- Reviewed by
Breaking away from the Woolf pack by writing a book that clearly distinguishes itself becomes more and more difficult. Each of these books, for instance, is well written and intelligently conceived, but to read the four together is to notice some repetitions appearing in Woolf studies. On the other hand, scholars are making better use of some of Woolf's writings, especially the nonfiction, and we are developing a broader sense of her achievement. Most importandy, all these books underline an essential humanity in Woolf that earlier studies often ignored or distorted.
Kushen's Virginia Woolf and the Nature of Communion is a psychoanalytic discussion of several important relationships Woolf had with women (Julia Stephen, Vanessa Bell, Katherine Mansfield, Vita Sackville-West, Ethyl Smyth). Kushen wants to reconstruct the relationships and to trace their effects on Woolf's life and art. Her reconstructions are valuable, especially Ethel Smyth's; but I would like to have had more about the cumulative effect—how did each relationship affect the next? Furthermore, if the "emotional sustenance" Woolf derived from these relationships was "a significant stimulus to her creativity," then the more light on the creativity the better, but Kushen does not spend enough time analyzing the effects these symbiotic relationships had on Woolf's writings.
I also think Woolf was stronger and more independent than Kushen's thesis would lead us to believe. Kushen's argument that Julia Stephen was too busy, too aloof during Virginia's first years, is convincing. But Kushen only claims—she does not prove—that "the severity of [Woolf's] later psychopathology bears testimony to this tragic failure." In fact, Kushen too often depends on generalizations that she does not support. Her argument is always forceful and clear, but not always supported by specifics.
Woolf's final major female relationship was with Ethel Smyth, who pushed her way into Woolf's home and life. The friendship was complicated, volatile, and important for both women, their subjects of conversation ranging from sexual memories to literary style. Ethel Smyth seems to have made Woolf seek to explain her self in a new, more creative way—in her letters, diary, and memoirs—and Kushen's book details this better than any previous work. Kushen also capably describes a thin line between Woolf's need for her women friends and the danger of losing her separate identity to them.
Pamela Transue's feminist study focuses "on the ways in which Woolf, who pointedly opposed didacticism in fiction, transformed . . . polemical material into art." Undoubtedly Woolf attempted to write a new kind of novel, but she did so as an individual and as a modernist as much as she did so as a feminist. Undoubtedly Woolf tried to subvert repressive partriarchal systems, but she did so, as Transue herself tells us, not as an attempt to replace them with another separatist system: "The only meaningful feminism, in Woolf's view, is that which moves beyond bitterness into a creative vision of a new and more equal partnership between [End Page 354] the sexes which will benefit both." Undoubtedly Woolf thought masculine consciousness was restrictive and reductive, feminine consciousness open and expansive; but do we need feminism to show us that "key images in Woolf's novels bear a striking resemblance to the function of images in dreams"? Isn't this modernism? The book often conflates the two movements. We need a vocabulary and methodology for feminism that doesn't merely repeat those of modernism.
In an interesting chapter, "The Pargiters and The Years," Transue argues that Woolf never succeeded in overcoming her Victorian modesty, which excluded any reference to physical passion, but I think the failure of The Pargiters as an essay...