Who dares turn their nose up at Mrs Dalloway?

February 21, 2003

The rapturous reception of The Hours has confirmed the American love affair with Virginia Woolf but many British critics stubbornly refuse to accord her classic status. Brenda Silver explores a literary transatlantic divide.

Edward Albee has a lot to answer for. "Who's afraid of Virginia Woolf?"; "Who's obsessed by Virginia Woolf?"; "Who's a fan of Virginia Woolf?": these are just a sample of the headlines generated by Stephen Daldry's film The Hours . Based on Michael Cunningham's prize-winning novel, which is itself a rewriting of Virginia Woolf's 1925 novel Mrs Dalloway, The Hours puts the writer on the screen as a fictional character. Is there anyone reading this article who doesn't know that Nicole Kidman, wearing a prosthetic nose, plays Woolf and has already won a Golden Globe award and an Oscar nomination for her performance? And is there any media critic who hasn't weighed in on the film and the fear-evoking woman who started it all?

For those of us who track the metamorphosis of the woman/writer Virginia Woolf into the iconic "Virginia Woolf," the most recent round of salvoes over what she represents and why we should or should not care has an eerily familiar ring. For years now, "Virginia Woolf" has served as a battleground where academics, critics and common readers can define themselves by their take on her. As a result, articles about Woolf tend to tell us far more about ourselves than about the writer.

In the US, where the almost universal acclaim for the film led one commentator to describe herself as "the only person in North America with anything bad to say about The Hours ", the assumption that Mrs Dalloway is a "modernist classic" and its creator a "major author" goes without saying.

Among academics, this assumption crosses national borders, creating a global community. The International Virginia Woolf Society has its headquarters in the US, a website based in Canada, and members from all over the world; independent Virginia Woolf societies exist in France, Japan and, more recently, Britain. This summer, Russia will host its own conference on the writer. In this world, Woolf is a superstar, an emblematic literary genius on a par with Shakespeare.

But Woolf's stature, both in the academic world and among talking heads, has always been more problematic in Britain. Until two years ago, for example, when Wales got involved, all of the yearly conferences loosely associated with the IVWS were held in the US. In June 2004, the conference will finally move to Bloomsbury.

Bloomsbury. There's the rub, and one entrée into the often vitriolic reactions to Woolf found in the British media. In Britain, Woolf's association with the Bloomsbury Group, described by Maria Alvarez in The Guardian as "undeniably snobbish and eccentric", and her "unabashed high-brow aestheticism" have produced a Woolf whose "truly terrible" novels, Philip Hensher raged in The Daily Telegraph - "inept, ugly, fatuous, badly written and revoltingly self-indulgent" - "are responsible for putting more people off modern literature than anything else". "There's much more of a class debate about her here," Hermione Lee, her biographer, noted with classic British understatement in The Daily Express . "She's often attacked for being a snob, along with the rest of the Bloomsbury Group. It's amazing the venom they attract."

Amazing, perhaps, but not surprising in a society where the intersections of social class and cultural class have permeated the study of literature since at least the 1930s. To a great extent, we have F. R. Leavis to thank or blame for this. Both in his role as member of the Cambridge English faculty, where he trained generations of teachers for secondary schools and universities, and in his role as editor of the critical journal Scrutiny , Leavis had an enormous influence on which writers were taught and what constituted literary and moral worth.

In their campaign to introduce what Francis Mulhern describes as a "new, mainly petit bourgeois and self-consciously 'provincial' social layer into the national intelligentsia," the Scrutiny group made Woolf and "the Bloomsbury ethos" their prime targets. The result was to reduce Woolf to a footnote in the great tradition of the English novel located in Austen, Eliot, James and Conrad, with a nod to Dickens and sweeping endorsement of Lawrence as its inheritor. Woolf, along with E. M. Forster, became an exemplar of an upper-middle-class belle lettrism and politeness, a "Good Taste" that Malcolm Bradbury described in 1956 as "dilettante", "elite" and lacking in true literary discrimination.

Or, as Alan Bennett put it in the title of his witty 1978 television play, Me, I'm Afraid of Virginia Woolf . Tracing a day in the life of an English teacher at a provincial mechanics institute, where he tries, unsuccessfully, to get his night students to discuss Woolf's novels and not her life, the play evokes a Woolf who stands resolutely for Art, Literature and Culture, all decidedly in caps, but one who doesn't stand a chance against the lower case "life" animating the students. "Take the novels of the lady in question, Virginia Woolf," one student comments. "Sensitive, yes. Poetic, yes. Gutsy? No." Another, reacting to her snobbishness, knows "jolly well she'd have really looked down her snitch at me".

Ah, that nose: so prominent, so aristocratic, so much of part of our visual image of Woolf that The Hours' film-makers felt compelled to reproduce it on Kidman's face. Bennett, challenging her power, does the opposite: he erases it. Literally. Trying to erase the moustache that was added along with "a large pair of tits" to the photograph of Woolf hanging on the classroom wall, a hapless student rubs the nose out as well. The scene ends with the portrait dropped into the wastepaper basket.

Class, then, is central to the battles waged over and through the figure of Woolf in Britain, but so, too, is gender, and here Woolf proves scary across the Anglo-American divide.

Just look at the face of Woolf that fills the screen in another film, Hanif Kureishi and Stephen Frears' 1987 Sammy and Rosie Get Laid , growing "more horrible," the script tells us, the more she stares, Medusa-like, at the characters and us. By the time Kureishi wrote Woolf into the film - as both a homage to feminism and a reminder of the nightmare of feminism - the women's movement in the US and Britain had begun to create new versions of Woolf. These versions highlighted the political, social and feminist aspects of her writings, as well the transgressive sexuality - homosexuality, bisexuality - that was so much a part of Bloomsbury life.

Most of all, though, they took Woolf seriously as a writer who had a profound impact on 20th-century art.

We all know the end of this particular story, readily apparent in the deluge of recent articles about her: the elevation of Woolf into "feminist icon" and emblematic woman writer, securely established in the classroom and the literary canon and no longer possible for cultural arbiters and media types to ignore. But they certainly weren't going to let the "feminists", whoever they are, have the last word.

At this point in the history of Woolf's reputation, the cultural battles over who gets to define her meaning become distinctly odd and utterly predictable. On the one side, we find those who desire to reclaim the writer from both the Woolf "cult" and from the "industry", which has not only made her face the best-selling postcard at the National Portrait Gallery, but also turned the Bloomsbury group homes in Sussex, Charleston and Monks House, into tourist shrines. The goal for this side is to return Woolf to her proper sphere, the intellectual realm of a disinterested high art.

On the other side, we find the iconoclasts, who want to smash rather than reclaim her; for them, Woolf is vastly overrated, and that is that.

The first response, which is more common in the US than Britain, is illustrated by Claudia Winkler's criticism of The Hours in the conservative Weekly Standard. Based in part on the film's "heavy-handed lesbian motif" and its attack on the family, the critique ends with Winkler's absolute assurance that Woolf, who, she states, decried the label "feminist writer" and any political agendas in fiction, would have agreed with her.

The second response, which is far more British, is not limited to Hensher; David Sexton in The Evening Standard and D. J. Taylor in The Independent , which also presented "the case for", echo the dismissal of her "insufferable" novels.

Back in 1991 Tom Paulin, narrating the J'Accuse programme on Channel Four devoted to debunking Woolf, declared himself outraged and mystified by her "enormous and extraordinary" popularity. Nor could he understand why his students were "personally offended" if he made the slightest criticism of her work.

Me, I'm placing my bets on the students. All of us who teach Woolf know that students fall in love with her novels; when they grow up, they continue to read her. The straw poll that Jennifer Selway took in her office at the Daily Express may not have turned up anyone who had actually read her novels, but in the US they are selling like crazy. On the week of February 1, Mrs Dalloway was No 3 on the San Francisco Chronicle 's bestseller list and To the Lighthouse No 10. On February 9 Mrs Dalloway hit the New York Times list as well. As of this writing, Amazon.com lists Mrs Dalloway at No 3.

Brenda R. Silver is Mary Brinsmead Wheelock professor of English at Dartmouth College, in the US, and author of Virginia Woolf Icon (University of Chicago Press, £13.50).

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