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Virginia Woolf and the Aristocracy
Sonya Rudikoff. Ancestral Houses: Virginia Woolf and the Aristocracy. Palo Alto: The Society for the Promotion of Science and Scholarship, 1999. xvi + 290 pp.
In "Lady Dorothy Nevill," an essay originally entitled "Behind the Bars," Virginia Woolf dryly alludes to "those comfortably padded lunatic asylums, which are known, euphemistically, as the stately homes of England." But Lady Dorothy, Woolf suggests, being not "an extreme case of the aristocracy," was confined not to an asylum but to a "bird-cage," from which she occasionally "made a surprising little flight into the open air." Not one given to simple monolithic views, Woolf characteristically shifts her ground. Asylums, bird-cages, and surprising flights are all validated as lenses through which to view the upper class.
The plasticity of Woolf's writing needs to be borne in mind when reading Sonya Rudikoff's Ancestral Houses: Virginia Woolf and the Aristocracy. We should also scrutinize, with equal care, Rudikoff's positionality as a reader. To what extent does she project her own fascination with the aristocracy on to Woolf? Does she similarly conflate Woolf's views with those of Woolf's more conservative contemporaries? Most importantly, is Rudikoff responsive to the playful and biting ironies that lend Woolf's writing its sometimes perplexing, but always penetrating, holographic sheen?
Rudikoff's book, which was in the manuscript stage at the time of her unfortunate death, has been reduced from its original length with the editorial assistance of Jane Lincoln Taylor. Despite the cuts, it remains clear that the research underlying this study was a labor of love pursued over a significant number of years. The book documents the histories and the physical properties of some of England's great houses, the lineage and financial positions of various branches of the aristocracy, the houses owned or inhabited by the Duckworth, Jackson, and Stephen families. Rudikoff presents a treasure trove of information, rife with implication.
Implication, however, is Rudikoff's methodology. While the book's title and its illustrations focus on stately homes, these are, for the most part, neither places that Woolf actually visited nor places where her aristocratic acquaintances still lived. But Rudikoff uses these houses as signifiers of inherited wealth and privilege, of tradition and history, of [End Page 526] beauty and ease. Her premise is that, if we are well informed about aristocratic life during Woolf's time, and if we recognize the subtle networks permeating the British upper and upper-middle classes, we can infer what Woolf would have known and surmise what Woolf would have thought. Following this process of conjecture, Rudikoff posits that Woolf had a lifelong attachment to the "romance of the aristocracy" that coexisted, in uneasy tension, with her known intellectual and socialist identifications.
The difficulty lies in determining what Woolf "thought." Other than Knole, Woolf rarely mentioned these places and, in her fiction, as Rudikoff admits, "aristocrats do not play a significant part." The absence of Woolfian materials is evident in the heavy reliance on other writers. The title "Ancestral Houses" comes not from Woolf but from Yeats, as do the chapter headings "The Best Knit to the Best" and "Gardens Where the Peacock Strays." Two frequently used phrases, "intellectual aristocracy" and "pagan majesty," were coined respectively by Noel Annan and Quentin Bell. Perhaps most problematic is Rudikoff's claim that Woolf's romance of the aristocracy can be traced to an early infatuation with George Duckworth. Duckworth undoubtedly had aristocratic ambitions, and Rudikoff quotes Woolf's remark in a letter to Violet Dickinson that George is a "wonderful man." The context for this seeming praise, however, reveals Virginia entertaining Violet with mocking ironies; as the two women, along with Vanessa, excitedly prepare for their journey to Greece, Virginia anticipates yet another dampening encounter with George's disapproving cautions about women travelling alone. Rudikoff's more tangible support rests on two short essays, both unpublished in Woolf's lifetime: "The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn" and "Am I a...