Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

The Belated History of Woolf and Jews

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

The Belated History of Woolf and Jews

Article excerpt

Woolf Studies, like modernist studies in general, has come late to the study of history. By this I do not refer to the study of archives or influence, nor the digitization of primary sources, but to our investigations of historical method and our assumptions regarding the construction of historical narrative, something Woolf herself was concerned with. Renaissance, eighteenth-century, and Victorian studies crossed this threshold decades ago, opening the way for various interpretations of representation and culture. Michel Foucault's theories and the New Historical method that followed have become alternatives to positivistic models of history. Foucault has allowed scholars in these other fields to understand history not only through event, but through language. My claim here is that Woolf Studies, if it is to fully articulate the impact of Jews and Jewishness on Woolf's writing and modernism as a whole, must allow for this alternative method. It must move beyond a reading that holds Woolf solely accountable for her self-determined aesthetic and ethical choices, for her published and unpublished antisemitic language, without considering the cultural history that contributed to her intellectual growth and development.

In regard to Woolf and Jews, scholars have focused on or grounded their arguments in historical events and personalities, such as World War II, the rise of Hitler, British fascist movements, and political activism (Bradshaw, Hargreaves, Lassner, Leick, Linett). Criticism begins with Woolf's work of the 1930s, particularly The Years and "The Duchess and the Jeweller," or deals with her marriage to the Jewish Leonard Woolf and her complicated relationship with him (Rosenfeld, Schroder, Wilson). If her early life is considered at all, it is to develop a narrative that leads teleologically to the 1930s and 40s (Trubowitz).

However, Woolf's 1912 letters demonstrate Woolf had already configured a notion of the Jew and how the Jew functions within her society and culture. For example, her letters to Violet Dickinson, Madge Vaughan, and Janet Case, upon her engagement to Leonard, reflect a full awareness of the cultural response to the "penniless" Jew. She writes that she must "insist upon [Dickinson's] liking him too," and that she "couldn't bear it if' her friends "disapproved" of her husband (L1 500); to Vaughan she writes that she doesn't mean "there to be any lapse in [their] friendship" (L1 500), and to Case she comments, "I want you to like him" (L1 501). It is clear her engagement to the Jewish Leonard caused Woolf a great deal of anxiety. These early and brief utterances, even though private and not meant for public presentation, are embedded in a thick context of discussion surrounding Jews and Jewishness in fin de siecle Britain. …

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