ITHACA, NY -- Much has been written on modernist writer Virginia Woolf, and professor Mary Jean Corbett, who specializes in 19th-century British literature at Miami University, has researched more about this iconic writer in her recent book “Behind the Times.” In this interview, Corbett discusses what her research found and illustrates why Woolf is a late-period Victorian writer and how Woolf rewrote history.
Ithaca Times: Talk about your latest book titled “Behind the Times” and what made you decide to write about Virginia Woolf.
Mary Jean Corbett: I have been fascinated by Virginia Woolf's writing since my college years, but as someone who primarily specializes in nineteenth-century literature, I hadn't had an opportunity to study her in as complete a fashion as I wanted. So in the final chapter of my third book, “Family Likeness: Sex, Marriage, and Incest from Jane Austen to Virginia Woolf” (also published by Cornell in 2008), I chose to situate her representations of sexual abuse (in her memoirs and late fiction) in relation to nineteenth-century materials. One of the readers of the manuscript suggested that, in leaping from a discussion of Elizabeth Gaskell's final novel, “Wives and Daughters” (serialized from 1864-66), to Woolf's work (her first novel wasn't published until 1915), I was overlooking a lot of women's writing published in the interim, which Woolf (I have come to see) largely ignored. Though I couldn't remedy that gap in “Family Likeness,” I decided that I wanted to figure out why the writer so well-known for the claim that "we think back through our mothers if we are women" hadn't attended more in her own writing to the literary "mothers" of the generation just prior to her own. So I turned in particular to her nonfictional writing of the first two decades of the 20th century — diaries, letters, reviews, essays — to see if I could assess the reasons for this gap. And I also began to read in the varied literatures of the late Victorian period, particularly what's known as "New Woman" fiction as well as work by those of their contemporaries who also had close ties to Woolf's birth family. From there, I branched out to consider Woolf's ambivalence regarding two key movements in which late-Victorian women of her class background were very much involved: philanthropy and suffrage. At this point I knew I had another book on my hands!
IT: Many think of Woolf as a “modern” writer, but your research shows she was tied to the late Victorian period. Can you say how this shaped her as a writer? And how she rewrote the past while living in the early part of the 20th century?
MJC: One of the things that made a key difference in her career, I think, is that her father, Leslie Stephen, was a well-known man of letters who encouraged her reading and writing from her earliest years. He was also, however, 50 years old at the time she was born, and his literary tastes and values were very much shaped by the mid-Victorian standards set by "great men" such as Thomas Carlyle, Charles Dickens, and William Thackeray. With a few exceptions, he had little interest in the emerging new literatures of the 1880s and 90s, and since his daughter was educated at home, she didn't have much access to those new literatures until after her father's death in 1904. Also, because she was a girl, her reading was much more closely monitored than her brothers' would have been. But while she rejected quite a bit of her father's mid-Victorian point of view, she didn't do so entirely. Like him, she maintained a bias against literature with an explicitly political agenda, even a feminist agenda. And she also resisted the idea of literature as a money-making profession — although she did go on to make quite a bit of money from it herself! These facts account, in part, for her attitude toward a number of women writers active around the turn of the century.
As others scholars have noted, Woolf persistently returned to and rewrote the Victorian era, often in a comic tone, as in “Orlando” (1928) or “Flush” (1932). My book focuses much less on these comic representations of the Victorians, however, and more on the shaping force of the nineteenth-century tradition on her first two novels, “The Voyage Out” (1915) and “Night and Day” (1919), and on her revisionary look at the later Victorians in the last novel published in her lifetime, “The Years” (1937). It's my argument that as an older writer, she actively worked to make up for the gaps in her knowledge and understanding of the turn-of-the-century world in which she'd been raised.
IT: Woolf’s life was a journey of self-discovery; she had 20 journals, numerous letters, essays and nine books when she passed away. It seems her 20 journals show the intensity and personal focus to her writing, but what is your sense of Woolf’s contribution to literature as an early feminist?
MJC: It's interesting that for a good portion of her adult life Woolf eschewed the word "feminist," supporting a number of the movement's goals while rejecting some of its more conservative aspects. Yet Woolf's contribution is nonetheless very considerable; she has had a formidable, indeed, global influence on any number of writers. Whatever its blindspots, “A Room of One's Own” (1929) remains a key foundational work of feminist criticism, as does her later anti-war polemic, “Three Guineas” (1938). Her creativity and willingness to experiment across genres — fiction, memoir, biography — continue to inspire readers and writers of subsequent generations.