‘A new ---- by Virginia Woolf’: Woolf’s Search for Form

Symposium on European Modernism, 1895-1935

Dr Elizabeth Wright, Bath Spa University

17 October 2010

The word novel, which would most naturally fit into the blank space of the title of this talk, was problematic for Woolf, who associated the term with the linear realist texts of the Edwardians or the sentimental romantic narratives of the Victorians. Instead, Woolf called her works: ‘a play-poem’, ‘an elegy’, ‘an essay novel’ and a ‘rhapsody’, and often-found parallels between her work and the paintings of the Post-Impressionists. In ‘Poetry, Fiction and the Future’ (1927) she described the novel of the future, which will be written in prose, ‘but in prose which has many of the characteristics of poetry’ and will be ‘dramatic, yet not a play’. 

Virginia Woolf and her father Leslie Stephen

Her search for a new form and style went hand in hand with her desire to re-examine the delineation of character in fiction. Her aim, according to this essay, was to ‘give… the closeness and complexity of life’ and to ‘take the mould of that queer conglomeration of incongruous things—the modern mind’. It was clear to her that the characterisation favoured by the Edwardian writers such as Wells, Bennett, and Galsworthy, were not able to net the inner life of a human being. In the earlier essay, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’ (1923), Woolf explored the problems with the characterisation of her predecessors and set herself up in opposition to this method of characterisation, which dealt with details rather than essences; while in ‘Modern Fiction’ (1925) she described her alternative view of human life: ‘Life is not a series of gig-lamps symmetrically arranged; life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end’. Thus Woolf began the task, not only of reinventing the style and shape of the novel, but the even more arduous task of representing the reality of human consciousness.

Woolf’s first novel, The Voyage Out (1915), was pronounced, by Lytton Strachey, as 'very, very unvictorian', exactly what Woolf wanted to hear, but her second novel, Night and Day, seemed to move further away from her projects. The book emerged as a replica of all the things she despised most in the Edwardian novels. Katherine Mansfield claimed that: ‘it makes us feel cold and chill we had not thought to look upon its like again’. Nevertheless, it had served a useful function as Woolf revealed many years later: ‘it taught me a great deal… what to leave out: by putting it all in’. 

Virginia Woolf and Lytton Strachey                



It was Jacob’s Room (1922) that established Woolf on the right track. In this novel, the reader only perceives the protagonist, Jacob Flanders, from the point of view of the other characters. Jacob’s mind is shut off from the reader, just as we are shut off from the workings of each other’s minds in life. Woolf recorded how she hit upon this new method in her diary:

Suppose one thing should open out of another… doesn't that give the looseness & lightness I want: doesn’t that get closer & yet keep form & speed, & enclose everything, everything? My doubt is how far it will enclose the human heart— Am I sufficiently mistress of my dialogue to net it there? … the approach will be entirely different this time: no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen; all crepuscular, but the heart, the passion, humour, everything as bright as fire in the mist… I suppose the danger is the damned egotistical self; which ruins Joyce & Richardson to my mind… Anyhow, there's no doubt the way lies somewhere in that direction; I must still grope & experiment but this afternoon I had a gleam of light.

This extract reveals many things about the beginning of Woolf’s experimental fiction. Firstly, that it should appear structurally effortless; secondly, that it should enclose ‘the semi-transparent halo’ of life; thirdly, that she doubted her ability to express the human heart and, finally, that she was aware her authorial voice must remain hidden. Her experiment largely paid off and the criticism that she did receive suggested that her failure, if failure it could be called, was, as she had suspected, in the expression of the human heart. The TLS noticed that it ‘does not create persons and characters as we secretly desire to know them’, and Arnold Bennett wrote that ‘the characters do not vitally survive in the mind, because the author has been obsessed by details of originality and cleverness’. However, to Woolf, Jacob’s Room had thrown her onto the right track: ‘There's no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice’.

In her next novel, Mrs Dalloway, she remedied the criticism levelled at her by the TLS and Bennett regarding the insubstantiality of her characterisation by ‘dig[ging] out beautiful caves behind [her] characters’: ‘I think that gives exactly what I want; humanity, humour, depth. The idea is that the caves shall connect, & each comes to daylight at the present moment’, she mused. In this novel, Woolf shifts seamlessly between the minds of her characters; and between the pasts which fill out the characters and the present moment in which they exist. By doing this, Woolf created a convincing study of how human consciousness works while ridding her prose of any sense of fragmentation.

Often working so strenuously on such challenging pieces of fiction left Woolf feeling dejected and exhausted; we can trace a pattern whereby serious works are followed by lighter projects. Following To the Lighthouse, which laid the ghosts of her parents to rest, Woolf’s next novel was ostensibly just such a project. However, Orlando proved to be something more than a ‘writer’s holiday’, for the novel actually addressed many of Woolf’s views on the fluidity of gender and on the illusive art of biography. In Orlando, she mocks the idea that human existence can be told through dates, actions and historical documents, believing instead that there is as much life lived below the surface as is lived in the open. Orlando also introduces the reader to the concept of the ‘many selved self’, yet another complication in Woolf’s attempt to delineate human consciousness on paper. This problem was also tackled in her subsequent novel, The Waves, which is often considered to be the benchmark for high modernism. In this work Woolf jettisoned the machinery of the novel (with the exception of 10 descriptive interludes) and concentrated on transcribing the thought-patterns of the 6 characters in a series of ‘dramatic soliloquies’. Interestingly, these minds all seem to merge into one and express the many-selved self that Woolf explores in Orlando. The Waves was constructed as a ‘play-poem’ as ‘prose yet poetry; a novel & a play’. Her aim was to ‘make prose move... as prose has never moved before: from the chuckle & the babble to the rhapsody’. So yet again her desire for true characterisation and fluid, experimental form is apparent.

For much of the 1930s Woolf was engaged in the Herculean task of her latest experiment - a novel-essay, which was eventually separated into The Years (1937) and Three Guineas (1938). The Years is a family epic moving from 1880 to the present day describing the society and political climate of the times while maintaining Woolf’s original ambitions. However, when she began to plan the novel the full scale of the undertaking became apparent: 

I want to give the whole of the present society—nothing less: facts as well as the vision… It should include satire, comedy, poetry, narrative; and what form is to hold them all together? Should I bring in a play, letters, poems? ... And there are to be millions of ideas but no preaching—history, politics, feminism, art, literature—in short a summing up of all I know, feel, laugh at, despise, like, admire, hate and so on.

As you can image the attempt to include all of these forms, genres and styles, as well as the combination of facts with vision, was an onerous task. Nevertheless, upon publication, much to Woolf’s surprise, the book out-sold all of her other works.

Woolf's final novel, Between the Acts, was left incomplete, but is often considered her most successful attempt to create this novel of the future. It tells the tale of a village pageant, parts of which are included in the narrative (thus giving us drama); it portrays the relationships between the members of the audience who watch the play (thus giving us interiority); while the disjointed expression of thoughts and speech lead towards free verse in many passages (thus giving us poetry). Between the Acts attempts to unify, and succeeds in many places, to draw the strands of her other novels together.

‘I have an idea that I will invent a new name for my books to supplant "novel." A new —— by Virginia Woolf’, she writes in her diary. Every one of her works approached the filling of that gap in a different way. Perhaps, therefore, the blank space is better left vacant.


Short Bibliography of Woolf’s Works

  • The Voyage Out (1915) 

  • Kew Gardens (1919)

  • Night and Day (1919) 

  • Monday or Tuesday (1921) 

  • Jacob's Room (1922) 

  • Mrs Dalloway (1925) 

  • The Common Reader (1925) 

  • To the Lighthouse (1927) 

  • Orlando (1928) 

  • A Room of One's Own (1929) 

  • The Waves (1931) 

  • The Common Reader: Second Series (1932)
  • Flush (1933) 

  • The Years (1937) 

  • Three Guineas (1938) 

  • A Sketch of the Past (1939-40)

  • Roger Fry (1940)

  • Between the Acts, ed. Leonard Woolf (1941)


Dr Elizabeth Wright, Bath Spa University