Not afraid of Virginia Woolf

“Please treat me with perfect frankness, like the dead”, Virginia Woolf wrote to Winifred Holtby in March 1931. Holtby, herself an established novelist, journalist and activist, was writing a study of Woolf’s fiction; it would be the first book of its kind published in English. Woolf was wary of such projects – “I must not settle into a figure”, she wrote in her diary. She reluctantly agreed to an interview, which she reported on to her sister Vanessa Bell with unpleasant condescension: “she is a Yorkshire farmer’s daughter, rather uncouth, and shapeless”. To her friend Hugh Walpole, Woolf sniffed that Holtby had “learnned to read, I’m told, while minding the pigs”.

After this inauspicious meeting, Woolf provided Holtby with details of her family history and arranged for her to get an advance copy of The Waves. Beyond that she kept a principled distance: “the less I poke my finger into your book the better”. When Virginia Woolf: A critical memoir was published, it opened with a disclaimer that its subject had “neither read my manuscript nor authorised any statement in”. Woolf told Holtby that she was glad of this, because “I dont [sic] want to seem to prompt or inform my critics.” Yet she copied Holtby’s praise for The Waves into her diary, and when she finally brought herself to read Holtby’s book, she was gratified, telling Holtby that “you have made an extremely interesting story out of [my] books, & I only wish, for all our sakes, that they had as much virtue in them as you make out.”

They met in person at least once more; their conversation then about “professions” may have influenced Woolf’s later, most overtly political book, Three Guineas. Woolf even proposed that Holtby write a memoir of her own for the Hogarth Press (an idea that sadly went nowhere). After reading Vera Brittain’s tribute to Holtby, Testament of Friendshipshe wrote to a mutual friend that “she had a good deal more to her than VB saw”.

As Woolf clearly came to realize, Holtby was always more than a provincial petitioner. But Woolf’s initial disdain foreshadows the dramatic asymmetry in their later reputations: today Woolf is pre-eminent in both literary history and the public imagination, while Holtby is known, if at all, primarily for her last and best novel, South Riding. One unfortunate consequence of this imbalance is that relatively few have read Holtby’s examination of her celebrated contemporary, who to her was not a “figure”, but “Mrs. Woolf” (as she refers to her throughout): a real woman and a peer, deserving of courtesy but not deference. Unaware and thus unfraid of the Virginia Woolf we know today – high priestess of modernism, feminist icon, tragic genius – Holtby is as frank about her limitations as she is articulate about her achievements. “I found it the most enthralling adventure”, she said of her decision to undertake a study of the writer “whose art seemed most of all removed from anything I could ever attempt”. That spirit of bold discovery shines through the book, which is at once generous, rigorous and – a rarity for literary criticism – exhilarating.

Holtby opens with a blunt assessment of “The Advantages of Being Virginia Stephen.” While she acknowledges the difficulties of growing up the daughter of a stern Victorian patriarch, Holtby highlights young Virginia’s privileges, chief among them having “free run of her father’s library”. This laid the foundation for what Holtby considered Woolf’s foremost virtue as a thinker and writer: her “great regard for the truth”. “For all her delicacy, sensitiveness, and restricted contact with the world”, Holtby says, “she was intellectually free, candid, and unafraid.”

That confidence could manifest as offhand elitism. Holtby quotes with wry amusement Woolf’s comment in an early essay that “every second Englishman reads French”: “that particular hyperbole was only possible to a woman brought up as Leslie Stephen’s daughter had been brought up”. Yet Holtby vigorously counters the still too commonplace view of Woolf as a loftily detached aesthete: “her own sense of reality and of the importance of human beings kept her feet firmly on the ground”, counteracting “the temptation to be rarefied”. She understood that Woolf saw art as “an extension of reality” and welcomed both “innovations in technique and innovations in social custom”. Because Woolf chose “the aesthetic method” rather than the didactic, however, her engagement with history and politics is at once omnipresent and subterranean – thus, for instance, although the First World War is present in everything Woolf wrote after 1919, “we are allowed to see its effects, not its actions.”

Holtby’s book tells the story of Woolf’s ultimately triumphant quest for new literary forms to fit her innovative vision. The Voyage Out proved that she could handle the traditional novel “with ease and mastery” if she wanted to; Night and Day, however, “a domestic story on the Jane Austen model”, was a failure – happily so, as it “drove Mrs. Woolf to seek new forms of expression”. The stories in Monday or Tuesday show her “seeing how far it was possible to discard description, discard narrative, discard the link-sentences which bind ideas together”. Holtby sees Woolf as moving towards first poetry, then painting and music:

Why not set the picture beside picture, phrase by phrase, as in a poem, and let their juxtaposition, unexplained, form its own meaning? Music does that; poetry does that. Why not prose?

With Jacob’s Room, “a picture-maker’s novel”, Woolf for the first time approaches this ideal. It is, Holtby declares, “a triumphant experiment in a new technique”, as well as a moving commentary on the costs of war, presented “without a word of theorising”:

When such a young man was killed … what was lost then? What lost by him? What was lost by his friends? What exactly was it that had disappeared?
In Jacob’s Room, she answers, “It was this”.

Jacob’s Room is “a tour de force”; only because of Woolf’s later novels do we know it is “not the best she could do”.

Holtby’s chapter on Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse – “The Adventure Justified” – is both astute and joyful. “There is very little ‘story’” in these novels”, she observes; they rely instead on symbolic and metaphysical unities. Where Jacob’s Room was cinematic, Mrs Dalloway is orchestral: “mind, senses, the memory, external action, reference, like so many instruments, flutes, violins, drums, trumpets, playing together.” In To the Lighthouse Woolf’s metaphors “have grown more fluid and they have overflowed into the action of the novel”: Mrs Ramsayis the lighthouse, in some subtle way. The action, which in the first half of the book passes through her, is, in the second part, illuminated by her”. To the Lighthouse is, as Holtby sees and celebrates, a rare and perfect fusion of means and ends.

Holtby’s study ends with The Waves, which completes Woolf’s journey from prose to poetry. It is also her most profound engagement with death. In all of her novels, Holtby observes, Woolf “sets life against death as though thus to discern more clearly what it means”, always asking “what is the permanent, tangible thing left over when the flow and surge of time has stilled?” . In The Waves, death is explicitly the enemy – “death, not only of the body, but of the mind, the perceptive spirit, the faculty by which man recognises truth” – and Bernard’s ecstatic defiance at its conclusion might be taken as Woolf’s own: “Against you I will fling myself, unvanquished and unyielding, O Death!” Against death, the author herself set this extraordinary novel, which like all of her art is “an affirmation of life”.

“Prophecy is dangerous”, Holtby concludes about what lies ahead for Woolf. She may “continue to grow in breadth and power as she grows in wisdom,” and perhaps “the changing shape of the novel may make her obscurities clear and her strangeness familiar.” Holtby was not to know: she died of Bright’s disease in 1935, too soon to read The Years (which, like Three Guineas, may well have been influenced by their encounters) and well before Woolf’s suicide in 1941. For us, her unwitting ignorance turns out to be a gift. The Woolf she knows has “a radiant acceptance of life”; Holtby’s exuberant study frees us to read her hopefully as well. Virginia Woolf: A critical memoir is insightful and eloquent: it and Holtby both deserve to be better known. Re-reading it doesn’t just bring Holtby out from under Woolf’s shadow, though: through it, Woolf too steps out into the light.

For biographical information I am indebted to Hermione Lee’s Virginia Woolf (1996) and Marion Shaw’s The Clear Stream: A Life of Winifred Holtby (1999). Stephen Barkway edited and published the text of Woolf’s letters to Winifred Holtby in the Virginia Woolf Bulletin (Volume 32, September 2009)

Rohan Maitzen is an English professor and literary critic. She lives in Halifax, Nova Scotia

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