Virginia Woolf & Katherine Mansfield

Today we explored the ways in which these two early 20th Century authors used their creative gifts to delve deep into their own consciousness into that of their characters. The two daughters in “The Daughters of the Late Colonel” suddenly find themselves freed from the patriarchal and imperialist shackles of their father and yet are unable to find the energy or the way through to a true expression of their essential nature. Mansfield presents this story I feel because she is illustrating how we are all so conditioned by the circumstances of our families and environments and how for all of us this quest for the almost ineffable breath of truth is not so easily reached. “Eyeep, eep” cry the baby sparrows on the window ledge and it is the souls of the daughters -and our souls- that are expressing their sense of the difficulty of what it is to be born anew!

Baby sparrows cry out from a nest in Russia's city of Vladikavkaz

Virginia Woolf in Mrs Dalloway also depicts how trapped her characters are in the circumstances of their own existence. The only character who is not completely trapped is Septimus who has been traumatised, shell-shocked, in the trenches during the First World War. He cannot take his place back in so-called “normal” society, but he is presented as someone who is innerly free in his response to the impressions that surround him:

Beauty, the world seemed to say. And as if to prove it (scientifically) wherever he looked at the houses, at the railings, at the antelopes stretching over the palings, beauty sprang instantly. To watch a leaf quivering in the rush of air was an exquisite joy. Up in the sky swallows swooping, swerving, flinging themselves in and out, round an round, yet always with perfect control as if elastics held them; and the flies rising and falling; and the sun spotting now this leaf, now that, in mockery dazzling it with soft gold in pure good temper; and now and again some chime (it might be a motor horn) tinkling divinely on the grass stalks – all of this, calm and reasonable as it was, made out of ordinary things as it was, was the truth now; beauty, that was the truth now. Beauty was everywhere. (Norton 2194)

Septimus’s experience seems very close to that of Paul Baumer in All Quiet on the Western Front. I am sure many of you will also now recognise how close this writing is to Woolf’s “Monday or Tuesday”. In both pieces she is delicately evoking a consciousness (her own or that of her character) and setting this consciousness in the context of the world around.

It is also worth noting how Woolf’s passage on Septimus echoes (intertextually) the last lines of John Keat’s poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” with its equation between beauty and truth. How can beauty be a measure of truth? It can be if we don’t equate truth with empirical knowledge, with philosophical or scientific truths. Truth is beauty, when beauty stands for our capacity to be receptive and open to the miracle of creation all around us. This is certainly something that Gerard Manley Hopkins was presenting us with in his poems.

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Blog Topics for week 8

1/ Write a letter to Virginia Woolf telling her how much you like her ideas about writing a kind of fiction completely unconstrained by the rules of the past. Use the last paragraph on page 2151 and over to 2152 as your reference point. 

2/ Rewrite the last paragraph of Katherine Mansfield’s story in which the two girls come to a different conclusion to the one they find themselves stuck in. 

3/ Write a short paragraph along the lines of Virginia Woolf’s stream of consciousness. You can use the Septimus paragraph above or any other paragraph in Woolf as a source for your methodology. See whether this style of writing helps you to go deeper, beneath the surface of things.

4/ Write a letter to Katherine Mansfield thanking her for her insight into the condition of women. 

5/ Create your own topic: you may wish to reflect on the similarity of aspects of your own life experience to that expressed by either Katherine Mansfield or Virginia Woolf. 

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