Sunday, September 12, 2010

And What of Character? "Modern Fiction" v. "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown"

While reading Woolf’s essay, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” a wave of déjà vu washed over me, and much like a magnet, pulled me back to another of Woolf’s essays, “Modern Fiction.”  The similarities between her two essays are striking.  In both, she references the Edwardian writers, Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy.  She also discusses the modern novel in both (referencing what she calls the Georgian writers, such as E.M. Forster and James Joyce, herself to be counted among the lot); however, while it may appear at first glance that Woolf is beating the proverbial dead horse, in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” she goes into further detail about creative writing, revealing personal insights to her own creation processes that are as much titillating as they are critical to beginning to understand how Woolf’s characters operate within her works, showcasing any variety of human life, and uncovering the recesses of human nature.

In “Modern Fiction,” Woolf, as we’ve discussed in class, hails the Edwardian writers as materialists, as she sees their novels to be filled with the details of trivialities rather than consumed by what it means to be human.  Indeed, in this essay, Woolf writes, “It is because [the Edwardian writers] are concerned with not the spirit but the body that they have disappointed us…They write of unimportant things…They spend immense skill and immense industry making the trivial and the transitory appear the true and the enduring” (Woolf “Modern Fiction” 285-286).  Again, in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Woolf addresses these writers, these materialists (a literal address to Arnold Bennett as her essay is a response to his own article declaring the Georgian writers null and void when it comes to their character creations, and the issues arising for her generation as they read the Edwardians’ novels, namely, that Edwardian novels leave Woolf with “a feeling of incompleteness and dissatisfaction” (Woolf “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” 201). 

Woolf goes on to compare the Edwardian novelists with another previous generation, one that included Jane Austen, saying that the books from that particular time were “self-contained,” meaning that these novels are complete in all regards, that writers such as Austen “were interested in things in themselves; in character, in itself; in the book in itself” (Woolf “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” 201).  Moving back to the Edwardians, Woolf notes that their novels are troubling due to the Edwardians lack of interest “in character in itself; or in the book in itself.  They were interested in something outside.  Their books…were incomplete as books” (Woolf “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” 202). 

As Woolf’s essay, as previously mentioned, is a response to Mr. Bennett’s claims about the Georgian writers, Woolf attempts to refute Bennett’s argument that the Georgian writers “‘are unable to create characters that are real, true, and convincing,’” as well as his claim, “‘The foundation of good fiction is character-creating and nothing else” (Woolf “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” 192-193).  Woolf counters Bennett with philosophy, as well as human nature, specifically how each individual perceives the world around him/her:  “[Bennett] says that it is only if the characters are real that the novel has any chance of surviving.  Otherwise, die it must.  But, I ask myself, what is reality?  And who are the judges of reality?  A character may be real to Mr. Bennett and quiet unreal to me…There is nothing that people differ about more that the reality of characters” (Woolf “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” 200).  For it seems that what Woolf deems as reality, as she points out in “Modern Fiction,” can also reside within the realm of the human mind and spirit:  “Look within…Examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day.  The mind receives a myriad impressions…If a writer were a free man and not a slave, if he could write what he chose, not what he must, if he could base his work upon his own feeling and not upon convention, there would be no plot, no comedy, [etc.]…Life is not a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end” (Woolf “Modern Fiction” 287-288). 

What I believe Woolf is attempting to articulate in these specific passages is that within the novels of such writers as Bennett, who primarily focus their energies on detailing a house rather than a human soul, “reality” is bent to mirror a tedious construction rather than the opalescent existence of which we are much more familiar, that being the way our minds operate at multiple levels simultaneously, and our never knowing which way any event will unfold, our often futile attempts at controlling fate, and our shadowy recollections of our pasts.  To capture these very real and much more true to life episodes of the human mind/spirit seems to me a triumph of character-creating, rather than the reversal. 

Woolf, Virginia.  “Modern Fiction.”  The Virginia Woolf Reader.  Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska.  San Diego: 
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.  283-291.  Print. 

--.  “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.”  The Virginia Woolf Reader.  Ed. Mitchell A. Leaska.  San Diego: 
Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1984.  192-212.  Print. 

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