VIRGINIA WOOLF’S GREEK TRAGEDY

Nancy Worman

Bloomsbury (2019) h/b 168pp £81 (ISBN 9781474277808)

W. is one of the most illuminating scholars working on Greek tragedy today. She stands in a genealogy of feminist scholars who have investigated the gendered dynamics of the ancient genre. W. has worked with particular theoretical sophistication on the problems of embodiment and materiality, and she turns in her latest book to Virginia Woolf as another astute reader of Greek tragedy. 

Oceans of ink have been spilled in the criticism of Virginia Woolf. Her credentials as a major Modernist writer rest in part on two claims. Firstly, she is regarded as a ferocious critic of British imperialist ambition in the early twentieth century. Where many European modernist writers had a tendency to err towards extreme right wing ideologies around race and nationhood (think of Ezra Pound’s radio broadcasts from fascist Italy, for example), Woolf is often exculpated because of texts such as Three Guineas (1938). Secondly, Woolf is seen as a grande dame of British feminist writing, in the way she prioritizes the interior lives of female characters in her fiction such as Mrs Dalloway (1925) or To the Lighthouse (1927), and her ability to pinpoint how women have been excluded from power, for example in her powerful social criticism essays A Room of One’s Own (1929) or On Not Knowing Greek (1925). 

It is the latter text which is most obviously pertinent to the history of Classics as a one of gendered exclusion and is often used as evidence for Woolf’s feminism, and it is here that W. launches her analysis. Woolf engaged with the ancient texts closely, for example in making her own translations of Agamemnon, but was attentive to the politics of classical knowledge. W. takes up the trope of knowing and not knowing the Greeks as a way of understanding how Woolf presented her gendered characters: ‘Woolf casts British culture’s attachment to male heroism—in Jacob’s Room a thing as visibly beautiful as a Greek statue—as primitive, tragic, edged round with death. Or this is what male characters often are in her depictions from the post war 1920s; earlier and later they are dry scholars, remote, preservative, and deeply arrogant’ (pp. 22-3).

W. notes that Woolf’s female characters are often under-educated when set against the educated male, for example Clarissa Dalloway’s clumsy references to tragedy in contrast to Ridley Ambrose, the desiccated scholar of Pindar in the The Voyage Out (1915). This is the cue however for W. to look at the ways in which ‘knowing’ might go beyond parsing an aorist or adducing a scholion, and hence her turn to look at embodiment in Woolf’s female characters. W. observes how (in what mood, in the original or in translation) and when (in the day, before bedtime) Woolf’s characters read Greek tragedy as ways of construing their inner lives, for example how differently the siblings Edward and Sara in The Years (1937) read Antigone.

W. is also attentive as to why particularly Woolf was drawn to tragedy in particular. She contends that Woolf ‘formulated the central confrontation between Plato and tragedy that … shapes her most prominent engagement with Greek literature’ (p. 28) —elsewhere, W. describes this as a ‘gendered faceoff’ (p. 25). Tragedy, though still a male dominant ancient genre, offers Woolf powerful female characters in the shape of Clytemnestra and Electra, as well as more ambivalent ways of using language than Platonic dialogue. Rather than reducing Woolf to an exponent of female subjectivity, W. claims that Woolf formulated a ‘Greek tragic aesthetic (p. 85 and passim) that could have both an exoticising effect as well as allow her to give texture to her (female) characters and their interaction with the world and each other, through the language of mourning and through choral and animal voices’. 

Because these two theoretical lenses are often kept separate with respect to Woolf, it is part of W.’s achievement in this book to read her engagements with tragedy through Woolf’s complex feminism and anti-imperialism together in the essays and novels from the 1920s and 1930s (with a glance forward to The Years). This is enormously generative—the through-line is provided by W.’s sure handling of the ancient texts that she discusses and her commitment to reading Woolf’s political blind-spots as well as her writerly strengths. Thus W. refuses to let Woolf off the hook in colluding with the colonialism of her Modernist peers in the primitivist ways she repeatedly figures the Greeks as ‘sun-drenched’ (passim), or the way in which a living Greek person is presented as dirty and subhuman when he interrupts the conversation between two British Grand Tourists in ‘A Dialogue on Mount Pentlicus’ (1906), about which W. concludes that it effects ‘a “miraculous” collapse of present and past, English and Greek, a warmly embodied, colonizing embrace that holds in intimate proximity grotesque claims of racism and earnest admiration’ (p. 27).

When it comes to specific ancient tragedies, (Aeschylus’ Agamemnon and Libation Bearers, and Sophocles’ Electra and Antigone—plays that explicitly centre on female agency), W. shows how Woolf engages with the tragedies in primarily aesthetic ways. W. has argued over her scholarly lifetime that Greek tragedy ‘pulls up close to human bodies, constituting and examining them whole and in parts’ (p. 11) —she has most recently directed our attention to the beauty of corpses in the Electra plays (‘Exquisite Corpses and Other Bodies in the Electra Plays’ in Bulletin of the Institute of Classical Studies [June 2015], 77-92). It is tragedy’s attention to bodies such as Antigone’s visceral responses to Creon’s edicts or Clytemnestra’s bloody rhetoric in her speech to Agamemnon that W. sees Woolf as able to exploit. Particularly attractive is the discussion of choral voices (both human and non-human) in the final chapter of the book, in which W. shows how the bird imagery from the chorus of Sophocles’ Electra gives Woolf a way of articulating ‘the sadness at the back of life’ in Between the Acts and in the characterization of Septimus Severus in Mrs Dalloway.

The present review does little justice to W.’s analytical savvy and her nuanced readings of Woolf. The book exemplifies what classical reception can pull off at its best—it shows us how ancient texts can discomfit easy ideas about a canonical modern author, and therefore allow us to inquire in uncompromising ways into the cultural values that underwrite texts that make it into the modern canon. As the first instalment of the Bloomsbury series Classical Receptions in Twentieth Century Writing, it sets a high bar for the rest of the series. It will be of great value not least to anyone working on Greek tragedy, or Woolf and British Modernism. Most importantly, it shows that the task of critiquing European imperialism cannot be refused or mitigated with the naive championing of feminism. In fact, W. invites us to read beloved writers, whether Woolf or Aeschylus, with greater hermeneutic skepticism with respect to class, race, gender, and empire precisely because they have been designated as classics. Her book, then, is a critical triumph without the cultural triumphalism. 

Mathura Umachandran

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