THE PURPOSE OF INTIMACY IN VIRGINIA WOOLF’S VICTORIAN ENGLAND

By Anushka Sen

Abstract

Virginia Woolf is known to harbour less than friendly feelings towards the Victorian age, and indications of such sentiments are distinctly present in her critical writings. It is evident however that her mistrust of this period is mixed with curiosity, and the Victorian age forms the background to substantial portions of her fiction. Woolf’s imaginative quasi-biography Orlando follows the magically long life of its protagonist from the 16th century to the beginning of the 20th, in the course of which it traces the dawn and development of the Victorian period. Though Woolf’s wit is at its sharpest while exposing the conservatism, mawkishness and pomposity of Victorian society, this section of the narrative reveals what appears to be a sincere investment in the intimacy that Orlando develops with a man named Shel. My paper seeks to ask and respond to the following question among others—is the intimacy between Orlando and Shel presented as complicit with the Victorian tendencies that Woolf critiques or does it acts as a redeeming force, humanising an otherwise distanced set of values?

Along with Orlando, I would like to look at another of Woolf’s works—Flush, also a fictionalised biography, set entirely in Victorian times and written in a humorous vein comparable to that of Orlando. Here too, a substantial amount of mockery is directed at Victorian London, and the possibility of authentic feeling in the work is provided primarily by an intimate and sympathetic relationship—that between Elizabeth Barrett and her dog Flush. Like Orlando, Flush provokes questions about the reliability of meaning in a linguistic environment that destabilises itself through self-parody. Apart from exploring some of the nuances and shared resonances of the two works, this paper will take into account the larger background of Woolf’s commitment to forging ideals of intimacy (along with the other members of Bloomsbury), and her ambivalent stance on the Victorian period in this regard.


Paper titles are often carelessly conceived, but they do generate expectations about the framework of the paper concerned. Hence, a clarification of the questions raised by this paper’s title may not be out of order. The word ‘purpose’ in this case is not used to point at a clearly defined agenda, but at the semblance of a pattern, albeit subjectively perceived, that emerges from Woolf’s literature. As for ‘intimacy’, I have refrained from defining it too strictly in this paper. Intimacy, as opposed to mere acquaintance, usually suggests a certain depth in the given relationship. In this paper, I do not wish to distinguish between different shades of acquaintance, and point to intimacy’s position at one end of the range. Rather, I assume the implied presence of intimacy in any situation where the sense of relationship exerts a force upon the consciousness, and is perceived as something concrete, that requires a certain effort and involvement in response. Moreover, this intimacy is also accompanied by knowledge about the self in relation with an entity. This knowledge may be irksome, gratifying or epiphanic; may be sensed as an affect rather than as knowledge. Intimacy is therefore not necessarily accompanied by affection, and the only element which I isolate as a constant in all these explorations of intimacy, is the weight of association between (in this case, living) beings. In this paper, I have tried to focus on this weight of association and comment on its varying forms within a certain context—Virginia Woolf’s engagement with the Victorians. The paper begins with an exploration of Woolf’s popularly known views on the Victorian age, and her general position on intimacy. It then moves onto a brief discussion of two novels by Woolf where the Victorian context and the theme of intimacy are closely entwined.

Before this paper delves into the Victorian context, it is also necessary to qualify the phrase ‘Virginia Woolf’s “Victorian England”’ in the title. The possessive may imply that Virginia Woolf has moulded a tangible model of the age, one that remains largely consistent as an intellectual entity. Nonetheless, we can tell how unlikely that is, given the actual complexity of any demarcated time period and of a writer’s ideological trajectory. For a Woolf enthusiast and feminist, it is tempting to equate Virginia Woolf’s stance on the Victorians with her sharp indictment of Victorian patriarchy and propriety. Her most dramatic working out of such a position occurs in the essay titled ‘Professions for Women’, a revised and shorter version of an earlier speech. In this piece, she paints an ironic picture of the great bogey for women writers—the Angel in the House, an image derived from the Victorian writer Conventry Patmore. Woolf’s description of the angel leaves little room for doubt as to her position on this idealised female figure.

She was intensely sympathetic. She was immensely charming. She was utterly unselfish. She excelled in the difficult arts of family life. She sacrificed herself daily. If there was chicken, she took the leg; if there was a draught she sat in it … Above all–I need not say it—she was pure. Her purity was supposed to be her chief beauty–her blushes, her great grace. In those days–the last of Queen Victoria–every house had its Angel. [1]

It comes as no surprise therefore, when Woolf talks about her need to kill, indeed strangle, this creature in ‘self-defence’[2], though we might register the violence in her language with a mild shock. However, Emily Blair, in her book Virginia Woolf and the Nineteenth Century Domestic Novel, points out that even this outspoken critique is not free of ambivalence towards structure, self-effacement and charm—qualities that Woolf aims at explicitly in her prolific correspondence but which are also noticeable in the inviting, conversational tone pervading most of her essays[3]. In general, Woolf is fairly transparent about her discomfort with the ugly destructiveness of modern aesthetics, whose necessity she also acknowledges[4]. Her views in ‘Professions for Women’ is only one case among many which Blair studies in order to pursue the connections between Virginia Woolf and Victorian notions of feminine space and manners. Indeed, the importance of living space to Woolf is evident in ‘Professions for Women’. As Blair points out[5], she situates the figure of the female writer in the bedroom (‘You have only got to figure to yourselves a girl in a bedroom with a pen in her hand’[6]) and towards the end of her essay posits the following extended metaphor.

You have won rooms of your own in the house hitherto exclusively owned by men. You are able, though not without great labour and effort, to pay the rent… But this freedom is only a beginning–the room is your own, but it is still bare. It has to be furnished; it has to be decorated; it has to be shared.[7]

Like much of nineteenth century discourse, Woolf’s writing here reveals an investment in the special role of women in shaping space through certain performative codes, though the modern woman is more self-aware and purposeful. Woolf’s inclusion of sharing room in her list of goals leads us to the idea of human relations, which for her, frames or infuses space in a fundamental way. In a Room of One’s Own, the reference to which is easily recognisable in the last quote, she compares the structure of a novel to that of buildings, both possessing diverse and discernible shapes. Her comments on the significance of these shapes are striking.

This shape, I thought, thinking back over certain famous novels, starts in one the kind of emotion that is appropriate to it. But that emotion at once blends itself with others, for the ‘shape’ is not made by the relation of stone to stone, but by the relation of human being to human being [8].

Not exactly contradicting her own critique of Arnold Bennett’s solid house-like novels, she envisions the novel instead as a specialised form of architecture, where the arrangement of building material is inseparable from the pattern of human relations. The ‘relation of human being to human being’ remains an object of prime fascination for Woolf, the study of which brings us in contact with her notions of intimacy.

At this point, we may pause to consider the Bloomsbury circle to which she belonged, and the part it played in forming her ideas of social interaction. Raymond William’s chapter on Bloomsbury in Culture and Materialism drives home with exceptional clarity the group’s perception of itself as a network of intimate alliances. He writes, that it is especially necessary to consider the larger socio-political currents that shaped and held the members of the Bloomsbury circle together, because ‘[i]nfluentially, they went out of their way by assertion or innuendo, to deflect or deny them.’[9] That is to say, ‘deflect or deny’ the shaping forces. In this context, he quotes Leonard Woolf’s pronouncement—‘We were and always remained primarily and fundamentally a group of friends.’[10]

If we now depart from Williams’ methodology to focus on the individual figure of Woolf and particularly on her letters, we may sift a rich, conflicted commentary on social interaction from the vast array of her reflections. ‘Reflections’ seems an apt word to use here, because in one instance she speaks of the ideal letter as a mirror for the recipient[11]. Yet she is often painfully aware of how another person may be largely a creation of one’s own mind, and impossible to really know. She scoffs at parties for their superficiality and tedium while being drawn to their potential for cementing intimacies. Nor is she impervious to the luminous presence of beauty that is often manifest at these glamorous gatherings, a fact confirmed by her weakness for the perfect hostess figure, embodied in Mrs. Dalloway. She describes friendship to Vita Sackville-West as an extended conversation[12]. In yet another instance, writing to Vita, she seems to shrink from meeting people in a drawing room scenario because there is nothing to mediate and mitigate the oppressive sense of closeness between one another[13]. In her letters, she distinguishes the superlative affection she has for her sister and husband from the almost unmatched sexual candour that filters into her exchange with Vita, while setting both against the backdrop of artful conversation and disarming frankness she practises while writing to most of her friends. Aspects of her motivation are often at odds with each other. In one letter, she flinches at the picture of domestic bliss and speaks approvingly of how Keats has ‘no d—-d humanity.’[14] In other instances, she speaks with loathing about the cold intellectualism of Oxford and Cambridge[15], and registers surprise at the lack of human emotion in Milton’s works[16]. One may gather that reading and writing fiction, for her, is an escape from social bonds as well as an intensely charged approximation of complete sympathy with the world around her. Moreover, Woolf’s political position on social gatherings is evident in Mrs. Dalloway, where the archetypal party is exposed as superficial and fragile, but also presented as a sphere of almost heroic, even tragic protest for women, whose exclusion from worldly affairs drives to them to simulate perfection and agency by conducting a grand social event. The rapture and radiance of a party derives from something more transient and elusive than intimacy, but its high emotional charge seems to indicate something beyond mere interaction.

Regarding physical intimacy, Woolf often betrays squeamishness. Joanne Trautmann Banks, the editor of Woolf’s Selected Letters, writes that Virginia and Leonard’s honeymoon cemented their friendship, but was ‘a disappointment sexually.’[17] She adds that Woolf ‘could not long stand up to the other forms of intimacy enforced by marriage.’[18] Woolf’s early traumatic experience of sexual intimacy is well known. In a letter to Vanessa, she speaks jocularly of the sexual abuse she and Vanessa both suffered at the hands of their half brother George Duckworth[19], but it is not unreasonable to surmise that this experience had a lasting impact on her attitude to physical intimacy.

Keeping all of this in mind, I wish to move onto the more specific segment of my paper, which deals with two of her novels—Orlando and Flush, written in the years 1929 and 1933 respectively. The protagonist Orlando is based on Vita Sackville-West, Woolf’s close friend and romantic interest for some time. In the fantastical world of this novel, he changes gender overnight without any ostensible cause and lives through centuries, maturing rather than aging. Flush too is a fictional biography, based on Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s dog. Both novels actively engage in periodisation; both are written in a lighthearted and parodic tone, though the former is a far more complex work. The nineteenth century sets the stage for nearly two chapters of Orlando, a work that takes us rapidly through successive stages of English history from the sixteenth century to the start of the twentieth; while the entirety of Flush unfolds in the Victorian Age. Steve Ellis, in Virginia Woolf and the Victorians, argues that Orlando belongs to a phase of Woolf’s writing in which she attempts to integrate a critique of Victorian pomposity with a celebration of that same era’s capacity for harmonising oppositional elements. He feels that at the point where Flush is written, Woolf’s approach towards the Victorians is on the verge of disillusionment, and hence expressed in starkly varying tones at different times. Emily Blair on the other hand traces a continuity between Orlando and Flush in their mutual ambivalence about the Victorians[20]. Not being sufficiently qualified to take strong sides in this argument, I believe that both novels treat the Victorian age with a playful, satirical skepticism while allowing the central intimate relationships a sincerity that acts upon the reader’s sympathies. Admittedly, this is not a very illuminating claim but perhaps it helps create ground for reading subtleties and tensions in Woolf’s position that might otherwise be overlooked.

ORLANDO

Through the nineteenth century in Orlando, a cloud hangs over Britain—a dank, gloomy industrial cloud, to counter which England develops a culture of highly artificial domestic warmth. Woolf mercilessly mocks the pitiful props of this culture, sparing nothing from beards to china ornaments, exposing the overabundance of ‘fine phrases’[21] and reporting the increasing hypocrisy plaguing sexual relations. Once more we encounter Nick Greene, a callow critic and acquaintance from an earlier era, his views no more refined than they were but his appearance greatly changed. Turned out like a gentleman, he has lost even the crude vitality which was once his only charm and is now a self-satisfied man, hailed the best critic of the Victorian age. In the true spirit of the age, the narrator deems it futile to record Orlando’s life as long as she sits and writes. Only action, not thought is considered worthy of biography, a prejudice that aligns writing with the female. What makes the narrator’s voice in Orlando exhilarating and troubling at the same time is the way it seamlessly fuses the acts of critiquing an age and merging with it.

In an age so obsessed with home and hearth, Orlando (by this time, female) goes against her independent instincts and craves a husband. Overwhelmed by a sense of desperation, she rushes out onto the moor where she lies in a trance while Virginia Woolf enjoys a laugh at Emily Bronte’s expense. At this point, Orlando meets her future husband in a chance encounter. He arrives, of course, on a horse. His name, of course, is long and weighty—Marmaduke Bonthrop Shelmerdine Esquire. Their romance is sealed in the following manner.

‘Madam,’ the man cried, leaping to the ground, ‘you’re hurt!’

‘I’m dead, sir!’ she replied.

A few minutes later, they became engaged.[22]

How one might ask, is this to be taken seriously? Should it be? Suddenly, brisk rebellious Orlando is languorous, sentimental, cocooned. Yet, it is unwise to look upon this marriage with undiluted suspicion. It may be pointed out that Orlando resumes writing her poem and finishes it only when her husband is away, and that this suggests a liberation in the absence of the husband. Nonetheless, her wedding ring sits snug on her finger all the while as an ostensibly happy reminder of her new bond. The narrative of Orlando does indeed undermine itself with parody and sudden shifts in register, but it would be slightly reckless to assume that the narrator is deceiving us with the unequivocal statement that Orlando ‘had never felt better in her life.’ Orlando and Shel are in love, they make each other happy—there is nothing to disprove this. They even recognise each other’s androgyny, but this does not seem redemptive enough to transcend satire altogether. Does marriage then stand for a pragmatic compromise demanded by every age in exchange for peace of mind, conducive to writing? The novel is not well suited to the distillation of answers, but we may take note of a similar mixture of defiance and compromise in Woolf’s nonfiction, where she advocates a hard struggle against the Victorian dictums of delicacy while preserving a dignity she does not always care to ironise. Then again, the choice may not always be a pragmatic one. We cannot forget Woolf’s personal investment in Orlando, described famously by Vita’s son as ‘the longest and most charming love-letter in literature’[23]. As for literature itself, whether in ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’, or A Room with a View, Woolf shows a genuine love for the vitality of Victorian writing—of a certain conviction and wholeness in its lyricism. Although she knows that modernity has undone the very fabric of life and literature, and that there are freedoms to be gained from this, Woolf remains enthralled by the beauty and power of the Victorian age, and the novel Orlando is remarkable in that it takes its parody of that age (and others) to soaring heights of lyricism. If there is an underlying anxiety, it does not, I believe, create discordances. The ecstasy and fulfillment with which Orlando greets the return of her husband at the novel’s end, achieves that haunting intensity which Woolf often speaks of as the quality she seeks to capture in literature. Though Shel’s return takes place in the 20th century, Woolf’s present, it is the growth of Orlando and Shel’s intimacy in the Victorian age which makes the ending possible.

FLUSH

Flush on the other hand, is a far less ambitious work. Nevertheless, it make its unique contribution to the terrain of our discussion. In the opening chapter, Flush is passed on to Miss Barrett from his original owner Miss Mitford. Used to running wild in the country, Flush is almost paralysed by the claustrophobic feel of the Barrett house on Wimpole Street. With destructive humour, Woolf uses Flush’s point of view to mock the excess of furniture and melancholy dimness in Elizabeth Barrett’s room, deliberately kept this way for the benefit of its invalid occupant. Miss Mitford abandons Flush to this alien territory, following which he suffers a period of jarring adjustment to his new life of relative seclusion in London.

Nonetheless, these miseries are redeemed by the cementing of his relationship with Miss Barrett. As the days go by, she proves to be his centre of security and comfort, even as her anchoring presence serves to restrict his liberty. Flushie,” wrote Miss Barrett, “is my friend–my companion–and loves me better than he loves the sunshine without.”’[24] The narrative of Flush, it must be admitted, is at peace with the hierarchical positioning of dog and human, where one must adapt far more to the other’s ways. However, the teasing irony of Woolf’s style demystifies Elizabeth Barrett by exaggerating her sensitive temperament.

Flush was … at a loss to account for Miss Barrett’s emotions. There she would lie hour after hour … her eyes would suddenly fill with tears; but why? “Ah, my dear Mr. Horne,” she was writing. “And then came the failure in my health . . . and then the enforced exile to Torquay . . . which gave a nightmare to my life for ever … do not speak of that anywhere. Do not speak of that, dear Mr. Horne.”[25]

The parody in this passage however, is distinctly different from the mockery directed at the rest of London. The comic element in this equation does not negate the emotional value of a growing intimacy, transcending spoken language, between the two characters. The skewed balance of power between human and dog is not taken to be as destructive as the hierarchies within human society. Indeed, Woolf even sanctions the former to some extent, and though that lies open to criticism, what interests us here is the pride of place given by Woolf to Miss Barrett and Flush.

Flush is both an individual being and a generic symbol. He stands for a part of Miss Barrett, for his spaniel ancestry, and for all dogs of good breeding with the capacity to touch the lives and hearts of great people. Yet he is above all uniquely himself, and his relationship with Miss Barrett has no exact equivalent. This becomes most evident when on Flush’s abduction, Elizabeth is encouraged not to pay the ransom and to turn the crisis into a contest between the wronged residents of Wimpole Street and London’s dognapping underbelly. There is something overinflated about this heroism demanded of her, whose absurdity Woolf seems aware of when she lays bare the contents of Robert Browning’s long and eloquent letter encouraging Elizabeth to hold out against the villainous abductor. Miss Barrett however, proves herself to be made of sterner mettle, and not only resists her neighbourhood but negotiates with the dognappers, visiting for the first time in her life the seedier quarters of London. Her courage is inseparable from the degree of her sentiment. Her choice to act against the advice of Browning, who is and remains her lover, is a significant moment in the novel as earlier, Flush had to bear with acute jealousy and humiliation in the process of accepting his growing closeness to Elizabeth.

Flush may be integrally associated with upper-class luxury, but it is he who inspires Elizabeth’s emergence from domestic shelter and the bonds of paternalistic pressures. Of course, Miss Barrett is not exactly transformed by her experience, in which her class biases also rise to the fore, largely unquestioned by Woolf. The hegemonic social hierarchy that is in place within the novel is not seriously challenged by a few deviations, but it is complicated, and these intricacies vitalise the emotions circulating around Flush. On the other hand, we are given a taste of how cruel and oppressive a place Victorian London can be.

The faults of London show up even more clearly by contrast when she elopes with Robert Browning and travels with him and Flush to Italy, which is presented as safe, democratic, in short, full of sweetness and light. Steve Ellis however, remarks:

this simple antithesis and rejection of England is by no means Woolf’s last word on the Victorian scene… If The Years will largely continue the unsympathetic portrayal of Victorian England, the mix of rejection of it and nostalgia for it remains evident in other Woolfian texts of the 1930s in an undimmed complexity that was not perhaps appropriate in the biography of Elizabeth Barrett’s dog.[26]

This complexity needs to be explored at greater length, but the intention of this paper was to draw attention on two novels of comparable style, one frequently ignored, that seemed to shed light at a particular angle on the subject of Victorian intimacies. It is not that intimacy entirely redeems the Victorian age for Woolf, nor that she finds the period entirely despicable otherwise. Rather, the encounter between convention and intimacy in the Victorian Age feeds Woolf’s deep curiosity about human relationships, and allows her conflicted feelings upon the subject to be unravelled through a range of literary responses. As suggested by the earlier segment of this paper, conversation and mingling is, for Woolf, a chore and an art, both tedious and stimulating. Her letters are a perfect example of friendship turned into art, and language sustaining friendship. In her body of carefully crafted letters, candour and lies, abruptness and decorum all have their place and confessions of all kinds appear, from declarations of petty sentiment to heartbreaking cries of despair. It is difficult to attempt a gradation of intimacies in Woolf’s writing, as the lack of a clear hierarchy or a fixed set of responses are integral to the richness of her worldview. I return to the phrase ‘weight of association’ which I used earlier, to end with the thought that intimacy for Woolf is indeed a weight in the sense of a burden, a centre of pressure that generates tension, but also something that greatly enhances the texture of her experience, and lends substance to her literature.

NOTES

[1] Virginia Woolf, ‘Professions for Women’, The Death of the Moth, and Other Essays, (Project Gutenberg Australia edition, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks12/1203811h.html#ch-01, accessed October 9, 2014)

[2] Ibid.

[3] Emily Blair, Virginia Woolf and the Nineteenth Century Domestic Novel (New York: State University of New York Press, 2007).

[4] Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’, The Hogarth Essays (London: Hogarth Press, 1924), (http://www.columbia.edu/~em36/MrBennettAndMrsBrown.pdf, accessed October 9, 2014)

In pages 21-2, she speaks of the ‘indecency’ of Joyce, the ‘obscurity’ of Eliot, the ‘strain’ and limitations of Strachey, and how such ‘failures and fragments’ are the price one has to pay for the illuminations of a new age.

[5] Blair, Virginia Woolf, p. 31, 53.

[6] Woolf, ‘Professions for Women’.

[7] Ibid.

[8] VirginiaWoolf, A Room of One’s Own (Great Britain: Grafton, 1977), p. 78.

[9] Raymond Williams, ‘The Bloomsbury Fraction’, Culture and Materialism (London: Verso, 2005), p. 149.

[10] Ibid.

[11] VirginiaWoolf, Selected Letters, ed. Joanne Trautmann Banks (London: Vintage, 2008), xiv, p. 256.

[12] Woolf, Selected Letters, p. 216.

[13] Ibid., p. 198.

[14] Ibid., p. 35.

[15] Ibid., p. 44.

[16] Ibid., p. 101.

[17] Ibid., p. 74.

[18] Ibid.

[19] Ibid., pp. 65-6.

[20] Blair, Virginia Woolf, p. 70.

[21] Virginia Woolf, Orlando (New York: Rosetta Books LLC, 2002), electronic edition, p. 135.

[22] Woolf, Orlando, p. 148.

[23] Sherron E. Knopp, ‘“If I Saw You Would You Kiss Me?”: Sapphism and the Subversiveness of Virginia Woolf’s Orlando’, Modern Language Association 103.1 (Jan 1988): 24 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/462459, accessed October 9, 2014)

[24] Virginia Woolf, ‘The Back Bedroom’, Flush (Project Gutenberg Australia edition, http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks03/0301041h.html, accessed October 9, 2014)

[25] Ibid.

[26] Steve Ellis, Virginia Woolf and the Victorians (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), p. 114.


Anushka Sen has received her B.A. and M.A. degrees in English Honours from Jadavpur University. She is presently employed as a Project Fellow under the School of Media Communication and Culture. Her paper, ‘The Purpose of Intimacy in Virginia Woolf’s Victorian England’, was presented when she was in her final semester of PG II. She remains interested in the themes of intimacy and the animal in literature, which she explored while studying for this paper.

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