Navigation – Plan du site

AccueilNuméros33Virginia Woolf’s Dischronic Art o...

Virginia Woolf’s Dischronic Art of Fiction in her Essays

Les Essais de Virginia Woolf: un art dischronique de la fiction.
Christine Reynier

Résumés

On peut considérer que dans ses nombreux essais, Woolf élabore une théorie de la fiction, bien qu’elle redéfinisse ce terme à sa manière. Cet article se propose d’analyser la théorie de l’écriture et de la lecture de l’écrivain telle qu’elle apparaît dans ses essais, en particulier dans ‘Personalities’, ‘Reading’, ‘On Being Ill’ et ‘Crafstmanship’. Sa vision de l’auteur impersonnel, de la lecture comme moment d’ouverture et de l’écriture et de la lecture comme dons est analysée en détail et comparée à celle de ses contemporains, tels E.M. Forster, Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence ou T.S. Eliot. Sa théorie de la fiction apparaît ainsi comme étant ancrée dans son contexte culturel tout en préfigurant des théories à venir; on peut ainsi la qualifier de ‘dischronique’, hantée qu’elle est par des théories contemporaines aussi bien que par des théories qui étaient encore à venir.

Haut de page

Texte intégral

For possibly, if fiction is, as we suggest, in difficulties, it may be because nobody grasps her firmly and defines her severely. She has had no rules drawn up for her, very little thinking done on her behalf.[. . .] But this part of his duty, if it is his duty, Mr. Forster expressly disowns. He is not going to theorise about fiction except incidentally. (Woolf 1994, 601)

  • 1 The Art of Fiction’, published in the Nation & Athenaeum, 12 November 1927, is a condensed version(...)
  • 2 Edmund Wilson writes in his account of the modernist movement Axel’s Castle (1931): ‘ ‘Each of the (...)
  • 3 Although she bewares of theoreticians who tend to read ‘on a system, to become a specialist or an a (...)
  • 4 See especially Leila Brosnan who challenges the dividing line between Woolf’s non-fiction and ficti (...)

1In this review of E.M. Forster’s Aspects of the Novel, ‘The Art of Fiction’,1 Virginia Woolf calls for a theory of fiction that does not exist yet in 1927 and that Forster, according to her, fails to provide. It can be argued that in the innumerable reviews and essays she herself wrote from the beginning to the end of her career and that have been somewhat underrated by critics for a long while,2 Woolf provides such a theory even if she challenges the very definition of the term ‘theory’ by embedding it in a genre, the modern essay, which ‘admits [. . .] of sudden boldness and metaphor’ (Woolf 1994, 218) rather than of abstraction.3 In those texts (now partly collected by Andrew McNeillie), while reviewing books, passing judgment or making general statements about literature, she gradually and very indirectly comes to define the ideal art of writing while championing, like most creative writers who are also critics, her own art of writing. And although she posits herself as a critic and reader of other writers’ fiction, the reader she embodies may also appear as the ideal reader of her own fiction. Woolf’s ambiguous position is therefore challenging from the start and it is her theory of writing and reading, as it is scattered in her essays, that I would like to examine here, knowing full well that the scope of her essays is so vast that my attempt is bound to be fragmentary and will only come as a modest complement to the already existing studies of Woolf’s essays.4 What sort of a theoretician is Woolf? What does her theory of fiction mainly consist in? These are the questions I shall address by soliciting Woolf’s essays and comparing them with her contemporaries’, namely E.M. Forster, Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad, D.H. Lawrence or T.S. Eliot’s, thus grounding them in their cultural context while showing how ground-breaking they are in the light of her successors’.

  • 5 In France, Catherine Bernard has written on ‘Virginia Woolf essayiste ou l’écriture sans pédigrée’ (...)

2Woolf is well-known for condemning in her diary ‘the damned egotistical self, which ruins Joyce and Richardson’ (Woolf 1953, January 26, 1920). Similarly, in her essays, she voices her admiration for Greek literature, ‘the impersonal literature’ (Woolf 1994, 39) which is read and appreciated because ‘we have either no sense or a very weak one of the personality of the Greek dramatists’ (Woolf 1994, 274), as well as for writers who, unlike Hemingway, refrain from revealing their sex in their writings: ‘[t]he great writers lay no stress upon sex one way or the other’ (Woolf 1994, 454), she writes in ‘An Essay in Criticism’. Her call for a selfless, ungendered5 and anonymous literature, that she will reiterate down to her last unfinished essay, ‘Anon’, sounds very much like T.S. Eliot’s theory of impersonality, minus the religious rhetoric of asceticism, and is close to E.M. Forster’s conception of fiction as ‘unsigned’ (Forster 1979, 84): ‘all literature tends towards a condition of anonymity, and [. . .], so far as words are creative, a signature merely distracts us from their true significance. [. . .] The signature, the name, belongs to the surface personality, and pertains to the world of information, it is a ticket, not the spirit of life’ (Forster 1979, 82, 87).

  • 6 Woolf will develop this in her theory of androgyny in A Room of One’s Own which enables her to esca (...)
  • 7 Now the title of a book by Maurice Couturier.

3However, in other essays, especially ‘Personalities’, Woolf seems to contradict herself when she argues in favour of personality and recognises that Shakespeare is much read because readers can find the man in his writings even if his work is not exactly a form of personal literature: ‘most people have precisely that personal feeling for him which I think they have not for Aeschylus’ (Woolf 1972, 275); she goes on showing that Shakespeare is one of ‘[t]hese great artists who manage to infuse the whole of themselves into their works, yet contrive to universalise their identity so that, though we feel Shakespeare everywhere about, we cannot catch him at the moment in any particular spot’ (Woolf 1972, 275). Similarly in Thomas Brown’s prose, the signature of the author is always traced on the page and ‘the figure of the author’6 (Woolf 1988, 156) is never far away: ‘Somewhere, everywhere, now hidden, now apparent in whatever is written down is the form of a human being’ (Woolf 1988, 156); and yet autobiographical facts are discounted. Personality is here redefined as a form of universality or commonality rather than the expression of an individuality and comes close to the impersonal. In the end, both impersonality and personality can be at work in a literary text.7

  • 8 Similarly Ford defines the ideal author as ‘sedulous to avoid letting his personality appear in the(...)

4Woolf comes up with a complex theory of impersonal personality that encompasses both T.S. Eliot’s theory of impersonality and opposing theories and can be said to span the developments of theories ranging from Roland Barthes’s ‘Death of the Author’ to his own later re-inscription of the author in Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, from structuralism to post-structuralism and even deconstruction, if we think of Jacques Derrida’s concept of signature.8 Woolf seems to sum up beforehand years of debate on the question of authorship and authority and delineates a space in-between personality and impersonality, an ambivalent and paradoxical space that implicitly establishes paradox as one of the main tenets of modernist fiction.

  • 9 See especially Signéponge.
  • 10 Roland Barthes writes: ‘la naissance du lecteur doit se payer de la mort de l’Auteur’ (Barthes 1984 (...)
  • 11 E.M. Forster writes: ‘What is so wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who(...)
  • 12 Michael Kaufmann, in his analysis of The Common Reader, argues that Woolf’s desire to give up the e (...)

5If for the early Barthes, the birth of the reader signals the death of the author,9 for Woolf, author and reader are not seen in antithetical and exclusive terms. Much like E.M. Forster who acknowledges that there is, between reader and author, a ‘sense of co-operation’ that turns into ‘an infection’, a transformation of the one by the other,10 Woolf believes in the ‘happy alliance’ (Woolf 1994, 215) of writer and reader that both inhabit the ambivalent personal/impersonal space.11 Not only should the reader be the writer’s ‘fellow-worker and accomplice’ (Woolf 1972, 2) but there should also be a total empathy between them: ‘Do not dictate to your author; try to become him’ (Woolf 1972, 2);12 and their roles should be interchangeable: ‘Perhaps the quickest way to understand the elements of what a novelist is doing is not to read, but to write’ (Woolf 1972, 2).

  • 13 A considerably revised version of this lecture given in 1926 at Hayes Court, a girls’ school, is pu (...)
  • 14 In ‘How Should One Read a Book’, Woolf defines her ideal reader thus: ‘Most commonly we come to boo (...)
  • 15 Ford writes: ‘Now the one sensible thing in the long drivel of nonsense with which Tolstoi misled t (...)
  • 16 See especially ‘La Pharmacie de Platon’ about reading and writing being one and about what he calls(...)

6Such a conception of writing and reading suggests some form of exchange and circulation between writer and reader, which is confirmed by what Woolf writes about Thomas Brown, one of her favourite writers: Browne, she remarks, is an amateur writer who is not paid for the books he writes: ‘He is free since it is the offering of his own bounty to give us as little or as much as he chooses’ (Woolf 1988,159). Writing is seen as a gift the writer makes to the reader and this generates in turn the reader’s generosity: ‘one of the invariable properties of beauty [beautiful writing] is that it leaves in the mind a desire to impart. Some offering we must make’ (Woolf 1988, 159). Woolf’s (ideal) reader is not only receptive to fiction, a passive receptacle without any preconceptions,13 a ‘non-preoccupied mind’ (Ford 271) or ‘virgin mind’ (Ford 273) like Ford Madox Ford’s cabman’s mind modelled on Tolstoy’s peasant’s mind,14 he is also ready to give; a similar give-and-take logic of writing and reading has been explored by Derrida in La Dissémination15 or by Lucette Finas who writes: ‘The reader’s gift to the text rests on the text’s gift to the reader’.16

  • 17 This is my translation. Finas writes: ‘Le don du lecteur au texte suppose le don du texte au lecteu (...)

7If the beauty of Thomas Browne’s prose is a gift, the prose of his predecessors, however different, is also one. When reading Hakluyt’s book in ‘Reading’, the narrator’s ‘attention wanders’ (Woolf 1988, 148), carried along by the rhythm of the sentences and the visions of the Elizabethan age they conjure up. Like Barthes’s reader, the narrator reads looking up,17 or as Woolf writes in ‘How Should One Read a Book?’: ‘how great a part the art of not reading plays in the art of reading’ (1988, 393). Yet the narrator’s attention only wanders to explore further the unknown territories evoked in the narrative, broadening its scope, developing its potentialities while the text yields in return a rich, inexhaustible treasure to the reader: ‘And so, as you read on across the broad pages with as many slips and somnolences as you like, the illusion rises and holds you of banks slipping by on either side, and glades opening out, of white towers revealed, of gilt domes and ivory minarets. It is, indeed, an atmosphere, not only soft and fine, but rich, too, with more than one can grasp at any single reading’ (Woolf 1988,149). Reading Hakluyt’s book further illustrates Woolf’s conception of reading and writing as a gift. ‘Multiplication du lu par le lisant . . .’, Lucette Finas will write (Finas 14). Something which, according to Woolf, is only possible with one category of writers, the laymen who, like Chaucer, have her favour because ‘we are left to stray and stare and make out a meaning for ourselves’ (Woolf 1994, 32) whereas ‘the priests’, like Wordsworth, Coleridge and Shelley ‘take you by the hand and lead you straight to the mystery’ (Woolf 1994, 31). The laymen guarantee a freedom of interpretation based on what Umberto Eco will call the openness of the text, what E.M. Forster calls ‘Expansion. [. . .] Not completion’ (Forster 1927, 116), what D.H. Lawrence refers to as its absence of fixedness when he writes: ‘Give me nothing fixed, set, static’ (Lawrence 76).

  • 18 Barthes writes about ‘lire en levant la tête’ (Barthes 1984, 33).

8Such active reading, for Woolf, derives from the suggestive power of words (Woolf 1972, 248) rather than their representational power or, more exactly, from their connotative rather than denotative power, an opposition that Barthes, following the linguist Hjelmlev, was to make in S/Z in 1970 and that Woolf made as early as April 20, 1937 in a radio broadcast entitled ‘Craftsmanship’. A tongue-in-cheek defence of the sign language which, with one gable or one star, as in the Michelin or Baedeker’s guide-books, can come to the point more clearly and concisely than words. This ironic plea clearly amounts to enhancing the power of words ‘not to express one simple statement but a thousand possibilities’ (Woolf 1972, 246), ‘without the writer’s will; often against his will’ (248); and reading them ‘allow[s] the sunken meanings to remain sunken, suggested, not stated; lapsing and flowing into each other like reeds on the bed of a river’ (248). Words are shown to exceed the writer’s intentionality and disseminate meaning, thus preventing reading from turning into a hermeneutic quest.18

  • 19 ‘Dissemination’ would then synthesise more adequately than ‘polysemy’ what Woolf describes in this (...)
  • 20 Marcel’s bedroom, for example, in Du Côté de chez Swann.

9Reading would then be better defined as a moment of openness, and the two terms, openness and moment, are important here. Openness first: reading as a moment of openness is best synthesised in ‘Reading’ where the beginning of the essay presents itself as a ‘reading scene’. The narrator is sitting in an armchair by the window reading while enjoying ‘the view across country [. . .] from the window’ so that ‘it seemed as if what [he] read was laid upon the landscape, not printed’ (Woolf 1988, 142). Together with outer space, time past and time present enter the space of the book; the gardener mowing the lawn ‘was part of the book’ as well as ‘Keats and Pope behind him, and then Dryden and Sir Thomas Browne’ (Woolf 1988, 142). Through the chronotope of the book, reading is seen here as a moment of silent conversation both between the space of the book and outer space and between the time of famous writers of the past and the time of present common people. The position of the narrator, sitting in the library of a large old house opening onto a garden, can be seen as a metaphor of reading as a moment of openness to the other, whether dead or alive, famous or not, and a moment of conjunction between fiction and reality. Far from adopting the paradoxical posture of Proust who associates reading with a closed space,19 Woolf associates the reader with a space in-between the private and the public spheres and conceives of reading as a form of opening and contact, a generous disposition and an encounter with alterity. Woolf could say with Derrida: ‘lire un livre, c’est-à-dire [. . .] inviter la parole d’un autre chez vous’ (Derrida 1994, 256). Furthermore, in this scene, the narrator-reader metaphorically welcomes famous and obscure voices just as Woolf the reviewer accepted to review classics as well as ‘the rubbish-heap’ of literature (Woolf 1972, 5) and Woolf the writer wrote biographies of the famous as well as the forgotten, Elizabeth Barrett Browning or Roger Fry, servants or dogs.20 The model reader also functions as the model writer and writing is presented as requiring the same generous disposition as reading.

  • 21 In Flush she writes conjointly the biographies of E.B. Browning and of her dog, Flush, and devotes (...)
  • 22 E.M. Forster compares Woolf and Sterne’s capacity for bewilderment (Forster 1974, 12), a term Woolf(...)

10Such openness (to the other) ensures a fully responsive reading, i.e. the ability to be surprised by the work of art; in Woolf’s words, it turns reading into an ‘intensification of life’ (Woolf 1972, 41), a moment of ‘delight’ (Woolf 1972, 39) when the reader is surprised or ‘bewildered’.21 In ‘On Being Ill’, Woolf shows surprise has a double origin. The person who is sick is evoked lying in bed ‘disinterested and able [. . .] to look, for example, at the sky’ (321) and discover ‘a strangely overcoming spectacle’ which ‘has been going on all the time without [his] knowing it’ (321). The recumbent posture becomes the image of the reader’s ‘disinterested contemplation’22 and rediscovery of the ordinary world, i.e. of his experience of the process of defamiliarisation operated by fiction. In a metaphorical way, Woolf defines what Viktor Schklovsky was to call, at about the same time, ostranenie or defamiliarisation. What she herself calls, in ‘A Sketch of the Past’, ‘the shock-receiving capacity’ (Woolf 1978, 83) of the writer, which is here shown to be transferable to the reader. And Attridge will write: ‘the act of breaking down the familiar is also the act of welcoming the other’ (Attridge 2004, 26).

However illness keeps the reader’s mind blurred and makes it difficult for him to understand what he is reading. But this disadvantage is turned upside down by Woolf who writes:

Incomprehensibility has an enormous power over us in illness [. . .] In health meaning has encroached upon sound. Our intelligence domineers over our senses. But in illness, with the police off duty, we creep beneath some obscure poem by Mallarmé or Donne [. . .] and the words give out their scent, and ripple like leaves, and chequer us with light and shadow, and then, if at last we grasp the meaning, it is all the richer for having travelled slowly up with all the bloom upon its wings. (Woolf 1994, 324)

11Illness thus sharpens the reader’s senses or, more exactly, is turned into a metaphor of the writer’s attempt at drawing the reader’s attention to words as signifiers, to the musicality, sensuality or visual qualities of language – another form of defamiliarisation – something the poetic words ‘the words give out their scent, and ripple like leaves, and chequer us with light and shadow’, perform while pointing at it.

  • 23 A Kantian concept Fry, Bell or Woolf resorted to so as to evoke the contemplation of a work of art (...)

12Woolf’s desire for defamiliarisation together with her insistence on the aesthetic power of words is reminiscent of the preface to ‘The Nigger of the Narcissus’ where Conrad defines the writer’s task as to ‘make [us] hear, to make [us] feel, to make [us] see!’ what we had previously been insensitive to and asks for ‘unswerving devotion to the perfect blending of form and substance’, the only way of activating the power of ‘the old, old words, worn thin, defaced by ages of careless usage’ (Conrad XLIX) . It also partly echoes Ford’s words about what constitutes ‘the sole real province of all the arts’, i.e. ‘the beauty of music that is to say, of music without much meaning, but of very great power to stir the emotions’ (Ford 2002, 154).23

  • 24 ‘Les Jeunes and Des Imagistes’, first published in Outlook 33 (9 May 1914) 653. Ford admired this q (...)
  • 25 Barthes, in 1973, makes a distinction between le ‘[t]exte de plaisir: celui qui contente’ and the ‘ (...)
  • 26 See on that subject Lecercle who writes that Woolf’s moments of being are ‘the best illustrations I(...)

13On the whole reading, for Woolf, is synonymous with discovery, surprise and aesthetic involvement. Such a theory of reading, dissecting and foregrounding pleasure, paves the way for Sontag and Barthes’s erotics of reading;24 it also turns reading into a moment of being, the event of language and not in language, a Deleuzian event.25 Taking into account Woolf’s conception of reading and writing as inextricably bound together and almost interchangeable, and as mainly generous, open dispositions, we could finally define her art of fiction as eminently ethical, as offering the possibility, in Attridge’s words: ‘to read inventively, to respond to the inventiveness of the work in an inventive way and thus affirm and prolong its inventiveness. I would call this a responsible reading, a reading that attempts to do justice to the alterity, singularity, and inventiveness of the literary work; and it’s here that I locate the ethical’ (Attridge 2003, 33). And Attridge adds: ‘the peculiar pleasure of the literary response (over and above all the pleasure to be gained from new information, sensuous patterning, stirring of memory, and so on) lies in this apprehension of otherness and in the demands it makes’ (Attridge 2003, 35).26

  • 27 Attridge here is close to what Derrida writes about deconstructive reading as the experience of the(...)
  • 28 See (Reynier 2005, 13-24).

14Woolf’s anatomy of fiction, as delineated in her various essays, is a complex network that we have just began exploring; it seems to posit her in some ways as a follower of the Eliotian line which has constituted the critical orthodoxy for a long while. Yet we have seen that she departs from it in more ways than one and often comes close to E.M. Forster’s views on literature.27 However she cannot be said to be an adept of Art for Art’s sake, a line E.M. Forster claims to defend.28 She exceeds by far the boundaries of a self-contained fiction by clearly adopting in her essays an ethical position, involving openness and responsibility as well as aesthetic commitment.

15Whether she evades an Art for Art’s sake conception of fiction in other ways remains to be seen. I shall argue that in the essays dealing with literature which we are concerned with, Woolf voices her belief in other forms of literary commitment, but in an extremely submerged way, not comparable with the straightforward manner she adopts in her often commented so-called feminist and political essays, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. ‘Craftsmanship’ is one of the most telling essays in that respect. There she explains that ‘Words, English words, are full of echoes, of memories, of associations’ (Woolf 1972, 248). Dissemination, the ‘power of suggestion’ (248) of words therefore appears not simply as a formal choice in favour of open meaning in an open text. It is also connected with history, both with literary history – as in the example Woolf takes of ‘the splendid word ‘incarnadine’ [. . .] who can use it without remembering also ‘multitudinous seas’?’ (248) – and with the country’s history: ‘They have been out and about, on people’s lips, in their houses, in the streets, in the fields, for so many centuries’ (248), the history of the people, of everyman and everywoman. Words are the living palimpsests and memory of English history. Woolf points here not only to a phenomenon that critics, in the wake of T.S. Eliot will study under the banner of intertextuality, but also to the grounding of words and fiction in history, a historical context that precludes the autonomy of fiction.

  • 29 In ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ Forster defines a work of art as ‘a self-contained entity’ (89) possessing (...)

16In the same essay, Woolf adds: ‘they [words] are so stored with meanings, with memories, [. . .] they have contracted so many famous marriages’ (248) and she expatiates on this metaphor, further personifying words by referring to the necessity they feel to change: ‘it is their nature to change’ (251), what she also calls their ‘falling in love, and mating together’: ‘Royal words mate with commoners. English words marry French words, German words, Indian words, Negro words, if they have a fancy’ (250). The evolution of language is here linked with historical circumstances: the invasion of England, the wars she fought, and the reality of Empire. History has altered language and necessarily weighs on the writing of fiction. What Woolf also insists on in this passage is the mating of royal words with commoners, of uneducated words with educated ones as well as of Indian or Negro words with English ones. Language is depicted as a democratic space where social hierarchies are blurred (‘They are highly democratic, too; they believe that one word is as good as another’, 250) and where different cultures enter into a dialogue with each other. These statements are first of all an indirect way of taking into account the origin of words, the social class that coined them, the nation they were born in, i.e. their socio-cultural background, dismissing once more a conception of language and the fiction that uses it as autonomous; they also extol the virtues of impurity and point out the dialogic forces at work in language, implicitly stating the political nature of language, its submerged but nonetheless real capacity to defend a pluralistic and democratic ideal. In a very light, humorous and metaphorical manner, Woolf unmasks the unconscious of language which precludes its autonomy, something that Bakhtine and his successors will examine at length. If language enables the writer to make aesthetic choices, it also, as ‘a social and historical construct’ (Lecercle 1999, 223), constrains the writer in a double movement that Lecercle identifies as its ‘enabling constraints’ (Lecercle 1999, 116).29

  • 30 Lecercle echoes here Jameson’s famous statement: ‘there is nothing that is not social and historica (...)

17If we read her essays closely, we can see that Woolf engages in a conversation with her contemporaries while laying down the problematics of her own fiction and what has come to be called modernist fiction, presenting the latter as a complex literary phenomenon, both experimental, self-contained and conditioned by its context, capable of commitment, thus thinking through the critical orthodoxy that has long prevailed and only been recently reappraised.30

  • 31 On the shift in criticism from a tendency to view modernism as an experimental artistic phenomenon (...)
  • 32 In La Carte postale, Derrida elaborates a theory of dischronic reading or textual haunting that can(...)

18While defining fiction in her essays and retaining the essayist’s tone and the writer’s style, for the reader’s greatest pleasure, Woolf elaborates a form of criticism that should suffice to establish her as one of the major critics of the century; she defines a form of criticism which we could call, borrowing the term Derrida uses about reading,31 dischronic criticism, a form of criticism which is haunted by previous and contemporary theories, but also, through a logic of invagination, by theories that were still to come. And paraphrasing Derrida’s statement about Joyce, we could say about Woolf: ‘Elle nous a tous lus et pillés, celle-là’.32 In other words, her essays preclude all literary categorisation and point instead to a constant circulation between what critics have chosen to call modernism and post-modernism.

Haut de page

Bibliographie

Attridge, Derek, ‘Ethics, Otherness, and Literary Form’, The European English Messenger, XII/1 (Spring 2003) 33–38.

Attridge, Derek, The Singularity of Literature, London: Routledge, 2004.

Barthes, Roland, Le Plaisir du texte, Paris: Seuil, 1973.

Barthes, Roland, Roland Barthes par Roland Barthes, Paris: Seuil, 1975.

Barthes, Roland, ‘La Mort de l’auteur’(1968) (63–69), ‘Écrire la lecture’ (33–36), Le Bruissement de la langue. Essais critiques IV, Paris: Seuil, 1984.

Bernard, Catherine et Reynier, Christine, eds., Virginia Woolf. Le Pur et l’impur, colloque de Cerisy-la-Salle 2001, Rennes: Presses Universitaires de Rennes, 2002.

Bernard, Catherine, ‘Virginia Woolf essayiste ou l’écriture sans pédigrée’, Vi rginia Woolf. Le Pur et l’ impur, eds. C. Bernard and C. Reynier, Rennes: PUR, 2002, 247–58.

Brosnan, Leila, Reading Vi rginia Woolf ’s Essays and Journalism, Edinburgh: Edinburgh U.P., 1997.

Conrad, Joseph, preface to The Nigger of the ‘Narcissus’ (1897), Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1987, XLVII-LI.

Couturier, Maurice, La Figure de l’auteur, Paris: Seuil, 1998.

Cuddy-Keane, Melba, Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual and the Public Sphere, Cambridge U.P., 2003.

Derrida, Jacques, La Dissémination, Paris: Seuil, 1972. La Carte Postale, Paris: Aubier-Flammarion,1980. Psyché, Inventions de l’autre, Paris: Galilée, 1987. Signéponge, Paris: Seuil, 1988.

Derrida, Jacques, Politiques de l’amitié, Paris: Galilée, 1994.

Eco, Umberto, L’Œuvre ouverte (1962), Paris: Seuil, 1965.

Eliot, T.S., ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919), Selected Essays, London: Faber and Faber, 1999.

Finas, Lucette, La Toise et le Vertige, Paris: Des Femmes, 1986.

Ford, Ford Madox, The Good Soldier (1915), ed. Martin Stannard, London: Norton, 1995.

Ford, Ford Madox, Critical Essays, ed. Max Saunders & Richard Stang, Manchester: Carcanet, 2002.

Forster, Edward Morgan, Aspects of the Novel (1927), London: Edward Arnold, 1974.

Forster, Edward Morgan, ‘Anonymity: an Enquiry’, Two Cheers for Democracy, New York: HBC, 1979, 77–87.

Forster, Edward Morgan, ‘Art for Art’s Sake’, Two Cheers for Democracy, New York: HBC, 1979, 88–94.

Froula, Christine, Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Avant-Garde. War-Civilization-Modernity, New York: Columbia U.P., 2005.

Giles, Steve, Theorizing Modernism. Essays in Critical Theory, London: Routledge, 1993.

Goldman, Mark, The Reader’s Art. Virginia Woolf as Literary Critic, The Hague: Mouton, 1976.

Gualtieri, Elena, Virginia Wolf’s Essays, London: MacMillan, 2000.

Jameson, Fredric, The Political Unconscious. Narrative as a Socially symbolic Act, New York: Cornell U.P., 1981.

Kaufmann, Michael, ‘A Modernism of One’s Own: Woolf’s TLS Reviews and Eliotic Modernism’, Vi rginia Woolf and the Essay, ed. B.C. Rosenberg & J. Dubino, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1997, 137-155.

Lawrence, D.H., ‘Poetry of the Present’ (75-79) Selected Critical Writings, Oxford: O.U.P., 1998.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques, Interpretation as Pragmatics, London: Macmillan, 1999.

Lecercle, Jean-Jacques, Deleuze and Language, Basingstoke: Palgrave Mcmillan, 2002.

Low, Lisa, ‘Refusing to hit back: Vi rginia Woolf and the Impersonality Question’, Vi rginia Woolf and the Essay, ed. B.C. Rosenberg & J. Dubino, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1997, 257–273.

Regard, Frédéric, La Force du féminin. Sur trois essais de Woolf, Paris: La Fabrique, 2002.

Regard, Frédéric, Ed., Mapping the Self: Space, Identity, Discourse in British Auto/Biography, Saint-Étienne: Publ. de l’Univ. de Saint-Étienne, 2003.

Reynier, Christine, ‘The Impure Art of Biography: Virginia Woolf’s Flush’, Mapping the Self: Space, Identity, Discourse in British Auto/Biography, ed. Frédéric Regard, Saint-Étienne: Publications de l’Université de Saint-Étienne, 2003, 187–202.

Reynier, Christine, Ed., Insights into the Legacy of Bloomsbury, Les Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens 62 (octobre 2005), 13–24.

Rosenberg, Beth Carol & Dubino, Jeanne, eds., Vi rginia Woolf and the Essay, New York: St Martin’s Press, 1997.

Sheppard, Richard, ‘The Problematics of European Modernism’, Theorizing Modernism. Essays in Critical Theory, ed. Steve Giles, London: Routledge, 1993, 1-51.

Sontag, Susan: Against Interpretation and Other Essays (1966), New York: Picador, 2001.

Woolf, Virginia, A Writer’s Diary, ed. Leonard Woolf, London: Hogarth P., 1953.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘Craftsmanship’, Collected Essays II (1966), London: Hogarth P., 1972, 245–52.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘Hours in a Library’, Collected Essays II (1966), London: Hogarth P., 1972, 34–41.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘Personalities’, Collected Essays II (1966), London: Hogarth P., 1972, 273-78.

Woolf, Virginia, Moments of Being. Unpublished Autobiographical Writings, ed. Jeanne Schulkind, 1976, London: Triad Granada, 1978.

Woolf, Virginia, Anon and The Reader: Virginia Woolf’s Last essays’, ed. Brenda R. Silver, Twentieth Century Literature, 25: 3/4 (Fall/Winter 1979): 356–424.

Woolf, Virginia, Flush (1933), Oxford: O.U.P., 1998.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘How Should One Read a Book?’, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4: 1925-1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie, London: Hogarth P., 1994, 388-400. ‘Is Fiction an Art?’, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4: 1925–1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie, London: Hogarth P., 1994, 457–65.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘On Being Ill’, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4: 1925–1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie, London: Hogarth P., 1994, 317–29.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘On Not Knowing Greek’, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4: 1925–1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie, London: Hogarth Press, 1994, 38–53. ‘Reading’, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 3: 1919-1924, ed. Andrew McNeillie, New York: HBJ, 1988, 141-61.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Art if Fiction’, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4: 1925–1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie, London: Hogarth P., 1994, 599–603.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Modern Essay’, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4: 1925–1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie, London: Hogarth P., 1994, 216–27.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Pastons and Chaucer’, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4: 1925–1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie, London: Hogarth P., 1994, 20–38.

Woolf, Virginia, ‘The Patron and the Crocus’, The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. 4: 1925–1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie, London: Hogarth Press, 1994, 212–15.

Haut de page

Notes

1 The Art of Fiction’, published in the Nation & Athenaeum, 12 November 1927, is a condensed version of ‘Is Fiction an Art?’, Woolf’s review in the New York Herald Tribune, 16 October 1927, of Forster’s Aspects of the Novel.

2 Edmund Wilson writes in his account of the modernist movement Axel’s Castle (1931): ‘ ‘Each of the essays of Strachey or Mrs Woolf, so compact yet so beautifully rounded out, is completely self-contained and does not lead to anything beyond itself; and finally, for all their brilliance, we begin to find them tiresome.’ (John Gross, in another classic, The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters (1969) makes a similar if more discriminating, judgement)’; the latter is quoted in a footnote: ‘The typical Virginia Woolf essay by contrast is a brilliant circular flight, which, as criticism, leads nowhere’. Qtd. in Mc Neillie’s introduction (Woolf 1994, XVI).

3 Although she bewares of theoreticians who tend to read ‘on a system, to become a specialist or an authority, [and are] very apt to kill what it suits us to consider the more human passion for pure and disinterested reading’ (Woolf 1972, 34), Woolf is, as McNeillie writes, ‘a considerable theoretician in her own oblique way’ (Woolf 1988, XVII).

4 See especially Leila Brosnan who challenges the dividing line between Woolf’s non-fiction and fiction and draws attention to her essays and journalism ‘as a body of writing that develops and reveals its own self-determining aesthetic dimensions as well as an associated historical environment’ (4) and notices that ‘the study of the essay and Woolf’s essays in particular, is still relatively undeveloped’ (10). In her discussion of Woolf’s essays, she ‘initiate[s] a dialogue between critical approaches’ (8) rather than try to see how Woolf anticipated them.; she is interested mainly in the essay as a specific genre. The collection of articles published by C. Rosenberg and J. Dubino discusses some of Woolf’s essays in a perceptive, although sometimes indirect way; when some points they discuss will surface, reference will be made to them. Elena Gualtieri focuses on the form of the essay, its place within the history of the genre and the generic blurrings Woolf experiments with; she is also interested in Woolf’s concern for women’s points of view, especially in A Room of One’s Own and in her historiographic concerns, particularly in Three Guineas. In her most valuable study, Melba Cuddy-Keane scrutinizes the process of reading in Woolf’s essays, first locating them in their cultural context, then focusing on some essays and underlining their pedagogic nature, the dialogic relation between reader and writer as well as ‘the ideal of a classless, democratic, but intellectual readership’ they promote (Cuddy-Keane 2).

5 In France, Catherine Bernard has written on ‘Virginia Woolf essayiste ou l’écriture sans pédigrée’ and Frédéric Regard has published a stimulating study of three major essays, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas in La Force du féminin; see also my analysis of Woolf’s essays on biography (Reynier 2003).

6 Woolf will develop this in her theory of androgyny in A Room of One’s Own which enables her to escape the binary construction of gender.

7 Now the title of a book by Maurice Couturier.

8 Similarly Ford defines the ideal author as ‘sedulous to avoid letting his personality appear in the course of his book. On the other hand, his whole book [. . .] is merely an expression of his personality’ (Ford 1995, 265). Lisa Low, in her analysis of Woolf’s essays, writes that ‘Woolf expresses a lifelong quest to remove the personal element from her work, not because by impersonality she will transcend what is common, but because by being impersonal she will become common’ (Rosenberg & Dubino 265) and concludes that in her late essay ‘personalities’, Woolf is not so clearly in favour of impersonality, preferring to weigh the pros and cons of personality. Such a dissociation of impersonality and personality seems to me contradictory with the notion of ‘common’ which includes every man, every woman and therefore, the ‘I’.

9 See especially Signéponge.

10 Roland Barthes writes: ‘la naissance du lecteur doit se payer de la mort de l’Auteur’ (Barthes 1984, 69).

11 E.M. Forster writes: ‘What is so wonderful about great literature is that it transforms the man who reads it towards the condition of the man who wrote, and brings to birth in us also the creative impulse’ (Forster 1979, 84).

12 Michael Kaufmann, in his analysis of The Common Reader, argues that Woolf’s desire to give up the ego tends towards a communal ‘we’, ‘a communal structure of artists and reader-critics’ (Rosenberg & Dubino 149), and adds that Woolf ‘anticipates reader-response criticism by several decades’ (Rosenberg & Dubino 149). Beyond the essays included in The Common Reader, this can be extended to most of Woolf’s essays.

13 A considerably revised version of this lecture given in 1926 at Hayes Court, a girls’ school, is published in (Woolf 1988, 388-400); the wording if not the substance is different.

14 In ‘How Should One Read a Book’, Woolf defines her ideal reader thus: ‘Most commonly we come to books with blurred and divided minds, asking of fiction that it shall be true, of poetry that it shall be false, of biography that it shall be flattering, of history that it shall enforce our own prejudices. If we could banish all such preconceptions when we read, that would be an admirable beginning’ (Woolf 1972, 2).

15 Ford writes: ‘Now the one sensible thing in the long drivel of nonsense with which Tolstoi misled this dull world was the remark that art should be addressed to the peasant’ (270) and adds that ‘in Occidental Europe the non-preoccupied mindwhich is the same thing as the peasant intelligence—is to be found scattered throughout every grade of society’ (271) but is certainly not an English gentleman, the latter being too much concerned with conventions. The cabman is the very opposite and embodies the ideal reader’s ‘non-preoccupied mind’. ‘On Impressionism’, Second article, Poetry and Drama 2.6 (December 1914) 323-34. Reproduced in (Ford 264-74).

16 See especially ‘La Pharmacie de Platon’ about reading and writing being one and about what he calls ‘adding’ or ‘supplement’: ‘ajouter n’est pas ici autre chose que donner à lire. [. . .] Le supplément de lecture ou d’écriture doit être rigoureusement prescrit mais par la nécessité d’un jeu, signe auquel il faut accorder le système de tous ses pouvoirs’ (Derrida 1972, 80).

17 This is my translation. Finas writes: ‘Le don du lecteur au texte suppose le don du texte au lecteur’ (Finas 14).

18 Barthes writes about ‘lire en levant la tête’ (Barthes 1984, 33).

19 ‘Dissemination’ would then synthesise more adequately than ‘polysemy’ what Woolf describes in this essay. Derrida defines dissemination in the following way: ‘S’il n’y a donc pas d’unité thématique ou de sens total à se réapproprier au-delà des instances textuelles, [. . .] le texte n’est plus l’expression ou la représentation [. . .] de quelquevérité qui viendrait se diffracter ou se rassembler dans une littérature polysémique. C’est à ce concept herméneutique de polysémie qu’il faudrait substituer celui de dissémination’ (Derrida 1972, 319).

20 Marcel’s bedroom, for example, in Du Côté de chez Swann.

21 In Flush she writes conjointly the biographies of E.B. Browning and of her dog, Flush, and devotes three pages of close footnotes to E.B. B.’s servant, Wilson.

22 E.M. Forster compares Woolf and Sterne’s capacity for bewilderment (Forster 1974, 12), a term Woolf herself uses about reading Chekhov in ‘The Russian Point of View’. For a discussion of this term, see my ‘Virginia Wolf’s Ethics of the Short Story, Etudes Anglaises, forthcoming.

23 A Kantian concept Fry, Bell or Woolf resorted to so as to evoke the contemplation of a work of art or, in Woolf’s case, the reading of a book. On that subject, see Froula, especially 1-32.

24 ‘Les Jeunes and Des Imagistes’, first published in Outlook 33 (9 May 1914) 653. Ford admired this quality in Imagiste poetry which had found a new form for the narrative of emotion whereas the novel was still groping for one, according to him.

25 Barthes, in 1973, makes a distinction between le ‘[t]exte de plaisir: celui qui contente’ and the ‘[t]exte de jouissance: celui qui met en état de perte [. . .] met en crise son rapport au langage’ (Barthes 1973, 25–26). As for Sontag, she argues in favour of an art that would make us ‘recover our senses’ and, paraphrasing Conrad, she writes: ‘We must learn to see more, to hear more, to feel more.[. . .] In place of a hermeneutics, we need an erotics of art’ (Sontag 312).

26 See on that subject Lecercle who writes that Woolf’s moments of being are ‘the best illustrations I know of the Deleuzian event’ (Lecercle 2002, 151).

27 Attridge here is close to what Derrida writes about deconstructive reading as the experience of the irreducibility of alterity; see (Derrida 1987).

28 See (Reynier 2005, 13-24).

29 In ‘Art for Art’s Sake’ Forster defines a work of art as ‘a self-contained entity’ (89) possessing an ‘internal order’ or harmony, a ‘form’ of its own (Forster 1979, 94), a late conception of art which somewhat jars with his more ethical earlier practice of fictional writing.

30 Lecercle echoes here Jameson’s famous statement: ‘there is nothing that is not social and historical [. . .] everything is ‘in the last analysis’ political’ (Jameson 20) and comments Judith Butler’s conception of the subject as both actor and acted, a position comparable to the writer’s (and reader’s) in Woolf’s essays.

31 On the shift in criticism from a tendency to view modernism as an experimental artistic phenomenon to more recent attempts to show it has developed out of complex socio-historical circumstances, see for example Richard Sheppard, ‘The Problematics of European Modernism’ in (Giles 1–51). Frédéric Regard, in his analysis of ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas, also remarks that the political, the ethical and the aesthetic cannot be dissociated in Woolf’s essays. However he chooses to define her essays as post-feminist and as the locus of the inscription of the feminine, i.e. ‘une vocalisation démocratique du féminin impersonnel’ (Regard 119), ‘[un] espacement poétique illimité, impersonnel, inassignable’ (Regard 120), somewhat restricting this space, in the second part of his definition, to an impersonal rather than an ambivalent one.

32 In La Carte postale, Derrida elaborates a theory of dischronic reading or textual haunting that can be synonymous with intertextuality provided the latter is not limited to previous or synchronic writings.

Haut de page

Pour citer cet article

Référence électronique

Christine Reynier, « Virginia Woolf’s Dischronic Art of Fiction in her Essays »Études britanniques contemporaines [En ligne], 33 | 2008, mis en ligne le 21 juillet 2020, consulté le 01 décembre 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/ebc/9416; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/ebc.9416

Haut de page

Auteur

Christine Reynier

Université Paul Valéry-Montpellier 3

Articles du même auteur

Haut de page

Droits d’auteur

Licence Creative Commons
Études britanniques contemporaines est mise à disposition selon les termes de la Licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

Haut de page
  • Logo Presses universitaires de la Méditerranée
  • Logo ERIH +
  • Logo DOAJ - Directory of Open Access Journals
  • OpenEdition Journals
Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search