An introduction to Virginia Woolf’s groundbreaking modernist novel
Virginia Woolf’s third novel, Jacob’s Room (1922), is not her most famous book, but it is one of her defining novels and marked a watershed in her development as a writer, so a little analysis of its significance, and a summary of the story behind its composition, may be of interest. Woolf’s first two novels appeared in 1915 and 1919: The Voyage Out and Night and Day. These are both altogether more conventional novels, not ‘modernist’ in any obvious sense although they do bristle with impatience at the conventional realist novel’s lack of curiosity about the way people’s thoughts and impressions of the world actually occur and come into being. Her first novel, The Voyage Out, in summary, tells of a young English woman’s journey to the Americas (on her way over there on the boat, she meets a woman named Mrs Dalloway, who will return ten years later in Woolf’s later novel of that name). Night and Day is a largely conventional romantic novel about two couples. The turning point in the development of Woolf’s modernism came not with a novel, but the short stories she wrote in around 1919-21 (these included ‘A Haunted House’ and ‘An Unwritten Novel’). Woolf would use these stories, and her analysis of modern fiction on the continent, to create her novel Jacob’s Room in 1922.
In an essay she wrote in 1919 called ‘Modern Novels’ (later reprinted as ‘Modern Fiction’), Woolf took issue with the Edwardian novelists who were popular just as she was starting out as an aspiring novelist herself: specifically, it would be popular novelist Arnold Bennett, along with his contemporaries H. G. Wells and John Galsworthy, who embodied, for Woolf, the style of fiction she wanted to move away from. These writers, Woolf maintained, embodied a realist tradition that didn’t get close enough to actual lived experience: the way we live our lives, Woolf says, is not reflected in an Arnold Bennett novel.
Woolf wasn’t the only one to stick the boot into Arnold Bennett: the important modernist poet Ezra Pound also lampooned and satirised him (as ‘Mr. Nixon’) in his long 1920 poem Hugh Selwyn Mauberley, where Mr Nixon (i.e. Mr Bennett) advises the poem’s title character, an aspiring poet, to abandon his artistic integrity in order to become a successful writer. Give the public what they want, and what they want is what they expect to get. Well, that argument didn’t wash with Pound and it didn’t appeal to Woolf either. For Woolf, the problem is that Bennett and his fellow Edwardian writers go about establishing how ‘real’ a character is by very materialist means: what job the character’s father has, how much this father earns, what the heroine mother died of, what her house is like and what her income is, and so on. For Woolf, there is something dissatisfying about such a method, and readers must not take any more of this sort of thing from novelists: they must not assume that writers know more about the truth of character than they do.
Woolf collected together these short stories, including ‘A Haunted House’ and ‘An Unwritten Novel’, in a slim volume, Monday or Tuesday (1921), which she and her husband self-published through their own publishing company, the Hogarth Press (they had also published T. S. Eliot’s second volume of poems in 1919). Monday or Tuesday marks the turning point in Woolf’s development as a writer. Leonard Woolf called this volume one of the worst books that had ever been printed, because it contained so many typographical mistakes (it was one of the first books to be published by the Woolfs’ own printing press). But the stories in the volume showed to Woolf that she could write a new kind of fiction. As she would write in her diary in January 1920, of the novel that began to take shape at this time:
I figure that the approach will be entirely different this time; no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen; all crepuscular, but the heart, passion, humour, everything, as bright as fire in the mist. Then I’ll find room for so much—a gaiety—an inconsequence— a light spirited stepping at my sweet will. Whether I’m sufficiently mistress of things—that’s the doubt; but conceive Mark on the Wall, Kew Gardens, and Unwritten Novel taking hands and dancing in unity.
She wrote Jacob’s Room as the culmination of these ideas she’s been exploring in little sketch-like pieces in these short stories.
The meaning of Jacob’s Room
But she can’t simply write lots of short stories and join them up and call it a novel. A novel needs to be a large, cohesive, organic thing. So she takes her framework for the novel from Arnold Bennett and other writers like him. She will write a bildungsroman (or novel of development, following its protagonist from youth to maturity) like a Bennett novel, but reinvent it from within, through inviting a contrast between the conventional bildungsroman and her own view of what a novel should do. The novel will question the notion we take for granted when reading conventional realist fiction: that we can ever truly know the people we are reading about.
But we should nevertheless try to know and understand other people, because a failure to empathise with others ultimately and tragically leads to men being viewed as indistinguishable, mere cogs in the machine of war – like Jacob Flanders himself, who will end his days in the trenches of WWI. Jacob’s premonitory surname might be read in any number of ways, but one way we might view it is as a satire on the habit of realist fiction – and writers like Arnold Bennett – to give names to characters which somehow embody their character and fix them as a certain type. What Woolf is offering is an exaggerated form of such nominative determinism, whereby the character’s name sums up their destiny almost too perfectly. But at the same time the name ‘Jacob Flanders’ turns such an unrealistic or at least implausible realist convention on its head: given the number of men of Jacob’s age who died in WWI, it’s perfectly within the realms of possibility that among the dead men there may be one named ‘Flanders’. So whilst the novel appears to be satirising and exposing certain moribund conventions of the realist novel, at the same time it struggles to find a way to escape altogether from the shadow of such realist fiction. That’s the point of real life, though, something that conventional fiction doesn’t allow room for: sometimes events (or names) are charged with meaning, sometimes they are not. Sometimes events or encounters are random and inconsequential, but occasionally they have a wider importance.
Criticism of Jacob’s Room
In March 1923, the year after Jacob’s Room was published, an article appeared in Cassell’s Weekly which seemed to take issue with the style of the novel. It is called, suggestively, ‘Is the Novel Decaying?’ and its author was none other than Woolf’s old adversary, Arnold Bennett:
What makes a novel important enough to impress itself upon both the discriminating few and the less discriminating many? (For first-class prestige is not obtained unless both sorts of readers are in the end impressed.) The first thing is that the novel should seem to be true. It cannot seem true if the characters do not seem to be real. Style counts; plot counts; invention counts; originality of outlook counts; wide information counts; wide sympathy counts. But none of these counts anything like so much as the convincingness of the characters. If the characters are real the novel will have a chance; if they are not oblivion will be its portion. (Quoted in the Woolf Critical Heritage, p. 112)
Bennett goes on to single Jacob’s Room out as a symptom of what is wrong with the newer writers: Jacob’s Room is clever, but cleverness is not the most important quality in a writer, and by itself it cannot create a satisfactory novel (satisfactory for the writer of the article, that is):
I have seldom rend a cleverer book than Virginia Woolf’s ‘Jacob’s Room,’ a novel which has made a great stir in a small world. It is packed and bursting with originality, and it is exquisitely written. But the characters do not vitally survive in the mind because the author has been obsessed by details of originality and cleverness. I regard this book as characteristic of the new novelists who have recently gained the attention of the alert and the curious, and I admit that for myself I cannot yet descry any coming big novelists.
Nevertheless, the novel paved the way for Woolf’s future work, such as Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.
Jacob’s Room and cinema
There is a cinematic feel to Jacob’s Room, which was pointed out by Winifred Holtby, one of the first people to analyse Woolf’s writing closely (this was in 1932, ten years after the publication of the novel). This highlights something very interesting, perhaps even surprising, about the novel, which is – unlike what we might expect from a modernist novel, especially one written by Woolf – the novel is as much concerned with exteriority as it is with interiority. It’s as interested in the outward appearance of characters as it is in what is going on in their heads. Woolf would write an essay on the cinema.
It’s also worth looking closely at how Woolf begins and ends the novel. In a sense things are bound together, not by Jacob or by any male figure in the novel, but by the feminine, maternal presence of Jacob’s mother. The novel opens with the words of Jacob’s mother, Betty Flanders: ‘“So of course,” wrote Betty Flanders, pressing her heels rather deeper in the sand, “there was nothing for it but to leave”’. The novel ends, too, with the words of Betty Flanders, this time spoken rather than written: ‘What am I to do with these, Mr Bonamy?’, and then she holds out the pair of Jacob’s empty shoes. But although this implies a cyclical and feminine approach to writing – in contrast, we might say, to the male, linear, progressive, teleological narrative of traditional realist fiction – we should notice the loss of confidence that these two contrasting scenes present: the novel opens with a pair of feet, with Mrs Flanders quite literally digging her heels in, as if to suggest tenacity and resolution, firmness of purpose. The voice is confident, too: ‘So of course’, ‘nothing for it’. By the end, Mrs Flanders’ heels have been replaced by a ghostly absence of a pair of feet, by the dead Jacob’s shoes, and by a question, addressed to a male character. Some kind of contrast is being suggested, as if to say, although the male realist novel may be in tatters – especially after WWI – the alternative form is similarly lost in looking for a way forward and hasn’t quite reached where it needs to get to yet.
In Jacob’s Room, when Mrs Norman finds herself in the railway carriage with the young Cambridge-bound Jacob Flanders, she misreads him as a sexual predator who might pounce on her at any moment, and comes to realise that he is actually indifferent to her – though she cannot analyse or penetrate his character any deeper than that. We cannot know each other, Jacob’s Room seems to say: we are all unknown and unknowable. But we should make the attempt, all the same. Woolf’s early story ‘An Unwritten Novel’ is narrated by a woman on a train, imagining the life story of the woman sitting opposite her in the carriage, undertaking a character analysis of a stranger. When the train arrives at the station, the narrator realises that she has got the woman’s story all wrong. But she is ecstatic: the very act of imaginatively entering into another person’s life and mind is its own reward.
Continue your Woolf odyssey with our short summary of her seminal novel, To the Lighthouse.