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2. Outlanding Woolf

Introduction: Outlanding Woolf

Claire Davison et Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio

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1What does ‘outlanding Woolf’ imply? What correlation is there between ‘outlanding’ and the outlandish? One of the first appearances of the adjectif ‘outlandish’ in Woolf’s works and certainly her first published use of the term occurs, very appropriately, in an early chapter of her first novel, The Voyage Out, which, although only published in 1915, dates back in draft form to 1908. Chapter Three finds Richard Dalloway joining his wife in their berth aboard the Euphrosyne, a cargo boat carrying ‘dry goods to the Amazons’ (Woolf 38), where he adds an intriguing insert to a letter she is writing:

‘Where’s your pen?’ he said; and added in his little masculine hand:
R.D. loquitur: Clarice has omitted to tell you that she looked exceedingly pretty at dinner, and made a conquest by which she has bound herself to learn the Greek alphabet. I will take this occasion of adding that we are both enjoying ourselves in these outlandish parts, and only wish for the presence of our friends (yourself and John, to wit) to make the trip perfectly enjoyable… (Woolf 229b, 52)

2It is not clear which ‘outlandish parts’ Dalloway is referring to. Does he very literally mean that to be at sea is ‘outlandish’? Should we understand that anywhere outside England is outlandish to the proper Tory traveller, in turn inspiring sententious national complacency? Or is he merely extending his wife’s imagery to confirm that outlandishness is the key feature of the whole bunch of eccentric countrymen playing out their roles on board ship? The entire, very perplexing chapter points to all these connotations, as well as many others. Whatever the case, Dalloway’s marginalia themselves perform outlandishness, by playing with foreign allusions and coded languages—French, Latin, Greek, the gallant niceties of the beau monde and deflected euphemisms of seduction. Etymology is hardly of any help elucidating his meaning. The Oxford English Dictionary traces the adjective back to the ‘outland’, a noun now limited to archaic or regional usage, which was once a common word of good old English stock designating either outlying lands on feudal domains left for tenants to work, or alien peoples and unknown tongues. In linguistic terms, its signifying potential lingers on today in the adjective ‘outlandish’, but its geographical anchorage is all but effaced.

3This archaic outland, however, has immense poetic and political potential, conjuring up unknown regions, off familiar maps of nations and dominions, which is certainly apt for the whole narrative project of The Voyage Out and beyond. It evokes a sense of freedom by releasing the mind from conventions, frontiers and boundaries, while also hinting at lurking danger or transgression. Since its roots are in the land, it conjures up images of tilled soil and harvests harking back to times immemorial before territory was wholly taken over by feudal aristocracies, landed gentry or government. The outland promises insights into the dynamics of land and language which unsettle the relations between mother tongue and fatherland, nation and nativity. It proves particularly operative as a means of exploring a poetics of estrangement and dislocation in Woolf’s writing and the defamiliarising force of her various afterlives in twentieth and twenty-first-century fiction, criticism and philosophy—perspectives that contemporary scholars in Woolf studies were invited to explore through the deliberately coined, border-challenging verb ‘to outland’.

4The invitation implied looking at Woolf from perspectives of estrangement: the foreignness she thinks out and writes out in her reading of other literatures and translation; the (con)figurations of strangeness or estrangement in her fiction; and her own readerly-writerly ear for the tonalities and shifts of English made strange to itself. It suggested looking at Woolf from outside in, which could include reading her through other languages, authors, disciplines or aesthetics, or through those displacements of genre and gender and dislocations of place which hollow out her writing. It acknowledged the strange, paradoxical interplay between her at-homeness in contemporary times and the immemorial, infra-scriptural lure of Englishness which haunts her writings and the concurrent strong appeal of ‘not knowing’, whereby she refuses to ground the possibility of singular identity on the recovery of origins, or to subscribe to any original, pure or essential identity at a transcendent, self-conscious or collective level. Outlanding Woolf thus meant acknowledging the spaces between languages, outside national consciousness, the opening of new topographies outside the conventional confines of dialectisation.

5Ramifications of the outland proved as operative within her works as in the ways her works ‘live on, past the author, the model, and the book itself, and travel the world in new creations, performances, and interpretations.’ (Froula in Davison-Pégon and Smith-Di Biasio, 234) And it is no coincidence that we quote here from the previous collection of essays reflecting the scholarly engagements of the Société des Etudes Woolfiennes. Even if we had theoretically concluded our explorations of contemporaneity and moved onto new grounds with the displaced, dislocated reverberations of estrangement, there were striking bridges clearly leading from one to the other. The outland beckoned within the contemporary which, Woolf argues, is mostly keenly grasped in the ‘scenes, thoughts and apparently fortuitous groupings of incongruous things which impinge upon us with so keen a sense of novelty’, having ‘the same endearing quality of being that which we are, that which we have made, that in which we live, instead of being something, however august, alien to ourselves and beheld from the outside.’ (Woolf 2009b: 238)

6As Froula’s essay had shown, the cross-dressing, gender-bending, time-and-space travelling, wild-goose-chasing Orlando was but one of the means by which Woolf resisted hermeneutic, geographic, sexual and ideological assignation. Whether as a fiction writer, a reviewer, a letter-writer or a diarist, her writerly praxis seems to affirm the necessity of resistance and out-of-placedness. Figures of the outlandish arise from ‘strange dislocated sentences’ (Woolf 1988, 248); they give rise to an acute sense of ‘being out of place like a foreigner’ (246) and find resolution only through a heightened awareness of space thought differently: ‘only in another house or country perhaps.’ (Woolf 2009b, 81) Equally, the outland provides both the dream territory and the wistfully irreverent mirth of A Room of One’s Own, when:

From all the rooms where women slept this vapour issued, attaching itself to shrubs, like mist, and then blew freely out into the open. […] this bubbling laughter, this irresponsible laughter: this laughter of mind and body floating away rules, hours, discipline: immensely fertilising, yet formless, chaotic, trailing and straying and tufting the rose-bushes with shreds of vapour. (147)

7At the same time, however empowering outlandish or outlanded thinking might be, it also relies on wavering, incertitude and reticence. Both the poetics of outlandedness and the galvanising, readerly dynamics of reception rely equally on the quintessentially Woolfian figure of ‘not knowing’, positively relishing in ‘the queer feeling that the solid ground upon which we expected to make a safe landing has been twitched from under us, and there we hang asking questions in mid-air’ (Woolf 1987, 245). As all ten essays in the present collection demonstrate, critics, adepts and scholars gain from keeping in touch with the Common Reader within, the reader who prefers to ramble rather than to territorialize, to question rather than affirm.

8The first two essays here engage directly with figures of knowledge being resisted, questioned and up-turned, in both cases turning back to interrogate the past. Marie Laniel takes the figure of the outsider barred by tradition, gender, habit or class to explore the voice of contestation, showing the extent to which it is both shaped by, or even indebted to, the weighty past embodied by the Cambridge Apostles and Woolf’s own father, whilst also thinking radically against them. Reading Woolf back through Foucault’s thinking on outsideness (‘La pensée du dehors’), Laniel shows how the abundant intertextual links to vibrant nineteenth century men of letters become sources of resistance and defiance, as Woolf stakes out a place for their iconoclastic heiress. Comparably iconoclastic postures emerge in Angeliki Spiropoulou’s dialogic reading of Woolf’s little-commented essay ‘Why?’ and the archly familiar ‘On Not Knowing Greek’. Spiropoulou deftly thwarts any expectations that she may be taking us back to some authentic Greekness at work in the texts by tracing how Woolf questions Greek culture to better undercut essentialist visions of Englishness and their meretricious appeals to rank, historicity and ethnicity. What Hermione Lee calls ‘outsiderism’ is thereby shown to conjure up a ‘creative peace for the production of a new art’.

9The next two essays illustrate the destabilising, political repercussions of Woolf’s thinking, explored first by Catherine Bernard through her very direct encounter as a translator with Woolf’s radically marginal voice as an essayist. By listening in to Woolf’s polyvocal textual praxis, and feeling her way through the frequently disjunctive, ‘strangely irreticent’ syntax, Bernard explains how the translated language and the translator gradually become foreign, unheimlich, to themselves, so that being in translation always implies being partly in dislocation. From Uchronian thinking, we then move to Utopian thinking with Caroline Pollentier, engaging with Woolf’s ‘America’ (‘that she [had] never seen’). Pollentier deftly recontextualises Woolf’s essay, showing the direct link between the formalist montage-aesthetics of Woolf’s writing here and her vibrantly anti-imperial, anti-global stance in the totalitarianising dynamics of the era.

10The following pair of essays equally invite readers to think through Woolf’s out-of-England poetics in relation both to the urgent imperatives of the present and the haunting call of the archaic. Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio explores a poetics of originary strangeness in Woolf’s writing, subtly unwinding and reweaving traces of the vernacular with the veils of language which both clothe and protect the past, while forever allowing it to re-emerge in strangely familiar echoes. As Smith-Di Biasio shows, the literal excursions out of England—the boat trips off Land’s End or out to long-awaited lighthouses—are already the returning of memory and material doubles, whereby the mists of blue are at once veiled signs of absence and presence, the past in the present and fundamental to that poetics of veiling which Woolf detected in De Quincey. Katharine Swarbrick, meanwhile, seeks to explore what constitutes the strangeness of Between the Acts .With reference to the years 1939–41 and the simultaneous obliteration and infiltration of barbarity running through Woolf’s writing she reads this final novel through selected concepts from Lacan’s Seminar III (The Psychoses), analysing its strangeness in terms of the invasion of the Language of the Other as at once a form of brutality and the effect of a perfectly unsustainable illusory construction.

11Linking up to the pageant in Between the Acts, which is gently punctuated by the ‘primeval voice’ of cows bellowing yearnfully, the next essay, by Derek Ryan, sees Woolf venturing into the realm of animals as a means by which to outland the anthropocentric focuses of fiction. Derek Ryan reads the foundation of Woolf’s poetics here through the shaping of Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of ‘un devenir animal’, which transgresses species-definitions and challenges mankind’s claims to primacy. By linking up the animals that ‘people’ both territory and language in numerous Woolf novels, Ryan shows how the bovine, or what we might call cow-ness comes to supplement human deficiencies in thought, word and deed, thus stepping over the border between the strange and the familiar and making the ‘anomalous’ ‘animalous’. Rebecca Welshman furthers this pattern of displacing the paradigms of our enquiry by re-reading Jacob’s Room through Woolf’s diary entry referring to the ‘dark cupboard’ of illness in the ‘dark summer’ of 1921. This she construes as a scientific trope corresponding to the gestation of a creative unconscious fostering Woolf’s experimentation with the uncharted passions and strange, subtle territories of the ‘live, vigorous world’. As such the ‘dark cupboard’ signifies Woolf’s inspired engagement with experimentation in Jacob’s Room, written against the more materialist anatomists and dissectors of fiction.

12The final pair of essays engages with the French afterlives of Woolf’s fiction, as intertextual patterns, poetics and motifs survive by re-emerging in later French fiction, haunting the later text by triggering unexpected images which filter through the surface text. Anne-Laure Rigeade looks at Nicole Roland’s Les Veilleurs du chagrin, in which Mrs Dalloway shatters and separates textual unity and linearity. The poetics of estrangement is clearly doubled in the dispersed fragments of European maps and conflicts, as the lost bodies of Kosovo resurface via the war wounds of Septimus Smith. Finally Naomi Toth explores the hidden, repudiated or reconfigured presence of Woolf and Woolf’s fictional praxis in the writings of Nathalie Sarraute, revisiting tropisms of influence and anxiety through empathy and affect. In Toth’s perceptive study, the materiality of textual interrelations conventionally traced in thematic and stylistic evidence dissolves to make way for unexpected sensibilities which defy the rational categories of the evident and excavate hidden chambers of resonance between the two writers.

13Thus do the essays collected in this volume attest to the restive radicality of Woolf ‘s thinking outside patriarchal or national strongholds of knowing and against instituted forms of consciousness as they in turn think Woolf through a Foucauldian form of outed interiority or interiorised exteriority:

Au moment où l’intériorité est attirée hors de soi, un dehors creuse le lieu même où l’intériorité a l’habitude de trouver son repli et la possibilité de son repli […] Au moment où on pensait être mené hors de soi par un lointain inaccessible, n’était-ce pas tout simplement cette présence sourde qui pesait dans l’ombre de toute son inévitable poussée ? (Foucault 47–8)

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Foucault Michel, La pensée du dehors (1966), Montferrier: Fata Morgana, 1986.

Froula Christine, ‘Orlando Lives: Virginia Woolf’s Orlando in Global Adaptation and Performances,’ Contemporary Woolf–Woolf contemporaine, eds. Claire Davison-Pégon and Anne-Marie Smith-DBiasio, Montpellier: Presses Universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2014, 233–257.

Woolf Virginia, The Voyage Out (1915), Oxford: Oxford World Classics, 2009a.

———, The Essays of Virginia Woolf Vol. 2, eds. Andrew McNeillie and Stuart Clarke, New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1987.

———, The Essays of Virginia Woolf Vol. 3, eds. Andrew McNeillie and Stuart Clarke, New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988.

———, The Essays of Virginia Woolf Vol. 5, eds. Andrew McNeillie and Stuart Clarke, New York : Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 2009b.

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Claire Davison et Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio, « Introduction: Outlanding Woolf »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 48 | 2015, mis en ligne le 11 mai 2015, consulté le 21 février 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Claire Davison

Claire Davison is the current Chair of the Société des études woolfiennes and Professor of Modernist Literature at the Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris, specializing in intermedial modernisms, modernist translation networks and cultural transpositions. Her monograph Translation as Collaboration: Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield and S. S. Koteliansky was published by Edinburgh University Press in June 2014.

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Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio

Anne-Marie Smith-Di Biasio (PhD, HDR) teaches Modernist literature and Translation Studies at the Catholic University of Paris. Her research explores the interface between Modernism and Modernity, Literature and Psychoanalysis, Writing and Translation, especially in the context of European Modernisms. At present she is working on a book : Le Palimpseste mémoriel, (memory as palimpsest) based on the subject of her 2013 habilitation :“Writing the Immemorial, the Modernist text; Hearing, Translating and Interpreting Memory in Language”. Vice-president of the French Virginia Woolf Society since 2008, she is the author of Virginia Woolf, la hantise de l’écriture, editions Indigo & Côté-femmes 2010, and co-editor with Claire Davision-Pégon, of Contemporary Woolf/Woolf contemporaine, Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée, 2014. The author of several recent articles on intertextual memory and film semiotics, she has collaborated in the forthcoming dictionary of psychoanalysis, Dictionnaire freudien, dir. Maurice Corcos, à paraître (Albin Michel, 2015).

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