Persuasions #12, 1990                                                                                                                                            Pages 111-116


“Without Hate, Without Bitterness, Without Fear,

Without Protest, Without Preaching”:

Virginia Woolf Reads Jane Austen



Department of English, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, NJ


As Janet Todd has shown, Jane Austen was a continuing presence in Virginia Woolf’s letters, diaries, essays, and fiction.1  Not only did other critics compare her novels to Austen’s but Woolf herself critiqued Austen’s writing in an ongoing attempt to understand why, as she once put it, “she failed to be much better than she was.”2  If we were to look more closely at Woolf’s commentaries on Austen’s writing, we would trace a dialogue in which she works out her own poetics: She began by writing novels that were compared to Austen’s, and she ended by conceptualizing a figure of the artist (Anon) as a figure not unlike what Austen represented in her essays.3  I would like to examine a second, equally important way in which Virginia Woolf “read” Austen: Her construction of the character “Jane Austen.”  The figure who appears in Woolf’s nonfiction does not merely reflect Woolf’s personal feelings, I hope to show, but her continuing effort to imagine a woman writer who is “real.”

In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924), Woolf makes a distinction between the “real” and the “lifelike” that is crucial to our discussion.  By “lifelike” she implies the “realistic”: the construction of a character by means of describing in great detail the externals of his or her environment and daily activity; it places more importance on the character’s surroundings than on character itself.  A “real” character, in contrast, “has the power to make you think not merely of itself, but of all sorts of things through its eyes – of religion, of love, of war, of peace, of family life, of balls in country towns, of sunsets, moonrises, the immortality of the soul.”4  We see the world through a “real” character, whereas we merely see the world around a character who is “lifelike.”  Most importantly, perhaps, Woolf in this essay complicates the assumption that a text is embedded in the culture and the personal experience of its writer.  The writer, she argues, should “express” character; that is, the writer is a kind of participant observer whose feelings and imagination inform any observation and whose characters embody the underlying principles and dynamics of a specific historical moment.  This assumption is important to understanding her invention of “Jane Austen” for two reasons: It enables us to distinguish between her personal ambivalence toward Austen’s influence on her own fiction on the one hand and a character in whom she inscribes some of her own aesthetic and psychological assumptions on the other, and it underlies what sometimes seems her naïve attempt to embody the voice of Austen’s fictional narrators.

The “Jane Austen” who appears in Woolf’s letters, diaries, and essays is “real” rather than “lifelike.”  She is shaped in part by Woolf’s argument with critics preoccupied with biographical anecdotes.  Reviewing Mary Augusta Austen-Leigh’s Personal Aspects of Jane Austen in 1920, for example, Woolf protests,


Ever since Jane Austen became famous they [critics] have been hissing inanities in chorus ….  [D]ebating whether she was a lady, whether she told the truth, whether she could read, and whether she had personal experience of hunting a fox is positively upsetting.  We remember that Jane Austen wrote novels.  It might be worth while for her critics to read them.5


She begins her review of Love and Freindship (1922), with a similar protest against critical voyeurism:


All over England for the past ten or twenty years the reputation of Jane Austen has been accumulating on top of us like … quilts and blankets.  The voices of the elderly and distinguished, of the clergy and the squierarchy, have droned in unison praising and petting, capping quotations, telling little anecdotes, raking up little facts ….  So they pile up the quilts and counterpanes until the comfort becomes oppressive.  Something must be done about it.6


It is to restore life to a figure who might otherwise disappear that Woolf remarks later in this essay, “… after all, she was a limited, tart, rather conventional woman for all her genius …”7  She expresses a similar opposition to idealizing Austen in a 1936 letter to R.W. Chapman: “I have often thought of writing an article on the coarseness of Jane Austen.  The people who talk of her as if she were a niminy piminy spinster always annoy me.”8  Here again, claiming a privileged knowledge of Austen, Woolf tries to “express” a character through whom we can understand experience instead of describing a figure we merely observe.

Woolf’s “Jane Austen” emerges most significantly in her 1925 essay “Jane Austen,” in which she incorporates observations from her earlier review essays.  In this essay, as Janet Todd has noted, Woolf describes a woman who, if she had lived, would have written novels like those Woolf herself was writing.9 Austen is a proper lady whose behavior is beyond reproach: “The wit of Jane Austen has for partner the perfection of her taste.  … Never did any novelist make more use of an impeccable sense of human values … an unfailing good taste, an almost stern morality …”10  At the same time, she works hard in solitary labor.  This is the only time Woolf introduces the possibility that writing did not come easily to Austen, and she does so by describing a process of revision that her diaries verify is like her own:


To begin with, the stiffness and the barreness of the first chapters prove that she was one of those writers who lay their facts out rather badly in the first version and then go back and back and back and cover them with flesh and atmosphere.  How it would have been done we cannot say – by what suppressions and insertions and artful devices …  [W]hat pages of preliminary drudgery Jane Austen forced her pen to go through.  Here we perceive that she was no conjurer after all.  Like other writers, she had to create the atmosphere in which her own peculiar genius could bear fruit.  Here she fumbles; here she keeps us waiting.  Suddenly she has done it; now things can happen as she likes things to happen.  (1:147)


Indeed, the character portrayed in this essay is contradictory.  She is congenial, familiar, yet inscrutable.  At one point Woolf borrows Henry James’ characterization of “the brown thrush who tells his story from the garden bough,”11 to portray Austen’s industrious and blissful domesticity: “Humbly and gaily she collected the twigs and straws out of which the nest was to be made and placed them neatly together.  The twigs and straws were a little dry and a little dusty in themselves ….  Vice, adventure, passion were left outside” (1:148-9).  At the same time, however, this writer is also aggressive, creating foolish characters merely for “the supreme delight of slicing their heads off” (1:149).  And although she accommodates herself placidly to the narrow boundaries of her life, and “[t]he balance of her gifts was singularly perfect” (1:151), she is also like Emma or Elizabeth: [v]ivacious, irrepressible, gifted with an invention of great vitality,” (1:151-52), as well as a romantic heroine who died just as she was “beginning to discover that the world is larger, more mysterious, and more romantic than she had supposed.  … [T]he most perfect artist among women, the writer whose books are immortal, died ‘just as she was beginning to feel confidence in her own success’ ” (1:152, 153-54).  The radical shifts in perspective here reflect Woolf’s difficulty, not necessarily with resolving her own ambivalence toward Austen, but with “expressing” a character who is both a woman and a writer, in making “real” a figure who existed only in a disembodied voice.

Woolf’s reading of Austen is informed perhaps most significantly by her own struggle with the problem of voice, which pervaded her thinking about writing – specifically writing as a woman – throughout her life.  On the one hand, she consistently criticizes Austen’s novels because they lack a voice; but on the other hand, she makes Austen the paradigmatic pre-modern woman writer precisely because she overcame the silence imposed on women and “devised a perfectly natural, shapely sentence proper for her own use and never departed from it.”12  Her figuring of “Jane Austen” reflects her distinction between the anonymity that results from repressing and the speech that is made possible by sublimating feelings.

Woolf most pointedly criticizes Austen’s “absence” from her texts in “Phases of Fiction”:


Among all the elements which play upon us in reading fiction there has always been, though in different degrees, some voice, accent, or temperament clearly heard, though behind the scenes of the book ….

We cannot say this of Jane Austen, and her absence has the effect of making us detached from her work and of giving it, for all its sparkle and imagination, a certain aloofness and completeness.  Her genius compelled her to absent herself.  So truthful … a vision would not … allow the actual experience of a transitory woman to colour what should be unstained by personality.13


The missing “accent or temperament” that would express Austen’s individual personality is the sign of her art’s greatness and its shortcoming.  Woolf herself sought to imitate Austen’s structural (“unstained”) perfection without sacrificing her own voice.  The artfulness required of such negotiation is perhaps most apparent in “Personalities”:


Here is Jane Austen, a great writer as we all agree, but for my own part, I would rather not find myself alone in a room with her.  A sense of meaning withheld, a smile at something unseen, an atmosphere of perfect control and courtesy mixed with something finely satirical, which, were it not directed against things in general, rather than against individuals would be almost malicious, would, so I feel, make it alarming to find her at home.14


Here, Woolf inscribes her own contradictory position as a writer whose difference from Austen depends upon the very “real-ness” of the figure she imagines.  Echoing Austen’s comments about her own characters, she replaces the “great writer” with a figure who is “real” precisely because she is not likable and whose attitude toward her personal friends is that expressed by her narrators toward other characters.  In doing so, she implicitly disavows Austen’s authority: Imagining herself in an Austen scene, she allows herself feelings that Austen would invest in an unsympathetic character.

At times, Woolf re-placed Austen’s body by arguing that Austen repressed her own sexuality.  Take, for example, her comments in a 1932 letter to Ethel Smyth:


… [T]he Austen letters are so important and interesting that I fear I shall have to write about them one of these days myself.  And, again, Ethel dear, you’re entirely wrong – whatever “Bloomsbury” may think of Jane Austen, she is not by any means one of my favourites.  I’d give all she ever wrote for half what the Brontës wrote – if my reason did not compel me to see that she is a magnificent artist.  What I shall proceed to find out, from her letters, when I’ve time, is why she failed to be much better than she was.  Something to do with sex, I expect; the letters are full of hints already that she suppressed half of her in her novels – Now why?15


This same assumption is the basis for Woolf’s single extended comment on Sense and Sensibility, in a diary entry written about a year before her death, where she – surprisingly – identifies Austen with Marianne:


All scenes.  Very Sharp.  Surprises.  Masterly.  Some pedestrian stylised pages.  Wh[en] she ends brusquely.  The Door opened.  In came … Willoughby … or, Edward.  Very dramatic.  Plot from the 18th century.  Mistressly in her winding up.  No flagging.  Rather heres an end.  And the love is so intense, so poignant.  … Elinor I suppose Cassandra: Marianne Jane, edited.16


Because Woolf presumes that Austen has inscribed herself into her fiction, her reading includes inventing a character (“Jane”) who had, albeit imperfectly, negotiated between repression and silence.

In A Room of One’s Own Jane Austen’s absent presence differently illustrates her ability to sublimate feelings that might themselves make her speechless.  Here again, Woolf tries to make Jane Austen representative without idealizing her, to express a character who would enable the reader to see the world as Woolf herself saw it.  Here, too, Woolf presumes that Austen’s novels, or more particularly their narrators, bespeak a “real” figure whose work was given shape by the social and psychic boundaries within which she lived.  More importantly, the feelings that Austen sublimates are those of a victim:


Here was a woman about the year 1800 writing without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching.  That was how Shakespeare wrote, I thought … and when people compare Shakespeare and Jane Austen, they may mean that the minds of both had consumed all impediments; and for that reason we do not know Jane Austen and we do not know Shakespeare, and for that reason Jane Austen pervades every word that she wrote, and so does Shakespeare.  [emphasis mine]17


Woolf carefully distinguishes Austen’s silence from the speechlessness of the disempowered.  Insofar as she “consumed all impediments” and “pervades” her own writing, this character resolves the conflicts that Woolf elsewhere finds her evading.

By comparing Austen to Shakespeare here, Woolf reiterates the project at the center of A Room of One’s Own: To make manifest a female literary tradition that will provide modern women writers with a “room of their own.”  Not only does Austen occupy a position equivalent to Shakespeare’s in this tradition, but also she replaces “Judith Shakespeare,” the bard’s imaginary sister, who committed suicide when she could not make a living as a writer.  In elaborating upon other silenced, anonymous women, Woolf more significantly subtly displaces Milton (whom she calls her “bogey” at the end of the essay) with Austen:


When, however, one reads of a witch being ducked, of a woman possessed by devils, of a wise woman selling herbs, or even of a very remarkable man who had a mother, then I think we are on the track of a lost novelist, a suppressed poet, of some mute and inglorious Jane Austen … 18


As Alice Fox has demonstrated, Woolf here alludes to Grey’s reference to “some mute and inglorious Milton” in “Elegy In A Country Graveyard.”19  Nevertheless, even though Woolf’s “Jane Austen” replaces the romanticized figure of the victimized woman, she is not la sage femme, the visionary whose speechlessness destabilizes the patriarchal tradition with equal eloquence.

If we reflect upon Woolf’s readings of Jane Austen, especially in A Room of One’s Own, we shall find that she consistently characterizes Austen in much the same way that critics have characterized Elinor.  For much of her life, Woolf in a sense positioned herself as “Marianne” to Austen’s “Elinor”: We find in the character a “sense” she admired and the attempt to imagine a “sensibility” in which her writing originated.20  At times, Woolf expresses an admiration and irritation much like Marianne’s, on some occasions defending and on others dismissing her “sister” in a continual dialogue as necessary and as frustrating as the conversations of so many of Austen’s sisters.21





1  Janet Todd, “Who’s Afraid of Jane Austen?”  In Jane Austen: New Perspectives, ed. Janet Todd (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1983), 107-27.  I am indebted to Todd’s discussion of Woolf’s allusions to Jane Austen.  She argues that these allusions trace Woolf’s anxiety about Austen’s influence on her writing: “Austen is to Woolf’s text the context that limits and proves limits” (p. 125).  For the purposes of this paper my own scope is more narrow than Todd’s and space does not allow consideration of all Woolf’s allusions to Austen; moreover, my argument is differently concerned with the dialectical nature of Woolf’s perceptions of Austen and with how she invented a character called “Jane Austen.”  I am exploring the more pervasive influence of Austen’s novels on Woolf’s poetics in a longer study in progress.


2  The Letters of Virginia Woolf, ed. Nigel Nicolson (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1976), 5:127.


3  Indeed, Woolf seems to go full circle in understanding Austen’s influence on her own writing.  In response to a critic’s comparison of Night and Day to an Austen novel in 1919, she wrote, “I’d much rather write about tea parties and snails than be Jane Austen” (Letters, 2:400): and in a diary entry written in 1933, while she was working on The Pargiters (later to become The Years), she remarks, “I think the next lap ought to be objective, realistic, in the manner of Jane Austen: carrying the story all the time” (The Diary of Virginia Woolf, ed. Anne Oliver Bell [London: Hogarth, 1984]), 4:168.


4  Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennet and Mrs. Brown,” in Collected Essays (London: Hogarth, 1966), 1:325.


5  Virginia Woolf, “Jane Austen and the Geese,” in Books and Portraits, ed. Mary Lyon (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1977), 134, 136.


6  Virginia Woolf, “Jane Austen Practising,” in Essays, ed. Andrew McNellie (London: Hogarth, 1988), 3:331-32.


7  Woolf, “Jane Austen Practising,” p. 334.


8  Letters, 6:87.


9  Todd, 116-17.


10 Woolf, “Jane Austen,” in Collected Essays, 1:150.  Subsequent references to this essay will be to this edition and will be cited in the text.


11 Quoted by Todd, 114.


12 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own (New York: Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich, 1957), 79.


13 Virginia Woolf, “Phases of Fiction,” in Collected Essays, 2:76.


14 Virginia Woolf, “Personalities,” in Collected Essays, 2:276.


15 Letters, 5:127.


16 Diary, 5:277.


17 Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 71.


18 Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, 50-51.


19 Alice Fox, “Literary Allusion as Feminist Criticism in A Room of One’s Own,” PQ 63:2 (Spring 1984), 150.


20 I do not mean to engage in an ongoing analysis of “sense” and “sensibility” or their meaning in Sense and Sensibility.  The dialectical opposition between these two modes of consciousness have provided a paradigm for re-viewing Austen’s meaning for Woolf, but I am using the terms somewhat loosely, and I do not mean to simplify the contrast between Marianne and Elinor.


21 This “sisterly” equivalence suggests a reading paradigm in which both invention and mutuality are central, one that replaces the more conflicted and hierarchical (parental) model conceptualized by Harold Bloom (The Anxiety of Influence [New York: Oxford University Press, 1973]) or by a maternal poetics that Virginia Woolf herself suggested.  My own reading theory builds upon Patrocinio Schweickart’s; see in particular, “Reading Ourselves: Toward a Feminist Theory of Reading,” in Gender and Reading, ed. Elizabeth Flynn and Patrocinio Schweickart (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986), pp. 31-62.

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