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  • The Public Woman and the Modernist Turn:Virginia Woolf's The Voyage Out and Elizabeth Robins's My Little Sister
  • Molly Hite (bio)

In her great modernist polemic "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown," Virginia Woolf constructed not only her "Georgian" canon but also her roster of "Edwardian" precursors entirely of male writers: "Mr. Wells, Mr. Bennett, and Mr. Galsworthy I will call the Edwardians; Mr. Forster, Mr. Lawrence, Mr. Strachey, Mr. Joyce, and Mr. Eliot I will call the Georgians."1 Although some recent critics have written about the ironic as well as strategic nature of the Georgian list, modernist scholars still tend to take Woolf's word that available Edwardian models were male novelists.

Yet recent scholars of the fin de siècle like Elaine Showalter, Ann Ardis, Talia Schaffer, Kathy Psomiades and Marysa DeMoor show us a critically-acclaimed and widely-read group of female and often feminist writers of the generation preceding Virginia Woolf's who produced novels that were aggressively "modern" in their attitudes and subject matter, if not in their relation to inherited narrative forms and styles.2 Woolf read, and in some cases wrote, reviews of fiction by these women writers. Her relation to them, however, was at best ambivalent; her refusal to mention them in her major documents about the Edwardians protected them from her direct criticism, but in the same gesture implicated them in the judgment "that there was no English novelist living from whom" writers of her generation "could learn their business" (CB, 99). Furthermore, by refusing to mention these female writers in her great canon-forming polemics, Woolf helped make them forgotten by much of twentieth-century literary history, or at best, regarded as minor. [End Page 523]

The feminist writer of this group who is the most evident Edwardian antecedent of Virginia Woolf is the American-born London actress, actor-manager, suffrage spokeswoman and critically acclaimed novelist, Elizabeth Robins. Jane Marcus and Joanne E. Gates have written about Robins as a foremother of Woolf, a writer of the previous, maternal generation of fiction writers who shared Woolf's concern for women's rights and understanding of women writers. But both critics see the relation between Robins and Woolf as congenial and unproblematic.3 Two reviews that Virginia Woolf wrote of Robins's books and several of her references to Robins in diaries and letters as well as some anecdotes in Leonard Woolf's memoirs indicate that, on the contrary, to Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Robins was outdated, "a prewar writer" who also put herself forward as a public figure in ways that made the younger woman acutely uncomfortable.4 Some of Robins's novels were also prime examples of what Woolf decried in "Mr. Bennett and Mr. Brown" as the characteristic incompleteness of Edwardian novels, provoking frustrated readers "to join a society, or, more desperately, to write a cheque" to finish them (CB, 99). Yet Robins wrote about some of the same subjects that Virginia Woolf addressed only a few years later. Her anonymously published Ancilla's Share, a denunciation of "sex-antagonism," made many of the points and used many of the images that appear in A Room of One's Own, published five years later.5 Her 1905 scandal novel A Dark Lantern, treated sympathetically, but with a very different attitude toward doctors, the themes of sexual trauma and the rest cure that appeared in Woolf's 1925 novel Mrs. Dalloway. And as this essay will discuss, a 1913 scandal novel, published in England as Where Are You Going To . . .? and in the U.S. as My Little Sister, deals with the same questions about the education of young women and female sexual slavery as does Virginia Woolf's first novel The Voyage Out, published in 1915. I use this original edition of The Voyage Out, based on the 1915 Duckworth publication, rather than the Harcourt edition, which reproduces the text that Virginia Woolf revised in 1919-20, because the Duckworth edition demonstrates that even in the first published version of her first novel Woolf was experimenting with a narrative strategy of withholding or presenting conflicting tonal cues, thus at key points refusing to give readers authorial guidance...


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