November 20, 2009

Woolf on the Victorians: "I'm a good deal impressed"

From Virginia Woolf's letters:
Whatever one may say about the Victorians, there's no doubt they had twice our - not exactly brains - perhaps hearts. I don't know quite what it is; but I'm a good deal impressed.
She had just been reading "the entire works of Mr. James Joyce, Wyndham Lewis, Ezra Pound, so as to compare them with the entire works of Dickens & Mrs Gaskell; besides that George Eliot; & finally Hardy." About the experience of reading "G.E." she writes to another friend, "I was so much struck by her goodness that I hope it wasn't my article that you thought hard. She is as easy to read as Tit Bits: and it was a surprise to me; magnificent in many ways." The "article" to which she refers is her piece on George Eliot for the Times Literary Supplement, originally published exactly 90 years ago today. It is a wonderful essay, at once stringent and sympathetic:
[T]hough we cannot read the story [of GE's early life] without a strong desire that the stages of her pilgrimage might have been made, if not more easy, at least more beautiful, there is a dogged determination in her advance upon the citadel of culture which raises it above our pity. Her development was very slow and very awkward, but it had the irresistible impetus behind it of a deep-seated and noble ambition. Every obstacle at length was thrust from her path. She knew everyone. She read everything. Her astonishing intellectual vitality had triumphed. Youth was over, but youth had been full of suffering. Then, at the age of thirty-five, at the height of her powers, and in the fulness of her freedom, she made the decision which was of such profound moment to her and still matters even to us, and went to Weimar, alone with George Henry Lewes. . . . By becoming thus marked, first by circumstances and later, inevitably, by her fame, she lost the power to move on equal terms unnoted among her kind; and the loss for a novelist was serious. Still, basking in the light and sunshine of Scenes of Clerical Life, feeling the large mature mind spreading itself with a luxurious sense of freedom in the world of her 'remotest past', to speak of loss seems inappropriate. Everything to such a mind was gain. All experience filtered down through layer after layer of perception and reflection, enriching and nourishing.

The books are astonishingly readable and have no trace of pomposity or pretence. But to the reader who holds a large stretch of her early work in view it will become obvious that the mist of recollection gradually withdraws. It is not that her power diminishes, for, to our thinking, it is at its highest in the mature Middlemarch, the magnificent book which with all its imperfections is one of the few English novels written for grown-up people. But the world of fields and farms no longer contents her. In real life she had sought her fortunes elsewhere; and though to look back into the past was calming and consoling, there are, even in the early works, traces of that troubled spirit, that exacting and questioning and baffled presence who was George Eliot herself. . . .

[Her heroines] do not find what they seek, and we cannot wonder. The ancient consciousness of woman, charged with suffering and sensibility, and for so many ages dumb, seems in them to have brimmed and overflowed and uttered a demand for something - they scarcely know what - for something that is perhaps incompatible with the facts of human existence. George Eliot had far too strong an intelligence to tamper with those facts, and too broad a humour to mitigate the truth because it was a stern one. Save for the supreme courage of their endeavour, the struggle ends, for her heroines, in tragedy, or in a compromise that is even more melancholy. But their story is the incomplete version of the story that is George Eliot herself. For her, too, the burden and the complexity of womanhood were not enough; she must reach beyond the sanctuary and pluck for herself the strange bright fruits of art and knowledge. Clasping them as few women have ever clasped them, she would not renounce her own inheritance - the difference of view, the difference of standard - nor accept an inappropriate reward. Thus we behold her, a memorable figure, inordinately praised and shrinking from her fame, despondent, reserved, shuddering back into the arms of love as if there alone were satisfaction and, it might be, justification, at the same time reaching out with 'a fastidious yet hungry ambition' for all that life could offer the free and inquiring mind and confronting her feminine aspirations with the real world of men. Triumphant was the issue for her, whatever it may have been for her creations, and as we recollect all that she dared and achieved, how with every obstacle against her - sex and health and convention - she sought more knowledge and more freedom till the body, weighted with its double burden, sank worn out, we must lay upon her grave whatever we have it in our power to bestow of laurel and rose.
(You can read the whole essay here.)

1 comment:

craig.monk said...

This is an excellent, timely reminder of how lazy our thinking can be when we speak of discreet periods, waning of affect, and theories of successive movements. Modernists had an equivocal relationship with tradition, certainly, but it is wrong to say that none of them had respect for the Victorians, of course. Woolf's specific complaint was with the "Edwardians," who had mismanaged the legacy of these immediate predecessors. More widely, if Ezra Pound wanted to "make it new," there had to be an "it" to "make new" in the first place. He would not have seen this in the nineteenth century, of course, but -- unless you were a radical avant-gardist -- it was somewhere in the past.