The most constructive result of reading several books about Virginia Woolf followed by reading one of her volumes of essays is the sense that her essays represent more than a novelist searching for her own system of fiction; they represent a way of reading that still seems fresh and exciting. We are ever so much more careful and ideological, but we often submerge the joy of reading underneath our academic concerns for various theoretical schools of thought.
Jane Wheare points out that Virginia Woolf's modernist, experimental books were only part of her text; Woolf also wrote three dramatic, realistic novels: The Voyage Out, Night and Day, and The Years. The modernist novels are about novels; the realistic novels are about society. But even Wheare does not fully believe in this division: "This is not to deny, however, that in questioning the fictional narratives which we impose upon experience, The Waves makes a point not only about the novel but also about society." In the realistic novels, however, Woolf "puts into practice her belief that theoretical ideas make the deepest impression when they are dramatised through fictional scenes or episodes," creating "the illusion of absence from, her own text" so as to appear dramatic rather than didactic.
Wheare is a good reader; she is adept at finding repetitions and ideas embodied in characters, and although for the most part I accept her particular analyses of the novels, her discussions seem constricted, dry, unattached to the vital Virginia Woolf I read. Of course a writer makes her themes clear through the actions and dialogue, but I want Wheare to elucidate Woolf's technique and make me want to read the novels again. [End Page 802]
Wheare also makes the naive argument about Night and Day that "Woolf's good-tempered and essentially sympathetic portrayal of the anti-feminists [in the novel] is considerably more persuasive than a bitter attack upon them would be." To paraphrase Jane Marcus and others, what is wrong with anger against the patriarchy; why assume A Room of One's Own is a better book than Three Guineas because the latter's militancy alienates some readers?
And finally Wheare does not fully explore the issues that her own thesis raises. Just how does Woolf avoid sounding didactic? Wheare often claims that Woolf avoids didacticism in some particular scene but never clearly explains her techniques. Wheare too often leaves quotations to do her work, and this is tricky, especially if she wants us to read a passage differently from how we used to read it. Wheare's book seems lifeless and overloaded with example; her conclusions often seem unjustified. Perhaps there is not enough of Jane Wheare in this book.
Virginia Hyman attempts to show that most of Woolf's writings were influenced by her competitive and contradictory and ambivalent feelings about her family. Mostly she is convincing, although occasionally she stretches for a point: that Woolf and Leslie Stephen both wrote critical marginalia does not prove that she was trying to outdo her father as a reader. Hyman's view of the autobiographical writings as narratives is correct, although in these hypertheoretical days she probably should define what she means by narrative. She argues convincingly that rather than reading the narrator of A Sketch of the Past as a "passive transcriber of events over which she has no control . . . Woolf was [instead] an active creator of this narrative . . . [who] shaped it according to her own psychological needs."
Hyman claims throughout the book that Woolf's narratives are distinguished by...