Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Virginia Woolf's reading of Jane Austen

Here are 2 interesting articles: (Judith Lee)

As Janet Todd has shown, Jane Austen was a continuing presence in Virginia Woolf’s letters, diaries, essays, and fiction.
I've seen her mentioned frequently in "A room of one's own", "The common reader" and some other essays, especially those on women and fiction. The name Wickham in "Mrs Dalloway" is an obvious allusion. "The voyage out", which I'm reading, has several allusions such as the name Willoughby, "Persuasion"... and some discussions on Jane Austen by the characters. Even though Virginia Woolf has an ambivalent view and doesn't want to consider Jane Austen a favourite, she admires her talent and sets her up as some kind of standard (one may even say she's obsessed with her).
She began by writing novels that were compared to Austen’s, and she ended by conceptualizing a figure of the artist (Anon) as a figure not unlike what Austen represented in her essays. [...] Woolf describes a woman who, if she had lived, would have written novels like those Woolf herself was writing.
This is not very far from the truth. One can read this essay: I can see that in her 1st novel "The voyage out", Virginia Woolf, dealing with emotions and human interactions, tries to keep a cool, detached, controlled tone the way Jane Austen does, and at the same time, relies less on dialogues and focuses more on what people leave unsaid, as she thinks Jane Austen would have done if she had lived longer, "[s]he would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but what life is."
Her beautiful prose also reminds me of Jane Austen, but of course later, she departs from this track and develops her own style. 
Judith Lee quotes Virginia Woolf:
Ever since Jane Austen became famous they [critics] have been hissing inanities in chorus ….  [D]ebating whether she was a lady, whether she told the truth, whether she could read, and whether she had personal experience of hunting a fox is positively upsetting. We remember that Jane Austen wrote novels. It might be worth while for her critics to read them.
A while ago I watched "Becoming Jane" (having a vague feeling that I'd done so, many years before, but at the time didn't care very much about the author depicted), and didn't finish. Anne Hathaway's bad accent isn't as irritating as the fact that the film associates the author of "Pride and prejudice" with her heroine Elizabeth Bennet and implies that she incorporates her own experience with a vain man into her novel. The idea is distasteful not because I'm not a fan of Elizabeth Bennet, I simply think such a depiction is rather limited, and somehow discredits her abilities as a writer.
Judith Lee quotes Virginia Woolf again:
I have often thought of writing an article on the coarseness of Jane Austen. The people who talk of her as if she were a niminy piminy spinster always annoy me.
I'd have loved to read that. I myself think "rears and vices" in "Mansfield park", albeit denied by many people, is very likely to imply sodomy. Jane Austen's not that 'nice', priggish, prim as a person.
Judith Lee comments at length on this line by Virginia Woolf:
Here is Jane Austen, a great writer as we all agree, but for my own part, I would rather not find myself alone in a room with her. A sense of meaning withheld, a smile at something unseen, an atmosphere of perfect control and courtesy mixed with something finely satirical, which, were it not directed against things in general, rather than against individuals would be almost malicious, would, so I feel, make it alarming to find her at home.
Both John Fowles and I have expressed the same idea. But, putting me aside, it's more understandable that John Fowles feels this way, considering that he's a man and a man may sometimes be quite intimidated by a sharp, witty woman. But another woman!
If we reflect upon Woolf’s readings of Jane Austen, especially in A Room of One’s Own, we shall find that she consistently characterizes Austen in much the same way that critics have characterized Elinor.  For much of her life, Woolf in a sense positioned herself as “Marianne” to Austen’s “Elinor”: We find in the character a “sense” she admired and the attempt to imagine a “sensibility” in which her writing originated. At times, Woolf expresses an admiration and irritation much like Marianne’s, on some occasions defending and on others dismissing her “sister” in a continual dialogue as necessary and as frustrating as the conversations of so many of Austen’s sisters.
For the time being, I'm not sure, having read only "Mrs Dalloway" and some chapters of "The voyage out". But the idea is interesting. (Emily Auerbach)
Edward Albee entitled his famous play “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” I would ask instead, “Who’s Afraid of, Annoyed with, Intimidated by, in Awe of, and in Dialogue with Jane Austen?” and answer, “Virginia Woolf.” I insist that without Jane Austen there would be no Virginia Woolf. Perhaps more of interest to Austen aficionados, I also argue that because Woolf knew firsthand the difficulty and exhilaration of perfecting one’s craft as a revolutionary woman writer, she produced some of the most perceptive and illuminating critical comments about Jane Austen ever made.
Virginia Woolf the essayist is very different from Virginia Woolf the novelist. Whereas F. Scott Fitzgerald maintains a clear, concise style in both fiction and nonfiction (only becomes more poetic in novels) and Gertrude Stein's always a mess, Virginia Woolf's prose can be loose, disordered, tiresome in her novels, especially in her stream-of-consciousness ones, but in essays she writes in a clear, concise, straightforward style with such authority that one must nod with her. And whilst I cannot say, with the same conviction, that without Jane Austen there would be no Virginia Woolf, I agree with the next sentence above.
Although Woolf praised Austen for three decades, her own complicated relationship to Austen seems to have evolved over time. In early essays and references in novels, Woolf writes about Austen from a respectful distance and with considerable ambivalence. Later in her life, particularly after reading Austen’s juvenilia, Woolf appears to have identified more closely with Austen and to have become more intent on defending her from critics viewing her as a decorous maiden aunt writing “little” novels because of her “little” life. [...] “Jane Austen and the Geese” shows Woolf defending Austen as if to defend herself and all women writers.
Her ambivalence is understandable. Jane Austen has limitations and creates her own restrictions, she's too little of a rebel. One doesn't have to defend, say, Nabokov for his sophisticated style, even if it poses a problem for many readers, because it's an asset, but one that likes Jane Austen always feels the need to defend her, as others may criticise her for triviality, for her small canvas, limited world, for her narrow concerns (obvious in letters), for her determination to leave out poverty and suffering, for ending all novels with marriages, for sticking strictly to familiar things, for being dull, for conventions, etc. and they do have a point, at least to some extent. Her admirers, if they're serious readers, are aware of such issues. Jane Austen's such a problematic figure, as I've written before, on the 1 hand she has such genius, on the other hand one feels quite uneasy because she focuses on such tiny things. Above all, the things for which she's criticised are the very things that (misogynistic) men accuse female writers of. Virginia Woolf therefore has to defend her, to defend herself, who also focuses on emotions, longings, relationships, human interactions, and to attack the view that male things like war and politics are more important and interesting.
As a fellow writer, Woolf felt she could appreciate Austen’s intricate craft—and the labor it took to produce it—in a way that non-writers never could:  “Only those who have realized for themselves the ridiculous inadequacy of a straight stick dipped in ink when brought in contact with the rich and tumultuous glow of life can appreciate to the full the wonder of her achievement, the imagination, the penetration, the insight, the courage, the sincerity which are required to bring before us one of those perfectly normal and simple incidents of average human life”.
This is probably why I enjoy reading writers' writings on other writers than critics', not because of the childish view that you must do something well before critiquing someone else, but simply because a writer may have from experience some insight and understanding an outsider can never have. But then, obviously not every great novelist can be a great critic- I'm thinking of 2 persons specifically, Virginia Woolf and Vladimir Nabokov.
Patronizing critics sniping about Austen’s tiny life enraged Virginia Woolf. She refused to accept the idea that Austen must have been broken-hearted because she never married or led a “normal” life. Writing about herself, Woolf observed, “Happiness—what, I wonder, constitutes happiness?  I daresay the most important element is work” (Diary 7 May 1919). Woolf knew Austen worked hard to hone her skills and found joy in her profession—yes, profession—as a writer. “She was happy in her life,” Woolf notes of Austen. “Life itself—that was the object of her love, of her absorbed study; that was the pursuit which filled those unrecorded years and drew out the ‘quiet intensity of her nature’”
I do understand the view some people hold, the irony of an unmarried woman writing about love and ending all novels with marriages, but that means nothing, for Jane Austen has greater understanding of love and relations between men and women than many writers with more experience. In fact, I think marriage might have done her harm.
Woolf did not ever, however, become an uncritical Janeite.  She finds Fanny Price boring and confesses to reading Mansfield Park “two words at a time” (Letters 2 February 1925).  She seems to find Austen’s perfection, artistic control, aloofness, and inscrutability maddening at times, and she objects when readers link her own work or personality to Austen’s.  She complains in her diary of Katherine Mansfield, “A decorous elderly dullard she describes me; Jane Austen up to date” (28 November 1919), insisting in letters that she does not want to be “Jane Austen over again,” particularly if it means that she has to suppress half her sexuality (Letters 5 December 1919, 20 November 1932).  In the same letter censuring critics for treating Austen like a “niminy piminy spinster,” Woolf herself calls Austen “a limited, tart, rather conventional woman for all her genius” (20 November 1936).
I don't think anybody likes to be compared to a predecessor, even if it's a compliment. The good thing is that, I don't know for how long Virginia Woolf was compared to Jane Austen, but today she stands alone, as Virginia Woolf, with her own style, with her "Mrs Dalloway" and "To the lighthouse" and "The waves", etc., her association with modernism and stream of consciousness (together with James Joyce), Bloomsbury and her own place in literature. I haven't seen many people now compare her to Jane Austen.
Austen seems to confound any attempt Woolf makes to give her just one label. Woolf’s extensive comments on Austen leave us with a sense of implied oxymorons—Austen as a limited genius, an alarming domestic, a conventional rebel, an old-fashioned modern.
But ain't it true?
Unlike other women writers, Austen did not allow anger to distort her prose. Elizabeth Bennet does not suddenly in the middle of Pride and Prejudice stop to launch into a feminist diatribe against inadequate opportunities for women, the way Jane Eyre does. Woolf tells us that Jane Austen doesn’t preach or rant; she simply refuses to allow “masculine values” to prevail in her fiction, despite their dominance in society. Biased critics inevitably judged men’s novels about the battles of men in war more important than women’s novels about “the feelings of women in a drawing-room,” but Austen knew better than that. As she put it in Northanger Abbey, her novels displayed “the greatest powers of the mind” and “most thorough knowledge of human nature” in “the best chosen language”.
This is related to the point about defending Jane Austen, some paragraphs ago. Virginia Woolf, I believe, also learns not to preach or rant in her novels. That would be unpleasant.
As Woolf grew older and read more of Austen’s juvenilia, she seems to have acquired a greater appreciation of her unconventional depths and a greater disdain for those critics and readers who never got past the “quiet maiden lady” Woolf herself had once labeled Austen (Southam 244).
I have no intention of reading her juvenilia now, but over the past few months I have seen Jane Austen more clearly and found many of my previous conceptions entirely wrong.
Woolf, too, is an elusive, slippery, enigmatic figure, so writing about Woolf and Austen takes not just temerity but audacity.  My search has not concluded but has led me far enough to gain a greater appreciation of both feisty, non-niminy piminy women who ignored the honking critical geese, kept to their own style, went on in their own way, and found the courage to write fiction that changed the world.
What a conclusion. So far, more drawn to her nonfiction, now I have to read more of Virginia Woolf's novels. 

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