More of Woolf on the Victorians: "an abandonment, richness, surprise"

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.

9 Comments to More of Woolf on the Victorians: "an abandonment, richness, surprise"

  1. Amateur Reader's Gravatar Amateur Reader
    February 18, 2010 at 10:47 pm | Permalink

    Woolf is so good with the 19th century novel. The only review I can remember where she is simply baffled is of The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia. As a novelist, any decent 19th century novel had something she could use in her own fiction. Sidney apparently did not.

    She is exactly right about the evolution of the use of dialogue in characterization. Reading Stevenson, I really see him struggling with just this problem, trying to fit the techniques of Eliot and James and Meredith into his own quite different imaginative world.

    It's funny to see Edie Ochiltree on that list, just taken for granted. I had to look that one up. Are we reading The Antiquary together? He asked, nervously.

  2. Rohan Maitzen's Gravatar Rohan Maitzen
    February 18, 2010 at 11:36 pm | Permalink

    Funny you should ask. The very next sentence of the letter is VW asking her correspondent to please read the 'awful' Antiquary one day and tell her if he doesn't hear traces of Shakespeare in the peasants' speech. (I have to paraphrase, as I left the volume at work, but that's pretty close.) I've never looked at it: does it look awful?

  3. Amateur Reader's Gravatar Amateur Reader
    February 19, 2010 at 5:03 pm | Permalink

    I am unduly influenced by Ford Madox Ford, who despised Scott:

    "The Antiquary is a more serious attempt at novel writing [than Ivanhoe or Rob Roy], but its longwindedness is unbelievable and its insistence on assuring the reader that Scotland is a historically important and gentlemanly kingdom, not to be borne." The March of Literature, p. 711.

    For Ford, a Modernist and aesthete coming of age at the peak of Scott's reputation, Sir Walter is the enemy.

    Woolf's letter suggests that Scott's reputation is not doing so well in her circle, either.

    I trust Woolf more than Ford, a forceful but eccentric critic, on Scott and in general. Ford is another example of what you're not finding among contemporary authors, someone whose reading, whose knowledge of literary history, is phenomenal, broad and deep.

  4. Rohan Maitzen's Gravatar Rohan Maitzen
    February 19, 2010 at 6:18 pm | Permalink

    From another of her letters, thanking Hugh Walpole for the gift of The Waverley Pageant (1932):

    "I don't know [Scott] accurately and minutely as you do, but only in a warm, scattered, amourous way. Now you have put an edge on my love, and if it weren't that I must read MSS…I should plunge–you urge me almost beyond endurance to plunge once more–yes, I say to myself, I shall read the Monastery again and then I shall go back to Midlothian. I can't read the Bride [of Lammermoor], because I know it almost by heart: also the Antiquary (I think those two, as a whole, are my favourites)."

    That's it! I too shall go back to Midlothian, and then read the Antiquary. You wanted your Scottish Literature Challenge to be challenging, right?

  5. Amateur Reader's Gravatar Amateur Reader
    February 19, 2010 at 11:33 pm | Permalink

    Yeah, that endorsement clinches it. I'm reading The Antiquary.

  6. Sam's Gravatar Sam
    February 22, 2010 at 3:21 am | Permalink

    'The Antiquary' has some absolutely enchanting sequences, well worth anybody's attention – and that's the opinion of somebody whose reading and knowledge of literary history, though not phenomenal (I have SOME modesty, after all!), is mighty damn broad and deep.

    Scott will have his renaissance, and, as Rohan almost intimates about Woolf, his best stuff will be found to be his non-fiction. Pick up the Oxford paperback of his mammoth Journals and start reading anywhere … trust me, you won't want to stop.

  7. Sam's Gravatar Sam
    February 22, 2010 at 3:23 am | Permalink

    Gulp! I trust the bombastic tone of the above comment will absolve it of any suspicion of having been written by shy, soft-spoken, abstemious Sam Sacks! A mere Google SNAFU – it is I, Steve Donoghue, who defend Sir Walter!

  8. Rohan Maitzen's Gravatar Rohan Maitzen
    February 22, 2010 at 2:52 pm | Permalink

    Well, if Virginia Woolf and Steve Donoghue both stand by The Antiquary, that's good enough for me. In fact, maybe that means I can take it on faith rather than reading it for myself? Ha. Actually, I've already downloaded it to my Sony Reader, which is a good first step. Sir Walter needs little defending around here in general: my fondness for Waverley has been the bane of several generations of students out here in 'New Scotland'. But I've never read any of his non-fiction.

  9. Rohan Maitzen's Gravatar Rohan Maitzen
    February 22, 2010 at 9:54 pm | Permalink

    Happily, I discover, Scott's Journals are available through Project Gutenberg. On the other hand, I have all these other things I'm supposed to be reading, plus it's "reading week" and so I have the almost uncontrollable urge to watch TV…

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