restricted access Refractions of Desire: The Early Fiction of Virginia and Leonard Woolf
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Refractions of Desire:
The Early Fiction of Virginia and Leonard Woolf1

I

The early fictions of Virginia Woolf (Melymbrosia, The Voyage Out, and Night and Day) and Leonard Woolf (The Village in the Jungle, The Wise Virgins) create a complex structure of comments upon one another and upon the issues of affectivity, engagement, marriage, and passion in which their authors were themselves so caught up between 1906 and 1919.2Night and Day in particular, often seen as anomalous in Woolf's canon, seems to me both a response to and a comment on her husband's roman à clef The Wise Virgins that takes elements from that work and recontextualizes them. The novel refracts the story of Leonard and Virginia in an effort to generalize upon the conventions governing the relations of men and women of a particular class in the first two decades of this century—a [End Page 127] period in which the authors' Edwardian generation rebelled against the Victorian mores of their parents. In comparison with the writers' other works, the predominant interest now of each of these second published novels, I suggest, is biographical, but at the same time they analyze and describe a system of exchange of women in heterosexual relationships in patriarchal society. The biographical interpretation seems particularly indicated in the case of Night and Day, as by the time it was published, Virginia Woolf had already developed the experimental techniques of pieces such as "The Mark on the Wall" and "An Unwritten Novel." Night and Day, therefore, would appear to be retrogressive in the terms of Woolf's aesthetic practice; the novel's detour from this aesthetic development is accounted for by reading it as a response to Leonard Woolf's The Wise Virgins and as an attempt on Woolf's part to give expression to conflicts about love relationships that she was experiencing in her own life. The trajectories of desire outlined in their plots reveal an awareness on the part of both writers—though from markedly different perspectives—of social structures that regulate their characters' emotional lives and perpetuate rigidly hierarchical definitions of gender roles.

When Virginia Woolf read her husband's second novel on 31 January 1915, she apparently had very little to say about it. In her diary she noted that they had quarreled that morning. Of The Wise Virgins she wrote that it was "a remarkable book . . . a writer's book" and that she liked the "poetic" side of her husband. There is, it seems to me, a massive amount of repression here, as Leonard's novel clearly drew on the situation of their engagement and dealt explicitly and fairly harshly with their families.

Woolf's own first novel, The Voyage Out, had been accepted by Duckworth's in April 1913, eight months after the Woolfs' marriage, but its publication was delayed. In September 1913 she attempted suicide. Leonard's first novel, The Village in the Jungle, was published in this year, dedicated to Virginia.3 In his account of the years 1913-1915 in Beginning Again, Leonard stresses how exhausting looking after her was and how he could not possibly have done so alone. With the assistance of nurses to look after Virginia, Leonard found time to write The Wise Virgins.

Exactly when Virginia began Night and Day is not certain. In 1930 she wrote to Ethel Smyth of how she had composed it "lying in bed, allowed to write only for one half hour a day" (L IV 16 Oct. 1930)—reminiscent of the narrator's situation in Charlotte Perkins Gilman's The Yellow Wallpaper. Elizabeth Heine has suggested that it was early in 1915. In a note to the editor of Southerly responding to an article by Robert Guy Howarth that questioned the dates of composition of his wife's first [End Page 128] two published works,4 Leonard Woolf says that she began the work in 1916, but in his autobiography he says it took her "six years to write her second novel" (An Autobiography II 62). Leonard, however, despite a reputation for accuracy, is often unreliable about dates concerning his wife.5 In any case, when Night and Day...


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