A short summary and analysis of Virginia Woolf’s 1919 essay
Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Modern Fiction’, which was originally published under the title ‘Modern Novels’ in 1919, demonstrates in essay form what her later novels bear out: that she had set out to write something different from her contemporaries. Analysis of this important short essay reveals the lengths that Woolf was prepared to go to discredit earlier writers and promote a new style of writing, which she calls ‘Georgian’ and was often referred to as ‘impressionist’ at the time, but which we now know better as ‘modernist’.
In ‘Modern Fiction’ (1919), Virginia Woolf takes issue with those Edwardian novelists writing in the early years of the twentieth century who, in some ways, might be seen as relics of the nineteenth-century realism outlined above: her three targets, Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and H. G. Wells, are all labelled ‘materialists’ because of their preoccupation with predictable and plausible plots and their interest in describing the exterior details – the clothes a character wears, the furniture in a room – when what Woolf, as a reader, really wants to know is what is going on the heads of their characters.
But we never get this from Arnold Bennett and his ‘materialist’ peers. Writers need to turn away from the material and instead embrace what she calls the ‘spiritual’ in order to make fiction new and relevant. Woolf mentions a short story by the Russian writer Anton Chekhov (1860-1904), ‘Gusev’, in which nothing much happens: the story is based on mood and character rather than action or plot. Such a story points a way forward for Woolf and other writers, whom she labels ‘Georgian’ – i.e. more ‘modern’ and progressive than the materialist Edwardians.
In a later essay, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1924), Woolf attacked Bennett again, and summed up the difference between his type of fiction and the way life actually is:
In the course of your daily life this past week you have had far stranger and more interesting experiences than the one I have tried to describe. You have overheard scraps of talk that filled you with amazement. You have gone to bed at night bewildered by the complexity of your feelings. In one day thousands of ideas have coursed through your brains; thousands of emotions have met, collided, and disappeared in astonishing disorder. Nevertheless, you allow the writers to palm off upon you a version of all this, an image of Mrs. Brown, which has no likeness to that surprising apparition whatsoever. In your modesty you seem to consider that writers are of different blood and bone from yourselves; that they know more of Mrs. Brown than you do. Never was there a more fatal mistake. It is this division between reader and writer, this humility on your part, these professional airs and graces on ours, that corrupt and emasculate the books which should be the healthy offspring of a close and equal alliance between us. Hence spring those sleek, smooth novels, those portentous and ridiculous biographies, that milk and watery criticism, those poems melodiously celebrating the innocence of roses and sheep which pass so plausibly for literature at the present time. [Woolf, Selected Essays, ed. David Bradshaw (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), p. 53.]
Readers need to say ‘enough is enough’ and embrace the kind of fiction Woolf had just started to write – her novel Jacob’s Room had appeared the year before, in 1922 – which sought to capture the wonder and reality of life more accurately than Arnold Bennett ever did.
Others had got there before Woolf: in ‘Modern Fiction’ she mentions Thomas Hardy and Joseph Conrad, praising them for moving away from such traditional realism or ‘materialism’ in fiction in favour of a newer and more subjective and psychological mode in English fiction. S
he also praises Anton Chekhov’s short stories – which would go on to influence Katherine Mansfield – and singles out his short story ‘Gusev’, in which nothing much happens, as a fine example of this new mode of fiction. This new impressionistic and psychologically focused mode of writing, which would move away from Victorian realism and push fiction into new territory, would later become known as ‘modernism’.
Discover more about female modernist writers with Woolf’s finest short stories, our pick of Woolf’s best novels and essays, our reappraisal of May Sinclair’s fiction, our introduction to the work of pioneering writer George Egerton, and our overview of the best stories by Katherine Mansfield.
Image: Portrait of Virginia Woolf by Roger Fry (c. 1917), via Wikimedia Commons.