Who’s afraid? Virginia Woolf!

Over at The Passive Voice, while Passive Guy is away, the guest bloggers have put up the sole surviving recording of the voice of Virginia Woolf. Talking of the poor state of the literature of England in her time, she makes this revealing remark:

Where are we to lay the blame? Not on our professors, not on our reviewers, not on our writers, but on words. Words are to blame.

There is a very old English saying, invented by people who had a far better instinct for the use of language than Virginia Woolf ever had: ‘It’s a poor craftsman that blames his tools.’ At the very time when Woolf (and a lot of other tired English littérateurs) complained about the exhaustion of the English language, a generation of mostly American and Irish writers were making those poor old words do wonderful new tricks, and breathed a whole new vigour into literature. (Then there were Welshmen like Dylan Thomas, and a few Scots. There may even have been a Canadian in there somewhere.)

Of course it was the Americans’ turn to slip into decadence half a century later, when it became fashionable for the darlings of American Lit to blame the failure of their books on the inadequacy of words to express their wonderful sublime ideas. B. R. Myers had a short way with such people, pointing out sarcastically that English words were good enough for ‘a piker like Shakespeare’.

What did the Americans, Irish, and Welsh have in Woolf’s time that Woolf and her English friends lacked? Part of the answer may perhaps be found when we hear Woolf’s accent. It is a very pure and correct ‘educated’ accent, an early form of ‘Received Pronunciation’, the chief purpose of which was to prove that the speaker did not belong to the despised working classes. It was a deracinated English, deliberately divorced from any regional dialect or demotic form of speech; it did not even have the vitality to generate a vivid slang of its own. George Orwell, who was brought up to to speak it, observed:

The ‘educated’ accent, of which the accent of BBC announcers is a sort of parody, has no asset except its intelligibility to English-speaking foreigners. In England, the minority to whom it is natural don’t particularly like it, while in the other three-quarters of the population it arouses an immediate class antagonism.

This is precisely Woolf’s accent; you can hear it in recordings by Noel Coward also, and any number of English politicians of the time. (Not Churchill; as Orwell points out, ‘Too old to have acquired the modern “educated” accent he speaks with the Edwardian upper-class twang which to the average man’s ear sounds ilke cockney.’ This gave Churchill a great advantage as a public speaker: people could hear him without hating him.) In documents of the period, it is often called a mincing accent; it would not be too much to say that it was seldom spoken without fear – fear of seeming ‘common’; fear of being mistaken for a member of the Lower Orders; fear of breaking the innumerable social taboos that ‘educated’ speakers were supposed to obey, and thus revealing (truly or falsely) that the accent was merely an act.

Great literature is not written by people who are afraid to speak freely. So the task devolved upon people like Hemingway, Faulkner, Thomas, and Eliot, who spoke and wrote in their own regional dialects and never felt any need to apologize for it. It is not the inadequacy of words that kills literature, but the fear of being seen to use them differently from other people.


  1. This post is dear to my heart. English being my 3rd language, and one I have acquired on my own from various sources, I don’t speak any particular dialect, but a sort of odd mix that’s impossible to place by a native speaker. Which has had more than one of the latter bewildered, because good friends and practice have carried me to a point where I can usually pass for native (at least in writing). Except… I’m not. There’s a glass ceiling right above this point. And while I’m at peace with that, I know other English language writers who, like me, have another mother tongue entirely, and they can be sensitive about it.

    But we can write passable English prose, and we do, because most importantly we’re steeped in English-language culture. And that can only be made by living people reading and writing and singing and chatting together. Regardless of where they may hail from.

    Thank you.

    • You’re welcome.

      I should perhaps mention here that I have a much higher opinion of Joseph Conrad, who wrote his novels in his third language (or possibly fourth), than I have of Woolf, who had such a frigid and inflexible command of her first. So I salute you; you’re in good company.

  2. As a long-time reader (but not commentator) of this site, I felt compelled to finally break my silence and voice my own enthusiasm for this post. Orwell noted in his essay on “Boy’s Weeklies” that the American writers of the early 20th century may have been inelegantly accustomed to tremendous violence in their works but that they at least understood what they were writing about and did so with a gusto absent from the English pulp authors’ oeuvre. When I consider the works of Robert E. Howard and Raymond Chandler, there’s a terse yet frantic energy present in their language. Howard especially delivers his prose with characteristic panache. After reading tired and worn-out English mystery-writers like Agatha Christie (who admittedly is highly celebrated but whose work reads like that same-old tired literary elite), I discovered Hammett and Chandler and rarely felt compelled to return to the far side of the Atlantic in my readings (cf. notable exceptions, like Tolkien, that DID draw me back).

    I really enjoyed this post and it nicely dovetails with a lot of what I’ve come to feel about English literature from Britain as opposed to North America during the early-to-mid 20th century.

    • Good points, Mr. Cesarano. Robert E. Howard is one of my favorite writers. His stories strike me as rather more subtle than they might appear at first blush; and if his style seems blunt, that is in keeping with the spirit of his characters and settings. Certainly he has much more to say than the outwardly “pulp” appearance of his writings.

      “Civilized men are more discourteous than savages because they know they can be impolite without having their skulls split, as a general thing.” Indeed. And that remains one of my favorite quotes in all fiction.

  3. Just a few hours ago I was counseling a young Colombian man on how to remove some of the traces of his Hispanic heritage from his speech – because he asked me to point things out so he can improve, and sound more like the American he is now. Many people never bother.

    I, who learned Spanish at 7 as a second language, know a lot about the particular things Mexicans, for example, have trouble in speaking ‘6 o’clock news’ American English ( a reasonable standard to aim for) because of a small list of problems. Once those problems are eliminated by someone paying attention, the remaining traces are far less noticeable. My Colombian friend speaks a Spanish fairly close to Mexican Spanish – and the people he lives with have not helped him (they probably don’t want to nag him all the time) enough. It is fun to see how much he really want to change, and he has been as good as his word: he want me to help. I think he realizes there is a glass ceiling if you don’t speak standard American English in the States. His English is very good (except for being tainted by his age group a bit), but he will improve very quickly because he is now an adult – and he cares.

    I think we Americans are just as snobbish about our English, and as quick to place someone in a lower level of society based on their speech, as the citizens of Great Britain.

    • I should perhaps clarify that by glass ceiling I meant that my English can only approach native level asymptotically, but never quite reach it. Certainly none of my friends, be they British or American, have ever complained about the quality of my language. On the contrary, they would rather poke fun at the failings of native speakers. But language snobs exist as well — in any country, I might add — and it was luck that kept me away from them so far.

  4. Montague (C. M. Boyd) says

    Is it only me, or does anyone else have the distinct impression when reading Woolf that she dislikes writing? When I read Spencer, the language is tedious enough to comprehend; but comprehension seems worthwhile, like a shared joy or intimation of hard-won wisdom:

    “YOUNG knight whatever that dost armes professe,
    And through long labours huntest after fame,
    Beware of fraud, beware of ficklenesse,
    In choice, and change of thy deare loved Dame,
    Least thou of her beleeve too lightly blame,
    And rash misweening doe thy hart remove:
    For unto knight there is no greater shame,
    Then lightnesse and inconstancie in love;
    That doth this Redcrosse knights ensample plainly prove.” (A random selection from The Faerie Queen bk 1 canto 5)

    Whereas Virgina Woolf scant rewards my toil:

    “What does it mean then, what can it all mean? Lily Briscoe asked herself, wondering whether, since she had been left alone, it behoved her to go to the kitchen to fetch another cup of coffee or wait here. What does it mean? — a catchword that was, caught up from some book, fitting her thought loosely, for she could not, this first morning with the Ramsays, contract her feelings, could only make a phrase resound to cover the blankness of her mind until these vapours had shrunk. For really, what did she feel, come back after all these years and Mrs. Ramsay dead? Nothing, nothing — nothing that she could express at all.” (part 3 The Lighthouse, from To the Lighthouse)

    What does it mean,. indeed. I think I need some coffee myself. Now, to be more fair, this is comparing poetry with prose, Romance with… well, something. My real curiosity is whether it is entirely a trick of the theme, or a linguistic sign of an actual condition of the writer’s soul. Any thoughts from the educate?

    • Woolf is one of those writers who particularly deserve the barb aimed at the Modernists in Punch, back in the day. Orwell describes the cartoon:

      About 1928, in one of the three genuinely funny jokes that Punch has produced since the Great War, an intolerable youth is pictured informing his aunt that he intends to ‘write’. ‘And what are you going to write about, dear?’ asks the aunt. ‘My dear aunt,’ says the youth crushingly, ‘one doesn’t write about anything, one just writes.’

      Spenser is unquestionably writing about something: he is writing about intensity of feeling, and moreover, he is writing about it from the point of view of a rich and well-developed philosophy which we see meticulously worked out in the actions of the characters. Whereas Woolf is writing about nothing; she is writing about a character who is a nobody thinking about nothing, and complaining because she is able to feel nothing – ‘nothing that she could express at all.’ At the sentence level, Woolf is capable of putting English words through the requisite range of physical jerks, but at the level of narrative, there is really nothing there.

      So in this particular case, and in the few other bits of Woolf that I have read (from which, however, I would be rash to generalize), there is an actual condition of the writer’s soul, all right; and that condition, it seems to me, is terminal boredom. We seem to be looking at prose strung together by someone who is so utterly blasé that she cannot even suspend her own disbelief in interesting events sufficiently to deal with them in fiction.

      • Felix said above that it’s unfair to contrast Woolf’s prose with Spencer’s poetry. I think Woolf is one of the great poets. Her language flows with the rhythms of speech, her complex constructions roll of the tongue, and she has a poet’s way with naming things fresh. “…the falling turf of the park whose fall was so gentle that had it been water it would have spread the beach with a smooth green tide.” “Blue, like a match struck right in the ball of the innermost eye, he flies, burns, bursts the seal of sleep; the kingfisher…” This lawn and this kingfisher are exact; I can see them. Too often lawns in fiction are only lawns, because after all we know what lawns look like. Woolf makes me see lawns I had never thought of before.
        Yet each of these loses something in quoting -because it is novels she is writing, and these lines come each near the head of a movement of language and ideas. It seems disingenuous to rest my argument on a claim I can’t demonstrate, and I apologize! Ascribe it to the gulf between tastes if you will, but Orlando swept me away: I took a week to get into it, and then I lay down on a bed with it and found myself not getting up again until I had finished. I too find her talk ‘Craftsmanship’ irritating; either she is being flippant, or I don’t understand her meaning, or we disagree. But I don’t agree that a description of ‘a nobody thinking about nothing’ itself equates to nothing. A whole book full of that, I would not read; but she has characters who think vibrant thoughts and descriptions of specific beauty, in the midst of which characters who are lost and feeling nothing don’t drag the thing down. In the ‘Lighthouse’ quote, a character’s inarticulate hollowness following the death of someone once-known is not inappropriate.
        You say Woolf has nothing going on at the narrative level, but I think her narratives are mostly internal ones, well-thought-out, complex characters thinking about themselves and the world; and the other thing I read Woolf for is the specific reality of that world, the chiming bells of her London. ‘Chuck out external event’ is a tactic that can certainly be boring, and has been often enough. But I think Woolf is the real thing: someone who sees enough energy and excitement in everyday life to rest whole stories on the back of it.

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