Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

"'Myself'-It Was Impossible": Queering History in between the Acts

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

"'Myself'-It Was Impossible": Queering History in between the Acts

Article excerpt

One becomes aware that we are spectators and also passive participants in a pageant.--"The Moment: Summer's Night."

   Come hither to our festival (she continued)
   This is a pageant, all may see
   Drawn from our island history.
   England am I ...

   --Between the Acts

In 1940, as the history that would become World War II is exploding around her, Virginia Woolf is occupied with death: she and Leonard are contemplating suicide while bombs are falling on London; (1) she is finishing the biography of her deceased friend Roger Fry while beginning her own memoirs; she is attempting to end a novel (Between the Acts) that, being set in 1939 with war on the horizon, is already concluded by world events. Her diary on Saturday, 22 June, 1940 portrays her preoccupation with endings and her inclination to view the present moment through the potential of her death in the near future:

I feel, if this is my last lap, oughtn't I to read Shakespeare? But cant. I feel oughtn't I to finish off P.H. [abbreviation for Pointz Hall, the working title for Between the Acts]: oughtn't I to finish something by way of an end? The end gives its vividness, even its gaiety & recklessness to the random daily life. This, I thought yesterday, may be my last walk.... And now dinner to cook. A role. (D5 298)

Distinguishing the life of thought captured in her diary from the life of domestic duties awaiting her, Woolf alludes to the performative nature of her identity; in the script of her life, there seems to be more than one role to play. One Virginia Woolf muses upon the prospect of her own death; she considers her final walk and what she should be reading if this truly is her "last lap." The other Woolf, acknowledged at the end of this entry, is the woman who, regardless of impending death, must continue to play the roles required by family, marriage, and society. Implicit in this entry is Woolf's understanding that much of what composes her own history is a performance of identity, a product of the roles she plays.

Considering what it means to write a life as death closes in around her, she exposes the presence and function of performance. In the Fry biography, she struggles with what it means to write a life and a history. The experience of writing Fry's life colors her thoughts concerning her own: "Who was I then?" she writes of herself in "A Sketch of the Past" (65). Reflecting upon her personal history, Woolf recognizes the performance of self, how different selves compose the history of one's life, and how very queer it is to realize just how much of one's history is performative: "Queer, when its so tame after all, a book coming out, why one writes them? How much part does 'coming out' play in the pleasure of writing then? Each one accumulates a little of the fictitious V. W. whom I carry like a mask about the world" (D5 307). (2) As I will suggest, Woolf's sense of queer reaches beyond the literal meaning of this 1940 diary entry as she negotiates the relationship between performance, self, and history in Between the Acts.

Although world war, death, and the task of life-writing illuminate for Woolf in 1940 the presence of masks and the function of performance in history--personal and otherwise--such concerns have inflected her thoughts and writings throughout her career. Much earlier in her life, "apprenticed to the writing of history, not literature" (Westman 3), Woolf articulates the masked nature of history--revealed as queer in 1940--in her essay "Modes and Manners of the Nineteenth Century" (a review of a book with that title). In this 1910 essay, Woolf is concerned with the representation of large histories, of nations, epochs, and centuries, through the study of markers--masks--of social identity: modes and manners. However, an echo in her confession that there is a "fictitious V. W." whom she carries like a "mask about the world," is what she explains about history in this essay written thirty years earlier: "history is not a history of ourselves, but of our disguises" (E1 334). …

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