- In the Hollow of the Wave: Virginia Woolf and Modernist Uses of Nature
Bonnie Kime Scott’s In the Hollow of the Wave: Virginia Woolf and Modernist Uses of Nature is a very welcome addition to Woolf studies, a product of increasing interest in Woolf and the environment. Perhaps the first monograph to address the intersection of modernism and nature through an ecocritical perspective, Scott’s study provides intriguing insights into how the concept of nature impacted Woolf’s life and work, and it paves the way for future inquiry into the possibility of an ecocritical modernism. Predictably, Scott chooses to focus on an ecofeminist approach to Woolf while also drawing on postcolonial ecocritical theory. Her introduction explains that she has chosen the word “uses” for the title of her study because the word “calls attention to nature as a deliberate discourse, rather than essence or aesthetic decoration” (3). This small word, “use,” coheres the study in many respects. There is no one unifying way in which Woolf presents nature; rather, she offers a plethora of different representations dependent upon character, context, and time, and this subjectivity of nature is what guides the study. As Scott concludes at the end of the first chapter, “We now have the theoretical insight to consider the ways that nature itself is a cultural construction, variable with the ages, and highly political, as empowered intellectuals, or nations, seek to regulate or to collect nature for their own ends. Modernism provides a fine example, and Virginia Woolf a case worth pursuing in depth” (41).
The first chapter, “Towards a Greening of Modernism,” situates Woolf within a larger context of literary modernism and nature, discussing a diverse range of writers including H. D., Katherine Mansfield, T. S. Eliot, and Wyndham Lewis. Scott writes of the “reinsertion” of nature into modernist studies (was it ever there in the first place?), supported by the somewhat weak assertion that modernists “regularly make reference to nature, or its control, in their writing” (13). The second chapter, “Diversions of Darwin and Natural History,” is perhaps the strongest; it covers some hallowed ground in Woolf studies (Gillian Beer) and provides absorbing glimpses into the Stephen family’s relationship to natural history. From Leslie Stephen’s admiration of Gilbert White (45) to Thoby’s extensive bird-watching records and sketches (56–57) to Virginia’s diary records of family trips to the Natural History Museum in South Kensington as early as 1897 (48), Scott builds a convincing base for many of her arguments concerning Woolf’s texts.
The next two chapters, “Limits of the Garden as Cultured Space” and “The Art of Landscape, the Politics of Place,” also cover familiar ground in Woolf criticism, but they provide some curious readings, particularly in terms of the Bloomsbury circle’s engagement with nature (mostly in terms of the visual arts), the construction of “Englishness” through images of the rural landscape, and issues of gender and class as they relate to perceptions of nature. Particularly interesting is Scott’s discussion of gardens and flowers as forming part of the material text, an idea which stems from Vanessa’s woodcuts for Virginia’s pieces. For example: “In a 1927 illustrated version of Kew Gardens, flowers and leaves surround the words of the text,” for which there is also an accompanying image (90). Many of the thought provoking readings of Woolf’s “uses” of nature in Scott’s study, and in these two chapters in particular, are supported by the extensive archival research undertaken for the project; the photographs of Woolf with red-hot pokers, of Leslie Stephen with his “Alpine Guide,” and of Woolf and Vita Sackville-West with their spaniels are just a few examples of ephemera that support and complement the text.
Another strong quality of this study is how Scott demonstrates nature seeping into Woolf’s life at all points, a tendency that the author illustrates through the careful accumulation and presentation of seemingly small details extending from archival research. According to...