‘Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end’
(Woolf, ‘Modern Fiction’ 160).
The difference between gig lamps and halos is the difference in how life is recorded, whether by memory or storyteller, and how life is experienced. While any novel will inevitably illuminate its narrative with both, the material of life itself has traditionally been much more heavily dealt with by the light of the gig lamp. The soft luminescence of the halo, the experiential recording of life, is the form advocated by Woolf, a form which she argues is able to capture the essence of life in a manner no longer possible by the ‘ill-fitting vestments’ of traditional English literature. Writers in this tradition, such as Bennett and Gladsworthy, she labels materialists for what she saw as their concern with the body over the spirit. They make ‘the trivial and the transitory appear the true and enduring.’ (‘Modern Fiction’ 159-160) Woolf instead bids us to examine ‘an ordinary mind on an ordinary day. The mind receives a myriad impressions — trivial, fantastic, evanescent, or engraved with the sharpness of steel. From all sides they come, an incessant shower of innumerable atoms… Let us record the atoms’ (‘Modern Fiction’ 161). It is this experience of life that Woolf endeavours to recreate in her fiction. Metaphor, of course, comes cleaner and easier than practice, and Woolf’s method of “recording the atoms” constitutes a philosophy that would evolve significantly over the span of her career. The development of one particularly interesting facet of Woolf’s approach to “writing the halo” will be the focus of this study – the quite unique melding of her own aesthetic and narrative consciousness with the moment by moment experiences of her characters. This essay will examine this particular aspect of Woolf in three of her novels: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse and Between the Acts. Specifically, it will examine the very distinct impact this has on the conception of life which she portrays in her fiction, and how this vision operates across her works.
Woolf was of course not just a prolific writer of fiction, but also a prolific critic of fiction. Between her diaries, reviews and correspondences both personal and official, we are afforded a generous awareness of her philosophy of writing. While later critics have attempted to look for the ‘gig lamps’ of her ideology, it is clear that Woolf’s was an ever evolving and even mercurial one. For example, in her 1919 essay ‘Modern Fiction’ she criticises the artifice of the “materialist” conception of life, characterising such writers as binding their genius to forms which life has long since ceased to inhabit. (159) She additionally calls for the modern author to convey the ‘varying, unknown spirit … with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible,’ – that is to detach themselves from their narratives. (160) These however cannot be seen to be criticisms which her own work can escape, or ones they even seek to escape. Even if we accept Woolf’s criticism of the “materialist” narrative as artifice, (and her opinions thereon do not seem so straight-forward) unlike the scientist the writer does not have the benefit of the hermetic detector to record the atoms of human experience. There is no escaping the artifice of art in this endeavour. Likewise, Woolf is by no means a disinterested spectator of her own works. While her moments as omnipotent narrator are rare she yet presses a very distinct personal direction upon her narrative. In the ivory tower of literary jargon some parties have argued that this disqualifies her from being deemed a stream of consciousness writer. Though definitions of what a stream of consciousness writer actually entails can differ quite widely, it is Woolf’s mediation of her characters thoughts, and the translating of them from a more realistic low English to her own highly poetic and self-consciously aesthetic prose which sets her so apart. (Naremore 63-67) While it is not within the scope of this essay to give anything more than a passing reference to a debate over academic terminology, the general argument is that Woolf typically writes in a style that resembles not so much the actual moment by moment impressions of the characters themselves, but rather those thoughts and experiences mediated through her voice and, importantly, through her quite unique artistic vision. Consider, as example, the following passage from Mrs. Dalloway:
‘Fear no more, says the heart, committing its burden to some sea, which sighs collectively for all sorrows, and renews, begins, collects, lets fall. And the body alone listens to the passing bee; the wave breaking; the dog barking, far away barking and barking. “Heavens, the front-door bell!” exclaimed Clarissa.’ (Mrs. Dalloway 32)
It is clear that writing such as this extends beyond the sensory impressions and fragments of thought which we might expect from Woolf’s call to ‘record the atoms as they fall.’ It forms an impression which surpasses the moment by moment experience of Clarissa to become something half lodged in the realm of the aesthetic, and half in the experiential. We suspect that it brings us closer, emotionally and empathetically, to Clarissa’s experience than a more realistic replica of each ‘score upon [her] consciousness’ would. (‘Modern Fiction’ 161) Though Woolf does not bind herself to one particular style it is understandable as to why her prose would not be considered by some as stream of consciousness. The debate on such matters is not what is important here but rather the effect. Woolf weds herself – her style, aesthetic, poetry – to the moment by moment experiences of her characters. While it is inevitable in the flowing from thought to ink that writing will take, at some level, the character of its author, Woolf’s prose achieves something quite different. Woolf acts almost as a guide through the consciousness of her characters, colouring what one witnesses there with her own impressionist aesthetic. She infuses the world with herself.
Auerbach, in an extended analysis of To the Lighthouse’s “Brown Stocking” scene, identifies Woolf’s speaker not as a ‘narrator of objective facts,’ but a multipersonal collection of dramatis personae , capable of penetrating the depths of the human soul, capable too of knowing something about it, but not of attaining the clarity as to what is in process there…’ (Auerbach 531-532) This manner of representing life is highly charged with one strain of the modernist agenda, that being the epistemological challenge against knowing. We are not given access to the true Mrs. Dalloway or Mrs. Ramsay. We see them as others see them, as they are seen by themselves, in how they are reflected in the world around them. They are revealed to us as mutable, contradictory minds, as living characters, the possibility of which Woolf claims escapes from the novels such as those of Bennett, where ‘there is not so much as a draught between the frames of the window, or a crack in the boards.’ (‘Modern Fiction’ 158-9) ‘It is […] an age of fragments,’ Woolf claims in her 1923 essay ‘How it Strikes a Contemporary,’ (156) the expression of which we best see in her novel of almost twenty years subsequent, Between the Acts. The final scene of the village play has the cast, each bearing something reflective, create a fragmented looking glass for their audience, in parody of the realist claim to hold a mirror up to nature.
Out they leapt, jerked, skipped. Flashing, dazzling, dancing, jumping. Now old Bart … he was caught. Now Manresa. Here a nose … There a skirt … Then trousers only … Now perhaps a face…. Ourselves? But that’s cruel. To snap us as we are, before we’ve had time to assume … And only, too, in parts…. That’s what’s so distorting and upsetting and utterly unfair. (132)
Naremore notes that nowhere in her previous works does the ellipses appear more often, ‘as if’, he extrapolates, ‘to emphasise the tenuous and fragmentary quality of life.’ (223) Mr. Streatfield, in his attempt to bring order to the disconcerted audience’s understanding of the play, turns to his faith for some organising principle; ‘May we not hold that there is a spirit that inspires, pervades […] Scraps, orts and fragments! Surely, we should unite?’ (138) The majority of the crowd regard his efforts more with amusement than solemnity. Here we see in Woolf one of those hallmark modernist “family resemblances;” a world is believed to be fragmented and disjointed, and is so mirrored in a text of the same character, both of which supposedly beyond the unifying principle craved by man. That does not of course stop critics for looking for some organising principle (nor, puzzlingly, some authors from providing them). Joyce’s Ulysses and Eliot’s The Wasteland are both interesting examples of this phenomenon. Eliot lauds Joyce mythic method as ‘giving a shape and a significance to the immense panorama of futility and anarchy which is contemporary history,’ (130) generally regarded as speaking concurrently of his own experiments with that method. Both of course are famed for their baffling disregard of conventional form and style, and for the fragmented and even disintegrating society they illustrate. This same dichotomy is also seen in Woolf. Despite her chaotic and mercurial illustration of thought and emotion, and the almost perennial isolation that her characters are defined by, there is yet a pervading preoccupation with unity, order and even unanimity. Take for example the following scene from Mrs. Dalloway:
Clarissa had a theory in those days… It was to explain the feeling they had of dissatisfaction; not knowing people; not being known. For how could they know each other? You met every day; then not for six months, or years. It was unsatisfactory, they agreed, how little one knew people. But she said, sitting on the bus going up Shaftesbury Avenue, she felt herself everywhere; not “here, here, here”; and she tapped the back of the seat; but everywhere. She waved her hand, going up Shaftesbury Avenue. She was all that. (125)
Clarissa is expressing the human condition that Woolf echoes in ‘A Room of One’s Own’ – the belief that one is separate and unique and individual while simultaneously formed and therefore part of a wider web of people and place. ‘The mind’, Woolf reflects, ‘is certainly a very mysterious organ … It can separate itself from the people in the street, for example, and think of itself apart from them … Or it can think with other people spontaneously as … in a crowd waiting to hear some piece of news read out.’ (145-6) A similar sentiment is again puzzled over by Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse, who considers it strange that old acquaintances of theirs, the Mannings, ‘had been capable of going on living all these years when she had not thought of them more than once all that time,’ noting the idea that they may also not have thought of her as being ‘strange and distasteful.’ (133) There is a yearning, in both the characters and, importantly, the medium through which they are voiced, to resonate with their surroundings, to glimpse some latent, fundamental unifying force.
This hunger for unity, for the revelation of some underlying order or harmony, is critical to understanding Woolf’s portrayal of life. It separates Woolf’s method of writing from Joyce’s, which she perhaps unfairly characterised as being defined by the egoism (and lewdness) of a self-taught underbred workingman. (The Diary of Virginia Woolf 2:188-9) Woolf reacts to Joyce like this for a number of reasons. On the literary level she believes that he, like the materialists, attempts to capture life within the human consciousness at the expense of the outside world. (Naremore, 75) Her ‘luminous halo’ however extends beyond the consciousness of the individual and indeed beyond the consciousness of the mere human. The Woolfian narrator could perhaps be understood as some manner of genius loci, an omnipresent (if not omniscient) speaker bound to a location – London, the Isle of Sky, Pointz Hall – capable of flitting from character to character, following the trails of memory and association, and, as Auerbach suggests, capable of understanding something of the soul if not all its workings. It is a self-consciously artistic spirit, not only in voice but in understanding.
McLaurin relates Woolf”s style to that of a French group of writers, the Unanimists, who based their work on the ‘psychological phenomenon of group consciousness and collective emotion,’ and the artists ability to merge with this transcendent consciousness. (Encylopedia Britannica, “Unanimism”) The Bloomsbury group of which Woolf was a member shared an interest in the groupmind with the Unanimists, and indeed connections between her work and theirs was made by two of her prominent early reviewers, E.M. Forster and Conrad Aiken. (McLaurin, 115-6) The dinner scene in To the Lighthouse is highly illustrative of this philosophy. The gong serves to immediately break the characters from their private reveries, summoning them to dinner. Mrs. Ramsay however must serve to animate the group, noting that initially ‘Nothing seemed to have merged. They all sat separate. And the whole of the effort of merging and flowing and creating rested on her.’ (126) When the dinner is unified it is to negative effects however, a group feeling that something is missing; ‘ Lily felt that something was lacking; Mr. Bankes felt that something was lacking. Pulling her shawl round her Mrs Ramsay felt that something was lacking…’ (141-2) The same scene is repeated in Between the Acts; ‘[Giles] said (without words) “I’m damnably unhappy.” “So am I,” Dodge echoed. “And I too,” Isa thought.’ (126) In Mrs. Dalloway the classic example of this is that of sky-writing scene, which Woolf’s later comments in ‘A Room of One’s Own,’ quoted above, are I believe deliberately reminiscent of. The London crowd are briefly united from their usual, fragmented thoughts as they stare in unison at the puzzle being traced out above them. The narrative voice mirrors this as it flits between voices, representing not what was actually written in the sky but rather a conglomerate of understandings. A more uncanny example of the groupmind is in the double relationship of Clarissa and Septimus. Fleishman draws attention to Septimus’ adoption of Clarissa’s ‘Fear no more’ leitmotif before his suicide. (181) Clarissa herself later senses this somehow, ‘Fear no more the heat of the sun. She must go back to them. But what an extraordinary night! She felt somehow very like him— the young man who had killed himself.’ (153) Here the narrating voice is also an animating one, as if its desire for aesthetic harmony is exerting a pressure on the physical world to conform with such a vision.
The uncanny power of the narrator to shape the physical world surfaces most blatantly in Between the Acts, tied up as it is with the artist figure (often read as a Woolf surrogate) of Miss La Trobe. McLaurin draws a connection between La Trobe and the animator figure of the unanimists, noting that a village and the audience of a play are two of Romain’s classic examples of potential ‘unanimes.’ (118) La Trobe is indeed obsessed with the ability of her art to unite and draw together, thinking of herself as ‘one who seethes wandering bodies and floating voices in a cauldron, and makes rise up from its amorphous mass a recreated world.’ (111) From the beginning however her play is beset by poor actors, limited equipment and inclement conditions which prevent much of it from being heard by the audience in more than orts and fragments. In a manner quite surreal however we witness nature itself bowing to her artistic demands. Three times nature intervenes to save the play, from the bellowing of cows to a sudden, much needed shower of rain, falling as if to conform to La Trobe’s wish to ‘douche [the audience] in present-time reality.’ (129) Elsewhere too we witness the physical interferences of some manner of artistic spirit. Giles encounter with the ‘monstrous inversion’, a snake choking on a frog, belongs more to the world of symbolism than reality, while the already mentioned uncanny echoing of Giles, Isa and Dodge’s thoughts verges on the telepathic. Across the three novels the Woolfian voice, though light-touched, is also a Woolfian force. The novels are imbued with a manner of self-awareness, a barely perceptible drive towards aesthetic harmony.
The drive towards revealing some fundamental impulse towards unity is present throughout the three novels discussed, far beyond the few examples given in this essay. This drive must be placed in context, however, if it is illustrate the conception of life Woolf portrays. Woolf’s characters are ever grasping for something greater than the individual. They are also ever falling short of this goal. Mrs. Ramsay’s dinner serves to unite her guests in a feeling of ‘something lacking.’ Miss La Trobe’s play achieves a similar result. There is no revelation, no discovery of happiness which lasts longer than a few lines. Clarissa and Peter remain the same people at the end of the day as they are at the start. The relationships which brew in the first section of To the Lighthouse are unfulfilled, in the case of Lily Briscoe and Mr. Bankes, and unfulfilling in the case of the Rayleys. The ills and insecurities of Mr. Ramsay and Lily likewise change little with the passage of time. As Malcolm Cowley notes in his review of Between the Acts, ‘[The pageant] is brilliantly written, and while it lasts it holds the audience together, after a fashion. When it ends the spectators and the actors disperse to their homes […] A summer day has passed and much has been revealed, but nothing has been changed.” (23-4) Is Woolf’s vision then an unfulfilled one? In explaining the stymieing of this vision it may be tempting to look to Woolf’s own character for the cause. Her own depression, especially at the time of her writing Between the Acts, has been the focus of many critics of her work. Such a theory is short-sighted however and even lazy. Woolf expresses a wish to be an author of life, an author of atoms and halos. We cannot therefore expect her to provide a fairy tale ending, a sudden revelation which leads to a lifetime of happiness. The philosophy of unity, of a primal impellation towards harmony, is unfulfilled. Her philosophy of art however, wrapped up in this quasi-unanimism, is not. It is through art that Woolf’s characters are stirred to be part of something greater, that they, even if but for a moment, feel fulfilled. Whether the aesthetic act is in the form of a party or a painting, a play or a piece of music, it is through it that Woolf’s characters find the means to apprehend the underlying order of life, temporarily though it may be. Clarissa finds this in her party, in her instinctive ability to bring people together. Miss La Trobe, though an emotional wreck, finds her moment of triumph in her play. Her audience, brought together in confusion and under the impetus of the familiar tune of the gramophone, ‘Like quicksilver sliding, filings magnetized […] they crashed; solved; united.’ (135) Lily, though troubled in reproducing her vision, ‘could see it all so clearly, so commandingly’ when at her painting. (32) Furthermore, while time does not grant the revelation that she so eagerly sought in her younger years, it does grant her insight;
‘The great revelation perhaps never did come. Instead there were little daily miracles, illuminations, matches struck unexpectedly in the dark;[…] — this was of the nature of a revelation. In the midst of chaos there was shape; this eternal passing and flowing (she looked at the clouds going and the leaves shaking) was struck into stability.
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—. “Modern Fiction” The Essays of Virginia Woolf . Ed. Andrew McNeille. Vol.4. London: Hogarth Press, 1984. Print.
—. “How it Strikes a Contemporary” Collected Essays. Vol.2. London: Hogarth Press, 1972. Print.
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