Saturday, October 14, 2006

Virginia Woolf on the Novel

I’ve just read “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”, a marvellous 1924 essay by Virginia Woolf on the novel. In it, she uses the device of one Mrs. Brown, a stranger whom she encountered one evening in a railway carriage and immediately began to speculate about, to demonstrate the shift underway in the form of the novel between Edwardian writers (exemplified by Arnold Bennett, H.G. Wells, and John Galsworthy) and Georgian writers (exemplified by E.M. Forster, D.H. Lawrence, and James Joyce). Reading it, I was reminded of what an incomparably brilliant essayist Woolf is. Oddly, reading Woolf’s criticism of Bennett’s fiction also helped me to clarify what it is that I recently found wanting in a story of her own, “Kew Gardens.” I’ll save those thoughts for a later post at A Curious Singularity (to be written after I’ve had some time to mull over the extent to which Woolf’s ideas about the novel apply to the short story form). But in the meantime, let me offer a series of excerpts from her essay for your own mulling pleasure:

Here is Mrs. Brown making someone begin almost automatically to write a novel about her. I believe that all novels begin with an old lady in the corner opposite. I believe that all novels, that is to say, deal with character, and that it is to express character—not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire, that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose, and undramatic, so rich, elastic, and alive, has been evolved.


And so [the Edwardians] have developed a technique of novel writing which suits their purpose; they have made tools and established conventions which do their business. But those tools are not our tools, and that business is not our business. For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death.

You may well complain of the vagueness of my language. What is a convention, a tool, you may ask, and what do you mean by saying that Mr. Bennett’s and Mr. Wells’ and Mr. Galsworthy’s conventions are the wrong conventions for the Georgians? The question is difficult: I will attempt a short cut. A convention in writing is not much different from a convention in manners. Both in life and in literature it is necessary to have some means of bridging the gulf between the hostess and her unknown guest on the one hand, the writer and his unknown reader on the other. The hostess bethinks herself of the weather, for generations of hostesses have established the fact that this is a subject of universal interest in which we all believe. She begins by saying that we are having a wretched May, and, having thus got into touch with her unknown guest, proceeds to matters of greater interest. So it is in literature. The writer must get into touch with his reader by putting before him something which he recognizes, which therefore stimulates his imagination, and makes him willing to cooperate in the far more difficult business of intimacy. And it is of the highest importance that this common meeting-place should be reached easily, almost instinctively, in the dark, with one’s eyes shut.


This is what I mean by saying that the Edwardian tools are the wrong ones for us to use. They have laid an enormous stress on the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings that live there. To give them their due, they have made that house much better, worth living in. But if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it. Therefore, you see, the Georgian writer had to begin by throwing away the method that was in use at the moment. He was left alone there facing Mrs. Brown without any method of conveying her to the reader. But that is inaccurate. A writer is never alone. There is always the public with him—if not on the same seat, at least in the compartment next door.


Such, I think, was the predicament in which the young Georgians found themselves about the year 1910. Many of them—I am thinking of Mr. Forster and Mr. Lawrence in particular—spoilt their early work because, instead of throwing away those tools, they tried to use them. They tried to compromise. They tried to combine their own direct sense of the oddity and significance of some character with Mr. Galsworthy's knowledge of the Factory Acts, and Mr. Bennett's knowledge of the Five Towns. They tried it, but they had too keen, too overpowering a sense of Mrs. Brown and her peculiarities to go on trying it much longer. Something had to be done. At whatever cost to life, limb, and damage to valuable property Mrs. Brown must be rescued, expressed, and set in her high relations to the world before the train stopped and she disappeared for ever. And so the smashing and the crashing began.


But, instead of being gloomy, I am sanguine. For this state of things is, I think, inevitable whenever from hoar old age or callow youth the convention ceases to be a means of communication between writer and reader, and becomes instead an obstacle and an impediment. At the present moment we are suffering, not from decay, but from having no code of manners which writers and readers accept as a prelude to the more exciting intercourse of friendship. The literary convention of the time is so artificial—you have to talk about the weather and nothing but the weather throughout the entire visit—that, naturally, the feeble are tempted to outrage, and the strong are led to destroy the very foundations and rules of literary society.


I have given an account of some of the difficulties which in my view beset the Georgian writer in all his forms. I have sought to excuse him. May I end by venturing to remind you of the duties and responsibilities that are yours as partners in this business of writing books, as companions in the railway carriage, as fellow travellers with Mrs. Brown? For she is just as visible to you who remain silent as to us who tell stories about her.


Your part is to insist that writers shall come down off their plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown. You should insist that she is an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety; capable of appearing in any place; wearing any dress; saying anything and doing heaven knows what. But the things she says and the things she does and her eyes and her nose and her speech and her silence have an overwhelming fascination, for she is, of course, the spirit we live by, life itself.

But do not expect just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment of her. Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction—we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown.

In singling out this series of passages, I’ve tried to isolate just one thread of her argument. Of course in doing so I’ve cut out a great deal of what makes the essay so interesting and engaging. If these bits have sparked your interest, I highly encourage you to track down a copy of "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" and read the whole of it.


Anonymous said...

I just KNEW you'd be zeroing in on this vexing question of what makes a narrative succeed! I've been mulling over for the last few days the question of how to describe what wasn't workable about Kew Gardens. And I want you to know I never do that kind of thing. I mull over what to have for dinner, when I'll have time to write, and what someone meant when they said something to me on my way out the door. But questions like this usually put me to sleep. Okay, I'll be honest, questions like this make me give up, fearing I'll never get it. Thank you for waking me up, Kate, and helping me get it.

Rebecca H. said...

I love Woolf's essays too. I've read the first Common Reader, and would love to read it again. "Street Haunting" is one of my favorites of hers.

Language is for Lovers said...

I was introduced to Virginia at a pretty young age and fell in love with her since. Street Haunting is definitely one of my all time favorites. She did say once that an essay is meant to entertain more than anything; that it should capture the reader's attention in the beginning and leave the reader with a valuable thought in the end. or something of the sort. She always manages to pull this off.

Anonymous said...

i am taking a class on VW at Emory University in Atlanta write now. we had to read this essay. and i was a little lost concerning some of the terminology. your blog helped! thanks alot. you should do analysis on some of her other works so i can refer to you while reading (jacob's room, orlando, mrs dalloway, the waves etc)