Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

"The Utmost Fluidity Exists with the Utmost Permanence": Virginia Woolf's Un-Victorian Sterne

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

"The Utmost Fluidity Exists with the Utmost Permanence": Virginia Woolf's Un-Victorian Sterne

Article excerpt

Throughout her career as a writer, in both her critical and fictional work, Virginia Woolf repeatedly discloses her fascination with the literary past and seeks new ways in which to make it seem fresh to her early twentieth-century readers, using it both as a site of historical investigation and as a source of fictional inspiration. My concern here is to address how Woolf's keen interest in the eighteenth-century author Laurence Sterne and his work, principally The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman (1759-67) and A Sentimental Journey through France and Italy (1768), shapes her critical and her creative ambitions. Woolf's enjoyment of this period of literature sits alongside that of her contemporaries, Beth Rosenberg noting that "The Bloomsbury group as a whole had a strong affinity to the eighteenth century" (xv); while Woolf captures the vibrancy of its everyday life in Orlando, Lytton Strachey describes this "epoch" as one of "the enchanted islands of delight and repose" ("Pope, Addison, Steele and Swift" 11). Yet they also share this interest with the generation of readers and critics that immediately preceded their own; here, I shall examine how the complex relationship of inheritance and rebellion Woolf experienced with the Victorians, and especially with Leslie Stephen, can be fruitfully explored by comparing their writings about Sterne. Woolf's re-evaluation of Sterne's literary legacy, achieved through engaging with and reformulating the opinions put forth by some amongst her father's generation, becomes essential to the modernist enterprise she pursues as an independent author of fiction.

Earlier commentaries addressing Sterne's possible influence on Woolf now seem outdated in the light of more recent critical advances in the study of her relation with the literary past, (1) such as Juliet Dusinberre's focus on sixteenth and seventeenth-century writers in Virginia Woolf's Renaissance, and Anne E. Fernald's Virginia Woolf: Feminism and the Reader. Fernald chooses an eighteenth-century subject for one of her case studies, addressing how Woolf adapts Joseph Addison's spectatorial model of criticism to assert her own position as a woman of letters writing for the periodical press (2, 98, 113). Two other pertinent reference points for this essay are Rosenberg's Virginia Woolf and Samuel Johnson: Common Readers and Jane de Gay's Virginia Woolf's Novels and the Literary Past. Rosenberg discusses Woolf's relation to "literary tradition" and the importance of Leslie Stephen's role in its mediation, with a particular focus on Samuel Johnson (xv-xx). De Gay, meanwhile, sets out clearly how Woolf connected to a literary past that included her immediate predecessors, amongst them her father, and creatively renegotiated the reading obtained through these complicated access routes in her fiction (3). De Gay presents Woolf's relation with Stephen as one characterized by both inspiration and resistance (12-15, passim); the scope of her study, however, does not permit a thorough analysis of the points of contact and of departure between Stephen and Woolf's critical writings on Sterne that she touches upon (136-8). I shall adopt and expand upon De Gay's approach in discussing how Woolf and Stephen's interest in Sterne is necessarily linked; as Gillian Beer points out, "Woolf did not eschew her father's pleasures, reading Sterne particularly with admiration" (95), while by resisting certain key aspects of his critique she moulds her re-evaluation into a model for her own fiction.

Miriam L. Wallace's "Thinking Back Through Our Others: Rereading Sterne and Resisting Joyce in The Waves," is clearly important to this discussion. Wallace makes a convincing case for examining Sterne's importance to Woolf as a source of inspiration both for her criticism and her fiction (196). However, Wallace's essay to some extent shares the shortcomings of feminist approaches to studying Woolf's relation to the literary past, such as Dusinberre's and Fernald's, by allowing a heavily gendered reading to inflict a lack of sensitivity toward both the texts Woolf read and how she wrote about them. …

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