Friday, 25 April 2014

Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir, by Winifred Holtby

Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir 

by Winifred Holtby

Published by Continuum International

Winifred Holtby, although herself a successful novelist, was very afraid of Virginia Woolf.  So much so that when she began to write her memoir she talked to everyone but Virginia, until she received a royal command to appear at Hogarth House to take tea.  Holtby was right to be nervous. Virginia Woolf’s first impressions of her were typically caustic;  ‘a Yorkshire farmer's daughter, rather uncouth, and shapeless’.  In a letter to a friend Woolf called her ‘an amiable donkey’. But if Woolf had ever troubled to read what Holtby wrote, she might have been very surprised indeed at the way her contemporary had understood what she was trying to achieve in her novels, as well as the contradictions of her character.

Winifred Holtby
The book is constructed as a series of essays on various aspects of Virginia Woolf’s character and writing. Written by a clever novelist, they are light and easy to read. The first, called ‘The Advantages of being Virginia Stephen’, focusses on Woolf’s birth and upbringing.  Winifred Holtby quotes the portrait of Katherine Hilbery in Night and Day, drawn from Woolf’s own childhood as the daughter of an eminent scholar and critic living at the heart of literary society.  ‘Again and again she was brought down into the drawing room to receive the blessing of some awful distinguished old man who sat apart, all gathered together and clutching a stick’.

Woolf  lived her life at the centre of the literary hub - Robert Browning, Matthew Arnold and John Ruskin were among the formidable old men who sat in the parlour. Later she was a contemporary of TS Eliot, Katherine Mansfield, James Joyce, DH Lawrence, EM Forster and Lytton Strachey - the Bloomsberries, as Mansfield called them.  For Woolf, literary legends were people you met at dinner alongside Cabinet Ministers, judges and titled aristocrats.  It was a world apart, but it was also an education - as Holtby says, Woolf ‘lived among people before whom the whole range of European literature is spread like a familiar map’.

Virginia Woolf
The fact that Woolf didn’t have a conventional education (she was home-schooled) and allowed free run of her father’s library, shaped her future as a writer and critic.  Holtby, for once, gives Woolf’s critical writing equal status with her fiction.  For Woolf theory and practice were closely tied together; more people have read A Room of One’s Own than have read To the Lighthouse or The Waves, and her critical essays - Three Guineas, Letter to a Young Poet, Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, have had considerable influence on her successors and are still relevant.

But Holtby, writing in 1931, is quick to point out their underlying prejudices - ‘Every second Englishman reads French’, was a ridiculous thing to say, at a time when only 15% of the English were educated beyond the age of 14.  Woolf  didn’t understand the uneducated.  Whenever she tries to draw a working class character, Holtby writes, ‘she loses her way. They are more foreign to her than princes were to Jane Austen.’

Holtby also writes about Woolf’s complex relationship with suffragism.  Many women involved in the Suffrage movement were her friends.  They appear in her novels and their ideals are expressed in Woolf’s non-fiction. Characters like Orlando in the novel of the same name change gender, revealing prejudice and hypocrisy.  In A Room of One’s Own, Woolf  coined the expression ‘reflecting men at twice their normal size’.  But she did not take part in the campaign herself and, in most of her essays and reviews, she uses the male pronoun as convention demanded. The artist/writer is always ‘he’.

Winifred Holtby not only discusses Woolf as a woman and a writer, but also Woolf as a reader - the author of pithy reviews and essays of writerly instruction. Even though her own books were consumed by a literary elite, Woolf knew who the ‘Common Reader’ was, though she erred on the gender.  ‘The Common Reader differs from the critic and the scholar.  He is worse educated, and nature has not gifted him so generously.  He reads for his own pleasure rather than to impart knowledge.’  This is the person that we are all writing for - someone of only average education, neither a scholar nor a critic, reading for pleasure, and sometimes also a woman. (Statistically more often than not)

According to Woolf there are strict rules.  Ideas, morality, historical lessons, can only be presented in terms of character and plot.  Any research has to be invisible.  ‘Whatever facts, emotions and experiences the artist tastes, he must digest completely . . . There must be no foreign matter unconsumed.’  And she hates novels with a message that seem to encourage people to ‘join a society’ or ‘write a cheque’. The ‘business of the artist’, Woolf says, ‘is to provide one with a vivid and complete experience’.  There must be a reality - and reality is ‘what remains over when the skin of the day has been cast into the hedge; that is what is left of the past time and of our loves and hates ...  It is his business to find it and collect it and communicate it to the rest of us.’

Form must always serve the material - and here Woolf was extremely subversive.  ‘Mrs Woolf does not really like plots’, Holtby observes.  Nor does she like traditional ways of establishing character by description.  Woolf asks the Edwardian novelists how she should present her character Mrs Brown and gets this answer:
‘”Begin by saying that her father kept a shop in Harrogate.  Ascertain the rent.  Ascertain the wages of shop assistants in the year 1878.  Discover what her mother died of.  Describe cancer.  Describe calico.  Describe . . .”  But I cried “Stop!  Stop!”  And I regret to say that I threw that ugly, that clumsy, that incongruous tool out of the window, for I knew that if I began describing the cancer and the calico, my Mrs Brown, that vision to which I cling . . . would have been dulled and tarnished and vanished for ever.’

Woolf threw plot and narrative out of the window too and explored new ways of telling stories, taking ideas from Katherine Mansfield and adopting the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique developed by Dorothy Richardson.  The rest, as they say, is history.

Winifred Holtby’s short memoir is a real delight (which is probably why it’s been re-issued) and, if I had my way, I’d put it on the list for every creative writing student in the country.  It’s one brilliant writer’s take on another - illuminating and useful.  Woolf apparently told her friends that it had made her ‘scream with laughter’, but there’s no evidence that she ever read it.

Kathleen Jones  

Saturday, 19 April 2014

Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt by Kathleen B. Jones

Diving for Pearls: A Thinking Journey with Hannah Arendt

by Kathleen B. Jones (the Other Kathleen Jones!)

This is the story of my thinking journey with Hannah, a tale at once political and personal, singular and common.  Diving below the surface of her writing, the narrative arches and bends, assembling vignettes about Hannah and me into a collage of life stories, a kind of intellectual and emotional scrapbook.

That is how Kathleen B. Jones describes her unusual biography.  I read it with great interest - not only because it’s by my American name-sake, a writer, feminist and academic who has often covered similar ground, but also because I've followed the progress of the book on the internet for a couple of years, particularly the fraught process of publication.

Kathleen B. Jones is trained in political theory and a Professor Emerita of Women’s Studies at San Diego University, California.  But these days not even the phrase ‘leading academic’ means that you can get your work published by university presses, and the unusual structure of this book didn’t meet any of the academic norms.  Increasingly, ‘leading academics’ are turning to self-publishing to get their work in front of the public and it’s something to be grateful for.  One of the books I contributed to, published by Ashgate Press, is currently only available at a cover price of £56.00 - You can buy Diving for Pearls for a mere £7.97.

The book had its beginning in personal memoir.  Everyone wants to make sense of their lives, Kathleen B. Jones begins. ‘Some of us do that by telling a story’, but for Jones it was different.  ‘In the dusk of middle age, I chose a peculiar path.  Surprising myself by reversing directions, I took a road I’d abandoned, and found myself exploring again the thinking and life of Hannah Arendt’.

As a young woman, Hannah Arendt (1906-75) was a disciple (and lover) of the pro-Nazi German philosopher Martin Heidegger.  She was a Jewish woman who fled Nazi Germany to live in America, where she established herself as an eminent contemporary philosopher.  It was a title she often denied, choosing to describe herself instead as a ‘political theorist’.  She became the first female lecturer at Princeton and a fellow at Yale and was the subject of a 2012 film in Germany.

David Strathairn and Melissa Friedman as Martin Heidegger and Hannah Arendt in Kate Fodor’s play ‘Hannah and Martin’.

Her views were often controversial - Arendt wrote a book on the Eichmann trial subtitled ‘A Report on the Banality of Evil’ which criticised Jewish leaders for their actions during the Holocaust and appeared to suggest that the Nazis were not necessarily the monsters of popular thought - they were ordinary people who acquired power and did evil things because they didn’t think enough about what they were doing, and neither did the people who put them in power.  Evil can arise from mere thoughtlessness, unthinking conformity and obedience.  According to Arendt ‘it was “ordinary people,” neither stupid nor necessarily ideologically motivated, who committed the great atrocities of the Holocaust’.

Defining herself as both a German and a Jew, Arendt wrote about identity and human rights. She was very clear-sighted and pragmatic. ‘The right to have rights, or the right of every individual to belong to humanity, should be guaranteed by humanity itself.  It is by no means certain whether this is possible’.  But Arendt’s insistence on retaining her German identity, the events of her own life, and particularly her relationship with Heidegger, gave her critics a great deal of fuel for their opposition.  Arendt described love as ‘perhaps the most powerful of all anti-political human forces’.

Arendt was, as Jones points out - ‘A brilliant political philosopher, who refused to call herself a philosopher, a woman who never considered her sex an obstacle in her life, a Jew who was called anti-Semitic, and a rigorous thinker who wrote passionately about hatred and love’.  As a feminist and a writer, Jones found herself fascinated by the apparent contradictions in Arendt’s writing ‘no matter how much I argued against her, I had to admit I admired her writing . . . I found myself circling around and then diving deeper into Arendt’s writing , each time retrieving some pearl of insight, which shifted my understanding and made me reassess my position’.   Hannah Arendt’s voice became particularly insistent when Jones began to write a memoir of her own unusual and complex life.  ‘She wouldn’t leave me alone.  Every time I penned a line bordering on an all too confident assertion, I’d hear her voice in my head.  “Dive deeper, you’re not really thinking,” it said.’

The form of both Jones’ biography of Arendt and her own memoir changed as they merged into one - ‘a disquieting dialogue between two women one long ago dead, about what and how the heart knows yet prefers to keep to itself.  I let my imagination go visiting, entering her life and her work, and began to see the world and my own place in it from an altogether different perspective’.

The result is an unusual book - a thoughtful, penetrating (and sometimes painful) account of a life lived that uses the insights of this life to illuminate that of another. ‘I began to retrieve anecdotes from her life and mine, finding meanings in them I believe are more universal than applied only to my particular case’. What Jones learns from her experience informs her view of Hannah Arendt both as a woman and a philosopher and what Arendt wrote about herself teaches Jones how to think about her own.

One of the things that Jones learned was that the past is not necessarily ‘a set of events determining my present, as if one’s life was fully fashioned at its beginning, as if only time and circumstance were needed to create the equation that produced a person as its inevitable result.’  She abandoned the idea of Fatalism and accepted that a human being must admit their own limitations and ‘accept responsibility’ for what is theirs to control. Human beings are much more than ‘a leaf in the whirlwind of time’.

When Jones re-read Arendt’s book on Eichmann, it made her think ‘about monsters and the hold I’d let them have in my life’.  Reading about Jones’ monsters made me think about mine too and some of the terrible relationships and bad decisions I have had to take responsibility for.  That’s one of the things about this book - it makes you think, as both Jones and Arendt intended.

Jones is also interesting on the bias of the biographer - how we interpret the lives of the people we study according to events in our own.  Someone called Elzbieta Ettinger had previously written about Arendt’s life and used her subject’s relationship with Heidegger to provide the biographer herself ‘with a thinly veiled means of self-laceration, a confession, never made public of ever having become such a man’s prey’.  Ettinger had had a similar relationship.  As biographers we bring our own lives, our own judgements and prejudices to the text.

But there is more - Arendt’s position as an exiled German Jew makes Jones think about our own precarious position in an increasingly unstable world.  ‘We have all become refugees, wandering far from some imagined promised land of our ancestors, searching for a new way to be at home in a world where we might connect with and live with others with whom we have no evident or common ties binding us together as a people, except the shared fact of having been born.’ 

This book is indeed a thinking journey, written in beautiful prose, bringing together two women whose lives have made me think again about my own.  But beware, as Arendt warned, ‘There are no dangerous thoughts; thinking itself is a dangerous activity’.

You can find more about Kathleen B. Jones on her website here.

And you can buy Diving for Pearls on

And in Paperback

And from