Since I ceased teaching nearly three years ago, I have spent a good deal of time catching up on authors I had earlier neglected and rereading old classics—not all of which have lived up to their reputations. Under the kind tutelage of Ian Dennis, I read most of the novels of Walter Scott, whose work I had long neglected, and discovered the objective correlative of Bakhtin’s “dialogic” conception of the novel in Scott’s even-handed presentation of the voices of Scotland’s Whigs and Tories. I read Vathek and The Castle of Otranto and Rasselas, and (after all these years) Dracula.

But my real predilection has been British women novelists. In French, it is not too much of an exaggeration to say that between Mme de Lafayette’s 1678 La princesse de Clèves, which, pace M. Sarkozy, is one of the few truly great novels of world literature, and the novels of Marguerite Duras in the 1960s, one does not find a single real masterpiece. Mme de Staël’s Corinne, and Ourika, Mme de Duras’ touching story of an African girl in French society, are no doubt worth reading, as are some novels and stories by Colette, or the pastoral tales of George Sand. The English tradition is on an altogether different plane.

I have already devoted Chronicle 486 to Charlotte Lennox’s The Female Quixote, for my money the most delightful novel ever written, although I’m not sure I have persuaded anyone else of this. Fanny Burney’s first two or three novels make her a worthy predecessor of Austen. And there are others: Frances Sheridan, Maria Edgeworth, Elizabeth Inchbald, Georgiana Cavendish, Duchess of Devonshire… Austen’s mastery did not descend out of the blue; her novels are the culmination of a British female Bildungsroman tradition that can be traced back to Eliza Haywood’s The Adventures of Betsy Thoughtless, which appeared in 1751, just a year before Lennox’s comic masterpiece, and whose focus is much closer to Austen’s than the title might lead one to think. This tradition continues after Austen in a less serene but more lyric vein with the Brontë sisters, who produced six novels among the three of them despite their early deaths—the probable consequence of drinking the water downstream from a cemetery—and later with the more prosaic Victorian George Eliot. Then in the twentieth century, after the slightly less important works of Edith Wharton, Virginia Woolf creates modernist novels less radical but arguably just as significant as those of James Joyce, her exact contemporary.

One need not be a feminist to appreciate these authors. On the contrary, I find that feminist interpreters’ passion for sexual politics rather disserves them. These works not only share a common sensibility that one should not be afraid to call feminine, they are of an overall quality that allows one to make the case for a “feminine novel” as good or better than the masculine. That Austen is today rated above Dickens and Fielding is not in my view to be dismissed as PC. There truly is a perfection in Austen’s novels that one finds nowhere else, just as there is an incomparable power in the unsettling writings of the Brontës (in Charlotte’s Villette perhaps even more than Emily’s Wuthering Heights), and in Woolf. And Eliot, although lacking Austen’s concision or the Brontës’ lyricism, embodies a transition to a new era of feminine self-consciousness, creating a number of memorable heroines for whom no Darcy exists or is even conceivable.

I was thinking about these matters recently when I received a request to write a few paragraphs on the question of modernity and postmodernity. This led me to wonder whether a literary perspective specifically focused on these feminine novels might not shed light on the nature of modernity and its paradoxical postmodern successor. Austen’s novels provide a point of departure in what we may simply call the “classical” novel, to which Woolf’s offer a modern(ist) contrast. For the postmodern era, where I admit my reading in British woman novelists has been neither extensive nor particularly rewarding, I have selected Marguerite Duras, whom I consider not only the most important female novelist in French since the 17th century, but the greatest French novelist after Proust.

Tragedies and comedies are both sacrificial, but in comedy, the protagonist survives the sacrifice and is as a rule able to find happiness, if not the spurious bliss he or she sought at first. Austen’s comedies are particularly satisfying because they plausibly demonstrate the possibility of authentic fulfillment within bourgeois society. The women whose lives are central to them can define their happiness by the quality of their marriage, which will allow them to function in the world and bear children for the next generation. Women in the early 19th century were, needless to say, quite limited in their professional opportunities. But these limitations enter into Austen’s fictional world only indirectly, in the fact that, given her social and economic position, her own creative activity, with few exceptions the only form of artistic endeavor for which a woman of her era could receive public recognition, precluded her marrying and raising a family. (Most English woman novelists of the era—Eliza Haywood, Frances Sheridan, Charlotte Lennox, Fanny Burney, Elizabeth Inchbald, Charlotte Brontë, George Eliot, and later, Virginia Woolf—lived in circumstances less restricted, if often even more financially constrained, than Austen, and did in fact have marital or quasi-marital family lives; Sheridan and Lennox drew upon their own less than happy marital experiences for Memoirs of Miss Sidney Bidulph and Euphemia.)

Social criticism can of course pick at Austen’s world, complain of its class structure, its tolerance of poverty, even its (partial) dependence on colonies and slavery for its prosperity. But what is blessed in art is that retroactive moralism only impinges on our experience of it from without. Even in slave societies, author and reader share the “moral model” that GA traces to the originary scene, and knows that we are all equally human. Austen’s ability, like that of her fellow novelists, to make the reader identify with a young woman’s search for happiness by finding the right man to share her life teaches us a lesson in practical ethics, in the value of constructing healthy social continuity, that our victimary age would do well to reflect on—before these novels are accompanied by trigger warnings and removed from politically correct reading lists.

Whereas we learn little from the fact that the political views of male modernists ranged from Marxist to fascist to quite bourgeois, it is certainly significant that Woolf was very much a feminist, one who throughout her life insisted on the need to overcome the limitations of women’s creative and professional lives. Two books of essays, the 1929 A Room of One’s Own and 1938 Three Guineas, deal almost exclusively with these issues. One finds in them a strident tone thankfully absent from her novels, but whose reality is very much a part of her self-consciousness. Whereas one can debate the effect of a certain feminist-victimary strain in Eliot’s later novels—Daniel Deronda in particular never seems to be able to find a place for Gwendolyn, arguably Eliot’s most powerful heroine, with the result that feminine self-consciousness and novelistic plotting seem to be working at cross purposes—Woolf, like Duras in a later generation, was able to embody her vision of relations between the sexes in an original narrative form.

I will take Woolf’s novels as exemplary of modernism in their departure from Austen’s classical ones. This implies the possibility of a less apocalyptic understanding of the novel’s history than Mensonge romantique, one that makes it possible to sketch a theory of the modern, which, like many things in Girard’s intellectual universe, is short-circuited by what he calls in Achever Clausewitz the montée aux extrêmes. There is no place for a modern suite to the series of works discussed in Mensonge, whose apocalyptic history of novelistic desire forecloses the possibility of modernism by situating Proust before Dostoevsky, a contemporary of Eliot and Flaubert. Girard admired the depiction of mimetic desire in The Waves, but not, as far as I know, as exemplifying a historically new stage of either mimetic desire or literary form.

As our exemplary modernist, Virginia Woolf is not as extreme as Joyce in foregrounding the writer’s form over her content, but the prose poetry of her style organizes the characters’ experience into a lyrical totality, a tender and meticulous world-consciousness shared between author and reader rather than constructing, as in the classical novel, the characters life-narratives’ as models for our desire. Nor do the streams of consciousness that make up this totality subordinate their presentness to the exemplification of transhistorical archetypes, as does Molly Bloom’s concluding soliloquy in Ulysses.

We may say that the essence of Woolf’s feminine modernism lies in her use of the novelist’s transcendent consciousness to go beyond the limitations of woman’s lives that concern her so passionately in her essays. The trauma of the Great War lies in the background of all her work. By depriving her male protagonists of the inherent guarantee of a meaningful life-trajectory possessed by their nineteenth-century predecessors, the war defines an era in which the predictable continuity of the social order that sustained Austen’s happy endings is broken. The whole point of the cruelly ironic Jacob’s Room (1922) would seem to be the negation of Jacob’s protagonist status. We surmise only implicitly on the very last page, when Jacob’s family is cleaning out the room that gives the work its title, that he has become but one more casualty of the war, his death among so many others not even requiring an explicit mention, ending a life whose promise remained unfulfilled.

Nor are there characters in Woolf’s novels who fully embody, like “Marcel” and Stephen Dedalus, an authorial persona. We have only amateur painter Lily Briscoe’s discretely symbolic role in To the Lighthouse (see Marina Ludwigs, “Epiphany and Closure in Virginia Woolf’s To the Lighthouse,” Anthropoetics 20, 1 [Fall 2014]), and Woolf’s satiric self-portrait as frustrated lesbian former actress Miss La Trobe, author of the English history pageant whose performance structures the gently ironic Between the Acts, and who disappears after the performance, unsure if she has gotten her message across. Briscoe, who unlike La Trobe ends her novel on a note of triumph (“It was done; it was finished. Yes, she thought, laying down her brush in extreme fatigue, I have had my vision”), is as close as Woolf ever gets to the heroine of a Kunstlerroman. Her redemption through art in an understated feminine register contrasts with the mock-heroism of Mr. Ramsey’s success in reaching the lighthouse ten years after the original project. Just as Austen may be said to be a great writer because she did not share in real life the happiness of her heroines, in her novels, Woolf can master the creator’s role only by insisting that no worldly glory, merely a personal sense of triumph, is attached to it.

To sum up Woolf’s “feminine” modernism, as it extends through The Waves to The Years and Between the Acts, the authorial consciousness produces a detemporalizing transfiguration of the world of individual “masculine” action or praxis into one where all actions, great and small, contribute to a continuous but plotless epic in poetic prose. The totalization of English history in Between the Acts does not compete with the vast historical claims of The Waste Land and Ulysses; it rather reassures us, in almost Churchillian fashion, in the face of the implicit menace of renewed war, that the strength of English society lies in its ability to live on in its cultural clichés. This historical solidarity is movingly demonstrated at the end when Miss La Trobe has her actors represent the modern age by unexpectedly holding up mirrors to their audience—the readers as well as the village spectators. The “modern” is just we, who accumulate our historical past without dialectizing it into the “end of history.” Yet those who make up this we are indeed at the “end of history,” simply because, unlike all previous generations, they are here and now, and—unlike their postmodern successors—can be relied on to stand up and be counted.

[first of two parts]