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Thursday
Apr212011

Woolf and Cather

Yes, it's planned that we would come to Willa Cather when we turn to the fifth essay in Virginia Woolf's A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN. For it is in the fifth essay that Woolf turns to a subject of intense personal interest--and dithering.

Here, Woolf imagines herself reading a fictitious novel ("Life's Adventure") by a fictitious novelist ("Mary Carmichael"). Mind you, neither exist. And yes, Woolf has been on flights of fantasy from the beginning of her essays, imagining Beadles who block her from the college lawn or Judith, Shakespeare's tragic sister. However, the fantasy here seems of a different order--for there is no way to know the novelist and her novel are fictitious from Woolf's own text. She drops clues in the first essay about the made-up nature of her college stroll. But in the fourth essay, we turn to a discussion of real writers--Austen, Bronte, etc.--which leads us right to the bits about Mary Carmichael in the fifth. Indeed, Woolf herself links them all up, so the "reality" of the former colors our notion of the fictitious latter. I remember going on a hunt for this made-up novelist when I first read the essays as an undergraduate. It all seemed so real.

As Woolf reads this made-up novel, composed apparently of marginal, halting sentences and otherwise bad prose, she stumbles across a sentence that stops her cold. As she writes: "We are all women, you assure me? Then I may tell you that the very next words I read were these--'Chloe lied Olivia. . . .' Do not start. Do not blush. Let us admit in the privacy of our own society that these things sometimes happen. Sometimes women do like women." And so begins the rather truncated and half-hidden discussion of lesbianism and fiction: "those unrecorded gestures, those unsaid or half-said words, which form themselves, no more palpably than the shadows of moths on the ceiling, when women are along, unlit by the capricious and coloured light of the other sex."

But the path is not clear. Woolf soon diverts back to the question of heterosexual relations, rather than lesbian ones--"A true picture of a man as a whole can never be painted until a woman has described [him]." She time and again questions whether the fictitious Mary Carmichael can be considered a serious artist: "She made me feel . . . that instead of being serious and profound and humane, one might be--and the thought was far less seductive--merely lazy minded and conventional into the bargain." She seems to sneer at her as a "woman writer" and yet also hold her up as an exemplar. In the end, we're left with a muddle. Some say this is the point: the half-hidden meaning in the text is like the hints of lesbianism found throughout literature in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

But I'm not so sure. All this rigmarole for a made-up novelist? All this griping about her "writing," writing which doesn't even exist? All these shifting perspectives--it's up to women to describe women fully; no, it's up to women to describe men fully.

In the end--and this is not a popular reading of A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN--I believe that Woolf's own discomfort with 1) the project of fiction (why set up a bad, fake novel as your exemplar of women's feelings and sexual bliss?) and 2) her own sexuality render her essay a muddle, made up of fictitious wobblings about a completely made-up problem in the imagined writing of a not-real novelist. Whew.

Which brings us to Cather. Because Cather never, ever called herself a lesbian. In fact, even today some scholars resist the peg for her. Cather was intensely ambivalent. And became increasingly wobbly in her own notions of what the project of fiction should be. She was a socialite in New York; she was also a recluse on an island in the Bay of Fundy. She lived with a woman and carried on with plenty more; she repeatedly denied claims about her own sexuality. She wrote romantic fiction--which doesn't end up being very romantic.

This deep ambivalence informs MY ANTONIA. Think for a moment about the narrator, Jim Burden. Think about his name. Think about what place he performs in the novel. Why is a book about Antonia told from Jim's eyes? Or is the book really about Antonia in the first place?

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