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MFS Modern Fiction Studies 50.1 (2004) 224-240
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From Supernova to Manuscript Page:
Holly Henry. Virginia Woolf and the Discourse of Science: The Aesthetics of Astronomy. New York: Cambridge UP, 2003. xiii + 208 pp.
Merry M. Pawlowski, ed. Virginia Woolf and Fascism: Resisting the Dictator's Seduction. London: Palgrave, 2001. xiv + 241 pp.
Sean Latham. "Am I a Snob?" Modernism and the Novel. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 2003. xii + 240 pp.
James M. Haule and J. H. Stape, eds. Editing Virginia Woolf: Interpreting the Modernist Text. London: Palgrave, 2002. xvi + 198 pp.
Woolf criticism has reached an enviable position. No one who has read Woolf's novels at all carefully still assents to Leonard Woolf's description of her as "the least political animal that has lived since Aristotle invented the definition" (27); Modern Fiction Studies has chosen to mark its fiftieth anniversary with this special issue; virtually every course on modern British literature now includes her, even [End Page 224] when she is the only woman taught. Woolf is securely canonical. Woolf critics are therefore free to pursue lines of inquiry that would have been difficult had the project of recovery not been so thoroughly carried through. They can, as they do in the texts under review here, delve into a range of important contexts within which Woolf lived and wrote. Situating Woolf within diverse terrains, these studies contribute what we might call "thick contextualization" to Woolf studies.
The word "circling" in my title refers primarily to this variety of contexts—to my sense that these critics approach Woolf from disparate vantage points on the concentric circles of literature and culture that surround her. The most unusual route is taken by Henry's book on astronomy: many students and teachers of Woolf will be surprised to find there was a book to be written about her responses to discoveries in astronomy. "Circling" also refers to the thoroughness with which these books present their contexts. Snobbery, for example, is not as surprising a topic for a book that includes two chapters on Virginia Woolf. But Latham views the topic from many perspectives, offering a literary history of the snob, an analysis of Woolf's contributions to the snob's figuration, and a discussion of the ways in which snobbery was both threatening and useful to her career. And Editing Virginia Woolf describes with analogous completeness the project of editing Woolf's work, from the diaries and letters to Between the Acts and Roger Fry. This collection, indeed, serves as something of a hallmark of Woolf's established position: textual scholarship tends to focus on writers about whom there is enough interest to justify close attention to their manuscripts.
But there are other benefits to working on the most canonical twentieth-century British woman writer, of which this group of critical books has not taken full advantage. First, Woolf critics need no longer simply celebrate Woolf's work or her politics; instead they can work toward more complex and accurate views of her shifting and sometimes conflicted approaches to her world. By continuing along a recuperative vein, Virginia Woolf and Fascism in particular positions Woolf criticism less securely than one could reasonably expect.1 Holly Henry's study, too, acknowledges in Woolf only positive responses to astronomy, those that helped produce her critiques of militarism. Even Editing Virginia Woolf, when it does participate in critical debates, defends Woolf from charges of toning down her feminism and her anger as she revised. My point is not that these celebratory claims are false; they seem perfectly sensible. It is only that the body of recent Woolf criticism generally limits itself to those aspects of Woolf's work we can strongly endorse.
A second, closely related benefit is that we need not seek consistency across Woolf's oeuvre (an aim ostensibly repudiated in contemporary [End Page 225] criticism anyway) as a means of demonstrating her right to canonical status. As a result, critics of Woolf can afford to interpret Woolf's fictions with more depth and daring, with less need to...