Revista Mulheres e Literatura – vol. 3 – 1999

Virginia Woolf and the Essay under Feminist Eyes

Virginia Woolf and the Essay under Feminist Eyes

Izabel F. O. Brandão
Universidade Federal de Alagoas (UFAL)

The essay’s most problematic feature seems to be the difficulty found by scholars in its definition1. From Adorno to contemporary feminists, the essay as a form has quite a wide ranging set of definitions but none makes us as readers confident enough to be stepping on safe grounds. And yet, this form which has started in a gentlemanly and elitist context (cf. Montaigne, Bacon) has in its core some traits which can be seen, under traditional eyes, as quite “feminine”, i.e., the appeal to subjectivity, to personal experience. Hence, the essay seems to be a form more fit for women writers than for the historical male writer, as the tradition has it.

Under feminist eyes, however, the essay is closer to women not exactly due to its openness to subjectivity but to its borderline characteristics, due to its occupying “an indeterminate discursive space between fiction and non-fiction”, as K. Snyder (in Joeres and Mittman: 1993) claims. Contemporary feminists believe that the politics of the essay as a genre has been de-emphasised by the institution of literary criticism due to its distancing from “academic objectivity”. According to them, the essay as a borderline genre is ideal for the presentation of feminist ideas. Both the essay and women have a sense of marginality, of not belonging.

Leslie Stephen, editor and critic, whose style as an essayist was analytic, taught his daughter that “essays were lay sermons, whose authors condescended … to turn from grave studies of philosophy or politics to topics at once edifying and intelligible to the weaker sex.”2 The daughter is no other than Virginia Woolf, worldly respected for her pioneering feminist ideas, and who has started her career as a writer as an essayist, writing reviews for newspapers, in 1904, at the age of 22, long before publishing as a novelist, up to the tragic end of her successful career in 1941. Stephen’s influence in his daughter’s career, according to Rachel Bowlby, led Woolf to follow a ‘fatherly line’ as an essayist rather than a ‘maternal’ one, a link related to Woolf’s fictional work, her “art”, as opposed to her essays, her paid work.3 And yet, Stephen’s influence, as high as it would have been, helped “no doubt contributing to [Woolf’s] modifications of the essay in the direction of narrative, as a move away from her father’s analytic style” (p. 235). Woolf’s own definition of the genre is as follows: “Vague as all definitions are, a good essay must have this permanent quality about it, it must draw its curtain round us, but it must be a curtain that shuts us in not out” (“The Modern Essay”, AWE, p. 40).

Stephen’s definition of the essay as a genre proper to ‘women readers’ in some ways anticipates a contemporary discussion of the essay as a genre more fit for women writers (and readers) due to its openness of form, its relative lack of constraints, which admits the insertion of the subject more than in any other genre. And yet, as Bowlby reflects in her Feminist Destinations and Further Essays on Virginia Woolf, even if historically the essay is a woman’s genre due to its topics of interest and of its intended readers, “neither Stephen nor Woolf ever mentions a female practitioner” (p. 236). Perhaps Stephen’s essays were really lay sermons intended for the “weaker sex”, but Woolf herself was a practising essayist, no matter her ferocious divide between her paid work and her art, her ‘real work’. Her “empirical sex” (if we follow Cixous) was female and she wrote from that standpoint and no other. This means that despite the fact that she was working in a patriarchal context, her voice was the voice of a woman writer talking about issues of general and also very specific interests, intended for an audience whose gender was probably both the ‘stronger’ and the ‘weaker’ sex, without the patronising tone present in her father’s view of the genre. As a matter of fact, Woolf used the form critically, as Catherine Sandbach-Dahlströn points out: “for all its presumed masculinity, the essay provided Woolf with a mode of writing well suited to a feminist critique of male culture”.4. It is also “a mode of resistance to tradition and as a pervasive attack on masculinism” (p. 286).

In Woolf’s essays which deal with the question of modern writing, T. J. Allan claims that Woolf defends the absence of authorial voice for it suffocates characters and readers.5 In so doing Woolf attempts to bridge the text with her ideal reader, someone who is not an expert nor a scholar. Her reader is someone whose sensibility is hardly taken into account and her/his voice, impressions and criticism are relegated to a corner because this is an unprofessional reading. Such an individual is someone who reads for pleasure and is, in Woolf’s words, an “accomplice” of the writer of his/her choice and holds in his/her reading criticism the key to approach the writer. This is what she says in “How Should One Read a Book, from 1932:

If behind the erratic gunfire of the press the author felt that there was another kind of criticism, the opinion of people reading for the love of reading, slowly and unprofessionally and judging with great sympathy and yet with great severity, might this not improve the quality of his work? (CDML, p. 69).


In this one-to-one interaction between writer-and-reader, it is possible to see some echoes of the French Philosopher Gaston Bachelard (1885-1962) who turned from philosophy to poetics by 1938 and who believes in a similar reader (he defines himself as such)6 who reads the books of his/her choice, without being really bothered to follow the guiding hand of the professional critic. Bachelard, again in a similar vein to Woolf, also considers the literary critic a bully, someone who cannot create what s/he criticises.7 Such a reader for both Bachelard and Woolf is a lay person, free from constraints and happy in his/her reading, which brings us back to the writer of essays, a form which is wrapped in simplicity even though it may be touching on profound subjects. This reader, as Elena Gualtieri points out, “is defective and undisciplined as a critic, but at least has managed to preserve that enthusiasm and personal involvement in the activity of reading which is often lacking in those who practice criticism as a profession”.8 Woolf’s democratic tinge (as well as Bachelard’s) does not need any label. I believe that it is exactly this refusal to be pinned down by labels what makes Woolf’s essays reach a wider audience. The problem seems to start when we see that because of her sharp criticism of the academy, Woolf herself has placed a label on her own forehead: here is a woman writer who is not afraid to take sides when it comes to criticism. For Woolf as a critic, as already mentioned elsewhere, was excluded by her contemporaries as Rosenberg and Dubino point out. They regret that this rejection continues in “more current histories of literary criticism” (p.6). Fortunately this unfair dismissal has started to be undone and, from the 70’s onwards, Woolf’s essays have started being re-evaluated following the feminist impulse of the decade.

And yet Woolf’s preference for impersonality has a bitter taste for some feminists. It appears to me that a paradox can be detected here when we think of Woolf’s view of the essay (or what she defends modern writing to be) as a place where the “I” of the author is submerged, and the notion of the essay as a genre – which implies the presence of authorial voice as one of its markers, which is also another link with the feminist idea of the essay as a locus for women writers to express themselves.

Feminists consider the problem of authorial voice (related to subjecthood) one of major importance for women (the female voice in writings by women is viewed as the essence of feminism, according to Humm, 1989), because it has been a voice silenced throughout the millennia. The problem of the absence of authorial voice might lead to “sacrificing the experience of historical women authors and … losing gender as a category of significance” (K. V. Snyder, in Joeres & Mittman: 1993, p. 25). Such a complex problem has already been discussed and contested, first by Toril Moi in her Sexual/Textual Politics, published in 1985, and then by Lisa Low in “Refusing to Hit Back: Virginia Woolf and the Impersonality Question”, published as recently as last year.9 Moi successfully rescues Woolf from what she defines as “a negative feminist response”. According to Moi, Woolf’s politics of writing is in her textual practice where “language is not to be pinned down to an underlying essential meaning”:

Woolf reveals a deeply sceptical attitude to the male-humanist concept of an essential human identity. For what can this self-identical identity be if all meaning is a ceaseless play of difference, if absence as much as presence is the foundation of meaning? (p. 9).


Similarly, Lisa Low discusses the problem of authority and criticises “identity feminism” (associated to Adrienne Rich, Elaine Showalter and, more recently, Tyzuline J. Allan) for pinning feminist writing down to the “feminine voice”. Low, following post-modernism, says that identity-feminism perpetuates “the very ideals of a masculinist culture it strives to overthrow” (p.258). The claim for the authorial voice which is apparently absent in Woolf’s practice as an essayist, according to Low, oversimplifies Woolf’s writing, for

Throughout her life Woolf engages in constant and ultimately unresolved debate about values of personality and impersonality, even as she constantly explores and redefines the feminine and masculine halves of the gender hierarchy (ibid).


Woolf’s impersonality is “empathic and democratic” for she connects “personal writing to both sexes” (p.259). Showalter and Allan, Lisa Low argues, “ignore the antiauthoritarian politics of Woolf’s self-denials” (p.260). Woolf’s “democratic writing” is, if we follow Moi and Low, deconstructive. For her “literature is no one’s private ground; literature is common ground”, as she points out in “The Leaning Tower”, an essay written after the war.10 Lisa Low goes further:

Unlike the masculine critic, who from Pope to Harold Bloom has seen the tradition Oedipally as a giant crushing a miniaturized present, Woolf sees art on a level with the future, and the artist and critic on a level with the commoner (p. 261).


By striving to find a “writing that expels the self” (p.265) Woolf anticipates contemporary theories such as Derrida’s and Kristeva’s. For Moi, deconstruction will rescue Woolf’s writing from radical labelling, and Kristeva and Derrida, therefore, represent a “promise for future feminist readings of Woolf”. Lisa Low has a similar view but in any moment does she acknowledge Moi’s claim made over a decade ago. For Low, Woolf’s deconstructive self

The displacement of the ‘I’, the refusal of narrative voice, the leprechaunish disappearance of Woolf behind the text, the refusal to tell the truth, the assertion that all she can tell are lies, because there is no truth fixable in the human mind, the seemingly ‘impersonal’ but not indifferent remove of the pronoun ‘one’ – are alike refusals to be authoritarian (p. 267).


It is from this standpoint, Woolf’s antiauthoritarian voice in her essays, that I would like to discuss the genre.

Beth C. Rosenberg and Jeanne Dubino in their introduction to Virginia Woolf and the Essay point out that the dismissal of Woolf’s essays by her contemporaries reflects Woolf’s own contempt for the institution of literary criticism. Following the same train of thought Rachel Bowlby has traced Woolf’s contempt in the past as a feeling she shared with her father:

Both distrusted academic institutions and the pedantry they associated with academic scholarship, and strongly believed in the value of writing in a language that was not over-technical, but comprehensible to any moderately educated reader (p. 235).


Listening to Woolf’s own voice it is possible to feel that, from the very beginning of her career as an essayist that although she was hiding behind the text, using the so-called (and damned) impersonal voice which makes some feminists so uncomfortable, in fact Woolf was being extremely personal and political in the views expressed in her essays. In “A Feminine Note in Fiction”, from 1905, Woolf reviews a book by a certain Mr Curtney and points out that “we want a critic to separate [a woman writer’s] virtues and her failings, to assign her right place in literature and to decide which of her characteristics are essentially feminine and why, and what is their significance” (AWE, p. 3). In other words, Woolf is here undoing a very hard knot, one which still nowadays persists in some academic areas: one cannot judge works of literature basing such a judgement on the writer’s sex. In 1905, when the voice of women writers was hardly heard, such a criticism probably hit hard, especially coming from a young woman of 23 and addressed to a male writer and to an audience whose gender was most likely male in its majority. In this sense it seems to me that “identity feminism” loses its ground when preaches the “I” voice as the major mark for the woman writer. It is going back to the essentialism so much criticised in the years past. Woolf’s “impersonal” voice sounds quite political and ideologically directed to defend women against biased and patronising criticism as Mr Courtney most likely did in his book. Two decades later, by 1926, Woolf still maintains her critical tone but now she is more direct than earlier in her career. In “How Should One Read a Book”, she discards the authority postulated by the academia by putting her finger in a very deep wound, in a country where still to this date the academic institution is as sacred as the Anglican Church and (maybe less) the royalty. Woolf says that “To admit authorities, however heavily furred and gowned, into our libraries and let them tell us how to read, what to read is to destroy the spirit of freedom which is the breath of those sanctuaries” (CDML, p. 59). Defending one’s freedom to choose what to read without any dependence or external interference on the so-called critical authority and opening the door of knowledge to the ‘unauthorised’ reader is, in my view, a very clear evidence of Woolf’s own mark of authority. It is here that Lisa Low’s point about the democratic tone of Woolf’s voice is, for me, transmuted into reality. For one thing, the essay, a boundary genre, discredited by the academia because “you can in this shape what you cannot with equal fitness say in any other” (AWE, p. 6), as Woolf herself puts it in “The Decay of Essay Writing”, is the proper place to rebel against conventions and dare do what in an academic treaty you probably won’t be able to. Here, too, Woolf’s view is similar to Adorno’s, for he thought that the essay represents “surely a superior medium to an academic discipline that presumes to pigeonhole reality into easily controlled concepts and ordered reality”.11

As a final point I would like to consider Woolf’s view of the essayist and her kind of “feminism”. The essayist, Woolf says in “The Modern Essay”, is someone who “must masquerade. He cannot afford the time either to be himself or to be other people. He must skin the surface of thought and dilute the strength of personality” (AWE, p. 47). Having different personae means expressing oneself in different, multiple voices, and this does not seem neutral at all, as Bowlby argues. “Having multiple voices [is] not a neutral description but generally valued as an affirmative sign of people’s (usually women’s) versatility and variation” (p. 258-59).

Woolf’s awareness of her position as a woman writer is clear cut and her awareness of the limitations of a woman’s experience is what leads her to defend the killing of “The Angel of the House”, a voice which haunts and minimises women’s worth by telling them that to succeed they have to cheat. Such a voice is dismissed by Woolf as nuisance, something to be utterly destroyed. That is what she defends, using the “I” voice, on “Professions for Women”:

For as I found, directly I put pen to paper, you cannot review even a novel without having a mind of your own, without expressing what you think to be the truth about human relations, morality, sex. And all these questions, according to The Angel of the House, cannot be dealt with openly by a woman (CDML, p. 103).


To shut this voice up forever, says Woolf in “The Intellectual Status of Women”, women need more than education. It is necessary to educate and emancipate men as well as women so that they can understand which space they are to occupy in life: “a man has still much greater facilities than a woman for making his views known and respected” (AWE, p.39). If emancipation does not occur for both “we shall remain in a condition of half-civilised barbarie” (ibid).

If such an ardorous defence of the woman’s right to education, to a place in society, is ‘minor’ feminism, we must start at once redefining concepts for the way they stand are not good enough. Woolf’s voice, despite is disappearance in the collective ‘we’ is highly political and, as already said, in favour of, not against, women. I definitely agree with Rachel Bowlby when she says that Woolf’s politics and statements are “anything but conservative”. According to her, Woolf “was forever tugging at issues to do with the effects upon writing of having or not having wealth, having or not having education” (p.233). Woolf’s impersonal claim means much more than the mere denial of authority. She herself established her own authority “(even as she attempted to undermine that authority through irony and parody) as she critiqued the work of her contemporaries” (p.16), as Rosemberg and Dubino argue.

The essay may have started in a gentlemanly and elitist context but in Woolf’s hands it has been transformed into a vehicle for popularising literature and for defending the rights of those in the borders, be it women or Woolf’s common readers. This is I believe a form of rebelling against conventions, against the tradition and against all kinds of pre-conceptions that place the essay under a marginal light. Fortunately barriers exist to be broken and Woolf has done that both by means of her fiction and her more than 500 essays.


1 This essay was read during the XXX SENAPULLI, The Brazilian National Conference for University Teachers of Literatures in English, hosted by ABRAPUI (Brazilian Society for University Teachers of English) and held in July 1998 in Atibaia, São Paulo, Brazil. Its published version in Portuguese is called “Virginia Woolf e o ensaio sob o olhar feminista” (see RAMALHO, Christina (org.). Literatura e feminismo: propostas teóricas e reflexões críticas. Rio de Janeiro: Elo, 1999, p. 227-236).
2 Quoted by Rachel Bowlby in her Feminist Destinations and Further Essays on Virginia Woolf (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1997), p.221. Page references are, otherwise stated, to be found in the text.
3 See ibid.
4 “Que csais-je?: Virginia Woolf and the Essay as Feminist Critique” in Rosenberg and Dubino’s Virginia Woolf and the Essay, p. 277. Hereafter page references are to be found on the text.
5 See “A Voice of One’s Own: Implications of Impersonality in The Essays of Virginia Woolf and Alice Walker”. in R.-E. Joeres and Mittman (eds.). The politics of the Essay (Bloomington & Indiana: IUP, 1993), p. 131-47.
6 See for this particular point Bachelard’s The Poetics of Reverie (1960).
7 In an essay on Edmund Gosse, a literary critic, quoted by Rachel Bowlby in the Introduction of A Woman’s Essays, Woolf says that “Like all critics who persist in judging without creating, he forgets the agony of childbirth…”, (p. xvi). As for Bachelard, see for this particular point his The Poetics of Space (1957).
8 Elena Gualtieri. “The Essay as Form: Virginia Woolf and the Literary Tradition”, p.61. in Textual Practice (Glasgow: Routledge, 1998), vol.12 (1), p.49-67.
9 In Virginia Woolf and the Essay, edited by B. C. Rosenberg & J. Dubino (Hampshire & London: Macmillan, 1997), p.257-73.
10 Woolf’s essays quoted in this paper are taken from A Woman’s Essays (hereafter to be referenced as AWE in the text) and The Crowded Dance of Modern Life (hereafter to be referenced as CDML in the text), edited and introduced Rachel Bowlby (London: Penguin Books, 1992 and 1993).
11 Margret Brügman in “Between the Lines: on the Essayistic Experiments of Hélène Cixous in ‘The Laugh of the Medusa’”, in Joeres & Mittman (1993, p.74-5).

Voltar ao topo