That claim about 1910


Paul Cézanne, Medea (after Delacroix), c. 1879-1882.

Virginia Woolf gets a lot of grief for having claimed, with some to-be-debated level of irony, that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” (Selected Essays 38).  This is often misquoted as a claim that human “nature” changed, sometimes by folks who should know better, but usually in the context of some self-regarding cocktail party dismissal of Woolf as being herself hopelessly snobbish and self-involved.  Harumph, they say, a few crazy paintings change our biological nature?  Indeed, what silliness.  Of course the fact that Woolf was carefully staging what she called her “intolerable egotism” for the benefit of the Heretics Society at Cambridge in 1924, and that her sense of “character” in this paragraph is a carefully qualified, but nonetheless savage assault on earlier novelists’ practices of characterization, usually goes unremarked.

Yes, for those of you who’ve read the essay (and if you haven’t, you should), she’s probably being gratuitously unfair to Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy.  And, yes, she’s probably being hasty (but this was 1924!) about lumping together the ungainly assortment of writers like Forster, Strachey, Lawrence, Eliot, and Joyce.  In hindsight, this generational distinction obscures as much as it illuminates.  And paradoxically the rise of Woolf’s own status as a canonical modernist has drawn attention to the women absent from her formulation: Mansfield and Richardson, but also, in different ways, Wharton, Loy, HD, and Stein.  Still, there’s something powerful about Woolf’s claim, and I think it goes well beyond misunderstandings of its seriousness.

In context, she was widening our understanding of what we do when we read “characters” in a novel.  Judging character, she suggests, is one of our most common activities.  It’s part of our everyday life and it ranges in intent and complexity from malicious but delicious gossip to sustained attempts to understand the inner workings of another person.  “It would be impossible,” she said (or writes that she said), “to live for a year without disaster unless one practiced character-reading and had some skill in the art” (38).  Notice how what sounds like a strident assertion at the start–it would be impossible–depends on a series of much more pragmatic-sounding qualifications.  Could you go for a year without trying to interpret someone’s character?  Can you really become a mature adult–whatever that means–without having some skill in guessing people’s motives and tendencies?  But before her assertion entirely dissolves into platitude, she makes what I think is a much more interesting claim that usually gets obscured by what follows:  “Our marriages, our friendships depend on [the art of character-reading]; every day, questions arise which can only be solved by its help” (38).  So what is the sense of character in play here?

We might think that, if our marriages and friendships–and we might want to generalize here to all manner of our serious emotional and cognitive partnerships–if such significant relations depend upon reading it, then “character” might be the essence of another person.  Or, if like the Edwardians we’re entertaining doubts about Romantic claptrap about knowing “essences,” then we might take it to be the sturdy accumulation of sometimes contradictory but eventually conclusive empirical evidence about another person’s habits and proclivities.   “Character” would be the “deep” and consistent personality underlying a person’s ambiguous but ultimately superficial actions.  We might think that, but we would be wrong.  After all, as we are about hear, character can change.

I’m still trying to figure out for myself whether Woolf’s subsequent attempt at, as she says, “abstracting” her claim by looking to the change in the attitude of “one’s cook” is as rankly class-bound as it sounds, but, for the moment, I want to stay with the “character” side of her claim.  That is, I’m not interested in defending what seems to be her argument that because Wells (et al.) don’t pay much attention to middle-class women’s emotional lives, they’ve missed a fundamental shift in “human” character.  Clearly, as Raymond Williams (and many since) have pointed out, there’s a problem with regarding a “fraction” of human relations (i.e. Bloomsbury’s or Oxbridge’s raised eyebrow at their servants’ new uppityness) as somehow standing in for the whole (“The Bloomsbury Fraction,” in Culture and Materialism).  What I am interested in defending, or at least further exploring, is the last part of the sentence.  (I excuse myself for the moment from dealing with Woolf’s entirely subversive inclusion of “our business” as also one of the major forms of human relation that depend on — but this only “largely”!–on the art of reading character.  Thinking about the forms of character read in marriage and friendship versus business, in Britain in the 1920s or generally, would take at least a book to sort out.)  Against both the clichéd romantic ideas of “essential” character or more recent “disenchanted” views of character as an accumulated property, Woolf asserts that the importance of reading character comes from its ordinariness and its dailiness: “every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help” (38).  What sorts of questions might these be?  How might our ad hoc, impromptu attempts to cope with them amount to a skill?

Woolf ends her talk by demanding that her audience (Heretics, but still, perhaps, deserving of a slap) not expect “just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment” of her famous example, “Mrs. Brown” (54).  “Tolerate,” she says, “the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure” (54).  She is partly alluding to what she calls Eliot’s “obscurity” and Joyce’s “indecency,” but here their methods have been subsumed into a larger call for an explicitly ethical form of attention.  The methods they discover, however distasteful or obsessive they seem to Woolf or her listeners, might open the way to “one of the great ages of English literature”–but only, Woolf says, “if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown” (54).  How are the skills of character-reading, skills honed and created in response to different problems every day, connected to this ethical demand?  Would cultivating our ability to, as recent narratology has it, “read minds” really improve us?  Would it make us less likely to desert Mrs. Brown–or would it make us more likely to exploit her, as if she were another “problem” to be solved?