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Modernism/modernity 11.4 (2004) 809-813

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Virginia Woolf:

The Ironic Feminist

University of Michigan
Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual, and the Public Sphere . Melba Cuddy-Keane. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003. Pp. x + 237. $60.00 (cloth).
Modernist Women and Visual Cultures: Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell, Photography and Cinema. Maggie Humm. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2003. Pp. xii + 244. $62.00 (cloth); $24.00 (paper).
Virginia Woolf as Feminist. Naomi Black. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004. Pp. xiv + 247. $49.95 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

Ever since Woolf's recuperation by feminists in the 1970s, critics have attempted to overcome the powerful stereotype of her as a fragile genius, unconnected with the world. This view, so dominant in Recollections of VirginiaWoolf by Her Contemporaries, and more recently in the book and movie The Hours, has been difficult to dislodge. Fortunately, these three books confirm Woolf's deep engagement in the social and political world of her times. Black and Cuddy-Keane concentrate on Woolf as a professional writer, as someone who had to meet deadlines, work with editors, and persuade readers. Cuddy-Keane examines how Woolf responded to specific political events, while Black integrates Woolf's lifelong feminism with her anti-war arguments. Humm concentrates on Woolf and her sister, Vanessa Bell, as amateur photographers, showing how their fascination with contemporary visual technologies affected their work. All three would agree that this quintessential modernist appeals to a post-modern sensibility in her insistent creation of multiple layers and points of view. Like Woolf, all are very aware of their own critical biases.

These authors acknowledge a characteristic that either endears or annoys readers: Woolf's repeated use of ironic fantasy, or what Black [End Page 809] calls her "dense, whimsical, and semi-academic style" (145). Each effectively defends Woolf's idiosyncratic style for its effective balancing of different arguments and positions. To paraphrase Woolf, they see her as one of the few English writers writing for grown-up people. Black notes how Woolf insisted that readers undertake an imaginative engagement with her argument by the use of provocative asides, digressions from the subject at hand, and a discordant combination of anger and humor. Cuddy-Keane concludes that Woolf's elliptical style encouraged her readers to think for themselves. Humm compliments Woolf's sophisticated use of "photographic tropes of illumination and reflection" (221), which draw attention to the elusive, evanescent nature of reality. These critics each provide such good close readings of Woolf's essays that I wish they had considered more fully the stylistic relationship between her nonfiction and fiction. Woolf's unique critical voice combines fact and fiction in psychologically and politically unsettling ways that are well worth exploring.

There is surprisingly little overlap in these three studies. Woolf was so prolific that each author emphasizes different works. The most broadly based book is Cuddy-Keane's careful dissection of Woolf as a public intellectual. Her opening chapter on the interwar debate about education, mass culture and politics is especially strong. She documents Woolf's carefully argued position on the value of independent learning, of an individual's thoughtful engagement with books, ideas and ideologies. Cuddy-Keane labels Woolf a "democratic highbrow," which seems to me a perfect description of Woolf's mixture of elitism and social responsibility. Woolf had no illusions that everyone could be a sophisticated reader, but she always believed this to be a politically important goal for modern British citizens. Moreover, she especially wanted women of all social classes to benefit from a proper education. Woolf vehemently opposed any curriculum that was a watered-down version of middle-class culture; for her it was a repugnant perpetuation of second-hand ideas. A later chapter explores why Woolf always loathed honors, awards and hierarchies, whether for persons or for books. She opposed, for example, F. R. Leavis's creation of a canon of English literature, but she urged her readers toward specific English masterpieces. Especially during the 1930s, when literary commentators on all sides used a hard-edged political style, Woolf...