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Virginia Woolf at the Cinema (Part One)

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To go solely by her letters and journals, we might assume Virginia Woolf (1882 – 1941) was not a devotee of the cinema. “In her diaries she describes her own visits to picture palaces as early as 1915,” (Humm) although in 1918 Woolf bemoaned “it is a strange thing no-one has yet been seen to leave a cinema in tears” (Marcus). A further essay, from 1926, goes on to compare the reader of a realist novel to a passive cinema audience, watching a “fluent and graphic” product which has “sapped our imaginative power.”

Virginia Woolf
Despite these “few scattered references to the movies in all of Woolf’s vast correspondence and journals,” (Marcus) Woolf’s first biographer, Winifred Holtby, writing in 1932, dedicated a whole chapter to cinema's influence on Woolf, mainly on her 1928 novel Orlando. As Laura Marcus puts it: “For Holtby...’cinematographic technique’ was a significant dimension of her early writing, though one ultimately replaced by the ‘orchestral effect’ of her later novels.” Two years before Orlando, on April 13th 1926, Woolf had written to friend and lover Vita Sackville-West: “my mind is all awash with various thoughts; my novel; you; shall you take me for a drive to the sea; the cinema; and so on...”

The dating of the letter is interesting, as around this time Woolf wrote her essay ‘The Cinema’, while also working on “my novel,” To the Lighthouse (1927). Woolf saw her earlier novel, Mrs Dalloway (1925) published just months before the letter to Sackville-West. We can assume Woolf engaged with the topic of cinema, at least through early 1926; Laura Marcus explains the silence in Woolf’s other writings as: “a necessary pause – a reticence in the face of the unfamiliar.” We may understand this silence better on remembering Woolf and her Bloomsbury friends were “the first literary generation in England to have to face mass civilization directly (Caughie).”

In examining the two novels Woolf authored either side of April 1926, we can, as several critics have done, detect evidence of Woolf more strongly influenced by cinema than her other writings suggest. To my mind, Mrs Dalloway, ‘The Cinema’ and To the Lighthouse form a chain during which Woolf formulated and advanced her ideas on film and the challenges it presented to both writer and viewer. In his discussion of film and To the Lighthouse, David Trotter summarises the situation: “...the understanding of the cinema Woolf evolved...during the early months of 1926...made it possible to say things...she’d not been quite able to say in Mrs Dalloway.” It is this theme I wish to develop, to prove Woolf’s thinking on the cinema influenced both Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, helping her refine not only her ideas of what a novel could do, but also what the cinema could – and could not – achieve.

In his landmark 1946 book Mimesis: the Representation of Reality in Western Literature, Erich Auerbach advised caution to novelists attempting to “exploit the structural possibilities of film.” The key advantage cinema has over the novel is, he tells us, in the “concentration of space and time such as can be achieved by film...can never be in the reach of the written word.” Although the novelist has greater range in expressing space and time (the multiplicity of words available, as opposed to the comparatively limited stock of film techniques), nevertheless “by virtue of film’s existence the novel has come to be more clearly aware than ever before of the limitations in space and time imposed upon it by its instrument, language).”

The novel Auerbach discussed in this chapter of Mimesis was To the Lighthouse. Auerbach

The Silent Barrier
argued a certain type of author, aware of the weaknesses of the novel compared to cinema, adapted to the new challenge by playing to the novel’s strengths, creating what we know as the
 ‘Modernist novel.’ The method utilised to this effect was “the transfer of confidence: the great exterior turning points and blows of fate are granted less importance...on the other hand, there is confidence that in any random fragment plucked from the course of life...the totality of its fate is contained and can be portrayed,” or as Woolf puts it in ‘The Cinema’, “to endow one man with the attributes of a race.” An example of such a ‘transfer’ occurs in To the Lighthouse with the bracketing off of the deaths of Mrs Ramsay, Andrew and Prue, not to mention various weddings and childbirth, away from the narrative, “as if they were silent film intertitles, placed within square brackets against the background of the screen” (Marcus). David Trotter took Auerbach’s argument and that of film theorist Siegfried Kracauer, to claim that this focus on a moment, and of a moment in space, were both, at one point in its development, the sole prerogative of cinema (such as in the early short films of Georges Lumiere), but picked up by the Modernist writers; Trotter dates “cinema’s increasing commitment to narrative from around 1903 onwards.”

Cinema’s focus on “a planned continuity of action” instead of the “random occurrence,” (Trotter) led to the novelistic adaptation of the ability to isolate images in time and space: “new technologies of vision – photography, cinema, X-rays – threatened to displace human vision, offering a truer account” (Armstrong). David Bradshaw and Kevin J H Dettmar believe these new technologies led to the modernists’ “rejection of a realist aesthetic while claiming to represent a truer reality than that offered by cinema.” Part of this truer reality which, contrary to Woolf’s hopes, the cinema failed to convey was “the elementary things which men have in common,” (Trotter) such as human action, through a demarcated zone of time and space, “the movement and colours, shapes and sounds” to be found in “the chaos of the streets,” (Woolf, ‘The Cinema’).

For David Trotter, the loss of attention to the relationship between movement and space was a casualty of what became the conventional Hollywood style: “The classical continuity system put an end to the sheer pleasure of visibility, in mainstream cinema.” This, Trotter argues, denied the cinema audience the ‘common life’, ordinary moments, captured by film, unifying participants and audience. In Mrs Dalloway, as with film, characters do not have to meet, or even be mutually aware of each other, to be brought together before the reader and unified: “Big Ben struck the half-hour. How extraordinary it was, strange, yes, touching to see the old lady (for they had been neighbours for ever so many years) move away from that window, as if attached to the sound, that string. Gigantic as it was, it had something to do with her.”



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  14. Virginia Woolf Mrs Dalloway. London: Penguin, 1996.
  15. Virginia Woolf To the Lighthouse. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 2000.

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