- Woolf & Linking Literary Periods
Alex Zwerdling in Virginia Woolf and the Real World (1986) observed that “critical studies of [Woolf’s] work have inevitably become more pointed and selective.” He emphasized the need to be selective, in part, because of the massive body of Woolf’s work, burgeoning with the publication of her diaries and letters, with the new publication of her essays chronologically arranged, along with the publication of the shorter fiction. A book on Woolf, Zwerdling suggested, cannot hope to take into account all of Woolf’s “denseness and complexity.” Because of the immensity of the undertaking, “some of the best recent commentary has focused on one element in Woolf’s writing.” A more focused approach may add understanding to Woolf’s work that, otherwise, would be “merely glimpsed in passing.”
Anne Fernald, in her rich and wide-ranging study, has given us both a focused approach to Woolf’s work as well as a new way to encompass that immense scope of Woolf’s writing. Fernald focuses very specifically on Woolf’s responses to four earlier literary periods: classical Greek, the sixteenth century, the eighteenth century, and the Romantic era. Fernald gives new understanding of Woolf’s incorporation of and relationship with those earlier traditions. What stands out for her in this literary history are Woolf’s relationship with Greek, necessarily transmuted because of translation or fragmented because of lost material, as with Sappho’s poetry; her reliance upon Hakluyt; her attention to Addison; and her debts to Byron. But Fernald goes beyond tracing these debts. This book powerfully gives us an unexpected literary history, created by Woolf herself. Fernald writes that Woolf was “indebted to Lytton Strachy” who, in his work with biography, wrote about “influential but not monumental subjects as a means of illuminating literary and cultural history.” Using Woolf’s writing as the lens, Fernald maps such a literary history. The history foregrounds Woolf’s feminist approaches. Woolf’s reading of and incorporation of this literature, Fernald argues, gives a model for how feminist readers and writers can use a patriarchal tradition. The result is a work that elucidates both Woolf’s work and those earlier traditions.
Fernald uses her exemplary knowledge of Woolf’s texts and contexts to trace the complex development of Woolf’s relationship to these literatures. For instance, Woolf combines her knowledge of Greek’s prominence [End Page 349] in English education, its marking of the elite, and her own response to the literature to create an aesthetics of the fragment. Fernald interprets Woolf’s changing reading of Hakluyt in terms of Woolf’s feminist identifications of patriarchal models of memory. Hakluyt gave Woolf a vision of travel, but also produced in her revulsion to heroism that fundamentally affected her first novel, The Voyage Out. By identifying Hakluyt as a source of Woolf’s thinking about British culture and also models of memory, and by showing changes in Hakluyt’s influence in a study overarching Woolf’s career, Fernald argues that Woolf should be seen as increasingly local in her politics. In part Woolf’s reactions to Hakluyt changed as Woolf saw herself, increasingly, as an outsider, Fernald argues, with the result that Woolf’s “faith” in “internationalism” “wan[ed].”
Fernald analyzes Woolf’s intertextual conversations with Addison and Byron by foregrounding Woolf’s conceptualizations of public spheres and fame. Again, Fernald’s scholarship has a range that covers Woolf’s whole career, showing how these issues influenced Woolf’s thinking about herself as a public figure. Fernald analyzes Woolf’s working out of these issues in her writings. Her readings are particularly enlightening when Fernald analyzes Orlando in terms of public space and The Waves in terms of fame. Fernald elaborates upon Addison’s and Byron’s influences in terms of techniques that Woolf admired and revised for her own use. She argues for example that Woolf learned much of the spectator and the letter writing positions from Addison; from Byron, Woolf learned satire and an “interruptive method” to give her the “illusion of speed.”
If only for...