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Monday
Apr042011

The Novel: A Product of the Middle Class

In the fourth chapter of Virginia Woolf's seminal A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN, the Bloomsburian turns to what might be called the economic engine behind the novel--that is, the middle class. "Towards the end of the eighteenth century," she writes, "a change came about which, if I were rewriting history, I should describe more fully and think of greater importance than the Crusades or the Wars of the Roses."

Overstatement aside, what was this change? "The middle-class woman began to write."

Woolf seems at first a little taken aback because these women did not write the erudite poetry or plays of the Renaissance but instead focused their attention on novels, this (at the time) "new" art form.

Why? According to Woolf, women were forced to write in the sitting room and so were subjected to endless familial interruptions. They could not concentrate on poetic epics because the kids might come busting in at any moment. So these women wrote novels.

While Jane Austen did write in her sitting room, hiding her manuscripts under blotting papers whenever a footfall creaked on the stairs, Woolf's is a rather silly argument, given that Austen and George Eliot and Emily Bronte and almost all the great novelists Woolf praises didn't have many interruptions because of their families--since they were not married and had no children!

That said, Woolf is on to something: the novel is connected to the middle class, rising in Europe at about the time the middle class itself stepped forward. There are two factors here. One, novels were originally considered to be "scientific experiments." We'll see more of this when we read Defoe this summer. A novel was an "investigation" into human motives. And the rise of the middle class was inextricably linked to the rise of science in the West, the rise of the "objective stance." We can talk much more about this in book group, if you like.

And true enough, a novel didn't require years of esoteric learning to write. Were we as a group to set ourselves to read Dante or Milton, we'd find the going pretty slow as we bogged down in the layers of scholarship behind the texts. With novels, we can just light out for their territories. They deliver their messages quite efficiently, despite their length.

And that message, as Woolf points out, is often linked to anger. To that end, she even complains about Charlotte Bronte, about the anger behind her novels. "Her books will be deformed and twisted. She will write in a rage where she should write calmly. She will write foolishly where she should write wisely. She will write of herself where she should write of her characters. She is at war with her lot. How could she help but die young, cramped, and thwarted?"

That's a lot to claim for one of the great English novelists. Too much, in fact. But for Woolf, Jane Austen succeeded where Charlotte Bronte failed. Austen rose "to the level of Shakespeare" because she was able to write "without hate, without bitterness, without fear, without protest, without preaching." Woolf then goes on: "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."

And so we come to Emma Donoghue and ROOM. Because if Ferrante is all passion, even anger, Donoghue writes an equally emotionally evocative tale with a calm, steady detachment. Is this why she's put the book in the mouth and eyes of a child? (Imagine if she'd written the same tale through the mother's mouth and eyes.) Do we here have a prime example of the detached, scientific, investigative state we have come to laud? That state of alleged impartiality, of objectivity, so long held up by bourgeois culture in the West as the proper position from which one can ascertain the truth? Is this what Woolf so praises: a stance "with no impediments"? And if so, isn't it ironic that such a state can be found (can only be found?) in a child's eyes?

Wardrobe. Bed. Skylight. Does this pure detachment gain Donoghue anything? And is it in fact detachment at all that so informs this rather remarkable novel?

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