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Virginia woolf mr bennett and mrs brown essay

Virginia Woolf Transcript Ramona Koval: Virginia Woolf was a committed socialist and pacifist who believed literature had the power to stop wars, cause revolutions, and help us understand the minds of others.

Now, they're grand statements but they are statements that she vigorously defended in a decade-long debate with leading critic, author and playwright, Arnold Bennett, who claimed the modern novel was in a state of decay. In a lecture to the Heretics Club in Cambridge University in 1924, she argued passionately that the character in modern fiction reflects the human condition. To explain what she meant, Virginia told a story about an elderly woman she called Mrs Brown, who she spotted across the aisle on a train to Waterloo.

Virginia used the unsuspecting Mrs Brown to champion the modern novel. To celebrate its recent centenary, Queensland University revisited Virginia Woolf's argument and asked whether there's a 2010 version of Mrs Brown. One of the keynote speakers at the university's conference was an English professor, Melba Cuddy-Keane, who believes that much of Virginia's argument has relevance today.

Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown: Virginia Woolf on character in the novel

She joins us on the phone. Thank you very much. I'm delighted to be here. Before we look at Mrs Brown, we should look at the debate that created her. Tell us about Arnold Bennett and Virginia. What were they arguing about? There was a debate at the time about character in fiction and how character should be represented. What was interesting, in part, was that everybody agreed character was central to the novel, that character is why we read novels, character. But there was a disagreement about how character should be portrayed.

Virginia Woolf took on Arnold Bennett in that essay I think maybe partly because of the wonderful alliteration of Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, but she used him to represent a group of writers whom she felt focussed too virginia woolf mr bennett and mrs brown essay on the external events of life and the external appearances of character.

And she wanted to get more deeply into psychology and more deeply into the unconscious. What were they like as characters, Virginia Woolf and Arnold Bennett, if we imagine them having a debate? Actually, they got along. And they liked arguing. You know, that's a kind of secret virginia woolf mr bennett and mrs brown essay behind this essay, because it seems as if Bennett is simply her antagonist, but in fact at dinner parties they really enjoyed debating and talking to each other.

And one of the lovely comments that Virginia makes in her diary is that she had heard through the grapevine that Arnold Bennett at a different party, when she wasn't present, had said, 'Oh, Virginia, Virginia's all right. So how was the debate conducted then? It really wasn't a debate so much with Bennett. The writer whom she most argued with in essay form was JB Priestley and he was more of an antagonist than Arnold Bennett.

So, you know, in her essays she's always fictionalising, she's using narrative a lot, and so she sets up Bennett as a character to debate with. One of the things I've always liked so much about her essays is the dialogic form and the way in which they stimulate conversations.

Sometimes she makes these conversations within herself and she'll set herself up as an antagonist to herself so that we are taken back and forth, seeing different points of view. So here she's using Bennett a bit as a straw man, because she wants to set up a debate. What was so significant about this date in or around 1910 in Virginia Woolf's famous statement about the change in the nature of character?

Well, again, I think she's being slightly humorous and toying a bit with this idea. But I think one of the interesting things that I note is that she sets it before the First World War.

And I think so many constructions of history see that First World War as somehow the watershed that makes a change from the earlier, nineteenth century period into the twentieth century.

And she is taking us back before the war I think in part not to give violence and war that kind of prominence in terms of cultural history, but to take it back to earlier associations.

  • Character is both the central category of life outside literature and the constitutive element of fiction;
  • I'm delighted to be here;
  • The question for Woolf is how is this task to be carried out;
  • And one of the funny stories I think there is that after Virginia Woolf died, much later on, Saul Bellow decided he wanted to rent her village home in Rodmell because he thought he could go there and write and that the vibrations of her great writing would be there and stimulate his own writing.

In the essay, what she uses is the date that is the transition date between the Edwardian Age and the Georgian Age, because it's midway between the death of King Edward and the coronation of King George. So she's using a traditional, monarchical, monarch's reign to indicate some generational change. A lot of people have said that it's very significant because it's also the time of the first post-impressionist exhibition in London, when Roger Fry, one of Woolf's friends and a very prominent art critic, brought a collection of post-impressionist painting to London for the first time.

And it was quite a sensational show, stimulating a lot of controversy—mostly people mocked and laughed and thought this kind of abstract art was ridiculous to consider as being serious art; other people, very excited to see that there was a new way of looking at reality.

So that, certainly, is a very strong association with December 1910: But then she brings us right down to the specific, to the human, to the one-to-one, where she describes herself being late for a train from Richmond to Waterloo, hops on to a carriage very quickly, spots a woman she calls Mrs Brown. And Mrs Brown sort of holds the weight of her argument.

Who was Mrs Brown?

A Library of Literary Interestingness

A woman, simply a woman that Virginia Woolf saw. And I think what you've said there is very crucial, that she brings it down to the ordinary level, so that while we might think in December 1910 terms of public events or significant events that would in some way be political or broadly prominent, for her it really comes down to an ordinary event of one person encountering another person; that moment of contact with a stranger, which I think is also very important, the way she's saying we are always encountering strangers in our lives and always fascinated by them, always prompted to try to think about what's going on in someone else's life.

She was one of those clean, threadbare old ladies whose extreme tidiness—everything buttoned, fastened, tied together, mended, and brushed up—suggests more extreme poverty than rags and dirt. There was something pinched about her—a look of suffering, of apprehension, and, in addition, she was extremely small. Her feet, in their clean little boots, scarcely touched the floor. There's the novelist, isn't it? It's sort of painterly, in painterly touches. I don't think you can forget those extremely clean little boots.

Of houses, of where they live. And yet the externals of somebody's clothing she treats as very important. And that minute observation, the little details that tell you something about another person can be glimpsed through their clothing.

She did, however, come from the upper classes. I mean, her politics and feminism were often very theoretical. How much do you think Virginia Woolf really knew and understood Mrs Brown—you know, she called her Mrs Brown, she never introduced herself to her, of course.

Could it be that she was running late and inadvertently got on the third class carriage instead of the first or second class? I mean, how much did she really know about this so-called Mrs Brown? Well, the situation of Woolf in the class system is complex. The British class system of course, so minutely graded.

She is only from the upper class through her mother's line, and her father was a scholar, an editor, and they're an intellectual class that's not really part of the upper class. So she had upper class friends, no doubt, and Vita Sackville-West in particular was a very close friend of hers who was connected to the aristocracy. But Woolf herself lived a rather middle-class life. And one of the funny stories I think there is that after Virginia Woolf died, much later on, Saul Bellow decided he wanted to rent her village home in Rodmell because he thought he could go there and write and that the vibrations of her great writing would be there and stimulate his own writing.

But he found it too primitive and he couldn't stay, because it was a very simple house and, you know, they lived without plumbing until she finally published Mrs Dalloway and that was successful and then To the Lighthouse and they had enough money to put in a bathroom.

And there's a wonderfully long correspondence she has with a woman who is a factory worker—this is a little later on—but the factory worker reads her work and writes to her virginia woolf mr bennett and mrs brown essay it, and they go into a long correspondence back and forth. But it's true, she has to imagine someone here who is in a very different world from hers and that's partly what she's writing about, is the challenge of crossing those various levels of difference, whether they be class levels or gender levels or intellectual levels—the sense that we are always pulled out somehow to imagine someone's very different life.

And we will only be partially right about it. Mrs Brown disappears at the end and goes off, you know.

Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown

We'll never know whether she was right or not about Mrs Brown. But she does describe her as, or imagines virginia woolf mr bennett and mrs brown essay, she says: I thought of her in a seaside house, among queer ornaments: Her husband's medals were on the mantelpiece.

She popped in and out of the room, perching on the edges of chairs, picking meals out of saucers, indulging in long, silent stares. I think the difference is she's trying to indicate a way of getting inside Mrs Brown's experience. What this moves to in the essay is her sense that Mrs Brown almost exudes a smell of burning.

She responds to something that she thinks is this woman's suffering. So all these external observations are ways of trying to get what she then goes on to talk about as Mrs Brown's atmosphere—we might call it, say, a person's aura.

But this is the difference. So she says, 'What is important is to steep oneself in her atmosphere. Talking about contemporary relevance, we would call it qualia, you know, that's the feeling of what it is like; the feeling of what it is like to be Mrs Brown. Do you think she was good at creating characters like this? Was she regarded as clever at this, or not? In fact, during her time, particularly with the publication of To the Lighthouse, she certainly was regarded as a major novelist, a very important novelist, and it was for that creation of the deep psychology of character.

So how did she argue that reading a novel was more revealing of human character than, say, reading history or biography, or any other non-fiction?

  1. And she is taking us back before the war I think in part not to give violence and war that kind of prominence in terms of cultural history, but to take it back to earlier associations. Mrs Brown disappears at the end and goes off, you know.
  2. It's sort of painterly, in painterly touches. Virginia used the unsuspecting Mrs Brown to champion the modern novel.
  3. She wasn't a very big fan of English and literature in universities, was she?

She was fascinated by history and biography and in fact most of her reviews of books are of biographies, memoirs, diaries, letters. She considered those very important because, in particular, they were one way of getting to know women's lives.

It was a time when they were starting to publish a lot of memoirs and biographies that women had kept in the eighteenth century and the nineteenth century. It's more a divide between how narrative works, so that memoirs for her were very close to the kind of narrative that she wanted in fiction, because in memoirs people are narrating moments of intense experience, or moments that are meaningful. What she argued against was the linear narrative—whether it is in fiction or whether it's in history, or whether it's in biography—that reduces all life to one single line, one single meaning.

Interesting Literature

I'm Ramona Koval, in conversation about the role of the fictional character in shaping ever-changing human nature with visiting Canadian scholar, Professor Melba Cuddy-Keane from the University of Toronto. Melba, can you imagine this kind of long-running debate about the character in fiction happening in literary circles today?

One of things, though, that would come in is the debates about artificial intelligence, debates there that raise questions about, again, what is it to be human and can a computer construct a human being or not? But I think also we are very strongly in an age of neuroscientific experiment and study and investigation, which is constantly opening new avenues to how we think about human nature. Well, Noam Chomsky acknowledges the role of fiction in understanding human nature.

He says, 'It is quite possible—overwhelmingly probable, one might guess—that we will always learn more about human life and personality from novels than from scientific psychology. I think you're right.