Academic journal article CLIO

The Character in the House: Virginia Woolf in Dialogue with History's Audience

Academic journal article CLIO

The Character in the House: Virginia Woolf in Dialogue with History's Audience

Article excerpt

   The historians work from the outer to the inner; from the house they infer
   the tenant of the house.(1)

   But we cannot hear her mother's voice, or Hilda's voice; we can only hear
   Mr Bennett's voice telling us facts about rents and freeholds and copyholds
   and fines. What can Mr Bennett be about? I have formed my own opinion of
   what Mr Bennett is about--he is trying to make us imagine for him; he is
   trying to hypnotise us into the belief that, because he has made a house,
   there must be a person living there.(2)

   At any rate, we are left out, and history, in our opinion, lacks an eye.(3)

As early as 1904, Virginia Woolf's essay reviews indicate that many recorders of past experience are, as she will later say of Arnold Bennett, "trying to hypnotise us into the belief that, because [they have] made a house, there must be a person living there." Most biographers and historians whom Woolf reviews for the Guardian, the Times Literary Supplement, and the Cornhill Magazine between 1904 and 1910(4) offer an accumulation of material facts without creating for the reader a sense of the individuals alive within those material contexts--their histories cannot capture the elusive, complex "Mrs. Brown," any more than the Edwardian fiction of Mr. Bennett can. Presenting experience from an objective position which belies their necessarily subjective view of the past, such historians fail to account for the role the imagination must play--and according to Woolf should play--in re-presenting the past for a contemporary audience.

Woolf's early reviews of biographies, collected letters, memoirs, and travel narratives serve as occasions to formulate the goals of a history and establish the key terms for her later and better-known criticisms of contemporary fiction in "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown" (1923). For Woolf, story and history alike are successful only when the reader can re-experience the embodied subjectivity of individual impressions, as well as the material context of those impressions. In her essay reviews, Woolf anticipates and proleptically criticizes more recent theoretical articulations of the contesting, multiple voices of the past by proposing a particular kind of dialogic historiography, one which recovers what established histories often elide: the embodied voice necessary for the constitution of character. The success of the dialogic narrative Woolf increasingly favors for the writing of history--a dialogic narrative which will in turn become her method for the writing of fiction--hinges on the audience's active relationship to the discursive representation of embodied experience. The explicitly dramatic relationship between audience, author, and text staged in her final novel Between the Acts (1940) is therefore not without a history of its own in Woolf's narrative theories and practice. Woolf explores the dialogue between reader and author across the pages of a book from the beginning of her literary career until her final project left unfinished at the time of her death: a history of literature's audience for the common reader, Reading at Random.

Woolf's continued concerns with history's and literature's audiences and her emphasis on embodied exchange between writer and reader both differentiate her dialogic theory from those of other intellectual historians and identify her feminist materialist goals. My discussion begins by looking at the dialogic historiography of Dominick LaCapra in order to throw into relief the theory that implicitly structures Woolf's early reviews; the early short fiction "The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn" (1906) explicitly calls for and enacts this theory of dialogic exchange between historian, historical text, and history's audience, anticipating the better known A Room of One's Own (1929). I turn next to Woolf's concurrent attempts to realize this dialogism in the travel sketches of her journals--narrative accounts of her own history--as she drafts her first novel, The Voyage Out (1915). …

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