restricted access Outsiders Together: Virginia and Leonard Woolf (review)
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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 47.2 (2001) 508-510

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Book Review

Outsiders Together: Virginia and Leonard Woolf

Natania Rosenfeld. Outsiders Together: Virginia and Leonard Woolf. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2000. xii + 215 pp.

Peter Alexander, in his book Leonard and Virginia Woolf: A Literary Partnership, quotes from a correspondent identified only as "an old friend, himself an English publisher and distinguished man of letters" to whom Alexander had mentioned his project on the Woolfs as collaborators:

I think your suggestion of a volume on Leonard and Virginia Woolf is one of the worst I have heard for a long time [. . .]. Readers are sick and tired of blather about Bloomsbury and you should be writing for a non-existent public. In any case I should say that Virginia's influence on Leonard's writing was [End Page 508] nil, and his influence on her little more, except in the matter of encouragement and cherishing.

While Natania Rosenfeld in her illuminating book on the Woolfs as a literary couple does not cite Alexander, her work joins his as part of a steady trickle of studies over the last ten years obviously intended as a corrective to the attitude expressed by Alexander's correspondent and as a response to others who see more antagonism than mutual support in their marriage. Rosenfeld shares with Virginia Woolf a penchant for relegating important matters to the parenthetical: she tells us in a footnote that she has no desire to approach the Woolfs' marriage bed, that she will avoid questions about the intimate life of the Woolfs, and indeed that her primary concern is not biography (although an assessment of their marriage as a marriage does emerge clearly as a main focus of the book), but rather the way in which their status as "outsiders" causes them to see the "real world" in similar ways in their writings.

Her main argument is easily put: while Virginia was by birth part of the English intellectual establishment, she was, by virtue of her gender, an outsider. Symmetrically, while Leonard's gender, his Cambridge education (the two of course connected), and his position as a colonial administrator in Ceylon marked him as an insider, as a Jew he was, like Virginia, similarly marginalized. He never felt completely "at home" among those more securely in the English political and social establishment. But Woolf's own marginalization did not automatically exempt her from the ethnic and class prejudices of her own social caste, and a recurring theme in Rosenfeld's analysis is Virginia Woolf's ambivalence about Leonard's Jewishness (her references to her husband as "my Jew" are well known), an ambivalence in regard to his own ethnicity that Leonard in fact shared and strongly emphasized in his novel The Wise Virgins, treated in Rosenfeld's second chapter. For Woolf, ethnicity was closely associated with class, and Rosenfeld notes how the label "underbred" often attaches itself to "Jew" in her diary and presumably colors her perception of Leonard as "not a gentleman" (ostensibly because of his tyrannical treatment of the servants). This having been said, Rosenfeld is not overly censorious of the Woolfs, and indeed she is very clear to distinguish Virginia from Clarissa Dalloway because unlike Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf has a "recognition of her own implication in an oppressive social system" and demonstrates "the lifelong desire to revise that system." [End Page 509]

Rosenfeld's method is more or less to systematically compare works by Virginia and Leonard Woolf in regard to themes of ethnicity, class, and gender. "More or less," because while in chapter 1 she presents convincing readings of parallels between The Voyage Out and The Village in the Jungle and in chapter 2 between Night and Day and The Wise Virgins (among other works), in chapters 3 and 4 she seems to lose her method in somewhat detachable readings of Woolf's middle books, and in fact her method of establishing parallels between Virginia's and Leonard's works is lost in these chapters--indeed Leonard drops from discussion for long periods of time. Rosenfeld returns to her strategy...