Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

History's Child: Virginia Woolf, Heritage, and Historical Consciousness

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

History's Child: Virginia Woolf, Heritage, and Historical Consciousness

Article excerpt

I felt as a gipsy or a child feels who stands at the flap of the tent and sees the circus going on inside.

Virginia Woolf, "A Sketch of the Past" 152-53

Orphans is what I say we are--we Georgians--but I must stop.

Virginia Woolf, "Letter to Janet Case," 1922 (1)

This article argues that Woolf's juvenilia, youthful diaries, and early fiction depict her lifelong struggle with questions of national, cultural, and ethnic inheritance. The author suggests that the peculiarities and contradictions of Woolf's familial and Victorian upbringing, and her youthful experiences of modernizing change in the social and physical landscape, permanently affected Woolf's understanding of history and historiographic impulses and attitudes.


As scholars have noted, and as the author herself frequently confessed in her writings, Virginia Woolf (nee Stephen) considered herself an outsider throughout her life. (2) Her Victorian girlhood and inability to obtain the education that was afforded her brothers initially inspired this feeling of social alienation. Experiences of domestic entrapment and enclosure are central to the conventional aspects of Woolfs childhood. (3) However, Woolfs genius as a writer, historical observer, and critic can also be attributed to the strange contradictions of her life, and especially her childhood. The self-described outsider was steeped in English traditions and raised to pride herself in her family's heritage, and Woolf was both dubious about, and proud of, ethnic and ancestral claims of genius. The Stephen family was one of the 'extraordinary' family lines included in Sir Francis Galton's ethnological study Hereditary Genius: An Inquiry into its Laws and Consequences (1870); the Victorian interest in biography and biology, in heritage and eugenics is part of Woolf's educational, familial, and cultural inheritance. (4) Despite her depictions of her cloistered youth, the domesticated young Victorian angel was also an unusually liberated child. Woolf was given access to her father's extensive library; she was raised in a stridently agnostic household; (5) and she was encouraged to be an artist and performer.

This article was inspired by this critic's partial resistance to Woolf s narrative of alienation, and by my desire to understand the origins of Woolfs feelings of 'outsider-ness' in a more productive way, a way that challenged Woolf's solipsism, self-pity, and her tendency to diminish and depreciate her own class and cultural privileges. Despite Woolf's declared outsider's position, her life and work reflect, instead, processes of strenuous negotiation. In a sense, Woolf wrestles with her childhood enthrallment with her own national heritage, class, and culture. Her childhood skepticism about history and the role that it plays in public and private life gradually lead her to the adult realization that the glamor of the past cannot sustain her. Woolf also recognizes that fantasy and imagination are central to cherished historical memories and the possibilities of creating a future that is not dependent on a glorified mythic past.

Representation of Woolf's Childhood

However sequestered she was in the household and family library, Woolf was free to explore and roam as a reader; she once described reading as "the removal of all restrictions." (6) Woolf read adult books, Victorian children's penny papers like Tit Bits, and Punch magazines. She enjoyed family jaunts to parks and ponds, and interrupted serious study to attend Gilbert and Sullivan plays and other commonplace entertainments for upper-middle-class Victorian children. (7) While much has been made of Woolf's long-term battles with mental illness and depression, her attempts at self-destruction and eventual suicide, far less attention has been paid to the vitality of her sense of humor, imagination, and sense of play. I certainly do not want to discount the seriousness of Woolf's experiences with chronic illness, or the history of her difficulties with doctors and the grotesque inadequacies of Victorian notions of mental illness and health; Woolf's valiant struggles to maintain her equilibrium have been widely analyzed and discussed. …

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