Romance and the Heart

Review of The Grand Tour, by Romer Wilson, and Revolving Lights, by Dorothy Richardson.

From The Nation and the Athenaeum, May 19, 1923

EDITOR'S NOTE: This signed article by Virginia Woolf shows once again her affinity for women's writing. Her treatment of the romantic quality of The Grand Tour is interesting, but for our purposes the Richardson review is the more compelling. You may want to compare this review of Richardson's Revolving Lights with the one on The Tunnel. Again, Woolf emphasizes (here even more strongly) Richardson as pioneer of a new writing. Once again I have highlighted sections (in green) in which Woolf deals most specifically with modernist issues.
   BOTH Miss Wilson and Miss Richardson are serious novelists, and we must therefore put our minds at their service with the consciousness that, though criticize them we must, something of positive value, which that criticism should reveal, remains. And in trying to make out what this gift of theirs amounts to it is not necessary to go with great detail into the particular examples before us. Each writer is mature; each has written many books, and here, again, each is doing her own work in her own way.

   Miss Wilson is a romantic. That is the first impression which her vigour and freedom make upon us. While other novelists sit studying the skeleton of humanity and painfully tracing the relations of tiny fibres, Miss Wilson hurls a sponge at the blackboard, takes her way into the forest, flings herself on a couch of amaranth, and revels in the thunder. For her not only the sky, but the soul too, is always thundering and lightening. There are no mouse-coloured virtues; no gradual transitions; all is genius, violence, and rhapsody, and her thick crowded utterance, often eloquent and sometimes exquisite, recalls the stammer of a bird enraptured with life in June. Yet she is not, as this description might imply, sentimentally lyrical, and frequently, if pardonably, absurd. One of the remarkable qualities of her work is that she handles the great explosives with complete good faith. She believes in thunder, violence, genius, and rhapsody. Therefore, no one is going to sneer at her for saying so. Moreover, she constantly renews her sense of the marvellous by touching the earth, if only with the tip of her toe. She can be sardonic and caustic; she can mention the stomach.

   Why is it, then, that she fails to convince us of the reality of her romance? It is because her sense of it is more conventional than original. She has taken it from poetry rather than from life, and from minor poetry more frequently than from major. She has not, like Meredith, used her freedom from the ties of realism to reveal something new in the emotions of human beings when they are most roused to excitement. Nor has she gone the other way to work. She has not taken the usual and made it blossom into the extraordinary. When we begin a play by Ibsen we say that there can be nothing romantic about a room with bookcases and upholstered furniture. But in the end we feel that all the forests and nightingales in the world cannot be so romantic as a room with bookcases and upholstered furniture. That is an exaggeration, however; we have overshot the mark. Nightingales and forests are for ever romantic, and it is merely cowardice to be afraid of saying so. But writers are afraid, and very naturally afraid, lest their own feeling for such famous things may not be strong enough to persist against the multitude of other people's feelings. Miss Wilson has no such fear. And thus she has the romantic power of making us feel the stir and tumult of life as a whole. She gives us a general, not a particular, sense of excitement. When at the end of the book Marichaud exclaims: "Life is the thing, Paul. Life is to be the thing," we feel that at last someone has put into words what we have been feeling for two hundred and fifty pages. And to have made us feel that life is the thing for two hundred and fifty pages is a real achievement.

   There is no one word, such as romance or realism, to cover, even roughly, the works of Miss Dorothy Richardson. Their chief characteristic, if an intermittent student be qualified to speak, is one for which we still seek a name.* She has invented, or, if she has not invented, developed and applied to her own uses, a sentence which we might call the psychological sentence of the feminine gender. It is of a more elastic fibre than the old, capable of stretching to the extreme, of suspending the frailest particles, of enveloping the vaguest shapes. Other writers of the opposite sex have used sentences of this description and stretched them to the extreme. But there is a difference. Miss Richardson has fashioned her sentence consciously, in order that it may descend to the depths and investigate the crannies of Miriam Henderson's consciousness. It is a woman's sentence, but only in the sense that it is used to describe a woman's mind by a writer who is neither proud nor afraid of anything that she may discover in the psychology of her sex. And therefore we feel that the trophies that Miss Richardson brings to the surface, however we may dispute their size, are undoubtedly genuine. Her discoveries are concerned with states of being and not with states of doing. Miriam is aware of "life itself"; of the atmosphere of the table rather than of the table; of the silence rather than of the sound. Therefore she adds an element to her perception of things which has not been noticed before, or, if noticed, has been guiltily suppressed. A man might fall dead at her feet (it is not likely), and Miriam might feel that a violet-coloured ray of light was an important element in her consciousness of the tragedy. If she felt it, she would say it. Therefore, in reading "Revolving Lights" we are often made uncomfortable by feeling that the accent upon the emotions has shifted. What was emphatic is smoothed away.* What was important to Maggie Tulliver no longer matters to Miriam Henderson. At first, we are ready to say that nothing is important to Miriam Henderson. That is the way we generally retaliate when an artist tells us that the heart is not, as we should like it to be, a stationary body, but a body which moves perpetually, and is thus always standing in a new relation to the emotions which are the same. Chaucer, Donne, Dickens--each, if you read him, shows this change of the heart. That is what Miss Richardson is doing on an infinitely smaller scale. Miriam Henderson is pointing to her heart and saying she feels a pain on her right, and not on her left. She points too didactically. Her pain, compared with Maggie Tulliver's, is a very little pain. But, be that as it may, here we have both Miss Wilson and Miss Richardson proving that the novel is not hung upon a nail and festooned with glory, but, on the contrary, walks the high road, alive and alert, and brushes shoulders with real men and women.