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‘The name escapes me’: Virginia Woolf’s Dislocation of Patrilineal Memory in A Room of One’s Own

« The name escapes me »: la dislocation de la mémoire patrilinéaire dans A Room of One’s Own
Marie Laniel


Dans la première section de A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf situe son exploration des nouveaux modes de l’écriture féminine à Oxbridge, territoire cartographié autrefois par son propre père, Leslie Stephen, qui consacra une série d’essais à Oxbridge, Sketches from Cambridge, by a Don, en 1865. Alors que le professeur anonyme de Sketches s’inscrit explicitement dans la lignée des grands hommes qui évoquèrent Oxbridge avant lui, John Milton, Charles Lamb, W. M. Thackeray, Alfred Tennyson, la narratrice de A Room of One’s Own déconstruit les codes d’appartenance sanctionnés par l’institution en creusant un espace de jeu dans la mémoire patrilinéaire. En retraçant pas à pas l’itinéraire citationnel de Stephen, elle se réapproprie l’espace culturel d’Oxbridge et adopte une position ambivalente d’exclue et d’initiée au sein de l’institution. Elle prouve ainsi que la définition de nouveaux modes d’écriture féminins passe précisément par la dis-location, la ré-interprétation et la ré-écriture de la lign(é)e masculine dans une logique androgyne.

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1In the first two sections of A Room of One’s Own (1929), Virginia Woolf sets her meditation on new feminine modes of writing within two male-dominated institutions where patrilineal intellectual traditions are kept: Oxbridge, ‘where they are so adept at putting people into classes and fixing caps on their heads and letters after their names’ (105), and the British Museum Reading Room, ‘the vast dome … which is so splendidly encircled by a band of famous names’ (26). The sense of belonging to both institutions is literally and figuratively spelled out by the few letters added by educated men after their names (B. A., M. A.), and by the band of famous names (Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, Wordsworth, Carlyle, Tennyson, Browning…) written in golden letters around the dome of the British Museum Reading Room. As the repositories of collective memory, the university and the library partake of an incremental vision of literary history as a genealogy of great works: Oxbridge as the Alma Mater of great writers, and the British Museum as the mausoleum of dead heroes, the theatre of Thomas Carlyle’s historiographic epic in his introduction to Oliver Cromwell’s Letters and Speeches (1845) and of Leslie Stephen’s commemorative project, the Dictionary of National Biography, in ‘Biography’ (1893), ‘National Biography’ (1896) and ‘Dryasdust’ (1900).

2In A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf’s persona—‘call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael or by any name you please’ (5)—, one of the many faces of ‘Anon’, deliberately disrupts these masculine lines of descent (‘the name escapes me…’ ‘I forget [the] name…’), by re-appropriating Oxbridge as a textual mindscape, a place of free associations, stray memories, textual fragments and surfaces, in a relation of synchronicity. Although she positions herself as an outsider, baffled by the codes of conduct of educated men, Woolf’s persona secures an ambivalent position within both institutions by brilliantly reworking masculine subtexts into her own meditations, thus proving that the process of defining alternative, feminine modes of writing is closely connected with the dis-location, re-interpretation and re-writing of masculine traditions in a process of ‘productivité contestative’ and ‘genèse destructrice’ (Kristeva 91, 98).

  • 1 Sketches from Cambridge were originally published by instalments in The Pall Mall Gazette from 23 M (...)
  • 2 On Leslie Stephen’s time in Cambridge as an undergraduate and as a don, see Frederic Maitland’s bio (...)
  • 3 On Leslie Stephen’s call for educational reforms, see Maitland (76-8) and Annan (34-8), as well as (...)
  • 4 One of the central images of A Room of One’s Own, the intellectual ‘feast’ enjoyed by the happy few (...)

3When she first sets foot in Oxbridge, Mary Beton is deliberately trespassing on well-trodden ground and retracing the literary footsteps of eminent men of letters, such as Virginia Woolf’s own father, Leslie Stephen, who devoted a series of essays to Oxbridge, Sketches from Cambridge (1865).1 Stephen read mathematics at Trinity Hall as an undergraduate from 1850 to 1854, was appointed to a bye-fellowship, subsequently ordained, and became a fellow and tutor of Trinity Hall in 1856, a position which he had to resign in 1862 because of religious doubts.2 He then left Cambridge at the end of 1864 and turned to a career in journalism in London. Sketches from Cambridge, which were written by Stephen as ‘a pert young journalist’ (Maitland 41), after his academic career had come to an abrupt end, are not memoirs, but a series of satirical sketches of the university, reflecting Stephen’s call for educational reforms3 and his dislike of ‘donnishness’ (Maitland 71). Although Stephen had already left Cambridge when his Sketches were published, they are written from the insider’s point of view, that of an anonymous middle-aged classical don, from an unspecified Oxbridge college, who is rather given to hero-worship, not entirely above sexist prejudice, but who does also point out some of the foibles of his peers and some of the shortcomings of university education: ‘I am a University man, and no part of the University is alien from me’ (7).4

  • 5 See Bowlby 16-42.

4Writing from the security and comfort of a room of his own, overlooking ‘a lawn of velvet turf’, on which he is presumably free to walk, having easy access to the library, the chapel and the lecture-rooms of his college, Stephen’s don is the perfect embodiment of what Virginia Woolf would later call the ‘trained mind’ (Woolf 1976, 97), the mind ‘who has been trained in research at Oxbridge’ (Woolf 1929, 28), whom she opposes to ‘the untrained mind’ (Woolf 1938, 5) or ‘the instinctive mind’ (Woolf 1976, 97):5

We have a lawn of velvet turf, hitherto devoted to the orthodox game of bowls, but threatened by an invasion of croquet, for female influence is slowly but surely invading our cloisters. Whether, like the ivy that gathers upon our ancient walls, it may ultimately be fatal to their stability, remains yet to be seen. It has not, however, penetrated to the rooms in which I now snatch a few moments from my meditated edition of a certain ancient classical author. . . . This occupation allows me leisure to contemplate the busy life around me; I lounge at my window to hear ‘in college fanes the storm their high-built organs make’. I see the surpliced congregation gathering to form the picture which suggested to Tennyson his ‘six hundred maidens clad in purest white’ (I can’t say that that is precisely what they suggest to me), and I listen daily to ‘the thunder of the halls’, and the fainter murmur that proceeds from the lecture-rooms. (5–6)

  • 6 John Milton studied at Christ’s College, Cambridge, from 1625 to 1632, but ‘was disappointed by and (...)
  • 7 In chapter VIII of Sketches (‘Dons’), Stephen directly alludes to Thackeray’s Snob Papers: ‘A “don” (...)

5Intellectually alert, the trained mind is first and foremost a well-read mind, that of a scholar, who, enjoying the security of his college accommodation, is also firmly rooted in a literary tradition and writing from a secure position within that tradition. While describing the buildings, the chapel and the lawn of his college, Stephen’s don also maps out the university as literary ground by retracing the steps of great men who depicted Oxbridge before him. The pastoral charm of his college, ‘bosomed deep in tufted trees’ (5), can be traced back to Milton’s L’Allegro (1645), a hymn to youthful mirth composed during Milton’s university years in Cambridge, and to Lycidas (1638), a pastoral elegy dedicated by Milton to the memory of Edward King, a Fellow of his Cambridge college.6 The bliss of university life ‘in vacation time, when lectures are not, and even St. Mary’s is deserted’ (8, 73) brings to his mind Charles Lamb’s essay, ‘Oxford in the Vacation’ (1823), while his satirical portrait of eminent dons is an overt tribute to W. M. Thackeray’s attack on ‘University Snobs’ in The Snob Papers (87).7

6As one of ‘the initiated’ (4), Stephen’s don also draws on literary traditions associated with societies, fraternities, coteries, clubs and cliques. In the introduction of Sketches, pride of place is given to the first of these networks of literary allusions, through a reference to Tom Brown at Oxford (1861) by Thomas Hughes: ‘Tom Brown has given us a glimpse of Oxford as seen from the undergraduate’s point of view’ (2). The sequel to Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), the Victorian bestseller set in the public school of Rugby during the headmastership of Dr. Arnold, Tom Brown at Oxford describes the young hero’s university days at the fictional Oxford College of Saint Ambrose. Thomas Hughes’ novels epitomize what Woolf would later call ‘the private-school stage of human existence’, ‘where there are “sides”, and it is necessary for one side to beat another side, and of the utmost importance to walk up to a platform and receive from the hands of the Headmaster himself a highly ornamental pot’ (Woolf 1929, 106). Both at Rugby and Oxford, Tom Brown proves his moral strength and physical vigour on the field of honour, during cricket games, football matches or boat races, and is rewarded with the ‘labels of merit’ derided by Woolf in A Room of One’s Own (106).

  • 8 Literally, ‘(the problem) is solved by walking’, ‘an appeal to practical experience for the solutio (...)

7Leslie Stephen was a great admirer of Thomas Hughes and Charles Kingsley, who were the chief representatives of ‘Muscular Christianity’, the ‘Victorian religious, social and literary movement’ which rejected all form of asceticism, propounded a strenuous form of Christianity and closely associated ‘bodily and moral strength’, ‘physical strength, religious certainty, and the ability to shape and control the world around oneself’ (Hall 7). As an agnostic and a utilitarian philosopher, Stephen subverted the anti-intellectual stance of the Muscular Christians, adapting their belief in physical vigour to his own cult of intellectual performance. In Sketches from Cambridge, we find the first instance of a network of images running through Stephen’s essays (‘In Praise of Walking’, Some Early Impressions), closely associating physical and intellectual vigour, applying physical energy to philosophical pursuits. The ‘trained mind’ depicted in Sketches firmly believes in ‘intellectual training’, and the need to ‘carry into our intellectual pursuits much of the same tough, indomitable vigour that every one can see exhibited in bone and muscle’ (81). It should come as no surprise then that, according to Frederic Maitland, Stephen’s motto as a utilitarian philosopher was ‘solvitur ambulando’,8 since walking is often presented as the perfect incentive to philosophical thinking in his essays.

  • 9 In Some Early Impressions (1903), Stephen wrote about his allegiance to the sect of Muscular Christ (...)

8It was during his Cambridge days that Stephen became a disciple of the ‘Muscular School’: as ‘a mighty walker’ (Maitland 39), the leader of a walking club called the ‘Boa Constrictor Club’ (64), as ‘a fanatical oarsman’ (46) and later as the coach of the Trinity Hall rowing team.9 In chapter II of Sketches (‘The Rowing Man’), Stephen reminisces about his feats on the river as a coach by referring to two purple passages written by ‘Muscular Christians’: the description of the ‘bumps’ in Alton Locke (1850) by Kingsley and the race between St Ambrose and Brasenose College in Tom Brown at Oxford (‘The First Bump’):

The best of all possible or actual descriptions [of the boat races], however, was given in Tom Brown at Oxford; it is the one passage in the book which is really inimitable, and to it I must refer my readers if they would understand the thrill which causes every nerve in an old oarsman’s body to vibrate again when he hears ‘the pulse of racing-oars among the willows’. (13)

9The lines from Tennyson’s elegy, In Memoriam (1850), ‘the pulse of racing-oars among the willows’, which conjure up Stephen’s lost youth as an athlete and a leader of men, are part of another network of literary recollections, harking back to Tennyson’s poetry.

  • 10 See Christopher Ricks’s introduction to The Princess (219).
  • 11 … then day droopt; the chapel bellsCalled us: we left the walks; we mixt with those
          Six hundre

10From the opening pages of Sketches, Stephen’s Cambridge is strongly indebted to Tennyson’s depiction of university life in two poems, The Princess: A Medley (1847) and In Memoriam (1850). Lounging at his window, Stephen’s don can hear ‘“in college fanes the storm their high-built organs make”’, he can ‘see the surpliced congregation which suggested to Tennyson his “six hundred maidens clad in purest white”’ and ‘listen daily to “the thunder of the halls”’ (6). Quite interestingly, to convey the spirit of Cambridge, Stephen does not refer to a fraternity, but to a sorority, ‘the six hundred maidens clad in purest white’ from The Princess (1847). In this narrative poem, first entitled The New University,10 Tennyson imagines ‘an University for maidens’ (I, l.149-150), founded by Ida, ‘the Princess’, a young woman who vowed never to marry but to offer women the same education as men and the same opportunities to fulfil their intellectual aspirations. Men are strictly forbidden to penetrate within the precincts of the University on pain of death. To woo the Princess, who was betrothed to him from an early age, the Prince and two of his friends dress up as women to pass muster with the Portress and then trespass on this forbidden ground. Once inside the University, the three men join the congregation of ‘six hundred maidens clad in purest white’ assembling for service, in the passage quoted by Stephen.11

  • 12 As we can see from the following lines, even within the ‘University for Maidens’, some of the young (...)

11In her study of masculinity in Victorian romance, Thaïs Morgan has shown that: ‘Hegemonic masculinity is modified but not overthrown in The Princess’ as ‘action and its resolution depend on marriages sanctioned by the patriarchal order’ (Morgan 207–208).12 After a fierce battle of the sexes, the Prince persuades Ida to renounce her vows and safely turn to matrimony and motherhood as true domestic ideals. After Ida has finally yielded to her growing affection for the Prince, she reads from an idyll, celebrating domestic bliss, in which a shepherd asks a maid to leave the ‘mountain height’ (‘What pleasure lives in height’), and join her lover in the valley (‘for love is of the valley’), telling her about the bliss of domestic life and motherhood:

So waste not thou; but come; for all the vales
Await thee; azure pillars of the hearth
Arise to thee; the children call, and I
Thy shepherd pipe, and sweet is every sound,
Sweeter thy voice, but every sound is sweet;
Myriads of rivulets hurrying through the lawn,
The moan of doves in immemorial elms,
And murmuring of innumerable bees.
(VII, l.200–207)

12As Ida turns her university into a hospital and renounces her vows, Tennyson reassigns ‘the Princess’ to her proper, domestic sphere and to her role as the ‘angel in the house’ caring for wounded men.

  • 13 Like the fictional don of his essay, Leslie Stephen advocated educational reforms and was progressi (...)
  • 14 Alfred Tennyson studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1827 to 1831 (Levy 43-81). Poignant rec (...)

13Despite his jocular tone, Stephen’s don lays great stress on ‘college spirit’ (143), the ‘communistic spirit’ (144) of Cambridge and fears the incipient influence of women.13 Dismissing the reference to Ida’s sorority (‘I can’t say that that is precisely what they suggest to me’, 6), he summons another Tennysonian subtext, closer to his heart, the lines from In Memoriam in which Tennyson recalls his university days, as an undergraduate of Trinity College and as a member of the Cambridge Apostles, a secret society of brethren devoted to the philosophical quest of truth through Socratic dialogue.14 In section LXXXVII of In Memoriam, mourning for his lost friend and his lost youth, the poet returns to Cambridge only to find that ‘another name was on the door’, and to watch from the outside the gathering of a new generation of Apostles:

I past beside the reverend walls
In which of old I wore the gown;
I roved at random through the town,
And saw the tumult of the halls;

And heard once more in college fanes
The storm their high-built organs make,
And thunder-music, rolling, shake
The prophet blazoned on the panes;
And caught once more the distant shout,
The measured pulse of racing oars
Among the willows; paced the shores
And many a bridge, and all about

The same gray flats again, and felt
The same, but not the same; and last
Up that long walk of limes I past
To see the rooms in which he dwelt.

Another name was on the door:
I lingered; all within was noise
Of songs, and clapping hands, and boys
That crashed the glass and beat the floor;

Where once we held debate, a band
Of youthful friends, on mind and art,
And labour, and the changing mart,
And all the framework of the land…
(LXXXVII, l.1–24)

14Although Leslie Stephen was never elected as a member of the Apostles (Maitland 47), he seems to make up for this lack of intellectual recognition by appropriating the stance of the initiated from Tennyson’s lines and his nostalgia for Cambridge fraternities, ‘the knot of youthful philosophers who met on Saturday evenings to discuss all problems in heaven or earth’ (73), thus furthering this masculine line of literary descent.

15While Stephen’s don explicitly posits himself as the heir to Milton, Lamb, Thackeray and Tennyson, Woolf’s persona in A Room of One’s Own finds herself in the awkward position of having no tradition to relate to: ‘if one is a woman one is often surprised by a sudden splitting off of consciousness, say in walking down Whitehall, when from being the natural inheritor of that civilisation, she becomes, on the contrary, outside of it, alien and critical’ (97). This ‘splitting off of consciouness’ is playfully epitomised by the fragmented identity of the persona, as Woolf substitutes a paradoxical form of first-person plural (‘Call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael…’) for Stephen’s first-person singular, the anonymous don, caricatured as ‘Professor von X’ (31), whose egotism, symbolized by the phallic letter ‘I’, casts a dark shadow across the page (99). Disowned by her forebears, and seemingly unable to summon literary recollections, Mary Beton replaces patrilineal descent by matrilineal legacy: she receives five hundred pounds a year for ever from her aunt—also called Mary Beton—, ‘for no other reason than that I share her name’ (37). She also substitutes the point of view of the outsider, trespassing on forbidden ground, for that of the University man, ‘from whom no part of the university is alien’. Following in the exact footsteps of Stephen’s don, ‘the trained mind’ from Sketches, on the banks of the river, on the lawn, in the library, the chapel and the hall of Oxbridge colleges, Mary Beton is thus successively driven away by a beadle and a librarian. However, although she is physically excluded from the seat of learning, ‘outside of it, alien and critical’, she retraces the exact same literary topography as Stephen’s don, thus appropriating Oxbridge on an intertextual level and securing an ambivalent position within this masculine stronghold.

16Famously, Woolf’s meditation on the lack of a truly feminine literary tradition opens on ‘the banks of a river’ where Mary Beton is fishing for thoughts, a river which could either be the Cam or the Isis, but which is first and foremost Woolf’s favourite medium to describe half-formed processes of thought, impressions, reflections and recollections: ‘When you asked me to speak about women and fiction I sat down on the banks of a river and began to wonder what the words meant’ (3), ‘On the further bank the willows wept in perpetual lamentation, their hair about their shoulders. The river reflected whatever it chose of sky and bridge and burning tree, and when the undergraduate had oared his boat through the reflections they closed again, completely, as if he had never been’ (5). As Woolf sets the scene for her musings on women and fiction, the lines from Leslie Stephen, Thomas Hughes and Tennyson’s In Memoriam, ‘the measured pulse of racing oars among the willows’, whose iambic rhythm and alliterations are woven into Woolf’s sentence, seem to glide just beneath the surface of the text not as explicit quotations but as passing thoughts or passing recollections in the private mind, disappearing just as they are summoned from the depths of collective memory.

17In the last section of A Room, this undercurrent borrowed from Victorian literature, this stream of free associations, becomes a metaphor for the porous, resonant, undivided quality of the androgynous mind, its ability to cross the boundaries of genre and gender:

A single leaf detached itself from the plane tree at the end of the street, and in that pause and suspension fell. Somehow it was like a signal falling, a signal pointing to a force in things which one had overlooked. It seemed to point to a river, which flowed past, invisibly, round the corner, down the street, and took people and eddied them along, as the stream at Oxbridge had taken the undergraduate in his boat and the dead leaves. (96)

18Woolf’s reinterpretation of this image from Tennyson, Hughes and Stephen, is but one example of her ability to dis-locate or ‘deterritorialise’ key motifs from Victorian prose and poetry to serve her own purposes and adapt them to new writing experiments.

  • 15 Although Woolf pretends not to recall its name, the essay mentioned here is an earlier version of ‘ (...)

19Substituting a gentle stroll for the ‘mighty walk[ing]’ of the ‘Muscular non-Christian’ (Annan 33), Mary Beton is led by the course of supposedly random thoughts from the banks of the river to the library, where ‘some stray memory’ (6) brings to her mind the great men quoted by Stephen in his essay, Milton, Lamb, Thackeray: ‘As chance would have it, some stray memory of some old essay about revisiting Oxbridge in the long vacation brought Charles Lamb to mind—Saint Charles, said Thackeray, putting a letter of Lamb’s to his forehead’ (6), ‘Lamb then came to Oxbridge perhaps a hundred years ago. Certainly, he wrote an essay—the name escapes me—about the manuscript of one of Milton’s poems which he saw here. It was Lycidas perhaps, and Lamb wrote how it shocked him to think it possible that any word in Lycidas could have been different from what it is. To think of Milton changing the words in that poem seemed to him a sort of sacrilege’ (7).15

  • 16 ‘I can here play the gentleman, enact the student. To such a one as myself, who has been defrauded (...)
  • 17 In The Book of Snobs, Thackeray exposes the undue privileges of Oxbridge aristocrats: ‘If you consi (...)

20Although Mary Beton is prevented by the librarian from looking at the manuscripts (of Lycidas and The History of Henry Esmond) kept in the Library of Trinity, her meditations illustrate the process of free association, integral to the true experience of reading, through which a self-taught reader makes the texts work in and out of her mind, and suggests new connections between them. Precisely because she is denied access to the library, Mary Beton appropriates the stance of the outsider which is at the very heart of both Lamb’s and Thackeray’s essays. ‘Oxford in the Vacation’ is written from the point of view of Elia, a clerk for the South Sea House in London, who, ‘defrauded in his young years of the sweet food of academic institution’ (15), visits Oxford during the vacation to ‘enact the student’.16 In The Snob Papers, Thackeray also writes from the satirical perspective of the ‘common man’ who is not allowed to tread on the lawn of Cambridge colleges.17 Like the protagonist of Lamb’s essay, strolling through Oxford during the vacation and only pretending that he belongs to the institution, Mary Beton is merely passing by. By portraying her protagonist as an ‘amateur’ reader, by borrowing and re-interpreting the stance of the outsider from Lamb’s and Thackeray’s essays, Woolf actually returns the subtexts to their original, true meaning, and secures this ambivalent position: writing from the outside in, both from without and from within this masculine literary tradition.

21Following in the footsteps of her father, Woolf also appropriates and subverts the stance of Tennysonian personae. Although she does not openly quote from The Princess, the subtext is implicitly, but very subtly, woven into the whole opening section of A Room of One’s Own, in which the indictment of male privileges is underpinned by the ironic reversal of Tennyson’s poem: instead of having a man in woman’s clothes break into ‘the University for Maidens’, Woolf has a woman trespassing on forbidden, masculine ground. Like the hero of Tennyson’s poem, who, being a man, is forbidden access to Ida’s college, Mary Beton, being a woman, cannot tread on the lawn or enter the library—the only, but very significant, difference being of course that, though physically excluded from the seat of learning, the female persona demonstrates her intimate knowledge of Tennyson’s poems by weaving them into her own meditations.

22After walking past the chapel, where she does not see ‘six hundred maidens clad in purest white’ but middle-aged dons ‘creased and crushed into [singular] shapes’ (8), Mary Beton has luncheon at a richly-endowed men’s college, where she finds the need to ‘think [herself . . .] back into the past, before the war indeed’ (12), and to conjure up the world of Tennysonian romance:

23A book lay beside me and, opening it, I turned casually enough to Tennyson. And here I found Tennyson was singing:

There has fallen a splendid tear
From the passion-flower at the gate.
She is coming, my dove, my dear;
She is coming, my life, my fate;
The red rose cries, ‘She is near, she is near’;
And the white rose weeps, ‘She is late’;
The larkspur listens, ‘I hear, I hear’;
And the lily whispers, ‘I wait’. (12)

24In this excerpt from section XXII of Maud (1855), the young woman is attending a dinner at her father’s house, while the poet, who was not invited to the celebration, has come unseen to her garden and is waiting for her, looking at the lighted windows of the Hall from a distance and calling her name: ‘Come into the garden, Maud, / I am here at the gate alone’ (XXII, l.852-3).

25After leaving the men’s college, and as she ponders the relevance of Maud to her own times, Mary Beton also feels the doors to opulence and privilege slowly closing behind her: ‘The beautiful October day was fading and the leaves were falling from the trees in the avenue as I walked through it. Gate after gate seemed to close with gentle finality behind me. Innumerable beadles were fitting innumerable keys into well-oiled locks; the treasure-house was being made secure for another night’ (13). As Mary bewails women’s lack of access to university education, Tennyson’s lines from The Princess celebrating the bliss of matrimony—‘The moan of doves in immemorial elms, / And murmuring of innumerable bees’—are endowed with new subversive meaning. As ‘innumerable bees’ turn into ‘innumerable beadles’ securing the stronghold of culture for the night, Victorian romance gives way to harsh socio-economic reality, and the posture of exclusion, built into The Princess and Maud as a masculine stance, now applies to the female persona.

26As she makes her way towards a much more obscure and less richly-endowed women’s college (‘After the avenue one comes out upon a road—I forget its name—which leads you, if you take the right turning, along to Fernham’ 13), Tennyson’s lines echo in her mind:

It is strange how a scrap of poetry works in the mind and makes the legs move in time to it along the road. Those words—
        There has fallen a splendid tear
        From the passion-flower at the gate.
        She is coming, my dove, my dear—
sang in my blood as I stepped quickly along towards Headingley. (13–4)

27As her protagonist walks through Cambridge in step with Tennyson’s poetry, Woolf implicitly conflates her awkward position, walking in the dusk and watching lighted windows from the outside, ‘dim and festive [houses] with their red windows in the dusk’ (15), with the situation of the poet in Maud, the outsider uninvited to the party. Here, Woolf does not merely indict ‘hegemonic masculinity’, but more interestingly succeeds in turning the locus of contention—Victorian views on women’s education—into an instrument of emancipation by reworking Tennyson’s lines into her own meditations on feminine writing through explicit quotation (Maud) or implicit allusion (The Princess).

28It is indeed by dis-locating patrilineal literary memory, from Tennyson’s romance to Stephen’s Sketches, that Virginia Woolf succeeds in securing a position in Oxbridge and in developing ‘a prose style completely expressive of her mind’ (95). By challenging the vision of the university as a stronghold of culture, mapped out as literary ground by prestigious forebears, she re-appropriates Oxbridge as a textual mindscape, a place of random memories, implicit allusions, stray quotations (‘mosaïque de citations’, Kristeva 85) and textual fragments. In the last section of her essay, Woolf writes that ‘it is useless to go to the great men writers for help, however much one may go to them for pleasure’, that ‘Lamb, Browne, Thackeray, Newman, Sterne, Dickens, De Quincey—whoever it may be—never helped a woman yet, though she may have learnt a few tricks of them and adapted them to her use’, since ‘the weight, the pace, the stride of a man’s mind are too unlike her own for her to lift anything substantial from him successfully’ (76). Although they cannot go to great men for help, and cannot relate to men’s traditions, women writers can still write from the outside in, by subverting masculine subtexts into intruments of emancipation. One of the best examples of Woolf’s dis-location or ‘deterritorialisation’ of a masculine subtext is her reinterpretation of Leslie Stephen’s ‘solvitur ambulando’, of his vigorous stride, into a gentle stroll. Mary Beton’s walk through Oxbridge in step with Victorian poetry undermines the hierarchical conception of literature as a genealogy of great works by conveying a sense of synchronicity with the past, a vision of reading and writing as non-linear processes. By adapting masculine subtexts to her own feminist agenda and by weaving them into the fabric of modernity, Woolf proves that the definition of alternative, feminine modes of writing is closely connected with the re-interpretation of this patrilineal literary tradition by an androgynous mind.

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Morgan, Thaïs E., ‘The Poetry of Victorian Masculinities’, The Cambridge Companion to Victorian Poetry, ed. Joseph Bristow, Cambridge: CUP, 2000, 203–227.

Pearsall, Cornelia, ‘Whither, Whether, Woolf: Victorian Poetry and A Room of One’s Own’, Victorian Poetry 41.4 (2003): 596–603.

Stephen, Leslie, Sketches from Cambridge, by a Don, London: Macmillan, 1865.

———, ‘University Organisation’, by a Don, Fraser’s Magazine 77 (1868): 135–153.

———, ‘Athletic Sports and University Studies’, Fraser’s Magazine 82 (1870): 691–704.

———, ‘The Future of University Reform’, Fraser’s Magazine 84 (1871): 269–281.

———, ‘University Endowments’, Fraser’s Magazine 89 (1874): 323–335.

———, ‘Senior Wranglers’, Cornhill Magazine 45 (1882): 225–234.

———, ‘Biography’, National Review 22 (1893): 171–183.

———, ‘National Biography’, National Review 27 (1896): 51–65.

———, ‘Dryasdust’, Speaker, 23 June 1900: 331–332.

———, ‘In Praise of Walking’, Monthly Review 4 (1901): 96–116.

———, Some Early Impressions (1903), New York: Franklin, 1924.

Tennyson, Alfred, Tennyson: A Selected Edition, ed. Christopher Ricks, Longman, 2007.

Thackeray, William Makepeace, The Book of Snobs, by One of Themselves (1848), London: Smith Elder, 1869.

Vance, Norman, The Sinews of the Spirit: The Ideal of Christian Manliness in Victorian Literature and Religious Thought, Cambridge: CUP, 1985.

Woolf, Virginia, Jacob’s Room (1922), Oxford: OUP, 1992.

———, ‘A Woman’s College from Outside’ (1926), The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf, ed. Susan Dick, New York: Harcourt, 1989.

———, A Room of One’s Own (1929), New York: Harcourt, 1989.

———, Moments of Being (1976), London: Pimlico, 2002.

———, Three Guineas (1938), Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.

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1 Sketches from Cambridge were originally published by instalments in The Pall Mall Gazette from 23 March to 18 May 1865, and later reprinted in book form with slight alterations by Macmillan in 1865. They were written anonymously, ‘by a Don’, but were clearly attributed to Leslie Stephen. See The Pall Mall Gazette 39 (23 March 1865), 41 (25 March 1865), 45 (30 March 1865), 48 (3 April 1865), 51 (6 April 1865), 57 (13 April 1865), 61 (19 April 1865), 65 (24 April 1865), 71 (1 May 1865), 77 (8 May 1865), 86 (18 May 1865).

2 On Leslie Stephen’s time in Cambridge as an undergraduate and as a don, see Frederic Maitland’s biography, The Life and Letters of Leslie Stephen (1906) (‘The Undergraduate (1850-1854)’: 41-54, and ‘Sketches of a Don at Cambridge (1854-1864)’: 55-78), and Noel Annan’s biography (‘Undergraduate and Rowing Man’: 24-34, and ‘The Radical Don’: 34-47).

3 On Leslie Stephen’s call for educational reforms, see Maitland (76-8) and Annan (34-8), as well as Stephen’s own essays, ‘University Organisation’, by a Don (1868), ‘Athletic Sports and University Studies’ (1870), ‘The Future of University Reform’ (1871), ‘University Endowments’ (1874) and ‘Senior Wranglers’ (1882).

4 One of the central images of A Room of One’s Own, the intellectual ‘feast’ enjoyed by the happy few of men’s colleges, can probably be traced back to the opening lines of Stephen’s essay: ‘The world may be divided into the two classes of those who have and those who have not received a university education. With regard to the latter, I can only repeat the remark said to have been originally applied to the small colleges by a member of Trinity College, Cambridge—“They, too, are God’s creatures”. I think it is a pity that more rays do not emanate from the great focus of intellectual life in England to clear up some of the dark places of the land. Because—perhaps from no fault of theirs—they have not sat at the feast, is that a reason for grudging them the crumbs that fall from our table?’ (1-2).

5 See Bowlby 16-42.

6 John Milton studied at Christ’s College, Cambridge, from 1625 to 1632, but ‘was disappointed by and sharply critical of the education he received at Cambridge University’ (Lewalski 15). It was during his years as a Cambridge student, probably in the summer of 1631, that Milton wrote the two companion poems, L’Allegro and Il Penseroso, the first an hymn to Mirth, the second to Melancholy. Lycidas, which was composed later in the autumn of 1637 and published in 1638, is dedicated to the memory of a Fellow of Christ’s College, Edward King, who had died at sea in August 1637. ‘Though clearly idealized, that poem’s description of their life as fellow-poets at Cambridge may suggest some amicable associations’ (Lewalski 30). The poem is set in ‘an idealized Cambridge University characterized by pastoral otium’ (Lewalski 82). The original manuscript is preserved in the library of Trinity College.

7 In chapter VIII of Sketches (‘Dons’), Stephen directly alludes to Thackeray’s Snob Papers: ‘A “don” has indeed become a proverbial expression for an unpleasant variety of the great genus prig. He was portrayed with inimitable skill by Mr. Thackeray in the Snob Papers’ (87). W. M. Thackeray (1811-1863) studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1829 to 1830, disliked academia and wrote a satire of ‘University Dons’ in The Snob Papers, a series of satirical sketches published in Punch (1846-7), and later collected in The Book of Snobs (1848): ‘The pompous old College Don trembles in his common room, lest we should attack him and show him up as a Snob’ (56). He later coined the word ‘Oxbridge’ in The History of Pendennis (1848-50). Leslie Stephen would marry one of Thackeray’s two daughters, Harriet Marian ‘Minny’ Thackeray, in 1867, four years after Thackeray’s death.

8 Literally, ‘(the problem) is solved by walking’, ‘an appeal to practical experience for the solution of a problem or proof of a statement’ (OED).

9 In Some Early Impressions (1903), Stephen wrote about his allegiance to the sect of Muscular Christians: ‘Tom Brown was taken then as a manifesto of Muscular Christianity. The theory of that sect was that a man should fear God and walk a thousand miles in a thousand hours. . . . I preached that part of the Kingsley-Hughes creed with a zeal of which perhaps I ought to be ashamed’ (45-46).

10 See Christopher Ricks’s introduction to The Princess (219).

11 … then day droopt; the chapel bellsCalled us: we left the walks; we mixt with those
      Six hundred maidens clad in purest white,
      Before two streams of light from wall to wall,
      While the great organ almost burst his pipes,
      Groaning for power, and rolling through the court
      A long melodious thunder to the sound
      Of solemn psalms, and silver litanies,
      The work of Ida, to call down from Heaven
      A blessing on her labours for the world.
The Princess, II, l.446-455)

12 As we can see from the following lines, even within the ‘University for Maidens’, some of the young female students question Ida’s devotion to learning:
      At last a solemn grace
      Concluded, and we sought the gardens: there
      One walked reciting by herself, and one
      In this hand held a volume as to read,
      And smoothed a petted peacock down with that:
      Some to a low song oared a shallop by,
      Or under arches of the marble bridge
      Hung, shadowed from the heat: some hid and sought
      In the orange thickets: others tost a ball
      Above the fountain-jets, and back again
      With laughter: others lay about the lawns,
      Of the older sort, and murmured that their May
      Was passing: what was learning unto them?
      They wished to marry; they could rule a house;
      Men hated learned women…
The Princess, II, l.428-442)

13 Like the fictional don of his essay, Leslie Stephen advocated educational reforms and was progressive in some ways, but not to the extent of emancipating women. Although he wrote in a letter to his wife, Julia Stephen, that ‘women should be “as well educated as men… I hate to see so many women’s lives wasted simply because they have not been trained well enough”’ (Annan 119), he did not think that women should be given the vote and: ‘When in 1897 there was a Grace in the Senate House at Cambridge to grant women full membership of the university, Stephen did not go up to vote. He did not care for emancipated women’ (Annan 110).

14 Alfred Tennyson studied at Trinity College, Cambridge, from 1827 to 1831 (Levy 43-81). Poignant recollections of university life are contained in In Memoriam A. H. H. (1850), the elegy written in memory of his Cambridge friend, Arthur Hallam, who was, like him, a member of the Cambridge Apostles.

15 Although Woolf pretends not to recall its name, the essay mentioned here is an earlier version of ‘Oxford in the Vacation’. See J. Milton French, ‘A Chip from Elia’s Workshop’: ‘When Charles Lamb first gazed on Milton’s original manuscript version of Lycidas and other poems, which then, as now, was preserved at Trinity College, Cambridge, he felt deeply shocked. Expecting, apparently, to see a work as pure in penmanship as in morals, he experienced a profound disillusion in discovering a draft much corrected and revised. He later expressed his feelings in a paragraph of his essay “Oxford in the Vacation”, which however he omitted from the final version of the essay’ (88).

16 ‘I can here play the gentleman, enact the student. To such a one as myself, who has been defrauded in his young years of the sweet food of academic institution, nowhere is so pleasant, to while away a few idle weeks at, as one or other of the Universities. Their vacation, too, at this time of the year, falls in so pat with ours. Here I can take my walks unmolested, and fancy myself of what degree or standing I please’ (12).

17 In The Book of Snobs, Thackeray exposes the undue privileges of Oxbridge aristocrats: ‘If you consider, dear reader, what profound snobbishness the University System produced, you will allow that it is time to attack some of those feudal middle-age superstitions. If you go down for five shillings to look at the “College Youths”, you may see one sneaking down the court without a tassel to his cap; another with a gold or silver fringe to his velvet trencher; a third lad with a master’s gown and hat, walking at ease over the sacred College grass-plats, which common men must not tread on’ (57).

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Marie Laniel, « ‘The name escapes me’: Virginia Woolf’s Dislocation of Patrilineal Memory in A Room of One’s Own »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 46 | 2014, mis en ligne le 01 juin 2014, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Marie Laniel

A graduate of the École Normale Supérieure, Marie Laniel is a lecturer at Université de Picardie – Jules Verne. Her research focuses on subversive reinterpretations of Victorian subtexts in the works of E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf. She has published several papers on this topic, particularly on Virginia Woolf’s rewritings of Leslie Stephen’s essays (‘Généalogies de l’essai: de Leslie Stephen à Virginia Woolf’), Thomas Carlyle’s historical writings (‘Revisiting a Great Man’s House: Virginia Woolf’s Carlylean Pilgrimages’), Matthew Arnold’s pastoral poetry (‘Virginia Woolf, lectrice de Matthew Arnold: la fortune littéraire du “scholar-gipsy” dans les essais et la fiction’) and Alfred Tennyson’s romance. Her recent publications also include papers on intertextuality in the works of contemporary British writers (Ian McEwan, Jeanette Winterson). She is currently completing a book on Victorian subtexts in the works of E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf to be published by Presses Universitaires de Rennes.

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