The Bloomsbury Enlightenment Project

By Henke, Suzette | Twentieth Century Literature, Fall 2008 | Go to article overview

The Bloomsbury Enlightenment Project

Henke, Suzette, Twentieth Century Literature

Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Avant-Garde: War, Civilization, Modernity

by Christine Froula

New York: Columbia University Press, 2005 (paperback 2007). 428 pages

Christine Froula's scholarship has done much to transform modernist studies at the millennium and to encourage teachers and scholars to re-conceptualize the "received truths" that aggregate around high modernism. Her work on James Joyce has revolutionized pedagogical approaches to this canonical giant of Irish studies, and more recently she has made a successful attempt to demolish stereotyped images of Virginia Woolf as the haughty, aristocratic, tea-pouring Queen of Bloomsbury.

Countermanding prevalent notions of a Bloomsbury aesthetic spawned by the late-nineteenth-century "art for art's sake" movement, Froula turns to social and political tenets emergent from the eighteenth-century Enlightenment project configured by Kant in Germany and by revolutionary, encyclopedic philosophers of human freedom in France. The Bloomsbury group, she insists, "carried forward and made new the Enlightenment project's self-critical and emancipatory force" (xii). Politically engaged and intellectually astute, Woolf distinguished herself "as powerfully analytic, critical, and imaginative a proponent as the Englightment project has had in the last century" (xii). Able to connect the high ideals of civilization with issues of class discrimination, racial bigotry, and a viciously unfair sex/gender economy, this Bloomsbury author functioned as spokesperson for the evolution of a sensus communis demanding the production of a heretofore unimagined "civilization that has never existed" (xiii). With John Maynard Keynes, Lytton Strachey, Leonard Woolf, and Sigmund Freud numbered among her mentors, Woolf reacted to the inequities residual in Europe after the Great War and analyzed, Cassandra-like, patriarchal and authoritarian forces that inadvertently colluded with the rise of fascism in Europe during the 1930s. Never had the causes of freedom, democracy, and women's rights been so imperiled and so little understood. Beset by unendurable personal losses and overwhelming cultural trauma, Woolf persisted in the "struggle to forge common values" (32) in a brave new world whose "now global public" was being summoned to intellectual arms. In A Room of One's Own, writes Froula, she "opens the door to a public arena and calls women-as-civilization's-creatures to speak on equal terms" (32).

In chapter 2, "Rachel's Great War," Froula contends that Woolf self-consciously "sailed her first heroine, Rachel Vinrace, through a gap in empire" (37) to challenge Joseph Conrad's 1899 novella Heart of Darkness and its astonishing if unquestioned assumption that "men and women collaborate in history's lies and delusions, which persist under the sign of Eros" (37). If Rachel seems raw and uninitiated, her adolescent demeanor reflects the diminished resources of a girl whose education has been confined to sporadic tutorial sessions punctuating a life of sheltered ignorance in the company of two well-meaning Victorian aunts. Pleading for entrance into the male academy of learning, she remains naively unaware that the Oxbridge door to education may lead to a claustrophobic tunnel of misogynist, racist, and imperialistic values. Woolf's Voyage Out distinguishes itself as a profoundly self-conscious postcolonial narrative, critical of European imperialism and subsequent efforts to tame the savage heathen--from Renaissance voyages of conquest to twentieth-century global capitalism.

The last Victorian bastion to collapse in The Voyage Out is the institution of marriage. Rachel Vinrace and Terence Hewet are both fiercely independent spirits, jealous of their privacy and contemptuous of conventional wedlock. In the jungles of South America they begin to construct an egalitarian relationship and momentarily forge an amorous affiliation exempt from the exigencies of conjugal masquerade. …

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