Alfred A. Knopf
Read the Review
"My God, how does one write a Biography?"1 Virginia Woolf's question haunts her own biographers. How do they begin? "Virginia Woolf was a Miss Stephen."2 "Virginia Woolf was a sexually abused child: she was an incest-survivor."3 "Was Virginia Woolf 'insane'?"4 "Was Virginia Woolf mad?"5 "Virginia Woolf said that 'if life has a base' it is a memory."6 Or: "Yet another book about Bloomsbury."7
The different openings suggest some of the choices for Virginia Woolf's biographers. They can start at source, with her family history, and see her in the context of ancestry, country, class. They can start with Bloomsbury, fixing her inside her social and intellectual group and its reputation. They can start by thinking of her as a victim, as someone who is going to kill herself. They can start with a theory or a belief and see her always in terms of it, since, like Shakespeare, she is a writer who lends herself to infinitely various interpretation. What no longer seems possible is to start: "Adeline Virginia Stephen was born on 25 January 1882, the daughter of Sir Leslie Stephen, editor of the Dictionary of National Biography, and of Julia Stephen, n�e Jackson."
There is no such thing as an objective biography, particularly not in this case. Positions have been taken, myths have been made. I have noticed that in the course of any conversation about this book I would, without fail, be asked one or more of the same four questions: Is it true that she was sexually abused as a child? What was her madness and why did she kill herself? Was Leonard a good or a wicked husband? Wasn't she the most terrible snob? It began to seem that everyone who reads books has an opinion of some kind about Virginia Woolf, even if derived only from the title of Albee's play, Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
There are many times, writing this, when I have been afraid of Virginia Woolf. I think I would have been afraid of meeting her. I am afraid of not being intelligent enough for her. Reading and writing her life, I am often afraid (or, in one of the words she used most about her mental states, "apprehensive") for her.
And her remains are fearsome, too. It's one of the peculiarities of her posthumous reputation that the full, immense extent of her life's work has only revealed itself gradually, changing the twentieth-century perception of her from the delicate lady authoress of a few experimental novels and sketches, some essays, and a "writer's" diary, to one of the most professional, perfectionist, energetic, courageous, and committed writers in the language. Even in a year broken by illness (such as 1925) she would finish revising and publish one novel and a collection of essays, write eight or so short stories, start work on another novel, publish thirty-seven review articles, keep a full diary, read a great number of books, and write a great number of letters.
Periodic attacks of archive-faintness overcame me, as I contemplated the transatlantically scattered hoards of manuscripts and letters, diaries and notebooks, which would allow a really uncompromising biographer to make a record of what Virginia Woolf said, felt, did and wrote on almost every day of her life. And this is to say nothing of the editions of her works and the hundreds of books and articles, reviews and conference papers on Virginia Woolf.
Yet for all this vast mass of material, I am also afraid of presuming. All readers of Virginia Woolf's diaries (even those who have decided to dislike her) will feel an extraordinary sense of intimacy with the voice that is talking there. They will want to call her Virginia, and speak proprietorially about her life. She seems extremely near, contemporary, timeless. But she is also evasive and obscure (there are a number of important things she never does talk about in the diaries), and, obviously, increasingly distant from us in time. If you listen to the only surviving recording of her,8 you hear a voice from another century, which to us sounds posh, antiquated, class-bound, mannered. She was born over a hundred years ago; she lived through a period of the most rapid and dramatic changes in human history. Virginia Woolf's "Orlando," in her "biography," lives for centuries; so does--so will--"Virginia Woolf." Meanwhile, as for Orlando, everything changes. Virginia Woolf herself looks back, from her fifties to her childhood, with amazement, feeling both near to and utterly distant from her own past.
If she sometimes feels strange to herself, how much stranger is she to us! Biographers are supposed to know their subjects as well as or better than they know themselves. Biography sets out to tell you that a life can be described, summed up, packaged and sold. But Virginia Woolf spent most of her life saying that the idea of biography is--to use a word she liked-- poppycock. In her essays and diaries and fiction, in her reading of history, in her feminism, in her politics, "life-writing," as she herself called it, was a perpetual preoccupation.
Virginia Woolf was an autobiographer who never published an autobiography; she was an egotist who loathed egotism. It's one of the words she most often uses, whether she is writing about herself or other people. Many of the letters she writes contain apologies--not always entirely sincere--for their egotism. And yet, "How I interest myself!" she will say, happily, to herself.9 She is always trying to work out what happens to that "myself"--the "damned egotistical self"--when it is alone, when it is with other people, when it is contented, excited, anxious, ill, when it is asleep or eating or walking, when it is writing. "Sydney comes & I'm Virginia; when I write I'm merely a sensibility. Sometimes I like being Virginia, but only when I'm scattered & various & gregarious."10 "I meet somebody who says "youre this or that," and I dont want to be anything when I'm writing."11
What does "not being anything" mean? Perhaps it is being more concentrated, less externalised: "I thought, driving through Richmond last night, something very profound about the synthesis of my being: how only writing composes it: how nothing makes a whole unless I am writing; now I have forgotten what seemed so profound."12
She knows that the process of trying to explain the relation between "myself" and the writing self risks being just self-absorbed, rather than profound. But she must take herself seriously: she is like a singer attending to the state of her vocal cords. "Myself," for the writing self, is both material and instrument. Not for nothing did Freud, on the only occasion when they met, in 1939, give her a narcissus.
Egotism is often the subject of the diary. She is much concerned with how she writes it, and what it's for. And its uses vary: it is a "barometer" of her feelings, a storehouse for memories, a record of events and encounters, a practice-ground for writing, a commentary on work in progress, and a sedative for agitation, anger, or apprehension. In the mid-1920s, she has a self-conscious debate with herself about whether it is a diary of facts, or a diary of "the soul." (At the same time she is working out how much the "damned egotistical self" should get into her fiction.) She seems to have promised herself that the diary would be about "life" rather than "the soul"--perhaps as a way of keeping "egotism" under control: "Did I not banish the soul when I began? What happens is, as usual, that I'm going to write about the soul, & life breaks in."13 Later she will "cancel that vow against soul description": she wants to describe "the violent moods of my soul." But then, "How describe them?"14 It is difficult to "write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes."15 So the sense we get from Virginia Woolf's diaries of knowing everything about her is, perhaps, illusory.
Often she doesn't want to write about the soul or "myself" at all, but about other lives, history, meetings, events. Sometimes--during the General Strike, for instance--she takes herself to task for not writing more about historical events, and makes herself do so, even if these accounts may bore her later. Those bits of "life," she suspects, might turn out to be the most interesting parts of the diary after all.
Clearly the diaries are intended for use. "Oh yes, I shall write my memoirs out of them, one of these days."16 When their last house in London is bombed in the war, and Virginia and Leonard Woolf go up to take their valuables away to the country, she makes sure, first, of the twenty-four volumes of diaries: "a great mass for my memoirs."17 When she does start writing her memoirs, they incorporate all her thoughts about life-writing. In her "Sketch of the Past," which she began in the last two years of her life, she insists that in biography and autobiography there must be a relation between the obscure areas of personality--the "soul"--and forces like class and social pressures; otherwise "how futile life-writing becomes."18
The life-writer must explore and understand the gap between the outer self ("the fictitious V.W. whom I carry like a mask about the world")19 and the secret self. In her diaries and memoirs and fiction, she is always insisting on the difficulty of knowing people: "She would not say of anyone in the world now that they were this or were that."20 The diary spends as much time trying to get inside other people as it does discussing the "soul." And the "egotism" of the letters is always generously and curiously diffusing itself into the needs of her correspondents.
For this legendary egotist is also an empathiser of extraordinary powers. When people who knew her describe their conversations with Virginia Woolf, they remember two kinds of behaviour. One was her amazing flights of fancy, her wonderful performances in conversation, spinning off into fantastic fabrications while everyone sat round and, as it were, applauded. The other kind, though, was her attentive, detailed questioning. (Stephen Spender said that the reason she asked people questions about their lives all the time was because she didn't have enough life of her own to use for material.) Sometimes these two kinds of behaviour overlap, and the questions fuel the fantasy, as at a tea-party at Charleston in 1936, recorded by Virginia Woolf's niece Angelica Bell for her brother Julian:
Yesterday the Woolves came to tea. Virginia was in high fettle. She sat by Dorothy [Bussy] all the time and simply fired out questions at her.
"Now Dorothy tell me all your London news, as Clive would say--what did you have for breakfast? What parties have you been to? What was it like at the Clarks the other night? Mary Hutch went with you? What did she wear? I expect she looked like one of those drawings by a Frenchman--I forget his name--but you know--with a fountain of hair and a pencil-like oyster satin dress, done with a dash--Was it not?" Somebody pointed out that Mary hadnt got a fountain of hair but that didnt seem to matter to Virginia who fell back onto the oyster coloured satin and described the complete dress. Then Dorothy told us what it was really like--just plain black, high necked in front with no back to it, but oyster-coloured sleeves (at which V was immensely pleased).21
In that account (which has the advantage of being written at the time, rather than years later) Virginia Woolf isn't waiting for the answers to her questions. Among her friends she often got into trouble for being an unreliable witness. The letters are full of exaggeration and invention, and so too, sometimes, is the diary. She excites herself and amuses other people by "doing her owl" (as she called it). But she is also constantly trying, via her own "performances," to get inside other people.
Virginia Woolf is very interested in Boswell, the first great biographer. She wrote about him more than once, sympathetically evoking his vanity, his curiosity and exuberance, "his intense consciousness of himself" and his capacity to notice everything--all qualities she shares. Her own biographer might want to echo this:
It is strange how one wonders with an inquisitive kind of affection, what Boswell felt; it always seems possible with him as with living people that if one watches closely enough one will know. But when we try to say what the secret is, then we understand why Boswell was a genius.22
Whenever she mentions Boswell in the diary, she says she would like to write down what people say and the way they talk, as he did.23 "I told Lytton I should try to write down his talk--which sprang from a conversation about Boswell."24 She often does write down whole chunks of conversation, complaining all the time how difficult it is. But she does it because it releases her from herself. It may be true, she remarks, writing on Gibbon, "that friends are chosen partly in order to live lives that we cannot live in our own persons."25 Sometimes this fails to release her from herself, and provokes melancholy or rivalrous comparisons.26 Egotism and observation are always related.
Boswell was an egotist who was also a hero-worshipper. He believed in greatness: that was why it was worthwhile writing down everything Dr. Johnson said. Virginia Woolf inherited this historical impulse to record the talk and behaviour of "great men" from her parents' world. And her concept of traditional life-writing was derived from her father's major life's work, the Dictionary of National Biography. The last page of her "Sketch of the Past" remembers the "great men" who used to come to tea in her childhood, and how eccentric and remote that idea of greatness now seems: "something that we are led up to by our parents and is now entirely extinct."27 She never quite loses that extinct idea, but she turns it to her own subversive biographical ends. Though she still takes every opportunity in the diary to write biographical sketches of "great men" (much more frequently than of great women)--Keynes, Eliot, Sickert, Yeats, Arnold Bennett, Thomas Hardy, H.G. Wells28--these sketches are irreverent, personal, revealing, quite the opposite from the DNB. She questions the idea of "greatness," and she looks behind public faces. Her diary, like her essays and stories and novels, blurs the lines between history, biography and fiction.
Fiction is often her version of biography. Orlando makes an explicit game out of this relationship, and suggests to her the possibility of more such fictive biographies.29 Orlando's biographer is written in as a character in pursuit of his/her subject, always self-consciously referring back to the conventions, which are not always adequate for the task in hand: "For that was the way his mind worked now, in violent see-saw from life to death, stopping at nothing in between, so that the biographer must not stop either, but must fly as fast as he can and so keep pace."30 The struggle of the biographer to keep pace is more painful in Jacob's Room, where s/he is always in pursuit of the vanishing hero, who can only be known through unfinished glimpses. In the earlier Night and Day, the heroine is burdened by her famous grandfather's papers and his unfinishable Life, while she tries to find a different language for her own life. And the desperate efforts of the six characters in The Waves to dispense with a biographer and to speak their own autobiographies collapses into the voice of the writer who has difficulty in telling his own story, let alone theirs.
When Virginia Woolf is working out in the 1910s and 1920s what kind of novelist she wants to be and what she thinks modern fiction ought to be doing, she always talks about how to get at the essence of personality. She makes up imaginary biographies ("An Unwritten Novel," "Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown") to show how she wants to write fiction. And she attacks traditional biography in the same way that she criticises Edwardian fiction--as in this review of a new life of Christina Rossetti:
Here is the past and all its inhabitants miraculously sealed as in a magic tank; all we have to do is to look and to listen and to listen and to look and soon the little figures--for they are rather under life size--will begin to move and to speak, and as they move we shall arrange them in all sorts of patterns of which they were ignorant, for they thought when they were alive that they could go where they liked; and as they speak we shall read into their sayings all kinds of meanings which never struck them, for they believed when they were alive that they said straight off whatever came into their heads. But once you are in a biography all is different.31
Why should being in a biography be so "different" from being alive? The argument keeps pace with her discussion of why the representation of character in fiction needs to change. In both art-forms, she is aware of writing in a period of transition: and she herself partly makes that transition take place. She begins her writing life in the era of what she calls "the draperies and decencies" of Victorian biography:32 censored, reverential, public Lives of "great men," such as Frederic Maitland's life of her father, which left out any hint of his domestic behaviour.
These "Mausoleum Books" (as the life-story her father wrote for his children came to be called) were "dominated by the idea of goodness," and written under the supervisory eyes of widows, friends, surviving relatives and admirers. They produced something that looked like "the wax figures now preserved in Westminster Abbey, that were carried in funeral processions through the street."33 So Mr. Green, an imaginary biographer of an imaginary ship-owner from Birkenhead called Thomas Watson (b.1868), has difficulty in telling the truth about his subject:
For one thing, Mrs. Watson has forbidden Mr. Green the biographer to tell the truth about her husband's temper--Mr. Watson used to throw the plates at her head if his porridge was cold. But that has to be left out. Then there is this difficulty: very few people write good letters or good diaries. Thomas Watson's letters were like this: "Dear Jemma. Just a line to let you know that I arrived safely. The train was 10 minutes late, wh. considering the weather, is not bad. Unfortunately owing to Ellen's carelessness my sponge was packed still wet, and has I fear utterly spoilt my new dress waistcoat. Unless she will undertake to be more careful in future, I do not see how we can possibly keep her . . . I must insist that you give the girl notice or supervise the packing yourself." There are probably 3,000 letters like that.34
In her lifetime, psychoanalysis, wars, social changes and the reaction against nineteenth-century habits of mind meant a revolution in biography and memoir-writing. By the end of her life Virginia Woolf was reading Gide's explicitly homosexual journals, with some amazement at their frankness. Of course Lytton Strachey's debunking of his eminent Victorians was a key moment in the pulling down of the draperies. But Virginia Woolf is not a Stracheyan clone. She had reservations about his tactics--she detested Elizabeth and Essex--and about "the new biography" in general. Her own ideas are worked out independently from Strachey, and she is more generous to the past.
For her the crucial problem in the biographies that her generation has inherited is the tug between fact and fiction and the difficulty of getting to the "soul." She admires Boswell's "obstinate veracity,"35 but is appalled at the gap between the necessary facts of a life-story, and its hidden truth.
The biographer is doing 2 incompatible things. He is providing us with sterile & fertile. Things that have no bearing upon the life. But he has to provide them. He does not know what is relevant. Nobody has yet decided. A bastard, an impure art.36
Since a life has to begin with birth and to continue through the years these facts must be introduced in order. But have they anything to do with him [the subject of the biography]? That is where doubt begins; the pen trembles; the biography swells into the familiar fungoid growth. . . . Facts have their importance.
--But that is where the biography comes to grief. The biographer cannot extract the atom. He gives us the husk. Therefore as things are, the best method would be to separate the two kinds of truth. Let the biographer print fully completely, accurately, the known facts without comment; Then let him write the life as fiction.37
She often asks herself why she feels the need for biography. While she reads, she begins to be curious about the writer's life and personality. But how can curiosity be satisfied? In "A Talk about Memoirs," two women friends, Ann and Judith, are exchanging views on what they get out of those "great swollen . . . dropsical" Victorian memoirs--a life, for instance, of Lady Georgiana Peel, daughter of Lord John Russell, born in 1836. Ann describes Lady Georgiana's visit to Woburn.
Ann: . . . And what d'you think they did there? They threw mutton chops out of the window "for whoever cared to pick them up." And each guest had a piece of paper by his plate "in which to wrap up an eatable for the people waiting outside." Judith: Mutton chops! people waiting outside! Ann: Ah, now the charm begins to work.38
The "charm" works through these sorts of odd details and vivid scenes, moments when the wax figures begin to move. If you put Virginia Woolf's scattered writings on biography together, you can see her making up some rules. There must be these sharp moments, caught from the context, the subject's social world. But also there must be movement and change: generalisations, fixed attitudes, summings-up, are fatal. A good biography "is the record of the things that change rather than of the things that happen."39 Gradually, imperceptibly, we alter. "A self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living": so too with the biography of that self.40 And just as lives don't stay still, so life-writing can't be fixed and finalised. Our ideas are shifting about what can be said, our knowledge of human character is changing. The biographer has to be a pioneer, going "ahead of the rest of us, like the miner's canary, testing the atmosphere, detecting falsity, unreality, and the presence of obsolete conventions."41 So "There are some stories which have to be retold by each generation."42 She is talking about the story of Shelley, but she could be talking about her own life-story.
Reading other people's biographies or autobiographies--like talking to her friends--makes her think of herself. "When one reads a life one often compares one's own life with it."43 But as soon as she compares her life with any life-writing, she is brought up against the gap between what she knows about herself and what she reads about other people. "Why are all one's events so perfectly irrational that a good biographer would be forced to ignore them entirely?"44
So, when it comes to having biography written about her, she is equivocal. Her dealings with Winifred Holtby, who included a biographical chapter in the first English book written about Virginia Woolf, in 1932, are defensive. And whenever she reads about herself--in William Rothenstein's memoirs, for instance, where "Vanessa, Stella and Virginia Stephen figure, most inaccurately"--she sees the same ludicrous gap between other people's versions and her own memory. "Do you think" (she asks Clive Bell) "that all memoirs are as mendacious as this--Every fact I mean, all on one side?"45 But she has mixed feelings about "mendacity" versus privacy. Certainly she would have hated to read a "life" about herself, in her life-time, which gave her secrets away. She is horrified at the thought that Ethel Smyth might be thinking of publishing her letters or writing about her. The desire for anonymity, one of the crucial themes of her later years, involves a violent detestation of all journalistic intrusions on her life.46
Yet she resents the censorship her generation has inherited. "Well whats to be done about our 'lives' I wonder? The EMF. Goldie thing to me quite futile,"47 she says, referring to Forster's expurgated life of Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, which left out his homosexuality. She wants them all, eventually, to have honest, uncensored "lives." When the publication of Lytton's extremely candid letters is under discussion in her circle, she is all for it. There is some talk of her writing his biography after she has finished doing Roger Fry's, and she comments: "I'm glad, I think, that there should be a full & outspoken life. Only not as a reply to criticism. And then the buggery?"48 "The buggery" is always a problem. While she is writing her life of Roger Fry she has a correspondence with Katherine Furse, the daughter of J.A. Symonds, who is trying, with great difficulty, to get her father's embargoed letters out of the London Library. She wants to write a more "open" life of him than the censored version by Horatio Brown, who entirely omitted Symonds's homosexuality. Virginia Woolf writes to her approvingly--"I'm glad to think that now we needn't hush up so much."49
Virginia Woolf and her contemporaries are poised on the edge of the revolution which has turned biography into the iconoclastic, gossipy artform it is now, when the only taboo is censorship. She could see this coming, with some trepidation, and she is one of the people who made its coming possible. (And she and her friends, family and acquaintances became some of the main subjects of open, modern biography.)
But she herself can only half open the door to this flood of uncensored life-writing. When she comes to write her biography of Roger Fry, she finds herself as constricted as the Victorians. Biography, which she loves to read, turns out to be the most terrible "grind" to write.50 She starts full of ideas for sabotaging the traditional form: she might begin at the end and work backwards? or give lots of "specimen days"? or have it "written by different people to illustrate different stages?"51 But she ends up frustrated by the need for discretion, and by the clash between the facts and her "vision." "How can one cut loose from facts, when there they are, contradicting my theories?"52 She envies the painters, particularly Walter Sickert. He is, she says, a great biographer, able to penetrate through his portraits to "the complexity and intrigue of character" without having to fall into "the three or four hundred pages of compromise, evasion, understatement, overstatement, irrelevance and downright falsehood which we call biography."53
Her thoughts on biography are comparable to the work being done by the painters she knew, particularly the portraits by Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Carrington: domestic, impressionistic, irreverent, informal portraits which sought the essence of character through colour and form. A purple triangle, Lily Briscoe tells Mr. Bankes in To the Lighthouse, can represent a mother and child in the new portraiture--if it suggests the essential "self." So, in Virginia Woolf's idea of biography--reacting against tradition as the artists were reacting against old Academy styles--the relationship would be uncovered between public and private, official and secret lives.
The breaking down of these divisions was one of the features of her circle. This could produce the impression of cosiness and �litism which has caused, retrospectively, much reproach. But it was also a way of crossing genres and exploring new forms. When Virginia Woolf and her friends and family read autobiographical papers to each other; when Quentin Bell and his aunt wrote comic sketches about their relations and neighbours for home entertainments; when Virginia Woolf's play abut her family, Freshwater, was performed to an invited audience; when she wrote reviews for the Nation while her husband was the literary editor; when her books and pamphlets were published by their own press; when she sat for family portraits, or wrote prefaces to her sister's exhibition of paintings, or had Vanessa Bell regularly design her book-covers, or wrote Orlando as a private message for Vita Sackville-West, she was laying herself open to charges of �lite practices. But she was also making the kind of connections between the public and the private which she wanted for biography and autobiography.
Virginia Woolf has a passion for "lives of the obscure," and for marginal, unvalued literary forms like memoirs, letters, and journals.54 These lives are, mostly, women's. When she writes about biography, she is also writing about feminism. She says to Vita Sackville-West, when the first idea for Orlando comes to her: "it sprung upon me how I could revolutionise biography in a night."55 Orlando is the hero who turns into a heroine, in a biography which turns out to be a fiction. For Virginia Woolf, a revolution in biography is also a sexual revolution.
She is always writing to her women friends urging them to write their life-stories.56 She wants them to fill a gap: "Very few women yet have written truthful autobiographies. It is my favourite form of reading."57 While she is writing her own memoirs in 1940, she says to Ethel Smyth (herself an inveterate autobiographer): "I was thinking the other night that there's never been a womans autobiography. Nothing to compare with Rousseau. Chastity and modesty I suppose have been the reason."58 The inhibitions and censorships of women's life-writing is one of her most urgent subjects. It was still possible for her to say, in 1927, out of her reading of history and biography, "Very little is known about women."59
Virginia Woolf's feminist programme, coming into its fullest and most explicit expression in her fifties, is above all a literary one. It is inextricably bound up with her desire to "revolutionise biography." She wants to find new forms for "women's as yet unnarrated lives."60 She does this from the moment she starts to write. At twenty she starts a comical character sketch of her friend Violet Dickinson, as "Aunt Maria," and goes back to it again in 1907. Virginia Stephen calls herself Violet's "Bio- or mytho-grapher,"61 and Friendship's Gallery is a spoof love-letter-cum-biography,62 an early Orlando. Its jokes (some purely personal) are about what you do as a biographer "when you are writing the life of a woman." The semi-serious attempts to describe "the flight of her mind" ("Did she reason or only instincticise?") dissolve into a fairy-tale set in Japan about two magical princesses, a female story told to make a child sleep.
Friendship's Gallery is connected to "The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn" (1906),63 which invents a middle-aged female historian who has been having some arguments about the rival merits of archival and imaginative research. Among the patriarchal archives of a Norfolk farmer's family, she comes upon the journal of a twenty-five-year-old country girl for the year 1480. The female biographer-historian disappears inside the pseudo-medieval journal's voice, the voice of a girl whose passion for experience and freedom--at a time of great social upheaval--is circumscribed by her mother's traditional ideas about women's roles. Her writing stops when she gets married. And in "Memoirs of a Novelist," written three years later, the true life of a Victorian woman novelist, Miss Willatt, is uncovered beneath the surface of the official, censored life written by her woman friend, which gives us "a wax work as it were of Miss Willatt preserved under glass."64 There is a lot of veiled autobiography in these early stories, and there are the beginnings--firmly, vividly, and quickly established--of the kind of biography that will shape itself to women's lives.
In later, published essays, this creative interplay between the biographer or historian and the dead subject is marvellously developed: Virginia Woolf's essays must be the envy of any biographer. And she makes the dead come most alive in her essays on the "great women of their time," where she pours her energies into imagining her subjects from their archives.
Here for example is Mary Wollstonecraft--you can tell from her face, "at once so resolute and so dreamy, so sensual and so intelligent," that her life "was bound to be tempestuous." "Every day she made theories by which life should be lived; and every day she came smack against the rock of other people's prejudices. Every day too--for she was no pedant, no cold-blooded theorist--something was born in her that thrust aside her theories and forced her to model them afresh."65
Here, by contrast, is Dorothy Wordsworth, from whose "homely narrative" ("rapt but controlled, free yet strictly ordered") you can see her repressing her melancholy agitations, keeping "her faculties forever on the stretch," "searching into the lives of the poor as if they held in them the same secret as the hills." She and Coleridge and Wordsworth go tramping hour after hour in foul weather because they knew "there was some waterfall to be enquired into." "At last they reached the waterfall. And then all Dorothy's powers fell upon it. She searched out its character, she noted its resemblances, she defined its differences, with all the ardour of a discoverer, with all the exactness of a naturalist, with all the rapture of a lover. She possessed it at last--she had laid it up in her mind for ever."66 It is what Virginia Woolf does with her human subjects.
These intuitive biographical portraits come from a close acquaintance with the literary and historical source materials. They belong to a period when such emotional, anecdotal manners in essay-writing were more acceptable than they are now. But they go beyond the conventions of the time. They prove the case that her first woman biographer-historian was trying to make in "The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn," that the imagination can have historical authority.
In A Room of One's Own, she watches a "very ancient lady" crossing the road with her daughter, with all her memories latent and untapped within her, and feels "the pressure of dumbness, the accumulation of unrecorded life" piled up from "all these infinitely obscure lives"67 that remain to be recorded. Both Virginia Woolf's feminist essays, A Room of One's Own and the later Three Guineas, are also essays on life-writing. The climax of A Room of One's Own is, famously, a "fascinating and masterly biography"68 of Shakespeare's imaginary sister, as much of a genius as her brother, but doomed by her sex to a life of exploitation, pain, and failure. Like so much of Virginia Woolf's feminist writing, this biographical fantasy is at once historical and Utopian, a tragic description of what women's lives have been like and an empowering fantasy of how they might become different.
In Three Guineas, the word "biography" is constantly repeated. Biographies are read here--particularly the "rich and revealing" Victorian biographies--to find one story hidden under another. "Let us go on looking--if not at the lines, then between the lines of biography."69 Biography here is like an oracle, a cryptic text from which a hidden and very important message has to be decoded. Lurking inside it is the evidence of male attitudes to women (fathers' "infantile fixations" on their daughters, for instance, or assumptions that all women should marry), of women's struggle for education, their attitudes to war, their attempt to enter the professions. There are good jokes about biography in the essay (we need a female biography of God, she says, since it looks as if a male biography of the Deity "would resolve itself into a Dictionary of Clerical Biography"). But it mainly derives from its reading of biographies a furious analysis of patriarchal discrimination and censorship.
In Virginia Woolf's thinking on feminism and biography, in her novel-writing and in her thoughts about autobiography, she deals repeatedly with censorship. When she begins to write her memoirs in the late 1930s, she says: "I have been thinking about Censors. How visionary figures admonish us."70 All writers, she feels, are aware of these admonishing figures; but women most of all are under their shadow, and have as a result felt unable to tell their stories truthfully. How truthful, then, could Virginia Woolf's own autobiography be?
Her intention to use the diaries for an autobiography was curtailed by her death. And the piecemeal history of her posthumous publications has meant that, until recently, her autobiographical writings--some of her finest work--are not as well known as her novels, her diaries, and her letters. But she does write several versions of her autobiography, one as a letter for Vanessa's children, some as talks for the Memoir Club, the last as the beginnings of a book which she intended to publish. And in doing so, she is acutely aware that the sort of life-writing that might be appropriate for a public figure cannot "fit" her. One of her papers for the Memoir Club begins, not entirely jokingly, with this disclaimer. It is unfair of Molly MacCarthy, she says, to ask her to contribute.
I am not the most widely lived or the most richly memoried. Maynard, Desmond, Clive and Leonard all live stirring and active lives; all constantly brush up against the great; all constantly affect the course of history one way or another . . . Who am I that I should be asked to read a memoir? . . . My memoirs, which are always private, and at their best only about proposals of marriage, seductions by half-brothers, encounters with Ottoline and so on, must soon run dry.71
"My memoirs, which are always private." So were most women's. Under the joking mask she wears here for her clever, intimate audience, Virginia Woolf is defining the difference she perceives between female and male autobiography. It was an inevitable difference, attributable to social history as much as to "gender identity."72 Virginia Woolf's curriculum vitae is, in public terms, full of gaps. She did not go to school. She did not work in an office. She did not belong to any institution. With rare exceptions, she did not give public lectures or join committees or give interviews. And in private terms her life-story is sensational only for her breakdowns and suicide attempts. She did not have children. Her sexual life, though unusual, was not dramatic or notorious. She was not the subject of any public scandals or law cases. She did not engage in hazardous sports or bizarre hobbies. She never flew in an aeroplane, or travelled outside Europe. Her exploits and adventures are in her mind and on the page. And here too, in her writing life, she is intensely private.
But her disclaimer is also ironical and misleading. Ironical because she felt that the really important life was "within"; misleading because she did, also, have an uninstitutionalised public life. She knew an enormous number of people and met many of the exceptional figures of her time. She listened to, and participated in, a huge amount of political discussion. She was a publisher, who worked with her husband as a business partner in the Hogarth Press. She was a close and observant analyst of the world she lived in. And she was one of the century's most insatiable readers.
To others, she may look like an "insider"--inside a family, inside a group, inside a class. To herself, she feels like an "outsider." The autobiography of an insider can be filled with the facts of a profession, the trajectory of a mental career, the story of a personal development in the context of history. (See the autobiographies of Bertrand Russell, H.G. Wells--or Leonard Woolf.) But what is the autobiography of an outsider to consist of? Emotions, secret thoughts, and recollections of childhood? If so, an "outsider's" autobiography necessitates self-revelation and confession. And this challenges her perpetual fear of egotistical self-exposure.
There is a personal basis to her published work which Virginia Woolf is at pains to conceal. Her life-story enters and shapes her novels (and her essays); she returns again and again to her family, her parents, her sister, the death of her mother, the death of her brother. "In fact I sometimes think only autobiography is literature--novels are what we peel off, and come at last to the core, which is only you or me."73 She is one of the most self-reflecting, self-absorbed novelists who ever lived. Yet she is also one of the most anxious to remove personality from fiction. "Autobiography it might be called," she says when she begins to work on what will become The Waves. But then: "this shall be Childhood; but it must not be my childhood."74
Her self-protectiveness is very strong in the feminist essays. This partly derives from a shrewd political sense of her audience's resistance to a woman's special pleading: she thinks her argument will have more impact if it is not perceived as a personal complaint. But it also shows a profound fear of exposing emotions like self-pity, sentimentality, or vanity.75 In A Room of One's Own, the essay in which she chooses not to state her own personal case, she is very dubious about the "modern" genre of confessional autobiography.76 And she cancels from the final version of that essay a passage on Florence Nightingale's autobiography Cassandra, a painful expression of the thwarted lives of nineteenth-century women: "It is hardly writing, it is more like screaming."77 Screams of rage and pain are not what she wants to hear from other women, or what she allows herself.
If this diary were a diary of the soul I could write at length of the 2nd meeting of the Memoir Club. Leonard was objective & triumphant; I subjective & most unpleasantly discomfited. I dont know when I've felt so chastened & out of humour with myself--a partner I generally respect & admire. "Oh but why did I read this egotistic sentimental trash!" That was my cry, & the result of my sharp sense of the silence succeeding my chapter. It started with loud laughter; this was soon quenched; & then I couldn't help figuring a kind of uncomfortable boredom on the part of the males; to whose genial cheerful sense my revelations were at once mawkish & distasteful. What possessed me to lay bare my soul!78
This diary entry for 1920 tells us everything about Virginia Woolf's difficulties with self-presentation: her fear of exposing the "soul," her self- denigration, her horror of being laughed at, her turning of that male laughter and boredom on to herself, her determination to wear a mask rather than humiliate herself again. (And what had she been telling them? Why were the men so discomfited, and why, in a group renowned for its openness, was there so much difficulty in speaking frankly?)
Whenever after this she exposed painful recollections to others, she did so in a deliberately self-restrained, jocular way. In her surviving Memoir Club papers ("22 Hyde Park Gate," "Old Bloomsbury," and "Am I a Snob?"), she turns her life-story into witty, stylish performances, carefully avoiding sentiment and guaranteed to please the likes of Maynard Keynes. "The Memoir Club was fearfully brilliant--I mean I was . . ."79 Accordingly, the revelations in these narratives need to be handled with care.
And there is reserve even in her most intimate letters. It was only in the "Sketch of the Past," begun in the late 1930s (and clearly intended for publication), that she began to speak openly about her own sexual history: and even then still hesitatingly, darkly. The whole of this uncompleted fragment of life-writing is marked by hiatuses and stoppages: "Here I come to one of the memoir writer's difficulties . . . They [memoirs] leave out the person to whom things happened."80 The elusiveness of the self almost becomes the subject. In its refusal to make any pretence at a polished, coherent presentation of the "self," "Sketch of the Past" begins to look like that new kind of women's life-writing she has been recommending for so long.
It is the very opposite of "Reminiscences,"81 written in 1908 in the form of a letter about her sister, addressed to her sister's firstborn son. Complicated and painful feelings about Vanessa, her husband Clive Bell and her new baby gave rise to this memoir, and it is an awkward hybrid. It makes a fierce critique of patriarchal behaviour, but it inherits, and imitates, a nineteenth-century patriarchal tradition of the autobiography written as a letter to one's children. (It is one of the painful aspects of "Reminiscences" that Virginia Stephen was not writing it for her own children.) Her great-grandfather had left such a narrative, and so had her father, in the memoir of his wife, which he wrote after her death "for my darling Julia's children" and which they called the "Mausoleum Book." Virginia Stephen takes a leaf out of these fathers' books--while trying to avoid their egotism and emotionalism--to write the story of the women in the Stephen family--Julia, Stella, Vanessa and (by implication) herself. But she locks this story inside a formal language and structure, meant for suppressing sentiment. Inside this shell, another kind of narrative is struggling to get out, and at times expresses its frustration, as when she tries to recall her mother's way of speaking:
Written words of a person who is dead or still alive tend most unfortunately to drape themselves in smooth folds annulling all evidence of life. You will not find in what I say, or again in those sincere but conventional phrases in the life of your grandfather, or in the noble lamentations with which he fills the pages of his autobiography, any semblance of a woman whom you can love.82
And so her mother is entombed in the draperies of traditional life-writing, and it will be years before her daughter can get her out. Three years before these 1908 "Reminiscences," Virginia Stephen wrote her first published biographical piece. It was an anonymous contribution ("by one of his daughters") to Frederic Maitland's Life of Leslie Stephen. She wrote it in 1905, a year after his death, and it was published in 1906, This "Note"--respectful, affectionate, censored--places her in a traditional handmaid's role: the young woman writer dedicating herself to the life of the famous father.83
At exactly the same time that she is writing the "Note on Father" (and having it approved by her brother), she writes in her diary (in January 1905) that she has gone back to her father's house, her childhood home (the Stephen children had moved out that year) and seen all the empty rooms. "Saw my old room--so strange with the ink splashes & shelves as of old. I could write the history of every mark & scratch in that room, where I lived so long."84 The coincidence of that diary entry with her contribution to the Life of Sir Leslie sets up the conflict between private and public--and between the daughter's writing and the father's inheritance--which will be one of the main subjects of her writing life. The "history" she could write, at twenty-three, of the secret significance of every "mark on the wall" of her childhood room, is not the "history" she can write at that time. Instead, she writes the official history of her father. To arrive at the point of the late memoir, the "Sketch of the Past," where this family story is told again, but differently, she has made the life's journey which I am about to trace. But her subject matter has come round full circle. At fifty-nine, she can write the true history of what went on in that room, and the true story of what her father was like: not just as she remembers him, but as he must have been as a young, daughterless man, independent of her feelings for him.
The "Sketch of the Past" has the depth and experience of her whole writing life behind it, and is able to make a profound, detailed analysis of how she writes about herself. She has often thought about how memory works: "I can only note that the past is beautiful because one never realises an emotion at the time. It expands later, & thus we don't have complete emotions about the present, only about the past."85 She has often tried to recuperate her past:
To freshen my memory of the war, I read some old diaries. How close the tears come, again & again; as I read of L. & me at the Green . . . The sense of all that floating away for ever down the stream, unknown for ever; queer sense of the past swallowing so much of oneself.86 The "Sketch of the Past" rescues herself from time's swallowing maw, and explains how she does so, by the same process that makes biography come alive: making lives vivid through scenes and moments. But, in her auto-biography, "scene making" is not a device. It is something she receives, something that happens to her. "Representative scenes" from her life seem to endure as "realities," waiting for the moment to "flood in" to her consciousness. So "scene making is my natural way of marking the past." This, she tells us, is how her autobiography is written. Again and again, she marks the past by returning to the same scenes, the rooms, the landscapes, the figures of her life, like the ghosts revisiting their haunted house in her story of that name. Back she goes to the scenes of childhood: the blind tapping on the window of the bedroom at St. Ives, the lighthouse beam going round, the sound of the waves breaking on the shore.
Return to the Books Home Page
I have chosen to start this essay with a quote from Robin Young: “Nothing in a Ibsen play is as it seems.” What could make an assignment more interesting than to discover Ibsen’s puzzle-like dramaturgical approach? Ibsen is one of the fathers of Naturalistic Theatre and therefore not only did he follow the methods of theatrical naturalism, but he created some of them himself (more on that still to come). Analysing Naturalism in Hedda Gabler I shall discuss to what extent the 1890 play was mirrored by the Norwegian Victorian society and which specific topic Ibsen was tackling.
I shall also evaluate HeddaGabler’s construction through structure, language, character, setting and stage direction. The playwright studied these theatrical elements methodically in order to make the perfect illusion of reality on stage possible. Ibsen only had to observe or at least remember (since he wrote the play while in exile) society in question, think about the things that cause people to do what they do and be what they are and finally write them down, letting the characters be and follow the course of their actions in their own environment.
To be looked at in more detail, Ibsen and most naturalists were heavily criticized for the theme choices of their novels/plays. As Simon Williams describes:
The most persistent complaint was that Ibsen’s plays did not elevate, but focused primarily on degrading aspects of human conduct,
meaning that they could only appeal to morbid audiences. The reason why the general public had problems digesting Naturalistic content will be accounted for as the essay develops.
Yet, regardless of the heavy critics “Ibsen was an optimist” – quoting Phyllis Hartnoll. For all the problems he portrayed he tried to find solutions; Hedda Gabler especially cannot be described as a well-made play with a happy ending that leaves no room for discussion. Nevertheless, Ibsen was indeed an optimist but above all he was a realist because he knew the world he lived in.
AIMS OF NATURALISM
The most important aspects of Naturalism are to be a mirror of society, offer a precise analysis of Man and provide the perfect theatrical illusion. Late nineteenth century was marked by the Industrial Revolution, which led to the new possibility of class shifting. Plus, it was also marked by experimental science. All those factors together with the deep analysis of character equal the recipe for Naturalistic literature.
Being the mirror of society means having to provoke it with unpleasant topics, thoughts that society of that time would not dare to make public, thoughts that would bring them to self-analysis. Naturalist Émile Zola asserts: “Naturalism corresponds to our social needs”. Therefore Naturalists chose themes that needed to be discussed and no longer avoided because of hypocrisy, prudery, shame, egoism or social blindness. The new wave caused many scandals due to themes as in G.B. Shaw’s Mrs. Warren Profession (prostitution), Ibsen’s A Doll’s House (woman’s independence), Zola’s Thérèse Raquin (adultery) or Strindberg’s The Father (paternity doubt), to name a few. These topics were not supposed to feel real only to the audience, but the playwright himself was supposed to “possess some experience of the life he was trying to create”, quoting Ibsen from J.L. Styan’s book on Naturalism. Strindberg’s tip to any new writer was that they should write what they knew about. Thus, Naturalism is as near to reality as anyone would hope for – or not.
METHODS OF NATURALISM
Realism must finally be evaluated, not by the style of a play or a performance, but by the image of truth its audience perceives.
Styan’s quote above brings me to unpeel the Naturalistic onion and examine what is inside the layers. Just like when creating a play the writer should understand the environment and the psychological depth of a character, the way the audience understands a play is of major importance too. Therefore a pure Naturalist text played by exaggerated, melodramatic, sentimental actors would not be in position of convincing anyone of illusion of every day life. The tools Naturalist writers disposed of to create the perfect real world illusion I shall attempt to evaluate now.
Hedda Gabbler consists of four acts and in the course of them Ibsen’s audience cannot ignore how the world that they are watching onstage develops, how the characters progress. The first act is all about introduction of the characters, of the world they live in and what is actually at stake. A deeper look into Hedda as a character will soon provide a better explanation for this.
“The play is constructed like a first-rate thriller”, states Janet Suzman. Just the fact of Ibsen taking his time in the first act to allow Hedda to enter for the first time when Auntie and Tesman are talking about her, already causes excitement. Information is given bit by bit and it resembles a puzzle. Because of its structure, Hedda Gabler grasps the audience’s interest until the end because if alert to the tiny signals Ibsen gives, they will discover that the issues presented to them are similar to their own issues or to the issues of someone they know in one way or another.
The language of the Naturalistic theatre should be simple, flexible and realistic, including the pre-text and subtext, which are less obvious for those who are no experts in theatre semiotics. In addition, language must express each character’s individuality when it comes to personality and also origins. Hedda’s choice of words, for instance, shows that she is educated, comes from a bourgeois family and is not afraid of consequences for the things she says. She is Hedda Gabler and she can say anything she wants, even if her objective is to hurt someone indirectly by misspelling Thea’s name or mistaking by purpose Auntie’s ugly hat with the maid’s.
Janet Suzman summarizes: “Hedda can not be defined.” Ibsen’s character exploration is so complex that Hedda does not really know what she wants, when all she knows is what she does not want (submissive role of a child bearing sweet wife). Hedda is at war with herself. She must fight a daily battle to control her anger not to shoot everything and everybody she dislikes simply because she is afraid of scandal. Hedda is an erupting volcano that must hold back the lava to avoid gossip. Nevertheless, she does spit volcanic ashes shamelessly once in a while.
Hedda’s psychological battle with “little” Thea is the result of two opposite characters in opposite surroundings. Thea is actually what Hedda should be in order to be happy in Tesman’s household even though Hedda would never conform to the ideal image of the obedient, fruitful and beautiful wife. Among many other things, Hedda is cold at the same time that she is a hot erupting volcano. She is explosive, but she needs personal distance. The excerpt of Janet Garton’s text explains further:
The lid is kept on tight, but just below the surface is boiling rage and frustration and occasionally the pressure erupts in a snarling insult or a sardonic laugh … There is a demonic aspect of Hedda Gabler.
Being the daughter of a general and possessing an inspiring natural beauty and elegance, Hedda naturally thinks the whole world should bow before her. As Maurice Larkin evaluates, “heredity is transmitted from parents to child by … body, brain and those peculiarities of personality that emanate from them.” But when the world does not offer people like Hedda what they really need in order to be happy, morbid thoughts surface automatically. I argue that Ibsen was never interested in models of behaviour when developing Hedda’s character, therefore because she is at odds with her environment and especially lonely and misunderstood, why not let her kill herself impulsively as the only solution possible for someone who finds sudden and young death glamorous anyway? Through this daring way Hedda would finally reach her glory, make history and be herself. Reading a biography on Naturalist writer August Strindberg, a letter from one of his wives, Siri, to her mother translates in very few words accidentally what Hedda Gabler is as a character:
I am not made for a peaceful home and the scent of roses … Peace is not for me.
The setting and the props in Hedda Gabler tell a story per se. Like a true naturalist Ibsen “worked out his scenarios very carefully” according to James McFarlane. There was always a reason for the closed or opened curtains, for the fresh flowers, for the furniture placing and later for the lack of some of them; Hedda disliked it all. Even the choice of the house has history when Tesman thinks originally that he had bought Hedda the house of her dreams when this was nothing more than a nice looking house for her, far away from being a dream.
The scenario is detailed about the dark colours of the décor, the veranda one can see through the window, the nuances of light from the hanging lamp and the thickness of the rugs covering the floor. Ibsen must have seen a similar room to be able to give such details – so I argue.
Where props are concerned, nothing is more important than Lovborg’s manuscript in the play. It provokes in Tesman jealousy for academic success, in Hedda it provokes jealously for her not being his inspiration, in Thea it causes hope of starting a new life with Lovborg for having inspired him twice with two books, and for being the cause for Lovborg’s suicide, after Hedda burns the manuscript (Lovborg and Thea’s child).
Ibsen is a master of non-verbal elements in his stage directions like silences (“after a short pause” – of reflection), movement (“moves irritably” – in desperation), gestures (“clenching her fists” – in anger) and precise acting directions (“gives her a searching glance” – in doubt). The subtext in Hedda Gabler is brilliant in a way that even without the proper words for a moment of the scene its content comes through. The examples from the stage directions are too vast to use for the purpose of reading evidence in this essay, so quoting Errol Durbach, as an example for my given point might suffice:
The tissue of non-verbal interconnections has sometimes unduly distracted our attention from the language of the play itself.
Janet Suzman’s interpretation of Hedda Gabler’s theme is “despised domesticality… and despised motherhood” while Ibsen says that “a woman cannot be herself in contemporary society” – his society back then, I must add. Combining both excerpts I recognize a theme around feminism plus a search for Hedda’s spirit, for her état d’âme. Breaking down the theme into pregnancy, bourgeois feminism and human spirit I might be able to facilitate the understanding of Hedda Gabler.
The fact that even in today’s society women are still supposed to become mothers some time in their lives in order to avoid harsh criticism makes me reflect about Hedda. How could a woman in still developing Norway not have children as her utmost objective in life? It must have been unthinkable. The thing with Hedda is that she is not any woman conformed to her environment. She had neither the wish nor “the aptitude for such a thing”, quoting Gail Finney, where “thing” means pregnancy, child’s life devotion and unconditional happiness for having to give up her own dreams in order to become a mother and fit into society’s ideal. It is no wonder that she gets icy-cold when the topic of her so awaited and supposed pregnancy surfaces.
I mentioned it before and I repeat it here: I believe Hedda does not know what she wants, but she knows what she does not want. I mention it again because the fact that she is carrying Tesman’s baby when thinking about Lovborg is at least bizarre, since it was she who finished their love relationship at gunpoint. So, if it is unclear whether she wants Lovborg or not, it is at least clear that she does not want to be a mother.
Ibsen is considered as one of the most pro-feminist movement writers of all times even though he disclaimed the honour many times. Considering Hedda’s personality, heredity and her past as a mean beauty queen (wanting to burn Thea’s hair, snubbing men), it is natural that she is hardly interested in what happens with other women, but is only interested in what happens to her. Michelene Wandor justifies:
Bourgeois feminism simply seeks a larger share of social power for a small number of women – the women at the top syndrome … It has no interest in any idea of solidarity or sisterhood.
Hedda’s masculine side for rejecting the idea of being happy with motherhood was in fact an affront against male dominance. How could a man plant on her something that she did not desire in the first place, not to mention having to endure a family, maids, friends and house that this same man directly and indirectly imposed on her? Hedda’s marriage took place only for some promised money that never came and this makes her like any woman around 1890s for submitting herself to marriage just for money and social status.
Hedda wants to control all situations: the house, the sexual flirtations (yet with physical distance), Thea’s future and Lovborg’s career. Hedda wants to be a strong leader as a man can be but she still wants to keep her femme fatale appeal, above other women, what is typical of bourgeois feminism. Hedda needs to be like her father, but still be a woman. It is at least noteworthy that nobody throughout the play ever mentions Hedda’s mother – as if she had died young or as if she had abandoned Hedda for not wanting to be a mother.
Hedda Gabler’s inner struggle is all about who she is inside (a fiery masculine personality), who she does not want to be (a mother) and who she must be for society (supportive wife). Some women may even complain to their husbands that this or that is not right from time to time, but not even this Hedda is able to do because she does not feel intimate enough with her husband whom she calls by his family name. She could never leave Tesman the same way Nora (A Doll’s House) did. Janet Suzman completes the thought: “She’s too proud to walk the streets.”
Some of Hedda’s impulsive actions are just reactions of things people do to her, when they do not even realize that they are hurting her. Hedda thinks Lovborg could never forget her and suddenly he finds himself a new muse, Thea. Hedda is hurt, so she burns their love child – the manuscript. Hedda thinks Tesman is the next big thing in his career and that he will provide her with all the pomp and ceremony that she deserves, but then Tesman does not get the promised job. Hedda is angry, so she lets it out on his beloved Auntie and on the maid. Hedda is not in control of herself, less now as a married woman as from the time she was the general’s daughter. She is also not in control of her own body for the unwished pregnancy. Hedda is hopeless, so she kills herself without even leaving a good-bye note because she does not need to explain or apologize for her actions, like she never did. Liberation for Hedda could only mean death.
PLAY’S HISTORICAL CONTEXT
Ibsen commented through Hedda Gabler on the Norwegian Victorian society especially what women situation is concerned; the way a woman feels and cannot express it because of many faux pas rules in society, because of the close grip on the individual and the manipulation of public opinion. So, a male dominant society reacted by criticizing the play heavily and trying as hard as they could to put a stop in progress. Why should they start considering property rights, job equality, education and even sexual freedom for women when that could mean that they would gain unprecedented rivals? As Bjorn Hemmer evaluates:
Society is which prevents humanity from emerging and developing.
I wondered whether those people willing to hold back human progress through women’s development were brawlers or men without any finesse or education whatsoever, but when even a renowned historian like Taine stated that obedience (and everything else related to this word) was a must in any family, it was when the real picture of Ibsen’s time invaded my mind. Quoting Taine:
What forms the family but the sentiment of obedience by which wife and children act under the direction of a father and husband? … If the sentiment of obedience has its root in the instinct of subordination and the idea of duty you will find … security and happiness in the household, a solid basis of domestic life.
Reflecting on Hedda and on all other women burning inside to be allowed to be themselves, how could they ever achieve this in such a hypocritical e society? Men could indulge in sex for pleasure, for example, while women should only have some for reproduction only. Ibsen then introduces the beautiful Hedda Gabler who could have sex with any man she wants but decides not to simply because she does not seem to enjoy it. Hedda’s options alone infuriated the audiences, independently from her actions. Michelene Wandor explains:
Sexuality could not be represented in any way… But theatre has always found ways around censorship.
In fact, Naturalists were the first writers to represent their own societies with such accuracy, focusing mostly on their flaws as Man. Not only sciences represented change in the new world, but simply the fact that classes were shifting due to the Industrial Revolution was huge, although “Scandinavia had to wait until the 1890s to be significantly affected by the massive industrialization”, according to Maurice Larkin. This means that they took longer to adapt to the new world and kept on living under old Victorian rules longer than other countries. Ibsen knew to mirror his world through Hedda’s world: family (Tesman’s family), marriage (Hedda and Tesman), professional ambitions (manuscript publication), financial struggles (how to pay for new house’s mortgage) love triangles (Tesman, Hedda, Lovborg or Lovborg, Hedda, Thea), hypocrisy (Brack), jealousy (Tesman stealing Lovborg’s manuscript) and society’s influence on an individual (Hedda’s fear of scandal), to name a few.
Unlike Nora (A doll’s house), Hedda is still too much the victim of Traditional thinking.
The quote above by Chris Megson shows that although Hedda was impulsive and sold a strong image of herself, she was afraid of her society. She could not bear the thought of having to be on her own, even though she despised the people around her. In addition, if Hedda was so afraid of society, it was because she knew her faults although she never apologized for them.
One never stands totally without some share of responsibility or guilt in society to which one belongs.
An excerpt from Ibsen and the realistic problem drama above, actually an Ibsen’s quote, closes the main body of this essay as an example of my given point: Hedda was no saint, but she was also no demon.
Hedda Gabler, a Naturalistic product of the environment and of intellectual change, protests the way things were in Norwegian Victorian Society and looks forward to at least suggesting to the audience that everyone should have the right to think out of the box, to make personal choices that would not be heavily criticized just for being different. A woman should have the right to have as many lovers as she wants if she can live with her conscience, should have the right for property, should have the right for choosing not to become a mother, should be respected among men for her intellectual skills other than just for having a pretty figure or a motherly image and finally a woman should have the right for being complex and not just a single toned person.
In this play, I assume that all these points were the views of Ibsen where he did not hide behind the writer’s image, someone who not always has the same opinions as the main characters, just like Zola claimed to be with his Thérèse Raquin. Ibsen made in Hedda Gabler a psychological study of a woman who was not content with her role in society. If society did not understand the writer’s aim at “chronicling of their own vices and lies” mirrored on the stage, as noted by Bjorn Hemmer, then they should be forced to it, because the message in Hedda Gabler was aimed at people who needed to understand and reflect upon it leaving aside the rotten Victorian morality.
Luciana B. Veit
- Love - The Universal Language
Love. This is the first thing that comes to the mind when we speak about the topic, isn’t it? Right. But the truth is that love does not always solve…
- Human Heat
They say that no other people on Earth are as warm as the Brazilians. Having traveled a lot, meeting people of many different nationalities, I can only agree with this.…
What if we found the photo of a stranger when we had taken the photo of ourselves? Would we be surprised? What if we boarded an airplane without a destination?…
Filed Under: Category EssaysTagged With: biography, drama, essay, honour, Ibsen, naturalist, stage, theatre, theatre play