Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

A Driving Bloomsbury: Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and the Meaning of the Motor-Car

Academic journal article Woolf Studies Annual

A Driving Bloomsbury: Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, and the Meaning of the Motor-Car

Article excerpt

The materialization of modernity in literary, aural, and visual forms has been recognized in its corollary: modernism's expression through both mass-marketed and bespoke consumer goods. In the shift of critical attention to this dynamic interplay between cultural registers, the motor-car has emerged as a signifier not just of technological innovation, individualism, and accelerated motion, but of modernist experience itself. In its status as commodity, it speaks to the liberating aspects of early twentieth-century consumerism, representing an appeal to an "affordable individual mobility" (Daly 114) that promises the crossing of social lines. It is no coincidence that Orlando's fast-paced shopping trip to Marshall & Snelgrove's in "the present moment" is enabled by an automobile: "She ran downstairs, she jumped into her motor-car, she pressed the self-starter and was off" (284, 285). As her driving demonstrates, the car is a form of personalized, mechanized speed that enables the modern subject "to experience space in a new way" (Duffy 19), that changes "the mode of organization of human sensory perception" (Minow-Pinkney 178), and that alters "subject/object relations" (Goldman 51). By thus mediating "new forms of perceptual experience" (Sim 122), the motor-car "grounds a more abstract sense of flux and change that many modernist writers attempted to articulate in their texts" (Thacker 8), where the physical and cognitive shifts with which the automobile is associated are reflected in the artistic experimentations of the day.

There is a tension, of course, between the motor-car as a privileged "metaphor for modernity" (Thoms, Holden, and Clayton 1) and the motor-car as an object that is itself open to interpretation. To regard motoring in the early twentieth century as a singular experience or universal aesthetic is to overlook the meaning of a given car: the significance of its engine, chassis, and coachwork; of its styling, ornamentation, and interior; of the marque, model, and year, all of which determine the vehicle's socioeconomic and cultural implications. The specifics of that given vehicle's use--the roads driven or tracks raced; the physical demands of driving according to the car and the conditions; the legal particulars of production, importation, taxation, and ownership; the cost of tires, petrol, parking, maintenance, insurance, accidents, and so on--further situate motoring as a complex interplay of experiences, associations, and desires that vary according to time, place, manufacturer, owner, driver, and automobile. In other words, while motor-car production "came to stand as a symbol of manufacturing industry" in the interwar period (Benson 39) and to represent one of "the two most spectacular consequences of the second industrial (or techno-scientific) revolution" (Trotter, "Techno-Primitivism" 151), the local, material histories of actual vehicles complicate the car's identification as a general reference point for the processes and outcomes of modernization.

Because the significance of the automobile shifts according to contexts of use, it invokes significantly different connotations within the same cultural moment. Through these various affiliations--with mechanical innovation, with new experiences and perceptions, with modernist experimentation, with early twentieth-century commodity culture, with performed identities, with the feelings that arise at driving and being driven, with the affective dimensions of advertisement and patriotic landscapes--motor-cars link what only appear to be dissimilar elements of modernity. In so doing, they illuminate a pattern of discourses through which the vehicles are understood, and whose stakes are enunciated with terrible clarity in the military applications of what is ostensibly civilian technology. The companies that enabled interwar Britain to drive are the same companies that produced aeroplane engines, small arms, and armoured vehicles during World War One,2 and that developed new adaptations of automotive machines for the Spanish Civil War and World War Two. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.