Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

A Thoroughly Modern Melancholia: Virginia Woolf, Author, Daughter

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

A Thoroughly Modern Melancholia: Virginia Woolf, Author, Daughter

Article excerpt

But why was I bored? Partly because of the dominance of the letter 'I' and the aridity, which, like the giant beech tree, it casts within its shade. Nothing will grow there.

--Virginia Woolf, AROO 96

Elaine Showalter writes in A Literature of Their Own, "It is customary to make Leslie Stephen the heavy in Virginia Woolf's personal drama" (266). Woolf's feminism, Jane Marcus notes in her introduction to New Feminist Essays on Virginia Woolf, "is too often lightly assumed ... a traditional form of rebellion against a Victorian father's oppression" (xii-xx, xix). However, if Leslie Stephen's role in Virginia Woolf's identification of herself as an author and a feminist is examined, rather than codified and solidified as a singularly dark patriarchal archetype of paternal possession, aggression, and suppression, the figure and authorship of Virginia Woolf are opened to alternative re-readings. Despite Sara Ruddick's cheerful assertion in "Private Brother, Public World" that "We have always welcomed attention to the powerful effect fathers have on their daughters' lives" (185), the figure of Leslie Stephen has been too easily dismissed as a crippled temperamental tyrant, rather than examined in its possible relationship to the formulation of Virginia Woolf's identity as an author. (1) Allowing that the figure Leslie Stephen was a significant, sometimes tempestuous and possibly damaging force in Woolf's psychological landscape does not preclude the possibility that Woolf did more than merely crumple or simply rebel in the face of that force.

In "As Miss Jan Says" Louise DeSalvo contends that, because of Woolf's propensity for situating people within historical categories, she could not see her father as an individual man; "he became representative, to her, of the archetypal Victorian father, with all the difficulties inherent in that historical type" (106). Perhaps it might be more accurate to suggest that Leslie Stephen has become representative to critics (2) of the dark archetypal Victorian father. Admittedly, we, like Woolf, may not always be comfortable with that which was learned "at her father's knee," with the student/pupil dialectic, or the patrilineal model it evokes. Perhaps we must agree with Woolf when she drolly suggests in "Miss Mitford," "That is the worst of writing about ladies; they have fathers as well as teapots" (195). (3) However, facing the "worst" and rereading Leslie Stephen as an influential model of the author in Woolf's texts allows us to glimpse the ways in which the narrating subject of those texts perceives the role of author.

One way of approaching Woolf's relationship with her father is through theories of object relations and one way of approaching theories of object relations is to read those theories through Virginia Woolf's relationship with her father. Rather than simply applying a stock psychoanalytic model to Woolf, and cutting and pasting until she fits, what I hope to do is to explore the ways in which several psychoanalytic texts, for the most part Freud's, can be used to give an understanding of Woolf's texts, as well as the ways in which Woolf's texts offer an interesting perspective on Freud's theories of object relations. Freud and Woolf wrote contemporaneously, and both dealt with interiority in ways that were innovative and had lingering impact upon the ways we read and understand both literature and generational dynamics today. In "Modern Fiction" Woolf contends that,

   For the moderns ... the point of interest, lies very likely in the
   dark places of psychology. At once, therefore, the accent falls a
   little differently; the emphasis is upon something hitherto
   ignored; at once a different outline of form becomes necessary,
   difficult for us to grasp, incomprehensible to our predecessors....
   The emphasis is laid upon such unexpected places that at first it
   seems as if there were no emphasis at all; and then, as one's eyes
   accustom themselves to twilight and discern the shapes of things in
   a room we see how complete the story is, how profound. … 
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