restricted access Virginia Woolf on the Outside Looking Down: Reflections on the Class of Women
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Virginia Woolf on the Outside Looking Down:
Reflections on the Class of Women1

If Virginia Woolf were one of those continuing presences the speaker of A Room of One's Own announces "true poets" to be, she would still be hovering around us now, intrigued by how her writing has been discussed by feminists in the U.S. during the 1970s and 1980s. It would delight and maybe also frighten her that she is referred to, even jokingly, as the matron saint of feminism (Zwerdling, Real World 33). Given her ironic stance toward authoritative quotation in Three Guineas, she might wince at how often her own words are cited by feminists in a variety of disciplines. But how would Woolf react to the occasional published feminist criticisms of her politics and aesthetics? She might marvel that even those professors who declare allegiance to various sophisticated forms of relativism end up taking but one position on her writing, which, in contrast, aspires to evoke multiple perspectives. She might insist on picturing herself as both a deconstructive socialist-feminist and a class-bound liberal (although she would undoubtedly refuse to use such terminology). Or, in another mood, she might be riled by those who consider her writing and its current feminist reception problematic. [End Page 61]

The personification and idealization of Woolf with which this essay begins partially characterizes a considerable amount of feminist scholarship on Woolf, understandably enough. In need of alternative, female canonical figures and having identified a prolific writer steeped in the tradition of English literature who offered such a fine opportunity for feminist revision, lupine critics have helped to make Woolf a symbol, an industry, a figure for our times. Woolf's verbal facility, the pathos and panache of her life, and her political vision have encouraged uniquely subjective, imaginative investments that add to the voltage of what is at stake in public discussion of her work. However, given the fact that so much tribute is regularly paid to Woolf as a foremother, it seems that those who highly value Woolf's contribution could feel that recognition of it is secure enough to allow for a dispersion of the illusion that her thought constitutes an entirely consistent totality. It may be precisely the overpersonalizing of Woolf as a figure, made possible by the availability of her diaries and letters, by her disturbing/exhilarating biography, that nonetheless tempts some critics to defend her as if she were alive. But there is no Woolf to wound. It is more important to keep alive the possibility of dialogue between those who see her writing as exemplary and those who find Woolf's writing at times significantly troubling even while we cherish aspects of it and some of what it has helped to accomplish institutionally. More is at stake than the reputation of Virginia Woolf; as can be seen in recent essays by Donna Landry and Tania Modleski, what is at stake is how we encourage or censure feminist sketches of the nesting of class and gender. As I take my own position on Woolf's status, I can only hope to have readers who do not see every objection as a displacement so fierce it amounts to assassination. What might be intended is an addition, another line that connects the lines on Woolf rather than further drawing firm lines of opposition.

I would argue that Woolf's writing ranges nervously from pointed, responsible commentary on middle-class women—commentaries for which she is especially famous—to unwarranted generalizations about gender, to expressions of discomfort amounting to distaste for women whose lives are so restricted by material circumstances that they do not inspire elegant prose. Although this distaste does not disqualify Woolf from being one of the women authors most likely to have an entire course devoted to her in U.S. departments of English literature, it does mean that more feminists might choose to tone down the celebration of Woolf at least enough to hear how others, such as Cora Kaplan and Alice Walker, might hear a tone of hauteur that is in harmony as well as in dissonance with the voice of her feminism. A...


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