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  • The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism and the Politics of the Visual
  • Diane F. Gillespie
Jane Goldman. The Feminist Aesthetics of Virginia Woolf: Modernism, Post-Impressionism and the Politics of the Visual. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1998. xi + 243 pp.

Jane Goldman focuses, in reverse chronological order, upon two influential aesthetic “moments” in Woolf’s life, the solar eclipse of 1927 and the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition of 1910. Revealing how selected texts by Woolf reverberate within their rich historical and cultural settings, she notes the shifting relationships within Post-Impressionism between “significant form” and color as well as between the avant-garde [End Page 526] uses of color in Post-Impressionist and suffrage art and the chiaroscuro of more traditional painting. In these contexts, she attributes to Woolf’s writing a “feminist prismatics.” Goldman uses current literary theory to good effect when it is relevant, but she gives her closest attention to the language of Woolf’s texts. While I would quibble with her readings of some passages, Goldman usually is well aware of contradictions, ambiguities, and situationally specific versus traditional connotations. She signals when she is being most speculative; in these instances (and there are many), “appears,” “seems,” “perhaps,” “may be,” “might read,” and other tentative expressions abound. She also shows considerable sensitivity to Woolf’s variations in tone—including irony, parody, and the “camping up” of experience. These qualifications and acknowledgments of complexities and multiplicities require a reader’s concentration, but the argument that emerges is coherent, illuminating, and worth the effort.

Goldman’s contribution is not her opening point, based largely on selected criticism from the 1970s and 1980s, that Woolf’s aesthetics have political implications. Indeed, one wonders why a contemporary Woolf scholar finds it necessary to belabor the point. Goldman certainly is familiar with much of the formidable body of revisionist feminist criticism from the same period, and from the 1990s, since she uses it in the rest of the book as a context for her own approach. Perhaps chapter 1 is a holdover from the dissertation stage of the study, or it may reflect the degree to which the feminist voice in Woolf criticism has been more subdued in the U.K. and elsewhere than it has been in North America. The disjunction between the critical context of the first chapter and that of the rest of the book, however, makes one long for a bibliography of works cited, the lack of which may have been a press decision, not Goldman’s. Most of the many critics mentioned in the notes are not indexed unless their names appear in the text of the book, and even then one often has to search back through previous notes to get the full references. Although it is not always easy to see how well she has done, Goldman has tried to position her arguments scrupulously yet independently among those of her predecessors who study art history, the suffrage movement, Woolf and painting, Woolf and feminism, and specific Woolf texts.

The first major section of Goldman’s book analyzes in detail two treatments of the 1927 eclipse, Woolf’s diary entry and her essay “The Sun and the Fish.” Marshaling a variety of contextual materials, from [End Page 527] newspaper accounts to Romantic and elegaic poetry, Druidic lore, and classical mythology, Goldman shows Woolf working with and within the traditional, hierarchical oppositions between sun/masculine and earth/shadow/feminine to posit new, more inclusive, communal modes of subjectivity and, in the process, “to enlighten the Enlightenment.” The context that is Goldman’s most intriguing contribution is the “feminist language of colours” characteristic of the early twentieth-century suffrage movement. “Purple, white and green,” the most famous of these colors, are the ones “Woolf selects to accompany ‘the defeat of the sun’ in her essay.” The colors connote “‘regeneration’ [. . .] and the idea that with them feminists were repainting, reinventing, and restructuring the world anew.” Goldman thus makes a case both for Artists’ Suffrage League art (posters, banners) as, in their own way, avant garde and for Woolf’s essay as revisionary “feminist elegaics.”

In the second part of the book, “Prismatics,” Goldman returns to...

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