What about the aeroplanes?

Gillian Beer

  • The Essays of Virginia Woolf: Vol. 1 1904-1912 edited by Andrew McNeillie
    Hogarth, 411 pp, £20.00, November 1986, ISBN 0 7012 0666 7
  • The Interrupted Moment: A View of Virginia Woolf’s Novels by Lucio Ruotolo
    Stanford, 262 pp, $29.50, November 1986, ISBN 0 8047 1342 1
  • Virginia Woolf and the Real World by Alex Zwerdling
    California, 370 pp, £24.95, October 1986, ISBN 0 520 05684 1

‘If one spirit animates the whole, what about the aeroplanes?’ queries a character in Virginia Woolf’s last novel, Between the Acts. Both Alex Zwerdling in Virginia Woolf and the Real World and Lucio Ruotolo in The Interrupted Moment engage with the implications of this question – though neither has much to say about aeroplanes. Zwerdling concentrates on Woolf’s ‘intense interest in the life of society and its effect on the individual’; Ruotolo emphasises ‘the rhythm of broken sequence’. Zwerdling and Ruotolo recognise the urgency with which Woolf responds to the current moment in her final work. Ruotolo discovers a hoped-for continuity: what is interrupted is resumed, though changed in form by interruption. Zwerdling emphasises the diaspora of the self and of English society that is chillingly written into the book’s gossip: ‘Negation regularly has the last word.’ Ruotolo, in his book’s only surprising move, proceeds from his analysis of Between the Acts to claim Woolf for anarchism, though the anarchism for which he claims her proves to be generalised (‘All great art is anarchy’ – Gertrude Stein) and muted, a matter of ‘the liberating space of unguarded moments’.

In Zwerdling’s analysis Virginia Woolf’s ‘real world’ is other people: monitory presences, like her mother; the pressure of feet shuffling on the pavement; political groupings; the emotional formations of the family. His excellently complex study engages thoroughgoingly with the social movements which conditioned Woolf’s responses and writing. These can be formulated in abstract terms such as socialism, fascism, feminism, patriarchy, imperialism, militarism: but Zwerdling never loses sight of how specific, how fundamental, and yet how unemphatically present, such issues are in her writing. Woolf’s method is not that of set analysis or argument, though she is very conscious of ‘the immense forces society brings to play upon each of us, how that society changes from decade to decade; and also from class to class’. The image she uses is that of the fish in the stream ‘deflected, held in place’. The fish cannot see the whole stream: nor, she suggests, can she. But she can describe the experience of being the fish in the stream, and in Between the Acts, written at around the same time as ‘A Sketch of the Past’ from which this passage comes, she plays on this idea. She jokes about the literal realisation of metaphor and the instability of reading. Dover sole is ordered and eaten for lunch (the distance of Pointz Hall from the sea vacillates); Giles thinks of himself as a fish in the stream, and, unnoticing, eats the ‘sole’; the old carp, as old almost as pre-history, occasionally rises to the surface of the pond.

Ruotolo remarks that great writers disrupt ‘the reader’s harmony with his world’: Ruotolo’s own work would have been improved by more disruption or interruption. He takes us through each novel from beginning to end, sometimes saying intelligent things or registering odd congruences between the works, but never disturbing the sequence of the written, or of the already thought. The idea of interruption is a potentially exciting way of reappraising Woolf’s work, but here it is made to cover the writing, not stir it up. It comes as a disappointment, for instance, that he gives no account of the significance of particular linguistic effects, such as Woolf’s use of speech-tags. Woolf frequently suspends the unbroken cadences of the speaking voice in such a way as to point an alternative meaning for the sentence, usually a meaning not noted by the speaker. In Between the Acts, for example, she tweaks sentences apart to give an awkward emphasis to the word ‘origins’: ‘What’s the origin,’ said a voice, ‘of the expression “with a flea in his ear”?’ Woolf emphasises, too, the specious congruity of rhyme with its buried messages and apparent reasonableness. Retrospectively, an absurdly insistent ‘I’ assonance and rhyme emerges in this passage from Orlando. The interjected comment forces us to notice it.

Blue, like a match struck right in the ball of the innermost eye, he flys, burns, bursts the seal of sleep; the kingfisher; so that now floods back refluent like a tide, the red, thick stream of life again; bubbling, dripping; and we rise, and our eyes (for how handy a rhyme is to pass us safe over the awkward transition from death to life) fall on – (here the barrel-organ stops playing abruptly).

‘It’s a very fine boy, M’Lady,’ said Mrs Banting ...

The interruptions are underpinned by auditory repetition. Within the thoughts of Woolf’s characters, rhyme affords a comforting narcissism and seems often to mark the threshold of the unconscious as it emerges into language. Ruotolo, despite the sensitivity of his reading, avoids all such dangerous junctures.

What is ‘the real world’? Can it include everything? Can it, in particular, include the remote past or the future? Zwerdling’s analysis concentrates on the present and the immediate past, but Between the Acts opens with the new aerial perspective of the aeroplane, which unmasks history never before observed in the landscape; near the end, the bombers in perfect formation break apart the vicar’s wishful discourse after the village pageant. Woolf takes the image of greasy ‘’orts, scraps and fragments’ from Troilus and Cressida, dries it out, and makes it archaeological: shards and scraps are all that remain of past language, past history – and, most probably, all that will remain of the person and the present. The threat of the new, the impossibility of salvaging much of the past, gives a starker meaning to ‘the moment’ in her late work than in the sometimes diaphanously elegiac world of The Waves ten years earlier.

Virginia Woolf was responsive to the novelties of technology and recognised their economic and symbolic power. Orlando ends at the great department store of Marshall and Snelgrove (now defunct). To the Lighthouse opens with the picture of a refrigerator which the six-year-old James is cutting out ‘from the illustrated catalogue of the Army and Navy Stores’ (also now gone). His mother’s half-promise of an expedition to the lighthouse ‘endowed the picture of a refrigerator as his mother spoke with heavenly bliss. It was fringed with joy.’ Consonance, as so often in Woolf’s writing, moves across linguistic registers: ‘refrigerator/fringed’. It affirms congruity against the odds of reason. Is this the real world, perhaps? The refrigerator is not there: it is a picture; it is the future technology of family life, not the present of this island holiday. As yet, it is only part of the fantasy world of a catalogue. Watching the Victorian scene of the pageant in Between the Acts, Mrs Jones marks the present moment by the thought that her daughter ‘has a refrigerator’. And the Times, in that novel, predicts an ‘after-the-war’ future: ‘Homes will be built. Each flat with its refrigerator, in the crannied wall. Each of us a free man; plates washed by machinery; not an aeroplane to vex us; all liberated; made whole.’ We are in a better position than Woolf and her first readers to mark the mixture of accuracy and mistake in that prophecy. In this new ‘real world’, journalists imagine order and freedom to go together with dishwashers and fridges (as in some measure they do). But the idea that the war-powers of the aeroplane will be disinvented displays this description as fantasy. The ‘real world’ is never only the present world. The mind, as Freud suggested in 1915, rapidly assimilates to its ancient symbolic purposes new objects such as ‘balloons, flying-machines and most recently Zeppelin airships’.

One problem Zwerdling has in his argument is how to indicate the changing circumference of the present in Woolf’s career. He focuses on each novel in turn, demonstrating Woolf’s ‘complex sense of how historical forces and societal institutions influence the behaviour of the people she describes’, and paying attention to ‘the fact that people, working alone or in groups, can have a powerful impact on their society.’ Zwerdling emphasises the ambivalence of this interaction: in Woolf’s writing interaction takes place at the level of the individual, or of multiple unknown individuals. She shows no interest in the idea of the state.

The charge that used to be brought against Virginia Woolf was that she was not political. Leonard Woolf contributed to this myth both by saying that she was the most unpolitical person he had known and by publishing her diaries in the form of A Writer’s Diary and cutting out political and social commentary. This conception of the writer, disengaged from the current moment, is itself, of course, political, and sorts strangely with Leonard Woolf’s committed socialism. Virginia Woolf concerned herself with socialism, addressed working women, married a Jew, was uneasy about the need to employ servants in order to get her writing done. She was rare among writers of the time in feeling such unease. These facts have more recently been used to defend her against charges of snobbery, racism, hide-bound class assumptions. They will not take us the whole way. It would be too easy from that information to present her as a Lady Bountiful of causes, keeping her distance by her charitable presence. In ‘Women and Fiction’ in 1929 she remarked that future women writers will ‘be less absorbed in facts ... They will look beyond the personal and political relationships to the wider questions which the poet tries to solve – of our destiny and the meaning of life.’ In the Thirties, she responded to the political questioning and did not delay the wider questioning either.

‘Class,’ Zwerdling argues, ‘is a pervasive concern of Woolf’s work,’ and he pinpoints in Mrs Dalloway both specific references to the political life of the time and the uneasy distances between the governing class and its servants. In this light Clarissa’s awakening to Septimus in death becomes for Zwerdling a mark of her imaginative survival, which reaches out beyond class-boundaries. In life he could not have come to her party. Death seems an excessive entrance-fee: and Woolf clearly thought so too. She works against the shadow-plots derived from earlier fiction: as practised readers, we recognise Septimus Smith and Clarissa Dalloway as the centres of intensity in the book’s life, the ‘major characters’, and are led to expect connection between them at the level of event. Instead, their contacts are oblique and communal: like other inhabitants of the city, they observe the closed car, the commercial aeroplane. They share no personal history, never meet, have scarcely read the same books, walk different streets.

In his discussion of the book’s political markings, however, Zwerdling does not sufficiently notice the social territories of the characters. These are very precisely marked out, which is why the parks are important common spaces. The socio-geography of London, the fear of invading the uncharted other district, is wittily related to the private appetitive geography of the house. Elizabeth Dalloway, in the Strand, looks up Fleet Street: ‘She walked just a little way towards St Paul’s, shyly, like someone penetrating on tiptoe, exploring a strange house by night with a candle, on edge lest the owner should suddenly fling wide his bedroom door and ask her business, nor did she dare wander off into queer alleys, tempting by-streets, any more than in a strange house open doors which might be bedroom doors, or sitting-room doors, or lead straight to the larder.’ At the end of the book the woman in a lighted room opposite, whom Clarissa has often surveyed, turns and looks out: even then, it is not certain that she sees Clarissa. So slight and glancing are the individual points of connection.

Zwerdling is acute in his observation of the class-bound distances between the characters and the extent to which they are all caught in the trauma of the First World War and its social aftermath. He does not, to my mind, sufficiently emphasise what is new in Woolf’s novelistic representation of community. Being alive on the same day in the same city, she suggests, involves a kinship more profound than all the chosen intensities of friendship and of passion that fiction ordinarily privileges. ‘London has swallowed up many millions of young men called Smith,’ we are told in Mrs Dalloway. Woolf records and reclaims Smith from anonymity, just as she does the domestic life of Mrs Ramsay, whose energies are not expressed in writing. This desire to give space and meaning to unregarded lives is a political project for Woolf. But it is also essential to her ambitions as a writer: ‘For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcome of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.’

Two of the most interesting chapters in Zwerdling’s packed and generous study are those which he calls ‘The Bonds of Family Life’ and ‘The Domestic Politics of To the Lighthouse’. He opens this discussion with sentences pitched, like so many of Woolf’s own, precisely between reserve and poignancy: ‘The first, and usually the last, eyes that gaze on us with interest belong to members of our family: mother, father, brother, sister; later, husband, wife, child. This experience is so close to universal that exceptions are often treated like aberrations rather than plausible alternatives.’ The wit of that cautious ‘with interest’ leads into a discussion of an ambivalence in Woolf which ‘could not finally be resolved’ but could be exploited. This was her relationship to the immediate past of her childhood. Much later in her life Woolf felt the gap between herself and her father to be as great as two generations: ‘Two different ages confronted each other in the drawing-room at Hyde Park Gate: the Victorian age; and the Edwardian age. We were not his children, but his grandchildren.’ However, she opened her impressions of him written in 1905: ‘My impression as a child always was that my father was not much older than we were. He used to take us to sail our boats on the Round Pond, and with his own hands fitted one out with masts and sails after the pattern of a Cornish lugger; and we knew that his interest was no ‘grown-up’ pretence; it was as genuine as our own. So there was a perfectly even companionship between us.’ The child and the younger father find a companionship which is lost between adolescent and older father, and, in her case, regained only intermittently after his death by means of her writing of To the Lighthouse: ‘he comes back now more as a contemporary.’ As Zwerdling justly remarks, ‘she retained, through all her rebellious phases, a deep love for both her parents and the institution they had come to represent in her mind.’ This love could survive in contradiction – though I do not think that she would have felt much love for Victorian family life had there been any danger of it coming back.

The great usefulness of Volume One of The Essays of Virginia Woolf, from which the 1905 quotation is taken, is that it gives us for the first time together all the public writings she undertook between 1904 and 1912. This period pre-dates and overlaps with the composition of her novel The Voyage Out, which she started as ‘Melymbrosia’ in 1907. In previous collections the essays have been organised according to topic or genre and have set early and late work alongside. Here, for the first time, we can watch the formation of her early style. Moreover, ‘of the 109 pieces concerned, 83 have not been previously collected,’ the editor tells us. With its excellent annotations this collection will be essential reading for Woolf scholars and addicts, slight as many of the pieces are. This is the period when she discovered that the everyday does not last for ever.

Looking back on her own early family life, she stressed its seeming permanence and bruising enclosure. The house ‘seemed tangled and matted with emotion ... It seemed as if the house and the family which had lived in it, thrown together as they were by so many deaths, so many emotions, so many traditions, must endure for ever. And then suddenly in one night both vanished.’ Loss and freedom became hard to distinguish. Everyday life, whose familiarity makes it seem permanent, vanishes even fecklessly, the heavy furniture more fleeting than residual forces of emotion.

In his earlier chapters Zwerdling too readily jettisons Victorian writing. Speaking of Woolf’s ‘programmatic anti-Victorianism’, he introduces the American writer Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s attack on domestic life, The Home (1903), but Woolf found a more subtle and suspicious attack on such conditions within Victorian literature itself: in Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, to say nothing of Emily Shirreff, who first formulated in the 1850s the need of women for ‘a room of one’s own’.

In her essay on Elizabeth Barrett Browning the summary that Woolf offers of Barrett Browning’s early life has an undertow of self-reference, a suppressed congruity from which she must break free. ‘Her mother had died when she was a child; she read profusely and privately; her favourite brother was drowned; her health broke down; she had been immured by the tyranny of her father in almost conventual seclusion in a bedroom in Wimpole Street.’ Woolf’s mother died when she was 12; her brother Toby died of typhoid on a visit to Greece; her health repeatedly broke down; and, although the tyranny was of a different kind, any reader of Stephen’s Mausoleum Book and of Woolf’s own accounts will recognise the tyrannical tenderness of the husband-father. It is not surprising that the Barrett Browning letters Woolf chooses to quote include one where Elizabeth Barrett Browning complains that her upbringing has made her too inward, too inexperienced in human nature. One task that Virginia Woolf set herself was necessarily that of how to escape from the education described by Aurora Leigh, Barrett Browning’s first person poet. Aurora remarks that women’s ‘rapid insight and fine aptitude’ is approved

As long as they keep quiet by the fire
And never say ‘no’ when the world says ‘ay’,
For that is fatal,—their angelic reach
Of virtue, chiefly used to sit and darn,
And fatten household sinners,—their, in brief,
Potential faculty in everything
Of abdicating power in it.

The description seems more apt, perhaps, to Julia Stephen, Virginia’s mother, or to Mrs Ramsay, in To the Lighthouse, than to Virginia herself. But she is obliged to repeat the rebellion already described in Aurora Leigh in the 1850s and to pry apart that fatal compacting of ‘potential’, ‘abdication’ and ‘power’. This she had to do in her writing. ‘Power’ is a word she very rarely uses in her own work. Instead she peripheralises many of the imposing categorisations of narrative and renders frail those claims to authority which emanate from family or past literature.

Zwerdling’s most surprising omission, which implicitly circumscribes his sense of ‘the real world’, is The Waves, and he is disappointingly unobservant of the flighty radicalism in Orlando, too. In The Waves Woolf pushes onto the periphery all that is habitually central to fiction: private love-relationships, the business of government, family life, city finances, the Empire. Each of these topics, however, is marked into the narrative so that we also observe how slight a regard she here has for them. Instead she concentrates, as she foresaw in ‘Women and Fiction’, on ‘the wider questions ... of our destiny and the meaning of life’. She does this by re-appraising the world in the light of wave-theory and the popular physics of the writing of Eddington and Jeans. The ‘real world’, as scientists were at the time insisting, is not substantial. Eddington writes in 1927: ‘In the scientific world the conception of substance is wholly lacking ... For this reason the scientific world often shocks us by its appearance of unreality ... In leading us away from the concrete, science is reminding us that our contact with the real is more varied than was apparent to the ape-mind, to whom the bough which supported him typified the beginning and end of reality.’

At the end of The Waves Bernard broods on the ape surviving still in himself: ‘He squats in me’ and has ‘given a greener glow to green things’. On the previous page Bernard says: ‘I begin to doubt the fixity of tables, the reality of here and now, to tap my knuckles smartly upon the edge of apparently solid objects and say, “Are you hard?” ’ We recall Andrew’s explanation of Mr Ramsay’s philosophical work to Lily: it is on ‘subject and object and the nature of reality’, and he tells her to ‘think of a kitchen table then when you’re not there’. That familiar philosophical trope of the table, to which Woolf here recurs, opens Eddington’s The Nature of the Physical World. He begins with the image of the table, made strange as two tables: ‘I have settled down to the task of writing these lectures and have drawn up my two chairs to my two tables.’ His enquiry into the question of substance starts there and, as he later says: ‘It is difficult to school ourselves to treat the physical world as purely symbolic ... Untaught by experience we stretch a hand to grasp the shadow, instead of accepting its shadowy nature.’ Bernard, seeking ‘here at this table’ to shape the story of his life, is haunted by ‘shadows of people one might have been; unborn selves’. The seven characters of The Waves inhabit what Jeans called the ‘seven dimensional space’ of Schrödinger’s ‘wave mechanics’: ‘the wave-mechanics asks for a system of waves in an ether which has seven dimensions.’

The ‘real world’ for Virginia Woolf was not solely the liberal-humanist world of personal and social relationships: it was the hauntingly difficult world of Einsteinian physics and of Wittgenstein’s private languages: ‘I need a little language such as lovers use ... I need a howl; a cry.’ In The Waves she is not turning her back on ‘the reality of here and now’ but placing it anew. Her reading in Victorian wave-theory, particularly the work of John Tyndall (a reading with which she endows Clarissa Dalloway) means that she can, in a non-technical way, re-appraise the current world from yet another distance. Her ‘contact with the real is more varied’ than an entirely social reading of her work allows. But we are unlikely to find a more impressive and revealing account of Virginia Woolf’s response to current social forces than Zwerdling’s.