Bloomsbury lost Fry, in 1934, and Lytton Strachey before him, in January 1932, to early deaths. The loss of Stracheywas compounded by Carrington’s suicide just two months after, in March. Another old friend, Ka Cox, died of a heart attack in 1938. But the death, in 1937, of Woolf ’s nephew Julian, in the Spanish Civil War, was perhaps thebitterest blow. Vanessa found her sister her only comfort: ‘I couldn’t get on at all if it weren’t for you’ (VWB2 203). Julian, a radical thinker and aspiring writer, campaigned all his life against war, but he had to be dissuaded by hisfamily from joining the International Brigade to fight Franco. Instead he worked as an ambulance driver, a role that did not prevent his death from shrapnel wounds. Woolf ’s Three Guineas, she wrote to his mother, waswritten ‘as an argument with him
There are numerous biographies of Woolf. Biography has been highly influential in shaping the reception ofWoolf ’s work, and her life has been as much debated as her writing. I would recommend the following three whichrepresent three different biographical contexts and a range of positions on Woolf ’s life: Quentin Bell’s Virginia Woolf: A Biography (1972), Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (1996), and Julia Briggs’s Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life(2005). There is no one, true biography of Woolf (as, indeed, there cannot be of any subject of biography), but these three mark important phases in the writing and rewriting of Woolf ’s life. Hot debate continues over how biographers represent her mental health, her sexuality, her politics, her suicide, and of course her art, and over how we are to understand the latter in relation to all the former points of contention.
The 1950s and 1960s: philosophy, psychology, mythThere was considerable critical interest in Woolf ’s life and work in this period, fuelled by the publication of selected extracts from her diaries, in A Writer’s Diary (1953), and in part by J. K. Johnstone’s The BloomsburyGroup (1954). The main critical impetus was to establish a sense of a unifying aesthetic mode in Woolf ’s writing, and in her works as a whole, whether through philosophy, psychoanalysis, formal aesthetics, or mythopoeisis.James Hafley identified a cosmic philosophy in his detailed analysis of her fiction, The Glass Roof: Virginia Woolf as Novelist (1954), and offered a complex account of her symbolism. Woolf featured in the influential TheEnglish Novel: A Short Critical History (1954) by Walter Allen who, with antique chauvinism, describes the Woolfian ‘moment’ in terms of ‘short, sharp female gasps of ecstasy, an impression intensified by Mrs Woolf ’s useof the semi-colon where the comma is ordinarily enough’. Psychological and Freudian interpretations were also emerging at this time, such as Joseph Blotner’s 1956 study of mythic patterns in To the Lighthouse, an essay that draws on Freud, Jung and the myth of Persephone.4 And there were studies of Bergsonian writing that made much of Woolf, such as Shiv Kumar’s Bergson and the Stream of Consciousness Novel (1962).The most important work of this period was by the French critic Jean Guiguet. His Virginia Woolf and Her Works (1962); translated by Jean Stewart, 1965) was the first full-length study ofWoolf ’s oeuvre, and it stood for a long time as the standard work of critical reference in Woolf studies. Guiguet draws on the existentialism of Jean-Paul Sartre to put forward a philosophical reading of Woolf; and he also introduces a psychobiographical dimension in the non-self.’ This existentialist approach did not foreground Woolf ’s feminism, either.his heavy use of extracts from A Writer’s Diary. He lays great emphasis onsubjectivism in Woolf ’s writing, and draws attention to her interest in thesubjective experience of ‘the moment.’ Despite his philosophical apparatus,Guiguet refuses to categorise Woolf in terms of any one school, and insiststhat Woolf has indeed ‘no pretensions to abstract thought: her domain is life,not ideology’. Her avoidance of conventional character makes Woolf for hima ‘purely psychological’ writer.5 Guiguet set a trend against materialist andhistoricist readings ofWoolf by his insistence on the primacy of the subjectiveand the psychological: ‘To exist, for Virginia Woolf, meant experiencing thatdizziness on the ridge between two abysses of the unknown, the self and
The 1970s and 1980s: feminism, androgyny, modernism, aestheticsIn the 1970s and 1980s, Woolf studies expanded in a number of directions,most notably in relation to feminism. Critical interest in Woolf developed at the same time as feminism developed in related academic disciplines. In this period her writings became central to the theoretical framing of feminism, inparticular to debates on Marxist and materialist feminism and to the emergent theories of androgyny. Both these areas of debate takeWoolf ’s A Room of One’s Own as a major point of reference..............At the same time as feminist approaches to Woolf were developing and expanding, so, too, was the critical interest in her modernist theories and her formal aesthetics. Again, Woolf ’s writing became central to critical and theoretical formulations on modernism...........This period also saw considerable critical interest in the influence of the visual arts on Woolf ’s writing, and particularly in the influence of the formalist theories of her Bloomsbury colleagues Roger Fry and Clive Bell.
The 1980s: feminism, postmodernism, sexual/textual politicsWhile it might be tempting to generalise that Woolf ’s writing was being discussed almost in two separate camps during the 1980s, formalists on the one hand, and feminists on the other, this would be to simplify things too far.Many critics were attempting to make sense of and connect her feminist politics with her modernist practices. Such investigations coincided with the explosion of theory in literary studies, and once again the work of VirginiaWoolf was central to the framing of many of the major theoretical developments in literary critical engagements with feminism, postmodernism, deconstruction and psychoanalysis. In the context of the rise of ‘high theory’and the questioning of old-school Marxist, materialist, humanist and historicist literary theories, Woolf studies wrestled with the locating of her radical feminist politics in the avant-garde qualities of the text itself, and its endlessly transgressive play of signifiers, with the Woolfian inscription of radically deconstructed models of the self and of sexuality and jouissance.
The 1990s to the present: feminism, historicism,postcolonialism, ethicsThere has never been a better time to study Virginia Woolf. Woolf studies, in the 1990s and in the new millennium, has continued to flourish and diversifyin all its numerous and proliferating aspects. In this recent period the topics that occupied earlier critics continue in new debates, on her modernism, her philosophy and ethics, her feminism and her aesthetics; and there have also been marked turns in new directions. Woolf and her work have been increasingly examined in the context of empire, drawing on the influential field ofpostcolonial studies; and, stimulated by the impetus of new historicism and cultural materialism, there have been new attempts to understand Woolf ’s writing and persona in the context of the public and private spheres, in thepresent as well as in her own time. Woolf in the context of war and fascism, and in the contexts of modernity, science and technology, continue to exercise critics. Serious, sustained readings of lesbianism in Woolf ’s writing and in her life have marked recent feminist interpretations in Woolf studies. Enormous advances have also been made in the study of Woolf ’s literary andcultural influences and allusions. Numerous annotated and scholarly editions of Woolf ’s works have been appearing since she briefly came out of copyright in 1991, accompanied by several more scholarly editions of her works in draft and holograph, encouraging further critical scrutiny of her compositional methods. There have been several important reference works on Woolf. Many biographies of Woolf and her circle have also appeared, renewing biographical criticism, along with a number of works concerned with Woolf in geographical context, from landscape and London sites to Woolf ’s and hercircle’s many houses and holiday retreats.
Reading Virginia Woolf will change your life, may even save it. If you want to make sense of modern life, the works of Virginia Woolf remain essential reading. More than fifty years since her death, accounts of her life still set the pace for modern modes of living. Plunge (and this Introduction is intended to help you take the plunge) into Woolf ’s works – at any point – whether in hernovels, her short stories, her essays, her polemical pamphlets, or her published letters, diaries, memoirs and journals – and you will be transported by her elegant, startling, buoyant sentences to a world where everything in modern life (cinema, sexuality, shopping, education, feminism, politics, war and so on) is explored and questioned and refashioned.
The daughter of the literary biographer Leslie Stephen, and close friend of the innovative biographer of the Victorians, Lytton Strachey, Woolf herself put forward, in ‘The New Biography’ (1927) (reviewing work by another biographer acquaintance, Harold Nicolson), her own memorable theory of biography, encapsulated in her phrase ‘granite and rainbow’. ‘Truth’ she envisions ‘as something of granite-like solidity’, and ‘personality assomething of rainbow-like intangibility’, and ‘the aim of biography’, she proposes, ‘is to weld these two into one seamless whole’ (E4 473). The following short biographical account ofWoolf will attempt to keep to the basic granitelike facts that Woolf novices need to know, while also occasionally attending in brief to the more elusive, but equally relevant, matter of rainbow-like personality.
By the close of the nineteenth century her studies with her father were being supplemented by tuition in the classics from Dr Warr of King’s College, Kensington, and from Clara Pater, sister of the English essayist andcritic Walter Pater (1839–94). Woolf was very fond of Clara and an exchange between them later became the basis for her short story ‘Moments of Being: Slater’s Pins Have No Points’ (1928). Thoby boarded at Clifton College,Bristol, Adrian was a dayboy at Westminster School, and Vanessa attended Cope’s School of Art. Thoby, and later Adrian, eventually went to Trinity College, Cambridge, and Vanessa undertook training in the visual arts (attending the Slade School of Fine Art for a while). From 1902 Virginia’s tuition in classics passed from Clara Pater to the very capable Janet Case, one of the first graduates from Girton College, Cambridge, and a committed feminist. The sisters visited Cambridge a number of times to meet Thoby, whose friends there included Clive Bell 1881–1964), Lytton Strachey (1880– 1932), Leonard Woolf (1880–1969) and Saxon Sydney-Turner.
The Bloomsbury Group has been characterised as a liberal, pacifist, and at times libertine, intellectual enclave of Cambridge-based privilege. The Cambridge men of the group (Bell, Forster, Fry, Keynes, Strachey, Sydney-Turner) were members of the elite and secret society of Cambridge Apostles. Woolf’s aesthetic understanding, and broader philosophy, were in part shaped by, and at first primarily interpreted in terms of, (male) Bloomsbury’s dominant aesthetic and philosophical preoccupations, rooted in the work of G. E. Moore (a central influence on the Apostles), and culminating in Fry’s and Clive Bell’s differing brands of pioneering aesthetic formalism. ‘The main things which Moore instilled deep into our minds and characters,’ Leonard Woolf recalls, ‘were his peculiar passion for truth, for clarity and common sense, and a passionate belief in certain values.’Increasing awareness of Woolf’s feminism, however, and of the influence on her work of other women artists, writers and thinkers has meant that these Moorean and male points of reference, though of importance, are no longer considered adequate in approaching Woolf’s work, and her intellectual development under the tutelage of women, together with her involvement with feminist thinkers and activists, is also now acknowledged.
The particular myth that's been organizing this talk, and in a way the whole series, is the story of the Tower of Babel in the Bible. The civilization we live in at present is a gigantic technological structure, a skyscraper almost high enough to reach the moon. It looks like a single world-wide effort, but it's really a deadlock of rivalries; it looks very impressive, except that it has no genuine human dignity. For all its wonderful machinery, we know it's really a crazy ramshackle building, and at any time may crash around our ears. What the myth tells us is that the Tower of Babel is a work of human imagination, that its main elements are words, and that what will make it collapse is a confusion of tongues. All had originally one language, the myth says. The language is not English or Russian or Chinese or any common ancestor, if there was one. It is the language that makes Shakespeare and Pushkin authentic poets, that gives a social vision to both Lincoln and Gandhi. It never speaks unless we take the time to listen in leisure, and it speaks only in a voice too quiet for panic to hear. And then all it has to tell us, when we look over the edge of our leaning tower, is that we are not getting any nearer heaven, and that it is time to return to earth. [p.98]