restricted access Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Avant-Garde: War, Civilization, Modernity (review)
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Reviewed by
Christine Froula. Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury Avant-Garde: War, Civilization, Modernity. New York: Columbia UP, 2005. xx + 428 pp.

Fundamental to Christine Froula's absorbing reading of Virginia Woolf's modernism is the notion of a "genetic text." In "Modernism, Genetic Texts and Literary Authority in Virginia Woolf's Portraits of the Artist as the Audience" (Romanic Review 86.3 [1995]: 513–26) Froula explains this approach as resituating texts "within their documentary histories and . . . enlarging them beyond their formal boundaries." Her careful tracings of ur-texts and autobiographical contexts in this book produce a richly layered reading of Woolf's fictions as profound contributions to the unfinished and unfinishable Enlightenment project of seeking new lands, new civilizations.

Noting that attention to the biographical surface of Bloomsbury has tended to obscure its significance as a specifically modernist movement, Froula applies the genetic approach to "Bloomsbury" itself as a cultural signifier. One startling but ultimately deeply satisfying result is to bring Freud into the Bloomsbury milieu, both by virtue of shared ethics and also the better known fact of his introduction to an English-speaking readership through the translations of James and Alix Strachey and publication by the Woolfs' Hogarth Press. Froula's Bloomsbury is idiosyncratic in other ways, also: E. M. Forster makes only the most fleeting appearance because he is a liberal democrat of the "rearguard" (2) as which Bloomsbury has typically been seen in histories of modernism. At the heart of Froula's Bloomsbury is the internationalism of Keynes and Leonard Woolf, an outlook embodied, too, in the work of that least-traveled of all Bloomsbury members, Virginia Woolf.

Kant's philosophy of aesthetics, with its emphasis on the free play of imagination that leads to empathy, was a clear influence on the Cambridge undergraduates of the turn of the twentieth century who gathered in London to form the nucleus of Bloomsbury. This ethos inevitably had its effects on Woolf, who remarked later in her life on how striking it was that a young woman should, in 1904, sit up late discussing ideas with young men. As Froula makes plain at the outset, Woolf's particular importance to the Enlightenment project continued by Bloomsbury artists and intellectuals is her confrontation of "the 'monstrous' system of gender in ways that render problematic the very terms male modernism and female modernism" (60). In a civilization "founded on the sacrifice of female desire" (61), Woolf created works that insisted on reading as an ethical activity, involving readers in such a way that "aesthetic pleasure in formal relations is inseparable from the ethical imperative to see things new" (61). [End Page 742]

By the second chapter, on The Voyage Out and Jacob's Room as "companion pieces of the modernist bildungsroman" (64), Bloomsbury at large has somewhat faded from view in favor of a concentrated analysis of the Woolfian corpus; in fact, Bloomsbury bookends this text, disappearing almost completely until the end of the book when the congruence between Woolf's late work and Freud's writings on civilization emerge to great effect. Although this at first may throw into question the descriptive accuracy of Froula's title, the effect of the book as a whole is to enrich any readings of Fry, Keynes, Leonard Woolf, Strachey et al. by seeing them as part of an avant-garde engaged in a vital conversation that is the persistent background to Woolf's specific contributions.

Froula's analysis of how ideas of civilization from ancient Greeks to early-twentieth-century texts are embodied in the "essayist-narrator" of Jacob's Room demonstrates with lucid economy not only the breadth and depth but also the coherence of Woolf's vision (63). Froula places the "immitigable sadness" expressed by Woolf's first experimental novel in a tradition that reaches back to Achilles' tent (84), clarifying detailed networks of allusion that stake this slim work's claim to an epic sweep.

Kant's emphasis on the freedom of the imagination at play in aesthetic pleasure was linked by Hannah Arendt to political thinking "because it enables us 'to put ourselves in the minds of other[s]'" (410). Woolf herself remarked on the...