Monday, May 19, 2008

Aspects of Virginia: VIRGINIA WOOLF by E. M. Forster

I recently found at Half Price Books a first edition (with the dust jacket) of E. M. Forster's slim volume Virginia Woolf, which was originally delivered as the Rede Lecture at Cambridge on 29 May 1941, a mere two months after Woolf drowned herself in the River Ouse in Sussex. I'd read the essay some years ago, when I first got interested in Woolf and before I'd read all of her novels. Now that I know more (and now that I'm more opinionated about her), I decided it was time to revisit the essay, but thought that at $50.00, Half Price was asking too much for this particular copy. Showing remarkable and rare self-restraint, I waited, and last week the price dropped to $25.00--and they'd removed it from the locked glass case and tossed it among the other books. Armed with an additional 15% off in the form of a coupon, I marched to the counter.

Forster and Woolf had been friends since about 1910, but their friendship was an odd one. When they met, Forster had already published four novels (Where Angels Fear to Tread [1905], The Longest Journey [1907], A Room with a View [1908], and Howards End [1910]) and was considered one of the best and most promising writers of his generation; Woolf was still writing her first novel. While Woolf liked him a great deal, she found him, as Hermione Lee notes, "as timid as a mouse," "erratic, irregular," "a pale blue butterfly." Her diary is full of encounters with him, episodes that are always rather awkward and truncated--she bumps into him at the British Library, and "[w]e shook hands very cordially; and yet I always feel him shrinking sensitively from me, as a woman, a clever woman, an up to date woman." Lee states that "they had circled warily around each other all their lives." There has been a great deal of critical discussion about the fact that her break with the prevailing form of the novel was as much a break with Forster as with anyone else. While he was not in any direct sense her mentor--she never showed him manuscripts or asked for his advice, as she did with her brother-in-law Clive Bell while she was writing The Voyage Out (1915)--nevertheless his influence can be seen in her early work. The Voyage Out owes much, in its depiction of comic English people abroad, to the collection of characters in the Pensione Bertolini in Florence in A Room with a View; the social questions raised by Night and Day (1919) echo those of Howards End. But here the similarities end. E. M. Forster and Virginia Woolf were as different from one another--as the British say--as chalk and cheese. And it is perhaps knowledge of these differences that is at the heart of Forster's curious little lecture on his friend.

Forster's most striking assertion, and the one with which I have the most trouble, is that "her problem" is that "she is a poet, who wants to write something as near to a novel as possible." There is a measure of truth to that. The thing that gives many readers (including some of my students) fits when they read Woolf is the loose, drifting nature of the material, the "poetic" flow of words. But I would argue that with the possible exception of The Waves (1931), which is more a prose poem than a novel, Woolf consciously wrote fiction rather than poetry, and was compelled by narrative--it just wasn't the kind of narrative that readers were used to. My problem with Forster's argument is that it is essentially a rehash of that made by Arnold Bennett in the 1920s, the one that inspired Woolf's famous retort in the form of the essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1924), which is that Woolf does not create characters who live and breathe, who linger in the reader's mind after the book is closed. For me, Clarissa Dalloway is as real a character as any ever written, as are Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay, as is Orlando, for all of his/her improbability. Both Forster and Bennett object to Woolf's work largely because it doesn't resemble their own. And while I revere Forster deeply, he is unable--as are most of us--to see his own flaws. Forster was a gay man who understood little about male-female relations, and thus most of the love affairs in his work ring a bit false. I've always felt that the reason Charlotte Bartlett interrupts Lucy Honeychurch and George Emerson in the field in A Room with a View and prevents things from getting hot and heavy is because Forster himself didn't know what the hell Lucy and George might physically do with each other should things be allowed to proceed. (It would take the 1986 Merchant-Ivory film version to inject some actual heat into this romance, embodied as it is by the gorgeous Helena Bonham Carter and Julian Sands.) I suppose I just find Forster's argument to be twenty years out of date by the time of his lecture, and might have hoped for something a bit more penetrating from the man who wrote Aspects of the Novel. Also, one could point out that Forster's last novel, A Passage to India, was published in 1924; he lived until 1970. Whatever Woolf's faults, I'm pleased by her productivity, by the fact that she did a remarkable amount of work despite various difficulties, and never allowed herself to be stymied.

Forster also misses the mark when he declares that Woolf had no concern for the threat to civilization posed by fascism and war. This is a gross misreading of her most misunderstood book, Three Guineas (1938), one of the most scathing indictments of war and fascism ever written. Forster reduces this book to its feminist elements, with which he has little sympathy; he says that he sees "spots" of feminism all over her work, as though these spots are symptoms of some embarrassing disease. In his defense, Forster could not have known how eloquently Woolf wrote about the horrors of war and fascism in her diary and letters just before her death, but I'm still bewildered that he could miss the ominous shadow of the war in a book that he otherwise praises, Between the Acts (1941). Is it that men--then and still--don't think that women can understand something as big and far-reaching as war, which Woolf herself once called "a preposterous masculine fiction"?

But here I am isolating out Forster's complaints about Woolf. The bulk of his lecture is about her gifts and strengths--her way with words, her delight in sensual details like food (he goes so far as to say that "when Virginia Woolf mentions nice things they get right into our mouths, so far as the edibility of print permits"), the fact that she liked writing and did it for the pure joy of doing it. And while he may have had issues with her work, his stance is ultimately generous. Theirs was a unique friendship, and a rather ambivalent one. Woolf was competitive by nature, and she was never wholly at her ease with other writers. (Her relationship was Katherine Mansfield was even more problematic than that with Forster.) With people in the visual arts, like her sister Vanessa Bell, she was more comfortable--they were not a threat. I get the sense that Forster may have thought of Woolf in the same way. Nevertheless, he is able to write, "Virginia Woolf got through an immense amount of work, she gave acute pleasure in new ways, she pushed the light of the English language a little further against darkness."


Megan Vanaski said...

What a fabulous find and for a deal! I'm going to consider Forster a bit differently I think after reading this.

Noah Soudrette said...

I love Forster and I can see him falling into the traps you say he does. Of course, as you point out, the scholarship surrounding Woolf these days is so much more advanced. I have to wonder if the reason Forster felt so uncomfortable around her is because she was like a woman from a fiction. Strong passionate, etc. The kind of women he'd only written about but never met. Very nice post sir.