I think I must be on the verge of a breakthrough in my relationship with Virginia Woolf, a writer I have been interested in, drawn to, even, for many years but whose fiction nonetheless I haven’t seemed able to read. I know my way around A Room of One’s Own pretty well, and I have thoroughly appreciated a number of Woolf’s essays and reviews. I love the crackling intellect of her critical writing, the combination of wit and tenderness she shows, her appreciation of writers whose aesthetics seem so wholly unlike her own (she writes wonderfully about EBB, for instance, as well as George Eliot). I blame only myself for my inability to reach further into her creative work, and I was pleased when I finally read all of Mrs Dalloway last summer. There at least, the ice is broken: now that I am acquainted with that novel, I can develop a deeper relationship with it, by rereading it and thinking more about it, and reading more of what other people have written about it. I’ve begun Hermione Lee’s much-praised biography, and look forward to finishing it. So far, though, I like listening to Woolf’s own voice the best, and so it seemed more than serendipitous to find three volumes of her letters and the final volume of her diary on the discard table at the public library on the weekend. Maybe Woolf “unfiltered” is the right next step for me. And just dipping in to the letters, immediately I came across this:
I don’t know that I had anything very definite in mind about dialogue–only a few random generalisations. My feeling, as a novelist, is that when you make a character speak directly you’re in a different state of mind from that in which you describe him indirectly: more ‘possessed,’ less self-conscious, more random, and rather excited by the sense of his character and your audience. I think the great Victorians, Scott (no–he wasn’t a Vn.) but Dickens, Trollope, to some extent Hardy all had this sense of an audience and created their characters mainly through dialogue. Then I think the novelist became aware of something that can’t be said by the character himself; and also lost the sense of an audience. (I’ve a vague feeling that the play persisted in the novelist’s mind, long after it was dead–but this may be fantastic: only as you say novelists are fantastic.) Middlemarch I should say is the transition novel: Mr Brooke done directly by dialogue: Dorothea indirectly. Hence its great interest–the first modern novel. Henry James of course receded further and further from the spoken word, and finally I think only used dialogue when he wanted a very high light.
This is all rather incoherent, and also, as is the case with all theories, too definite. At the same time I do feel in the great Victorian characters, Gamp, Micawber, Becky Sharp, Edie Ochiltree, an abandonment, richness, surprise, as well as a redundancy, tediousness, and superficiality which makes them different from the post Middlemarch characters. Perhaps we must now put our toes to the ground again and get back to the spoken word, only from a different angle; to gain richness, and surprise.
I wish you’d look one day and see if there is any sense in this.
First, this letter makes me want to talk to her: she just sounds so lively and interesting and well-read and curious! Second, I can’t think of any contemporary author I’ve heard or read an interview with who has anything like this kind of critical or literary-historical perspective; like Eliot and James, Woolf is a novelist-critic, and that may account for the intellectual rewards of their best writing (fictional and critical). Finally, this is the first thing I’ve read in about a year that actually made me want to read a work of recent criticism: Steve Ellis has a recent book called Virginia Woolf and the Victorians that I’m going to sign out of the library today.