Published: Jan. 10, 2000 By

Editor's Note: This essay received the Florence Howe Prize, a national award given annually for the best essay in feminist theory and criticism.

[1]   In a famous passage in her unfinished autobiography "A Sketch of the Past," Virginia Woolf described her revulsion at seeing herself in a looking glass, and went on to contrast this experience with the hedonic sensuousness of some of her earliest childhood moments. While this passage has attracted attention as a description of a traumatic symptom, her ensuing comment tends to pass as a truism and furthermore as evidence of her notorious shrinking from physicality. In this comment Woolf wrote, "I could feel ecstasies and raptures spontaneously and intensely and without any shame or the least sense of guilt, so long as they were disconnected with my own body."1

[2]   I want to suggest that this formulation is strikingly odd. After all, where else would one feel "ecstasies and raptures" if not in one's own body? Of the possible answers, "the intellect" seems simply wrong and "the soul" anachronistic except as a metaphor for the more rarefied sorts of bodily sensations. Furthermore, such philosophically idealist accounts are alien to the precise renderings of physical sensation that Woolf offered in her work. As Lily Briscoe reflects in To the Lighthouse, "It was one's body feeling, not one's mind,"2and the fiction, essays and personal writings that Woolf produced during her lifetime present a spectrum of sentient and sensuous bodies. I want to suggest further, however, that in these writings, the bodies allowed the most unrestricted experience of ecstasies and raptures (as well as of loss and horror) are bodies of a different order than those seen in the mirror: that is, than the bodies consolidated by and for the gaze of others. In essence, Woolf represented and perhaps experienced two kinds of body. One kind was the body for others, the body cast in social roles and bound by the laws of social interaction. The other, however, was fundamentally new to modernist representation although arguably always an element of experience. One of Woolf's signal contributions to a distinctively female modernism was this female modernist body.

[3]   In effect this body was a second physical presence in fundamental respects different from the gendered body constituted by the dominant social order. This "visionary" body, a term I adopt following Woolf's own distinction between novels "of fact" and "of vision" was especially the subject of Woolf's most experimental modernist fiction.3 In the first part of this essay I consider how this visionary body enabled Woolf to create passionate and sensuous female characters without embroiling them in the societal consequences of female eroticism that had shaped the romance plot.

[4]   On the other hand, the visionary body also added to the ambivalence Woolf seems to have felt toward her most successful foremothers, who for her were literary and corporeal progenitors–precedents both for female writing and for public presentation as a female body. In the second part of this essay I discuss how the visionary body could exacerbate as well as allay the tension between two important aspects of Woolf's early and middle-period writing–feminist literary politics and the call for a disinterested and impersonal modernist aesthetics. A number of studies have proposed that for Woolf, the feminist attempt to think "back through our mothers" called for inA Room of One's Own can be viewed as a supplement to her modernist attempt to think forward, againstthe Edwardian fathers singled out in such manifestoes as "Modern Fiction" and "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown." One desirable result would be a female and feminist modernism, fueled equally by a political commitment to dismantling masculinist traditions and an emotional commitment to a sort of generalized pre-Oedipal mother and a maternal legacy of linguisticjouissance licensing avant-garde play with the material dimensions of language.4 In presenting the visionary body as a tactic for writing female subjects into modernism, a modernism that in Woolf's most important theoretical formulations was not disembodied but rather predicated on the primacy of acute–and often covertly sexual–physical sensations, I too find affinities between Woolf's feminist and modernist projects. But feminist and modernist strains did not merge unproblematically in Woolf's writing, and in particular the figure of the mother was a site more of conflict than of reconciliation. In thinking "through" literary foremothers, Woolf was inevitably confronted with the vulnerability and complicity of the female body in society. Her ambivalence about traditions of women's writing derived at least in part from her awareness that a woman in public and on view is a woman available for denigration and exploitation. As her story of mute, inglorious Judith Shakespeare attests, literary history is a narrative about social, not visionary bodies.

[5]   The visionary body was clearly a means to evade a maternal precedent in which female sexuality was identified with Victorian and Edwardian plots–both literary and social–of heterosexual appropriation. In the third part of this essay, however, I suggest that the visionary body could be a desiring body only in a very restricted and metaphorical sense. Woolf explored the limits of this ostensibly extra-social body in the novel that marks both the high point and the end of her "visionary" experimental period. The Waves examines the tragedy inherent in the understanding that no desire can be recognized or sustained wholly outside the realm of the social. Even the visionary body is not just limited, but in the final analysis constituted, by requirements of social coherence and intelligibility.

The Visionary Body

[6]   We see one of the clearest distinctions between the visionary body and the female body in society near the close of Woolf's second novel, Night and Day, when Katharine Hilbery experiences herself as curiously, if exhilaratingly, divided:

If Denham could have seen how visible books of algebraic symbols, pages all speckled with dots and dashes and twisted bars, came before her eyes as they trod the Embankment, his secret joy in her attention might have been dispersed. She went on, saying, 'Yes, I see. . . . but how would that help you? . . . Your brother has passed his examinations?' so sensibly, that he had constantly to keep his brain in check; and all the time she was in fancy looking through a telescope at white shadow-clefts which were other worlds, until she felt herself possessed of two bodies, one walking by the river with Denham, the other concentrated in a silver globe aloft in the fine blue space above the scum of vapours that was covering the visible world.5

The division here–between attentiveness to the conversation of Ralph Denham and yearning to pursue mathematics–is not figured as a division within Katharine's mind, vacillating between the mundane marital concerns of the romance plot and the allure of an exalted intellectual calling. Nor is the division figured as between Katharine's body, treading the Embankment beside an ardent suitor,and Katharine's mind, abstracted to the ideal status of a concentrated silver globe and adrift in a Platonic empyrean lit by algebraic symbols. Instead of availing herself of the conventions of two long philosophic traditions, Woolf had her narrator present the experience in different terms: "she felt herself possessed of two bodies. . . ." Woolf thus ascribed to a particular corporeal experience what the most familiar tradition of representation ascribes to mind or spirit: transcendence of the quotidian, access to "other worlds," and ability to "see" a realm of reality otherwise obscured by "the scum of vapours that was covering the visible world." Because Katharine's object of desire is pure mathematics, the Pythagorean ground of Platonism, we may be likely to read this passage in the classical terms of mind-body dualism. But the conceit of the two bodies is not accidental, nor is it particular to this example. Woolf did sustain a dualism through her writings, critical and autobiographical as well as fictional. But in her most interesting formulations of this dualism, both alternatives are embodied, although in very different kinds of body.

[7]   I have called the two kinds of body social and visionary. The social body walks Katharine Hilbery through the comic version of the romance plot with its sanctioned euphoric conclusion. The visionary body is the site of her most acute sensations (p. 116). Katharine views these sensations as explicitly opposed to poetry, the domain of her eminent (and Stephen-like) family and ancestors, and thus of social obligation. But the narrator of Night and Day intimates that her longings also reach for another kind of representation, one opposing Victorian aesthetics with "vision" and "aloofness," qualities that in the 1929 essay "Women and Fiction" Woolf urged for female literary production. In this essay, an alternate version of A Room of One's Own, she posited a literary future in which women would produce work that is not only "genuine" and "interesting" but possesses the hallmarks of her own modernist practice: "The woman writer will be able to concentrate upon her vision without distraction from outside. The aloofness that was once within the reach of genius and originality is only now coming within the reach of ordinary women."6

[8]   Such newly impersonal representation attempts to render what in the memoir "A Sketch of the Past" Woolf called "some real thing behind appearances," the visionary apprehension of "being" as opposed to the quotidian norm of "non-being," which she elaborated as "a kind of nondescript cotton wool" ("Sketch, pp. 70, 72). At one climax of Katharine and Ralph's lovemaking in Night and Day, mere romance yields to the apprehension of such a reality, in which stock nineteenth-century figures like "the flower of youth" are wittily literalized and abstracted into an up-to-date rendering of vegetable love. Ralph and Katharine conjoin their powers in a discussion of botany:

Circumstances had long forced her, as they forced most women in the flower of youth, to consider painfully and infinitely all the part of life which is so conspicuously without order; she had had to consider moods, and wishes, degrees of liking or disliking, and their effect upon the destiny of people dear to her; she had been forced to deny herself any contemplation of that other part of life where thought constructs a destiny which is independent of human being. As Denham spoke, she followed his words and considered their bearing with an easy vigour which spoke of a capacity long hoarded and unspent. The very trees and the green merging into the blue distance became symbols of the vast external world which recks so little of the happiness, of the marriages or deaths of individuals. (pp. 281-82)

Here, science rather than mathematics stands in for a disinterested modernist aesthetics, in pointed contrast to the disorderly realm of female domestic obligation. The "vast external world" is not the most conventional "outside" of subjective consciousness, the world of human communities, but instead a vital, fundamentally other realm, the object of scientific and also artistic apprehension. This world, "which recks so little of the happiness, of the marriages or deaths of individuals" has affinities with the experience of that far from ordinary faculty "an ordinary mind on an ordinary day," which Woolf invokes in her modernist manifesto "Modern Fiction," published the same year as Night and Day. Although the mention of a mind most often connotes disembodiment, the Democritean language of this essay, equating "a myriad impressions–trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel" with "an incessant shower of innumerable atoms," on the contrary insists on the material nature of sensation, the inescapable organicism of this "mind"–especiallyin its visionary contacts with the "real" or "being."7

[9]   The difference between a "modern fiction" representing this kind of palpable experience and the "materialist" novels of the Edwardians that Woolf denounced in "Modern Fiction" has less to do with mind-body dualism than with the emphasis and values of Edwardian naturalism. The body represented in the "materialist" novels is embedded in social life. All its experiences have social consequences. By contrast, that sensitive organism the "ordinary mind on an ordinary day" is alone, absorbing and contemplating its "myriad impressions" without thereby either contracting to be married or being "ruined"–the two eminently social conclusions for the female body as the subject of nineteenth-century realist representation.8 The visionary body is the body that experiences without social implications.

[10]   As I noted, Lily Briscoe makes the point directly: "It was one's body feeling, not one's mind." But the body that undergoes rapture or, as in Lily's case, intense sensations of loss is almost by definition out of social contact with other bodies. Having rid herself of the importunities of Mr. Ramsay, Lily at this point experiences her grief alone, except for her hypothetical empathy–unintrusivebecause hypothetical–with the drowsing and wholly silent Mr. Carmichael. A more dramatic case in point is Clarissa Dalloway's orgasmic meditation on the "sudden revelation, a tinge like a blush which one tried to check and then, as it spread, one yielded to its expansion, and rushed to the farthest verge and there quivered and felt the world come closer, swollen with some astonishing significance, some pressure of rapture, which split its thin skin and gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores!" The subject of this virtuoso enactment is the recollection of "yielding to the charm of a woman." The passage thus establishes both the sensuality and the lesbianism of Clarissa. Both qualities could make her vulnerable to social repercussions, aligning her with the abject Miss Kilman or the homoerotically bereaved and traumatized Septimus Smith. The text, however, insists on inviolability as Clarissa's defining feature, and this passage guarantees inviolability by triply framing the erotic experience. First of all, it is a recollection rather than a present event. Second, it is a recollection of a verbal rather than an explicitly sexual incident ("a woman confessing, as to her they often did, some scrape, some folly"). Finally, the sexuality of the narration is a by-product of metaphor and the phonic materiality of the language employed. As the narrator reports, Clarissa did "undoubtedly then feel what men felt," but on the level of plot the experience is unshared and unwitnessed, safely sealed within her physical body.9

[11]   A strikingly similar effect occurs in To the Lighthouse as Mrs. Ramsay watches the third stroke–the word is freighted–of the Lighthouse and is in turn stroked by the Lighthouse into an arousal and release that the syntax enacts as a series of phrases and clauses deferring and increasing pressure on the key verb "felt":

but for all that she thought watching it with fascination, hypnotised, as if it were stroking with its silver fingers some sealed vessel in her brain whose bursting would flood her with delight, she had known happiness, exquisite happiness, intense happiness, and it silvered the rough waves a little more brightly, as daylight faded, and the blue went out of the sea and it rolled in waves of pure lemon which curved and swelled and broke upon the beach and the ecstasy burst in her eyes and waves of pure delight raced over the floor of her mind and she felt, It is enough! It is enough! (Lighthouse, pp. 64-65)

Here again, the excitement of the swelling and bursting "vessel" occurs in privacy. Mrs. Ramsay does have a witness, but the extent of Mr. Ramsay's misunderstanding–"She was aloof from him now in her beauty and sadness" (p. 65)–affirms that her ecstasy is solitary and invisible. Mrs. Ramsay is indeed aloof from her husband's concerns, but her apparent unhappiness shields an erotically charged abandon quite separate from the emotions of her marriage. Indeed, this scene stands in pointed contrast to the earlier moment inTo the Lighthouse when, in a role-reversed parody of heterosexual intercourse, Mrs. Ramsay "poured erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray," fertilizing "the fatal sterility of the male" while at the same time depleting herself (p. 37)–a depletion, according to the logic of the text, that has something to do with her abrupt, parenthetical death in the next section. The two moments in "The Window" invite us to compare two distinct modes of sexuality. In the passage dealing with the strokes of the Lighthouse we see a metaphorized, linguistically incarnated sexuality that is hermetically contained within the body. In the description of Mrs. Ramsay's "spraying" Mr. Ramsay, we observe a linguistically incarnated sexual performance that, in being shared, spends itself. The visionary body experiences rapture. The social body undergoes evacuation and, eventually, death.

[12]   It is of course no accident that the bodies in all these examples are women's bodies. In all the novels I have mentioned Woolf emphasizes the demands made on Victorian and Edwardian women by a society that regards their embodiment as license to exploit and exhaust. The social female body is a body at risk. Far more than her predecessors, Woolf seems to have developed conventions of representation for avoiding that risk. The visionary body of these two novels is an inspired solution to the problem of women's culturally sanctioned vulnerability. It is the body sealed off from social consequences, secure from interruption or invasion: a corporeal correlative of the room of one's own.

On Not Thinking Back Through Our Mothers

[13]   These considerations on the construction of the visionary body suggest some reasons for Woolf's ambivalent attitude toward female literary antecedents, especially antecedents of the immediately preceding, maternal generation.10 Despite her culturally productive observation that "we think back through our mothers if we are women," Woolf repeatedly depicted women's writing as at a more rudimentary stage of development than men's writing. In "Women and Fiction," for instance, she dismissed women's writing of "the past" as at best characterized by "divine spontaneity," and more often "chattering and garrulous–mere talk, spilt over paper and left to dry in pools and blots" (p. 199). This image of previous female literary production as both social ("mere talk") and domestically incompetent ("spilt," "left to dry in pools and blots") recalls the messy realm of female responsibility that Katharine Hilbery longs to escape, "the part of life which is so conspicuously without order . . . ." As an avatar of both modernity and modernism, Katharine seeks detachment and impersonality, "that other part of life where thought constructs a destiny which is independent of human being." In "Women and Fiction" that other part of life is the realm of art. Woolf predicted, "In future, granted time and books and a little space in the house for herself, literature will become for women, as for men, an art to be studied. Women's gift will be trained and strengthened. The novel will cease to be the dumping ground for the personal emotions" (p. 199). The mess, the disorder, the pools and blots, even the "divine spontaneity" are hallmarks of the female sphere of interrelationships, the drawing room where ladies poured tea, made conversation, and by definition did nothing that could not be interrupted.11 In this populous room, associated always with women, art was precarious if not impossible. In Woolf's account, the writing coming out of such conditions was likely to be spontaneous self-expression, most often "a dumping ground for the personal emotions."

[14]   The arguments of both "Women and Fiction" and A Room of One's Own are materialist and evolutionary. In both, Woolf maintained that because historically women's lives have been severely constrained, women's writing has progressed gradually, keeping pace with gains in education and economic independence. In a 1920 exchange of letters with Desmond McCarthy in the New Statesman, in which she contested the premise that women are intellectually inferior to men, Woolf pointed to

the fact which stares me, and I should have thought any other impartial observer, in the face, that the seventeenth century produced more remarkable women than the sixteenth, the eighteenth than the seventeenth, and the nineteenth than all three together. When I compare the Duchess of Newcastle with Jane Austen, the matchless Orinda and Emily Brontë, Mrs Heywood with George Eliot, Aphra Behn with Charlotte Brontë, Jane Grey with Jane Harrison, the advance in intellectual power seems to me not only sensible but immense . . . .12

One underlying assumption of such a progress narrative, however, is that women's literary productions, if not women's intrinsic abilities, have been inferior to those of men.

[15]   "Women and Fiction," like A Room of One's Own, explicitly points toward the future, when a woman finally endowed with an income and a room of her own will climb out of the primal ooze of self-expression and onto the solid ground of artistry. This unnamed woman (who inevitably resembles Virginia Woolf) is represented as newly embodied, indeed as reincarnated. In Room she is a successful manifestation of Judith Shakespeare, the Renaissance woman of genius who was betrayed into exploitation, dishonor and suicide by her social female body: "who shall measure the heat and violence of the poet's heart when caught and tangled in a woman's body?" (Room, p. 50) Having died in the conflict between heart and body–that is, between two versions of the body, one enclosed and propitious to poetry, one exposed and available for exploitation–Judith Shakespeare becomes the revenant of A Room of One's Own. As the specter of a female genius who, in Woolf's ironic appropriation of contemporary geneticist arguments, cannot be "born" because material circumstances allow her no opportunity to develop her abilities, she haunts Woolf's literary history, in abeyance until that moment when she "will put on the body which she has so often laid down" (p. 118).

[16]   Given the association of deficient or unwritten literature with the vulnerability of the female body, it is not surprising that Woolf in her most negative criticism of previous and contemporary women writers laid special stress on physical appearance. In a draft of A Room of One's Own she cautioned, "I am not asking you simply to write 'the book of the year' & have your photograph in the evening paper. I am not asking you to cut a dash & figure in the papers as the well known Mrs. Smith whose latest book entirely eclipses everything she has ever written. (Women and Fiction, p. 172). The "well known Mrs. Smith" was by this time a stock figure of modernist representation, the woman writer whose popularity was a self-evident indicator of her mediocrity. Woolf's emphasis here, however, fell on the photograph in the paper and the correlative requirement to "cut a dash"–to assume the glamour and perhaps notoriety of that equivocal figure the public woman. When Woolf went on in this draft to try to specify what she wasasking the aspiring female writer to do, she fumbled, finally abandoning this part of the discussion entirely: "No: I [literature in my] view [is no] does not [consist of a] I am asking you to undertake a far more difficult and [yet] I think [more] important enterprise" (Women and Fiction, p. 172).13 The vehemence of the preceding negations suggest that she was far more confident about what literature is not and what the young woman desiring to be a writer should not do. Both are somehow wound up with not being in papers, not being photographed, not cutting a dash–in short, not being publicly available as a physical presence that could be the object of speculation and ridicule.

[17]   Critical tradition had already established that speculation and ridicule could link the physical female body to a body of work. Woolf observed of George Eliot, "Her big nose, her little eyes, her heavy, horsey head loom from behind the printed page and make a critic of the other sex uneasy." The postulated uneasiness of "the other sex"–quite possibly of her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, who had written a major biography of Eliot–clearly made Woolf uneasy as well, insinuating as it did that an unpleasing or threatening countenance could "loom from behind the printed page" to contaminate a male reader's apprehension of a female writer's work. Woolf herself was not immune to such effects. She described one writer of the maternal generation, the celebrated poet and journalist Alice Meynell as having "a face like that of a transfixed hare," an appearance that "somehow made one dislike the notion of women who write."14

[18]   When the physical body was conflated with a body of writing, one consequence was to guarantee without further evidence that a novel written by a woman was a "dumping-ground for the personal emotions." In her discussion of Charlotte Brontë in A Room of One's Own, Woolf took this consequence for granted, quoting Jane Eyre's "'Anybody may blame me who likes'" and then asking, "What were they blaming Charlotte Brontë for, I wondered?"(Room, p. 71) The unexplained leap from character to author was one of the legacies of Brontë criticism, practiced with perhaps most persuasive authority by none other than Leslie Stephen, who maintained that Charlotte Brontë never wrote about anything butherself: "In no books is the author more completely incarnated. She is the heroine of her two most powerful novels . . . . Her experience, we might say, has been scarcely transformed in passing through her mind." By a neat twist of tautology in Stephen's account, the presumption that the experience of the writer had to be the untransformed substance of her novels became the primary ground for relegating her to the rank of minor writer. Woolf took over the presumption, albeit with more sympathy, in A Room of One's Own, where her identification of an "awkward break" in Jane Eyre became the founding moment for reading Brontë's narrative inventiveness as evidence of flawed technique. Woolf discerned this "break" in the passage where "Grace Poole's laugh" interrupts Jane Eyre's denunciation of contemporary gender norms: "Anyone may blame me who likes" (Room, p. 71). Of course, the laugh comes not from the servant Grace Poole but from the imprisoned "mad" wife of Mr. Rochester. It rips through the fabric of Jane's rebellious meditation as a minatory foreshadowing of how society construes–and deals with–female insubordination.15 Woolf's decontextualized reading isolated the passage, presupposed its inadvertent and anomalous character, and then used it to inaugurate a series of analogical displacements. Through these displacements, the narrating character's meditation became Charlotte Brontë's own anger bursting through narratorial conventions ("She will write of herself when she should write of her characters"); authorial anger became a metonymy for grotesquely defective writing ("Her books will be deformed and twisted"); and the mutilation of writing became equivalent to mutilation of the physical body, so that in effect Brontë was killed by her own prose ("How could she help but die young, cramped and thwarted?") (Room, pp. 72-73).

[19]   Woolf's representation of her foremothers entirely as social bodies seems associated with an unease about mothers in general. In "A Sketch of the Past" she described the body of her own mother, Julia Jackson Stephen, as a source of both ecstasy and trauma. Julia's physical presence provoked in the infant Virginia a euphoria simultaneously sensuous and ego-less: "I am hardly aware of myself but only of the sensation. I am only the container of the feeling of ecstasy, of the feeling of rapture" (p. 67). But precisely in her role as superabundant maternal presence, Julia Stephen also created an atmosphere of feminine deference and sacrifice that implicitly authorized masculine dominance. "She was a hero worshipper, simple, uncritical, enthusiastic," Woolf reported of her antifeminist mother (p. 89), and indeed her mother was one prototype of the Angel in the House, whom Woolf, in the 1931 essay "Professions for Women," represented as counseling "Be sympathetic; be tender; flatter; deceive; use all the arts and wiles of our sex. Never let anybody guess you have a mind of your own. Above all, be pure." Woolf went on in this speech to relate her own purported response: "I turned upon her and caught her by the throat . . . . Had I not killed her she would have killed me. She would have plucked the heart out of my writing." During Virginia's own adolescence and young womanhood, however, the influence of the Angel prevailed, and if she did not pluck the heart out of her daughter's writing she was instrumental in abstracting one sort of body from it, in that her precepts and example fostered compliance with the emotional demands of an overbearing father and the sexual demands of two predatory half-brothers.16

[20]   These humiliations and violations to the body of the female writer, equivocally endorsed by the ghost of her mother, suggest what grounds Woolf perceived for a wariness about the influence of female precursors. This wariness complicated both her defense of women writers in A Room of One's Own and her attack on the male Edwardians in "Modern Fiction" and "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown." In an impassioned passage in A Room of One's Own she urged, "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" (p. 108). She used similarly charged rhetoric in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" when she wrote as a modernist of the characteristic devices of Bennett, Wells and Galsworthy: "For us those conventions are ruin, those tools are death" (Essays v. 3, pp. 430-31). Such injunctions poised the emergent female modernist between fatalities, prohibiting her from the political discourse of "grievance" and "cause" as well as from the representational strategies and social themes of Edwardian naturalism. Woolf seemed to enjoin aspiring women writers both to make it new and to be wholly unself-conscious about the project. The kinds of "smashing and . . . crashing" that in "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown" she associated with Joyce and Eliot (p. 433) were off-limits to Mary Carmichael, who was urged with another set of metaphors for physical exertion: ". . . it was her trial to take her fence without looking to right or left. If you stop to curse you are lost, I said to her; equally, if you stop to laugh. Hesitate or fumble and your are done for" (Room, p. 97). The incipient female modernist had to achieve a concentration amounting to tunnel vision, ignoring both her position as a woman in society and her status as a challenger to past literary traditions.

[21]   Such extreme restrictions seem aimed at giving the writer herself a sort of visionary body, a public persona not subject to the ridicule aimed at women writers of "the past." The bargain here appears to entail achieving moments of being by eschewing moments of polemic and satire. Yet Woolf herself never followed these rules. The brilliance of her middle-period novels stems from her ability to merge the visionary apprehension of "things in themselves" with biting social commentary, particularly commentary about women's contradictory social identities. Her creation of the visionary body seems less a means to supplant curses and laughter with high-minded approaches to metaphysical reality than a strategy to embed feminist critique in a much broader critique of the dominant social–and in the most conventional literary sense, "realist"–presuppositions about reality. By giving female characters this visionary body, Woolf actively distanced herself from her foremothers' domain, the combination of Victorian public and private spheres that defined the fictional universe of the realist novel.

Bodies, Passions and So On

[22]   In the allegory of the creative imagination presented in a 1931 speech that became the essay "Professions for Women," Woolf offered a striking depiction of the sexual female body. Connected to the decorously dressed female novelist by a fishing line identified as "a thread of reason," the imagination is a naked young woman who swims into "the world that lies submerged in our unconscious being" in order to "feed unfettered upon every crumb of [the writer's] experience . . .". This libidinal nymph has appetites frequently at odds with the counsels of buttoned-up reason, and Woolf figured their clashes with hilariously erotic metaphors suggesting that social mores produce something like sexual frustration in the woman writer trying to use the full extent of her powers. In the first story of these two female figures, the imagination suffers a full-body detumescence because the novelist has given her too little experience to work with, floating "limply and dully and lifelessly upon the surface" and responding "rather tartly and disagreeably" to the novelist's questions while "pulling on its stockings . . . ." In the second story, reason restrains the imagination from darting "heaven knows where–into what dark pool of extraordinary experience," and on pulling the naked diver to the surface expostulates, "My dear you were going altogether too far. Men would be shocked," while the imagination "sits panting on the bank–panting with rage and disappointment." The novelist goes on,

"We have only got to wait fifty years or so. In fifty years I shall be able to use all this very queer knowledge that you are ready to bring me. But not now. You see I go on, trying to calm her, I cannot make use of what you tell me–about womens bodies for instance–their passions–and so on, because the conventions are still very strong. If I were to overcome the conventions I should need the courage of a hero, and I am not a hero.17

In this account, sexual desire is central to the female artist's work, and frustration of this desire is frustration of creativity. Yet "all this very queer knowledge . . .about womens bodies for instance–their passions–and so on" (at least some of it knowledge of queer passion, as the lesbian desires of a large number of "visionary" protagonists indicate) is off-limits as a subject of direct representation. Invoking once again the Charlotte Brontë principle whereby the discourse of "grievance"and "cause" maims the body of the writer, Woolf's speaker threatens the imagination with grotesque impotence. Noting that even a man like D.H. Lawrence injures his imagination by trying consciously to oppose the conventions, she maintains, "She becomes shrivelled and distorted; and you would not like to become shrivelled and distorted, would you?" The lesson is clear in Woolf's own case. Inasmuch as women's bodies and passions inform the novels "of vision," they do so in the absence of contact with other passionate bodies.

[23]   One of the most playful evocations of this principle occurs inOrlando, with the chapter chronicling the advent of that Bloomsbury bogy the Victorian era. Previously licensed by her publicly undecidable gender to enjoy some masculine privileges even when endowed with "female" biological characteristics, Orlando is for the first time seized by shame and, apparently as a concomitant effect of this shame, by an arousal befitting the age:

she became conscious, as she stood at the window, of an extraordinary tingling and vibration all over her, as if she were made of a thousand wires upon which some breeze or errant fingers were playing scales. Now her toes tingled; now her marrow. She had the queerest sensation about the thigh bones. Her hairs seemed to erect themselves. Her arms sang and twanged as the telegraph wires would be singing and twanging in twenty years or so. But all this agitation seemed at length to concentrate in her hands; and then in one hand, and then in one finger of that hand, and then finally to contract itself so that it made a ring of quivering sensibility about the second finger of the left hand.18

In this parody of orthodox sexual maturation, Orlando seems to proceed from a state of unfocused bodily excitement to an increasingly localized, "genital" eroticism, except that her clitoral/phallic organ of desire is the ring finger, now experienced as acutely in want of a wedding ring. The bisexual or perhaps more accurately omnisexual protagonist is reined in by monogamous heterosexuality, which is defined as both culturally constructed ("they were somehow stuck together, couple after couple, but who had made it, and when, she could not guess. It did not seem to be Nature" [p. 242]), and specific to a particular historical period in which society mandated both reproductive and literary fecundity (pp. 229-30).

[24]   Yet the narrative of her relations with her adroitly acquired husband is as chaste as the tendentious and sentimental poetry that pours unbidden from her pen as if in illustration of how not only the novel can be a "dumping ground for the personal emotions." It is Orlando's life, rather than writing, that becomes a Charlotte Brontë novel, complete with the conveniently Villette-like dénouement of a husband who goes off to sea, thus allowing the heroine the maximum flexibility possible within Victorian requirements of femininity, by enabling her to occupy simultaneously the roles of single and married woman. This witty manipulating of wish-fulfillment within the confines of sanctioned heterosexual romance suggests that for Woolf, the visionary body of her modernist experiments offered a way not only around "the conventions" of decorous representation, but also around nineteenth-century narrative conventions that ruthlessly channeled female desire into the marriage plot.

[25]   Some of her most famous calls for a new kind of novel indicate that she found this enforced narrowing of female desire especially irritating, and that the visionary or impersonal alternative paradoxically allowed desire to multiply its objects. In the 1931 essay "The Narrow Bridge of Art," for instance, where she made essentially the same distinction between novels of vision and of fact as in her later comments on The Waves and The Pargiters,she called for a novel portraying "some more impersonal relationship" that fulfills the reader's longing "for ideas, for dreams, for imaginations, for poetry": qualities that seem at an opposite extreme from representations of women's bodies and passions. Her description in this essay of what such a novel should not be, however, is subtly but unmistakably gendered: "The psychological novelist has been too prone to limit psychology to the psychology of personal intercourse; we long sometimes to escape from the incessant, the remorseless analysis of falling into love and falling out of love, of what Tom feels for Judith and Judith does or does not altogether feel for Tom."19 In terms of this rhetoric, not only "we" as readers but also "we" as writers are sick of the romance plot, which not only limits the female protagonist to the conventional goal of marriage, but traps her within the power imbalance of normative wooing and winning.

[26]   Woolf worked with this plot and its attendant power imbalance in her own first two novels. Confronted with what Terence Hewit feels for her, and aided by an aunt who acts as her surrogate mother, Rachel Vinrace in The Voyage Out enters into a system that translates her inchoate emotions into socially sanctioned desires. Like the simultaneously monstrous and miraculous undersea creatures with whom she is aligned as she begins her voyage into public identity, she cannot survive the pressure of being brought "out" and seems uncannily to die of the process of individuation necessary to establish her in Terence's gaze as "a body with the angles and hollows of a young woman's body not yet developed, but in no way distorted, and thus interesting and even lovable" (p. 227). In Night and Day, the attempt of Katharine Hilbery to discern what she does or does not altogether feel for Ralph Denham is bound up with her struggle to avoid an extension of conventional daughterhood into conventional wifehood. It is her mother who finally persuades the couple to become engaged, in a social milieu in which "engaged" is the only respectable name for the situation of a young woman who has passed her previous fiancé to a cousin and is contemplating a life devoted to mathematics. The happy ending (which most critics have found unsatisfactory) derives from the premise that Katharine can enter into a marriage without being translated back into the feminine realm of mess and servitude–that is, that she can sustain the division into "two bodies" indefinitely, never allowing the social to overcome the visionary.20

[27]   In these two stories of daughters who are to a greater or lesser extent, respectively, done in by a marriage plot that a mother figure implements, Woolf seems not only to have exhausted the potential of heterosexual romance for her fiction, but also to have written into this fiction her suspicion of mothers, both literary and literal. In The Waves, the novel that apotheosizes her "visionary" period, her six characters are presented in a vacuum of family and wholly in relation to each other, even in their early youth. For the most part, they are also presented in a vacuum of contact, their inviolability guaranteed by a mode of first-person, present-tense narration that shows them not acting and interacting, but instead providing ongoing accountsof their actions and interactions: "I stand with my back to you fidgeting," "I pad about the house all day long in apron and slippers, like my mother who died of cancer."21 Far from being disembodied, however, these "speeches" are preoccupied with visceral sensation, from the synesthetic rendering of Jinny's first sip of wine–"Scent and flowers, radiance and heat, are distilled here to a fiery, to a yellow liquid" (p. 103)–to Bernard's account of individuation as the "bright arrows of sensation" produced by a wet bath sponge squeezed over a young body (pp. 26, 157, 239). But the sensations are confined to the individual bodies. The moments of heightened intensity set no romance plots in motion, and the spectacle that confounded Orlando, of heterosexual couples stuck permanently together, is banished to an altogether different kind of novel.22

[28]   Given the apparent security afforded to characters by this "visionary" mode of narration, we should not be surprised that inThe Waves Woolf wrote her most nearly direct representation of female sexual arousal. In this account, the adolescent Rhoda reads a poem that provokes a longing at first pressing to the point of pain, then released in a (by now familiar) burst of liquidity:

I will pick flowers; I will bind flowers in one garland and clasp them and present them–Oh! To whom? There is some check in the flow of my being; a deep stream presses on some obstacle; it jerks, it tugs, some knot in the center resists. Oh, this is pain, this is anguish! I faint, I fail. Now my body thaws; I am unsealed, I am incandescent. Now the stream pours in a deep tide fertilising, opening the shut, forcing the tight-folded, flooding free. To whom shall I give all that now flows through me, from my warm, my porous body? I will gather my flowers and present them–Oh! To whom? (p. 57)

The most obvious difference between this rendering of the visionary body and the descriptions in Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse is that the orgasmic cry expresses not fulfillment ("gushed and poured with an extraordinary alleviation over the cracks and sores!" "It is enough!") but desire in search of an object. Rhoda finds in Shelley's poem "The Question" her own cry of longing, "Oh! To whom?" This cry suggests that her object of desire is as yet undiscovered and, in context, that she is attracted primarily to women. These longings not only dare not speak their name but are culturally unintelligible in the fictional universe Rhoda inhabits. In the world of The Waves, gender dichotomies are far more rigid and defining than in any other of Woolf's novels. For example, all the male speakers have public lives–and all are writers. In contrast, not one of the female speakers tries to occupy a place in the public sphere or to be any sort of artist. Rather, each to some extent embodies a stereotype of conventional femininity: Susan as earth mother, Jinny as seductress, Rhoda as neurotic. And whereas Neville's homosexuality can claim an honorable classical tradition at Cambridge, Rhoda lives in a world where female homosexuality is unnamed and apparently unrecognized.

[29]   Passionately attracted to her headmistress (p. 45) and, in the drafts, to various other girls, Rhoda is, in terms Judith Butler has posed, precariously situated in a world where an assumption of normative heterosexuality undergirds gender polarities.23 Unlike Clarissa Dalloway, Rhoda cannot reconcile her homoeroticism with an adjustment to conventional notions of femininity. Her love is never defined and never requited. She does not know "to whom" she wants to give herself because her desires are not representable in the aggressively heteronormative culture of the fictional universe. One radical corollary is that she has in the strict sense no "end in view," no teleology to draw succeeding moments into a chain of means and ends, wish and fulfillment:

Because you have an end in view–one person, is it, to sit beside, an idea is it, your beauty is it? I do not know–your days and hours pass like the boughs of forest trees and the smooth green of forest rides to a hound running on the scent. But there is no single scent, no single body for me to follow. And I have no face. (p. 130)

Under the gaze of others she does not manifest a consolidated identity, a face to meet the faces that she meets. Rather, as if anticipating the thesis of Gender Trouble, she sees gendered identity in terms of distinct performances. She mimics Jinny and Susan as they dress (p. 43) and reads stability and coherence asa particular set of discursive actions and interactions: "They say, Yes; they say, No; they bring their fists down with a bang on the table" (p. 106).

[30]   At least partly because Rhoda lacks a recognizable object of desire, she does not experience time as continuous: as a passage through futurity guided by consciousness seeking its posited fulfillment. Instead, she is subjected to the "shock of sensation" in discrete, apocalyptic moments: "One moment does not lead to another. The door opens and the tiger leaps" (p. 130). Unlike Woolf herself, who wrote memorably that each disruptive "shock" of her most profound experiences was both "a token of some real thing behind appearances" and also (somewhat paradoxically) a thing she made real "by putting it into words," Rhoda produces no art that such painful illuminations might foster ("Sketch," pp. 71-72). Her longings lead neither to erotic nor aesthetic goals. In certain respects her terror is a privileged mode of apprehension because it lays bare a contingent reality beneath the reassuring succession imposed by individual human wants and plans. Further, it reveals that the coherent self is only an illusion produced by repeated performances. But the already-conceptualized, already-gendered fictional universe she inhabits has no room for such radical truths, at least not when voiced by a female misfit. In the social world of the novel, her unintelligible desires manifest a failure to achieve identity–although her own formulation, "Identity failed me" (p. 64 ), suggests the insufficiency of the category as well, an insufficiency consonant with Woolf's own frequently voiced discomfort with and aesthetic dislike of "ego" or the "self" (Diary, v. 2, p. 14). As a result, Rhoda functions in terms of the subnormal or even the subhuman: as maladjusted, inadequate, and thus "lacking a sense of proportion"–to invoke the terminology Woolf lampooned bitterly in Mrs. Dalloway. Her vatic function is both recognized and read as symptomatic–for example, in Neville's question (which celebrates his own adjustment to the conditions of everyday social reality), "Why ask, like Louis, for a reason, or fly like Rhoda to some far grove and part the leaves of the laurels and look for statues?" (pp. 197-98)

[31]   When she can, Rhoda holds time together by dreaming of a world devoid of people. She turns to her imaginary landscapes especially when pressed by the heterosexual social obligations attendant on her status as a middle-class woman: "I must take his hand; I must answer. But what answer shall I give? I am thrust back to stand burning in this clumsy, this ill-fitting body, to receive the shafts of his indifference and his scorn, I who longed for marble columns and pools on the other side of the world where the swallow dips her wings" (p. 105). Her terror at the gendered requirements of an evening party, and particularly her discomfort with her "clumsy" and "ill-fitting" body, emphasize that her private erotic yearnings have social consequences. Unlike Clarissa Dalloway's metaphorized and memorialized relationships, and unlike Mrs. Ramsay's intimacy with the inanimate "third stroke" of the Lighthouse, her ardent and anguished cry, "Oh, to whom?" reaches out for present intimacy with another body. While her lack of an "end in view" guarantees her fragmentary and unstable identity, her fear and loathing of existing social arrangements–"Life, how I have dreaded you . . . oh, human beings, how I have hated you!" (p. 203)–lead to her suicide.

[32]   For Woolf, then, when scenes involving the visionary body moved too close to direct representation of "womens bodies . . . their passions–and so on," society reappeared to claim women for its own purposes–or to reject them as maladapted to its definitions of desire and identity. Rhoda goes beyond the accommodations of her lesbian-inflected predecessors in directing her desires outward rather than transforming them into the experiences of a second, visionary body. As a casualty of her social universe, she is only indirectly redeemed by the suggestion that her own life is part of a larger character in which all six speakers participate: one petal of Bernard's seven-sided flower; one self of Woolf's "autobiography" (Waves, p. 127; Diary, v.3, p. 229). The overt representation of female sexuality in Woolf's most visionary novel returns the female body to social discipline.

[33]   In this respect The Waves anticipates the turn to "fact" that Woolf theorized when she began writingThe Pargiters, the novel-essay in which she dealt most directly with bodies, passions and their less pleasant consequences. In The Pargiters a ten-year-old girl sees a man exposing himself and prompts the authorial narrator to write not only about the "curiosity and physical fear" the sight arouses, but also about "the instinct to turn away and hide the physical experience" in both little girl and grown novelist–an "instinct" unnervingly "supported by law, which forbids, whether rightly or wrongly, any plain description of the sight that Rose, in common with many other little girls, saw . . . " (pp. 50, 51). In The Pargiters, too, Woolf explicitly satirized Victorian (and later) conditioning of girls' sexual desire into "a furtive, ill-grown, secret, subterranean vice, to be concealed in shame, until by some fortunate chance, a man gave the girl a chance, by putting a wedding ring on her finger, to canalise all her passion solely upon him" (p. 110). The format of the novel-essay enabled her to focus on "the conventions" that were "too strong" for the buttoned-up writer depicted in the draft of "Professions for Woman." But in explaining how the social female body was constrained, maimed and thwarted of its desires, she turned away from her original strategy for representing arousal, yearning and fulfillment. The social body could experience only culturally-constructed longings.

[34]   In the last novels she treated these longings with sympathy as well as wit, but the point of view is external and the ecstasies and raptures are gingerly postulated rather than evoked in ecstatic, rapturous language. Delia Pargiter, who in The Yearsdreams of assignations with the Irish nationalist leader Parnell, and Isa Oliver, who in Between the Acts has vague sexual fantasies about a gentleman farmer in her neighborhood, are in this respect latter-day Emma Bovaries, who crave the idealized heterosexual romance common in the sort of fiction written by "the well known Mrs. Smith." The satirical edge is sharper in these late novels, in keeping with a national and even global range of political engagement. There is commensurately less of the oscillation of reader identification and disidentification that constitutes the empathetic-ironic tone of the middle-period novels. The logic of the novel "of vision," as it played out in The Waves, apparently brought Woolf back to the situation of the female body in society at a time when she had a strong interest in that body and in the society that shaped its possibilities. As Carolyn Heilbrun has observed, in beginning The Pargiters Woolf made a conscious decision not only to explore and express her political commitments, particularly her feminist commitments, but also to cross her self-drawn line between art and "propaganda."24 In The Pargiters, The Years andBetween the Acts, she dealt directly with the societal manufacture of desire and with social implications of adultery, homosexuality and various forms of voluntary and involuntary celibacy. This focus on "fact" mandated a different tone and a different narratorial position with regard to characters. It offered little occasion for evoking the felt experience of a body isolated and safe in its sensuous responses.

[35]   But the explicit political emphasis of these novels "of fact" retrospectively clarifies aspects of the novels "of vision," revealing how the visionary body was a political as well as an aesthetic strategy of representation, another means of circumventing conventions of decorum for female behavior and characterization. At the beginning of this essay I dissociated Woolf's two modes of experience from the familiar Western construct of mind-body dualism. The concept of a person with two bodies has its own tradition in European culture, however: a tradition more political than metaphysical. Like the public and private bodies of the King in the medieval doctrine of the King's Two Bodies, the notion of two female bodies was a strategy addressing problems of political order and continuity. But whereas the King's public body was decreed by law to survive disidentifying crises, from deposing to beheading ("the King is dead; long live the King!"), Woolf's visionary body was designed to help evade the snares that identity set for the middle-class English woman, offering an inviolable place for momentary but definitive experience. And whereas the King's public body was invented to maintain an established order in the face of change, Woolf's visionary body undermined this order, asserting its own desires in the interstices of official doctrines of ancillary femininity and heterosexuality.25

[36]   In proposing that Woolf wrote–and perhaps experienced–two kinds of body, I enter a long-standing and sometimes virulent controversy about Woolf's attitudes toward sexuality and toward physical experience generally. A number of critics, from Woolf's contemporaries to the present day, have regarded the prose and to some degree the woman as "disembodied"–that is, as preoccupied with transcendent and unworldly things and correspondingly alienated from or overtly hostile to everyday social life, especially the sloppy region of sensual and sexual experience.26 In maintaining that the novel "of vision" was not for Woolf a realm of incorporeality but, on the contrary, a mode of representing female eroticism and other sensations without social consequences, I suggest a way to acknowledge the libidinal effects and contents of her middle-period fiction without denying the power of what in "A Sketch of the Past" she called "reality," the momentarily experienced "other orders" beyond the sanctioned and the habitual.



I am grateful for suggestions by Talia Schaffer, Marianne DeKoven, Susan Stanford Freeman, Christine Froula and Ann Kibbey, all of which vastly improved this essay.


  1. "A Sketch of the Past," Moments of Being: Unpublished Autobiographical Writings, ed. Jeanne Schuylkind (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1976), p. 68. Further references to this work will be included parenthetically in the text. back
  2. To the Lighthouse (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1978), p. 178. Further page citations will refer to this edition and will appear within parentheses in the body of the essay. back
  3. The Diary of Virginia Woolf, V. 4: 1931-1935, ed. Anne Olivier Belle with Andrew McNeillie (San Diego, New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1980), p. 151. Although Woolf had opposed fact to vision in other contexts, she only began using the term to distinguish between two modes of her own writing when she was in the process of composing The Pargiters, the innovative novel-essay that ultimately became two distinct works, the novelThe Years and the essay Three Guineas. While in the above diary entry she wrote that The Pargiters was supposed to "combine them both," she went on to specify in the First Essay of The Pargiters, "'The Pargiters,' moreover, is not a novel of vision, but a novel of fact." See The Pargiters: The Novel-Essay portion of The Years, ed. Mitchell A. Leaska (New York: New York Public Library and Readex Books, 1977), p. 9. In the April 1933 diary entry she made her most recently completed novel, The Waves, emblematic of the novel of vision. Most critics have followed her implicit lead in regarding the famous, characteristically modernist novels, most of those of her middle period, as novels "of vision": Jacob's Room,Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and The Waves. Orlando seems to fall outside both categories. See especially Alice Van Buren Kelley, The Novels of Virginia Woolf: Fact and Vision (Chicago: U. of Chicago Press, 1973). back
  4. For feminist modernism, see especially Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man's Land, v. 1: The War of the Words (New Haven: Yale UP, 1988), Jane Marcus, Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy(Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1987) and Bonnie Kime Scott, Refiguring Modernism, v.2: Postmodern Feminist Readings of Woolf, West and Barnes(Bloomington and Indianapolis: Indiana UP, 1995). For psychoanalytic feminist readings see especially Makiko Minow-Pinkney, Virginia Woolf and the Problem of the Subject: Feminine Writing in the Major Novels (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1987) and Margaret Homans, Bearing the Word: Language and Female Experience in Nineteenth-Century Women's Writing(Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1986). The most important theoretical grounding for such readings is Julia Kristeva,Revolution in Poetic Language, trans. Leon S. Roudiez (NY: Columbia UP, 1984) and "Motherhood According to Bellini" in Kristeva, Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art, trans. Thomas Gora, Alice Jardine and Leon S. Roudier (NY: Columbia UP, 1980). For criticism of ways Freudian and Kristevan premises are used in reading Woolf, see Mary Jacobus, "'The Third Stroke': Reading Woolf With Freud," Virginia Woolf, ed. Rachel Bowlby (London and NY: Longmans, 1992), pp. 102-120, and Lyndsey Stonebridge, The Destructive Element: British Psychoanalysis and Modernism (London and New York: Routledge, 1998), pp. 79-107. The central study of Woolf's historical relation to psychoanalysis is Elizabeth Abel, Virginia Woolf and the Fictions of Psychoanalysis (Chicago and London: U. of Chicago Press, 1989). back
  5. Night and Day, ed Julia Briggs (London and New York: Penguin, 1992), p. 254. Further references to this work will be included parenthetically in the text. back
  6. "Women and Fiction" was first published in The Forum, March 1929; rpt. in Women and Fiction: The Manuscript Versions of 'A Room of One's Own', ed. S.P. Rosenbaum (Cambridge, MA and London: Shakespeare Head/Blackwell, 1992), p. 48. On the Stephen family, see S.P. Rosenbaum, Victorian Bloomsbury (New York: St. Martin's, 1986) and Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997). back
  7. I take the quotation from the Common Reader revision, published as "Modern Novels" in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, V. 4: 1925-1928, ed. Andrew McNeillie (London: Hogarth, 1987), p. 160. back
  8. For the (heterosexual) romance plot see Nancy Miller, The Heroine's Text: Reading the French and English Novel, 1772-1782(New York: Columbia University Press, 1980), and Rachel Blau DuPlessis, Writing Beyond the Ending: Narrative Strategies of Twentieth-Century Women Writers (Bloomington and Indianapolis, IN: Indiana University Press, 1985). back
  9. Mrs. Dalloway (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1990), p. 32. Further references to this work will be included parenthetically in the text. Septimus is also an example of a male body menaced through its incommensurate relation to social norms of gender and identity. His precariously middle-class status, one step from his working-class origins, makes him particularly vulnerable to social repercussions. But in his roles as seer and satirist ("They hunt in packs," [p. 89]) as well as his suggested homosexuality, he looks forward to Rhoda in The Waves. back
  10. For the positive side of Woolf's relation to maternal figures see Jane Marcus's groundbreaking esssay "Thinking Back Through Our Mothers" in Art and Anger: Reading Like a Woman(Columbus, OH: Ohio State UP, 1988), pp. 73-100. For an overview of the negative aspects see especially Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man's Land, Volume 1: The War of the Words (New Haven and London: Yale UP, 1988), pp. 165-224. back
  11. "A Sketch of the Past," pp. 129-30; A Room of One's Own (NY: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1979), pp. 69-71. back
  12. "The Intellectual Status of Women," Virginia Woolf: Women and Writing, ed. Michelle Barrett (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), pp. 55-56. back
  13. In this respect, as in others, Woolf participated in the dominant high modernist tendency to feminize popular culture. See especially Andreas Huyssen, "Mass Culture as Woman: 'Modernism's Other,'" After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (Bloomington, IN: Indiana UP, 1986), pp. 44-62. For a contemporary feminist assessment of the "public woman," see Anonymous (Elizabeth Robins), Ancilla's Share: An Indictment of Sex Antagonism (Westport, CT: Hyperion Press, 1976), p. 76. In the quotation from the draft of A Room of One's OwnI have put within brackets those passages that were crossed out in the manuscript. back
  14. 14. Talia Schaffer first pointed out the Meynell reference to me inA Passionate Apprentice: The Early Journals: 1897-1909, ed. Mitchell A. Leaska (New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1990), p. 398. Woolf's comment on George Eliot is from The Essays of Virginia Woolf, v. 3, p. 460. Sir Leslie Stephen,George Eliot (London: MacMillan, 1902). See also Elizabeth Robins's contemporary evaluation of this biography in Way Stations (New York: Dodd, Mead and Co., 1913) and Alison Booth,Greatness Engendered: George Eliot and Virginia Woolf (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1992). back
  15. Sir Leslie Stephen, "Charlotte Brontë," Hours in a Library, v.3(London: Smith, Elder and Co., 1892), p. 7. The classic reading ofJane Eyre's madwoman is Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1987), pp. 336-371. back
  16. "Professions for Women," Women and Writing, p. 103. "Sketch," pp. 68-69, 129, 125; "22 Hyde Park Gate" in Moments of Being, p. 155. back
  17. Essay 1, The Pargiters, pp. xxxviii-xxxix. back
  18. Virginia Woolf, Orlando (San Diego, New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1982), pp. 239-40. Further references to this work will be included parenthetically in the text. back
  19. Collected Essays by Virginia Woolf, v. 2 (London: Hogarth, 1966), p. 225. back
  20. The Voyage Out (New York and London: Penguin, 1991), p. 16, Further references to this work will be included parenthetically in the text. See also Christine Froula, "Out of the Chrysalis: Female Initiation and Female Authority in Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out," Virginia Woolf: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Margaret Homans (Engliewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 1993), pp. 138-61, and Patricia Ondek Laurence,The Reading of Silence: Virginia Woolf in the English Tradition (Stanford, CA: Stanford UP, 1991), pp. 144-69. When she was beginning to compose The Pargiters, Woolf described Night and Day as her last novel "of fact": "What has happened of course is that after abstaining from the novel of fact all these years-since 1919-& N. & D. Indeed, I find myself infinitely delighting in facts for a change . . . ." Diary 4, p.129. back
  21. The Waves (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1978), pp. 88, 172. Further references to this work will be included parenthetically in the text. back
  22. For two of the three female characters, this narrative structure forestalls the kinds of outcomes that conventionally follow from female desire. Jinny, who bears Woolf's own childhood nickname (Diary, v. 4, p. 79 ), is the clearest example. Glorying in her physicality ("Everything in my body seems thinned out with running and triumph" [46]) and sexuality ("My body instantly of its own accord puts forth a frill under his gaze" [63]), Jinny continues to "live in the body," like a siren sending out "the rough black 'No,' the golden 'Come' in rapid running arrows of sensation" (176) without ever being punished or betrayed. Susan, too, is extravagantly incarnate, her character intertwined with her physical characteristics ("I am squat . . . I am short, I have eyes that look close to the ground and see insects in the grass" [15]), her terse Catullan "I love and I hate" (15) of a piece with her passions for rural life ("I think I am the field, I am the barn, I am the trees" [97]) and motherhood ("I . . . am all spun to a fine thread round the cradle, wrapping in a cocoon made of my own blood the delicate limbs of my baby" [171]). While both speakers in touch the social limits of their embodiment and its apparent requirements-Jinny in the process of aging out of desirability, Susan in a surfeit of the satisfactions provided by maternity and prosperity-both continue to be bodies immersed in physical sensation. back
  23. For Rhoda's lesbian crushes see The Waves: The Two Holograph Drafts, ed. J.W. Graham (Toronto and Buffalo: University of Toronto Press, 1976), pp. 122-23. For Butler's analysis see especially Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1990), pp. 16-17, and "Phantasmatic Identification and the Assumption of Sex" in Bodies That Matter: On the Discursive Limits of 'Sex' (New York and London: Routledge, 1993), p. 108. Jodie Medd suggests that "the lesbian" was an identity under construcution during this interwar period. See "Re-Inverting Stephen Gordon: Rhoda Talks Back to Radclyffe Hall," Virginia Woolf and Her Influences: Selected Papers from the Seventh Annual Conference on Virginia Woolf, ed. Laura Davis and Jeannette McVicker (New York: Pace University Press, 1998). See also Annette Oxindine, "Rhoda Submerged: Lesbian Suicide in The Waves," Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings, ed. Eileen Barrett and Patricia Cramer (New York and London: New York University Press, 1997), pp. 203-221. back
  24. Carolyn G. Heilbrun, "Virginia Woolf in Her Fifties," Virginia Woolf: A Feminist Slant, ed. Jane Marcus (Lincoln, NB and London: U of Nebraska Press, 1984), pp. 236-53. back
  25. Ernst H. Kantorowicz, The King's Two Bodies: A Study in Mediaeval Political Theology (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 1957). back
  26. Although the idea that Woolf feared and despised the corporeal was part of the early attacks on her class (and gender) standing as a "lady" mounted by F.R. and Q.D. Leavis and by Wyndham Lewis, the most influential statements of this position are in Quentin Bell's 1972 biography. Bell pronounced his aunt "sexually frigid" and hypothesized that her lesbian relationships were unconsummated "affair(s) of the heart." See F.R. Leavis, "Keynes, Lawrence and Cambridge," The Common Pursuit(London: Chatto and Windus, 1952), p. 257; Q.D. Leavis, "Caterpillars of the Commonwealth Unite!" The Importance of "Scrutiny,ed. Eric Bentley (NY: NYU Press, 1964), pp. 382-o91; and Wyndham Lewis, Men Without Art (London: Cassell and Co., 1934). Much of the sense of Woolf as shrinkingly anti-corporeal also came from her comments that James Joyce's Ulysses was "indecent" (e.g. "Modern Fiction," p. 162). The most memorable feminist version of this attack came from Elaine Showalter, who wrote, "Woolf's vision of womanhood is as deadly as it is disembodied. The ultimate room of one's own is the grave." A Literature of Their Own: British Women Novelists from Brontë to Lessing (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1977), p. 297. Critics who challenged the notion that Woolf's writing was alienated from the world of bodies emphasized the politics of this writing, its immersion in the everyday and its concern with multiple sexualities. See especially Alex Zwerdling, Virginia Woolf and the Real World (Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: U of California Press, 1986), Jane Marcus,Virginia Woolf and the Languages of Patriarchy, Rachel Bowlby, Feminist Destinations and Further Essays on Virginia Woolf (Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 1997), Gillian Beer, Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground (Ann Arbor, MI: U of Michigan Press, 1996) and Joseph Allen Boone, "Virginia Woolf,Mrs. Dalloway: Representing 'The Unseen Part of Us Which Spreads Wide,'" Libidinal Currents: Sexuality and the Shaping of Modernism(Chicago and London: U of Chicago Press, 1998), pp. 172-203. back