by Aleksandar Stevic
“Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” is a 1923 essay by Virginia Woolf. However, it should be noted that much of the argument of the essay Woolf also developed in a number of other texts, including “Modern Novels” (1919), “Character in Fiction” (1924) and “Modern Fiction” (1925). In fact, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” is just one of several closely related versions of Woolf’s account of the state of the modern novel, and it seems appropriate to read the essay with other versions of the argument in mind.
There are at least two central features that “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” shares with texts like “Modern Fiction”; first, there is the shared concern with representation, and especially representation of character; and second, this concern is almost always explored with respect to the literary practices of Edwardian writers.
It is typical of Woolf to define her theoretical position against the generation of novelists that immediately precedes her own. Woolf assesses the state of the novel and voices her own expectations of the genre precisely trough the analysis of what she felt were the failures of Edwardian novelists. “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” is written as a polemical answer to Arnold Bennett’s claim that the novel is in crisis due to the failure of Georgian novelists in the art of “character-making” which he finds crucial for successful novel-writing. Woolf partially accepts both Bennett’s account of the current state of the novel and agrees with the claim that the representation of characters is central to the novel as a genre. She accepts that “the novel is a very remarkable machine for the creation of human character” (384), and agrees that it is precisely the crisis in character-making that sparks a wider crisis of the genre: “And it is because this essence, this character-making power, has evaporated that novels are for the most part the soulless bodies we know, cumbering our tables and clogging our minds” (383-384). The point of contention for Woolf is primarily the question of the origins of this crisis. While for Bennett Georgians are to be blamed, Woolf, predictably, locates the problem in the previous generation of writers – Galsworthy, Wells and Bennett himself.
Obviously, the dispute bears clear marks of a conflict between two literary generations, but in doing so it also touches on some crucial theoretical questions, and is highly instructive on the issue of Woolf’s stance on representation and on the status of character in fiction. The charge against Edwardian writers in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” is that while representing a vast number of details, they fail in creating believable characters. In their writings “every sort of town is represented, and innumerable institutions”, but “in all this vast conglomeration of printed pages, in all that congeries of streets and houses, there isn’t a single man or woman we know” (385). It appears that in the Edwardian fiction Woolf sees signs of excessive pedantry and attention to detail, but lack of ability to convey complex characters. In this failure Edwardians are firmly opposed to the “astonishing vividness and reality of the characters” of the Victorian novel (385). Woolf apparently believed that after the end of the Victorian period, a crucial change took place in the English novel, undermining the task of character-representation.
Woolf identified several causes of this change. First, the turn towards moralism and social reform visible in authors like Galsworthy. The second factor was the influence of Dostoevsky whose characters appear to be constructed in such a way that undermined both the Victorian understanding of character and any attempt to seriously deal with character in English fiction. “But what keyword could be applied to Raskolnikov, Mishkin, Stavrogin, or Alyosha? These characters without any features at all. We go down into them as we descend into some enormous cavern. Lights swing about; we hear the bottom of the sea; it is all dark, terrible, and uncharted” (386). Although Woolf doesn’t go into great detail in juxtaposing Dostoevsky’s method of characterization with that of Victorian novelists such as Dickens or Eliot, it seems clear that she sees Victorian characters as clearly defined and coherent, while those of Dostoevsky bear a certain dose of unprecedented complexity, internal conflict and lack of definite shape (386-387). It seems that that the influence of Dostoevsky has brought the Victorian character into a state of crisis which Edwardians were not able to overcome.
For Woolf the dispute over character is clearly crucial. Character is both the central category of life outside literature and the constitutive element of fiction: “To disagree about character is to differ in the depths of the being” (387). And it is precisely the centrality of character that makes the failure of Edwardians so fundamental. It is also clear from Woolf’s argumentation that the success of “character-making” is inextricably tied to the category of verisimilitude.
Several far-reaching conclusions can be drawn from the Woolf’s argumentation in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”. There is an assumption that the novel has character representation as its central purpose. It seems that for Woolf, this is not historically conditioned, i.e. “character-making” is not a function of any particular period of literary history, but rather an inherent feature of the genre. The question for Woolf is how is this task to be carried out. It is apparently at the level of the means of representation that historical change takes place. Portraying characters is central, but our understanding of what character is changes. As her discussion of Dostoevsky shows, the introduction of a new understanding of character can render certain ways of representing characters obsolete.
But while in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” Woolf tends to provide an intrinsic explanation for the change that needs to take place in literature, in many other instances the argument runs somewhat differently, the emphasis being on the actual historical change in human character and human relations. Thus the famous comments on human nature radically changing around 1910 (422-423).
Although this point is not voiced particularly strongly in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown”, it is clear from the claims made elsewhere that creating a believable character, “a flesh-and-blood Mrs. Brown”, means abandoning Edwardian interest in outside details and embracing the full complexity and incoherence of what is to be represented. This can then easily be construed as a plea for a new kind of psychological realism. As Woolf puts it while praising Joyce in “Modern Fiction”, “let us record the atoms as they fall on the mind in order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.” (161)
All quotations are taken from Virginia Woolf, Collected Essays, Vol. 3, London: Hogarth Press, 1966.