Critical Insights: Virginia Woolf & 20th Century Women Writers.
Designed as one of a series of volumes to aid undergraduate research, Kathryn Stelmach Artuso's anthology on Woolf and twentieth-century women writers is generally serviceable but falls rather short of Salem Press's stated mission to provide the "most up-to-date collection of scholarly thinking about authors and individual works from all standard critical perspectives" (www.salempress.com).
The book is composed of a brief introduction, followed by four "Critical Contexts" essays, three of which explore general topics associated with Woolf and a fourth on Woolf and Bowen. The bulk of the book consists of eleven essays which read Woolf in relation to a variety of twentieth-century commonwealth women writers including Katherine Mansfield, Rebecca West, Jean Rhys and Eavan Boland, as well as Americans Nella Larsen, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Eudora Welty, Sylvia Plath, Alice Walker, Sandra Cisneros, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Toni Morrison.
As the introduction, "About This Volume," makes clear, the collection of essays is somewhat haphazard, the only themes which reappear in more than one or two essays being a discussion of windows and mirrors as reflective/ refractive devices and a concern with the fluidity of identity as it relates to spatial metaphors for autonomy. The lead essay by the editor focuses on windows and mirrors, and since it concentrates--like many others in the collection--largely on A Room of One's Own, it hardly works as a wholesale introduction to Woolf's work. Unfortunately, this first piece does not set a high standard for the rest of the volume. The author mistakenly refers to Woolf's famous passage about a pattern underlying the cotton wool of everyday reality as coming from the conclusion of Moments of Being rather than the beginning of "A Sketch of the Past"--an error perhaps explained by the fact that she quotes the passage from a Jane Marcus article instead of going to the primary source. Although her essay is one of the few that takes up current theoretical issues in Woolf studies, her summary of critical debates surrounding androgyny and post-structural approaches which attempts to bridge the gaps between Anglo-American and French feminism (a concern of the 1980s and 1990s) with a kind of multi-perspectivism drawn from work on the visual arts and transnationalism studies arrives at a rather bland synthesis of opposites that harkens back to traditional approaches to Woolf.
The quality of particular essays varies widely, depending mostly on the effort and ambition of individual authors, as there appears to have been little editorial intervention: some essays barely mention Woolf, others do extensive close readings, while still others mostly compare plot elements. There is also no attempt to enforce standard abbreviations or editions, some authors using long outdated versions which are no longer easily available. Bibliographic coverage is similarly spotty, with a few essays not quoting any scholarship published in the last decade.
The four essays establishing the Critical Contexts for Woolf are a case in point. Vincent Pecora's introduction to "The Woolf Era" contains so much information that it often reads like an encyclopedia article in hyperdrive; one page, for example, goes from "Die Brucke" to Dada to Freud, to Bataille, to Boas and Durkheim in the space of two sentences. Much of the content is rather tangential to Woolf, and the whole essay suffers from an uneasy sense of its audience, including a variety of references that strike me as too obscure for the kind of undergraduates who need a survey of political and cultural events before, during, and after the two world wars. Jean Mills's comprehensive and workmanlike survey of critical reactions to Woolf is, on the other hand, a model of what such overview essays should be. Copiously footnoted, the essay is nicely balanced between classic and recent treatments of Woolf; out of the 98 works cited in her bibliography (including primary works), 38 were published in 2000 or later, and there is quite a sprinkling of pieces published in the last year or two. Given the fact that she only has a page or so to devote to each major work, she does a laudable job of highlighting major debates and even manages to squeeze in the advent of digital approaches. Although narrower in scope, J. Ashley Foster's account of Three Guineas in the context of peace studies is similarly informative and competent. It is not really clear why Roberta White's essay on Elizabeth Bowen and Virginia Woolf is in the Critical Contexts section rather than with the other comparative essays in the Critical Readings section. Simply and clearly organized, it provides comparisons of novels with similar plot elements such as courtship, attention to the war, and families at a beach house.
The eleven essays in the Critical Readings section are arranged more or less chronologically, but only occasionally have any other relationship to each other. Beginning with a brief but useful summary of the two women's interests in contemporary theories of art and the work of Chekhov, Angela Smith does a nice job of explicating the painterly qualities linking Woolf's writing to that of Katherine Mansfield. Bernard Schweizer's article on Rebecca West is one of several where there is only a perfunctory mention of Woolf; mostly dedicated to describing West's "heretical humanism," the only sustained comparison is of the two writers' posthumous reputations. Mich Yonah Nywaldo's treatment of postcolonial themes in Rhys's Wide Sargasso Sea and Woolf's The Voyage Out is one of the outstanding essays in the volume. Based on an informed awareness of previous criticism, it provides a sophisticated analysis of how both novels undercut their critiques of imperialism by reproducing the colonial gaze. Using the metaphor of Woolf's room of one's own to discuss racial indeterminacy in novels by Nella Larsen and Jessie Redmon Fauset, Christopher Allen Varlack's piece is less satisfying since it neither establishes any real connection nor works out any sustained comparison with Woolf. While Emily Daniel Magruder's essay on Eudora Welty's inheritance from Woolf also begins with A Room of One's Own, it goes on to a fairly systematic coverage of the influence of several Woolf novels and short stories, based on a good review of traditional scholarship up to 2003.
The next two essays offer an example of the potential webs of influence linking Woolf's literary daughters. The only essay to delve into manuscript sources, Amanda Golden's account of Sylvia Plath's annotations to Woolf, offers a helpfully comprehensive picture of the poet's reading of Woolf, chasing down not only the marginalia in her personal copies of the novels, but also mentions of Woolf in Plath's journals and letters as well as traces of influences in Plath's own early fiction and later poetry. Plath reoccurs as an avatar of Judith Shakespeare in the next essay, Helen Emmitt's account of Irish poet Eavan Boland's debt to Woolf in her prose accounts of the life of the woman poet. Unlike other essays that simply evoke the generic idea of autonomy in Woolf's Room, Emmitt teases out a number of imagistic parallels between Woolf's text and Boland's, convincingly arguing that Boland carries many of the key insights of Woolf's feminist classic into a more contemporary context.
The last four essays bring the volume more or less up to date, returning to deal with the way women of color have negotiated their affiliation to and critiques of Woolf. Sarah Skripsky's survey of Alice Walker's re-readings of Woolf does a good job of citing much of the previous scholarship, using it to outline the thematic areas where Walker challenges the limited vision of Woolf's privileged perspective, but with only one article cited since 1995 the piece does not break any new ground. Using Homi Bhahba's theorization of the unhomed subject and Gloria Anzaldua's concepts of the mestiza consciousness of the borderlands, Shanna M. Salinas's treatment of how homes function in forming the identity of the heroine in The House on Mango Street is one of the more critically sophisticated essays in the volume, but has so little to say about Woolf that she is not even cited. Equally critically sophisticated, Quyuh Nhu Le reads Orlando's deconstruction of the objective narrator, linear history, and the sexually unitary self into the subversion of the premises of ethnic life writing in Maxine Hong Kingston's Woman Warrior and China Men. The volume ends with Sandra Cox's intertextual reading of Woolf and Toni Morrison. Taking her cue from Barbara Christian's brilliant and delicate construction of a conversation between the two writers, Cox differentiates between influence and affinity in her analysis of the relationships between the rhetorical metaphors of Three Guineas and those deployed in Playing in the Dark and in a discussion of the treatment of motherhood in To the Lighthouse and A Mercy.
This Critical Insights volume is laudable in its inclusion of a wide range of Anglophone women writers, including a number of women of various ethnic and racial backgrounds, though most of them are from the expected canonical pantheon. But aside from a few nods to postcolonial perspectives, the book as a whole seems fairly undertheorized. One might expect that a book so centered on A Room of One's Own would engage with space/place theory or that a collection of works on women writers would at least acknowledge the existence of lesbian and queer perspectives.
At $95.00, the volume is priced for libraries and indeed is part of a series apparently designed for academic collections as it comes as part of a package including access to a database, which does not seem to be included in the purchase price for individuals. The best of the essays make this book worth checking out.
--Elisa Kay Sparks, Clemson University
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|Author:||Sparks, Elisa Kay|
|Publication:||Woolf Studies Annual|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2016|
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