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Reaching Mrs. Brown: Interiority and Typification

'Character’, wrote Arnold Bennett, ‘is at the heart of the novel’; yet Virginia Woolf in her essay Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown responded that Bennett’s attempts at characterisation were pre-occupied with physical surroundings; his hunger for material description left his characters bare. Taking as her example a putative Mrs. Brown, elderly, destitute, proud and fearful, she proposes that Bennett would, in describing her, intricately and skilfully depict the carriage, the bulging of the upholstery, and the advertisements whilst leaving Mrs. Brown herself unexplained. She writes that Bennett, whom she goes on to say describes his characters by sketching their houses, believes that ‘Old women of course ought to be made of freehold villas and copy estates, not of the imagination.’ Character, says Woolf in her essay, changed irrevocably before the War, and a concomitant change in style of writing is necessary to reflect this. ‘Life’ says Woolf of Bennett’s unsatisfactory writing, ‘escapes.’

Going on to call for new modes of expression to reflect this new ‘character’, in Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, and also in Modern Fiction and The Narrow Bridge of Art, she says that in order to portray interiority as thoroughly and fully as they wish, ‘Grammar is violated, syntax disintegrated’ by the Georgian writers. She goes on; ‘Mr. Joyce’s indecency in Ulysses seems to me the conscious and calculated indecency of a man who feels that in order to breathe he must break windows.’ She asks, dramatically, for a ‘smashing and a crashing.’ of literary convention. E.M. Forster agreed with her diagnosis of the paradigm shift in character, saying that psychology had ‘split and shattered the idea of the Person’ and D. H. Lawrence similarly concurred, rejected what he called ‘the old stable ego of character’, joining Woolf in search of a more fractured, disparate, accurate representation of character.

Woolf’s first attempt at such a representation, Jacob’s Room, is just that: fractured and disparate. A mosaic comprising jagged tesserae of encounters with the eponymous Jacob. The externalities that compose the novel leave little or no room for ruminations on Jacob’s character, let alone Jacob’s own voice. In each encounter the stranger sees or speaks to Jacob and forms varying judgments on him. The wholly tangential and ordinary nature of most of these encounters means that most of these judgments reflect as much upon the third party as upon Jacob himself, as people project themselves onto him. Jacob is less a hero or a protagonist to Jacob’s Room than its absent, undefined centre, like Percival in The Waves The novel is called Jacob’s Room, not ‘Jacob Flanders’ and all he leaves behind him are many letters from other people, an empty room, and a pair of shoes. It is only through the shape formed by the many tangents that touch Jacob that we form an impression of the space in between them all.

Like the train in Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, Woolf also uses the omnibus to dramatise the difficulty of reading people, here in Jacob’s Room:

The proximity of the omnibuses gave the outside passengers an opportunity to stare into one another’s faces. Yet few took advantage of it. Each had his own business to think of. Each had his own past shut in him like the leaves of a book known to him by heart; and his friends could only read the title, James Spalding, or Charles Bludgeon, and the passengers going the other way could read nothing at all – save ‘a man with a red moustache’, ‘a young man in grey smoking a pipe’.’

In the meeting of these two omnibuses, Woolf is silently positing countless chance tangents like those that fill Jacob’s Room, with myriad possibilities for judgments and imaginations, and by showing the ordinariness of such an occasion validates her narrative experiment as an uncontrived and representative one. It is this ordinariness that Woolf uses that Erich Auerbach writes about in his chapter on Woolf in Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, explaining the importance of the incidental in Woolf’s fiction as a jumping-off point for the imagination, and the simultaneously significant and insignificant role it occupies as a signifier for conscious thought. The importance of the incidental was similarly captured by Woolf later in Orlando; ‘…it is not covenants nor factory acts that matter; its something useless, sudden, violent, something red, blue, purple; a spirit; a splash; … free from taint, dependence, soilure of humanity’.

When asking the reader how well we can ‘read’ people, whether with a profound and fully internalised knowledge, or whether our understanding is limited to a ‘title’, or whether we are reduced to crude description with physical attributes, Woolf is challenging how well we think we know ourselves, let alone each other or even the characters in a novel, and to what extent we assign types to those around us.

Given such partial and nebulous knowledge of ourselves, Woolf explains our ability to interact with one-another in terms of what she calls for the sake of convenience ‘character-mongering’; ‘There is also the highly respectable opinion that character-mongering is much over done nowadays. After all, what does it matter –’ The debunking of this typifying habit is itself expressed in the pompous language of the character-mongers – ‘highly respectable opinion’ – which is in itself a mocking tone. This taken with the personification of the narrator makes it impossible to know where she stands on ‘character-mongering.’ Whether it is an insidious and lazy habit of half-knowing or a useful shorthand for knowledge which cannot be obtained is left for us to decide.

The ways in which we habitually typify, simplify interiority and project in order to interact socially is satirised by Woolf in this extract, when Jacob travels from Scarborough to Cambridge by train;

‘Mrs. Norman protested feebly but very nervously as the door swung open and a powerfully built young man jumped in. (…) She would throw the scent bottle with her right hand, she decided, and pull the communication cord with her left. She was fifty years of age, and had a son at college. Nevertheless, it is a fact that men are dangerous (…). She (…) looked to decide the question of safety by the infallible test of appearance …Taking note of socks (loose) and tie (shabby) (…) All was firm yet youthful, indifferent, unconscious – as for knocking one down! No, no, no! (…) Should she say (after all he was just the same age as her own boy): ‘If you want to smoke, don’t mind me’? (…) presumably he was nice, interesting, distinguished…’

Mrs. Norman – who surely has her genesis in the Mrs. Brown of Woolf’s essay – initially reacts to Jacob’s presence by typifying him as a dangerous male stranger likely to assault her, and it is only by assimilating into the type of a family member that she can calm herself and accept his intrusion, dealing the whole while in types, and never ascertaining anything individual about Jacob at all. The whole episode takes place within half a minute as Mrs. Norman projects first her fears and then her maternal nature onto Jacob’s tabula rasa; Jacob’s presence and contribution to the incident is almost incidental. Rachel Bowlby points out that Woolf consciously emphasises this system of types by telling a typical story of a woman telling a typical story of a chance encounter with a strange man.

This superficiality of interaction is not isolated to strangers; neither Durrant nor Florinda take trouble to ‘understand’ Jacob: the former wants his company for his own intellectual self-gratification, and the latter doesn’t entirely know why she seeks Jacob, but it certainly has little to do with the man himself, as is made clear when she is seen ‘on the arm of another man.’

In the middle of Mrs. Norman’s encounter, the narrator muses that;

‘Nobody sees anyone as he is, let alone an elderly lady sitting opposite a strange young man in a railway carriage. They see a whole – they see all sorts of things – they see themselves. It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not entirely what is said, nor yet exactly what is done.’

In this quotation, the purpose underlying Woolf’s narrative experiment becomes clear; we must construe from our chance encounters with Jacob what we can of him, as we must in life. Rachel Bowlby points out that the narrator – whom Woolf has personified as having ‘the difference of sex (from Jacob) and ten years’ superiority – ‘would be just another disinterested realist who can only ‘follow hints’ and fail to ‘sum people up’.’ Both she and the reader are like detectives having to follow only the vaguest of hints, shown by ‘not exactly … nor yet entirely.’ In creating an embodied, freely moving narrator in Jacob’s Room Woolf adds another stratum of interpretation and commentary, and occasionally the narrator disengages from the events of the book and addresses us directly, not only further layering the novel, but making us aware of the act of reading, and of our attempts to transcend typification toward true interiority, which in this novel Woolf deliberately denies us by her narrative technique.

Upon finishing Jacob’s Room, one wonders whether there is anything beyond type left in the interpretation of character. Woolf writes later in Jacob’s Room, further establishing the primacy of type;

‘It seems that a profound, impartial and absolutely just opinion of our fellow creatures is utterly unknown. Either we are cold, or we are sentimental. Either we are young, or we are growing old.’

Mrs. Dalloway, Woolf’s next novel, published three years later, uses what is perhaps the inverse narrative technique to Jacob’s Room; instead of a tangential stream of externalities we are presented with concentrated internal monologues which illustrate the characters more fully and authoritatively but in a less innovative fashion. Despite this difference in technique, Woolf still portrays with an acute eye the differences between 3rd person perception and self perception, as when Peter Walsh sees the distraught Septimus Smith and his wife and projects onto them his own romantic and wholly erroneous ideas; ‘And that is being young, Peter Walsh thought as he passed them.’ The extent to which characters interact at crossed purposes is more clearly shown by allowing each character to speak for themselves, as the reader is given an absolute by which to measure external perceptions; thus Miss Kildare’s wild misconstruing of Elizabeth Dalloway’s thoughts about her is rendered more effective because we more fully understand both characters than we would were our understanding contingent upon the tangentiality that suffuses Jacob’s Room.

Mrs Dalloway nonetheless relates just as much to the impossibility of knowing anyone as the previous novel, Woolf having in the interim between publications refined her philosophy of social interaction to accord privilege of knowledge not as fiction conventionally does to relationships formed between characters but rather to simply spending time together in the same place. This accounts for the relative communality felt by Clarissa for Septimus despite never having met him, as she imagines the spikes of the iron railing on which Septimus kills himself penetrating her own body, as compared to the distance mutually felt between her and her oldest friends Sally and Peter, which Woolf emphasises by juxtaposing the two passages in the closing section of the book. Peter’s five year sojourn in India and Sally’s marriage to a Mancunian cotton merchant have left the trio with nothing left in common but the past; nothing contemporary to bind them together or inform them of each other, which leaves Peter puzzled by Sally’s long letter on blue hydrangeas and Clarissa feeling similarly flummoxed by the transformation time has wrought in her friend.

As Gillian Beer writes in The Common Ground, ‘Mrs. Dalloway explores the mass behind one voice’: the infinite number of contingencies that shape and mould character from day to day are illustrated by Woolf’s incursions of the incidental on Clarissa’s thoughts, which become leitmotifs throughout her day, most notably the novel’s opening line; ‘Mrs. Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself.’ The vastly nuanced representation this creates of Clarissa Dalloway’s mind far surpasses in depth and sophistication anything in Jacob’s Room, and transcends mere ‘type’ to true individuality.

However, characters, including Clarissa who herself ruminates upon the human inability to fully understand others, still use ‘type’ to interact with and judge others. When the Prime Minister comes to her party, the whole party quivers silently with excitement at the idea of his presence, whilst remaining oblivious to the man himself:

‘He looked so ordinary. You might have stood him behind a counter and bought biscuits – poor chap, all rigged up in gold lace. He tried to look somebody. It was amusing to watch. No-one looked at him passing; this symbol of what they all stood for, English society.’ (emphasis added)

Of this typification of men of power in Woolf’s writing, Bowlby writes: ‘Not only are they all the same, uniformly null, but they are machines, without any degree of individual agency.’ Woolf dehumanises the workings of Whitehall to archetypes and disembodied voices in both Jacob’s Room, where she describes the infinite voices, faceless and without identity, endlessly relating world news to the Admiralty and The Waves, where Louis’ ambitions to ‘shape history’ are inspired by the ultimate archetype: marble busts of Pitt, Burke and Peel, next to which the variously ‘red, fat, pale, lean’ politicians of the day, too human to ‘shape history’ as Louis’ vain vision understands it, are satirised.

Arnold Kettle writes of To the Lighthouse’s characters that

‘These people may not be very interesting, nor their activities nor their mental pre-occupations may concern us very much when we abstract and think about them, but they are alive (…) they know each other. Whatever they are they are not cardboard figures or puppets or caricatures. The effect of To the Lighthouse is the absolute antithesis of flatness.’

Whilst Kettle’s utter refutation of type in To the Lighthouse perhaps goes too far in proposing type and interiority to be diametrically opposed and mutually exclusive, which as we shall see with The Waves is definitively not the case, whilst exploring the same disparities between how we perceive ourselves and how others perceive us that her previous, To the Lighthouse achieves an integrated realism that lacked in the previous two novels. The relationships between the characters, once established, grow organically; perhaps in part due to the autobiographical elements of the novel, the characters possess a depth of realism hitherto unachieved. Robert Liddell writes; ‘The truth is perhaps this: while we know the characters of Ms. Austen as we know our friends (if we are unusually observant), we know Mrs. Woolf’s as ourselves.’

Orlando is Woolf’s whimsical satire on biography, which like Jacob’s Room mocks our desperation to classify in order to understand; and which character defies ‘character-mongering’ better than Orlando? Resisting even the most fundamental of classifications, that of gender, Orlando sets out to thwart any possibilities for pigeon-holing or analysis, as Bowlby despairs in her introduction to the novel;

‘What is the editor of Orlando to do? She – but there is every doubt of her sex – finds herself in the hopeless situation of dealing with a book which is already a parody of the kinds of scholarly enterprise which her introduction might try to emulate.’

And yet even the briefest of glances at the roles Orlando fulfills in his/her life reveals them to be just that: a sequence of roles, of positions. The indulged child gives way to the aspirant author, and thence to the aristocratic, dashing ambassador. Upon her return to England, Orlando becomes a literary hostess of sorts, and is finally assimilated into the middle classes. Woolf’s brilliance is that whilst fulfilling these stereotypes, Orlando retains a consistency of character throughout, despite her wildly different stations. Both this and Jacob’s Room expose the inevitability of typification in biography.

The Waves is neither biography nor novel; it stands uncomfortably between the two, resisting categorisation. The seven friends’ lives it describes represented for Woolf what Gillian Beer in her introduction calls the different ‘persons of one woman.’ In having six separate streams of interior monologue representing one woman Woolf has created the ultimate in interiority; every contingency, mood and mode is described and all, though jarringly discordant, representative of the immense complexity of one person. The Waves was perhaps Woolf’s most thorough and explicit exposition of the concept that the human mind can not encompass all phenomena to date. The inscrutable persona that Mrs. Dalloway and Jacob’s Room only touched upon is here fully realised as a contradictory and entirely awkward thing that is still valid as a persona. Though Clarissa Dalloway could be said to embody in part Jinny’s sensuousness and beauty, Susan’s calloused maternalism, Rhoda’s timid introspection, and Neville’s homoeroticism, in allowing each facet of womanhood as Woolf perceived it its own character in The Waves, these themes could be more purely and comprehensively articulated. In addition, The Waves considers Bernard’s story-telling, self-regarding self, and Louis’ insecurity, industry and poetry.

However, in dividing one woman in seven personae, although Woolf achieves a remarkable depth of interiority, each character becomes to an extent typified: Susan especially, in a lineage of proud, prodigious mothers like that which Sally Seton becomes; Jinny’s beauty akin to Mrs. Ramsay’s or Sandra Wenworth Williams’; Bernard’s imposing pompousity that smacks of Mr. Ramsay’s tyranny; Louis’ sensitivity that parallels James Ramsay’s, and so on. Nevertheless, this is not to deny that a conflation of contradictory types does compose a convincing piece of interiority that convincingly negates and refutes the false notion of universality and unrealistic demand for cogency and coherence in character.

The Waves considers and includes with maturity all the elements that compose consciousness: memory, as related in Bernard’s closing monologue in a restaurant, sensory phenomena, as experienced by Susan and Jinny especially, and thought, as shown by all the characters in their monologues.

Virginia Woolf does not rely exclusively upon type to display character in her writing, but creates fully realised men and women whose interiority is rendered in detail; Mrs. Dalloway, Mrs. Ramsay, Orlando, the woman described by The Waves. However, her acute observation and reproduction of social interaction, which itself frequently relies on type, shows us how we rely on it to bypass our ignorance of each other and ourselves.

In closing Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, Woolf wrote; ‘I will make one final prediction – we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown.’ Looking retrospectively at her essay-come-manifestos setting out the failings of the Edwardian authors and the tasks facing the Georgians, Virginia Woolf seems fully validated. She successfully departed from the materialistic representations of interiority favoured by Edwardians and arrived at a way of depicting character that was wholly self-contained and independent of external considerations, taking physicality as at most a departure point for further insight. Through a fusion of typifications and sensitive interiority, Woolf fully and unflinchingly portrayed character with all its contradictions and difficulties.


Virginia Woolf Jacob’s Room Oxford World’s Classics
Virginia Woolf Mrs. Dalloway Oxford World’s Classics
Virginia Woolf To The Lighthouse Penguin 20th Century Classics
Virginia Woolf Orlando Oxford World’s Classics
Virginia Woolf The Waves Oxford World’s Classics
Virginia Woolf Collected Essays volumes 1-4 Hogarth Press Press 1968

Erich Auerbach Mimesis: Representations of Reality in Western Literature
Gillian Beer Virginia Woolf: The Common Ground
Gillian Beer Introduction to The Waves Oxford World’s Classics
Rachel Bowlby Feminist Destinations and further essays on Virginia Woolf
Rachel Bowlby Introduction to Orlando Oxford World’s Classics
Arnold Kettle An Introduction to the English Novel II Mayflower Press 1955
Hermione Lee Introduction to To the Lighthouse Penguin 20th C Classics
Judy Little The Experimental Self: Dialogic Subjectivity in Woolf, Pym, and Brooke- Rose Southern Illinois University Press 1996

A NYH project, timidly.

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