Tuesday, December 26, 2017

Virginia Woolf

[Austen-Bronte-Eliot] from A Rooms of One’s Own (1929)

“ . . . But one could perhaps go a little deeper in the question of novel-writing and the effect of sex on the novelist. If one shuts one’s eyes and thinks of the novel as a whole, it would seem to be a creation owing to a certain looking-glass likeness to life, though of course with simplifications and distortions innumerable. At any rate it is a structure leaving a shape on the mind’s eyes, built now in squares, now pagoda shaped, now throwing out wings and arcades, now solidly compact and domed like the Cathedral of Saint Sophia at Constantinople. This shape, I thought, thinking back over certain famous novels, starts in one the kind of emotion that is appropriate to it. But that emotion at once blends itself with others, for the “shape” is not made by the relation of stone to stone, but by the relation of human being to human being. Thus a novel starts in us all sorts forms antagonistic and opposed emotions.

The whole structure, it is obvious, thinking back on any famous novel, is one of infinite complexity, because it is made up of so many different judgments, of so many different kinds of emotion. It’s a wonder that any book  so composed holds together for more than a year or two, or can possibly mean to the English reader what it means for the Russian or the Chinese. But they do hold together occasionally very remarkably. And what holds them together in these rare instances of survival (I was thinking of War and Peace) is something that one calls integrity, though  it has nothing to do with paying one’s bills or behaving honorably in an emergency.

What one means by integrity, in the case of the novelist, is the conviction that he gives one that this is the truth. Yes,  one feels, ‘I should never have thought that this could be so; I have never known people behaving like that. But you have convinced me that so it is, so it happens.’ One holds every phrase, every scene to the light - for Nature seems, very oddly,  to have provided us with an inner light by which to judge of the novelist’s integrity or dis-integrity. Or perhaps it is rather Nature, in her most irrational mood, has traced in invisible ink on the walls of the mind a premonition which these great artists confirm; a sketch which only needs to be held to the fire of genius to become visible. When one so exposes it and sees it come to life one exclaims in rapture, ‘But this is what I have always felt and known and desired!” And one boils over with excitement, and, shutting the book even with a kind of reverence as if it were something very precious, a standby to return to as long as one lives, ‘one puts it back on the shelf’, I said, taking War and Peace and putting it back in its place.

. . .For the most part, of course, novel do come to grief somewhere. The imagination falters under the enormous strain. The insight is confused; it can no longer distinguish between the true and false; it has no longer the strength to go on with the vast labor that calls at every moment for the use of so many different faculties. But how would this effect by the sex of the novelist, I wondered, looking at Jane Eyre and the others. . . .

How impossible it must have been for them not to budge either to the right or to the left. What genius, what integrity it must have required in the face of all that criticism, in the midst of that purely patriarchal society, to hold fast to the thing as they saw it without shrinking. Only Jane Austen did it and Emily Bronte. It is another feather, perhaps the finest, in their cap. They wrote as woman write, not as men write. Of all the thousand women who wrote novels then, they alone entirely ignored the perpetual admonishments  of the eternal pedagogue – write this, think that. They alone were deaf to that persistent voice, now grumbling, now patronizing, now domineering, now grieved, now shocked, now angry, now avuncular, that voice which cannot let women alone, but must be at them, like some to conscientious governess, adjuring them, like Egerton Brydges, to  be refined, dragging even into the criticism of poetry criticism of sex; admonishing them, if they would  be  good and win, as I suppose, some shiny prize, to keep within certain limits which the gentleman in question think suitable: “female novelists should only aspire to excellence by  courageously  acknowledging the limitations of their sex.” That puts the matter in a nutshell, and when I tell you, rather to your surprise, that this sentence was written not in August 1828 but in August 1929, you will agree, I think, that however delightful  it is to us now, it represents vast body of opinion –I am not going to stir those old pools,  I take only what chance is floated to my feet – that was far more vigorous and far more vocal a century ago. It would have needed a very stalwart young woman in 1828 to disregard all those snubs  and chidings and promises of prizes. One  must have been something of a firebrand to say to oneself, Oh, but they can’t buy literature too. Literature is open to everybody. I refuse to allow you, Beadle though you are, to turn me off the grass. Lock up your libraries if you like; but there is no gate, no lock, no bolt that you can set upon the freedom of my mind.

[But these were unimportant compared to the other difficulty which faced them (and I am still considering those early 19th century novelists) when they came to putting their thoughts on paper – that is that they  had no tradition behind them, or one so short and partial that it was of little help. . .

The Androgynous Vision from A Room of One’s Own

Even so, the very first sentence I would write here, I said, crossing over to the writing table and taking up the page headed Woman and Fiction, is that it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex. It is fatal to be a man or woman pure and simple; one must be woman-manly or man-womanly. It is fatal for the woman to lay the least stress on  any grievance, to plead even with justice any cause; in any way speak consciously as a woman. And fatal is no figure of speech; for anything written with that conscious bias is doomed to death. It ceases to be fertilized. Brilliant and effective, powerful and masterly, as it may appear for a day or two, it must wither at nightfall; it cannot grow in the minds of others. Some collaboration has to take place before the act of creation can be accomplished. Some marriage of opposites has to be consummated. The whole of the mind must lie wide open if we are to get the sense that the writer is communicating his experience with perfect fullness. There must be freedom and there must be peace. No wheel must grate, not a light glimmer. The curtains must be close drawn.  The writer, I thought, once his experience is over, must lie back and let his mind celebrate its nuptials in the darkness. He must not look or question what is being done. Rather, he must pluck the pedals from a rose or watch swans float calmly down the river.

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