Journal of Modern Literature 29.2 (2006) 1-18
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"For her generation the newspaper was a book":
Media, Mediation, and Oscillation in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts
Karin E. Westman
Although a number of scholars pursue the intersection of modernism and new technologies, the newspaper has escaped such critical analysis, especially concerning the work of Virginia Woolf.1 Though perhaps not a new technology, the newspaper's presence on the cultural landscape grew considerably during the first decades of the twentieth century, as it proffered immediate—and mediated—content. The rise of the penny press at the end of the nineteenth century transformed the business of journalism in subsequent decades, altering the public's access to and reading experience of the news. Indeed, the 1930s marked a revolution in newspaper makeup, typography, and reporting, whose waves of innovation reached even the typically conservative backwater of The Times at Printing House Square.2 It is surprising, then, that recent studies such as Virginia Woolf in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction (2000) note how sound, telescopes, and film inflect the modernity and modernism of Woolf's art but fail to address the technological medium that mediated Woolf's experience of her world on a daily basis, particularly during the 1930s.
For Woolf, newspapers often yielded the donné of a day's writing, soon captured in diary entries or letters, clipped for future reference,3 or folded into the fictional lives of her characters, who bear the marks of its cultural presence. These newspapers, and particularly The Times, played a formative role in the development of Woolf's feminism, as Woolf's letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies on 23 January 1916 indicates: "I become steadily more feminist, owing to the Times, which I read at breakfast and wonder how this preposterous masculine fiction [the war] keeps going a day longer" (Letters II 76). Woolf's narrator in A Room of One's Own offers a more public statement of this process [End Page 1] when she asserts that even "[t]he most transient visitor to this planet [. . .] who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony, that England is under the rule of a patriarchy" (33). Her observation speaks to the newspaper's dual role in modern culture: to offer a direct link to current events even as it prescribes the reader's experience of those events. In noting the newspaper's dual ability to shape an individual's experience of reality, Woolf emphasizes how the newspaper is paradoxically transparent and opaque, since those who live under the "illusion" of patriarchy may easily miss the ideological veil the words create and perpetuate. However, if something jars readers from the familiar experience of this medium, they can engage in critical evaluation: they can detect patterns of ideas and the authors behind the veil of words. Woolf might therefore agree with Benedict Anderson that the newspaper fosters an "imagined political community" (6, 25), but her letters, diaries, essays, and novels indicate that she would disagree that all readers, male and female, will be, as Anderson says, "continually reassured" by the world imagined in newsprint (35).4
We are certainly aware of the newspaper's mediating role in Woolf's last novel, Between the Acts, published in 1941 but set two years earlier in June, 1939. In following the characters' reading experiences of the morning's Times we follow a central thematic concern in Woolf's novels, particularly this last one: the possibilities for resisting ideological interpellation and revising existing cultural scripts. Her novel's form underwriting its themes, Woolf's use of a free indirect discourse produces a narratorial shuttling between mediation and its erasure.5 As Gillian Beer, Anna Snaith, Susan Dick, and Mary Millar have noted too, this shuttling within Woolf's narrative technique becomes a cultural critique of authorial control itself, of a single point of view from which knowledge issues. When this shuttling is coupled with...