By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
Virginia Woolf reacted against the style and attitude of much Victorian fiction, much as many of her fellow modernists did, and her 1924 essay ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ almost acts like a manifesto for her view of this new way of writing. But she is not railing against the fiction that had been written by Charles Dickens and George Eliot, but was instead taking on a ‘foe’ closer to home: the Edwardians – that is, writers of the Edwardian era in British history (1901-1910, the reign of Edward VII).
The problem with this era of British fiction, for Woolf, is that it was dominated by novelists like H. G. Wells, John Galsworthy, and Arnold Bennett (who is the only novelist we know to have a famous omelette named after him). Bennett is the ‘Mr Bennett’ referred to in Woolf’s title.
In her earlier essay ‘Modern Fiction’ (1919), Woolf accused these Edwardian writers of being too ‘materialist’ – that is, of neglecting the spiritual or psychological side to human existence in favour of physical details such as what their characters look like, how much money they earn, and what their houses look like.
Five years later, in 1924, Woolf wrote another, longer essay, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, in which she discusses these writers – particularly Bennett – at greater length.
Using a man and woman she sat near on the train (whom she calls ‘Mr Smith’ and ‘Mrs Brown’) as her test-case, Woolf asks: how would Arnold Bennett respond to this real-life woman sitting opposite Woolf on the train, this ‘Mrs Brown’? How would he rework her as a fictional character?
For Woolf, the problem is that Bennett and his fellow Edwardian writers go about establishing how ‘real’ a character is by very materialist means, as mentioned above. For Woolf, there is something dissatisfying about such a method, and readers must not assume that writers know more about ‘Mrs Brown’ than they do.
For Woolf, everyone experiences a myriad thoughts, feelings, and impressions in their day-to-day life, and this is real life, the stuff of which ‘real’ characters should be made, rather than the flesh-and-blood materialism (and focus on economic factors) which a writer like Arnold Bennett uses to make his characters ‘real’.
In ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, Woolf also makes one of her most famous pronouncements, that ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed’. Woolf doesn’t spell out what exactly happened in December 1910 to make this sea-change occur, so we as readers are left to pick over this provocative statement.
There are several reasons why 1910 might have been singled out by Woolf (writing 14 years later, remember) as an important watershed in ‘human character’:
Artistic revolution: 1910 was the year that Woolf’s friend Roger Fry (an associate of her circle known as the Bloomsbury Group) held a Post-Impressionist exhibition. Post-Impressionism heralded the beginning of a new style of abstract art which moved away from realism, just as Woolf was advocating a move away from the ‘materialist’ realism of Arnold Bennett and his fellow novelists.
Political change: there were two general elections in 1910, one in January and one in December (the very month Woolf singles out in ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’). The January election had produced a hung parliament with the result that there was another election later that year; the Liberals, led by Herbert Asquith, won a slight majority and his government was re-elected.
Change of king: 1910 was also the year that Edward VII died (in May) and George V acceded to the throne. So 1910 (though not December 1910) was the year in which the world stopped being ‘Edwardian’ and started being ‘Georgian’.
This is perhaps significant in light of Woolf’s distinction between Edwardian writers and their conventions and their successors, whom she even calls the ‘Georgians’ (James Joyce had been mentioned in particular in her previous essay, ‘Modern Fiction’, as embodying this new spirit in fiction).
Woolf’s own manifesto? In 1910, Woolf and a number of her friends had carried out what became known as the ‘Dreadnought hoax’, which involved Woolf and her fellow Bloomsburyites disguising themselves as Abyssinian princes (complete with false beards – follow the link above to see a photo!) in order to blag their way on board the HMS Dreadnought to receive a full guided tour by the Royal Navy.
Woolf was fond of proclaiming that specific moments in history – especially her own history – were great watersheds between the ‘pre-modern and ‘modern’, so perhaps her mysterious reference to 1910 is an oblique hint at her own circle of artistic friends, with the suggestion that they are remaking the world, and, also, reinventing literature.
(One such anecdote involves another moment at which the world became ‘modern’, according to Woolf: in 1907 her friend Lytton Strachey showed up at the house where Woolf and her sister Vanessa Bell were living. Strachey, pointing to a stain on Vanessa Bell’s dress, casually enquired ‘Semen?’ After that moment, all ‘barriers of reserve’ went down and it was okay, it seemed, to discuss such things.)
Whatever the meaning behind Woolf’s oddly specific choice of ‘December 1910’ as a turning-point, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ helped to expunge Bennett’s name more or less from literary history; today he is little-read while Woolf features on virtually every university English Literature course. Perhaps such oblivion is undeserved. Bennett was a notable writer and an interesting man, as we’ve discussed here.
I enjoyed this brief introduction. It was a reminder how VW actually challenged the approach to writing literature. I formed my opinion of her strong characterisation when reading her novel ‘Orlando’. Controversial by its originality – biographical or pure fiction – but certainly ahead of its time where gender does not define identity – VW lived through periods where social attitudes were in many cases demeaning to women, yet she challenged many of those issues. I always wonder, if she was alive and writing today, how would she approach modern values? (We call ourselves modern as did the Edwardians – you have to smile).