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Linden Peach. Virginia Woolf. NewYork: St. Martin's, 2000. viii + 247 pp.
Virginia Woolf's father, Leslie Stephen, wrote his wife in 1893 that their daughter "will really be an author in time; though I cannot make up my mind in what line. History will be a good thing for her to take up [. . .]." This volume in the new Critical Issues series argues that Woolf's interest from the start of her writing career was in historiography rather than history. Linden Peach sees Woolf as anticipating Foucault in her understanding of the need to decipher the codes of reality before it can be reinterpreted. Like Foucault, he writes, Woolf reads events and spaces as textual, unearthing the "archive" of cultural discourses "embedded in organized social life that impinge on an individual life and determine its course."
Before starting a chronological close reading of Woolf's novels, Peach pauses in a chapter titled "Contexts" to consider the reception of Woolf's work, and it is here that some of the strains of trying to encompass the English and American versions of Woolf show most clearly. Describing "the prevailing view" of Woolf "as a writer more concerned with artistic form than with political content" is accurate only in reference to the kind of literary journalism that delights in bashing Bloomsbury--a hobby popular with the chattering classes on both sides of the Atlantic. The political Woolf of American scholarship is now well established; perhaps [End Page 504] what is lost in translation here is that for feminist critics in the U.S., "politics" is a term that incorporates sexual politics as well as the more traditional senses in which Peach employs the term. Although he is aware of some recent U.S. work on Woolf, his overreliance on the narrow image of that scholarship provided in Hermione Lee's biography leads Peach to overlook several writers whose projects intersect significantly with his own, such as Karen Levenback, Janet Winston, Melba Cuddy-Keane, Jeanette McVicker, Wayne Chapman, Janet Manson, Merry Pawlowksi, Andrea Lewis, and Susan Hudson Fox.
Peach urges a "cryptanalytical" reading of Woolf's fiction that will bring to light the way multiple discourses are embedded and criticized in her novels. He argues persuasively and fluently that Woolf is from her very first novel, The Voyage Out, concerned with a subtle critique of Englishness, imperialism, and patriarchy. The narrative of Woolf's historiography constructed by Peach's close readings of her fiction demonstrates her concern with "the partisan nature of interpretation of the past" and "her sophisticated grasp of the ideologically coded nature of social reality." Even her second novel, Night and Day, usually regarded as anomalously conventional, is revealed as politically subversive.
The book is strongest when identifying those key "historical" events that are alluded to so cryptically in the novels. Jacob's Room is a "reformulation" of memory and mourning that argues against the mythmaking of Edward Marsh's memoir of Rupert Brooke, and Mrs. Dalloway is read in the light of the "background of newly emergent conservative forces in England in the early 1920s." Another strength is Peach's clear articulation of how Woolf returns to her earlier lines of thought and reworks them in new contexts. For example, To the Lighthouse returns to Jacob's Room's exploration of masculinity and mother-son relationships. Drawing on Freud's concept of "deferred action," Peach shows how Woolf's dialectical concept of history is one in which the present influences the past.
A weakness of the book is Peach's need to construct a straw figure called "critics" against whom to pitch his arguments. That Jacob's Room is "more than a simple experiment," that The Waves "is not simply a Modernist experiment," or that Orlando challenges "the hegemony of formal biography" surely goes without saying by now. The book is also marred by several careless errors: "Joseph" instead of Jacob Flanders; Archer as [End Page 505] Jacob's uncle, rather than brother (also referred to twice as Arthur); Edward Carpenter and John...