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Time and Virginia Woolf

ISSUE:  Spring 1942

By the close of the nineteenth century the novel in England had attained a surface perfection that possessed a mellow beauty suggesting either ripeness or decay, Hardy, Stevenson, James each had color, form, and a conscious mastery of an art that he understood. There was added fragrance of a style that gave to prose an elegance comparable to poetry. There were characters unforgettable: the mayor of Casterbridge, Eustacia Vye, Alan Breck, Maggie Verver. The estate of the novel represented the fulfillment of all the established conventions with the inevitable invitation to each small boy of the arts to come out and put a brickbat through the shining windows. The temptation may have been too much for Samuel Butler who once described himself just so—as the small boy throwing at other people’s windows. At any rate Virginia Woolf found in him one of the disrupting forces. “No sooner had the Victorians departed than Samuel Butler, who had lived below-stairs, came out, like an observant bootboy, with the family secrets in ‘The Way of All Flesh.’ It appeared that the basement was really in an appalling state.” So the young novelists became reformers. The other disrupting force, Mrs. Woolf found, was the Russian novel. After Mrs. Gar-nett had made her translations from Dostoievsky, the Victorian version of life was discredited. These observations about the English novel Virginia Woolf made in an article published in The Nation and the Athenaeum in December, 1928. It appeared to be her opinion that the Edwardians had made pretty much of a mess of things. She credited Mr. Bennett with having given us “a sense of time” and then, for the first time, she introduced him to Mrs. Brown. This Mrs. Brown, not only Bennett but the Georgian novelist must admit, always escapes him. But Mrs. Woolf made a prophecy; “One of these days Mrs. Brown will be caught. The capture of Mrs. Brown is the title of the next chapter in the history of literature.” Mrs. Brown at this time appeared to Mrs. Woolf as the embodiment of character. From “gleams and flashes of this flying spirit” the novelist “must create solid, living, flesh-and-blood Mrs. Brown.”

In the following May, Mrs. Woolf read a paper at Cambridge which she published in “The Hogarth Essays.” She used for title the title of the earlier essay, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” If Mr. Bennett was merely introduced to Mrs. Brown before, at this meeting, poor man, he is forced into a railway carriage and made to ride all the way to Waterloo with the lady. Just when he is discovering whether her little property at Datchet is mortgaged or not, we learn that Mrs. Brown is not at all the “solid, living, flesh-and-blood” owner of a brooch that cost three-and-ten-three, as Mr. Bennett had thought, but “the spirit we live by, life itself.” Maybe we shall never see Mrs. Brown caught after all, though Mrs. Woolf was still rash. She thought we were “on the verge of one of the greatest ages of English literature,” and we could reach it only if we determined “never, never to desert Mrs. Brown.” (That sounds to me more like Mrs. Micawber than Mrs. Woolf.)

In the Hogarth essay Mrs. Woolf gave the year 1910 as roughly marking the change in the novel produced by young Georgians like Forster and Lawrence waking to their mistake of trying to use the methods of the older novelists. Then “the smashing and the crashing began.” This may be self-analysis. At this time Virginia Woolf had written three novels. In the first two, her narrative is objective in detail and persons are clear in physical solidity. She gains an intensification of personality in “The Voyage Out” by imposing restrictions of space. The characters are together in one ship at first, and later they are shut in upon one another by the conditions of the small British colony within which they move. In “Night and Day” two ways of life, the solitary and the social, are contrasted in a narrative that fulfills the conventions of the nineteenth century novel. Katharine Hilbery is built up through objective detail as carefully considered as any that went to the making of an Edwardian character. Feminism almost becomes a theme by the extent to which the other woman, Mary Datchet, is given a key to a room of her own. With “Jacob’s Room,” the third novel, the smashing begins. Dorothy Richardson’s “Pointed Roofs” had used the “stream of consciousness” in 1915 and James Joyce had in the next year used something like it in “A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.” “Jacob’s Room” (1922) may owe something or nothing to either. There is no straight-on-to-the-end story as in the two earlier Woolf novels, though we know Jacob from his childhood until we realize completely that he died in the war—when his mother holds out a pair of his old shoes and asks, “What am I to do with these?” Neither is there a stream of consciousness. We meet Jacob in person but we know him through seeing little sections of moving pictures in technicolor reported (“Andrew Floyd mused” or “thought Bonamy”) from other people’s minds or told in vivid brief narrative sketches like memories running through one’s mind at night. In “Jacob’s Room” a new prose style begins. There is not yet the diaphanous quality of her later prose but the manner and tone suggest Virginia Woolf uniquely as nothing in the more successful if less promising novels, “The Voyage Out” and “Night and Day,” did. Somewhere in “A Portrait of the Artist” Joyce repeats word for word something that he had already written earlier in the book. If the first passage is not verbally remembered but is merely recalled as tone impression, the effect is like that of a half-forgotten memory. Mrs. Woolf uses a line, “One fibre in the wicker arm-chair creaks, though no one sits there,” for repetition; if it was heard the first time, it will not be missed the last time, because we know that Jacob will never sit there again. What is significant here is not an influence but an evidence of how both novelists seek to reach the reader by sense impressions. Mrs. iWoolf is moving towards the methods of the poet and away from the conventional ones of the prose narrator.

Mrs. Woolf had “smashed” the novel into brilliant iridescent bits in “Jacob’s Room”; she sought to refashion it into unity in “Mrs. Dalloway.” It was her first try at catching Mrs. Brown as “the spirit we live by, life itself.” Not space now but time supplies the intensifying restriction. Time and human consciousness, one day and Mrs. Dalloway’s mind, are the novel’s dimensions. A single day in Mrs. Dalloway’s life is all that is needed for Mrs. Woolf to give us all of Mrs. Dalloway that she is able to give us. As she blows out the tenuous texture of that little dip of time till it is big with the breath of “life itself,” she convinces us that time has meaning only in terms of human experience. “The spirit we live by” is closer to our understanding, but we are not sure that Mrs. Brown, “solid, living, flesh-and-blood” Mrs. Brown, has been captured. Reviewers were to speak now with positiveness of Mrs, Woolf’s use of “the stream of consciousness,” and certainly she uses the method. The novel was different from other novels but not so different that readers needed to learn a new way of reading, as was to be true of “The Waves,” before they could understand and enjoy it.

Beginning with “To the Lighthouse,” her most beautiful work, each of her novels is an original creation, not only in plot and character but in method and form. “To the Lighthouse” is fashioned like an hourglass. And this form must have been consciously chosen, for everything in the book is in terms of time. In the first part, “The Window,” the human personalities are in motion like luminous grains of sand, or to use a figure from the book itself, “each separate but all marvelously controlled in an invisible elastic net.” Then through the brief second part, “Time Passes,” the house stands empty, until the almost inarticulate cleaning women come, and events run like falling grains in the narrow neck. Then time broadens out with the return of human consciousness to the empty dwelling. Two streams of consciousness are blended through the memories of Mrs. Ramsay; that of the woman trying to recover her vision of the unfinished painting as she watches the moving boat, and that of the occupants of the boat, especially Mr. Ramsay. The movement comes to rest, as the boat reaches the lighthouse and Lily Biscoe puts on her picture the dab of paint that completes her vision. The book is full of themes: the conflict of man and woman, of youth and age, the perdurability of personality even to that tokened by “the twisted finger of a glove.” It uses the methods of poetry and of symbolism. Not only is the voyage to the lighthouse symbolic but there are little refrains that stress a more obvious minor use of symbols: the finger of the glove, the shawl over the bull’s skull, the beak of brass and the fountain and the spray. In “To the Lighthouse” all the senses are used. The journey “to the lighthouse” is one in emotional realization. It is the subjective that she is trying to make us feel, and thought and feeling that she evokes through the dramatization of situations. By subtle means through Mrs. Ramsay’s thoughts, she works up to a climax at the dinner “(The Boeuf en Daube was a perfect triumph),” when all the streams of consciousness about the table are merged. “It partook of eternity.” Something shines out “in the face of the flowing, the fleeting, the spectral, like a ruby.” For such a book the words “form” and “pattern” have meaning. There is the organic wholeness about it that is lacking from “Jacob’s Room.” Mrs. Ramsay may not be entirely “captured” but the whole book is saturated with the spirit of her: “Mrs. Ramsay making of the moment something permanent.”

In the phantasy “Orlando, A Biography” (1928) Virginia Woolf plays whimsically with time. A single life spans the period from Shakespeare’s time to ours and age makes little difference upon the central character except to change a man into a woman. Exquisite in execution as “Orlando” is, it leaves a nebulous impression on the mind. Could this be considered as an experiment in the novel form, we should have to admit that we do not even know the feathers on Mrs. Brown’s hat and Mrs. Brown herself has disappeared into thin air.

Later, in “The Waves,” symbolism is even more structural and the whole book is more nearly a poetic form than a prose narrative. As we follow the streams of consciousness of the several characters whose mingled expression constitutes the sections of the novel between the interposed descriptions of the one day’s travel of the sun upon the face of the waters, we recognize each personality by some early memory that has the effect of symbolizing, like a birthmark, the individuality. One recalls the petal of a rose floating on the water, another remembers that his friends may think less of him because his father is a bank clerk in Brisbane. Time and human consciousness are her terms but the form and the method are new.

In each of these novels time exists in terms of thought and experience. Bennett’s “The Old Wives’ Tale” shows how time changes two slim pretty girls into old women—they were young, they grew old, they died. Time changes and wears away human life. It is an objective force working up-

on objective creatures. To Virginia Woolf, time is not im-portant in what it can do objectively or physically. A single day, as in “Mrs. Dalloway,” may be important enough to fill an entire novel, or the novel may include three generations, as with “The Years.” Time in “The Years” has almost a different meaning from time in “To the Lighthouse” or “The Waves,” in each of which it is merely a measure. Perhaps it is not true to say it has no physical importance in “The Years,” for in that book Mrs. Woolf has shown what time can do to the manners and the morals of a generation of men. She uses here an objective method but not so objective as Arnold Bennett used in “The Old Wives’ Tale.” Her interest remains on inner differences and she uses touches of the symbolic and suggestive devices, especially little objects of the household that show where the waters have receded. Because the form is less poetic, it is an easier book to read than the others, and for the same reason it is a harder one to understand.

“The Years” may be the only proper road to take to the understanding of “Between the Acts,” a completed novel but perhaps an unfinished work of art. Here and there I have felt the slightest deviation from good taste, a strained figure or an arch expression: “A bird chuckled outside”; swallows “dancing, like the Russians, only not to music, but to the unheard rhythm of their own wild hearts.” In themselves these lapses—if they are lapses—are not important; but if Virginia Woolf is, as I think, the novelist most flawless in her taste of all the English, then perhaps the implication may be strong that she was not done with her workmanship on this novel. If so, then we may believe, if we choose, that the significances that she would have had understood, she would have made clearer in the last revision which we know, from her husband’s note, the book never received.

When Virginia Woolf walked to the river to end a life that had created so much beauty, she was not fleeing a world that she could no longer endure. Leonard Woolf has explained that she felt sure that she was about to lose her sanity, as had happened before, and that this time it would be forever. The destruction of her home and the strain of the horrors of war may have brought her condition upon her but her choice was not between life and death but between death and insanity. She left behind her the unrevised manuscript of a completed short novel. From the beginning she was an experimentalist and each of her novels is better understood through some knowledge of all her other novels. Her last novel is another experiment. The title is “Between the Acts” and the closing words are “Then the curtain rose. They spoke.” “Between the Acts” opens on a summer’s night with a conversation about a cesspool: “What a subject to talk about on a night like this!” There is Mrs. Swithin, and her brother, old Mr. Oliver, and especially there is Isa and her husband, Giles Oliver, who have a little boy, George, who, his grandfather thinks, is a cry-baby. He had been frightened when his grandfather jumped at him with a snout for a nose, made of the paper from which he had been reading how M. Daladier had been successful in pegging down the franc. These Olivers had lived at Pointz Hall only something over a hundred and twenty years; they were not of the old families who had all intermarried. There is a gentleman farmer, Rupert Haines, who had handed Isa Oliver at a Bazaar a cup and racquet—”that was all”—since when Mrs. Haines was aware of the emotion circling them, excluding her. On the day of the pageant Mrs. Manresa, a bubbling lady, and her friend, William Dodge, “fundamentally infernally conceited” and unsettled as to sex, uninvited join the Pointz Hall household for lunch, “lured off the high road by the very same instinct that caused the sheep and the cows to desire propinquity.” And then there is Miss La Trobe who wrote the pageant and who is to produce it with all the countryside for audience.

The whole of English history is presented in this pageant, which runs through the novel like the strain of a barrel organ while the audience cackles and gossips, and spreads about the lawn, “flat as the floor of a theatre,” commenting upon the words of the actors, reflecting or rejecting the emotions of the players. Meantime a bootless human comedy runs its course through the book. Giles Oliver is drawn by a half-imagined brutal sex-attraction to Mrs. Manresa, and Isa Oliver pursues her “emotion” for Mr. Haines. The old lady, Mrs. Swithin, shows William Dodge over the Hall and idealizes him into the sweet young man that he scarcely is.

Life crackles and blazes. A beautiful English day realizes itself: then a sudden and universal rain and afterwards “from the grass rose a fresh earthy smell.” Once during an interval, as the darts of red and green flashed from the rings on Mrs. Manresa’s fingers, Giles said “(without words), Tm damnably unhappy.’

” ‘So am I,’ Dodge echoed.

” ‘And I too,’ Isa thought.

“They were all caught and caged; prisoners watching a spectacle, Nothing happened. The tick of the machine was maddening.”

Then followed the last episode in the pageant: “Ourselves.” A riff-raff of children with tin cans and mirrors, “anything that’s bright enough to reflect, presumably, ourselves,” turn back upon the audience a hodge-podge of broken images of themselves; and the pageant ends with the gramophone sputtering out “God Save the King,” then it “gurgled Unity—Dispersity. It gurgled Un . . . dis . . . And ceased.” And “the play is over, the strangers gone, and they were alone—the family.” The little false emotions have somehow ebbed away. Isa and Giles are alone and “alone enmity was bared; also love. Before they slept, they must fight; after they had fought, they would embrace. From that embrace another life might be born.” And thus it is that the book ends: “Then the curtain rose. They spoke.”

This is certainly not as solid a novel as “The Years,” nor as exquisite in its craftsmanship as “The Waves,” nor as luminous a piece of art as “To the Lighthouse.” The living movements of an English crowd dispersed over the lawn, the vivid, mocking parody of the pageant, the flashing bits of conversation and tingling episodes of human encounter throughout a day on which M. Daladier had the franc pegged down, and passages now and again of as opalescent prose as Mrs. Woolf ever wrote: these together make Virginia Woolf’s last novel memorable. What does it mean? Is this book too, like “The Waves” and “To the Lighthouse,” in terms of time and human consciousness? This is no “stream of consciousness” novel. Perhaps it is the miniature portrait of a Time—the present time, ourselves, “on a June day in 1939”—”Between the Acts”—between two wars.

No other English novelist, it seems, has worked with so subtle a touch, with such exquisite sensitiveness of feeling and taste. Novels like “To the Lighthouse,” “The Waves,” and the volatile phantasy, “Orlando,” must be read, like poetry, with all the senses: they must be experienced rather than understood. They are the gleams and flashes of time becoming rather than the record of time that has been. Like Mrs. Ramsay she has made out of the flowing time something permanent. But she has not created the “solid, living flesh-and-blood Mrs. Brown” of her first prophecy. She has rather given her readers a feeling of Mrs. Brown as “the spirit we live by” under several names, now Mrs. Dalloway, now Mrs. Ramsay. And as for “the present state of the English novel,” the novel can hardly go on from where she has left it. Paradoxically her experiments lead only to the delicate perfections of her own art and Virginia Woolf will be remembered, as is Laurence Sterne, as a novelist unique among novelists.


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