Places, People and Time Passing: Virginia Woolf's Haunted Houses

By Wisker, Gina | Hecate, May 2011 | Go to article overview

Places, People and Time Passing: Virginia Woolf's Haunted Houses


Wisker, Gina, Hecate


    House property was the common ground from which the Edwardians found
it
   easy to proceed to intimacy. (1)
   It ended in a transcendental theory which with her horror of death,
   allowed her to believe, or say she believed (for all her scepticism),
   that since our apparitions, the part of us which appears, are so
   momentary compared with the other, the unseen part of us, which is so
   wide, the unseen might survive, be rediscovered somehow attached to
this
   person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death.
   Perhaps--perhaps. (2) 

Haunting is a strange term to use when considering Virginia Woolf's work. We rarely think of Woolf as a fantasist or as someone who deals with the supernatural. She would not be normally included in a list of those who, influenced by the Victorian supernatural, considered ghosts, table tapping, vampires and the like. If, however, the notion of haunting is extended to the return of the repressed, the influential, the lovingly lost, the imprinting on important places of important events and people, then the central question (asked in To The Lighthouse) 'what lasts?', as well as haunted lives and houses are immediately seen as central to her work. Woolf's Mrs Ramsay is a lingering presence. Jacob and his boots in Jacob's Room live on in the memories of those who loved him, while the house in 'A Haunted House' is peopled with a couple who loiter on the edge of consciousness, echoes of the past. A focus upon this aspect of Woolf's work is an indication of our own fascination with the imaginative life, the supernatural, the metaphorical, at the beginning of the twenty-first century; on the one hand we know science can explain so much and are attracted to the less rational as a response; on the other, we know that so much cannot be explained by science or logic, and we again read vampire tales and ghost stories.

In the context of her contribution to the English country house tradition and focusing on To the Lighthouse and 'A Haunted House', this essay considers Woolf's use of the supernatural, of hauntings, returns, the importance of belief in a lingering human presence, and the imprinting of the human on places, particularly houses. In doing this it relates her work to a late Victorian/early twentieth century interest in the supernatural (by Henry James, Edith Wharton, and others) and to the tradition of ghost stories by women (May Sinclair, E. Nesbit, and others), and it establishes a reading which aligns itself with the revived fascination with fantasy, ghosts, and the Other in the late twentieth, early twenty-first century.

As in both To the Lighthouse and Jacob's Room, Woolf's houses recall and replay versions of the English country house tradition, strung with British values, property relationships, continuing heredity. Ben Jonson's Penshurst, Darcy's house Pemberley in Pride and Prejudice, and, latterly, Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited, George Bernard Shaw, Heartbreak House, T.S. Eliot, The Family Reunion and Tom Stoppard, Arcadia--all of which variously emphasise values of continuity and harmony, or undercut and question them. In his The Great Good Place, Malcolm Kelsall considers real and fictional country houses, exploring ways in which the ideal of the country house was established and maintained in the English imagination, and how the construction and preservation of the image has been affected by a range of historical and cultural forces. (3) Kelsall's emphasis on the aristocracy is countered by Woolf's tales of middle classes, the ordinary folk, or intellectuals and their families. Latterly Kari Boyd McBride's Country House Discourse in Early Modern England: A Cultural Study of Landscape and Legitimacy (4) reminds us of the ways in which the country house stands as a metonym for stability, undercut for example by Robert Altman's film Gosford Park, as indeed it also is in Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, both contemporary texts offering intrigue, deception, crime and loss in the heart of the aristocracy and their comfortable country houses. …

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