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Virginia Woolf Lecture 1 - aesthete or feminist revolutionary?

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Introduction

English 315 Part I 2004 Virginia Woolf Lecture 1 aesthete or feminist revolutionary? In this lecture I want to: 1) offer a very brief sketch of Woolf's life 2) look closely at Lily Briscoe, the artist figure in the novel, and compare her to Mrs Ramsay 3) consider the dinner party 4) consider the relations between politics and art in the novel 1) Basic biography Adeline Virginia Stephen was born 1882 into an upper-middle class intellectual family, part of the Victorian intellectual aristocracy. Her father, Leslie Stephen, was a man of letters, responsible for the Dictionary of National Biography. Virginia was self-educated, mainly by way of her father's large private library. Her mother was a great beauty who died when Virginia was 13. Two years later her sister died. These deaths, perhaps like those that marked Janet Frame's childhood, sparked mental instability that would remain with her throughout her life. Throughout her life she suffered from manic depression, although the name of the condition was not then known. She committed suicide in 1941. Leslie Stephen died in 1904 and the siblings moved into a house in Bloomsbury, then considered bohemian, where they set about distancing themselves from the Victorian legacy of thought, values and habits, even to the extent of exchanging Victorian furniture styles of heavy, highly decorated objects for plainer, simpler and modern styles. They also began to cast out the Victorian reticence about sexuality, favouring openness and frankness in conversation. Around them they collected many of the important liberal and modernist intellectuals writers and painters of the day. To the Lighthouse is at least in part an elegy for Woolf's childhood and for her mother. It is a mourning and an affirmation of the lost loved one, as elegies are. However, it is also critical of the mother figure. Mrs Ramsay emerges very sympathetically, especially by comparison with her egotistical, somewhat pompous husband. But she is herself part of the Victorian world from which the Stephen children set about distancing themselves. ...read more.

Middle

See p. 105. This is quite different to the depictions of eating in Joyce's novel where Stephen's gluttony after his sin represents the Catholic division of experience into spirit and flesh, mind and body. In To the Lighthouse the ordinary world is made special and significant for a moment. Mrs Ramsay aims to achieve this moment of being by way of her dinner party; she wishes for a time to arrest the chaos of life, but she does not seek to translate common experience into an aesthetic version of the divine - imperishable art - as Stephen does in A Portrait. She is interested in harmony, not substitute religion. And this distinguishes her also from Lawrence who wants to take all the old fervour religion directed at the transcendent and fix it on the actual and the momentary. In To the Lighthouse there are a multiplicity of viewpoints and centres of consciousness. It is Mrs Ramsay who seeks to bring them together, to harmonise, pp. 113-4. The party is her equivalent of Lily Briscoe's painting. Mrs Ramsay is anxious at the outset. But what have I done in my life?' The room is shabby, there no beauty in it. Nothing has merged. She feels that the whole effort rests in her (pp. 91-2). Yet by the end it is a kind of triumph, even if no permanence is achieved p. 120. The dinner party, then, is Mrs Ramsay's work of art. There is a reference to Keats' poem, 'Ode to a Grecian Urn' in that last quotation, and references to the poem run through the whole novel ('led her victims', p. 110). The difference between Mrs Ramsay and the artist is that Mrs Ramsay does not seek to achieve permanence. Yet perhaps this is not a sign of inferiority Keats is also important because of his notion of negative capability, which applies to both Woolf and Mansfield. ...read more.

Conclusion

In these terms 'reality' is found neither in thought nor in things. What art seeks to realise is not material or spiritual, but the mind's fragile being in time and place. Art attempts to last forever, p. 194, middle, yet cannot solace against the loss of Mrs Ramsay, pp. 194-5. Moreover, Lily Briscoe's continual worrying about the formal problems of her painting is not a sign of irresponsible aestheticism; it is her means of holding together the pressures and fractures of life and it responds to her experience of the family and the politics moving through it, to do with generational change, women, sex, marriage. At the heart of Woolf's novel is a sense of the shifting ungraspable nature of the world, which causes sadness and occasional elation. Even this is not a retreat from the world. It is a sense exaccerbated by war (p. 145). The politics that is rejected is the heavy, obvious repressive one of the Victorian writers with their confidence that they alone represented reality. Woolf's novel opposes this with its poetic prose, its shifts of viewpoint, its meandering narrative. Finally, the Victorian certainties about sexual difference are political in an ugly, limiting senses. This is what the novel leaves behind, p. 120, and with it the notion that words have a fixed relation to things, that our being in time is simple and linear. The politics of the novel is not simple and fixed, a set of fully finalised ideas transmitted to us as readers directly. They derive from her own ambivalent reflections on her parents, on writing and gender, on the struggles of individuals to make selves. Margaret Thomas in Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, ed., Su Reid, p. 130. Consider the struggle of the children, Cam and James, against the tyranny of Mr Ramsay, and Woolf's drawing attention to the difficult Oedipal decisions Cam must make (pp. 178-9). Elizabeth Abel discusses this in Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, p. 116. Marylu Hill, Mothering Modernity, p. 4. Perhaps we might compare the status of Cam in To the lighthouse to that of Kezia in 'Prelude'. ...read more.

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