Hellenism and Loss in the Work of Virginia Woolf

Hellenism and Loss in the Work of Virginia Woolf

Hellenism and Loss in the Work of Virginia Woolf

Hellenism and Loss in the Work of Virginia Woolf


Taking up Virginia Woolf's fascination with Greek literature and culture, this book explores her engagement with the nineteenth-century phenomenon of British Hellenism and her transformation of that multifaceted socio-cultural and political reality into a particular textual aesthetic, which Theodore Koulouris defines as 'Greekness.' Woolf was a lifelong student of Greek, but from 1907 to1909 she kept notes on her Greek readings in the Greek Notebook, an obscure and largely unexamined manuscript that contains her analyses of a number of canonical Greek texts, including Plato's Symposium, Homer's Odyssey, and Euripides' Ion. Koulouris's examination of this manuscript uncovers crucial insights into the early development of Woolf's narrative styles and helps establish the link between Greekness and loss. Woolf's 'Greekness,' Koulouris argues, enabled her to navigate male and female appropriations of British Hellenism and provided her with a means of articulating loss, whether it be loss of a great Hellenic past, women's vocality, immediate family members, or human civilization during the formative decades of the twentieth century. In drawing attention to the centrality of Woolf's early Greek studies for the elegiac quality of her writing, Koulouris maps a new theoretical terrain that involves reassessing long-established views on Woolf and the Greeks.


Entirely aware of their own standing in the shadow, and yet alive to every tremor
and gleam of existence, there they endure, and it is to the Greeks that we turn
when we are sick of the vagueness, of the confusion, of the Christianity and its
consolations, of our own age.

My interest in Virginia Woolf’s fascination with Greece was triggered, perhaps rather unfittingly, during a rainy undergraduate morning at the library whilst I was reading her third novel, Jacob’s Room (1922). In it, Jacob travels to Greece and declares ‘what is Greek for if not to be shouted on Haverstock Hill in the dawn?’ followed by ‘the tragedy 19s only novel to contain Greek references: ‘He saw her at the end of the line, Greek, blue-eyed, straight-nosed …. The Graces assembling seemed to have joined hands in meadows of asphodel to compose that face’, she writes of Mrs Ramsay in To the Lighthouse (1927). perhaps her most renowned work. Having read that, I got up; the Virginia Woolf section of the library was a couple of paces from my seat. I walked to the shelf, picked a volume of her diaries and leafed through the index. The entries made it very clear: ‘Aeschylus’, ‘Antigone’, ‘Aristotle’, ‘Greece’, ‘Greeks, the’, ‘Homer’. Oedipus Tyrannus’, ‘Plato’, ‘The Symposium, of’, ‘Sophocles’ and so forth. Immediately, I was engulfed by a heart-warming intellectual elation, the same kind, I am sure, countless scholars experience at some point during the course of their undergraduate life; not only had I discovered that I really enjoyed Woolf’s fiction, but I had also discovered what she had enjoyed reading when she was my age. And all that on a day during which the weather could not make up its mind.

As I have discovered since that fateful morning, a large number of critics, researchers, and literary scholars have underscored Woolf’s interest in Greek. In fact, many of them have written books in which her Greek influences figure prominently. In the early nineteen-seventies, Carolyn Heilbrun examined the androgynous nature of the Bloomsbury group whilst Nancy ToppingBazinfollowed with another work on the same subject, in the same year. Both works explore Woolf’s interest in Greek – the former, for instance, juxtaposes the Bloomsbury group with the classical Athenian society in respect of what Heilbrun considers to be a smooth coexistence between ‘male’ and ‘female’ impulses in Woolf’s circle. In

CR I, 38.

JR, 63, 124.

TL, 34.

Carolyn Heilbrun, Towards Androgyny (1973); Nancy Topping Bazin, Virginia Woolf and the Androgynous Vision (1973).

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