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Exploring the Frontiers of Fiction: Humour, Modernism and Narrative Form in Virginia Woolf's "Jacob's Room" (1922)

Studienarbeit 2011 122 Seiten



1. Introduction
1.1 Jacob’s Forum: Method and Hypothesis
1.2 Structure of Essay

2. Modernism and the Modernist Novel
2.1 Periodization and Terminology
2.2 The Historic Context of Modernism
2.2.1 The Modern Age and the Age of Anxiety
2.2.2 The First World War and the Modernist Predicament
2.3 Woolf’s Art of Fiction
2.3.1 The Woolfian Essay
2.3.2 The Aesthetic Movement and the Art of Fiction

3. The Making of a writer
3.1 The Critical Reception of Woolf and Jacob’s Room
3.2 The Sceptical Sensibility of Virginia Stephen
3.3 The Hogarth Press and the Conception of Jacob’s Room
3.4 Bloomsbury and the Cambridge Apostles

4. The Comic Spirit
4.1 The Comic Spirit Re-visited: The Value of Laughter and the Aesthetic Theme
4.2 The Comic Spirit and the Modernist Predicament

5. Frontiers of Fiction: The Narrative Form of Jacob’s Room
5.1 Symbolism, Literary Allusion and Impassioned Prose
5.1.1 Symbols and the Allusive Practice of Jacob’s Room
5.1.2 Jacob’s Forum and the Epistemic Motif
5.1.3 Vignettes and the Socratic Construction of Jacob’s Room
5.2 The Role of the Narrator and Character in Jacob’s Forum
5.2.1 The Self-Conscious Narrator and the Epistemic Motif
5.2.2 A Gallery of Observers
5.2.3 The Characterisation of Jacob Flanders
5.3 The New Biography and the Eminent Edwardians
5.3.1 Woolf’s Theory of Biography
5.3.2. Digression: The Art of Biography
5.3.3 Seabrook is Dead: Debunking the Eminent Edwardians
5.3.4 The English Bildungsroman Revisited
5.3.5 Educating the Jacobs, Joans and Peters
5.4 Painting, Poetry and the Modernist Novel
5.4.1 The Psychological Novel and the Rivalry of the Arts
5.4.2 Impressionism in Jacob’s Forum
5.4.3 Cubism and the Cubist Novel

6. Conclusion


Deutsche Zusammenfassung


1. Introduction

Virginia Woolf is not a popular writer. Despite a fierce pride in her work it was never her ambition to be one. Most people have heard of her work, vaguely associating it with the ‘second wave’ of the women’s liberation movement in the 1970s and the type of fiction that is commonly called ‘difficult’, and few people unfamiliar with her work would associate her reputation with humour. These are some of the first impressions of a writer who is now hailed by scholars of English literature as one of the icons of modernism.

To speak of ‘first impressions’ of Virginia Woolf’s work is not as fatuous as it may seem. After all Woolf’s fiction was initially founded on impressions, and I hope to show that one of the distinctive characteristics of her oeuvre compared to other modernists like T.S. Eliot, W.B. Yeats or James Joyce, is the intensely visual nature of her art. Furthermore, she is often associated with a movement of modern painting in the early twentieth century known as ‘Post-Impressionism’, including painters like Cézanne, Picasso and Georges Braque. Finally, laughter in all its registers - whether merry, cruel or parodic - runs like a golden thread throughout the texture of her essays, short stories and novels; as satire does more generally throughout modernism.

I have chosen Virginia Woolf’s third novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), as the focus of my study of Woolf’s modernism. It is not her best known novel, as most critical acclaim is reserved for Mrs. Dalloway (1925) or To the Lighthouse (1927). She started writing fiction in 1915 just as the First World War started and, for four reasons, I believe that Jacob’s Room is the perfect starting point from which to survey Woolf’s particular contribution to the Modernist Movement.

Firstly, the social catastrophe associated with the First World War is widely considered to be the decisive historic event in the collective consciousness of early twentieth century Europe, its’ effects reverberating throughout the literary- and visual arts in the 1920s. Secondly, Jacob’s Room was published in a year which falls nicely within the boundaries of the period of High Modernism, which culminated in the decades between 1910 and 1930. Indeed the year of 1922 marks the publication of two other seminal modernist works, T.S. Eliot’s Wasteland and James Joyce’s Ulysses. Thirdly, Jacob’s Room is commonly regarded as Virginia Woolf’s first ‘experimental’ novel in which she, in her own phrase, ‘began to find her own voice’. Finally, and most importantly for this essay, even a casual reading of Jacob’s Room reveals an extraordinary medley of genres, so that the reader is jostled between the experience of now reading a biography, now an essay, now an autobiography, now a poem; and ultimately, an extraordinary novel.

The title of my essay suggests that the following pages are based on the fundamental premise that Jacob’s Room represents an exploration of fictional form and not an exposition of any preconceived idea of the writer. This approach was suggested to me by G.S. Fraser’s book, The Modern Writer and His World (1970):

There are fictions like Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or his Life and Death of Mr Badman, or like Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, which have a flavour that reminds us of novels, since they are full of everyday detail and natural-sounding conversation, but which are allegories or fables constructed to expound a previously determined scheme of ideas. The true novel rests on no such scheme; it is an exploration, not an exposition, and the true novelist arrives at his sense of life through his story, he does not construct his story to illustrate that sense. (p. 23)

The sense of an allegorical journey through life - not unlike Bunyan’s Christian or Sterne’s Tristram Shandy - is deeply embedded in the text of Woolf’s novel. Indeed, in its simplest form, Jacob’s Room is a story about the life of a promising young man, Jacob Flanders, who dies in the First World War. Yet, for a writer, the difficult task of maintaining a delicate balance between an ‘exploration’ and an ‘exposition’ of life can be as complex and treacherous as life itself - as Christian himself was to find out.

As a fascinated, if somewhat mystified, reader of Jacob’s Room I am not concerned with the niceties of generic classification. I am primarily interested in exploring the ‘frontiers’ or cross-sections between the traditional genres suggested by the text, i.e. the essay, the poem, the novel and biography in particular, although it will be shown that even strategies associated with impressionist painting are drawn into Woolf’s experimentation with narrative techniques. Naturally, such a medley of styles impacts on the overall structure of the text, and my quest will be to see if the novel - as Henry James once famously suggested in a short story of that name - reveals a distinctive ‘figure in the carpet’.

1.1 Jacob’s Forum: Method and Hypothesis

In this essay it will be argued that Jacob’s Room may be read as an aesthetic ‘room’ for discussion on the nature of fictional form; That is, I propose to read the text as a psychological ‘space’ in which various generic forms are juxtaposed, commented, analysed and explored by the author. In particular, I propose that Jacob’s Room is utilised as a writer’s (i.e. Woolf’s) forum in which various points of view are aired, including the central question lingering on the minds of the author, the gallery of characters and the protagonist respectively: ‘Who is Jacob Flanders ’? As such, it offers an opportunity for uninhibited debate presided over, or argued by the narrator herself and the characters, yet always with the intention to include the reader in the fray. This central hypothesis will be referred to as Jacob’s Forum.

In addition, the essentially discursive nature of this exploration, which actively invites the participation of the reader, will be referred to as the Aesthetic Theme of the novel. Accordingly, the various ‘rooms’ discussed in the novel, including the protagonist’s (bachelor) rooms in London and his room at Trinity College, may be read on two levels of significance: The first being a narrative exposition of the life-journey of Jacob Flanders, and the second being a metafictional, or aesthetic level on which the author self-consciously explores the ‘frontiers’ of the novel as a fictional form. The novel should therefore always be read with this additional, aesthetic connotation or level of significance in mind.

It will be emphasised that the role of the narrator is crucial to the relative success of Woolf’s narrative strategy. Accordingly, throughout my analysis I hope to demonstrate how Woolf’s narrator negotiates the ‘narrow bridge of art’ between narrative exposition and metafictional exploration. In particular, it will be argued that the inherent precariousness or uncertainty of Woolf’s ambitious artistic endeavour results in a pervasive tension in the narrative. This tension or ambivalence manifests itself in the particular tone of the narrator that ranges from wistful, philosophical introspection to a playful mockery – a kind of satirical lance - which the author alternately directs at her characters, the protagonist and/or herself. This pervasive, golden thread of laughter will be referred to as the Comic Spirit of the novel.

The general theme of Jacob’s Room goes to the very heart of the novelistic genre, i.e. the representation of human life itself. I do not propose to attempt an exploration of the concept of ‘realism’ or verisimilitude, but hope to demonstrate how Woolf’s personal search for this elusive quality of life is dramatised in the text. In her critical essays Woolf often refers to this essence of mankind as the ‘soul’ of man. Similarly, in Jacob’s Room the narrator, in a voice which is very close to that of the author, adopts an essentially solipsistic approach in this regard. This quest to find the meaning of existence in post First World War England will be referred to as the Epistemic Motif of the novel.

In sum therefore, it will be a major concern of this essay to attempt to demonstrate how the narrator/author’s sceptical stance manifests itself in relation to Woolf’s characterization of her protagonist in particular. It will be argued that the primary technique adopted in this regard is an extensive use of literary allusion. As a point of departure the latter must be distinguished from literary influence. Literary allusion is a narrative technique connate with analogy and metaphor; literary influence is a measure of the extent to which an author’s work reflects a particular literary antecedent - be it a previous writer, movement or style. I will hope to demonstrate that Woolf uses both metaphor and symbol in the text as literary devices of characterisation, and narrative form or structure respectively. Throughout this essay I will emphasise by means of italics in select citations that metaphors tend to occur in ‘clusters’ or nodes of associated meaning, whilst symbols stand out by their boldness and self-conscious artificiality.

1.2 Structure of Essay

Genre boundaries are by definition very difficult to study in isolation. Nonetheless, for the sake of convenience I have chosen to use generic classifications as a broad structural framework for the body of my essay in par. 5; whilst focussing on certain features specific to my hypothesis of the narrative structure of Jacob’s Room, i.e. the influence of Woolf’s own biography on the conception of the novel (par. 3) and her particular conception of comedy (par. 4), in the preliminary paragraphs. In addition, due to the significance of Woolf’s involvement in the Modernist Movement, and the political upheaval surrounding the outbreak of the First World War to the texture of the novel, I will precede my close analysis of the novel with a discussion of the socio-historic context of modernism (par. 2).

2. Modernism and the Modernist Novel

2.1 Periodization and Terminology

The term ‘modernism’ is a notoriously vague but comprehensive term for a movement pertaining to all the creative arts especially poetry, fiction, drama, painting and music.

Due to the complexity of the concept of modernism, I will not attempt to construct a comprehensive definition of the term. As a point of departure however, I defer to Malcolm Bradbury’s (1970) definition for the purposes of demonstrating my hypothesis for this study of Jacob’s Room:

We usually take Modernism to mean the internal stylization of the arts, the distortion of the familiar surface of observed reality, and the disposition of artistic content according to the logic of metaphor, form, or symbol, rather than a linear logic taken from story or history. (p. 180) (my emphasis)

The term ‘modernist movement’ in English literature, including poets and novelists like W.B Yeats, T.S Eliot, Henry James, Marcel Proust, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce and D.H. Lawrence, is associated with the self-conscious experimentation with fictional form. There are various theories as to when the Modernist Movement was at its height, whether the movement is actually over, or whether one should speak of a ‘post-modernist’ movement commencing after the Second World War. However, for the sake of convenience the Modernist Movement may be contained within the ‘modern age’, i.e. the period between 1880 and 1940.

In addition, it will be assumed that the most significant decades of artistic innovation in literature are the 1890s and the 1920s, in light of the fact that these decades mark the origin of the theory of modernist fiction, as well as the height of Virginia Woolf’s experimentation in fiction. Focussing on the development of the novel, the justification for this emphasis has been summed up by Bradbury (1970) as follows:

Periods in literature, especially short ones like a decade, are not always illuminating units for discussion. A literary scene at any given time contains a variety of generations, directions and aesthetic obsessions; and yet there are decades which invite attention as a decade – periods of social or intellectual ferment when human environment and men’s ideas seem to crystallize certain themes and focus on certain propensities for change and debate, periods which remarkably cohere styles, moods, and aesthetic tendencies. ... Two recent periods stand out like this in English literature; the 1890s and the 1920s. For in the modern development of English literature the 1920s exist for us now, I think, as a turning point; it is the period when something happens to the fortunes of Modernism, when its possibilities and its limitations are so explored as to lead us toward the kind of art we have now. (p. 180) (my emphases)

Finally, the revolutionary movement in the arts originating in France in the 1890s in particular will be referred to as the ‘‘aesthetic movement’, and the decade of the 1920s, as the period of ‘high modernism’ in England.

2.2 The Historic Context of Modernism

The span of the Modern Age intersects with the reign of three monarchs: Queen Victoria (1837-1901), King Edward VII. (1901-1910) and King George V. (1910-1936). The monarchical epochs of English history are worth bearing in mind as much of the debate on the theory of fiction - particularly by Virginia Woolf herself - uses the monarchical epoch as a convenient point of reference when attempting to define the nature of a particular kind of novel, the attitude of a novelist or the tenor of a particular moral ethos. For example, Woolf parodies Thomas Carlyle as the quintessentially rationalist Victorian thinker in Jacob’s Room, Arnold Bennett is derided as the epitome of the social-climbing, ‘popular’ Edwardian novelist in her essays and John Holloway (1964) hails D.H. Lawrence as the finest novelist produced by the Georgian epoch.

Holloway (1964: 92) declares that the Modern Age stands out as one of the ‘great epochs of literature’ analogous to the Elizabethan Age, the Augustan Age and the Romantic Age. This is a very grand distinction for a literary epoch, and it begs the question which socio-historic circumstances shaped the minds, and fuelled the passions of the Georgians?

2.2.1 The Modern Age and the Age of Anxiety

The First World War was a decisive factor influencing the literature of the Georgian epoch, and its significance will be discussed in more detail in par. 2.1.2. below. However, the Great War was of course not the only relevant historic event of the Modern Age. In particular, G.H. Bantock (1964) argues that the cultural crisis of the 1920s, which is associated with the rise of popular culture and the mass media, may be seen as an intensification of the ‘collective anxiety’ ascribed to the Modern Age. In his overview of the social and intellectual background of the Modern Age, Bantock (1964:13-48) identifies four major factors which conditioned society in this ‘age of anxiety’: (i) The socio-economic shift occasioned by the end of rural England, (ii) the fundamental intellectual uncertainty regarding the metaphysical essence of man, (iii) a new social ethos concerned with the ‘public good’ and, (iv) the increasing commercialisation and popularisation of culture due to the rise of various mass media. Naturally, these vast socio-economic forces cannot be reviewed in detail in this essay. However, certain aspects pertinent to my hypothesis will be mentioned in turn, in an attempt to elucidate the particular context of Virginia Woolf’s Modernism.

The socio-economic shift to science

Bantock (1964) argues that the Modern Age marks a turning point in the history of English thought, as

this period sees the replacement of a basically economic theory about the relationships in society with the empirical, sceptical spirit of science. In particular, the new positivist approach played a large part in the dissolution of old social values based on a priori assumptions. ( p. 18, my emphases))

This ‘shift’ is particularly noticeable in the Enlightenment view which regards man as an integral part of the natural world. This resulted in the scientific approach in the study of mankind, which was now susceptible to the same rigorous, empiric investigation as nature - an approach which was most famously demonstrated by the botanical and entomological studies of Charles Darwin.

This scientific approach is particularly relevant to the fiction of Edwardians like H.G. Wells, who is one of the writers that Woolf lambasts for being excessively ‘materialist’, and it will be seen that their respective fictional styles are diametrically opposed.[1] For, as Fraser (1970: 73-4) points out, Wells believed that science was going to ‘transform the world,’ and that the niceties of ‘aesthetic’ literature were relatively meaningless.

The metaphysical essence of man

In the post-Darwinian world the traditional metaphysical parameters for understanding our existence and being on earth were blown wide open, and English thought was characterised by heated debate amongst intellectuals regarding the essential essence of man. For example, Bantock (1964) summarises the modern dilemma on the metaphysical essence of man as follows:

To Freud man is a biological phenomenon, a prey to instinctual desires and their redirection in the face of ‘harsh’ reality; he is, therefore, in the Darwinian tradition, simply part of nature. To Marxists he is the outcome of economic and social forces, the product of an evolutionary necessity as rigid as any to be found in the natural world; [and] ... (t)he Christian notion of man as inherently the child of sin, ... belonging at once to the natural and the transcendent world...(p. 21)

In this essay I will hope to demonstrate how Woolf draws on, inter alia, the Darwinian tradition in her narrative strategy of Jacob’s Room.[2] In particular, the exploration of the Epistemic Motif may be regarded as Woolf’s participation in this debate, albeit far removed from the empirical approach adopted by Wells.[3]

Bantock (1964:22) concludes that the First World War exacerbated the anxiety of the collective consciousness of Europe, and the period of High Modernism in particular, may be regarded as an ‘era of revolt’ against authoritarianism which resulted in a decidedly ‘anti-heroic’ ethos. As such, there was an increasing tendency in the inter-war years to paint the portrait of a passive hero - a victim of circumstance - rather than the larger-than-life, fearless hero of the epic tradition. Indeed, it will be argued in par. 5.1. below that this tendency is clearly discernible in Woolf’s characterisation of Jacob Flanders.

A new ethos of socialism

Bantock (1964:27-36) points out that the penetration of continental movements such as Marxism and Fabian socialism was facilitated by the disintegration of traditional values and the moral perplexity caused by these uncertainties in prevailing English thought. Accordingly, it is argued that the Protestant, individualistic and liberal outlook seemed to be making way for the infiltration of a new social ethic which was based on ‘the public good’ or a yearning for a sense of ‘community feeling.’

Writers of the Modernist Movement responded differently to these tendencies depending on their respective sensibilities. Wells, for example, embraced the detailed programme of action advocated by the Fabian Society and its ideal of the ‘symbol of social democracy’, gradualism or peaceful permeation and a determined avoidance of revolution. This programme of social reform had a profound effect on his view of the role of the novelist. In his quirky book, Experiment in Autobiography (1934) he summed up his personal quest in life as follows: “Yes, you earn a living, you support a family, you love and hate, but – what do you do ? ...We originative intellectual workers are reconditioning human life.”[4]

This brand of Wellsian socialism was anathema to Georgian writers like E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. Indeed the emphasis on friendship and personal ties in the Bloomsbury Group may be read as a reaction to the rise of a societal ethos which abraded their individualistic outlook. Forster in particular objected to the total lack of concern for personal relationships, which he believed resulted in the tendency to judge people exclusively by social standards. Similarly, in his illuminating study of the ‘free spirit’ of inter alia Henry James, E.M. Forster and Virginia Woolf, C.B. Cox (1963) argues that the golden thread which unites the fiction of these writers is their intense interest in the lot of their fellow human beings.

This ‘liberal humanism’ continues the tradition of the philosophical humanism of George Eliot, and it will be shown that this ethos is prevalent in Jacob’s Room.[5] However, Cox (1963: 103, 115) points out that, given the anxiety and uncertainty of the Modern Age, the philosophical humanism of Virginia Woolf in particular often spirals downwards, moving the plot ‘inexorably to tragedy’, and ultimately her novels tend to become a veritable ‘exploration of uncertainty’. Indeed, it will be argued that in Jacob’s Room this sense of inevitable loss is recognizable in her description of the ‘ghostly’ transience of human life.[6]

Popular culture and commercialisation

Bantock (1964:36-43) emphasises significance of the sense of disillusion in intellectual circles following the failed impetus of the Education Act of 1870. Although this legislation did facilitate universal literacy as envisioned, it did not produce the anticipated advances in rationality that the utilitarian theorists had anticipated. On the contrary, academic opinion of the 1920s generally bemoaned the commercial development of various mass media, which led one champion of English culture, F.R. Leavis, to remark: “It is as if society, in so complicating and extending the machinery of organization, had lost intelligence, memory, and moral purpose.”[7] This sentiment is supported by a fellow member of the Cambridge School,[8] I.A. Richards. In his book, Principles of Literary Criticism (1924), which was to become a seminal work in literary criticism, Richards complains

At present bad literature, bad art, the cinema, etc., are an influence of the first importance n fixing immature and actually inapplicable attitudes to most things. Event the decision as to what constitutes a pretty girls or a handsome young man, an affair apparently natural and personal enough, is largely determined by magazine covers and movie stars.[9]

In my assessment, modernist writing, especially that of the ‘London modernists’,[10] may be read as a reaction to this intellectual and moral torpor. T.S. Eliot especially, as testified by his poetry and critical writings, was intent upon raising the standards of fiction. Indeed, Longenbach (1994) argues that the perceived ‘obscurity’ of his poetry was partly intent upon differentiating his work from the literary culture of the Georgian Poets and the popular literary circles surrounding Wells and Arnold Bennett. Similarly, in this essay I will hope to demonstrate the extent to which Woolf’s fiction aims to quicken the intellect of her readers. This appeal to the intellect is inherent in discursive nature of Jacob’s Forum, as well as in the extensive use of literary allusion and imagery in the texture of Jacob’s Room.[11]

In sum therefore, I believe it is crucial to a proper understanding of Woolf’s modernism to bear in mind that the serious modernist writer was faced with a thorny problem: On the one hand he/she was confronted with a plethora of fundamental metaphysical, cultural or moral issues of humanity. On the other hand, whilst having an earnest interest in reflecting the ‘condition of man’ in his novels, he lacked the necessary historical distance or perspective to judge the significance of these issues rationally. Bantock (1964) sums up this predicament peculiar to the Georgian writer’s mind as follows:

Rarely, indeed, can there have been a time when ‘background’ more readily obtrudes as an essential part of foreground. For all the comparative indifference with which they have been received, writers have less and less felt able to retreat into private worlds, instead, they have become increasingly committed to social, political, and therefore public comment. (p. 14)

According to my reading of Jacob’s Room, this ‘modernist predicament’ may be seen as an underlying historical motive for the quest of Virginia Woolf in Jacob’s Room, which by its very fragmentation, ambivalence and solipsism reflects the extraordinary difficulty of representing the contemporary modern world in fiction.

2.2.2 The First World War and the Modernist Predicament

The Georgians were Virginia Woolf’s immediate literary contemporaries. In her essays on the theory of fiction, like ‘Character in Fiction’,[12] she consistently identifies herself with their plight, which I have dubbed the Modernist Predicament. Thus Woolf adamantly dissociates herself from the ‘novel of ideas’ of the Edwardians.

The reign of George V. saw the horrific destruction of the First World War, and much of the literature of the 1920s was profoundly concerned with reflecting on, and trying to come to terms with, this apocalyptic historic event. Indeed, it is often argued that the First World War is the defining issue of modernist literature. For example, Vincent Sherry (2005b) argues that

A consensus of understanding continues to represent the Great War of 1914-1918 as the signal event of artistic Modernism. In this account, the war stands as a watershed episode: it draws a line through time, dividing the nineteenth from the twentieth centuries; thus it provides the shaping occasion for artists who take novelty, invention, and precedent-dismaying energy as their established aim and motive. (p. 113)

Published in the aftermath of ‘the Great War’ and deliberately set in the years running up to the outbreak of hostilities in the years between 1910 and 1914, Jacob’s Room may, and often is, interpreted in terms of Sherry’s argument. For example, the novel has been read as an elegy to poets who died in the war, like Rupert Brooke; an elegy upon the death of Thoby Stephen;[13] a satirical criticism of the pre-war patriarchal establishment that inculcated an ethos of patriotism conducive to war;[14] or, as a satiric critique of the pre-war propagandist Liberal British Government.[15] Furthermore, the outbreak of war shifted the nucleus of the Aesthetic Movement from Paris (which had enjoyed the focus of activity surrounding the Symbolist Movement associated with poets like Baudelaire, Mallarmé and Rimbaud) to London, which now became the seat of European criticism of the war. Sherry (2005b) observes that:

Political London presents one of the liveliest sites in the global picture of this world war. A crisis internal to the governing party of Britain defined this moment in local political time. English Liberals had to maintain support for a war which, by precedent and convention, by partisan tradition and policy principle, they ought to have opposed. This contradiction entered the language through which the rationale of the war was constructed, generating inconsistencies, hypocrisies, and increasingly evident untruths as the verbal record of the event. The compromised logic of party-line thinking shape the experience of the ideological war for the more alert members of the urban civilian population, including the major writers of Anglo-American Modernism, Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot, and Virginia Woolf, all of whom resided in London through the war years. (p. 114-115)

Sherry’s argument high-lights several aspects of Modernism that are apposite to my hypothesis, particularly with respect to the mood of cultural crisis in the 1920s. For example, in light of their heightened sensibility to the exigencies of this particular historical period Sherry (2003; 2005b) argues that the work of the ‘London modernists’ had a pivotal role to play as ‘registers of the political crisis’. Indeed, there are several allusions to the political crisis of the Liberal British Government in Jacob’s Room, and in my assessment these allusions are part and parcel of the discursive nature of the Jacob’s Forum. Nonetheless, I do not believe a critique of the war was Woolf’s primary concern in this novel as she is more intent upon exploring the realms of the Aesthetic Motif.

In the midst of this crisis therefore, Virginia Woolf was at pains to avoid the generalisation that 1915 was the cataclysmic year that deserved the special attention of the Georgians, as other modernists like D.H. Lawrence, for example, had done. In his novel, Kangaroo (1923), Lawrence famously states

It was in 1915 the old world ended. In the winter of 1915-16 the spirit of London collapsed; the city, in some way, perished, perished from being the heart of the world, and became a vortex of broken passions, lusts, hopes, fears, and horrors. (Kangaroo)[16]

This sentiment is reminiscent of the mood in Jacob’s Room. However, Woolf deliberately refuses to overemphasise the significance of the war. In contrast, she infamously stated in her essay ‘Modern Fiction’ (1919) that ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed’.[17]

In conclusion therefore, I would argue that that the impact of the First World War on the collective consciousness of the Modernist Movement calls for a refinement of Bradbury’s (1970) definition of Modernism[18] in order to mark its distinction from the Victorian ethos of progress in particular. For, as Sherry (2005b) points out

the most profoundly modernist writing is not marked by a simple optimistic confidence in progress or novelty (even its own). This literature has in its imaginative content some record of disruption in the conventional expectations of liberal modernity, some experience of the absconding or compromise of those promises. (p. 6, my emphasis)

Having explained the particular historic context of Modernism, I would now like to focus on Woolf’s particular contribution to the Modernist Movement in par. 2.3 below. This will be done by referring primarily to her essays on modernist fiction. It will be seen that not only the Modernist Predicament, but also the debate surrounding the nature of modern literature, which was instigated by the Aesthetic Movement in Europe, had a profound effect on her fiction - not least of which on the narrative texture of Jacob’s Room.

2.3 Woolf’s Art of Fiction

Virginia Woolf was acutely aware of the Modernist Predicament. In her seminal essay on the theory of fiction, ‘Character in Fiction’ (1924), Woolf infamously remarked that ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed.’ I believe that her statement was not meant to refer to a particular socio-historic event. In fact, the statement is essentially arbitrary in nature, as she confirms herself

[t]he change was not sudden and definite... But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910. (p. 38)

At the very least, the year 1910 marks the death of King Edward VII, and the commencement of the reign of George V. As such, Woolf’s (arbitrary) marker serves as a clarion call to her contemporaries to dissociate themselves with the materialism of Edwardian fiction which, in her mind, is exemplified by Arnold Bennett. Thus, in distinguishing the Georgian novelist from the Edwardian novelist Woolf laments that

The Georgian novelist, therefore, was in an awkward predicament. There was Mrs. Brown protesting that she was different, quite different, from what people made out, and luring the novelist to her rescue by the most fascinating if fleeting glimpse of her charms; there were the Edwardians handing out tools appropriate to house building and house breaking; and there was the British public asservating that they must see the hot water bottle first. Meanwhile the train was rushing to that station where we must all get out. (p. 50)

Couched in metaphorical language, this essay is a typically Woolfian appeal to the Georgian novelist to reform the ‘tools’ or writing traditions of the Edwardians: Her contemporaries are called upon not to succumb to the temptation to provide the English public the ‘hot water bottle’ or comforting ambience of convention in the new, modern novel. Instead he is to create his own ‘tools’; to build his own ‘house of fiction’. The metaphorical conception of fiction as an imposing, ‘physical edifice’ is a favourite device of Woolf’s, and is utilised in an effort to express her intent in a language that would best convey her prosaic meaning on the one hand, whilst still maintaining her own particular propensity for lyrical, plastic expression on the other.

The language or medium of novelistic expression was central to the innovative endeavour of the modern novel. In fact, venturing a possible solution to this problem was the task Woolf set herself in her brilliant essay, ‘Poetry, Fiction and The Future’ (1927).[19] In this essay, Woolf considers, in turn, whether the drama of the Elizabethans or the poetry of the Romantics is a viable ‘tool’ for deployment in the construction of the modern novel. However, both the dramatic-Elizabethan and the lyrical-Romantic ‘bricks’ or forms of expression, are found to be lacking for building the modern house of fiction. Woolf motivates this conclusion as follows:

... for our generation and the generation that is coming the lyric cry of ecstasy or despair, which is so intense, so personal, and so limited, is not enough. The mind is full of monstrous, hybrid, unmanageable emotions. ... Science and religion have between them destroyed belief; [and] all bonds of union seem broken, yet some control must exist – it is in this atmosphere of doubt and conflict that writers have now to create, and the fine fabric of a lyric is no more fitted to contain this point of view than a rose leaf to envelope the rugged immensity of a rock. (p. 75, my emphasis)

In this essay, Woolf is characteristically careful to acknowledge her debt to the English literary tradition. She refers to the attempts by the masters of the Romantic Age, like Wordsworth, Shelly and Keats, to revive the ‘poetic play’ of the Elizabethans (as exemplified by Shakespeare) which in ages past managed to capture the drama of life. Similarly, she rejects the ‘prose poetry’ of George Meredith’s Richard Feverel or Charlotte Brönte’s Villette on the grounds that their expressions of feeling were isolated in a field of prose, which results in a discomfiting ‘purple patch’ on the eye of the reader (p. 82).

Significantly however, she considers that one writer who has come close to a viable solution to the problem is the eighteenth-century novelist, Laurence Sterne. The distinction of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy, in her assessment, is that Sterne here succeeds in negotiating the transitions between lyrical, and prosaic expression. Thus poetry transforms easily and naturally into prose; prose easily and naturally into poetry (p. 83). However, she acknowledges that ‘some renunciation’ of fantasy and wit is inevitable, for “[y]ou cannot cross the narrow bridge of art carrying all its tools in your hands.” (p. 83). You, dear writer, must choose; you have to select the most appropriate tools to build your house.

In sum therefore, Woolf’s vision for the ideal medium of expression for her own (and future) generations is described as follows:

[The] unnamed variety of the novel will be written standing back from life, because in that way a larger view is to be obtained of some important features of it; it will be written in prose, because prose, if your free it from the beast-of-burden work which so many novelists necessarily lay upon it, of carrying loads of details, bushels of fact – prose thus treated will show itself capable of rising high from the ground, not in one dart, but in sweeps and circles, and of keeping at the same time in touch with the amusements and idiosyncrasies of human character in daily life. (p. 83)

In par. 5 below, I will explain how not only the sentiment conveyed, but also the metaphoric imagery employed in ‘Poetry, Fiction and the Future’, recurs in the texture of Jacob’s Room. It will be observed that the ambivalence in Woolf’s explorative, narrative journey in the novel results in a pervasive tension between the quest for effective communication with the reader (which demands a measure of control or containment of a vast literary imagination) and the free expression of a lyrical sensibility.

For the present purposes, I would like to emphasise that Woolf’s narrative exploration is intimately associated with her fascination for Elizabethan literature in particular. This fascination is evident from her numerous essays on this particular literary period.[20] For example, in her essay ‘Montaigne’ (1924),[21] she professes that ‘movement’ - the ‘essence of our being’ - has to be ‘controlled’ (p. 91). Similarly, in her essay ‘The Elizabethan Lumber Room’, she asserts that the vista of the Elizabethan spirit, which is exemplified by Hakluyt’s Collection of Early Voyages,[22]

is not so much a book as a great bundle of commodities loosely tied together, an emporium, a lumber room strewn with ancient sacks, obsolete nautical instruments, huge bales of wool, and little bags of rubies and emeralds. (p. 60, my emphasis)

The image of the Elizabethan ‘lumber room’ is worth bearing in mind when interpreting her experimentation with fictional form in Jacob’s ‘rooms’. For example, in her illuminating re-evaluation of the Second Common Reader, Greene (1997) pin-points the significance of the Elizabethan era to Woolf’s modernist fiction:

...the Renaissance becomes an alternative locus communes, or common place, to use the language of the classical tradition – a mental location to be dwelt upon, foundational to yet far removed from early twentieth century England. Invoking the wide vistas of the Elizabethan landscape, she invites her readers to think behind and beyond the settled ideologies of the day (reflected ... in the empirical realist novels of John Galsworthy, Arnold Bennett, and H.G. Wells). (p. 85, my emphasis)

In line with Greene’s argument, I believe that the Elizabethan ‘lumber room’ is an important conceptual and imaginative framework of Woolf’s modernist innovations of fiction in general, and Jacob’s Room in particular.

Given the cross-fertilization between Woolf’s fiction and her journalistic essays, I would now like to digress briefly to the nature of the Woolfian essay in par. 2.3.1. Thereafter, I will explain the significance of the Aesthetic Movement to Woolf’s efforts to transform the modern novel.

2.3.1 The Woolfian Essay

In the broadest sense, Woolf’s essays are characterised by imagery, rhetoric, humour and an effort to be just in the assessment of her subject. However, when reviewing the work of a writer her approach is invariably biographical, which indicates the extent to which she identifies the person of the writer with his art. A good example is her essay ‘William Hazlitt’ (1930)[23] although one may just as easily cite one of her essays on Jane Austen, Laurence Sterne or George Eliot:

Had one met Hazlitt no doubt one would have liked him on his own principle that ‘We can scarcely hate anyone we know’. ... He lived, one gathers, mostly at inns. No woman’s form graced his board. He had quarrelled with all his old friends, save perhaps with Lamb. Yet his only fault had been that he had stuck to his principles and ‘not become a government tool’. He was the object of malignant persecution—Blackwood’s reviewers called him ‘pimply Hazlitt’, though his cheek was pale as alabaster. (p.173)

This style of writing is not limited to her review essays. She uses the biographic mode as a structural device in a very creative manner in her fiction and theoretical essays as well. For example, in her essay ‘The Art of Fiction’ (1927),[24] she adopts the same title as Henry James’ seminal essay of 1884, which at once indicates the similarly seriousness of her endeavour to innovate fiction.[25] However, the distinctive manner in which she presents her argument demonstrates her particular sensibility and rational judgement of the issue at hand. To wit, she declares:

That fiction is a lady, and a lady who has somehow got herself into trouble, is a thought that must often have struck her admirers. Many gallant gentlemen have ridden to her rescue, chief among them Sir Walter Raleigh and Mr. Percy Lubbock. But both were a little ceremonious in their approach; both, one felt, had a great deal of knowledge of her, but not much intimacy with her. (p.51)

In sum therefore, I believe that ‘The Art of Fiction’ is symptomatic of Woolf’s approach to the theory of fiction: Whilst demonstrating the obviously subjective ‘impression’ of an issue – a style which was so abhorrent to the New Critics[26] - it simultaneously attests to the laughter and astute critical judgement which is never far from the surface of her writing. In addition, as one reads through her essays many images recur which she embeds in her literary essays and novels, including Jacob’s Room, in order to elaborate on, and explain her meaning. Thus, she continues her argument in the essay as follows:

Now comes Mr. [E.M.] Forster, who disclaims knowledge but cannot deny that he knows the lady well. If he lacks something of the others’ authority, he enjoys the privileges which are allowed the lover. He knocks at the bedroom door and is admitted when the lady is in slippers and dressing-gown. Drawing up their chairs to the fire they talk easily, wittily, subtly, like old friends who have no illusions, although in fact the bedroom is a lecture-room and the place the highly austere city of Cambridge. (p. 51, my emphases)

Similar to the imagery used in ‘The Elizabethan Lumber Room’, these images should be borne in mind when reading and interpreting the images deployed in Jacob’s Room, including the depiction of Jacob’s circle of friends at Trinity College, Cambridge. Indeed, some useful examples will be cited in par. 5.1 below in order to substantiate my hypothesis.

Having explained the fundamental nature of Woolf’s art in fiction, I will now attempt to demonstrate the significance of the Aesthetic Movement to Woolf’s modernism, and how her ideas of revolutionizing fiction recur in the imagery of Jacob’s Room.

2.3.2 The Aesthetic Movement and the Art of Fiction

In the context of the history of literary criticism the quest to innovate fictional form is founded on the broader cultural context of the Aesthetic Movement, which originated in France in the 1890s. The experimentation in fictional form - inherent in the spirit of the Aesthetic Movement - is commonly referred to as the ‘self-consciousness’ of the modernist writer. For example, Wallace (2007) points out that:

Between the 1880s and the 1930s, a new and fertile discourse on the art of fiction emerged alongside the extensive reshaping of fictional form itself. This interweaving of critical and creative activities typifies the self-consciousness we have come to find in Modernism across all the arts. Manifestos, declarations, excurses and rationales are the inevitable accompaniments to modernist experimentation, just as reflexivity becomes lodged in the grain of the artwork: The Cézanne canvas cannot fail to be about the discourse of painting as much as it is about the pursuit of natural phenomena; the Imagist poem, stripping itself of the trappings of the ‘poetical’, succeeds in this very gesture in foregrounding the discourses of poetry. In the case of the art of fiction, the very use of the term ‘art’ is an emergent sign of this new self-consciousness. (p.15)

The collocation of ‘art’ with ‘fiction’ immediately recalls the essay by Henry James, ‘The Art of Fiction’ (1884), which was published at the height of the Aesthetic Movement. Dorothy Hale (2000) argues that Henry James may be regarded as the ‘father’ of the theory of fiction, and his significance as a literary ancestor of modernism in general and Woolf’s fiction in particular, has often been stressed.[27] James’s ‘Art of Fiction’ originated as a reply to a lecture given by the Victorian novelist and essayist, Walter Besant, at the Royal Institution in London in 1884.[28] The ensuing debate in literary circles in the late nineteenth century, which included critics like Robert Louis Stevenson, Walter Pater and Arthur Symonds, was primarily concerned with the revolt of the symbolists against what they perceived as an excessively ‘naturalistic’ approach to art.[29]

Leon Edel (1971) refers to this particular debate in the context of defining the Jamesian ‘atmosphere of the modern mind’, and quotes Robert Louis Stevenson’s input on the nature of the modern novel in order to substantiate his own argument on the nature of the psychological novel in particular:

Life is monstrous, infinite, illogical, abrupt and poignant; a work of art, in comparison, is neat, finite, self-contained, rational, flowing and emasculateThe novel, which is a work of art, exists, not by its resemblances to life, which are forced and material, as a shoe must still consist of leather, but by its immeasurable difference from life, which is designed and significant, and is both the method and the meaning of the work. (p. 23, my emphasis)

Hoffman and Murray (1996:14) point out that James used this opportunity to discourage prescriptive pronouncements about the way in which fiction should be written in order to gain the latitude he deemed necessary to develop his own method. I believe that the tenor of James’s reply to Besant illustrates Hoffman and Murray’s point, for, in his subsequent reply, James extends the boundaries of Besant’s ‘experience of life’ in order to include subjective, psychological experience within the boundaries of fiction:

Humanity is immense, and reality has a myriad forms; the most one can affirm is that some of the flowers of fiction have the odour of it, and others have not; as for telling you in advance how your nosegay should be composed, that is another affair. It is equally excellent and inconclusive to say that one must write from experience; to our suppositious aspirant such a declaration might savour of mockery. What kind of experience is intended, and where does it end? Experience is never limited, and it is never complete; it is an immense sensibility, a kind of huge spider web of the finest silken threads suspended in the chamber of consciousness, and catching every airborne particle in its tissue. It is the very atmosphere of the mind, ...(p. 23, my emphases)

The flower imagery used by James in this debate should be borne in mind when reading Jacob’s Room, as well as Besant’s quip about the essential stuff of shoes being leather. Indeed, the artificiality of the final chapter, not least of which the final line of the novel (‘She held out a pair of Jacob’s old shoes’, (p. 155)), may be read as a homage to the Aesthetic Movement.

Woolf wrote numerous essays on the fiction of Henry James, and the similarity between the two writers’ conception of modern fiction is striking. For example, in her most anthologised essay, ‘Modern Fiction’ (1919),[30] Woolf writes

Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions - trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms; and as they fall, as they shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday, the accent falls differently from of old; ... (p. 9)

This conception of the theory of fiction is very similar to James’s ‘atmosphere of mind’. In addition, her review of James’ final novel, The Golden Bowl (1905) (written when Woolf was a reviewer for the Guardian in 1905) illustrates the similarity between their styles:[31]

Mr. James is like an artist who, with a sure knowledge of anatomy, paints every bone and muscle in the human frame; the portrait would be greater as a work of art if he were content to say less and suggest more. ... Many overburdened sentences could be quoted as proof of his curious sense of duty: ‘ This perception expanded, on the spot, as a flower, one of the strangest, might, at breath, have suddenly opened.’ ‘She rubbed with her palm the polished mahogany of the balustrade, which was mounted on fine iron-work, eighteenth century English. These are trivial instances of detail which, perpetually insisted on, fatigues without adding to the picture. (p. 23, my emphasis)

It will be shown that this flower imagery recurs in Jacob’s Room, which, in my opinion, emphasises the artificiality of the Aesthetic Theme, as well as the continuing significance of the aesthetic debate throughout the history of English literature - both in Jacob’s Forum and beyond.

Having explained the nature of Virginia Woolf’s theory of fiction, I would like to focus on the particular sensibility of her mind in more detail in par. 3 below, including a brief discussion of her immediate intellectual environment up to the conception of Jacob’s Room.

3. The Making of a Writer

Virginia Stephen was born into a tradition of Victorian literary aristocracy. Her mother, Julia Prinsep, née Jackson, quondam Duckworth, was renowned for her beauty and her service to the community. In her autobiographical memoir, ‚A Sketch of the Past‘, Woolf re-creates the childhood of her mother as she imagines it to have been in the creative ambiance enveloping Little Holland House, the summer house of Woolf’s aunt, Sara Prinsep. Jeanne Schulkind (1976:86-7) notes that Sara Prinsep entertained, in a highly eccentric fashion, diplomats, politicians and an aristocracy of intellectuals like Holman Hunt, Burne-Jones and G.F Watts.

Contrary to the artistic bent of her mother, Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, was a graduate of Trinity College, Cambridge and a London man of letters. Although initially a sickly child, Bell (2010) points out that Leslie Stephen was to become an alpinist extraordinaire, and was hailed by his peers as one of the greatest agnostic writers of his time. In this section I will hope to show how Woolf’s heritage, which is founded on a tension between artistic expression and rationalist scepticism, impacts on the nature of her writing.

Leslie Stephen is perhaps best known as the founding editor of the Dictionary of National Biography (DNB). Founded in 1882, the year of Virginia’s birth, the DNB was to become a paragon of English literary culture. Naturally, Leslie Stephen’s daughter also earned a mention in the annals of English literary history. In the old edition of the DNB (published in 1959), Lord David Cecil, who was personally acquainted with the Stephen family, enthuses that in the work of Virginia Woolf, “the English aesthetic movement brought forth its most exquisite flower.” Similarly, half a century later, the literary scholar Lyndall Gordon (2010) uses equally descriptive language in his summation of Woolf: Here she is hailed as the ‘high Priestess of modernism’.

A juxtaposition of the respective epithets chosen by Cecil and Gordon is an instructive illustration of the history of the reception of Woolf’s work. Indeed, a summary perusal of the criticism of Woolf in the near-century since the publication of Jacob’s Room in 1922 invokes the impression that much of the contemporary scholarship in Woolf studies are primarily concerned with an attempt to re-affirm the merit of her canonical status in English literature in general, and/or to advocate her primary significance to the Modernist Movement in particular. This impression is affirmed when reviewing the reception of her work in the context of the ‘culture wars’ initiated by the Cambridge School, especially the critical standards set by the literary periodical, Scrutiny (1932-53) and it’s influential editor, F.R. Leavis.

I would now like to refer to the critical reception of Woolf’s work in general and Jacob’s Room in particular, in order to illustrate the particular circumstances surrounding the publication of the novel in 1922, as I believe these circumstances are relevant to the somewhat ambivalent, even defensive, tone of the novel.

3.1 The Critical Reception of Woolf and Jacob’s Room

It was pointed out in my introduction that Virginia Woolf was not primarily interested in being a ‘popular’ novelist. On the contrary, her journalistic essays show that she consistently argued against the socialist tide of popular Edwardian fiction. This stance often brought her into conflict with contemporary writers. In addition, it has been pointed out that the perceived ‘subjectivity’ of her criticism earned much disapprobation from critics like Leavis and Richards who were intent upon propagating a stringently objective standard in early twentieth-century literary criticism.

Not all criticism was negative however, and a good example of a more balanced and succinct appreciation of her work is that of her contemporary novelist, E.M. Forster (1942): “[Woolf] selects and manipulates her impressions; is not a great creator of character; enforces patterns on her books; has no great cause at heart.”[32] With respect to Jacob’s Room in particular, Forster sums up the impact this novel had upon its publication in 1922 as follows:

... we were tremendously surprised. The style and sensitiveness of Kew Gardens remained, but they were applied to human relationships, and to the structure of society. The blobs of colour continue to drift past, but in their midst, interrupting their course like a closely sealed jar, stands the solid figure of a man. The improbable has occurred; a method essentially poetic and apparently trifling has been applied to fiction. (p. 16-17, my emphasis)

The most celebrated of Woolf’s critics was of course the Edwardian novelist and critic, Arnold Bennett. In fact, it was Jacob’s Room in particular that provoked Bennett to remark shortly after publication of the novel in March 1923:

I have seldom read a cleverer book... [It] is exquisitely written. But the characters do not vitally survive in the mind because the author has been obsessed by details of originality and cleverness.[33]

Woolf was stung by this criticism, and declared war. The ensuing critical war between Bennett and Woolf became an integral part of the debate on the nature of character in contemporary fiction, and, most famously, produced Woolf’s celebrated essay, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1923), which will be discussed in more detail in par. 5.1 below.

The general consensus in contemporary critical circles was that Woolf’s method was, as Forster notes, ‘essentially poetic, if somewhat obscure. For even Forster (1942:19) was puzzled by her method, and expressed doubt as to whether her characters ‘lived’ beyond the pages of her book, as for example George Eliot’s Dorothea Casaubon or Austen’s Emma, have a vitality that transcends the fictional sphere. Thus the form and characterization of the novel received the most negative criticism, despite varying efforts to remain neutral.

For example, Majumdar and Mclaurin (1975:96, 105, 105) point out that Woolf’s contemporary as the Times Literary Supplement, A.S. McDowell, recognized the nature of Woolf’s experimental aims to represent the ‘queer simultaneity of life’. Similarly, the reviewer for the Daily Telegraph, W.L. Courtney, bemoaned the lack of plot, yet appreciated the lyric quality of the novel:

...if you want to know what a modern novel is like, you have only to read Jacob’s Room. ... In its tense syncopated movements, its staccato impulsiveness, do you not discern the impulse of Jazz?

Finally, Majumdar and Mclaurin (1975:100-1) record the most sarcastic remark regarding the style of the novel, which was made by the renowned critic and reviewer for the New Statesman, Rebecca West:

Very strongly, has Mrs. Woolf preferred Jacob’s room to his company. Jacob lives, but that is hearsay. Jacob dies; there could be nothing more negative than the death of one who never (that we could learn for certain) lived. But his room we know. (my emphasis)

As I shall hope to demonstrate in par. 5 below, West’s observation is very astute, perceiving - albeit unwittingly - the premise of my hypothesis regarding Jacob’s Forum. For the present purposes however, these critical judgements illustrate the kind of ‘subjective’ impressions which were rejected by the New Critics.

In its broadest sense, the negative criticism of Woolf’s work centres on the ‘impressionist’ nature thereof. The term ‘impressionist’ was initially used in a pejorative sense to denote a perceived lack of objectivity or critical judgement. For example, in one of his Scrutiny articles, F.R. Leavis declares,

A judgement is a real judgement, or it is nothing. It must, that is, be a sincere personal judgement; but it aspires to be more than personal. ...What [the critic’s] activity of its very nature aims at, in fact, is a collaborative exchange of commerce.[34]

Leavite criticism of this kind was immensely influential in the early twentieth century, and Gomme (1964:358) points out that their periodical, Scrutiny, educated a generation of literary critics and is still regarded as the most influential critical review of its time.

But it was not only Woolf’s subjective literary criticism which incited Leavis’ disfavour, also Woolf’s fiction was perceived to be excessively obscure and elitist. In his seminal critical work on modern English fiction, The Great Tradition (1950), F.R. Leavis compares Woolf negatively to Henry James’ successful use of symbolism, as exemplified by his short story, ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ (1896).[35] In Leavis’ assessment

.. to stress [James’] symbolism too much would tend to misunderstanding: the qualities of his art that derive from the profound seriousness of his interest in life – it is these in general that one stresses in calling him a poet, and they are to be found widely in forms and places that the reference to his use of symbolism doesn’t immediately bring up for attention. When these qualities are duly recognized it becomes ridiculous to save the word ‘poet’ for the author of The Waves and The Years – works that offer something like the equivalent of Georgian poetizing. (Even To the Lighthouse, which may be distinguished among her books as substantially justifying her so obviously ‘poetical‘ method, is a decidedly minor affair – it is minor art.) (p. 129)

Leavis does not even deign to mention Woolf by name, and with such disapprobation from such an influential literary platform it is not surprising that an overwhelming majority of critics dismissed her work as ‘minor’ or trivial. Nonetheless, Bradbrook (1964:267) points out that in the inter-war period her work is pervasively perceived as being ‘important’, whether one approved of her style or not, which is testified by the fact that she is generally included in the anthologies of modernism in the late twentieth century, even if her ‘lasting contribution’ was mostly reduced to a single novel, To The Lighthouse (1927).

This relative lack of critical acclaim changed radically in the context of the ‘second wave’ of the feminist movement in the 1970s, which considerably raised the status of her works. However, Zwerdling (1986:33) argues that the tenor of this criticism has often led to ‘problems of interpretation’ in varying degrees, depending on the relative feminist zeal of the critic. For example, it is argued that Woolf is sometimes adopted as the ‚matron saint of feminism‘, which results in an unbalanced evaluation of the significance of her works, and neglects the satirical value of her art. Zwerdling’s argument is supported by Laura Marcus (2000), and I will return to the merit of this point of view in more detail in the context of Woolf’s humour in par 4. below.

Marcus (2000) sums up the nature of Woolf’s feminism and its significance to the Modernist Movement in her aptly titled essay, ‘Woolf’s feminism and feminism’s Woolf’:

The relationship between Virginia Woolf and feminism, feminism and Virginia Woolf is ... a symbiotic one. On the one hand, Woolf’s feminism – which includes not just her explicit feminist politics but her concern and fascination with gender identities and with women’s lives, histories and fictions – shaped her writing profoundly. On the other, feminist criticism and theory of the second half of [the twentieth century] have fundamentally altered the perception and reception of a writer who, in Anglo-American contexts at least, had largely fallen out of favour by the 1950s and 1960s. (p. 113)

Although Woolf’s feminist endeavours may certainly be regarded as a central aspect of her work, including Jacob’s Room,[36] it is argued in this essay that the essentially plural nature of Jacob’s Forum militates against the view that Woolf’s feminist beliefs, such as they are, constitute the major theme of the novel.

In sum therefore, literary critics deem Woolf’s method to be ‘essentially poetic’ at the expense of character. Before taking this criticism to task in par. 4 and 5, I would like to pause and consider a question inherently raised by the negative criticism of Woolf’s work. If Woolf’s work is a reflection of a ‘poetic sensibility’, it seems rational to consider what the source of that ‘sensibility’ could be. Thus, in par. 3.2 below I will venture to assess what relevance, if any, this could have for her method in Jacob’s Room. Who indeed was Virginia Woolf, née Stephen, critic and writer?

3.2 The Sceptical Sensibility of Virginia Stephen

In her biography of Virginia Woolf, Christine Froula (2005) observes that Virginia Woolf herself always insisted that she was ‘uneducated’. However, Froula (2005:16) argues convincingly that a home-schooling by a father like Leslie Stephen[37] - a philosopher, journalist, biographer and clergyman who had renounced his faith and spent the rest of his professional life searching for a viable alternative value system, “founded her art and thought on a deeper, more radical scepticism than perhaps even Cambridge, with its centuries of church affiliation, could have done”. Thus, despite the fact that Virginia Stephen was educated at home and deplored what she called her ‘tea table’ training (ostensibly in the eclectic artistic milieu of Holland House), it must be borne in mind that Virginia Stephen’s literary imagination was honed by the agnostic scepticism of her father, with whom she spent two hours of informal tuition every morning between the age of 13 and 15.[38]

In her essay, ‘Leslie Stephen’ (1932)[39] Woolf sums up the tenor of her father’s attitude to learning and the acquisition of knowledge as follows:

To read what one liked because one likes it, never to pretend to admire what one did not---that was his only lesson in the art of reading. To write in the fewest possible words, as clearly as possible, exactly what one meant... that was his only lesson in the art of writing. All the rest must be learnt for oneself. (p. 115)

Simple and unpretentious as it is, Woolf was to take his advice seriously, especially with regard to doing the reading of the primary sources yourself rather than relying on secondary criticism - i.e. ‘to learn for oneself’ - as she phrases it. Indeed, even in her teens the study of literature was more than Hakluyt’s journeys into the fantastic world of unchartered lands; it was to be an intellectual exercise of evaluation, and a debate of Socratic proportions. Indeed, her only sustained formal education[40] was in the Greek language, and many critics have referred to the Hellenic nature of her writing, including that of Jacob’s Room.[41]

Woolf’s diary shows that her reading-list in preparation for her essays was formidable. For example, in preparation of her essay ‘On Not Knowing Greek’[42] she notes an intention to read:

[so]me Homer; one Greek play; some Plato; Zimmern; Sheppard, as text book; Bentley’s Life. If done thoroughly, this will be enough ... Then there’s the Anthology. All to end upon the Odyssey because of the Elizabethans. And I must read a little Ibsen to compare with Euripides – Racine with Sophocles – perhaps Marlowe with Aeschylus.[43]

Her extensive reading was not a mere accumulation of facts, however; critical evaluation was inherent in her approach. For example, in a letter to her beloved brother, Thoby Stephen (who was then at Cambridge), serves as a good example of the kind of sceptical mind that the nineteen year old Virginia Stephen was developing through independent, avid reading of the classics of world literature:


[1] See Woolf’s essay ‚Character in Fiction‘ and par. 2.3 and 5.3.5 below.

[2] See par. 5.1 below.

[3] See par. 5.4.5 below.

[4] Quoted in Bantock (1964:32).

[5] See par. 5.2.1 below

[6] See par. 5.2 below.

[7] Quoted in Bantock (1964:37)

[8] The ‘Cambridge School’ is the adage applied to a group of critics associated with Cambridge University in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Its luminaries were I.A Richards (1893-1979), F.R. Leavis (1895-1978), Q.D Leavis (1906-81), and William Epson (1906-84). They had a profound influence on the development of literary criticism and its techniques, especially in practical, analytical criticism. See Cud don (1998), p. 107.

[9] Quoted in Bantock (1964:39)

[10] See par. 2.2.2 below.

[11] See par. 5.1 below.

[12] See par. 2.3 below.

[13] See for example, Claire Buck ‘British women’s writing of the Great War‘, in Vincent Sherry (ed.), The Cambridge Companion to the Literature of the First World War (Cambridge: CUP, 2005); and David Ayers, English Literature of the 1920s (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1999), pp.66-78.

[14] See for example Christine Froula, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Avant-Garde: War, Civilisation, Modernity (New York: Columbia University Press, 2005), especially pp. 63-84.

[15] See for example Vincent Sherry, The Great War and the Language of Modernism (Oxford: OUP, 2003), pp. 270-283.

[16] Quoted in Bantock (1964), p. 21.

[17] See par. 2.3.1 below.

[18] Quoted on pg. 8 above.

[19] See David Bradshaw, Virginia Woolf. Selected Essays (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 74-84. All citations from this essay are from this collection.

[20] See for example, ‚The Elizabethan Lumber Room‘, ‘Sir Thomas Browne’, ‚The Strange Elizabethans‘; ‚Donne After Three Centuries’. See also Steele (1983).

[21] This essay was first published anonymously in the Times Literary Supplement on 31 Jan. 1924 and first collected in Collected Essays I. See Steele (1983).

[22] See Richard Hakluyt, (ed.), Hakluyt’s Collection of the Early Voyages, Travels, and Discoveries of the English Nation. New ed. , 5 Vols., R.H Evans, 1809-12, (orig. 1598-1600). The date of ‚The Elizabethan Lumber Room‘ is unknown. It was first collected in The Common Reader: First Series (London: Hogarth Press, 1925). See Steele (1983:85).

[23] First published in New York Herald Tribune Books, (Sept.7, 1930), pp. 1, 4; first collected in The Common Reader :First Series (1925), pp. 173-185. See also Steele (1983).

[24] First published in New York Herald Tribune Books, (Oct. 16), pp. 1, 5-6; first collected in The Moment. See Steele (1983). All citations from this essay are from Collected Essays, Vol. II,(London: Hogarth Press, 1966) pp. 51-55.

[25] Woolf’s essay, ‚The Art of Fiction‘ was originally published as a review of E. M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel (1927), which, in turn, may be read as an answer to Percy Lubbock’s seminal work, Craft of Fiction, first published in 1921. See also Steele (1983).

[26] See par. 3.1 below.

[27] See for example, Daniel Mark Fogel, Covert Relations. James Joyce, Virginia Woolf and Henry James (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia).

[28] See the introduction to ‘The Art of Fiction‘ in Hoffman and Murphy (1996), p. 14.

[29] See also par. 5.4 below on the revolt of the impressionist painters against their ‚naturalist‘ forefathers.

[30] ‘Modern Fiction’ is collected in The Common Reader: First Series (1925) and originally published in 1919 in a significantly different form as ‘Modern Novels’. See Bradshaw (2008), pp. xxvi, 8-12. All citations from this essay are from Bradshaw (2008).

[31] See Virginia Woolf, ‚Mr. James‘ Latest Novel‘ in McNeillie (1985a), pp. 22-24.

[32] See Two Cheers for Democracy (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1942)), pp. 242-58. Reprinted in Sprague (1971), pp. 14-25. All citations from this essay are from this edition.

[33] Quoted in Robin Majumdar and Allen McLaurin (1975), p. 113.

[34] F.R Leavis, Scrutiny XVII, iii. 227, quoted in Andor Gomme (1964:359).

[35] ‘The Figure in the Carpet’ originally appeared in the Jan-Febr. Edition of Cosmopolis in 1896, and is reprinted in The Lessons of the Master and other Stories, 1948.

[36] For example, Sue Roe reads Jacob’s Room as a dramatization of feminine desire. See Sue Roe, ‚Introduction,‘ in Virginia Woolf, Jacob’s Room (Penguin, 1992), p. xx.

[37] Froula (2005:16) also quotes Stephen’s biographer, Noel Annan’s, observation of Stephen’s disillusion with respect to the insularity of the English in the early nineteenth century, particularly their ignorance and indifference towards German thought and literature.

[38] See also Mepham (1996) for an account of Woolf’s education by her father.

[39] First published in The Times (Nov.28, 1932), pp. 15-16; reprinted in The Captain’s Deathbed. See Steele (1983). All citations from this essay are from Bradshaw (2008), pp. 111-115.

[40] Gordon (2010) notes that her Greek tuition commenced in 1900 under the guidance of first Walter Pater’s sister, Clara, and then by Janet Case, who is renowned to be the first woman to pass through Girton College, Cambridge.

[41] See for example McNeillie (2000), Froula (2005).

[42] The date of this essay is unknown. It was first published in The Common Reader: First Series (London: The Hogarth Press, 1925). See Steele (1983).

[43] D2, p. 196, quoted in McNeillie (2000), p.14.


ISBN (eBook)
642 KB
Institution / Hochschule
Universität Hamburg – Fachbereich Sprach-, Literatur- und Medienwissenschaft, Anglistik und Amerikanistik
2012 (Februar)
virginia woolf modernism genre narrative form jacob room



Titel: Exploring the Frontiers of Fiction: Humour, Modernism and Narrative Form in Virginia Woolf's "Jacob's Room" (1922)