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Virginia Woolf

The Patterns of Ordinary Experience


Lorraine Sim


London: Ashgate, 2010

Hardcover. ix-220 p. ISBN 978-0754666578. £55.00


Reviewed by Claire Davison-Pégon

Université Paris III – Sorbonne Nouvelle



Virginia Woolf’s “Modern Fiction” (1925) surely counts among the most often cited manifestoes of early twentieth-century modernism. And rightly so—it is an incisive and memorable reflection on the nature of modern aesthetics, the ideology of the gaze and the dynamics of literary history that can be read and read again, always revealing some unexpected insight into the “incessant shower of innumerable atoms” which will arrange themselves into the “luminous halo” of life. Her eminently quotable essay has, alongside snippets from other founding texts like Joyce’s Stephen Hero, been used by literary historians and teachers alike to perpetuate a vision of modernism as somehow elevated, drawn to the epiphanic and transcendent, with a highbrow tendency to escape into the realms of the apolitical. An unyielding paradox undercuts this convenient representation however. Before appreciating the “semi-transparent envelope” of consciousness, Woolf insists we should “examine for a moment an ordinary mind on an ordinary day”; she is drawn to “the life of Monday or Tuesday”, and the daily worries of Mrs Brown. Before aspiring to any form of heightened revelation, she insists we should seek “the proper stuff of fiction” in the everyday.

This is the paradox that Lorraine Sim has set out to explore. Drawing on contemporary social theory, cultural studies and above all philosophy (from Plato to the existentialists, via eighteenth-century empiricism and idealism, nineteenth-century positivism, early twentieth-century epistemology and finally existentialism), she tackles the problematic definition and specificity of the ordinary, the everyday, the trivial, the habitual and the banal, particularly in the early twentieth century when technology, late capitalism, mass production and motorised transport had completely upturned the everyday world. As Sim shows so succinctly, Woolf’s fictional and non-fictional writing constantly engages with this paradoxical everyday world which is at once so ordinary and so new. Such rich ground had of course already been explored: in Woolf studies alone, scholars such as Mark Hussey, Melba Cuddy-Keane, Rachel Bowlby, Emily Dalgarno and Douglas Mao have in recent years brilliantly demonstrated features of what Hussey calls “the ecstasy of the ordinary” in Woolf’s fiction, and the political implications of how she represents the commonplace. Sim’s work follows in this vein, sometimes pursuing their lines of thought, sometimes reading against contemporary theorists; her study thus provides a thorough overview of thirty years of Woolf scholarship, a neatly argued interpretation of the politics and aesthetics of modernism, and a very inclusive rereading of many key Woolf texts, from the best known novels to certain lesser-read short stories (including the surprisingly sidelined “Blue” and “Green”), and from the essays to autobiographical sketches.

The book is divided into three rather unequal parts: shorter first and third parts dealing with the objects, colours and sensations of the ordinary world on the one hand, and the patterns, interconnectedness and ethics of everyday life on the other. A much longer middle section looks at how the ordinary is experienced, notably when distorted by illness, or observed from the motor car. This middle section is perhaps the real heart of the study, and arguably the richest, and most insightful, but the reader will be satisfied throughout by clear, analytical and solid arguments, that start out systematically from firm theoretical bases and are backed up by case-studies in the form of close-readings and convincing examples. In Part One, Sim looks at the representation of objects (what Perec would call the infra-ordinary, although Sim does not use more recent French writings), both in the shorter fiction, seen as the site of imaginative transformations, and in To the Lighthouse, notably via the figure of Mr Ramsay, that stolid compiler of lists and facts who, as his wife astutely observes, had been born deaf and blind to the ordinary things of life. The short stories provide a wealth of examples backing up Sim’s arguments: the snail on the wall-paper which inspires “The Mark on the Wall”, John, the reluctant politician turned stone-gatherer in “Solid Objects”, the conversational tones and echoes of trivia overheard in “Kew Gardens”. Sim draws convincingly on Fry’s essay “An Artist’s Vision” here (recalling how Fry compared his pictorial observations to Woolf’s experiments in writing) as she sets out the different viewpoints which can reveal the secret life of things, or the philosophical potency of vibrant splashes of colour construed historically, culturally and emotionally.

The middle section begins by tackling Woolf’s explorations of “the daily dramas of the body” (86), seen against a backcloth of social theories of illness, medical knowledge and healthcare in early twentieth-century Britain. Here, Sim marks the clear shift from nineteenth-century fictional portrayals of disease (melancholia, consumption, hysteria etc), with their emphasis on the exceptional and the dramatic, and Woolf’s far more humdrum concerns in “On Not Being Ill” with minor ailments, but also what it means to be healthy, or how it feels to be a patient amidst the “healthy majority”, with an underlying reflexion on how common illnesses have the power to undermine community and commonality. Sim relies for her second case-study on The Voyage Out, perhaps a less convincing example at first view since Rachel Vinrace’s fever and death during a voyage to South America are grounded less in the “ordinary” than in the exotic transatlantic excursions of the leisured classes which then go dramatically wrong. But here Sim invokes less Rachel’s experiences of fatal infection than the awkward, mismanaged silences of those forced to become bystanders, and particularly the tedious, thankless everyday anxieties of the carer, and by so doing, she draws attention to one of the most overlooked aspects of healthcare to which Woolf proved so attentive.

Sim thus brings us to consider “exceptional ordinariness” cropping up in everyday life: journeys altered by technology, a new sense of speed transforming the landscape, time being standardised throughout the country, the world through the filter of the screen, whether the cinema screen (revealing “things as they are when we’re not there”) or the windscreen of the private car. A very convincing example of a new romantic sublime in the home counties emerges from this section, as Sim draws parallels between Wordsworth’s Prelude and Woolf’s sense of being “overcome”, “mastered” by the exaltation of travel, despite her initial reluctance to accept the new private vehicles invading the quiet lanes of Sussex. This exalted sublime born from the common things of life, is then contrasted with the negative sublime also at work in Woolf’s work, in those avalanches of gruelling absurdity or dismay that overcome the onlooker, anticipating Roquentin’s nausea born from the crude here-and-now of contingent objects.

The final section opens out into some of the transfigurations of the commonplace, not in the sense of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, but in the ethics of ordinary sympathy, understanding, compassion, notably in the everyday encounters prompting dialogue. These inter-subjective connections are observed in terms of moral philosophy and new technologies (particularly radio broadcasting), tracing some of the patterns which emerge in spaces of inter-subjective connection. Here Sim astutely brings together The Waves, and Woolf’s radio broadcasts, successfully interrelating what continue to be conceived as her most highbrow autonomous artwork on the one hand, and her more trivial or minor activities on the other. Such perceptive moments in the final section are welcome indeed, even if the reader finds herself coming too abruptly to the end, when one might have hoped to learn more about what actually constitutes “pattern”, and how it differs from the merely repetitive, uniform, or prescriptive. Or about how Woolf’s rhythms of the everyday feed into other modernist currents, particularly on the continent—Cocteau or Brecht would be interesting parallels here. Or where the scorned “middle-brow” fits into the pattern of “spaces between”. And perhaps contemporary philosophical debates about how far community, conversation and connectedness are necessarily guarantors of the ethical.

But such lingering doubts or reservations are perhaps the inevitable result of the perceptive way Sim prompts the reader to think in dialogue, and to think back, through Woolf, to the dusty roads, scraps of newspaper and daffodils in the breeze that bind the world together in a common mind. In this, she has succeeded, making the work a welcome contribution to Woolf studies, and modernist and inter-modernist debates more generally.


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