That’s why the current discussion on the VW Listserv, which involves what is often described as “the rivalry” between Woolf and James Joyce, is worth reporting. It shows her as the complex, multi-dimensional person she was.
I believe it is important, however, to place Woolf’s musings about Joyce within the context of women’s history. For it is that context that helps frame her response to him and his art.
As postings to the list have mentioned, Woolf’s comments about Joyce were not consistent. Sometimes she praised him; sometimes she criticized him. Both her praise and her criticism could be extreme, colored by intense feeling.
Federico Sabatini, who describes himself as a young Joyce scholar who has devoted five years to studying and writing about the Irish author, quotes these words of self-deprecating praise from Woolf in her letters: “what she was attempting was probably being better done by mr joyce.”
Robert Ireland focuses on Woolf’s harsh criticism of Joyce and turns her class consciousness — for which she is often criticized — against her. From a Diary entry of 16 August 1922, he quotes Woolf as describing Ulysses as an “illiterate, underbred book … of a self taught working man.”
Another poster to the list named Simon contributed a raft of quotes, including this one from Woolf’s 6 September 1922 Diary entry, which mixes the weakest praise with the strongest disgust: “I finished Ulysses, & think it a misfire. Genius it has I think; but of the inferior water. The book is diffuse. It is brackish. It is pretentious. It is underbred, not only in the obvious sense, but in the literary sense.”
That same month, in two other diary entries, Woolf admits that by not reading the work carefully, she had probably “scamped the virtue of it,” and that she had her “back up on purpose” against Joyce’s experimental novel.
I think we need to be aware of more than Woolf’s class consciousness and competitive spirit about her writing. We also need to remember that in 1922, she was an anomaly. She was a woman writing in a man’s world.
Consider the following:
In 1922, British men still ruled England, despite the fact that nearly three-quarters of a million of them were slaughtered on the World War I battlefront while women proved their mettle on the home front.
In 1922, women in England had only been able to vote for four years. But even then, not all adult women had that right. Younger women — age 21 to 30 — were not given the franchise until 1928.
In 1922, it had only been two years since a woman had been admitted to Oxford University as the first full degree candidate.
And in 1922, the equal pay for women clause of the Treaty of Versailles had been universally ignored for three years.
No wonder, then, that Woolf — always painfully aware of the power of the patriarchy — refused to fall into line with male critics such as T.S. Eliot, who offered effusive praise of Joyce’s new novel as being “extremely brilliant.”
Instead, she stood firm in her own views. As she wrote in her diary regarding a conversation with Eliot about Joyce’s novel, “I kept myself from being submerged, though feeling the waters rise once or twice…had I been meek, I suppose I should have gone under — felt him & his views dominant & subversive.”
As Woolf scholar Mark Hussey put it, “In 1922 Ulysses was certainly a song heard loud and clear, with the potential of drowning out others” (Virginia Woolf A-Z 134).
Woolf, who shared the year of her birth and the year of her death with Joyce, refused to be submerged.
For more on Joyce and Woolf, read Bonnie Kime Scott, specifically the following works:
New Alliances in Joyce Studies: “Whan it’s Aped to Foul a Delfian,”
Editor Newark: University of Deleware Press, 1988. The 1985 Joyce Symposium proceedings, with critical introduction and selections on Recent Theory, Forms in Fiction, Analogies from Art, Feminist Revisions, Joyce and Other Women Writers, Influences and Resonances, and Textual Workshops.
James Joyce: Harvester Feminist Readings Series. London: Harvester Press, 1987.
“A Joyce of One’s Own.” Rereading Modernism: New Directions in Feminist Criticism. Ed. Lisa Rado. New York: Garland P, 1994. 209-230.