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Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual & the Public Sphere
Melba Cuddy Keane
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.
£40.00, 220 pages, ISBN 0-521-82867-8 (hardback).

Nephie Christodoulides
University of Cyprus

Written by Melba Cuddy Keane, a renowned Woolf scholar, Virginia Woolf, the Intellectual & the Public Sphere does not only refute the assumption that Woolf is an “ascetic,” totally isolated from the social issues of her times, but it also draws into sharp focus Woolf’s essays and literary criticism—an area so far neglected. It is important to note that most existing Woolfian criticism aspires at discussing Woolf’s novels and short stories while very few exceptions focus on the essays, but even those mostly deal with issues such as feminism (see Michele Barrett, ed. On Women and Writing. Her Essays, Assessments and Arguments, 1979). On the other hand, while many books attempt to discuss Woolf and modernism, none concentrates on Woolf and the social issues of her time as this emerges from her essays.

In the three rather long chapters of the book, Keane delves into the notion of “highbrowism” and regards Woolf’s essays and literary criticism not merely as the production of the superior, snobby author, but as leading to a “democratic highbrowism.” In Chapter 1, “Democratic highbrow: Woolf and the classless individual,” Keane discusses the notion of democracy with much emphasis on the historical background of “brow” words, preparing the reader for an insightful reading of Woolf’s essay “Middlebrow” (1932) which was merely a “Letter to the Editor” that Woolf never sent, and so far neglected by critics. The essay was meant to be an answer to J. B. Priestley and the public heated debate as to the definition of "highbrowism." Keane considers the essay important for “understanding Woolf’s approach to the ‘brows’ in the sense that it helps to historicize the debate” [p. 28]. At the same time, as Keane sees it, the essay goes beyond the debate between "highbrowism" and "lowbrowism" to discuss the role of the intellectual in society. For Keane the essay is even more significant as a token of Woolf’s intertextuality in its character as a multilayered document. Abundant in allusive poetic prose it promotes a reading that is undertaken at different levels. In Keane’s words:

The dense intertextuality of this essay […] becomes a web of searching cultural critique, exposing the complicity of unquestioning patriotism, capitalist values, media control of public discourse, and anti-intellectual complacency. Furthermore, the intricate play of Woolf’s language emerges as a rhetorical technique for shifting positionality, destabilizing ideology and putting the reader into active relation to the text. [pp. 30-31]

The detailed discussion of “Middlebrow” is followed by a consideration of Woolf and her relation to the notion of the “democratic.” An effort is being made to juxtapose Woolf and Whitman, the poet of democracy, but although there seem to be deeper and more interesting parallels between the two, Keane does not go into much detail, merely restricting the discussion to a brief overview of Woolf’s review of “Visits to Walt Whitman in 1890-1891” by J. Johnson and J.W. Wallace.

In what follows Keane investigates Woolf’s mass democracy as this is manifested in essays such as “Thunder at Wembley” (1924), “Abbey and Cathedrals” (1932), “This is the House of Commons” (1932). Finally, the discussion with which Keane closes the chapter focuses on Woolf’s vision of the democratic highbrow.

Chapter 2, “Woolf, English studies, and the making of the (new) common reader” starts with a discussion of the cultural connotation of reading in the 1920s and 1930s and leads to the issue of the institution of English studies. Keane sees Woolf’s skepticism about the academic study of literature as an objection that must be read “in context of the embattled position of English studies during this time” [p. 69]. A very detailed discussion of Woolf’s insights on the notion of adult education with special emphasis on the dialogue as a pedagogic means occupies a large part of the chapter. Additional information is provided in the thorough discussion of Woolf’s three essays on education, “A Professor’s Life” (1926), “Why” (1934), and “The Leaning Tower” (1940). Further, Keane concentrates on Woolf and her conviction that the public library constitutes an important means of pedagogy. Of extreme importance becomes the metaphor of reading as eating as used by Woolf, which unfortunately is not developed by Keane.

In Chapter 3, “Woolf and the pedagogy of reading,” Keane elaborates on the structure of Woolf’s essays seeing them “as occasions for stimulating and liberating the reader’s thought processes” {p. 119]. An important aspect is the way Keane sees Woolf’s pedagogy of reading as strongly reminiscent of Louise Rosenblatt’s transactional theory which proposes that the meaning of the text derives from a transaction between the text and reader within a specific context. As she puts it:

Woolf and Rosenblatt both promote a mutually informing relation between the ordering power of the text and the reader’s self-ordering activity, in a way that avoids the binary opposition of textual authority, on the one hand, and proliferating relativity on the other. [pp. 120-121]

At this point, Keane focuses on Woolf’s notion of reading as an unconscious process and spends some time discussing her essay “The Fascination of the Pool” (1929). In her detailed and insightful discussion, however, she fails to anticipate Freud whom she only mentions in passing (“unlike Freud, Woolf was not attempting to theorize the unconscious”). It is my belief that a Freudian reading of the essay would have added much more depth to Keane’s existing analysis, especially in light of Woolf’s original resistance to psychoanalysis and her later admiration for Freud and his work.

Another important aspect in this part is Keane’s allusion to Isobel Armstrong and her proposed model of reading, especially her redefinition of narcissism in reading where the mirror image becomes a site of alterity that leads the self into a process of identification. In a similar way, Woolf sees the reading process as a willingness to displace one’s own thinking and to participate in the thought process of the text [pp. 126-127]. A further significant issue for Keane is Woolf’s transference of the dialogue as a pedagogic means to the reading process thus making reading “open-ended” rather than “definitive and conclusive” which, very aptly, she sees as strongly reminiscent of Mikhail Bakhtin’s “Discourse Typology in Prose." Despite the importance of the issue, Keane only alludes to Bakhtin, whereas a more detailed discussion of the way Woolf’s method resembles his could have been more helpful for the reader.

Finally, Keane elaborates on Woolf’s historical reading and the way this is informed by the importance of everyday life and the provisionality of historical metanarratives. As she sees it, Woolf’s notion of history as “a dialogic interaction between the historical text and the historian’s understanding” was triggered by her teaching of English history at Morley College. Keane sees Woolf’s essay “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn” as capital, since it sets into motion the question of what constitutes history and how the reader can be involved in it. Keane invites Raymond Collingwood and his historicist philosophy to draw on differences and similarities with Woolf’s reading pedagogy. Keane uses “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn” as the starting point for her discussion of Woolf’s historical dialogism, which she sees as anticipating Hans Jauss’s theory about the way a reader’s “cultural, social and material location” informs the reading response.

The last aspect of Woolf’s reading pedagogy becomes the focus of Keane’s final project: evaluative reading. She delves into Woolf’s skepticism about evaluation, stressing the importance of the valuing act per se as labels are always “provisional, contextual, individual” [p. 170]. To Keane, Woolf’s essay “What Is a Good Novel” (1924) is particularly important as far as the discussion of the evaluative act is concerned, as well as the emphasis Woolf attaches on “good” reading, which for her is also applicable to “bad” books. Once more Keane observes the way Woolf’s evaluating notion brings into sharp relief contemporary theory—this time Barbara Herrnstein-Smith’s “contingencies of value” [p. 176].

Keane finishes her discussion by bringing into focus the three touchstones of reading value, i.e. unconventionality, conviction and unity, and clinches her analysis with a discussion of Woolf’s re-evaluation of three women writers: George Elliot, Jane Austen, and Elizabeth Barrett-Browning.

Although occasionally the reader would have liked to see a more detailed reading of the associations Keane makes between Woolf’s theory and current theories, the book is highly recommended as a welcome addition to Woolfian scholarship.



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