Friday 20 February 2009

The Art of Prose Fiction III: Virginia Woolf

In the development of the art of prose fiction, one can almost imagine that Virginia Woolf had read about the writing exercise that Gustave Flaubert set for Guy de Maupassant (see Wednesday's post, below): to depict in words "a grocer sitting in front of his door, a concierge smoking his pipe" in which the writer is asked to discover his or her originality and the reader is enabled to glimpse the individuality of the person who was seen.

Woolf describes her version of Flaubert's exercise in her 1924 essay "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown.' It was to imagine what might be going on in the mind of someone she saw, as in the following anecdote. One evening Woolf was late for a train from Richmond to Waterloo, and jumped in to the first carriage she came to. "As I sat down," she said, "I had the strange and uncomfortable feeling that I was interrupting a conversation between two people who were already sitting there." They sat opposite each other. One, whom she called Mr Smith, aged over forty "had been leaning over and talking emphatically to judge by his attitude and the flush on his face." He was evidently annoyed to have been interrupted. Woolf called the woman, to whom the man had been talking, Mrs Brown. "She was one of those clean, threadbare old ladies whose extreme tidiness—everything buttoned, fastened, tied together, mended and brushed up—suggests more extreme poverty than rags and dirt." Although Mr Smith was annoyed at being interrupted, Mrs Brown seemed rather relieved. Mr Smith, she surmised, was not a relative of Mrs Brown; he was, perhaps, a man of business, from the North. "Obviously," said Woolf, "he had some unpleasant business to settle with Mrs Brown; a secret, perhaps sinister business, which they did not intend to discuss in my presence" (p. 72). To give the proper impression to a stranger, they talked instead of how caterpillars can eat the leaves off of oak tress. And Woolf started to construct mentally a piece of prose fiction of Mrs Brown, of who she was, of a son who was beginning to go to the bad, of what might be going on between Mr Smith and her.

When, after the talk of caterpillars, the train approached Clapham Junction, Mr Smith said: "So about that matter we were discussing. It'll be all right? George will be there on Tuesday?" As the train pulled into the station, "he buttoned his coat, reached his bag down, and jumped out of the train before it had stopped" (pp. 73-74).

Virginia Woolf and Mrs Brown were left alone together. "She sat in her corner opposite," writes Woolf, "very clean, very small, rather queer, and suffering intensely. The impression she made was overwhelming. It came pouring out like a draught, like a smell of burning" (p. 74).

Woolf's essay is famous as a manifesto of modernism in literature. She started it by discussing character in fiction. In everyday life, too, she said that everyone, more or less, has to be a judge of character. But a novelist's obsession is somehow to get hold of character. Then she said: "... in or about December 1910 human character changed" (p. 70). The older novelists among whom she took, as an example, Arnold Bennett (Mr Bennett of the title of her essay) would tell us about Mrs Brown by describing what kind of house she lived in, whether it was paid for, what other houses she saw when she looked out of her front window, and so on. But, said Woolf, since 1910, there had been a throwing away of the older tools of novel writing, which were mostly made to deal with exteriors, and had nothing to do with the interior lives of the Mrs Brown she had seen on the train, or of any other Mrs Brown. For it was by way of inner lives that we could really understand character. This understanding would not be so much about material circumstances, but of inner experience much like yours and mine. Here is how she put it.

In the course of your daily life this past week you have had far stranger and more interesting experiences than the one I have tried to describe [with Mrs Brown in the train]. You have overheard scraps of talk that filled you with amazement. You have gone to bed at night bewildered by the complexity of your feelings. In one day thousands of ideas have coursed through your brains; thousands of emotions have met, collided, and disappeared in astonishing disorder (p. 86).

Even Flaubert's exercise, we may now see, was of how the grocer or the concierge appeared to the outside observer. There had, said Woolf at the time she was writing, been a good deal of clumsiness in modern literature with the throwing out of the old tools and conventions. She thought such clumsiness was inevitable, because new tools to depict inwardness had not yet been fashioned, new traditions not established. She thought James Joyce too indecent, and T. S. Eliot too obscure. It was Woolf, a year after her essay, who published the first non-clumsy novel of interior character: Mrs Dalloway.

Virginia Woolf (1924). "Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown." In A woman's essays (pp. 69-87). London: Penguin (this edition, 1992).

Virginia Woolf (1925). Mrs Dalloway. London: Hogarth Press.


Keith Oatley said...

The photograph on the cover of A woman's essays at the head of this post is of Virginia Woolf's writing table in the garden of her house in Rodmell, Sussex. For a year I lived just a couple of miles from here, and would often think of Virginia Woolf when I passed by.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,
I'm a student and I'm trying to figure out where I can access Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown. My college library only has it in the rare books (non circulating) section, and does not have A Woman's Essays. I'm having a really hard time finding another compilation it might be in. Do you have any suggestions?

Kirsten Valentine Cadieux said...

I think that Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown is in THE CAPTAIN'S DEATH BED AND OTHER ESSAYS, which should be more easily accessed.

Justin L. Brown said...

good work

Caitlin Dacey said...

nice info.. :)

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