Virginia Woolf: Life & Literary Works

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      Her Life. The daughter of the eminent Victorian critic and scholar, Sir Leslie Stephen, Virginia Woolf was born into a circle where standards of culture, taste, and intelligence were of the highest. From the reading and conversations of her formative years she acquired an unusually wide literary background and a cosmopolitan culture. She began her writing career as a contributor to literary journals, and, after her marriage (1912) to Leonard Woolf, she shared in the activities of the Hogarth Press, which published the work of many rising men and advanced thinkers. Though her first novel appeared in 1915, her reputation was originally made as a critic of penetration and independent judgment. In fact, it was only with Orlando: a Biography (1928) that she scored anything like a popular success, and she is likely to remain a novelist for the few.

      Her Works. The Voyage Out (1915), her first novel, is told in the conventional narrative manner, but with a concentration of interest upon character and a delicacy of touch typical of all her work. The same emphasis on character analysis and the same lack of incident characterize and Day (1919), another study of personal adjustment and development. Then came her first really mature work, Jacob’s Room (1922), in which her distinctive technique is fully used for the first time. By a series of disconnected impressions, revealed mainly through the consciousness of people with whom he come into contact, we are made aware of the personality of Jacob. These momentary impressions, which shift and dissolve with the bewildering inconsequence of real mental processes, are revealed by the use of the internal monologue, and from them we are intended to build up gradually a complete conception of the young man. This same method, handled with greater firmness, is again used in Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Though what little ‘event’ there is occupies only one day, Virginia Woolf is able to create not only the lives of her chief characters, which are studied with a penetrating subtlety, but even the London background. To the Lighthouse (1927) shows a still firmer mastery of the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, and is by many accounted her finest work. Its study of the relationship of the members of the Ramsey family achieves a greater artistic unity than is found in her previous novels, and yet preserves all her usual subtlety of analysis. The ultimate development of her method appears in The Waves (1931), from which plot, in the normally accepted sense, is almost entirely lacking. It is a symbolic work of great poetic beauty, in which the consciousness of the six characters is studied in series of internal monologues. An ambitious, and clearly an experimental work, it is remarkable for its sensitive perception of changing moods, and the skill with which the six characters are distinguished. It has been well described as a prose-poem. (1933), The Years (1937), in which she again deals with family relationships, and the unfinished Between the Acts (1941) show her usual delicacy of touch and brilliant technical mastery, but the first two fall below the level of her major works, while of the last it is difficult to attempt an assessment. Standing alone among her novels, and therefore last to be considered here, is the fantasy, Orlando, a Biography (1928), which may be said to have established her reputation with the wider reading public. With a verve and spirit utterly different from the movement of her other novels, it traces from Elizabethan to modem times the life of Orlando, who not only appears as a number of different people, but even changes sex in the middle of the story. It is full of vivid color and striking evocations of historical periods and settings.

      In addition to her novels, Virginia Woolf wrote a number of essays on cultural subjects, which appear in Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (1924); The Common Reader (1925); A Room of One's Own (1929); The Second Common Reader Roger Fry (1940); The Death of the Moth (1942); and The Moment (1947). They reveal her as a critic of penetrating insight and superb stylistic gifts.

Features of her Novels
      Her Themes. Although, as her essay Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown make clear, Virginia Woolf reacted against the novel of social manners as produced by writers like Arnold Bennett, she was none the less concerned with the realities of life. But for her the realities were inward and spiritual rather than outward and material; of the life depicted by Bennett and Wells she knew nothing. The elusiveness of these inner realities is the recurrent theme of her novels. Her characters are seen in search of them, and the search is followed with profound insight, but it would seem that she never solved the problem of the ultimate meaning of life, for her novels, unlike those of Lawrence, give no solution.

      Her Technique. It is in this field that Virginia Woolf makes her most important contribution to the novel. Conventional conceptions of the novel she entirely rejected, replacing emphasis on incident, external description, and straightforward narrative by an overriding concern with character presentation by the ‘stream of consciousness’ method. This technique was not a new one. Dorothy Richardson has used it - Pointed Roofs (1915), Backwater (1916) Honeycomb (1917), etc. So has James Joyce, a greater exponent of this method than either. Its great advantages are that it offers previously undreamed of possibilities for the analysis of mental states; its disadvantages, the great demands it' makes on the reader, and the dangers of incoherence and mere virtuosity, which beset the author because of the lack of a logical time sequence and the temptation to go into the most minute detail. Virginia Woolf uses this technique with ever-growing sureness of purpose; her keen mind and magnificent artistic sense enable her to weld the parts into a unified artistic whole of sensitive, subtle portraiture. Her studies of mood and impulse arc handled with an almost scientific precision and detachment, and yet she has a great gift for lyrical exposition.

      Her Characters. “I believe that all novels deal with character, and that it is to express character—not to preach doctrines, sing songs, or celebrate the glories of the British Empire that the form of the novel, so clumsy, verbose and undramatic, so very elastic and alive, has been evolved.” Thus did she express her concern with character, and of her method she wrote: “Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however, disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.” For this probing of the inner workings of the mind Virginia Woolf’s penetrating insight equipped her admirably. Her range of characters is small: it has been said that she was unable to portray anyone who did not share her own unusual qualities, and it is certainly true that some of her figures, though studied with amazing subtlety, fail to come alive for the reader. Even so, in the delicate analysis of motive, impulse, and reaction to situation, she sets a standard which very few have been able to attain, and of the three chief characters in Mrs. Dalloway, at least, we may claim that we know them from the inside as we know few other characters.

      Her Style. As might be expected of one of her background and artistic gifts, Virginia Woolf is a prose-writer of genius. It is in her prose style that her poetic qualities are most clearly seen. It has all the poise and charm of the cultured woman and conscious artist. She uses words with a keen sense of their rhythmic and musical potentialities; her style is richly figurative (The Waves is the best example of this), and the precision of her images is in keeping with the accuracy and delicacy of her character analysis.

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