Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Taking Note: Text and Context in Virginia Woolf's "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown"

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Taking Note: Text and Context in Virginia Woolf's "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown"

Article excerpt

Virginia Woolf's essay "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" now stands as one of her most well known aesthetic statements. (1) In it she argues that the contemporary world demands a new form of fiction--one that strives to capture the essence of the modern character, even though this necessitates inventing a new form of writing. The essay appears in such groupings as the Collected Essays volumes, Andrew McNeillie's The Essays of Virginia Woolf, and anthologies like The Virginia Woolf Reader. (2) All three of these contexts introduce Woolf as a fully canonized author, and the essay becomes, therefore, a part of her copious oeuvre and is representative of one aspect of her equally plentiful talent. These settings influence our reading of the piece, most prominently through their emphasis on its generic affiliations (especially in the Collected Essays and the McNeillie collection, but also in the Reader, in which selections are grouped according to genre). Mitchell Leaska's preface to the Reader offers additional direction, for he describes "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" as "one of her consistently controversial shorter essays" (viii). The commentary preceding the piece further highlights the polemics: after an admirable description of the essay's publication history, which describes its original function as a defense against Arnold Bennett's critique of Woolf's fiction, Leaska names it a "kind of literary manifesto" and an obloquy against the "novels of the earlier generation" (192). The Virginia Woolf Reader proves an apt title, for Leaska--as do all editors--provides us with his own reading of the text.

Though Leaska, an expert on Woolf who seems aware of his weighty editorial responsibility to designate "best work," may be an ideal guide, his direction unavoidably obscures the control Woolf asserted over her text and its interpretation. (3) An exploration of the different editions of the essay published in Woolf's lifetime illuminates a network of alternative interpretive codes unavailable to the present day reader. As George Bornstein illustrates in "How to Read a Page: Modernism and Material Textuality," the bibliographic codes--the "semantic features of material instantiations" (30) that include the organ of publication, time of publication, placement in the publication, surrounding graphics, and layout--determine the work's meaning as fully as the linguistic codes. Therefore, the context informs interpretation as much as the words on the page.

In the versions printed during Woolf's lifetime, beginning with the Criterion publication, the essay includes a note stating: "A paper read to the Heretics, Cambridge, on May 18, 1924." Though Leaska diligently lists this oral event in his commentary preceding the essay, his notation conveys little of the note's impact and none of its interpretive pressure. Yet Woolf's decision (and the acquiescence of other editors, even in its New York Herald Tribune edition) to leave the note in all publications following the speech indicates that it performs an essential role and cannot be omitted without altering the essay. (4) In fact, the note, as a vital textual feature, profoundly influences interpretation, especially in relation to contexts that politicize, historicize, or aestheticize the text. Concomitantly, the different contexts of publication also transform the meaning and function of the note, as well as of the whole essay. My inquiry will trace the manifestations in Woolf's lifetime of "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" in order to reveal the contextual and textual ways in which Woolf and the organs in which she published directed interpretation and dealt with the text as an aesthetic object enmeshed in history. The note will prove an integral, though not isolated example of the importance of reading text and context, as I analyze the bibliographic and linguistic changes in the essay's publication trajectory: from a brief defense in the Nation & Athenaeum, to a speech for the Heretics society, to an appearance in the Criterion, to pamphlet form with the Hogarth Press, to a reprint in the New York Herald Tribune, and finally as the leading essay in the 1928 Doubleday compilation of The Hogarth Essays. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.