 1985a.

Woolf, Virginia, Night and Day, London: Grafton, 1978.

Woolf, Virginia, Three Guineas, New York: Harvest Book, 1985b.

Zwerdling, Alex, Virginia Woolf and the Real World, Berkeley: U of California P, 1986.

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Notes

1 The article has also been published under the title ‘The Artist and Politics’.

2 Alex Zwerdling notes that Woolf’s allegiances and influences were determinedly on the suffragist, as opposed to the suffragette, side of the suffrage movement (Zwerdling 212).

3 Suzanne Raitt writes about this in ‘Virginia Woolf’s early novels: Finding a voice’ (Sellers 29–48).

4 On November 28th, 1919, Woolf writes in her diary: ‘A decorous elderly dullard she [K. Mansfield] describes me; Jane Austen up to date’ (Oliver Bell 1983a, 313).

5 On August 18th, 1908 Woolf writes to her brother in law Clive Bell: ‘I shall reform the novel and capture multitudes of things at present fugitive, enclose the whole, and shape infinite strange shapes’ (Nicolson 356).

6 Reminiscent of the Austenian ironical stance, the first sentence reads as follows: ‘It was a Sunday evening in October, and in common with many other young ladies of her class, Katharine Hilbery was pouring out tea’ (Woolf 1978, 9).

7 Ralph Denham’s very presence in the first scene of the text amounts to defiance as, to Katharine’s great delight, he breaks up the ‘etherealized’ (Woolf 1978, 10) atmosphere of the nicely organised party: ‘Mr Denham had come in as Mr Fortescue, the eminent novelist, reached the middle of a very long sentence’ (Woolf 1978, 10). The sentence is all the more ironical when one calls to mind Lytton Strachey’s 1918 satirical biographies, Eminent Victorians.

8 In the novel wondering is equated with wandering, as the characters discuss and debate, muse and reflect while they walk around the city.

9 Conversely William Rodney and Cassandra Otway act as foils that endorse family traditions and do not question established order and conventions.

10 In the course of the novel Katharine, Ralph or Mary fantasise their future. They thus often oscillate between fantasy and ‘complete awaken[ing] to reality’ (Woolf 1978, 173). The young characters fantasise about one another before experiencing disillusion when their dreams and visions do not square with facts. Take for instance the moment when Mary tells Katharine that Ralph does not love her but someone else while Katharine has been convinced of their mutual love. The narrator insists on the violence of the shock of recognition and disillusion: ‘She was, in truth, horribly uncomfortable, dismayed, indeed disillusioned. She disliked the turn things had taken quite intensely. The indecency of it afflicted her. The suffering implied but the tone appalled her. She looked at Mary furtively, with eyes that were full of apprehension’ (Woolf 1978, 294).

11 ‘La modernité est critique . . . Elle est provocation’ (Meschonnic 18).

12 This is congruent with Bloomsbury ethics. In 1911, Roger Fry wrote in the Fortnightly Review: ‘A work of art can never rightly be regarded as a means to something else, it is only rightly seen when regarded as an end in itself’ (Rosenbaum 19).

13 See Elena Gualtieri and Vara Neverow’s articles.

14 As Sowon S. Park underlines Woolf's commitment to the suffrage cause: ‘In principle she was in favour it, and famously worked in a suffrage office, probably the People’s Suffrage Federation, for almost a year in 1910’ (Park 119–120).

15 In Three Guineas, outrage is not only voiced out but is formally and rhetorically exposed in/by the images.

16 Midway through her education, Katharine wishes to get married because she is convinced marriage will free her from patriarchal rule. At that point she proclaims: ‘I want to get married. I want to have a house of my own’ (Woolf 1978, 206).

17 See Julia Margaret Cameron’s Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women, edited by Woolf’s Hogarth Press in 1926.

18 In the short fictional biography of her great-aunt, Woolf writes: ‘Suddenly, for the secret had been kept from their friends, the Camerons announced that they were going to visit their sons in Ceylon. Their preparations were made and friends went to say good-bye to them at Southampton. Two coffins preceded them on board packed with glass and china, in case coffins should be unprocurable in the East . . .’ (Woolf 1973, 19). Colin Ford corroborates this in the introduction to his Julia Margaret Cameron. 19th-Century Photographer of Genius.

19 Cameron made over forty portraits of her favourite niece—portraits that the Stephen family held—which adorned the walls of Hyde Park Gate and Gordon Square and feature in the photo albums of Leslie Stephen, Vanessa Bell and Virginia Woolf.

20 See Julia Margaret Cameron’s 1873 photograph untitled The Angel in the House (Ford 122).

21 See, for instance, Virginia Dodier’s Lady Hawarden. Studies from Life 1857–1864.

22 One example among many: ‘She twitched aside the curtains, so that, on turning, she was faced by darkness, and looking out, could just distinguish the branches of a plane-tree and the yellow lights of some one else’s windows. “What would Mary Datchet and Ralph Denham say?” she reflected, pausing by the window, which, as the night was warm, she raised, in order to feel the air upon her face, and to lose herself in the nothingness of night’ (Woolf 1978, 112).

23 ‘But in imagination perhaps we can see the educated man’s daughter, as she issues from the shadow of the private house, and stands on the bridge which lies between the old world and the new . . .’ (Woolf 1985, 16).

24 Here is an image of the young accomplished woman which may recall that of Georgiana Darcy, flawless accomplished maiden in Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice: ‘Her cousin, Cassandra Otway, for example, had a very fine taste in music, and he had charming recollections of her in a light fantastic attitude, playing the flute in the morning-room at Stogdon House’ (Woolf 1978, 299).

25 Mary C. Madden argues that there might be a homosexual attraction between the two characters which functions as a challenge to gender classes (Madden 56–63).

26 Lets us recall: ‘Elizabeth continued her walk alone, crossing field after field at a quick pace, jumping over stiles and springing over puddles with impatient activity, and finding herself at last within view of the house, with weary ankles, dirty stockings, and a face glowing with the warmth of exercise’ (Austen 23).

27 According to Laurent Mattiussi, ‘un “marginal” est peut-être un asocial, il n’est pas complétement étranger au corps social : errant dans ses parages, il le trouble’ (Forrest & Skilnik 59).

28 I am referring to the Points Signature edition, with a new translation by Catherine Naveau and a preface signed Camille Laurens.

29 For Woolf, writing must preserve its integrity by being impersonal or ‘indifferent’ (Woolf 1985, 107), meaning non-partisan, neither masculine nor feminine: ‘The change which has turned the English woman from a nondescript influence, fluctuating and vague, to a voter, a wage-earner, a responsible citizen, has given her both in her life and in her art a turn towards the impersonal. Her relations now are not only emotional; they are intellectual, they are political’ (Woolf 1979, 51).

30 ‘[I]nsincerity leaks in almost unconsciously. They adopt a view in deference to authority. The vision becomes too masculine or it becomes too feminine; it loses its perfect integrity and, with that, its most essential quality as a work of art . . . And this a woman must make for herself, altering and adapting the current sentence until she writes one that takes the natural shape of her thought without crushing or distorting it’ (Woolf 1979, 48).

31 Sowon S. Park underlines Woolf’s contradictory attitude towards suffrage commitment arguing that ‘from Woolf’s feminist essays it can be deduced that her politics lay firmly on the pacifist and more “conservative” wing of the group, which emphasized women's education but opposed militant methods’ (Park 126).

32 There are several references to Shakespeare’s As You Like It in the course of the novel.

33 This is one of her arguments in Three Guineas: ‘we, remaining outside, will experiment not with public means in public but with private means in private. Those experiments will not be merely critical but creative’ (Woolf 1985, 113).

34 Katharine refuses to comply with the stock Victorian feminine ideal: ‘. . . I’m a humbug—I mean, I’m not what you all take me for. I’m not domestic, or very practical or sensible, really’ (Woolf 1978, 207). While discussing with her mother about marriage, she takes a stand: ‘We want to be meet as often as we like, but to be free’ (Woolf 1978, 512), ‘Why, after all, isn’t it perfectly possible to live together without being married?’ (Woolf 1978, 514).

35 For Woolf Jacob's Room and The Waves acted as landmarks inaugurating new cycles of creation. In 1922, she famously wrote: ‘There’s no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice’ (Oliver Bell 1981 186). And in 1931: ‘Oh yes, between 50 & 60 I think I shall write out some very singular books, if I live . . . What a long toil to reach this beginning—if The Waves is my first work in my own style!’ (Oliver Bell 1983b, 53).

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References

Electronic reference

Adèle Cassigneul, « A Far Cry from Within: Virginia Woolf’s Poethics of Commitment », Études britanniques contemporaines [Online], 45 | 2013, Online since 20 October 2013, connection on 18 November 2017. URL : http://ebc.revues.org/668 ; DOI : 10.4000/ebc.668

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About the author

Adèle Cassigneul

Université Toulouse 2
Adèle Cassigneul est doctorante à l'université Toulouse 2, elle travaille sous la direction de Mme le professeur Catherine Lanone (université Paris 3). Ses travaux de recherche portent sur les relations entre texte et image dans l'œuvre de Virginia Woolf. Elle se concentre particulièrement sur les liens qu'entretient la littérature avec la photographie et le cinéma. Adèle Cassigneul a publié des articles sur ce sujet en France ainsi qu'à l'étranger.

By this author

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Copyright

Licence Creative Commons
Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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