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Reincarnating Shakespeare’s sister: Virginia Woolf and the “uncircumscribed spirit” of fiction

Naomi TOTH


Pour élucider le rapport entre la fiction, le spirituel, et le féminin dans la pensée de Virginia Woolf, notre lecture met en parallèle deux de ses essais-manifestes importants, “Modern Fiction”(1919/1925) et Une chambre à soi (1928). Dans “Modern Fiction”,Woolf décrit la tâche de l’écrivain comme étant de saisir “un esprit inconnu, sans contours”, qu’elle définit encore comme “la réalité”, “la vérité” ou “la vie elle-même”. Cet esprit – ce réel vivant – est constitué par la recherche du sujet écrivant, dans un mouvement qui implique la dissolution des frontières entre sujet et objet. Cet esprit est pourtant également représenté comme une réalité indépendante du sujet et immanente au monde matériel, capable d’investir le sujet dans un “instant de vision” épiphanique. Le sujet écrivant et l’“esprit” ou la “réalité” qu’il faut capter sont ainsi pris dans une tension perpétuelle, et c’est depuis cette tension qu’il convient de considérer le rapport entre le féminin et la fiction esquissé dans Une chambre à soi. Car le mouvement du sujet écrivant vers l’esprit vivant propre au “réel” s’avère être un moment crucial pour la réincarnation de la sœur de Shakespeare, c’est-à-dire, pour la création d’une littérature véritablement “féminine”.

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  • 1  Woolf writes: “[…] certainly and emphatically there is no God” when discussing her experience of “ (...)
  • 2  The present article was written for the “Women and Spirituality” Conference co-organised by Queen (...)
  • 3  Published under the title “Modern Novels” in The Times Literary Supplement, April 1919, the essay (...)

1In the opening paragraphs of A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf broaches the set topic of her address, “women and fiction”, by declining the various ways in which the conjunction “and” could be made to relate the two categories, and then by deferring definition of each indefinitely. Both “women” and “fiction” remain, she states, “unsolved problems” (9). While it is more difficult to imagine how the non-believer she was1 might have responded to an invitation to speak on “women and spirituality’,2 had she accepted, she may well have proceeded in a similar fashion, and that for two reasons. Firstly, because the term “spirit”, recurrent in her essays and in her work, seems to elude definition just as resolutely as both “women” and “fiction” do. Secondly, because questions of the spirit are intimately linked to questions of fiction for Woolf. Therefore, rather than seeking to fix a meaning on these terms, this article attempts to investigate the relationship of “spirit” to “fiction” in Woolf’s work, and then to that other “unsolved problem”, “women”. To this end, two of her essays will be read in parallel: her modernist manifesto “Modern Fiction” (1919/1925)3 and A Room of One’s Own (1928).

  • 4  Woolf’s project remains one in which the mimetic function of fiction is not contested but reinforc (...)
  • 5  In subsequent essays, Woolf underlined the generational nature of this distinction. See for exampl (...)

2In “Modern Fiction”, Woolf argues that the task of modern writers is to capture that “essential thing” (153) which she describes as “this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit” (154, my italics). Woolf’s use of the term “spirit” in this essay is broad and mobile: “life”, “reality” and even “truth” are made synonymous with the “spirit” that fiction ought to seize and convey (153). For Woolf is engaged here in a redefinition of the object of fiction, that is, of the “reality” novels seek to capture.4 This “reality” is not to be limited to quantifiable “facts” and external descriptions, but must include the less tangible “life” or “spirit”. Without this “essential thing”, Woolf argues, fiction ceases to be worthwhile. The failure to capture “life” or “spirit” is the principal charge she makes against the realist novelists that were her contemporaries, whom she labels “materialist”. The “materialists” disappoint, she states, “because they are concerned not with the spirit but the body” (153). She opposes their writing to that of the “spiritual” moderns, who go beyond externalities to get at the animation of “reality”, the “spirit” of “life itself.’5

3However, although Woolf seems to construct a spirit-matter dichotomy here, this opposition is disrupted in the very same essay, as sensory experience is described as a means of attaining the desired spiritual reality. Indeed, the “spirit” that animates fiction is to be found at the most basic level of concrete experience, in the vibrations of atoms showering on the mind. In Woolf’s essays, the “life” and “reality” she seeks exist therefore in the tension between the physical and the spiritual, and the process of reaching out for this “essential thing” is constitutive of the very object the writing subject seeks. After establishing the necessity of the writing subject’s movement towards the “spirit” of “life” and “reality” for Woolf, the question of gender may be posed, and it is here that the “fiction” of Shakespeare’s sister that runs through A Room of One’s Own will be examined. What role does the gendered body of the writer play in the capture of the expanded conception of reality Woolf defends?

The spirit of the matter

  • 6  The examples of this characterisation are almost innumerable. It is evident in the very title of J (...)
  • 7  Chantal Delourme has linked Woolf’s work to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “heccéité”, and in pa (...)

4In “Modern Fiction”, Woolf famously entreats writers in search of the “spirit” of fiction to “[l]ook within” (154) and “record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall”, to “trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores on the consciousness” (155). These exhortations have led many critics to characterise her as a writer of the interior life.6 And yet, while Woolf clearly does exhort modern writers to explore “the dark places of psychology” (156), the very “spirit” she seeks to record tends to dismantle the frontier separating interior and exterior realities, just as her insistence on the vibrations at that most basic level of the material, the atomic, prevents any neat separation of the physical from the spiritual. The “incessant shower of innumerable atoms”, Woolf writes, comes “[f]rom all sides”, forming a “myriad of impressions” which “shape themselves into the life of Monday or Tuesday” (154). In other words, millions of moving atoms form entities which Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari might have termed “heccéités”, that is, a-subjective individualities composed of heterogeneous but inseparable elements and defined by a division of time, and yet exempt from linear progression (Milles plateaux, 318-324). And indeed, in Virginia Woolf’s fictional pursuit of a “Monday or Tuesday” – exemplified in her short story of the same title and in her treatment of a single day in Mrs Dalloway,To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts – neither individual consciousnesses nor the exterior world can be conceived of independently, but both participate in an animate entity made up of a multiplicity of elements: the day itself. Consciousness and the intensity of the sensory world seem thus to be not separated but rendered indistinguishable in their participation in the “life” that a shower of impressions engraves on the mind.7 Thus Woolf refers to “life” as “a luminous halo” or as “a semi-transparent envelope that surrounds consciousness from the beginning to the end” (154). These metaphors displace the accent of fiction not towards an intimate, private interior, but towards that which exceeds the consciousness while remaining contiguous with it. The writing self in Woolf’s essays is thus represented not as a discrete, bordered entity, capable of ensuring an interiority, but as a threshold through which intensities move and respond to one another, to borrow Deleuze and Guattari’s terminology once again (Milles plateaux, 305). Rendering the self open, porous and attentive is therefore an essential moment in the capture of the “uncircumscribed spirit” that is so important for modernist fiction.

The self as a threshold to be crossed

  • 8  Woolf’s judgements of other authors are of interest here for what they tell us about her own thoug (...)

5It would nonetheless be misleading to read the act of writing for Woolf as a fundamentally passive task of recording impressions and sensorial intensities in which “life”, “reality”, “truth” or “spirit” may be found. Rather, it also involves active and imaginative movements of the self beyond subjective limits to engage with that which is not the self. When Woolf criticises her modernist contemporary James Joyce in “Modern Fiction”, it is because, she says, he creates a sense of being “confined and shut in”, “centred in a self which, in spite of its tremor of susceptibility, never embraces or creates that which is outside of itself and beyond” (156).8This active outflow of the consciousness towards the world could also be understood in the light of Husserl’s concept of intentionality in the process of perception. By intentionality, Husserl sought to designate the movement that constitutes the consciousness in and through its contact with the object outside and beyond the self (Idées directrices pour une phénoménologie, § 36-38), in a description of perception in which consciousness is movement and engagement rather than abstract or reified substance. And indeed, for Woolf, the writing self’s “tremor of susceptibility” should move beyond the confines of an individual subjectivity, in a movement that decentres the perceiving self and immerses it in the world beyond, bringing it into constitutive contact with alterity.

  • 9 The epistemological incompatibility of Husserl’s phenomenology and that of later phenomenologists w (...)
  • 10  A tension exists between the dissolution of subjective boundaries and the return to defined, clear (...)

6For Woolf, then, the pursuit of the “uncircumscribed spirit” of fiction involves not only an opening up of the consciousness to the shower of atoms, but also a surpassing of the self in an active movement of constitution of the world.9 In both of these modalities, binary subject/object oppositions are challenged. Indeed, the quest for the “spirit” of fiction in the two essays examined here engages with the philosophical questions of “subject, object, and the nature of reality” that preoccupy Mr Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, and that animated the Bloomsbury group more generally, as Ann Banfield has highlighted in her study The Phantom Table. Although the narrator of A Room of One’s Own states ironically towards the end of the essay that she shies from “philosophic words”, for “if one has not been educated at university, [such words] are apt to play one false” (108), Woolf’s writing does nonetheless address these questions, albeit often obliquely. Indeed, Woolf’s criticism of her “materialist” contemporaries in “Modern Fiction” can be read as a dissatisfaction with defined, hierarchical subject-object relations, and therefore as a rejection of established ways of seeing things, of objectified knowledge. “Modern Fiction” suggests rather that capturing the “spirit” of fiction involves direct contact with the world, in which the distance necessary to reflexively establish subject-object relations dissolves into a shower of atoms, if only temporarily.10 Thus, the descriptions of “that which is outside of the self and beyond” in this essay concentrate on movement, flashes of light and energy, and on the vibrations of atoms, rather than on the defined, objective forms associated with the “materialists”. In such an experience of the world, any individualising, personalising, subjective features are overcome, at the same time as the objective status of the world melts away. The self and the object mutually produce each other, in a moment that precludes the objectified “ideas and facts” beloved of “materialist” fiction. It is at this moment that the intensity of “life”, “spirit”, “truth” or “reality” the writer pursues may be experienced.

An immanent “reality”

7And yet, though this “uncircumscribed spirit” seems therefore to be constituted in the opening up and surpassing of the self in “Modern Fiction”, it also demonstrates a certain independence both from the subject that pursues it and from the physical world that reveals it. For although one tries to “come close” to it, it has the ability to “move off, or on”, and it escapes definitive capture (153). The “luminous halo” surrounds consciousness, but its own end does not seem necessarily to coincide with that of the consciousness. The “spirit” seems therefore to inhabit the atoms, without being reduced to their movement; it exceeds their pure empirical materiality. Thus, while the opposition between the material and the spiritual seems to be overcome in this essay, a distinction subsists, allowing the “uncircumscribed spirit” the writer seeks to be characterised as immanent to the physical world. The mobile autonomy of “life”, “spirit” or “reality” can be seen in A Room of One’s Own, where Woolf gives an account of the “reality” that writers ought to capture in fiction:

What is meant by “reality”? It would seem to be something very erratic, very undependable – now to be found in a dusty road, now in a scrap of newspaper in the street, now a daffodil in the sun. It lights up a group in a room and stamps some casual saying. It overwhelms one walking home beneath the stars and makes the silent world more real than the world of speech – and then there it is again in an omnibus in the uproar of Piccadilly. Sometimes, too, it seems to dwell in shapes too far away for us to discern what their nature is. But whatever it touches, it fixes and makes permanent. This is what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of past time and of our loves and hates. (108)

8 “Reality” in this passage seems very much like the “spirit” of fiction referred to the essay of 1919. Investing the world, it can also divest itself from it; it manifests itself through the physical without being bound and limited by it. It is also identified as the principal object of fiction, for Woolf continues:

Now the writer, as I think, has the chance to live more than other people in the presence of this reality. It is his business to find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us. (108)

9As discussed above, “finding and collecting” this enigmatic, mobile spiritual reality involves opening up the self and moving towards the world, disrupting subject-object relations.

Moments of vision

  • 11  Morris Beja borrows the term “epiphany” from Joyce’s Stephen Hero, and describes these moments as (...)
  • 12  An in-depth account of Woolf’s consideration of time is far beyond the scope of this paper. For on (...)
  • 13  In this context, the theory of Nachleban (survival) being developed by the art historian Aby Warbu (...)

10This relationship of intense contact with the world seems to be key to understanding the Woolfian “moment of vision” or “moment of being”, considered by critics as an “epiphany”, a privileged spiritual experience (Beja 13-20).11 In this moment, the self transcends its boundaries in a movement towards the world, and is in return “overwhelmed” by the “reality” it accedes to. And, as the critical literature has not failed to highlight, an important characteristic of the Woolfian “moment of vision” is its undoing of chronological time.12 In this experience, the evanescent moment is expanded out of all proportion, allowing the past to re-emerge, and permitting the phenomenal present to be “made permanent”. As the “moment of vision” seems to intervene in an experience of intense proximity between the consciousness and the material world at the point of dissolution of subject-object distinctions, the “permanence” that is implied cannot be understood either as subjective (in the self) or as objective (in the world). This can be seen in the perception of “reality” discussed in the afore-cited passage from A Room of One’s Own. The durability of that which is “fixed and made permanent” seems not to be determined by the perceiving subject but by this immanent “reality” itself. Moreover, an individual’s private, conscious memory seems inadequate to fully account for the “permanence” accorded to such “moments of vision”, for the subject accedes to this “reality” by opening up the consciousness and moving towards the outside world – that is, in a movement that divests the self, momentarily, of its individuality and its discrete, closed nature. “[W]hat remains over” in the afore-cited passage has therefore “shed its skin” of particularity; the “loves or hates” that persist are not specific and individualised, but are affects which are common to all, subsumed in the possessive adjective “our”. The “moment of vision” seems to both to provide access to and to create a kind of impersonal permanence beyond the self, in which past events re-emerge as persistence: a surviving trace that appears and disappears, only to reappear again later.13

11I would like to suggest that when, at the end of A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf refers to two different lives, “the common life which is the real life and not […] the little separate lives which we live as individuals” (112), this “real”, “common life” is the one in which this permanence can be experienced. This “common life” can be compared to a stream, to borrow another metaphor Woolf employs in this essay (95). Flowing beneath the normal world of subject-object perception, this stream of the “common life” can suddenly become apparent. Immanent to the world, it extends across generations, and its flow is neither linear nor confined to individual selves. This “common life” thus allows the present to draw upon the past not only in the form of tradition or development, but also for elements of the common past to re-emerge anachronistically.

Gender, self, and the spiritual reality

12Carrying forward experiences and affects outside the bounds of an individual’s personal past, this “common life” therefore enables women writers to “think back through our mothers”, as Woolf has famously entreated them to do in this essay (93). And indeed, this “real”, “common life” plays a crucial role in the discussion of gender in A Room of One’s Own. For this distinction between the “common life” and the “little separate lives we live as individuals” is made in the context of the fable of Shakespeare’s sister that runs through this essay. The narrative voice imagines that the illustrious dramaturge and poet had a sister, and that she too was a terribly gifted writer. However, denied the material conditions in which to realise her gift, she was driven to suicide. Woolf insists that her spirit still lives, “for great poets do not die; they are continuing presences; they need only the opportunity to walk among us in the flesh” (111-112, my italics). Carried forward in this stream of immanent “reality”, Shakespeare’s sister persists in spectral form, awaiting the opportunity to reinvest the world. What is interesting here is the fact that this opportunity may come, according to the narrator, not only if women writers have the material resources to be independent – though this is a necessary condition – but also if they maintain a direct, unmediated relationship to reality:

if we escape a little from the common sitting-room and see human beings not always in their relation to each other but in relation to reality; and the sky too, and the trees or whatever it may be in themselves […] if we face the fact that, for it is a fact, that there is no arm to cling to, but that we go alone and that our relation is to the world of reality and not only to the world of men and women, then the opportunity will come and the dead poet who was Shakespeare’s sister will put on the body which she has so often laid down. (112, my italics)

13If the “relation to reality” in this passage can be understood as a movement beyond the self, of direct contact with the vibrating atoms of “Modern Fiction”, then tapping into the flow of this “common life”, drawing on the strength of spirits that inhabit the world, “thinking back through our mothers”, involves surpassing individual subjectivity. In other words, establishing a relationship of unmediated contact with “things in themselves”, with the spiritual, vital “reality” immanent to the world, involves a movement beyond particularising, personal identity.

  • 14  These three “Marys” are taken from a folksong entitled “Four Marys”, describing the ladies who att (...)

14What status, then, is accorded to gender in this movement of the writing subject towards this immanent “reality”, this immersion in the “common life”? In the passage above, the “world of reality” surpasses that of “men and women”, that is, it seems to go beyond gender distinctions. And yet, male writers cannot reincarnate Shakespeare’s sister; this exclusively feminine possibility indicates that gender is not erased by the movement of contact with the world, by the overcoming of subjective boundaries. A certain divestment of identity certainly occurs in A Room of One’s Own, as demonstrated by the choice of a narrative voice that circulates between subjective instances: in the opening pages, the narrator states that “‘I’ is only a convenient term for somebody who has no being”, and asks the listener or reader to “call me Mary Beton, Mary Seton, Mary Carmichael” (6-7), after which she proceeds to attribute these names to other characters she will evoke in the essay.14 However, this seeming impersonality nonetheless retains its gendered nature, as the narrative voice offers only female pseudonyms, at no point does the “I” speak in the voice of a man. The role of gender thus seems ambiguous.

  • 15  For a more complete discussion of these different theses, see Rachel Bowlby, Feminist Destinations (...)

15And indeed, this ambiguity is maintained throughout the essay, where Woolf will enumerate several theses concerning the relationship of the feminine and the fictional.15 She famously defends the idea that “the book has somehow to be adapted to the body” (78) and to a female body in particular, thereby emphasising the link between fiction and physical gender. She seems to suggest that gender-based biological and neurological differences make it necessary for women to reject the “male sentence”, unsuited to the “pace, the stride” of a woman’s mind, and to fashion an alternative, female sentence (77). She also indicates a gendered difference in “values” and points of interest, implying that not only will the linguistic structure of women’s writing differ from that of men, but that the objects of their attention, the reality they seek, is distinct (74). However, at no point does Woolf attempt to determine what that authentically female relation to reality might be – what objects might be chosen, and how they may be apprehended as real – nor what characteristics a female sentence attempting to capture this reality might have. The only definition of feminine writing furnished is a negative one: it is different from male writing.

16Woolf’s famous call for an androgynous mind, a “man-womanly or woman-manly” (102) mind in which masculine and feminine communicate, goes some way to nuance any tendency towards biological determinism, and moves towards a shared notion of the real, that is, of a real that may surpass “the world of men and women”. Linked to this idea of androgyny is another injunction, in which Woolf seems to both acknowledge the importance of the gender of the writer while attempting to go beyond it, and in which the question of the relationship to “reality” is again central:

it is fatal for anyone who writes to think of their sex […] It is fatal for a woman to lay the least stress on any grievance; to plead even with justice any cause; in any way to speak consciously as a woman. (102-103)

  • 16  See note 8.

17This is the motivation for Woolf’s critique of Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre, in which, according to Woolf, Brontë’s anger at the lot of women meant that “[s]he will write of herself where she should write of her characters” (70). When Brontë lets her frustration at the social limitations of women show in her fiction, Woolf affirms: “she was thinking of something other than the thing itself” (74-75, my italics). In Woolf’s opinion, Brontë was too conscious of her feminine identity to engage with that which is “outside of [her]self and beyond”, and remained trapped in a self-conscious, individual subjectivity. The criticism Woolf makes of George Eliot is essentially the same. Woolf characterises her not as a frustrated rebel, but as overly submissive to masculine social authority, meaning that she too was overly conscious of her femininity. According to Woolf, she assumed the socially sanctioned role and interests of a woman, and wrote with “resignation” as a result. (“Women in Fiction”, Granite and Rainbow, 80). In both cases, then, sex-consciousness seems to be an obstacle that prevents a genuine relationship with “reality.’16 It would seem to constrict the writer’s consciousness within the confines of biologically and socially determined roles, within the hierarchical “world of men and women”, maintaining a certain distance between the subject and the material world and preventing, therefore, direct contact. Seen in this light, A Room of One’s Own could be read as a manifesto for the material conditions that will allow women to ignore their femininity, to establish a relationship to “reality” uncoloured and unbiased by the relationships of domination and classification associated with gender. Gender here seems therefore to be a barrier to be overcome, or at least bracketed off.

18However, in so doing it is not surpassed and erased entirely: on the contrary. Indeed, for Woolf, paradoxically, it is in becoming unconscious of sex that writing becomes the most sexual. Thus, of the fictitious novel of the fictitious Mary Carmichael in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf writes: “her pages were full of that curious sexual quality which comes only when sex is unconscious of itself” (92). This paradox is part of a larger one: writing fiction, that is, capturing the “uncircumscribed spirit” of reality, necessitates an outflow from the self and an investment in the world in a movement that must consume all in its path, all that would tie back the consciousness to a personalised identity, including corporal and social gender. And yet, it is in this consumption of the self and its sex that fiction becomes the most thoroughly pervaded by the personality and gender of the writer:

when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare. (68, my italics)

19It is in the writer’s surpassing of his or her corporal, social and personal particularities that the written work becomes personal, singular and genuine. In other words, opening up the self to the shower of atoms and establishing a relationship of intense proximity with that which is outside of the self and beyond involves a momentary pulverisation of subjective, gendered boundaries, and this movement is necessary in order to write work which is both singular and sexual, and to capture the “spirit” of fiction. For writing great fiction, Woolf maintains, is not a question of “self-expression” (79), but of seizing the vital spirit of “reality”, of tapping into the “continuing presences” (111-112) that persist in the “common life’(112), of “thinking through our mothers’(93) whose affects and percepts endure in this “reality” immanent to the material world. It is therefore in surpassing one’s particularity, in focussing on this “reality”, that the uniqueness of a writer’s work may find its authentic expression. Decades later, Gilles Deleuze would put it this way: “literature […] only becomes such by uncovering, beneath the appearances of persons, the force of an impersonality that is not a generality, but the most singular of singularities.” (Critique et clinique, 13, my translation). For Woolf, then, it is in this consumption of the body’s gender specificity and of socially constructed feminine identity that the genuine female sentence is to be found: that is, that Shakespeare’s sister may be reincarnated.


20For Woolf, then, the gendered self is paradoxically both consumed and revealed in the capture of the “uncircumscribed spirit” of fiction. In order to transmit “that essential thing” in her work, the female writer must melt subject-object dichotomies, that is, she must divest herself of her individualised, feminine identity so as to establish an unmediated contact with “reality”. In so doing, her texts will become saturated by her femininity. As the reading of “Modern Fiction” has shown, for Woolf, the “reality” the writer seeks is to be understood in terms of “life” and “spirit’; it is a “reality” that inhabits the atoms and transports past affects and phantoms as potentialities, ready to re-emerge in the present. This “spirit” of “reality”, intangible but immanent to the material world, may prove to be evasive and always just out of reach, just as the definition of “women” seems to be. But its pursuit is nonetheless central to Woolf’s “moment of being”, to her “vision” of the spiritual, the fictional, and the feminine.

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1  Woolf writes: “[…] certainly and emphatically there is no God” when discussing her experience of “shocks”, moments when she sees beyond the “cotton wool” of everyday existence, in her autobiographical Moments of Being (72). Although she was brought up in an areligious family and never adopted an established religion, and although her writing seems to consistently show what Morris Beja describes as a “distaste” for Christianity (122), several commentators have sought to link her work to religious themes, or at least situate it in relation to them, asserting or implying that theological questions determined aspects of her writing. For example, Louise Poresky characterises Woolf’s work as a search for the “God within” that establishes the basis of a subjectivity and sees in her novels a trajectory moving towards religious redemption through the love of God in Between the Acts (TheElusiveSelf, 16-17); Carole Rodier insists upon the importance of the Fall in Woolf’s work, before giving this Fall an existential interpretation (L’Univers imaginaire de Virginia Woolf, ch 1); and Barbara K. Olsen sees Woolf’s mode of narration as reflecting, in spite of herself, the need for an omniscient creator, and associates her work with process theology (Authorial divinity in the twentieth century ch. 3 (see p. 91 in particular)). Each of these interpretations is problematic, for different reasons. This paper hopes to show that the nature of the “spirit” in Woolf’s work is best understood not when linked to Christian theology, but when read in the light of other philosophical paradigms.

2  The present article was written for the “Women and Spirituality” Conference co-organised by Queen Mary University of London and the Université de Provence, Aix-en-Provence, 12-13th June 2009.

3  Published under the title “Modern Novels” in The Times Literary Supplement, April 1919, the essay was slightly modified and reprinted under the title “Modern Fiction” in The Common Reader in 1925. The 1925 version is referred to here.

4  Woolf’s project remains one in which the mimetic function of fiction is not contested but reinforced. As early as 1946, Erich Auerbach noted in his study of To the Lighthouse that the project of approaching an “objective” reality was central to Woolf’s project (532).

5  In subsequent essays, Woolf underlined the generational nature of this distinction. See for example “Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown”, (delivered in 1925, published in The Captain’s Death Bed and Other Essays), where the writers she labels “materialists” in “Modern Fiction” are called “Edwardian” and those she calls “modern” or “spiritual” are classified as “Georgian”. In this essay she describes “Mrs Brown” as “the spirit we live by, life itself” (119).

6  The examples of this characterisation are almost innumerable. It is evident in the very title of Julia Briggs’ recent monograph Virginia Woolf, an Inner Life, in which Briggs opens by stating that “Woolf’s fiction is centrally concerned with the inner life, and finding ways of re-creating that life in narrative” (ix). Nonetheless, as Michelle Levy notes, this view has been increasingly challenged in recent scholarship on Woolf (137).

7  Chantal Delourme has linked Woolf’s work to Deleuze and Guattari’s notion of “heccéité”, and in particular investigates Woolf’s punctuation as a textual vector of such entities, involving simultaneously both the engagement and disengagement of the perceiving subject’s consciousness (77-78, 84).

8  Woolf’s judgements of other authors are of interest here for what they tell us about her own thought on fiction rather than as a commentary on the work of these writers. Her comments on Joyce, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot are discussed in this article.

9 The epistemological incompatibility of Husserl’s phenomenology and that of later phenomenologists with the thought of Deleuze, which resists to a large extent attempts to systematize it, does not, however, prevent certain tools they have each provided from being useful in the interpretation of Woolf’s work. For although these philosophers occupy very different, largely incompatible philosophical positions, both were engaged in an attempt to overcome the dichotomy of the subject and the object, and both sought to both engage with the material nature of the world while developing a notion of immanence (a notion that will be examined in the following section) - within the conception of transcendence, in the case of Husserl, in opposition to this concept for Deleuze.

10  A tension exists between the dissolution of subjective boundaries and the return to defined, clear, subject-object relations, which stabilise the self and define externality as clearly “other”. Characters in Woolf’s work do not remain in this state of porous openness and rhizoid proximity to external objects indefinitely, but move constantly between these moments of intensity and moments of more conventional perceptual experience.

11  Morris Beja borrows the term “epiphany” from Joyce’s Stephen Hero, and describes these moments as “a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether from some object, scene, event, or memorable phase of the mind – the manifestation being out of proportion to the significance or strictly logical relevance of whatever produced it” (19, my italics). The reading of the Woolfian “moment of vision” developed here differs from Beja’s. In particular, while Beja does discuss the relationship of subject to object for Woolf, he insists on the subjective, personal nature of the encounter (118-119), whereas it is suggested here that it is rather a movement of surpassing of the self and of de-subjectification, an experience more impersonal than personal in the disruption of subject-object relations. For a discussion of this de-subjectification in “epiphanies” in Woolf’s work that draws on psychoanalysis, see Michèle Rivoire’s consideration of “Mrs Dalloway’s party” short story series.

12  An in-depth account of Woolf’s consideration of time is far beyond the scope of this paper. For one insightful consideration of the way Woolf’s work “projects” a conception of time, see Paul Ricœur (192-212).

13  In this context, the theory of Nachleban (survival) being developed by the art historian Aby Warburg at the time is of interest. See Georges Didi-Huberman’s monograph, L’Image survivante. Histoire de l’art et temps des fantômes selon Aby Warburg.

14  These three “Marys” are taken from a folksong entitled “Four Marys”, describing the ladies who attended Mary Queen of Scots (Marcus 174). By adopting the lyrics of a folksong that has itself circulated for centuries, Woolf further depersonalises the voice of the narrator in this text.

15  For a more complete discussion of these different theses, see Rachel Bowlby, Feminist Destinations and Further Essays on Virginia Woolf, chapter 2: “The Trained Mind”.

16  See note 8.

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Naomi TOTH, « Reincarnating Shakespeare’s sister: Virginia Woolf and the “uncircumscribed spirit” of fiction », E-rea [En ligne], 8.2 | 2011, mis en ligne le 28 mars 2011, consulté le 21 octobre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Naomi TOTH

Naomi Toth prépare actuellement un doctorat en Littérature Comparée à l’Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense. Sa thèse porte sur l’intersubjectivité dans l’œuvre de Virginia Woolf et de Nathalie Sarraute. Elle a enseigné l’anglais (langue, littérature et civilisation) à l’Université de Charles-de-Gaulle – Lille 3 et à l’Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense. Ses centres d’intérêt en recherche incluent les rapports entre philosophie et littérature, la représentation de la perception en littérature, le modernisme, le roman et la nouvelle au 20e siècle.
Naomi Toth is currently completing a doctorate in Comparative Literature at the Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense. Her thesis examines intersubjectivity in the work of Virginia Woolf and Nathalie Sarraute.  She has taught English language, literature and history at the Université de Charles-de-Gaulle – Lille 3 and at the Université de Paris Ouest Nanterre La Défense. Her research interests include the relationship between philosophy and literature, the representation of perception in literature, Modernism, the novel and the short story in the 20th century.

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