Virginia Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed

Kathryn Simpson discusses the life and work of one of literary modernism’s most distinguished innovators
Kathryn Simpson, Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2016)
Kathryn Simpson, Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed (Bloomsbury, 2016)

What motivated you to write Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed?

I feel very passionate about the work of Virginia Woolf because of the ways it engages with some of the ‘big’ questions about self and identity, experience and relationships, politics, cultural pressures and the impact of a changing world. She, like other modernist writers and artists, attempted to convey what it meant and felt like to live through a period of dramatic change (politically, socially, economically and in terms of technological developments) and to find new forms and techniques to represent a new sense of modernity.

How did you discover Virginia Woolf’s writing?

I discovered her writing as part of my undergraduate degree at the University of Birmingham and then chose to write on her work for my PhD alongside other early twentieth-century women writers (Gertrude Stein, H.D, Radclyffe Hall and Djuna Barnes).

What do you think makes her a perplexing figure?

I think there are two key aspects of her work that are challenging – the experimental forms that she develops and the fact that with each new novel she’s trying something new, and the complex and contradictory nature of her ideas. She, I think quite rightly, insists that each of us experience things differently and that there is always more than one way of seeing things (‘For nothing was simply one thing’, as she says in To the Lighthouse). For Woolf the prevalent conventions of literary realism were no longer adequate to represent a modern awareness and experience of reality. In her writing she’s trying to convey the multi-sensory ways in which we respond to and make sense of sensations, ideas and the material world and she’s experimenting with narrative techniques, characterisation and literary forms (from overarching concepts of genre to the shape and formation of the sentence) to try to capture the simultaneity of this experience, and to try to find a way around the linear structures of writing itself. She engaged with a wide range of new ideas and phenomena (from the physics, philosophy and new technologies to music, ballet, cinema and commodity culture) and we can see how these aspects of modernity also inform her writing in various ways. Her understanding of her world was influenced by her privileged position at the heart of British intellectual, artistic and political life but she was also very aware of her position as a woman writer and her literary and critical work challenges the limitations placed on women in the male male-dominated literary world as well as in society more generally. These various dimensions of Woolf’s thinking and approach add a complexity to her work that is compounded by her own seemingly contradictory attitudes and perspectives. Most troubling for readers and critics are her contradictory attitudes to class and Jewishness. More later!

“In her writing she’s trying to convey the multi-sensory ways in which we respond to and make sense of sensations, ideas and the material world…”

Where do you situate Woolf within twentieth-century modernism?

Woolf played a central role in the emergence of twentieth-century modernism as a member of the influential Bloomsbury Group, as a bestselling author in her own time and in her role as co-owner of the Hogarth Press. For a substantial part of the twentieth century modernism was perceived as male-dominated and it was only the ‘Men of 1914’ (as Wyndham Lewis referred to T.S. Eliot, James Joyce, Ezra Pound and himself) who made it ‘new’ and invented modernism. From the 1970s onwards, feminist literary critics began to dispel this myth and have continued to demonstrate the centrality of women as writers, artists, publishers and publicists – in fact as the orchestrators of modernism – ever since. Woolf has always been central in this re-evaluation so that she’s now one of the best-known modernist writers and in fact one of the best-known British writers – her writings, and quotations from her works, as well as images of her are widely in circulation across the globe in both popular and academic contexts. She is a cultural icon! The Annual International Conference on Virginia Woolf, now celebrating its 27th year, is a testimony to the sustained and increasing interest in and fascination with her work and with her as an author. The conference is to be hosted by the University of Reading in 2017 and its theme is ‘Virginia Woolf and the World of Books’ and invites consideration of the past, present and future of Virginia Woolf’s works, confirming Woolf’s key position within modernism.

In what ways do you think her work is relevant to a 21st century readership?

In many ways! Woolf was trying to convey a sense of the self as multi-dimensional and ever-changing, of the mind as complex and receptive to the ‘myriad impressions’ that bombard our senses and conscious mind every second of every day (as she suggests in her essay, ‘Modern Fiction’) and of the interconnection of individuals across time. But her work still speaks to some of the more concerning issues of the day for us – notably the persistent inequalities of gender, sexuality, class and race – as well as the global imbalances of power that result in war. Many of the concerns evident in her writing – about the self, experience, difference and the need for tolerance and connection rather than prejudice and division – are still so crucial to our contemporary moment. The need for tolerance, the acknowledgment of our own prejudices and the willingness to try to work through this – however difficult, contradictory and personally and politically uncomfortable this may be – is needed more than ever.

Woolf also sought to empower her readers and saw the role of the reader as key in the development of new forms of fiction. In her essay, ‘How Should One Read a Book?’ for example, she explores her ideas about the reader’s active participation in the creative process.  She identifies her ideal reader as a co-producer, a ‘fellow-worker and accomplice’, approaching books with an open mind as well as ‘imagination, insight and judgement’ in order to give life and meaning to the narratives and characters and to reach his/her ‘own conclusions’. In the 21st century we are overloaded with information and need all the skills we can muster to find our way through in order to develop our own understanding, interpretations and perspectives. Reading Woolf’s writing can be good training! She won’t allow her readers to be passive nor will she try to enforce her views and authority as a writer – as she says at the beginning of A Room of One’s Own, she won’t simply provide her audience with ‘a nugget of pure truth’ to take away and to store forever. Instead, her readers’ independence of view and understanding is of paramount importance and she encourages us to use our imaginations, creativity, and our intellect in finding a path though testing and confusing times.

How can her writing help us to rethink traditional ideas of gender and sexuality?

Woolf was clearly ahead of the curve in terms of rethinking traditional ideas and expectations about gender and sexuality and many readers and critics alike celebrate the sexual diversity found in her writing and the ways in which it challenges and criticises heteronormative social and cultural structures and values. Woolf is now lauded as a feminist thinker, novelist and critic whose challenges to the male-dominated literary tradition (notably A Room of One’s Own) began the process of recovering a female literary tradition and opening avenues for later feminist, gender and queer critics to explore. She is also a writer whose work now speaks of and to gay, queer and trans experience. In her own time she felt the need to kill ‘the angel in the house’ (a short-hand for the Victorian feminine ideals that she felt persisted into the early twentieth century and continued to limit women’s opportunities and aspirations) in order to free herself as a writer. Although happily married, Woolf also had a number of intense, intimate and sometimes sexual relationships with women friends and, most famously, a love affair with novelist and poet Vita Sackville-West. In fact, Sackville-West was a model for Woolf’s fantastical character of Orlando – a time-travelling, sex-changing figure – a character at odds with both the hetero-patriarchal concepts of gender and sexuality of Woolf’s day, as well as with the sexological ideas emerging at the end of the 19th century which argued for homosexuality as a congenital condition and conceptualised non-heterosexual identities as ‘intersex’ or ‘third sex’ identities. Instead, Woolf suggests a concept of androgyny (which she described as a ‘woman-manly or man-womanly’ identity, a ‘marriage of opposites’, in A Room of One’s Own). During the 20th century this concept caused many a feminist disagreement. However, the greater fluidity of being that Woolf articulated through her fiction almost a hundred years ago can be seen as in tune with more expansive contemporary ideas about gender and sexuality, particularly as highlighted in discussions about and increasing acceptance of transgender identities.

How would you describe Woolf’s engagement with issues of class?

In a word, ‘slippery’! On the one hand, Woolf is often considered to be elitist and she did confess to being ‘a snob’ given her penchant for aristocratic titles. Her own class privilege and the middle-class bias of her work, alongside the marginalization of working-class characters and experience, is the focus of some fierce criticism – particularly in relation to her (sometimes offensive) representation of female servants and this is seen to undermine Woolf’s feminist credentials as well. However, she was very self-critical of her own class position and attitudes, and particularly self-aware of the ways in which her intellectual freedom paradoxically depended on the domestic work of female servants and it’s this self-awareness that adds greater complexity to her representations of class. It’s also useful to remember though that throughout her adult life she was involved in activities aimed at bringing greater equality in terms of access to intellectual life and social reform. For example, from 1905-1907, she worked for the Workers Educational Association, teaching evening classes in literature at Morley College, a college offering non-vocational courses to men and women; she sought to challenge and correct unequal access to literature and published essays for ‘the common reader’, and used her influence and donations to support The Women’s Service Library in London. Alongside the work of her husband, she also, gave her support to bringing about working-class political reforms. She attended meetings of the Fabian Society and Labour Party Conferences, and was secretary for and hosted the Rodmell Labour Party at their home, Monk’s House. For these reasons some see Woolf as a ‘democratic highbrow’ (as Melba Cuddy-Keane suggests) aiming to bring about greater intellectual quality and thereby a degree of social reform. For others, Woolf’s class prejudice is perceived as offensive and damaging to her work and political position as a feminist. Woolf’s introduction to a collection of writings produced by members of the Women’s Co-operative Guild, Life as We Have Known It (Hogarth Press, 1931) in a way encapsulates the ambivalence that is so perplexing. In this introduction Woolf controversially explains that although as an intellectual and feminist she understands working women’s political demands and calls for reform, she says she can’t fully engage and sympathise with a working woman’s plight and experience because she has never physically experienced the drudgery of manual work. Some see this an honest response in admitting that she can’t imaginatively represent working-class experience because of the limitations of her own experience, others see it as a way of Woolf avoiding confronting her own class prejudice. What I see time and again in Woolf’s writing, however, is the playing out of the contradictions of her position: the overarching middle-class perspective and bias are qualified and complicated by the political significance of her working-class characters. The complicated ways in which they represent a changing political landscape and act as the focus for middle-class anxieties has telling implications of such for middle-class power and influence.

“What I see time and again in Woolf’s writing, however, is the playing out of the contradictions of her position…”

The book also deals with issues ranging from empire and imperialism to racism and antisemitism. Could you say a little bit about that?

These are also issues that can be described as slippery and deeply troubling, and Woolf’s engagement with issues of empire, race and Jewishness have been seen on a spectrum from contradictory to strongly offensive. There’s no doubt that Woolf’s writing engages critically with imperialist attitudes and the corrupting power of empire but, as with the other ways in which her work criticises her own time, her perspective is inevitably also shaped and caught up in the prevalent ideas of that time. Born two years before the 1884 Berlin Conference which instigated the partitioning of Africa (known as the ‘scramble for Africa’), we can see Woolf as a metaphorical ‘child of empire’, growing up in a context in which the economic and political demands of the European nations were powerfully asserted. But she was also literally a child of empire because of the central roles played by family members on both her mother’s and father’s sides in the making and shaping of imperialist policy, and in the building and reforming of empire. Nonetheless, her participation in activities such as the ‘Dreadnought Hoax’ in 1910 (when Woolf, her brother and friends disguised themselves as Abyssinian royalty and were given a tour of the most important warship of the day) indicate her intention of mocking and undermining imperial authority, as well as her willingness to cause a scandal in order to expose the workings of power. Criticism of empire and imperialism is evident in her fiction, reviews and essays. The Woolfs’ decision to publish colonial writers and anti-imperialist books at the Hogarth Press also indicates their anti-imperialist commitment and intention of influencing public opinion. What also makes Woolf’s position more complicated is the ways in which it is bound up wither feminist politics so that, for her, the colonial exercise of power and oppression of colonial subjects is inseparable from patriarchal power hierarchies oppressing women in the domestic realm.

Complicating this critical stance (one premised on ideas of tolerance and an undermining of power hierarchies) is the racism, and particularly the antisemitism, found in her published and private writings. What is even more shocking is the fact that Woolf was married to Leonard, a secular Jew, for 30 years. It is in letters and diaries that her most offensive comments are found, particularly those aimed at Leonard’s family, but antisemitic views are also evident in her fiction. Some have explained her antisemitism as being ‘habitual’, a ‘casual’ prejudice in tune with the times, but clearly this aspect of her work is found to be deeply offensive and disturbing. Like other ‘perplexing’ dimensions of her attitudes and work, contradictions are rife and, much as she maligns Jews, she also praises their vitality and aligns herself with Jewish identity, a marker of her commitment to Leonard as well as to her anti-fascist stance and criticism of the forces driving the nation toward war in the 1930s. From the mid-late 1930s, her representations of Jews and attitudes to Jewishness become more complex and contradictory, and seem to take on a more deeply personal significance as she felt increasingly isolated as a pacifist and as a woman writer advocating peace in a time of increasing belligerence and assertions of masculine power.

For newcomers to Virginia Woolf’s work, can you recommend a place to start?

To ease your self in, begin at the beginning with The Voyage Out. In her first novel, Woolf begins her experiments with style in a subtle way but more obviously experiments with narrative convention – here the long-established courtship/ romance plot. For the more adventurous, why not plunge into ‘Kew Gardens’, one of Woolf’s earliest short fictions in which she plays with narrative perspectives (offering a snails-eye view, for example) and also engages with the themes that her work repeatedly returns to – gender, class, romantic relationships and war.

What’s next for you?

My new project is exploring modernist women’s writing in the golden age of aviation. The 1920s and early 1930s was a period of dramatic advancement in aeronautical technology, of record-breaking/ record-making achievements and of daring and spectacular feats. I’m exploring the ways in which these innovations can be seen to feature in the content of women’s fiction and to influence literary style as well. The figure of the aviatrix was also one that challenged gender and sexuality norms in many ways and I’m also interested in the significance of such women in this period as feminist pioneers and inspirations for those looking up and imagining new possibilities.

Woolf: A Guide for the Perplexed is available from Bloomsbury.

About the Author

Kathryn Simpson Senior Lecturer at Cardiff Metropolitan University, UK, where she primarily teaches modernist, contemporary and nineteenth-century literature. She is author of Gifts, Markets and Economies of Desire in Virginia Woolf (2008).


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