Virginia Woolf pp 119-144 | Cite as

1928–31: Androgyny and the End of the Novel

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


Having rejected the ’materialism’ of the Edwardian novel, what had Virginia Woolf put in its place? Her novels turned away from those aspects of life and personality which had seemed to most previous writers to be of greatest importance. Forster, for example, for all his appreciation of her novels, was unsure about her ability to portray character.1 In Forster’s novels the focus is on moral development and moral agency, all those aspects of personality that are involved in learning how to behave, to deliberate and choose, to conduct oneself wisely among other people. His characters are in the midst of practical life. These aspects of personality are more or less entirely absent from Virginia Woolfs fiction. She represents people as held in place by the invisible forces of social life (patriarchal family, gender roles, empire, militaristic culture, and so on). She does not emphasise moments of moral enlightenment or decisive choice, and the way that these develop character. Instead she turns her attention in two different directions, towards the unconscious and towards the transcendent. Through her fiction the world is viewed with this ’dual vision’ (a phrase that Woolf used in characterising the work of Proust).


Woman Writer Militaristic Culture Patriarchal Family Common Reader Poetical Work 
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Chapter 7

  1. See E. M. Forster, ‘The Early Novels of Virginia Woolf’, Ahinger Harvest (Penguin, 1967). Google Scholar
  2. See eds Louise DeSalvo and Mitchell Leaska, The Letters of Vita Sackville- West to Virginia Woolf (Hutchinson, 1984) and Nigel Nicolson, Portrait of a Marriage (Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 1973). Google Scholar
  3. The figure of the angel in the house derives from a poem by Coventry Patmore. Woolf’s speech is printed as ‘Professions for Women’ in WW. A much longer, typescript version of the same speech is printed in P. Google Scholar
  4. The extant drafts of The Waves, together with Woolf’s notes and an ‘Introduction’ which discusses the history of the writing of this novel in detail, are all in Virginia Woolf, The Waves: The Two Holograph Drafts, transcribed and edited by J. W. Graham (Hogarth Press, 1976). Google Scholar
  5. Ibid., p. 36. Google Scholar
  6. The importance of such moments in shaping a life and the implications of this for biography are central to Lyndall Gordon’s treatment of Woolf’s life in her Virginia Woolf: A Writer’s Life. See also Gordon’s ‘Our Silent Life: Virginia Woolf and T. S. Eliot’ in eds Patricia Clements and Isobel Grundy Virginia Woolf: New Critical Essays (Vision Press, 1983). Google Scholar

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© John Mepham 1991

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  • John Mepham

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