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Virginia Woolf and the Great War
Britain, Ireland, and Continental Europe
Karen L. Levenback. Virginia Woolf and the Great War. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 1999. xvi + 208 pp.
Karen Levenback's new study surveys Virginia Woolf's fiction of the period between the First and Second World Wars with the aim of charting "the evolution of Virginia Woolf's war consciousness." Levenback's book thus rereads as war literature most of the works upon which Woolf's reputation has been built and makes a case for Woolf as a "war theorist."
Woolf's writing during and soon after the war, Levenback argues, largely represses wartime experience as too painful to deal with. Hence, though the soldier-poet Rupert Brooke was a childhood friend, his 1916 death in transit to Gallipoli does not seem to register with Woolf in her daily, ordinarily comprehensive diary. In the same source, a single, clipped sentence records a battlefield incident that killed one of Leonard Woolf's brothers and seriously wounded another. What Woolf does recognize and reveal in these early reflections is the deliberate falsification of war experience by civilians and propagandists alike--the "unreality" of the war created through hagiography of dead soldiers like Brooke, propagandistic journalism, and the Peace Day celebrations of 1919.
One recurrent and fascinating theme in Levenback's book is the way Woolf's fiction explores the far-reaching effects of the war in the postwar world. When linked closely with specific historical contexts, [End Page 540] Levenback's readings grow most provocative, as when she suggests that Septimus Smith of Mrs. Dalloway is a fictional representative of the real-life combat survivor who was effectively silenced by government pensions that "kept him off the street" and by bureaucratic rulings that his post-traumatic stress did not count as genuine combat wounding. Still bolder--yet persuasive--is Levenback's contention that the "Time Passes" section of To the Lighthouse, which treats the war years telescopically, was profoundly complicated by the timing of its composition immediately after the General Strike of 1926. Unable to write at all during the nine-day strike--not surprising, given Virginia's Labour sympathies and Leonard's direct involvement in Labour politics--Woolf agonized over "Time Passes" because, Levenback asserts, the language of warfare used by both sides in the strike evoked all too sharply memories of the Great War. Only in writing The Years was Woolf finally able to chronicle the First World War with something approaching a record of her own wartime experiences. In the book's treatment of the London bombing raids that the Woolfs witnessed, for example, Levenback finds that Woolf shatters the myths of civilian isolation and immunity from the effects of modern warfare--a timely recognition, certainly, in the late thirties when Adolf Hitler was rearming Germany and Britons chose to say and do little about it.
Levenback's contribution to Woolf scholarship is considerable. No monograph to date has focused on Woolf as a war novelist, and Levenback does so persuasively, locating in Woolf's novels a whole range of issues central to war and peace studies: survival guilt, the illusion of civilian immunity, the blurring of civilian and military realms, the inexpressibility of war experience. Yet the study's very focus on Woolf as a war novelist ultimately undercuts its broader claim that she was also a "war theorist." Only Levenback's emphasis on fiction could justify the book's limited consideration of Three Guineas, taken by most critics to be a definitive statement of feminist pacifism. Levenback pauses long enough to question the received opinion of the book as a "feminist peace polemic" but scarcely elaborates further. Also curious is Levenback's cursory treatment of Woolf's novels actually written in wartime--Night and Day, published in 1919, and Between the Acts, published posthumously in 1941. Particularly for a study that emphasizes psychological repression as much as Levenback's does, a novel written during wartime that does not mention war, such as Night and Day, ought to...