- Woolf & Postmodern Geography
"Nothing can happen nowhere," asserts Elizabeth Bowen. This collection of essays attempts to locate the "where" of Virginia Woolf's stories and novels, asserting that the "inner landscape" of her writing has been overemphasized by critics. This postmodern turn is to locate her writing in material, national, imperial, global and geographical "space." The editors Anna Snaith and Michael H. Whitworth announce that this is the "first book length study of Woolf and place." Eleven essays representing the views of mostly British scholars argue that Woolf is the avatar of "postmodern geography."
In their introduction, they posit definitions of "space" and "place," demonstrating this distinction through a sophisticated analysis of the London docks as a symbol of global networks and the reconstruction of space in Mrs. Dalloway through a description of a project to clear slums for the construction of Kingsway. It is a new way of analyzing Woolf. Their distinction is founded on the theories of Michel de Certeau as outlined in The Practice of Everyday Life: "Space is a practiced place. Thus the street geometrically defined by urban planning is transformed into a space by a walker." "Place," they say, "may traditionally connote belonging and rooted identity (space opens outwards while the localism of place turns inward)." While space is socially, culturally and historically dynamic, "place is static" (my emphasis here).
It may be useful to compare these critical notions with what writers have said about "place," most of them collapsing the meanings of "place" and "space" into one word. It is a shortcoming of this volume, and perhaps many Woolf studies, that it is insular, with little comparative literary analysis that might bring Woolf's writing into relief. In "Place in Fiction," Eudora Welty writes that "place" pertains not only to a concrete and named spot but is also a gathering place for "history and feeling." She writes, so to speak, against the current of this book in compressing the meaning of "space" into what she perceives in the dynamic word, "place." It condenses the inward and the outward turning of meaning: "place" contains an actual place that is the gathering spot [End Page 122] of all that has been thought and felt there, personally and historically. For a critic, though, the binomial distinction may oversimplify but aid in analysis.
Elizabeth Bowen, another author in whose writing the element of place is very important, complicates matters further in Pictures and Conversations. She ruminates that "where" stories happen is unclear. Michel de Certeau's binomial distinction between "place" and "space" doesn't begin to cover the "where" of her fiction. Does "place" always have traces of the material, geographical, political—that which attracts analysis in this volume? Are some places fragmented memories? Are some places imagined? Can a place sometimes organize itself into an abstract shape? Is the dynamism of a place socially determined by its use and practice, as de Certeau asserts? Or is it in the mind of the reader who recognizes its traces in the writing of the author who can create inward-turning static or outward-turning fluid descriptions of place? Virginia Woolf asks similar kinds of questions.
In Modern Fiction, Woolf highlights her interest in "the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance which each sight or incident scores upon consciousness," leading us to her inward landscape. It is not just critics like Bachelard who were interested in interiority, but Woolf herself, and it is a mark of her style that we sometimes have difficulty seeing places, given her emphasis on the inner eye. That is not to say that the physical, material, social, and historical are not present in Woolf's palimpsest: solid objects (such as houses or marks on the wall) are an extension or creation of the imagination. In many of her houses (the Ramsay house, for example, or in the story "Hampstead"), Woolf notes that the persons of the characters in the story "are of a piece with the house." The psychological or historical extension and haunting in some of...