- Woolf in Context
SIMILAR TO OTHER BOOKS in Cambridge University Press’s Literature in Context series, this collection places a particular writer within the various contexts that inform his or her work. In addition, as editors Randall and Goldman point out in the preface this volume highlights in Part I the “significant contextual concerns” addressed in Woolf studies; Part II reassesses these contexts, as well as introduces new contexts not already discussed in the criticism. Furthermore, as Randall and Goldman stress, the essays included in Part I “are not mere surveys of existing scholarship, but interventions in … current debate” to show “how far theoretically informed readings of Woolf engage with or transcend historical context.” Likewise, the essays in Part II do not simply provide “an historical account of particular historical or cultural contexts” but illustrate “how we might read and understand Woolf’s writing in relation to such contexts” and “why such a context-informed approach has become of interest to us now.”
Certainly, this collection meets the first of its aims, providing a thorough discussion of significant contextual concerns in Woolf studies and intervening in current critical debate by noting problematic developments in how critics have represented Woolf and suggesting new avenues for future discussion of her work. For example, in chapter 8, “Woolf and Psychoanalytic Theory,” Sanja Bahun points out what has been problematic about psychoanalytic approaches to Woolf, especially psychobiography, which sometimes reduces Woolf to a “damaged [End Page 284] thing,” making her “an easy prey to simplistic judgments” about her mental health. Bahun argues for an approach that more fully connects psychoanalysis with “material history” and “textual practice,” and she provides such analysis by focusing on the specific context of Woolf’s rejection of Freudian psychoanalysis and embrace of art/writing as an alternative form of therapy. Likewise, in chapter 10, “Woolf and Theories of Sexuality,” Patricia Morgne Cramer interrogates recent queer theory and its reliance on Foucauldian concepts. Cramer argues for a more contextually nuanced reading of Woolf’s understanding of sexuality, which more fully acknowledges how the term “lesbian” was understood and used by Woolf and her contemporaries.
Part I of the collection assumes a relatively high level of knowledge about (and interest in) Woolf studies; for someone who is strongly interested in Woolf but not necessarily a specialist, I found Part I challenging but nevertheless invigorating to read. It was exciting to see scholars well versed in the criticism offering new ideas about Woolf’s place in modernism (see Bryony Randall’s “Woolf and Modernist Studies”), and I gained new insight into how sophisticated theoretical concepts, such as Deleuze and Guattari’s “counter-oedipal” theory, might be applied to Woolf’s work (see Claire Colebrook’s “Woolf and ‘Theory’”). In some cases, additional application of the theoretical concepts used in chapters 1–10 would benefit nonspecialist readers. For example, while chapter 9, “Woolf and Theories of Postcolonialism,” was one of the most fascinating in the collection, I would have liked to have read more about many of the specific contexts Sonita Sarker discusses in the chapter (i.e., Woolf’s knowledge about Africa, especially Ethiopia, and her family’s involvement in antislavery efforts, both of which are mentioned but not discussed fully). This lack of development, either of specific contexts or of the application of particular contexts to Woolf’s texts, appears not to be the fault of the authors who wrote chapters 1–10. Instead, there is the sense that an assigned length for the essays likely resulted in this shortcoming; it might have been addressed by placing chapters with similar approaches (i.e., psychoanalytical, sexuality studies, postcolonial) alongside each other or by providing an alternative table of contents, which readers could use to first read the appropriate theoretical chapter in Part I and then turn to the corresponding application chapters in Part II. In fact, a very interesting follow-up to Sarker’s chapter is Anna Snaith’s “Race, Empire, and Ireland,” which does not appear until chapter 16. Reading these two chapters together would have been perhaps...