- Virginia Woolf and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel
As the early twentieth century recedes further into the past, it becomes easier to perceive continuities between modernism and the nineteenth century alongside the long-recognized disjunctions. Janis Paul and Patricia Laurence were among the first to draw attention to Virginia Woolf’s Victorian heritage; Hermione Lee’s biography helped to furnish significant aspects of the Victorian context in which Woolf grew up; and recently Steve Ellis has made a useful case for classing her as “Post-Victorian” rather than as “modernist.”1 Emily Blair’s Virginia Woolf and the Nineteenth-Century Domestic Novel makes a helpful contribution to this debate by demonstrating that we do not have to choose between connecting Woolf with Victorianism or modernism—she has links with both.
Blair explores these links by looking at “three overlapping, but ‘unsolvable’ relationships that connect women and fiction throughout Woolf’s work: her vexed relationships to the minor Victorian women writers whose work she dismisses, to the house, and to Victorian definitions of femininity” (p. 12). Blair’s discussion of the last two points is the more interesting and convincing. Drawing on conduct literature, guides to household management, Evangelical teachings on women’s roles, as well as Coventry Patmore’s “Angel in the House” and John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies, Blair paints a detailed picture of expectations placed on Victorian women and shows how these informed the “tea-table training” that influenced Woolf throughout her life.2 Blair presents an insightful study of the domestic architecture lying behind A Room of One’s Own: the Victorian ideology that expected women to create domestic spaces in which men could find rest and spiritual regeneration. In adopting the trope of the room, then, Woolf challenged this ideology by seeking out spaces in which women, too, could find retreat and renewal.
In considering Woolf’s relationship with minor writers, Blair makes a pertinent comment on the selectivity of the canon of women writers in A Room of One’s Own. Woolf hails childless women like herself (Jane Austen, Charlotte and Emily Brontë, and George Eliot), while dismissing the work of mothers like Mrs. Humphry Ward, Elizabeth Gaskell, and Margaret Oliphant. Thus, while ostensibly advocating the merits of “thinking back through our mothers,” Woolf actually seeks to align herself with a particular tradition—and being a biological mother would appear to be grounds for exclusion from her canon.3 Blair argues that this attitude is the product of Woolf’s ambivalence towards nineteenth-century views of female roles. She explores this further in a case study of Oliphant, where she suggests that the acerbic comments of Woolf’s father, Leslie Stephen, [End Page 170] may have fuelled her suspicion of Oliphant as a hack writer whose main motive for publishing was to fund her sons’ education. Blair only accords Ward a few passing references, but there is a chapter apiece on Gaskell’s Wives and Daughters and Oliphant’s Miss Majoribanks. While one would like to have heard more about Woolf in these chapters, we are offered the suggestions that Gaskell inspired Woolf’s interest in the inner life of the domesticated woman (something she put into practice in Mrs. Dalloway) and that Oliphant may have influenced her pairing of domestic and painterly creativity in To the Lighthouse.
The three threads are brought together in a long closing chapter where Blair demonstrates how Woolf values the domestic artistry of Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsay as they bring guests together creatively at their parties, while also carving out private, spiritual spaces for the two characters. There is some fine close reading here, drawing attention to neglected passages from the novels. Kate Millett once satirized Woolf for lacking feminist credibility because she “glorified two housewives, Mrs. Dalloway and Mrs. Ramsay.”4 Blair by contrast shows that Woolf, in her personal life (her interests in clothes, jewelry, home-furnishings, and baking bread) as well as in her fiction, recognized that a fulfilled life...