“Woman As Artist”
The New York Herald Tribune, 8 May 1927
Despite her modernity, Virginia Woolf is the best living example of that sort of mind which had its innings in letters in the eighteenth century—a mind partly critical, partly philosophical, highly imaginative, incapable of the vaster emotions but so subtle in its emotionalized intellectuality, so polished, that it makes most other contemporary writers appear to be parvenus of the intellect, stumbling self-consciously under their knowledge and their clevernesses. “Women can’t write, women can’t paint,” says a character in , and the crabbed and cranky expression arrests one as one proceeds slowly through this leisurely, melancholy, whimsical book—this book by a woman who in a few years has become one of the foremost living English novelists—who, indeed, of all contemporary English novelists, has the most high-bred, the most accomplished mind. Her intellect is as natural to her as the color of her hair or the shape of her hands—it gives a sinewy nervousness to her style, a glamour to her learning, and a queer reality to her ideas. We feel that, although her heart may be deceived sometimes, her intellect never is. She is not a modern in the sense that Joyce is a modern—a lightning-flash in the sky, obvious and visible to all—she is modern in the sense that she is a natural development from everything that has gone before; everything that is in her can be traced to some germ that has already appeared in English literature or English thought. She is not, then, startlingly new; she wants to do nothing very daring with literature; she would be justly horrified if it were suggested that she was trying to cross it with another art, or with science, as Joyce may be said to be doing. However, on the side of her modernity she has one thing that is common to the three most modern of contemporary novelists—Joyce, Proust, and the later George Moore; her books belong to the literature of memory.
She has written half a dozen novels and a couple of books of criticism, all of unique distinction. Her novels, on the whole, are more important than her purely critical books, though her criticism is extraordinarily fine and profound, if somewhat narrow in its range. She is too British to quite understand the Russians, or perhaps too regularized in her emotions. But who in our time has interpreted Jane Austen so well? Who, in so few words, has shown us so clearly the barbarism of H.G. Wells, whose very generosity of sympathy seems to add to his grossness? Who has brought so clearly to our attention that, though the characters of Arnold Bennett live abundantly and unexpectedly, we never know exactly how they live or what they live for? Who, among our modern writers, has stood more firmly for the interior life, more convincingly for scholarship without pedantry, for culture without genteelness? Who has stood out more broad-mindedly, more proudly for the civilization that has been handed down to us as against the shocking crudenesses and the more shocking genteelnesses that are invading us, and invading us particularly in America? As she herself says of Addison—she is on “the side of sense, taste and civilization.” No book of contemporary critical essays really surpasses her in just these qualities—sense, taste and civilization. She has unvarying vigor and soundness even when she is bewildered, as she sometimes is, about contemporary literature. and the will never cease to be a puzzle to her, even though she admits that, as compared with Mr. Wells’s materialism, they stand for spirituality. And her little pamphlet, , which appeared in this paper, is really only incidentally enlightening, for the reason that to the sort of modern literature which has its springs outside of the class to which she belongs she is a bewildered outsider. The world that she understands is university-bred and probably English university-bred at that.
But how original are her essays on Jane Austen and Joseph Addison, how profound her understanding of them and how easily do we perceive that she herself is a development from them! In her essay how completely does she express the puzzlement of a descendant of Addison and Jane Austen as to these Russians who can say with such simple conviction to any fellow man “Brother,” who so so easily understand everything with the heart, and who seem to make of the head only a handmaiden. Although, outside of Shakespeare, there is no more exciting reading for her than Dostoievsky, it is characteristic of her—characteristically English—that it is Tolstoy whom she really likes. It is also characteristic of her, as it is characteristic of the particular English intellectual class to which she belongs, that she has almost no prejudices.
To write of any novel of hers without taking her critical powers into account is impossible. For hers is the critical mind turned on to fiction. She is in a way like one of those graceful French précieuses of the eighteenth century who turned an investigating mind on life and letters. In this new book of hers, “To the Lighthouse,” she has invented a way of writing fiction that is a cross between and Addison’s . So frequently are the characters of her books intellectuals, or people whose main interests are intellectual, that we get the same impression as we get when we read her criticism, of the flashlight of the intellect being turned on life and on a few human beings, which are then revealed to us with a bright reality. Her people, in spite of their domesticity and their large families, seem hardly at all concerned in that major occupation of humanity, passing on life to other people, or even with the minor occupations that are incident to this. They seem to be concerned chiefly with something that is happening in their minds. Her women characters are all intellectuals, even when they aren’t in the least erudite, passing their lives in reverie, as intellectual women so frequently do in old
countries, dreaming their lives away, not bustling on to some sort of achievement as they do in America. For this reason her women are all fascinating, with a fascination that the intellectual woman has always had in real life when her intellect and her learning are an integral, unassumed part of her and do not stand out with the obviousness and the prickliness of quills on a porcupine. She can portray as no other living writer can these charming modern intellectual women, mysteriously sunk into themselves, revolving within their minds the mysteriousness of life, like Mrs. Ramsay in “To the Lighthouse,” feeling “alone with her old protagonist—life.” All of them are disappointed in some way, all unhappy in some way, as perhaps everybody is in this world who is not a clod of earth. They can be affectionate mothers, absorbed mothers, but they seem to be mothers, incidentally, in spite of the children who are forever hanging to their skirts, being read to, being soothed, being petted. Virginia Woolf can create like no other writer an atmosphere of cultivated English domesticity, that family life which is so different from American family life and which is in so many respects common to all old countries—that English family life where everybody is a distinct and separate individuality, with his own reserves, his own private happinesses and unhappinesses, his own interior life, his own loneliness—a household where there are doors to every room that close tightly and where people do not casually call each other by their Christian names. Within this family life her people are all natural and have no attitudes. “But we who have a private life and hold it infinitely the dearest of our possessions,” she writes in one of her critical essays, “suspect nothing so much as an attitude. Directly we begin to protest, to attitudinize, to lay down laws, we perish. We are living for others, not for ourselves.”
In this new book of hers, “To the Lighthouse,” she takes the family of the Ramsays in their summer home in the Hebrides and displays them in their everyday lives and occupations. There is their guest, Lily Briscoe; there is their guest Mr. Tansley, who used to keep saying, “Women can’t write, women can’t paint;” there is old Mr. Carmichael, who knew strange Oriental languages and had written poetry about the desert and the camel to which nobody had paid any attention for forty years, and then suddenly everybody began to talk about it. Then there are the eight Ramsay children and Mr. Ramsay, all of whom seem somehow to be intolerable interruptions to the reveries of Mrs. Ramsay. There is James, who always wanted to stick a knife in his father; Prue, who was so beautiful; Rose, who was so wonderful with her hands; Jasper, who would shoot the birds; Nancy and Roger, who were so wild; Andrew, who had a talent for mathematics; Cam, who was always made happy by a tenpenny doll’s tea set. There was Mr. Ramsay himself, who, when he was young, had written one little book that was a contribution to human thought, and since that many books which were not quite so good, so that he was forever harassed with the fear that nothing he wrote would live after him. We see him in the eyes of his children an egoist; in the eyes of Mrs. Ramsay and Lily Briscoe always looking for sympathy.
The first part of the book is the reverie of Mrs. Ramsay, the last part the reverie of Lily Briscoe, and the difference between the content of the minds of these two women, of their types of mentality, is really a triumph of creative skill. Lily Briscoe is so kind hearted, in love with all the Ramsays, a little in love with everyone, all her mental processes commonplace with the occasional high-falutin’ intellectualities of the intelligent commonplace mind. Lily is always trying to paint, struggling for some raison d’être for her painting, “one wanted to be on a level with ordinary experience, to feel simply that’s a chair, that’s a table, and at the same time it’s a miracle, it’s an ecstasy.” So mumbles Lily to herself, and we are made to know, as if the knowledge was wafted to us on air, that nothing ever was or ever will be a miracle to Lily. We see her complacently laying down her brush at the end, saying to herself: “I have had my vision.” It is the very last sentence in the book, and Mrs. Ramsay has been dead for years and years, for over half the book, but that last sentence of Lily’s more than anything else, makes us realize the marvelous distinction of Mrs. Ramsay and fills us with an intolerable loneliness for that rare and beautiful mind of Mrs. Ramsay, who, with all the eight children around her, had that habit of saying to herself, “What have I done with my life,” and that other habit of “feeling alone with her old protagonist—life.”
The actual happenings of “To the Lighthouse,” such as the death of Mrs. Ramsay or Andrew being killed in the war, are related in short sentences in brackets to avoid, as it were, interrupting the flow of the reveries and the stream of life which, as in our actual daily existence, goes on somehow, no matter what happens. The life of the Ramsays seems to be all Mrs. Ramsay, and then, with Mrs. Ramsay dead, life somehow goes on—incredibly goes on without her.
The middle section of the book, called “Time Passes,” is so exquisitely written that it is, as it were, spun out of fire and air, out of wind and water, and has the intangible beauty of a long, highly sustained poem. Take the description of the little winds of nighttime that roam through the Ramsay household when all are in bed and asleep:
“Everything is the proper stuff of fiction,” she says in her book of criticism, “The Common Reader,” “every feeling, every thought; every quality of brain”—and so, out of every feeling, every thought, even out of the little airs; the little winds of nighttime she makes her fiction. She writes the subtle English of one whose ancestors for generations had made the language an easy garment with which to clothe their minds’ expression. There are few living writers whose prose is so full of charm and whimsicality, and, at the same time, so direct and sincere because of her mind’s reality—that reality which is, perhaps, the rarest of all mental endowments—and which makes her mind so peculiarly the mind of a critic.
As we look down the list of her books, from the first one called , which had a sort of spontaneity which she never quite captured again, we see that in each of them she has attained some unique, if quite ungaudy distinction. We wonder at how good they are, and at the same time, we cannot help wondering why they are not even better. We wonder not quite so much at why Virginia Woolf’s books are not better—we wonder really why womens’ books in general are not better. How is it that so few women writers have ever climbed to that lofty peak where the greatest men writers are? “Women can’t write, women can’t paint,” says the cranky Mr. Tansley in this book of Virginia Woolf’s. We know he is wrong, of course, yet we are harassed by his remark. Women can write, women can paint. But why have only two or three women in the history of literature ever reached to the stars—ever reached that height where strength of intellect and strength of feeling are so equally blended that they become one—that plane where heart and mind are both so powerful and so powerfully in tune that what one wills the other wills—that combination of both which produces not only the colossal things like and , but which gives small things like Drayton’s sonnet, , and Cory’s , and Landor’s such lasting and moving greatness? Why among women poets is it only Sappho who has achieved this thing—this sort of greatness which we recognize at once in the few lines of her verse that are left to us—that something which made what she wrote, not simply personal to herself, but so generally moving to all mankind that she has survived the ruin of Greece as Catullus has survived the ruin of Rome? If women had never entered the arts at all many convincing reasons could be given which would entirely explain their abstention, but the difficult thing to explain is why having entered the arts they have so seldom scaled the heights or sounded the depths. They have achieved real solidity a few times as in Jane Austen and George Eliot. But how often have the heights of ecstasy been attained by them? Perhaps only twice, once by a Greek woman who if she had lived among us would probably be an outcast sinner and the other a forlorn Celt in exile on the Yorkshire moors. Why, when they want to write a love poem, do they babble little pseudo-pathetic verses like Christina Rosetti’s , full of self-pity and egoistic infantile emotions, without genuine reality? “All the golden love-letters have been written by women,” says Havelock Ellis in one of his essays. This may be true, but all the golden love poems, nearly all the golden poems of any kind ever written, have been written by men. After all, the explanation may be simple—probably is simple: that circumstances refused to permit women to become adults emotionally and intellectually. No emotion is grown up if it is one which merely turns you in on yourself—it is not really grown up unless it gives you a clew to something in the universe.
Not very many grown human beings are really adults; very few think like adults, still fewer feel like adults. It has been both the pain and the privilege of the great artists that they were adults in both mind and heart—that they had the potentiality of experiencing life to the full. What is experience of life for one person may not be experience for another: however we do know that while what are called the universal experiences may for one sort of person mean exactly nothing at all, for another, the simplest event, like breaking a leg or reading a book may be the clew to the mysteries of the universe. All the pathetically adolescent, ungrown-up faces we see in the subway or on the street, are the faces of men and women who have been through what are called the great commonplaces of life; they may have known them all, but life itself they have never known. There is a substitute for almost everything else—a substitute for love, a substitute for happiness, a substitute for fame, but for life itself there is no substitute.
Women have always been offered by men the universal experiences, but it is because these have too rarely meant life that so few women have been great artists. But what life is—that is the secret that is so hard to know. But there is one thing we do know about it—that when any man or woman captures it and gives it to us in the shape of a poem, or a story, or a picture, in no matter what small degree, we respond
to it with our whole being; when it is given to us in a large degree whole generations of men respond to it and the giver is rewarded with immortal fame.