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Adèle Cassigneul
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Virginia Woolf’s Influential Forebears

Marion Dell, Virginia Woolf’s Influential Forebears. Julia Margaret Cameron, Anny Thackeray Ritchie and Julia Prinsep Stephen, Palgrave Macmillan
Études Britanniques Contemporaines No 50, 2016
I say Ethel what a happy life you had—in the very cream and
marrow of the 19th Century. I had a glimpse to, but not a long look.

Virginia Woolf to Ethel Smith, April 14th 1939

Three strong women

In ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Virginia Woolf acknowledges and questions the legacy of her overpowering masculine forebears, laying emphasis on a wide generation gap and on her intermediate position : ‘Father himself was a typical Victorian. George and Gerald were consenting and approving Victorians.’ She observed that ‘[t]wo different ages confronted each other in the drawing room at Hyde Park Gate. The Victorian age and the Edwardian age.’ ‘We were living say in 1910 ; they were living in 1860,’ and, ‘while we looked into the future, we were completely under the power of the past. […] we lived under the sway of a society that was about fifty years too old for us.’ [1] A young explorer and revolutionist, she felt caught between two opposite centuries and cultures and, as Marion Dell underlines in Virginia Woolf’s Influential Forebears, two contrasted selves. Starting from this fruitful contradictory matrix, Dell explores how Woolf was indeed ‘under the power the past’ and focuses on the writer’s feminine lines of descent ; an altogether powerful yet more secret influence which, in Hermione Lee’s words, imposes itself as ‘one of the great unseen forces’ [2] in Woolf’s life and work.

Concentrating on three essential strong women—Woolf’s great-aunt, the photographer Julia Margaret Cameron, the writer she called aunt Anny Thackeray Ritchie and her mother, Julia Prinsep Stephen—, Marion Dell takes her cue from the pioneering works of Gillian Beer and Steve Ellis to explore at once how the modernist writer was ‘embedded in [her] Victorian past’ [3] and in what ways ‘the Victorians are also in Virginia Woolf.’ [4] Between affiliation and rejection, Dell explores the ‘dynamics of ambivalence’ (161) that characterise Woolf’s equivocal negotiation with her past.

Dell’s aim is to examine how the ‘work of Cameron, Ritchie and Stephen is textually, artistically, biographically and genealogically embedded in Woolf’s’ (1). Following in Julia Briggs’s footsteps, [5] her genetic approach steps aside from feminist criticism to fathom the connections and interconnections between the lives and works of the three remarkable ancestors and their relation to Woolf’s ‘very conflicted and inconsistent’ (3) response to them. Mainly focusing on Night and Day, ‘The Searchlight’ and The Years as essential landmarks—or ‘bookends’ (3) as she has it—, Dell unravels webs of unacknowledged influences, undercurrent biographical, intertexual and intermedial links in Woolf’s literary transformations of her feminine ancestry. Considering the three ‘lively, independent and professional women’ (15) as decisive role models, she borrows Woolf’s term to define them as ‘transparent mediums’ (38), i.e. agents mediating the 19th century into Woolf’s 20th century.

Strongly underlining a foundational paradox—Woolf’s clear knowledge of Ritchie’s and Cameron’s creative work and her admiration of their achievements and characteristics conjoined with a ‘public devaluation or ignorance’ (39)—, she conversely highlights the two artists’ ‘subtle form of [literary and photographic] rebellion’ (42), their subversive espièglerie and even their ‘proto-modernism’ (97) in ‘construct[ing], deconstruct[ing] and reconstruct[ing]’ [6] themselves in order to work successfully in a patriarchal society, thus clearly anticipating some of Woolf’s iconic approaches.

Julia Prinsep Stephen

One of the main accomplishments of this rather conventional monograph is the new light it sheds on Woolf’s idealised, even mythologised, mother and her ‘more nebulous and more all-encompassing’ (105) influence on her daughter. Away from the hackneyed gloomy picture of a selfless being or her husband’s romanticised construction of her as a saint, Dell depicts Stephen as a practical professional who loved ‘laughter, fun and gossip’ (122), she shows her as a strong character who was interested in women’s lives and in journalism and who actively committed herself to nursing. Dell’s nuanced portrait emphasises that in truth Stephen’s whole family and professional life was ‘a corrective to the various idealisations of her’ (112).

Indeed, the sentimental portrait Leslie Stephen draws in his Mausoleum Book and Woolf’s rather caricatural definition of Patmore’s Victorian Angel in ‘Professions for Women’ are often conflated with Julia Stephen herself while, as Marion Dell aptly underlines, all her endeavours and commitments resisted stereotypes. Dell’s core argument is the following : ‘Woolf obscures Stephen’s real achievements, as she does those of Cameron and Ritchie’ (111). Readers might deplore the critic’s somewhat exaggerated assumptions concerning Woolf’s deliberate attempts to belittle or erase her forebears’ accomplishments and their influence on her work, [7] one nevertheless welcomes this insightful revision of Julia Stephen’s position and Dell’s refusal to reduce her to a flat, lifeless and faded cliché.

All the more so as the chapter on Julia Stephen stresses her role as literary mentor for the young apprentice Virginia. Contrary to her husband, Stephen told her children ‘stories of her own invention’ (119), teaching them that they could be creators of their own worlds and narratives. She was also an enthusiastic audience : she listened and read her daughter’s stories, taking her work seriously and even promoting it among the family circle. Going back on the mother-daughter relationship, Marion Dell sketches a ‘supportive matrilineage’ (121), which also includes grand-mother Mia Jackson and Anny T. Ritchie, and reaches towards Woolf’s iconic reflections in A Room of One’s Own on the writer’s need to ‘think back though our mothers if we are women.’ [8] Weaving a tight web of crucial echoes, Dell elucidates the Woolfian approach and, even if she tends to level intertextuality, intermediality and autobiography, she convincingly throws into relief a rich literary, visual, feminine and professional inheritance.

Creative Liminality

Building on MacKay’s concept of creative negativity, Dell shows how the three eminent women bequeathed a Victorian feminine tradition of self-fashioning to the modernist writer. Yet, as meticulous and instructive as the essay may be, it appears that the chosen biographical approach allows for too much description and repetitions and so fails short of addressing and questioning some key concepts that would have greatly informed the author’s arguments.

Indeed, large sections are dutifully dedicated to three of Woolf’s texts through which Dell probes questions of heredity, legacy and transmission (chapters 2, 4 and 6). Scenes and excerpts are quoted and described but the essay evades detailed textual analysis. The flat descriptions of the various narratives somehow cut the critic off her material. Dell seems to loom over Cameron’s photographs, Ritchie, Stephen and Woolf’s texts but fails to intimately connect with them.

This lack of thorough connection is also to be found in Dell’s use of two crucial concepts : the visual and the liminal. Her exploration of Cameron’s key role in Woolf’s photographic education lacks historical and cultural background and would have benefited from a real reflection on its relation to the textual. Similarly, Dell comes back on the notion of liminality but fails to provide a clear theoretical definition of the term. Ambivalence and indeterminacy keep coming back under her pen, tropes of doors and boundary crossing are mentioned but never theoretically investigated.

It is a pity that, throwing into relief the forebears’ moves ‘outside their pre-existing roles’ and their yearning to create ‘new and more challenging ones,’ underlining their strong negotiation with ‘the dreamlike “fiction” of male Victorian society’ (MacKay 16, 3), and pointing out Woolf’s ontological in-betweenness, Dell fails to come to grips with this challenging and fascinating concept. [9] We’ll never really know about Woolf’s ‘third space,’ we’ll only have to guess the modalities of her creative liminality.


[11 Virginia Woolf, ‘A Sketch of the Past’, Moments of Being, New York : Harcourt, 1985, 147.

[22 Hermione Lee, Virginia Woolf, London : Vintage, 1997, 54.

[33 Steve Ellis, Virginia Woolf and the Victorians, Cambridge : CUP, 2007, 11.

[44 Gillian Beer, ‘The Victorians in Virginia Woolf : 1832-1941’, Virginia Woolf : The Common Ground, Edinburgh : Edinburgh UP, 1996, 93.

[55 See Virginia Woolf : An Inner Life, London : Allen Lane, 2005.

[66 Carol Hanbery MacKay, Creative Negativity. Four Victorian Exemplars of the Female Quest, Stanford : Stanford UP, 2001.

[77 One may question Dell’s repeated assumptions throughout the essay that Cameron and Ritchie are fantasised and debased as ‘figures of fun and eccentric amateurs’ and Julia Stephen is in turn manichaeanly ‘idealised or demonised’ (160). But her general conclusion (chapter 7) refines these somewhat judgmental and one-sided arguments, positing that ‘the final image [of Woolf’s relation to her Victorian past] is of continuity, harmony and inclusivity’ (152) ; a continuity that is structured in her own work.

[88 Virginia Woolf, A Room of One’s Own, London : Grafton, 1977, 83.

[99 In her 2011 Modernist Short Fiction by Women. The Liminal in Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson, May Sinclair and Virginia Woolf, Claire Drewery explores anthropological liminality as an “elusive interface” (4) which questions both literary forms and contents. She offers relevant analyses of Woolf’s in-between spaces and ambivalence, and of her perpetual negotiation and transgression of boundaries. What Dell’s essay lacks is a thorough reflection on these in connection with what she inherits from her feminine forebears.