Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Loving Maidens and Patriarchal Mothers: Revisions of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Cymbeline in Mrs. Dalloway

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

Loving Maidens and Patriarchal Mothers: Revisions of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter and Cymbeline in Mrs. Dalloway

Article excerpt

Lost maidenhood and the crossing of the borders of Hades are allegorical equivalents--the one can stand for the other equally well. This kind of equivalence only exists in a given sphere, in an immediately recognizable spiritual connection that can combine very different things, such as marriage and death, in one comprehensive idea. Mythological ideas are like the compact buds of such connections. They always contain more than the non-mythological mind could conceive. This is also true of the Kore [...]

C. Kerenyi, Essays on a Science of Mythology 109

I have long thought about where fascism begins. It does not begin when the first bombs are dropped, nor with the terror that can be written about in every newspaper. It begins in the relations between a man and a woman, and I have tried to say [...] here in this society there is always war.

Ingeborg Bachmann, Gesprache und Interviews 144 (my translation)

Written a few years after the end of World War I, Mrs. Dalloway imagines the complexities of a future for Britain in the aftermath of soul-numbing destruction. As she makes clear in A Room of One's Own and Three Guineas, Woolf understood war as intimately connected to patriarchal forms of domination and envisioned a renewal of life for Britain in feminist terms. Woolf's practice of engaging with earlier literary models is well-documented by critics like Jane de Gay, and her engagement with the Greeks in particular is explored by Emily Dalgarno in Virginia Woolf and the Visible World. (1) Several literary texts are alluded to in Mrs. Dalloway, but here I would like to focus on revisions to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter, which, when framed by references to Cymbeline, open a complex feminist response to the aftermath of World War I.

Woolf knew that reading the Greeks was not an apolitical activity or cultural ideal, and she read and borrowed from the Greeks in ways that were explicitly and implicitly tied to a political agenda, as she does here with her revisions of the Homeric Hymn to Demeter. Proper "knowledge" of Greek was closed to women in her time, given their exclusion from institutions like Cambridge and Oxford. As Christine Kenyon Jones and Anna Snaith have recently shown, Woolf took courses in Greek, as well as many other subjects, at King's College Ladies' Department. (2) She also received years of tutoring in Greek from Clara Pater and Janet Case (who is sometimes credited with introducing Woolf to the feminist cause) and knew Greek well enough to translate the Agamemnon. While such a base of knowledge is likely to convince the contemporary reader that Woolf did know Greek, proper knowledge of Greek still functioned, at that time, as a mark of membership in an elite boys' club. In this context, her claim, in "On Not Knowing Greek," that no modern can "know" Greek is set as a challenge to the exclusionary identity of the "Oxbridge" elite formed through the exclusion of women. That essay, written while she was working on Mrs. Dalloway, exemplifies the radicalism Emily Dalgarno argues for: that Woolf conceived of studying the Greeks as a radical move, challenging patriarchal epistemology and militarism. Beyond her first-hand experience with Greek texts, much of Woolf's knowledge of the Greeks came through Jane Harrison's feminist presentation of them, and we see Harrison's radical interpretations of archaic material throughout Woolf's fiction and particularly in her revisions to the Homeric Hymn to Demeter.

Like reading Greek, the novel combines the mundane with the politically charged. The London of Mrs. Dalloway, while overflowing with grief and mourning for the dead, is also a London in which ordinary people buy flowers for parties and old friends greet one another on the street. Life continues, in all its joy and cruelty, deformity and grace, in the wake of the war that changed the modern world. The novel seems preoccupied with personal trivialities. Its main character, whose name the novel bears, spends much of the novel thinking back to a summer in her youth, musing about her isolation and fear of growing old, dwelling on petty jealousies and vanities. …

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