Everybody remembers Virginia Woolf’s takedown of Arnold Bennett in Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown. Few remember Bennett’s own takedown of Woolf, which occurred in his review of Jacob’s Room. In that review, Bennett wrote, “I have seldom read a cleverer book than Virginia Woolf, a novel which has made a great stir in a small world. It is packed and bursting with originality, and it is exquisitely written. But the characters do not vially survive in the mind, because the author has been obsessed by details of originality and cleverness. I regard this book as characteristic of the new novelists who have recently gained the attention of the alert and the curious; and I admit that for myself I cannot yet descry any coming big novelists.”
In this rather short passage, the emphasis is on cleverness and originality, while, on a lower note, is the idea that this is a novel from and for a small world. The British have a peculiar aversion to the clever – it is a sort of disease, the kind of overthinking that can be overcome with mugs of ale and a lot of greasy food. Underneath the patronizing tone, though, is a serious point. Novels are about – centrally about – creating characters that leave a vital trace in the mind. They “survive” in the mind, having lived on the dead page. This was the principle upon which Bennett rested his confidence that all the cleverness in the world would not make a great, or a “big”, novel; it never occurs to him that something clever and original and that stirred a small world might be a counter-example. It might be that the possibilities of the novel were not exhausted or defined by making characters that survive in the mind. In which case, to go further, perhaps novels are not centrally defined by characters at all, but by a set of relations – for instance, of observations, of style, of the essay and the sketch – that make them, vaguely but definitely, novels.
That would be one line of defense for Jacob’s Room; but Woolf chose another line, by challenging Bennett’s sense of character and how it is manifested – how, that is, from the dead paper it becomes a live ghost in the mind.
Woolf’s case is built on the division between the external and the internal. For Woolf, Bennett’s mistake is to make the former supreme, and to make the latter a metonym of it. First the house, then the furnishing, then the homeowner. Woolf’s objection is that the homeowner gets lost in the lavish description of the home and the furnishing. Instead of becoming vital, the homeowner becomes a mere token of a type – instead of a character, you have a chess piece. Woolf’s idea is that the motion from the external to the internal is ultimately subordinate to the opposite and primal movement – from the interior, from consciousness, to the exterior, the vast material dross of action and accumulation.
Woolf’s method has been taken to be a defense of subjectivism and of blurred description. These are in turn taken to be morally inferior to objectivity and clarity. However, the most cursory reading of Jacob’s room shows that the exquisite writing takes its sharpness from the external world. In fact, the writing is much less the kind of inward mullling of motive that takes up so much of James. Woolf’s novel goes out into the streets of London, and into cafes, and into bedrooms, and is far from psychological in the traditional sense. One has a clear scenic vision of things being experienced.
So what is the dispute about?To my mind, the internal/external division, which was at hand for Woolf, doesn’t quite get to the argument that she is making (which is a bold thing for me to say – and a sort of shitty thing as well, as though Woolf could not think through her own defense. I don’t think that – which would be as patronizing, on my part, as Bennett was on his - but I do think that the categories she was necessarily dealing with had to bend under her treatment in ways that resisted her message – and that they could not bend enough because the vocabulary she needed wasn’t at hand). I think what she is ultimately shooting at is what linguists in the 1960s called free indirect discourse. Pasolini wrote about free indirect discourse in an essay collected in Heretical Empiricism, where he connnects it – that is, the appropriation and collaging of language (in accent, grammar, word choice, etc) – to the epic and the choral. And to history – to what a Marxist would call dialectical materialism: “It is certain that every time one has free indirect discourse this implies a sociological consciousness, clear or otherwise, in the author…”
Woolf was long ago stereotyped as impressionistic and lyrical – with the implication that it is other realistic novelists who have the sociological consciousness. She wrote, so goes the rap, within her “small world”. But I think this is the difference in character building that her essay/reply to Bennett is talking about and taking apart. And I think what she is doing in practice is just this kind of epic scrounging in the fragments and accents of group consciousness. Groupings – of the people in the Park in Mrs. Dalloway, or around a dinner table in To the Lighthouse, or in the London street in Jacob’s Room – are the central tableau against which consciousness happens in Woolf. One can speak of a collective consciousness, or at least a networked one, that gives us a much different notion of character than that bourgeois heroic one of Bennett’s. This is where the lateral, seemingly random connections of free indirect discourse take on the task of character building – because what makes character is just this possibility of linguistic appropriation and use, this epic stealing of the words of another. It is not that this level of speech gives us a communism of understanding; instead, it is the ground of the possility of misunderstanding that makes individuality a fleeting thing, a task forever to be reenacted. Individuality is caught in the moment of misunderstanding others. That’s the paradox. That we have moments of sympathy, of love, or of understanding, is not excluded by this, but the misunderstanding comes first, inherent to the particularity of the subject. This is why Bennett’s method is so heavy and ultimately, for Woolf, counterproductive. Bennett’s materialism pretends that language is secondary, when the process of leaving a vital character in the mind is a linguistic one. What changed, Woolf implies, is that one has to be clever -- or one is forced to be vacant. It is the great claustrophobic vacancy of description so dear to the hearts of the inheritors of the 19th century novelistic tradition - that she wants to get rid of. It is not character they create, but dust collecting bric a brac.