Virginia Woolf’s Jacob’s Room: History and Memory

  • Judith Hattaway
Part of the Insights book series (ISI)


Above all, Virginia Woolf saw the War as a writer. Her view was detached and sometimes idiosyncratic, as her play with metaphor suggests. Her opposition to war was complete, but she expressed this most directly in a polemic, Three Guineas (1938), written when World War 2 was clearly in sight. When she represents the First War in fiction, she does so in a way that is contemplative, often domestic. The War does not figure in terms of mud or barbed wire but rather through its points of contact with the ‘ordinary’ life left behind, and in its destruction of a secure past. It is not possible to isolate or define Woolf’s ‘view’ on war,2 only to follow its echoes in her work — but these, in Jacob’s Room and in Mrs Dalloway, give a new dimension to the genre of ’war novel’.


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  1. 1.
    Virginia Woolf, ‘Heard on the Downs: the Genesis of Myth’, The Times, 15 August 1916;Google Scholar
  2. reprinted in Andrew McNeillie (ed.), The Essays of Virginia Woolf, vol. II: 1912–1918 (London: Hogarth Press, 1987) p. 40. Hereafter referred to as Essays, vol. II.Google Scholar
  3. 2.
    The issue of whether the focus and the structuring principles of Woolf’s work originate from considerations of form or of subject-matter has received much discussion. There is a clear summary of the different positions which recent discussions of Jacob’s Room have taken in E. L. Bishop, ‘The Shaping of Jacob’s Room: Woolf’s Manuscript Revisions’, in Twentieth-Century Literature, vol. 32, no. 1 (Spring 1986) pp. 215–16. Hereafter referred to as Bishop. See also n.36, below.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
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    Virginia Woolf, ‘The Leaning Tower’ (1940); reprinted in Virginia Woolf: Collected Essays, vol. 2 (London: Hogarth Press, 1960) p. 167.Google Scholar
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  8. 12.
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  9. 14.
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    Accounts of the social fracture caused by the War are represented in many different modes of writing. For a contrasting view, see Paul Fussell, The Great War and Modern Memory (New York and London: Oxford University Press, 1975) who claims that the ‘roster of major innovative talents who were not involved with the war is long and impressive. It includes Yeats, Woolf, Pound, Eliot, Lawrence, and Joyce’ (pp. 313–14). It is true that these writers say little about fighting, but in the wider context they do not ignore the war.Google Scholar
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    This contrasts with David Daiches’s conclusion, that Jacob’s Room was written ‘for the sake of the impressions,… one might say for the sake of the style’ (David Daiches, Virginia Woolf (Norfolk: New Directions, 1942) p. 61.Google Scholar
  17. Other readings (for example, Alex Zwerdling, ’Jacob’s Room: Woolf’s Satiric Elegy’, Journal of English Literary History, vol. 48 (1981) p. 912) argue that the work grows out of a particular subject.Google Scholar
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  27. 41.
    Woolf develops the image in different ways: a parallel figure is that of the ‘grey nurse’ in Mrs Dalloway. For an illuminating discussion of the succession of female figures and ancient voices, see Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar, No Man’s Land: The Place of the Woman Writer in the Twentieth Century (New Haven, Conn., and London: Yale University Press, 1988) p. 250.Google Scholar
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    Virginia Woolf, To the Lighthouse (London: Granada Publishing, 1977) p. 147.Google Scholar
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    Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas (London: Hogarth Press, 1938) p. 72.Google Scholar
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    Virginia Woolf, Mrs Dalloway (London: Hogarth Press, 1947) p. 7.Google Scholar
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    This issue has been raised by many commentators: see, for example, Michelle Barrett, Virginia Woolf, Women and Writing (London: The Women’s Press, 1979) pp. 21–3.Google Scholar
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    Leonard Woolf (ed.), A Writer’s Diary (London: Grafton, 1978) p. 322.Google Scholar

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© Editorial Board, Lumière (Co-operative) Press Ltd 1993

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  • Judith Hattaway

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