“She is in love with life”: Winifred Holtby’s Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir

In my post on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship, I quoted a passage Brittain includes from Holtby’s letters, addressing her decision to write a critical biography of Virginia Woolf:

I took my courage and curiosity in both hands and chose the writer whose art seemed most of all removed from anything I could ever attempt, and whose experience was most alien to my own. . . . I found it the most enthralling adventure–to enter, even at second-hand, that world of purely aesthetic and intellectual interests, was to me as strange an exploration as it would have been for Virginia Woolf to sit beside my mother’s pie and hear my uncles talk fat-stock prices and cub-hunting. I felt that I was learning and learning with every fibre of such brain as I have.

The result of this open-minded effort, Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir (1932,) is as generous as I’m coming to expect from Holtby. Though at times it’s clear she has reservations about the potential limits of Woolf’s emphasis on art as “an end in itself,” or Woolf’s opposition to “materialism” in the novel (Holtby cites, for instance, “Modern Fiction,” with its critique of Bennett and Wells and Galsworthy for being “concerned not with the spirit but with the body”), and sharp as Holtby is, too, about “the advantages of being Virginia Stephen” (the title of a chapter in which, among other things, she lightly mocks Woolf for concluding “Every second Englishman reads French” — “that particular hyperbole was only possible to a woman brought up as Leslie Stephen’s daughter had been brought up”)–despite all this and the differences in her own life and aims, Holtby writes with energetic appreciation, sometimes even rapture, about Woolf’s development from a writer with an abstract and difficult idea about the novel to a novelist who has found the freedom and technique to realize her vision.

Holtby finds broad continuities of theme across Woolf’s oeuvre: an interest in life and death (especially death), in women and men (especially women), in the meaning of life, in the possibilities of art. She also finds a continuity of aesthetic effort, a movement towards a different kind of fiction. She sees it taking Woolf a while to figure it all out, to achieve unity of form and concept in a single work. So The Voyage Out shows signs of what will come, especially in its characters and thematic interests, but “here she has curbed her fancy, and accepted the traditional novel form.” Holtby’s chapter on Night and Day is called “Virginia Woolf is not Jane Austen”: she reads this novel as Woolf’s experiment in writing “a domestic story on the Jane Austen model.” She quotes a passage from Woolf’s essay “On Not Knowing Greek” (a passage I quoted too, in my piece on Woolf’s essays for Open Letters), about Austen choosing “the dangerous art where one slip means death”: “Mrs. Woolf, in Night and Day, chose it and failed.” It’s not, Holtby is quick to say, that the novel itself is dead, not altogether: “It has beauty and gravity, nobility of theme and high distinction.” But in it, Holtby believes, Woolf followed the wrong master for her own gifts and for her own time:

Her technique is the technique of experiment, not of tradition. Her hunting-ground lies among the subtle gradations of sentiment, memory and association to which less delicate sight is blind. She was, in Night and Day, playing a game which was a good game, which had been played almost perfectly, which she could play better than most; but it was not her game. She was a disciple here, not a master; a follower, not a maker of the law.

More specifically, she thinks “a comedy of restrictions” (such as she believes Austen writes) does not suit a writer who is “a rebel against restrictions.” Austen had the “peculiar fortune to live at a time and in circumstances ideally suited to her talent.” Woolf, in contrast, stood in a critical a relation to her age, and “it is this implied criticism, this straining towards some larger life, some more liberal standard of values, which disturbs the quiet and enclosed perfection of the comedy.” So for all its virtues, Night and Day is a failure–but “the measure of its failure was, perhaps, a mercy,” Holtby concludes, as “it drove Mrs. Woolf to seen new forms of expression. It marked the end of her apprenticeship to tradition.” (Another exhibit for our case that failure is necessary to greatness?)

Holtby finds in Woolf’s essays experiments in the fictional techniques that will finally free her: the “cinematic,” in which the “perspective shifts from high to low, from huge to microscopic, to let figures of people, insects, aeroplanes, flowers pass across the vision and melt away” (Holtby sees this as the aesthetic style of “Kew Gardens,” for instance, or “The Mark on the Wall”) and the “orchestral,” in which “senses, thoughts, emotions, will, memory, fancies, the impact of the outside world, action and conversation each play a different instrument.” The result of this freedom to create in new forms, when Woolf finally achieved it, was to be superb:

If her knowledge of life was narrow, it was profound. There was no fear, no sorrow, no ecstasy, and no limitation that she could not penetrate. And now she had an entirely new technique. She could compensate herself for all the things she did not know by arranging in a thousand new patterns the things she did.

Once free, she learns “an entirely new note”: gaiety. “She did not use it for long; her sense of life is tragic rather than comic,” Holtby says; “But having discovered it, she never lost it again. Perhaps laughter is the first gift of freedom.”

Though her discussions of Woolf’s later books is extraordinarily sensitive to the tragedy in them, the remaining chapters echo with Holtby’s appreciation of Woolf’s delight in both the world and her own expanding art. There’s an inevitable poignancy in that, not just because when we reach the last chapter, “The Waves–and after?” we know, as Holtby could not, that there was to be only one more major novel, and that published posthumously after Woolf’s suicide, but because we also know that Holtby herself did not live to read it (she died in 1935, leaving her own last novel, South Riding, also to be published posthumously). But there’s also something exhilarating in reading about Woolf from someone who can focus on what is life-affirming in her work without any sense of impending doom. Holtby’s focus is deliberately on the novels, not the life, and that design plus her ignorance of Woolf’s illness and death  lets us too revel in what is triumphant and joyful about the writing.

Holtby’s commentaries are persistently articulate and interesting. Like Woolf’s own critical essays, they are more impressionistic than analytical, though I was struck by how attentive Holtby is to technique, and particularly to the congruencies between the forms and the ideas of the novels. Holtby’s own fiction is so formally straightforward it could give the impression of a certain artistic naivete, but reading this book confirmed for me what Marion Shaw argues (in the essay I quoted from in my post on Brittain’s Honourable Estate)–that documentary realism was a deliberate option, not a default for writers who could not conceive of alternatives. Jacob’s Room was, Holtby observes, “a triumphant experiment in a new technique”;

But now that we can set it beside Mrs. Woolf’s later work, beside Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and The Waves, we know that it was not the best that she could do. The cinematographic style was brilliantly effective, but it was not as subtle as the orchestral effect which she was to use in To the Lighthouse; she was to obtain a surer control over her material in Mrs. Dalloway. She was to adventure further into obscure realms of human consciousness in The Waves. The contrasts, perhaps, in Jacob’s Room are too violent. There are obscurities which even the most diligent study cannot penetrate. The effect created is very largely visual. Later she would plunge into the nerves, the brains, the senses of her characters, exploring further, yet binding the whole more closely into a unity of mood.

So Jacob’s Room too is seen as a step towards Woolf’s greatest work:

She had thrown overboard much that had been commonly considered indispensable to the novel: descriptions of places and families, explanations of environment, a plot of external action, dramatic scenes, climaxes, conclusions, and almost all those link-sentences which bind one episode to the next. But much remained to her. She had retained her preoccupation with life and death, with character, and with the effect of characters grouped and inter-acting. She had kept her consciousness of time and movement. She knew how present and past are interwoven, and how to-day depends so much upon knowledge and memory of yesterday, and fear for or confidence in to-morrow. She was still preoccupied with moral values; she was immensely excited about form and the way in which the patterns of life grow more and more complex as one regards them. And she was more sure now both of herself and of her public. She dared take greater risks with them, confident that they would not let her down.

The chapter on To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway is called “The Adventure Justified,” and it treats the novels as the culmination of a dangerous but ultimately triumphant experiment. In them Holtby finds a unity “far more profound than anything that can be obtained by a trick of reference. . . . It is a metaphysical unity, the unity which the old scholastic philosophers saw binding creature to creature and all created things to God. It was also a psychological unity, such as the most modern Viennese psychologists see binding infancy to age.” In these novels “her characters play now a double purpose”:

They are themselves and they are symbols. They are part of the visible universe and they are its interpretation. Her metaphors have grown more fluid, and they have overflowed into the action of the novel. The motion of time, light, change, the passage of wind through a house, have all assumed a spiritual quality.

About To the Lighthouse Holtby is ecstatic, almost as if caught up herself in the final vision of the novel:

Its characters move in a radiant, half-transparent atmosphere, as though already suffused into the spiritual world. The action takes place out at sea, on an island; because it is there, away from the land, on a ship, out at sea, on an island, that Mrs. Woolf sees humanity with detachment. From that vantage point she can look back on life, look back on death, and write her parable. Its quality is poetic; its form and substance are perfectly fused, incandescent, disciplined into unity. It is a parable of life, of art, of experience; it is a parable of immortality. It is one of the most beautiful novels written in the English language.

Orlando and A Room of One’s Own do not move her to such raptures, though she seems them as complementary completions of long-running preoccupations of Woolf’s. Reading her discussion of Room I was expecting more polemical engagement, but I think in the end it’s to Holtby’s credit that she keeps her focus on Woolf’s theories, particularly on sorting out Woolf’s arguments about man-womanly and woman-manly collaboration as part of her overall vision for art and creative freedom.

I wish Holtby had lived to write about Three Guineas. But her last section is about The Waves, and again, her appreciation for Woolf’s experimental form–her interest in what it reaches and enables–is strikingly open-minded and generous, as well as attentive to its place in contemporary literature:

We know, externally, very little about [the characters]. They are the cultured, well-to-do characters common to most of Mrs. Woolf’s novels, but their external lives, their relations to each other, are barely indicated. Yet we know almost everything about them. For the drama takes place not in the external world of speech and action, but in the subconscious world, below the articulate thoughts and spoken words with which most novels are concerned. Down there, in the submarine cave of which Mrs. Woolf’s characters are always dreaming, moves the strange, subtle confusion of memory, experience, contact and imagination which forms the running stream below our surface thoughts. It is a world hitherto largely neglected by the English novelist. James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, and D. H. Lawrence have adventured there; but their voyages of discovery have not been followed by a general conquest. The territory is uncharted and extremely hazardous, for only the most intent and penetrating observation of human behaviour can make a writer free of the unformed thoughts and impulses of his characters. Yet these are as much a part of “character” as their external acts . . . .They inhabit a land where the law of reason does not run; and Mrs. Woolf acknowledges allegiance to the law of reason. Yet in spite of these difficulties she has essayed the task, crossed the borders, and, finding the new land still sunk beneath a tossing sea, plunged bravely down to discover and reclaim.

If you find that extended metaphor a little florid, note that Holtby turns neatly to technical specifics: “The method that she has used to re-create this world is not entirely strange to her. Each character speaks in a kind of recitative, recording an individual current of subjective thought . . . . personality, drama and development emerging slowly from the sequence of conscious and unconscious thought and memory.” In The Waves, she concludes, Woolf has achieved “the music and subtlety of poetry.” The Waves, she believes, has not just its own internal unity but “is bound in that strange unity which is the artist’s mind, to Mrs. Woolf’s other novels.” And in it, too, she finds “an affirmation of life”: “Death is the enemy; death, not only of the body, but of the mind, the perceptive spirit, the faculty by which man recognises truth.”

Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir ends by wondering where Woolf will go next: “We cannot predict what problem will attract, what beauty entrance her next”–though Holtby anticipates continued growth “in breadth and power.” But Holtby speculates that Woolf “is unlikely ever to command the allegiance of a wide contemporary public”: “at present there is still only a minority which prefers To the Lighthouse with its demands upon the reader’s intelligence and imagination, to a novel such as [J. B. Priestley's] The Good Companions, which tells a pleasant, full and easy tale.” That’s ironic in a way, of course, because Woolf’s name is well known to a wide public today, while Holtby’s much more accessible novels are largely unread–though it remains true, surely, that To the Lighthouse is a minority taste. In fact, I have never read it myself, though I have started it several times. I have always found Woolf’s fiction much more elusive than her non-fiction; until a couple of years ago I hadn’t read Mrs. Dalloway either. I felt I didn’t know how to read the novels (and frankly, reading Orlando didn’t help much with that!), and the academic criticism I read about them was typically intimidating rather than encouraging. Holtby’s book, on the other hand, has an infectious enthusiasm along with a lot of smart and useful discussions of what Woolf is doing and why. Now I feel that I too should take my “courage and curiosity in both hands” and “learn and learn with every fibre of such brain as I have.”

Holtby’s final passages stand as both a celebration and, unintentionally, a worthy epitaph, generously offered from one artist and woman to another:

For all her lightness of touch, her moth-wing humour, her capricious irrelevance, she writes as one who has looked upon the worst that life can do to man and woman, upon every sensation of loss, bewilderment and humiliation; and yet the corroding acid of disgust has not defiled her. She is in love with life. It is this quality which lifts her beyond the despairs and fashions of her age, which gives to her vision of reality a radiance, a wonder, unshared by any other living writer. . . . It is this which places her work, meagre though its amount may hitherto have been, slight in texture and limited in scope, beside the work of the great masters.

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