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Modernism/Modernity 8.1 (2001) 183-185

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Book Review

Virginia Woolf: Reading the Renaissance.

Virginia Woolf: Reading the Renaissance. Sally Greene, ed. Athens: Ohio University Press, 1999. Pp. xi + 295. $44.95.

For most critics of early modern literature--and, I suspect, for most critics of modernist literature as well--Woolf's Renaissance narrows to a Judith Shakespeare who could never have written a word, except perhaps under the name "Anon." Rising to the challenge, feminist scholars of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century literature have recently turned to resurrecting writers like Mary Sidney Herbert, Aemilia Lanyer, Elizabeth Cary, and Margaret Cavendish. Scholars are still in the midst, in other words, of establishing the genealogy of the Renaissance woman writer that historical and bibliographical constraints prevented Woolf from recognizing.

The contributors to Virginia Woolf: Reading the Renaissance, however, largely sideline Woolf's concern with Renaissance women writers or their absence; they look elsewhere for the inspiration either for her own fiction-making or for her conception of a female writing community. The questions where and how she found her Renaissance--or whether, perhaps, she invented one--bracket this volume. In her introduction as well as in the piece that leads off the ten essays collected here, Sally Greene convincingly argues that we err if we assume that Woolf knew only the Burckhardtian idea of the Renaissance, complete with its triumph of the individual. Rather, she drew upon the nineteenth-century views of George Eliot, Walter Pater, and especially Jules Michelet, who valorized not only the Renaissance's escape from the straitjacket of medieval institutions, but also its supposed incorporation of the entire body of the people into its new enlightened world. That collective self, Greene argues, not only includes women, but may be seen as "feminine" in some ontological sense. David McWhirter returns to this issue in his excellent closing essay on "The Politics of Modernist Nostalgia." While both T. S. Eliot and Woolf invoke a pre-modern utopia, their sense of what has been lost diverges radically: Eliot longs for a hierarchical, monologized, and perhaps even preliterate cultural unity, whereas Woolf, who admires a hodgepodge of major and minor early modern authors and genres, celebrates their "communal, democratic ethos premised . . . on a loosening, rather than a hardening, of class and gender distinctions" (252).

The rest of the essays in the volume attempt to define more specifically how Woolf looked to early modern authors for a model, a precedent, or at least an enabling set of preconditions for feminine authorship. An idealist impulse seems to inform many of the contributors' efforts, as they search for some kind, any kind, of positive influence that she might have drawn from early modern male authors. At times this idealism leads to somewhat vague assertions of feminist [End Page 183] inspiration. For example, as Greene suggests at the end of her essay, "Woolf's dialogic theories of reading, often worked out in her essays in relation to Renaissance literature," lend themselves to a feminist reinterpretation of literary authority (31). But it quickly becomes difficult to imagine which early modern authors would not similarly have led her to shape notions of feminist dialogic discourse. To their peril, two essays early in the volume depend on purely speculative textual connections in arguing how she converted Renaissance topoi into models for feminist modernism. Reginald Abbott works his way from her descriptions of Queen Elizabeth I's hands as "rough with rubies" (in the essay "Reading") and as the long, thin hands of an artist (in "Waxworks at the Abbey") to a highly tendentious reading of the ruby-wearing Mrs. Mantresa and the artistic Miss La Trobe of Between the Acts as paired avatars of Queen Elizabeth. Similarly, Anne E. Fernald begins with her own (not Woolf's) observation that the Round Reading Room at the British Library architecturally resembles the "memory theaters" of Renaissance thinkers like Giordano Bruno and Guilio Camillo, then leaps to the conclusion that Woolf objected to the modern library because, unlike the Renaissance memory theater (whose viewer personally organizes a world full of knowledge), the modern library impersonally dictates...


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