Hellenism and Loss in the Work of Virginia Woolf

By Dalgarno, Emily | Woolf Studies Annual, Annual 2012 | Go to article overview

Hellenism and Loss in the Work of Virginia Woolf


Dalgarno, Emily, Woolf Studies Annual


Hellenism and Loss in the Work of Virginia Woolf. Theodore Koulouris (Farnham, UK: Ashgate, 2011) x + 242pp.

Hellenism and Loss in the Work of Virginia Woolf is the first book-length study of Woolf's "Greekness" by a scholar who is a native speaker as well as a student of ancient Greek. The argument is focused on Woolf's holograph "Greek Notebook" (1907-09), which contains notes on her reading of Homer, Plato, Sophocles, Euripides, Aristophanes, Juvenal and Virgil. Koulouris chooses the term "Greekness" as a way to distinguish Woolf's response from the idealized Greece suggested by "Hellenism," and to suggest the originality and complexity of the question he investigates: the "distillation of her own understanding of canonical Greek texts, filtered through an intricate network of gendered socio-cultural and political structures, into what I shall be referring to as 'the poetics of loss'" (8). While acknowledging the history of Greek studies in Victorian Britain, and the association of loss with psychoanalysis, he chooses to concentrate on the complexity of Woolf's position as a modernist and an intellectual at the turn of the twentieth century. Her Greek studies fostered a language in which she mourned not only the death of family members but the loss of educational opportunities and the carnage of two world wars, so that mourning became part of her identity as a woman of letters. Koulouris acknowledges theories of the modernist subject in the notes, while concentrating the body of his argument on a reading of Woolf's work in an historical context. The book studies what might be called Woolf's subject position, that he prefers to call an aesthetic of Greekness "somewhere between her life and text" (17).

The argument proceeds on several fronts. In Part I, "Loss in the Making," Koulouris examines Woolf's relationship to her parents and to Thoby, and notes that her Greek studies began after the deaths of her mother and of Stella. After several years of study her knowledge of Greek made her social position problematic. He makes good use of the anecdote from Moments of Being in which Woolf recalls being escorted by George Duckworth to a dinner with Lady Carnarvon, where her discourse on Plato and the emotions brought the conversation and the evening to a halt. Koulouris writes of "her justified impatience to express herself in a discipline with which she had been occupying herself for five years" (167). As a result she was neither the properly silent Victorian young woman, nor did she have the credentials to enter a profession. The hegemony of British Hellenism in the church as well as the university diffused it throughout British culture, where it often served as a kind of congratulatory self-recognition. Although Woolf's position was not unlike that of several of her female characters, in that she endured the loss of educational opportunities justified by the use of Greek to refuse women admission to the university, as an artist she transformed that position. "Woolf's informal study of Greek was a constitutive factor in the crystallization of a poetics of 'loss,' a poetics in which Greek is both, and at the same time, an agent of (sociocultural) exclusion and an instrument of textual and intellectual fulfillment" (99). This is the thesis of Koulouris' book.

Part II, Chapter three, "The Greekness between Life and Text," addresses the question, how was Woolf able to transform nineteenth-century Hellenism into the poetics of "Greekness" ? He first explores Woolf's problematic relationship to members of the Bloomsbury group, and identifies the tension that underlay her relationship with the men who had been trained at Cambridge as epistemological. That is, although Koulouris sides with Roger Poole in defending Woolf's powers of mind, he sees her occasional display of elitism (her refusal on occasion to translate) as acceptance of Victorian patterns of thought at the same time as she worked to subvert them.

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