1925–27: Modernist Fictions

  • John Mepham
Part of the Literary Lives book series (LL)


In the decade from 1922 to 1931, Virginia Woolf was astonishingly productive. She published five major novels, a collection of essays and a path-breaking work about women and fiction. By the end of the decade she was successful and famous. But perhaps the most astonishing thing about her work in these ten years is that every one of her books differed in the most basic ways from each of the others. It was not a matter of her hitting upon a successful and fruitful ’method’ and staying with it. Each work was a new experiment, innovatory in form, fundamentally changing the rules of the fictional game. The other feature of the decade’s production as far as the fiction is concerned, is that it is all, in spite of the differences and constant invention, within a modernist aesthetic. ’Modernism’ has so many different varieties that it might be as well to spell out briefly the meaning of the term in this case. Virginia Woolf’s modernism, in this decade, has much in common with the modernist ’formalism’ of the Bloomsbury painters. Its main features are these. First, a self-consciousness about the categories and conventions of art. She could not write fiction without being aware of the artificial, conventional nature of the rules by which fiction is constructed - rules of character, plot and narration. Her writing forced this conventionality upon the reader’s attention. Just as with cubism in painting, we can no longer take the space of the made-up scene for granted. Secondly, these conventions are radically changed. The stable, unified character and the meaningful coordinations of plot are abandoned. There is a third feature, and it is one which suggests the analogy with Post-Impressionism in painting. It is her emphasis on the unity of composition or design. However, Virginia Woolf was not interested in design for its own sake. There were always reasons for her formal inventions, for they always sprang from her attempts to display aspects of reality.


Time Pass Ultimate Reality Oxford Street Great Revelation Human Love 
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Chapter 6

  1. On the various drafts of Mrs Dalloway and the notebook from which this quotation comes, see C. G. Hoffmann, ‘From Short Story to Novel: the Manuscript Revisions of Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway1,Modern Fiction Studies, vol. 14, Summer 1968, pp. 171–86 and Jacqueline Latham, ‘The Manuscript Revisions of Virginia Woolfs Mrs Dalloway: A Postscript’, Modem Fiction Studies, vol. 18, Summer 1972, pp. 475–6. See also Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway’s Party: A Short Story Sequence, with an Introduction by Stella McNichol (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1973). Google Scholar
  2. They are in Mrs Dalloway’s Party (see note 1) and now also in CSF. Google Scholar
  3. E. M. Forster, ‘The Novels of Virginia Woolf’, originally published in The New Criterion in 1926 is now, as ‘The Early Novels of Virginia Woolf’, in Abinger Harvest (Penguin, 1967): the quoted phrase is on p. 124. Google Scholar
  4. See Maria DiBattista, ‘Joyce, Woolf and the Modern Mind’, in eds Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy, Virginia Woolf: New Critical Essays (Vision Press, 1983) pp. 96–114. Google Scholar
  5. Virginia Woolf originally wrote this is in 1931 in a series of articles on London for Good Housekeeping magazine. They are now available as The London Scene (Hogarth Press, 1982) p. 20. See also Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Chatto & Windus, 1973) p. 233–47. Google Scholar
  6. The history of the conception and revisions of To the Lighthouse together with details of notebooks is given in Susan Dick’s edition of the holograph drafts of the novel (Hogarth Press, 1983), referred to here as TL/MS. Google Scholar
  7. J. A. Lavin, ‘The First Editions of Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse’, in ed. Joseph Katz, Proof: The Yearbook of American Bibliographical and Textual Studies, vol. 2 (University of South Carolina Press, 1972) pp. 185–211. Most significant, to my mind, is the difference in section 9 of Part III, which is enclosed in round brackets in the US edition but in square brackets in the UK edition. The former is surely a mistake which Woolf failed to spot. On the significance of square brackets in the novel see John Mepham, ‘Figures of Desire: Narration and Fiction in To the Lighthouse’ in ed. G. D. Josipovici, The Modern English Novel (Open Books, 1976). Google Scholar
  8. The photograph is reproduced in Lyndall Gordon, Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life, and discussed by her on pp. 197–8. On Julia Margaret Cameron, see Amanda Hopkinson, Julia Margaret Cameron (Virago, 1986). Google Scholar
  9. See eds Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell Leaska, The Letters of Vita Sackville- West to Virginia Woolf (Hutchinson, 1984); Leaska’s ‘Introduction’ provides a useful short history of the relationship.Google Scholar
  10. See Kate Flint, ‘Virginia Woolf and the General Strike’, Essays in Criticism, vol. 36, October 1986, pp. 319–34. Google Scholar
  11. See James M. Haule, "’Le Temps passe" and the Original Typescript: An Early Version of the ‘Time Passes" Section of To the Lighthouse’, Twentieth Century Literature, vol. 29, no. 3, 1983, pp. 267–311. Google Scholar
  12. See Morris Beja, ‘Virginia Woolf: Matches Struck in the Dark’, in his Epiphany in the Modern Novel (University of Washington Press, 1971). Google Scholar
  13. Ibid., p. 126. Google Scholar
  14. Cited in Haule, see note 11 above, p. 268. Google Scholar
  15. This photograph is reproduced, for example, in QB II, as ‘Virginia, c.1925’. Google Scholar
  16. John Lehmann, Virginia Woolf (Thames & Hudson, 1975) p. 63. The three Man Ray photographs of Woolf are reproduced together in George Spater and Ian Parsons, A Marriage of True Minds, p. 85f. Google Scholar
  17. Man Ray, Self Portrait (Bloomsbury 1988). Google Scholar
  18. Richard Kennedy, A Boy at the Hogarth Press (Penguin, 1978). Google Scholar
  19. For further details of the Hogarth Press at this time see LW 303f. Google Scholar

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© John Mepham 1991

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  • John Mepham

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