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‘Betwixt and Between: Virginia Woolf and the Art of Craftsmanship’

L’entre et l’entre deux : Virginia Woolf et le travail d’artiste
Adèle Cassigneul


Considérant Woolf comme une praticienne de la littérature, cet article se concentre sur l’influence que son travail de compositrice à la Hogarth Press et sa pratique photo-cinématographique ont eu sur son approche de ce qu’elle nomme ‘l’art des mots’. Nous envisageons en quoi ces deux activités on fait de son humble métier d’éditrice un art révolutionnaire et hybride. En ce sens nous analyserons les diverses manières dont Woolf a sans cesse remis en question la création littéraire en travaillant le medium photographique dans Orlando, Flush et Trois guinées. Nous nous intéresserons à son utilisation de la photo amateur dans Orlando et à la couverture de Flush faite maison, ainsi qu’aux scrapbooks fait mains qui constituèrent la matrice de Trois guinées. Prenant en compte certains des marqueurs de ses textes (ponctuation, blancs typographiques, structure narrative), nous souhaitons montrer que l’œuvre woolfienne peut se lire comme un montage héritant à la fois des compositions de ses albums photos et des théories photo-cinématographiques qui lui étaient contemporaines.

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The Author as Literary Artificer

  • 1 I would like to thank David Nowell Smith, whose patient (re)readings and insightful remarks thoroug (...)

1The Homeric hymn to the smithing god, Hephaestus, honours ‘the famed worker’ (Hesiod 447) consecrated for his ‘skill’ and ‘inventiveness’, his ‘glorious crafts’ (Gagarin 35). It celebrates the demioergos, the skilled manual worker, the maker-creator who humbly works in his workshop and crafts finely-wrought equipment for the Gods.1 His shady forge is the hearth of creation, the hidden place where magnificent objects are imagined, invented and produced. Remember that, in ancient Greek, creation translates as poiesis, from poiein, to make; and that the poet or writer—the author (lat. auctor) being the one who originates (lat. augeo), who makes and creates—is skilful in what Virginia Woolf calls, in her 1937 radio talk ‘Craftsmanship’, ‘the craft of words’ or the ‘art of writing’ (Woolf 1993, 137, 141). As worker-creator, Hephaestus links the humility of craft to artistic creation, and manual work to inventive expression, which ties in with the Woolfian conception of literary craftsmanship, which entails a sustained creative work that needs patience and resilience, skill and dedication, as Woolf implies in her 1939 article ‘Reviewing’.

  • 2 Here the seamstress is obscure in a different sense to the female artist as she is exploited (both (...)

2Indeed, in its first paragraph, she likens the London crowd watching seamstresses who stitch ‘moth-eaten trousers’ in shop windows to the ‘poets, playwrights and novelists […] doing their work under the curious eyes of the reviewers’. I shall not dwell on Woolf’s reflexion on literary criticism but rather on her insistence on commitment to one’s task, on ‘the women at work’, dedicated to their craft, and on ‘the skill of the workers’ (Woolf 1993, 152), their proficiency, artistry and accomplishment. I am intrigued by the somewhat romantic definition of the literary practitioner Woolf gives at the end of her article, her vision of the writer as a secluded and unknown toiling worker: ‘an obscure workman doing his job in the darkness of the workshop and not unworthy of respect’ (163). Woolf’s evocative description is pregnant with the following meaning: the ‘obscure workman’ harks back to her keen interest in the figure of the obscure woman and in ‘the lives of the obscure’ (Woolf 1979, 44), the lives of women who are forgotten, confined to the shadow of their home, unconsidered and unvalued, and whose ‘curious silent unrepresented life’ (Woolf 1948, 215) remains unseen and unrecorded.2 Woolf has always shown ambivalence regarding this invisibility, or humility—‘humble’ meaning here ranking low in the social and artistic hierarchies (being poor, being insignificant). It is the invisibility traditionally imposed on women, and women artists in particular (who, incidentally, rarely lived by their work) and so one she questions, challenges and opposes in her vigorous essays A Room of One’s Own (1929) and Three Guineas (1938). But it is also linked to the necessary retreat of the creator, the need for intimacy in creation, the need to bring one’s work from the secluded shadow of the workroom (or the room of one’s own) to the light of the world.

3The ‘darkness of the workshop’ is at once reminiscent of the mythic shadowy den of the maker-creator, Hephaestus’s forge for instance, and, as Laura Marcus suggests, of ‘the windowless room in Tavistock Square in which the Hogarth Press books were kept’ (Marcus 1996, 124) and above which Woolf spent some of her afternoons, typesetting, hand-printing and sewing books (see Kennedy).

4The emphasis on the writer’s humble commitment to his or her work (‘doing his job’) can be read as the definition of the craftsman given by sociologist Richard Sennett, the one who is routinely dedicated, ‘engaged’ (Sennett 2008, 20), and committed to a demanding manual work, who has the ‘desire to do something well, concretely for its own sake’ (145) and whose ‘technical understanding develops through the powers of imagination’ (10) and ‘curiosity’ (120).

  • 3 For Richard Sennett, the intelligent hand coordinates the triad of ‘hand, eye and brain’ (Sennett 1 (...)

5As we shall see, Virginia Woolf valued craftsmanship as well as manual skills, and she saw the need to have some first-hand experience with craft through, notably, her practice as compositor for the Hogarth Press and her sustained photographic activity and album making. These two humble domestic crafts require an acute eye and an intelligent hand, their bodily practice connects hand, eye and brain, and calls for a sharp technical knowledge that is linked to expression and creativity.3

  • 4 Under Chéroux’s pen, ‘vernacular’ has nothing to do with the linguistic acceptation of the word. As (...)
  • 5 ‘[I]l s’agit d’évaluer l’impact des nouvelles techniques sur les sociétés humaines, [qui] donne lie (...)

6In a mediological perspective, probing the influence of technical-cultural mediation on literary creation, I would like to link humility to Woolf’s printing of and publishing both texts and images (I shall focus more on the first years of the Hogarth adventure, before the Woolfs turned professional publishers) and her work as family photographer and album maker to see how both can be considered as ‘vernacular’4 activities which enabled her to think, form and reform literature at the beginning of the 20th century. I wish to delve into the influence of Woolf’s amateur practice of those two media—small-press publishing and snapshot photography—onto her exacting literary craftsmanship. Considering that Woolf experimented with literature through printing and intermediality, I will then explore how she makes the literary text, how her experience with typography and the montage of photographic images into albums contributed to shape her modernist literary venture. My interest thus lays in process, in what Régis Debray calls ‘intersystem crossing’ (Debray 2009, 21. My translation), that is the way technical factors and cultural values are intertwined in the creative process.5

The Acute Eye and the Intelligent Hand: Two Vernacular Crafts

  • 6 See Chéroux 9-27.

7In his untranslated essay Vernaculaires. Essais d’histoire de la photographie, Clément Chéroux posits that: ‘the vernacular cannot be considered as Art and it is precisely for this reason that the former may come to redefine the latter. The vernacular is an answer to modernity’s irrepressible need for novelty and otherness’ (Chéroux 19–20, translation mine). According to him, vernacular photography is at once utilitarian (it is made to be useful rather than solely decorative), domestic (it is homemade and not marketable), and heterotopic (being mundane and abundant, it opens another space, a space of otherness which is opposed to Art).6 It seems that, together with photography, Woolf’s craftsmanship in hand-printing is vernacular too and that, her thorough daily practice, this very praxis, fostered her desire to experiment and model her own writerly craft. As she confided to Clive Bell in July 1917: ‘Its [sic] an absorbing thing (I mean writing is) and its high time we found some new shapes, don’t you think so? […]—our press you know, is to give birth to every monster in the vicinity’ (Nicolson 1980, 167). Before considering the intermedial monsters Woolf created, I would like to focus on what makes the Hogarth Press and the Monk’s House Albums vernacular.

  • 7 On the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press see Willis, Lee, Louis and Southworth.

8The Hogarth Press started modestly as a ‘manual occupation’ (Woolf 1964, 233) in 1917, as a constructive hobby aiming at relieving the Woolfs from the strain of their respective professional activities. Their priority was ‘to keep [the Press] small’ and even when it became a ‘successful commercial publishing business’ it remained ‘a half-time occupation’ (254-5). The Press was created because it was valuable and useful in itself rather than being a means for something else such as making money. The Woolfs’ other overt ambition was to publish ‘young novelists and poets’ (Nicolson 1980, 148), new works or texts newly translated into English, and to print slim volumes and pamphlets that usually had difficulties with conventional publishers. The Press was indeed conceived as an alternative press, first because it was a discoverer and promoter of new talents but also because its ethics established the priority of artistic merit and literary qualities over market considerations. Their Press thus distinguished itself from larger, mainstream commercial presses, their amateur initiative taking after the private press tradition and its limited editions, its hand-printing fashion and its necessary personal involvement.7

  • 8 See Humm. All six volumes of the Monk’s House Albums are accessible online.
  • 9 On Woolfian photobiography, see Cassigneul forthcoming 2018b.

9In the Stephen and Woolf families, photography was also considered a valuable recreational activity. It fulfilled what sociologist Pierre Bourdieu calls its ‘family function’ (Bourdieu 39), chronicling and documenting daily family life: holiday trips, overseas and local landscapes, childhood activities, gatherings with families and friends, etc. Photography was conceived as a medium, that is an intermediary registering ordinary, even trivial household activities.8 And indeed, the Monk’s House Albums are no monument, they never show official or ceremonious events such as marriages, baptisms, birthdays, and hardly any official or professional portraits. They rather record suspended, spontaneous and commonplace moments, contributing to the collection of family memorabilia, to arranging and composing family memory, thus producing an individual and collective photobiography.9 As Vara Neverow suggests, Virginia Woolf was ‘the Stephen and Woolf family archivist’ (Neverow 69), at once saving and creating common and individual memory. As her correspondence proves, for Woolf photography also fulfilled a social function: she exchanged photographs with relatives, her albums were meant to be shared, they were for others to browse and contemplate. Indeed, photographic images actively participated in what André Gunthert calls ‘visual conversation’ (Gunthert 61), and this dynamic, open and conversational aspect of photography will be paramount in Woolf’s intermedial works.

  • 10 See Bornstein 1-16.
  • 11 See Bradshaw 280–97.

10Home-based, the Woolfs’ press was named after their house in Richmond (Hogarth House), branding the domestic, eminently personal dimension of their initiative which, at first humble in scale, enabled them to control the process of textual production, to determine authorship and form, and so to guarantee their editorial independence.10 Unable to attend professional courses, the Woolfs ‘followed the directions in the pamphlet’ that came with their handpress and taught themselves how to ‘set the type, lock it in the chase, ink the rollers, and machine a fairly legible printed page’ (Woolf 1964, 234). With practice, Virginia became a skilful compositor who worked on challenging texts that put her dexterity to the test. In July 1923, having just finished to set T. S. Eliot’s exacting Waste Land, she wrote: ‘I have just finished setting up the whole of Mr. Eliots [sic] poem with my own hands: You see how my hand trembles’ (Nicolson 1981, 42). It has to be added that Woolf’s interest in book making and printing was not born with the Hogarth Press but, as John Willis and David Bradshaw11 have pointed out, with her earlier experience with a ‘silver point press’ in 1905 and with ‘appreciative and practical knowledge of bookbinding’ (Willis 5, 8), which she began sometime in 1901 and through which she experimented with material and technique.

11In the same way, Woolf’s photographic practice inherits from her childhood years and from a thorough family tradition that dates back to the Victorian days of her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron and the photograph album her father made to go with his 1895 Mausoleum Book.12 Virginia Stephen’s early diaries abound in notes and comments underlining the intimate dimension of her photography as she solely made images of her close relatives and of the family pets. On February 14th 1897, she chronicled:

We photographed Simon [the dog] 6 times—on the chair with a coat and pipe, and lying on the ground [...] After Tea Nessa and I developed in the night nursery. One very good one of Stella and Jack on the sands, the others all dim and under exposed. (Leaska 35)

12As Bourdieu underlines, photography is the ‘domestic fabrication of domestic emblems’ (Bourdieu 51; translation mine). The somewhat clumsy Monk’s House Albums are handcrafted, as the uneven hand-cut slits and hand-written captions show, and they are manipulated and transformed by the family, as the blanks and repeated images prove. This homespun quality strengthens a sense of belonging and confidentiality, and, because it is made in the household for the household, it heightens an essential sense of privacy which is in turn symbolised by the photo albums as object, arch-symbol of domesticity which sits at the heart of the family home, in the drawing-room for everyone to see.

  • 13 One example among many, on February 12th 1897: ‘The Frend [camera] arrived from Becks, in a new box (...)
  • 14 Analysing snapshot Kodak culture, Richard Chalfen became interested in ‘how people use a medium, as (...)
  • 15 Julia Margaret Cameron experimented with photography at home, in her Freshwater glasshouse, as the (...)

13It seems that Virginia Woolf deliberately remained an amateur in both photographic and publishing crafts. To borrow Chéroux’s term she was a ‘user’ (‘usager’) of photography, not an expert or professional (Chéroux 81–99). Even if she mastered photographic basic techniques and showed impressive ability and ingenuity when there were technical problems,13 Woolf’s photographs bear the marks of improvisation and of her lack of concern regarding artistic quality. The subjects of the images and the pleasure of image-taking clearly prevailed over everything else and little concern was shown as regards focus or exposure, frame or composition. Her imperfect snapshots underline the spontaneity of her photographic act, exposing a home-made quality which conveys a sense of immediacy and originality. Displaying no artistic ambitions, the Monk’s House Albums result from a middlebrow praxis which was born with what François Brunet calls the ‘Kodak revolution’ (Brunet 213–68); a new type of turn-of-the-twentieth-century amateur photography, a common social practice benefiting from lighter cameras that were easy to handle, could be kept in one’s pocket—Woolf actually owned a Vest pocket Kodak—, and enabled photographers to express themselves in a casual way.14 Contrary to her great-aunt Cameron’s domestic art,15 Woolf’s photography stands as a humble domestic craft.

  • 16 Richard Shone reminds us that all furniture, clothes, crockery and art produced at the Omega Worksh (...)

14The Hogarth Press books also resulted from a skilful and clever amateur hand. Helen Southworth asserts that the Woolfs were committed to amateurism, refusing to be taken over by a great publisher so as to remain independent (Southworth 1–26). They were indeed committed outsiders who freed themselves from the judgement of professional editors and publishers and from the pressure of profitability to embrace a more iconoclastic and experimental practice. The stains or typographical mistakes, the colourful wrappings, the handmade woodcuts they commissioned from fellow artists (Dora Carrington, Roger Fry, Eugene MacCown or Duncan Grant for instance) were signs of a daring personal touch which gave the Hogarth books a human quality. Contrary to art books, they had the ‘beauty of utility’, to borrow Elizabeth Willson Gordon’s expression (Willson Gordon xi). In tune with the humble aesthetic promoted by Roger Fry’s Omega Workshops,16 the fifth-anniversary proclamation of the Press reinforced the Woolfs’ refusal to ‘embellish our books beyond what is necessary for ease of reading and decency of appearance’. They aimed at ‘cheapness and adequacy’ rather than ‘high prices and typographical splendour’ (Rosenbaum 1998, 152).

15The traces of handwork in both the Monk’s House Albums and the first Hogarth volumes are proofs of the unpretentious yet creative and personal involvement of an intelligent hand. Putting a specific emphasis on her relation to photo-cinematographic montage, I wish now to see in what ways Woolf’s practice of these two vernacular crafts contributed to shaping her expressive literary vision, how her work at the Press and her practical knowledge of photography link her artistic commitment to image-making and image-printing, and ultimately contribute to shaping her image/text experiments.

16Through the Hogarth Press, Woolf got acquainted with page layout and typography as well as book design and illustration. Her work on demanding avant-garde poems such as Eliot’s Waste Land, Hope Mirrlees’s Paris: A Poem and Nancy Cunard’s Parallax confronted and familiarized her with formal irregularities such as typographical blanks and uneven indentation, italics, bold characters and capital letters, stanzas that are compact and centred on the page or spread out and disjointed, music scores and even an audacious vertical sentence running over two pages. The textual page thus acquired a visual dimension: in Woolf’s hands it became a significant autonomous visual entity which attracts the reader’s eye and focuses it on the materiality of the text’s signifying body.

  • 17 Two Stories comprised Leonard’s ‘Three Jews’ and Virginia’s ground-breaking ‘The Mark on the Wall’. (...)

17In connexion with this experimental drive, Woolf expressed her wish to print images alongside her texts. On July 13th, 1917, she enthusiastically writes to artist Dora Carrington about the woodcuts she created for their first Hogarth book, Two Stories.17

We like the wood cuts immensely. It was very good of you to bring them yourself—We have printed them off, and they make the book much more interesting than it would have been without. The ones I like best are the servant girl and the plates, and the Snail. The Press is specially good at printing pictures, and we see that we must make a practice of always having pictures. (Nicolson 1980, 162–63)

18Eight days later she tells Roger Fry about ‘a £100 press which we are told is the best made,—particularly for reproducing pictures. This opens fresh plans, as you will see’ (166). And six days after that, she confides to Vanessa Bell that they ‘are getting a machine that is specially good for printing pictures, as we want to do pictures as much as writing’ (169). For Woolf, more than redundant illustrations of ‘The Mark on the Wall’, ‘Kew Gardens’ and the stories of Monday and Tuesday, images interpret, emulate and interact with the text. True visual echoes, they stand as complementary doubles that trigger correspondences and an intermedial dialogue, thoroughly participating in the unfolding narratives.

  • 18 On the link between photography and autobiography, see Cassigneul forthcoming 2018c.
  • 19 One example among many, in the June 1892 issue: ‘As we have before mentioned Miss Stella Duckworth (...)

19Woolf’s deep interest in illustrated stories or even stories ‘not needing words’ (Lowe 19) actually dates back to her infancy and the family newspaper, the Hyde Park Gates News, in which the Stephen children sometimes made small drawings or series of drawings to chronicle their childhood adventures. Describing everyday family activities, they lay a strong emphasis on their photographic practice and on the images that the family members took.18 The Hyde Park Gate News issues conjoin invisible photographs—which could actually be found in the family albums19—and clumsy but lively ink drawings to create Woolf’s very first image/text montage. As Georges Didi-Huberman has shown, readability comes out of the critical combination of heterogeneous material (Didi-Huberman 2010, 96) that, through apparent disruption, breeds a recomposition of meaning (Didi-Huberman 2009, 86). Be they in absentia or in præsentia, the images in Woolf’s youthful stories play with the texts they complete and mirror to compose new verbo-visual narratives, thus in a way foreshadowing the intricate representation device, or image/text dispositif, Woolf will conceive for Three Guineas in 1938, which conjoins virtual photographs of ‘ruined houses and dead bodies’ and actual photographic illustrations exposing ‘the sartorial splendours of the educated man’ (Woolf 1966, 21).

20Yet, Woolf’s interest in visual story-telling was also fed by her practice of photography and particularly her interest in series of photographs that she arranged as sets in her albums. Indeed, true picture books, the Monk’s House Albums turn out to be an anti-mimetic and non-chronological patchwork that plays on heterogeneity, unexpectedness and anachronism. Woolf arranged them as moving visual patterns that abolished historical chronology, diachronic coherence and realism to promote arbitrary associations of motifs—what Maggie Humm calls her ‘unusual method of photographing life stories’ (Humm 58). Photographs could be added, removed or replaced, encouraging movement and change; people thus appear and disappear, pages are suddenly left blank or crowded with multiple images, photos are repeated, and so are postures, activities and landscapes to create a modernist montage that plays on juxtaposition and collage, repetition and rhythm, ellipsis, lapses and jumps. As the diptych of Dorothy and Jane Bussy leafing through an album volume shows, Woolf’s unconventional albums require an active viewer as they only make sense through the vision of those who browse through them.

  • 20 ‘Technique has a bad name; it can seem soulless. That’s not how people whose hands become highly tr (...)

21In this way, both the Hogarth Press and the Monk’s House Albums create a creative space, a hybrid laboratory through which, thanks to imaging typography and narrativised images, Woolf’s intermedial explorations are born. Her mastery of photographic and page layout techniques becomes linked to her idiosyncratic literary expression.20

Making the Literary Text: Intermedial Montage

  • 21 I here use poetic in the sense of poesis meaning ‘production’, ‘composition’.
  • 22 The concept of ‘iconotext’ was first employed and theorised in Iconotextes, a collection of article (...)

22More than concepts and ideas, we may consider typesetting, cutting, pasting and editing as primary original poetic gestures,21 which actually accomplish the creative work and literally make—that is, bring into form, shape—the literary text. Woolf’s practical manual and visual decoupage/collage/montage eventually seeps in her modernist explorations to challenge the identity of literary creation. Before considering textual visual effects and the crucial role of images in the Woolfian iconotexts,22 I wish to make one short parenthetical remark concerning collage and montage.

  • 23 See Mulligan and Wooters (313-315) and Di Bello.
  • 24 Opposing Woolf’s poetics to Edwardian materialism, Claire Joubert suggests that, in her critical wo (...)

23Both are considered crafted compositions invented in the 1910s-1920s, in association with mainly cubism, photomontage and cinematographic editing. Yet, already in the 1860s-1870s, Julia Leicester and Constance Sackville-West, for instance, made striking photomontages which remained confined to the shadow of their Victorian drawing-rooms, unknown because bound to the invisible feminine domestic tradition of album-making.23 Those two examples confirm that photo albums were a place of creativity and innovation; they provided an exclusive space for plastic invention. Nevertheless, collage and montage prevailed in European photo-cinematographic avant-gardes from the 1910s onwards (culminating in the 1929 Film und Foto, or Fifo, Berlin exhibition) as exploratory principles of visual experimentation. Cutting, juxtaposing, confronting heterogeneous fragments, playing at once on fragmentation and unity, they generated connections, correspondences and conflicts that resolve themselves in one dynamic disjunctive whole which can be linked to Virginia Stephen’s early wish to create ‘some kind of whole made of shivering fragments’ (Leaska 393).24

  • 25 In The Tenth Muse, Laura Marcus has explored the links between Modernism and Eisensteinian montage (...)
  • 26 For a thorough analysis of Eisenstein’s montage of attractions, see Aumont.

24In Woolf’s work the modernist bricolage promoted by visual arts translates into a new literary legivisibility, into new literary forms that make you feel and think. Her textual composition produces effective visual effects through typography and punctuation that recall Eisenstein’s concept of ‘montage pages’ (Eisenstein 2007, 66; translation mine) he based on his reading of Dickens and his theory of attractions.25 Eisenstein’s montage of attractions26 wished to abolish linear and naturalist narrative to favour dynamic and moving visual shocks (conflicts or collisions) in bringing together static elements that provoke new images and emotions (Eisenstein 1976, 234). Woolf underlines this provoking use of film editing in her 1926 article ‘The Cinema’ when she writes: ‘We should see these emotions mingling together and affecting each other. We should see violent changes of emotion produced by their collision’ (Woolf 1993, 58).

  • 27 We find this fluid temporality in the anachronistic lay out of the Monks’ House Albums: Victorian c (...)

25For instance, we find this montage dynamic in Mrs Dalloway’s innovative sequencing of narration, which Woolf foresees as an expressive cross-cutting: ‘a study of insanity & suicide; the world seen by the sane & the insane side by side’ (Woolf 1981, 207). Articulating conjunction and disjunction, Woolf makes the reader intuitively link the two characters and their destinies. The montage logic is further complexified by fluid temporal shifts, a technique she called her ‘discovery’, her idea that ‘caves shall connect’ (Woolf 1981, 263) linking together past, present and future27; and by recurring motifs, that of the chiming of Big Ben or the flower for instance, motifs that symptomatically flicker throughout the text, weaving an invisible yet coherent network, a flexible pattern connecting places, temporalities and characters in order to make a coherent yet fragmentary whole.

  • 28 Suzanne Raitt quotes Clive Bell’s article ‘Mrs Woolf’, The Dial, December 1924 and an anonymous rev (...)

26Montage is also achieved through page punctuation, meaning through typographical blanks, vignette-like paragraphs and asterisks, unfolding the visual dimension of the written page and counteracting syntactic and narrative linearity. Congruent with the irregular composition of her albums, Jacob’s Room holds together in unity ‘series of fragmentary revelations, glimpses, glances, and scraps of glances’ (Bell quoted in Raitt 225) to create a ‘crowded album of little pictures’ (anonymous review, quoted in Raitt 219). 28 Take for instance, a page in chapter 6, on which three paragraph-sentences detach themselves from the body of the text, capturing instantaneous visions of three different women.

Florinda was sick.

Mrs Durrant, sleepless as usual, scored a mark by the side of certain lines in the Inferno.


Clara slept buried in her pillows; on her dressing table dishevelled roses and a pairs of long white gloves. (Woolf 1992:64-65)

27Following the text’s jerky continuity, we rather smoothly jump from sick Florinda to Mrs Durrant reading in bed, then after a longer typographical pause or break, we move on to Clara sleeping. Playing on temporal as well as spatial connexion and disconnection, Woolf transforms the page into a rhythmic montage that articulates ‘dissolving views […] flickering, impermanent’ (220), and within which the blanks stand as visible and signifying hinges. As Edward Bishop has shown, Woolf’s type-setting for Mirrlees’ Paris: A Poem had a profound impact on her deliberate fracturing and disjointing of Jacob’s Room. ‘Deliberate and considered’ (Woolf 2017, 306), the typographical gaps and the vignette-like paragraphs transform Woolf’s first modernist novel in an ‘album of snapshots’ (Woolf 2017, 315) very much like her own Monk’s House Albums.

  • 29 But she also disrupts syntax, as the second half of the sentence has no main verb, making the flux/ (...)

28The same phenomenon appears at sentence level, through punctuation, the sentence becoming what Rancière calls the image-sentence (‘la phrase-image’), ‘between the image that cuts and severs, and the sentence that tends towards continuous phrasing’ (Rancière 58; translation mine). Commas and semi-colons, dashes, ellipses, parentheses and brackets galvanize sentences, bringing life and impetus to the inanimate words. Woolf orchestrates shocks while also creating a meaningful continuum, as in the last sentence of the above quotation: ‘Clara slept buried in her pillows; on her dressing-table dishevelled roses and a pair of long white gloves’. Here Woolf confronts two images: the sleeping beauty and a still life on the dressing-table, two spaces separated by the severing semi-colon but related by the ideas of abandon (self and object), vanity and maybe death (‘buried’, ‘dishevelled’).29 Just as in the Kuleshov Effect, meaning is produced through expressive contiguity, through punctuation, Woolf plays on the visual form of the sentence, on its disrupted syntactic movement that, through efficient juxtaposition, becomes meaningful.

29As page layout and narrative sequencing prove, Woolf engages a concrete, even manual relation with her verbal material to design an ingenuous literary montage that challenges and questions readerly habits through intermediality. And her crafty endeavour goes a step further when she chooses to add signifying images along her texts.

  • 30 I am here summarising ideas that are fully developed in my PhD dissertation (Cassigneul 2014).

30I chose three examples among Woolf’s iconotexts to briefly show how images betray her humble writerly craft and help build a hybrid revolutionary art.30

  • 31 See Pawlowski.

31Three Guineas first. Between 1931 and 1937, Woolf collected newspaper cuttings (articles and images) she arranged and pasted in three scrapbook volumes.31 Searching for and compiling information and photographs fully participated in her socio-political reflexion. She devised thematic visual maps such as education, gender and sexuality, or political and social questions, composing ‘a complex multigeneric work of feminist visual modernism’ (Humm 30). The echoes and correspondences promoted by the scrapbook montage are at the root of Woolf’s arguments in Three Guineas and the formal hybridity of the essay still bears visible marks of this intermedial craftsmanship as Woolf confronted common press and propaganda photographs to build up her anti-war pamphlet; the confrontation also blatantly surfacing in her cutting and eloquent rhetoric when striking superimpositions rise from the text. Towards the end of the essay, she writes:

another picture has imposed itself upon the foreground. It is the figure of a man; some say, others deny, that he is Man himself, the quintessence of virility, the perfect type of which all the others are imperfect adumbrations. He is a man certainly. His eyes are glazed; his eyes glare. His body, which is braced in an unnatural position, is tightly cased in a uniform. Upon the breast of that uniform are sewn several medals and other mystic symbols. His hand is upon a sword. He is called in German and Italian Fürher or Duce; in our own language Tyrant or Dictator. And behind him lie ruined houses and dead bodies—men, women and children. (Woolf 1966, 142)

  • 32 For more on the propaganda war images Woolf received in 1936, see Gualtieri.
  • 33 According to Frédéric Regard, Woolf’s narrative strategies of representation follow a ‘violent logi (...)

32Under Woolf’s pen the portraits of Hitler and Mussolini she collected in her scrapbooks, the series of photographs she included in the text and the war pictures summoned in absentia throughout the essay32 merge to create one sole terrifying and eloquent image; the image of the powerful man turned tyrant, standing out against a background of death and destruction.33 Searching ‘some more energetic, some more active method of expressing our belief that war is barbarous, that war is inhuman’ (12), Woolf composes an intermedial superimposition which strikingly echoes contemporary Dada photomontages by John Heartfield (Adolph, the Superman: Swallows Gold and Spouts Rubbish, 1932) or Erwin Blumfeld (Hitler, Face of Terror, 1933), for example.

33In Orlando. A Biography, the home-made photographs give a human and natural, even ordinary dimension to the extraordinary protagonist. Playing with Orlando’s androgynous identity and the biographical genre, they anchor the work in Woolf’s contemporary modernity. The last portrait, ‘Orlando at the Present Time’, was taken by Leonard Woolf at Long Barn in 1928. It portrays Vita Sackville-West with dogs, leaning against a fence gate in a field. The image is trivial: it pictures a banal activity (a walk with dogs), underlining domesticity (home), it is coherent with the Monk’s House Album aesthetic (snapshot, blurred, no artistic quality) and subject matter (not a grand portrait). The instantaneity of the photograph is in direct connection with the last sentence of the text which underlines the fleeting brevity of the present moment, ‘Thursday, the eleventh of October, Nineteen hundred and Twenty Eight’ (Woolf 2000, 215). Taken on the spur of the moment, the snapshot also echoes the democratization of photography in the first years of the 20th century and the new vernacular type of private portraiture.

  • 34 One example out of many: ‘He leapt into the carriage by her side. Couched on her lap, the whole pom (...)

34Finally, taking its cue from ‘Kew Gardens’ and its focus on a humble minute creature, a snail, Flush. A Biography literally enacts a humble conception of woolfian literary creation. Remember that humble comes from the Latin humilis, low, from humus, earth, ground, and so it fittingly ties in with the text’s protagonist, a dog that perceives the world at ground level. His canine vision defamiliarizes perception, underlining Woolf’s cunning art of subversion. Here again, the woolfian inventive approach springs from her photographic and intermedial practice. Woolf cut a portrait of Pinka out of a series of four photographs to use for the book cover. The canine portrait is at once reminiscent of the Victorian cartes-de-visite of upper-class pets which Woolf collected, of the scrapbooks’ cutting and pasting and of the avant-garde photomontages. In addition, in the third volume of her photo albums, we can find several pictures of her dog Pinka, or other pets (the marmoset, Mitzy, and cats), taken at animal level and photographs taken at ground level as if mimicking a dog’s vision. These unusual photographic compositions survive in Flush’s biography, in the numerous descriptions of the dog’s explorations34 as well as in Vanessa Bell’s drawn illustrations, two of which (‘The back bedroom’ and ‘At Casa Guidi’) adopt the dog’s point of view. This crafty intermediality becomes a clever and efficient manner of shedding light on the life of the obscure (Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog) and of debunking the patriarchal tradition of monumental biography.

The Literary Alchemist

35I would like to finish where I started, on the importance of the demiurgic gesture, on the learning and repetition of a compositional gesture that is linked to vision. Woolf’s work bears testimony to the fundamental movement of the craftsman’s intelligent hand, arranging letters and images to be hand-pressed or pressing on a camera’s shutter-release once the eye has seen and framed a subject, and composing photo albums. The first Hogarth books still have the delicate fragility of handmade items, they result from a practice that leaves room for improvisation and surprise, mistake and imperfection, and prefers playfulness to perfect mastery. In the same way Woolf’s photographs seize decisive ephemeral and unique moments which, through their imprints, create traces and treasurable memories. It seems to me that the power of the woolfian text is to integrate this ephemeral humble gesture into literary creation, be it through page layout, montage or images, refusing to consecrate the text as an unalterable monument. It is to assimilate novelty and otherness to craft intermedial texts which preserve the singularity of the original creative gesture and make its lively and instinctive intensity durable. Then the vernacular craft, which is confined to the shadow of the workshop, becomes luminous and long-lasting literary Art.

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1 I would like to thank David Nowell Smith, whose patient (re)readings and insightful remarks thoroughly helped me in the writing of this paper. Most of the arguments presented here are developed in Cassigneul 2018a.

2 Here the seamstress is obscure in a different sense to the female artist as she is exploited (both socially and economically) as well as marginalized (as a woman). And there is also a difference in their education, cultural and economic backgrounds. This is further complexified by the relation each has with her work: the seamstress is a professional craftswoman (whose work is marketised) while Woolf nurtures amateur crafts (which are first considered as leisure) which help her reflect and produce her literary art.

3 For Richard Sennett, the intelligent hand coordinates the triad of ‘hand, eye and brain’ (Sennett 174).

4 Under Chéroux’s pen, ‘vernacular’ has nothing to do with the linguistic acceptation of the word. As shown in the definition further down, the concept is not synonymous with ‘colloquial’.

5 ‘[I]l s’agit d’évaluer l’impact des nouvelles techniques sur les sociétés humaines, [qui] donne lieu chaque fois à une transaction (ceci négocie avec cela)’ (Debray 2000, 72, see also Debray 2004).

6 See Chéroux 9-27.

7 On the Woolfs’ Hogarth Press see Willis, Lee, Louis and Southworth.

8 See Humm. All six volumes of the Monk’s House Albums are accessible online.

9 On Woolfian photobiography, see Cassigneul forthcoming 2018b.

10 See Bornstein 1-16.

11 See Bradshaw 280–97.

12 The album is accessible online at

13 One example among many, on February 12th 1897: ‘The Frend [camera] arrived from Becks, in a new box, all rubbed up and beautiful, smelling strongly of Jargonel. We tried shutting Nessa up in the cupboard to put in the films, but there were too many chinks. Then she suggested being covered by her quilt, and everything else that I could lay hands on—She was accordingly buried in dresses and dressing gowns, till no light could penetrate. Soon she emerged almost stifled having forgotten how to put the film in. I hustled her back again into her burrow, however, and she contrived to manage it—We took 2 photographs of S and J on the sands, but the light was bad and I do not know whether they will come out—’ (Leaska 120).

14 Analysing snapshot Kodak culture, Richard Chalfen became interested in ‘how people use a medium, as both “producers” of messages and “audience” members, rather than in the medium per se. It is specifically this knowledge—knowing how to use visual media in home mode communication—that forms the core of Kodak culture’ (Chalfen 9).

15 Julia Margaret Cameron experimented with photography at home, in her Freshwater glasshouse, as the title of her short memoir suggests—Annals of my Glass House was written in 1874. In her playful biography of Cameron, Woolf also underlines the domestic amateurism of the photographer: ‘Dressed in dark clothes, stained with chemicals from her photography (and smelling of them too), with a plump eager face and a voice husky, yet in some way compelling and even charming, she dashed out of the studio at Dimbola [the name of Cameron’s house], attached heavy swans’ wings to the children’s shoulders, and bade them “Stand there” and play the part of the Angels in the Nativity leaning over the ramparts of Heaven’ (Woolf 1973, 15). See also Ford.

16 Richard Shone reminds us that all furniture, clothes, crockery and art produced at the Omega Workshops were sold anonymously. They were all handmade at 33 Fitzroy Square, foregrounding a home-made quality and a man-made touch. Chairs, desks, pottery, screens, table tops and clothes were made to be useful. Even if the workshop’s endeavour showed high sophistication and a savvy understanding of the current artistic trends and changes in taste, it nevertheless emphasized spontaneity and ‘good craftsmanship’. ‘[P]rofessionalism went hand in hand with informality; it was revolutionary yet amenable’ (Shone 137-8; see also Gernstein).

17 Two Stories comprised Leonard’s ‘Three Jews’ and Virginia’s ground-breaking ‘The Mark on the Wall’. The original Hogarth Press book with Carrington’s woodcuts is shown here:

18 On the link between photography and autobiography, see Cassigneul forthcoming 2018c.

19 One example among many, in the June 1892 issue: ‘As we have before mentioned Miss Stella Duckworth was presented with a photographing machine on her birthday so she is now taking photographs (not as yet with Dr Nichols but) by herself of her family. She has already done several of her maternal parents which as her younger brother remarked are her first success’ (Lowe 75).

20 ‘Technique has a bad name; it can seem soulless. That’s not how people whose hands become highly trained view technique. For them, technique will be immediately linked to expression’ (Sennett 149).

21 I here use poetic in the sense of poesis meaning ‘production’, ‘composition’.

22 The concept of ‘iconotext’ was first employed and theorised in Iconotextes, a collection of articles edited by Alain Montandon (Paris: Ophrys, 1990).

23 See Mulligan and Wooters (313-315) and Di Bello.

24 Opposing Woolf’s poetics to Edwardian materialism, Claire Joubert suggests that, in her critical work, the writer contrasts ‘two systems of signification and representation’: “disjunctive reality”, or “fact” on the one hand, and the fluid solutions of “fiction” and “life” on the other’ (Joubert 143). In turn, I would like to suggest that Joubert’s head-on opposition does not feature as radically in Woolf’s essays. Indeed, it seems that montage and its specific fixed-yet-moving dynamics offers a critical tool that negotiates between realist referentiality and a more supple apprehension of ‘life’ in her literary praxis. It also helps to apprehend the modernist’s complex dialogue with her Victorian heritage (on this question, see Guido and Lugon)

25 In The Tenth Muse, Laura Marcus has explored the links between Modernism and Eisensteinian montage in a historical and cultural perspective. My aim here is to underline the connection between Eisenstein’s montage theories, Woolf’s practice of photographic montage in her albums and her knowledge of book illustration (image/text montage) with her practice of literary montage throughout her oeuvre.

26 For a thorough analysis of Eisenstein’s montage of attractions, see Aumont.

27 We find this fluid temporality in the anachronistic lay out of the Monks’ House Albums: Victorian cartes-de-visite come alongside photographs that chronicle the Woolfs’ daily life; snapshots of Woolf’s nephews are set next to family portraits of Virginia’s childhood or Leonard’s Ceylon years, etc. The non-chronological arrangement of the albums somehow actualises Woolf’s 1926 reflexions on temporality: ‘time shall be utterly obliterated; future shall somehow blossom out of the past’ (Woolf 1982, 118).

28 Suzanne Raitt quotes Clive Bell’s article ‘Mrs Woolf’, The Dial, December 1924 and an anonymous review, ‘Dissolving Views’, Yorkshire Post, 29/11/1922.

29 But she also disrupts syntax, as the second half of the sentence has no main verb, making the flux/stasis tension inhere in the grammar as well as the images.

30 I am here summarising ideas that are fully developed in my PhD dissertation (Cassigneul 2014).

31 See Pawlowski.

32 For more on the propaganda war images Woolf received in 1936, see Gualtieri.

33 According to Frédéric Regard, Woolf’s narrative strategies of representation follow a ‘violent logic of sensation’ (Regard 108; translation mine) that calls for the reader’s ‘visual commitment to ethics’ (107; translation mine). On Woolf’s image/text poethics, see Cassigneul 2015.

34 One example out of many: ‘He leapt into the carriage by her side. Couched on her lap, the whole pomp of London at its most splendid burst on his astonished eyes. They drove along Oxford Street. He saw houses made of almost entirely of glass. He saw windows laced across with glittering streamers; heaped with gleaming mounds of pink, purple, yellow, rose’ (Woolf 2002, 27).

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Adèle Cassigneul, « ‘Betwixt and Between: Virginia Woolf and the Art of Craftsmanship’ »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 54 | 2018, mis en ligne le 01 mars 2018, consulté le 15 avril 2024. URL : ; DOI :

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Adèle Cassigneul

Dr in British literature, specialist of text/image relations, Adèle Cassigneul wrote her Phd on Virginia Woolf’s relations with photography and film and published articles on the subject both in France and abroad. She has edited a collection of article, “Virginia Woolf and Images: Becoming Photographic (EBC 53, 2017), co-authored with Elsa Cavalié the Atlande monograph on Ian McEwan’s Atonement and its film adaptation, and published Voir, observer, penser: Virginia Woolf et la Photo-cinématographie (PUM 2018).

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