Virginia Woolf’s Experiment in Genre and Politics 1926-1931. Visioning and Versioning The Waves

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Justyna Kostkowska provides an in-depth study of the longest creative period in Virginia Woolf’s career, leading to the publication of The Waves. The study is a feminist consideration of the complex historical and personal factors, such as censorship and impersonality, that motivated Woolf’s experiment with genre and her portrayal of the feminine. Reading A Room of One’s Own, Orlando, the diary, essays, and letters of the period and the three holograph drafts of The Waves as a part of one creative process, Kostkowska traces Woolf’s method of subverting the patriarchal binaries of mind/body, nature/culture, and male/female through poetic metaphor.


“This work offers a brilliant combination of political and formalist reading of what many view as the central text of the remarkable writer, Virginia Woolf. Showing respect for the contextual forces that tailored Woolf’s strategies as a writer, the author sees Woolf’s genre blending of poetry, fiction and drama as a form of feminism that has revolutionary force, both as an aesthetic and as a political statement. Seen through this lens, Woolf offers both beauty of form that is rich in rhythm and cyclic effects, and resistance to tyrannical narratives of authority. The author brings deserved attention to Woolf’s multiple drafting of her texts, a “versioning” (to use current parlance) that helps to reveal her decision-making process in developing her feminist strategy. … This book will have a range of appeal, from first time readers of The Waves to scholars who will find additional aesthetic and political nuances in a familiar text.” – Bonnie Kime Scott, Professor and Graduate Advisor, Department of Women’s Studies, San Diego State University

“This study of The Waves offers one of the most extensive explorations to date of the evolution of Virginia Woolf’s most experimental novel, shedding new light on Woolf’s life-long engagement with the politics of gender and genre. By reading the holograph drafts of The Waves alongside other texts contemporaneous with the novel’s composition, including Orlando and A Room of One’s Own, Dr. Kostkowska argues compellingly and convincingly that Woolf ’s revolutionary use of metaphor allows her to negotiate the “multiple pressures” of internal and external censorship. Of special concern to Woolf were the pressures exerted by Victorian and Edwardian ideas about gender, sexuality, and realistic fiction—all of which Kostkowska reveals to be intricately connected in Woolf’s imaginative and political experimentation with narrative. Woolf’s metaphorical understanding of genre, contends Kostkowska, informs her use of metaphor in writing about gender and sexual identity. Through close examination of the holographs, Kostkowska explores Woolf’s “most metaphorical” character, Rhoda, making an intriguing connection between Woolf’s textual erasure of Rhoda’s lesbian sexuality and Rhoda’s diminished ability to express herself creatively. Rhoda’s body is itself “an elusive metaphor,” maintains Kostkowska. Entering the complex debate about Woolf’s conceptualization of androgyny, Kostkowska argues that The Waves’s Bernard both “preserves . . . gender difference” and “transcends it binary restrictions.” Her study also offers a new and provocative reading of Percival—usually regarded as an emblem of imperial masculinity—as the novel’s “androgynous center.” Solidly situating her analysis alongside that of other Woolf scholars, Kostkowska’s original and engaging close reading of individual passages in the holographs and her analysis of their progression into the published novel make her study extremely valuable for anyone wishing to understand the complex political and aesthetic contexts that inform one of Woolf’s most intense creative endeavors.” – Annette Oxindine, Associate Professor of English, Wright State University

“This ambitiously inter-textual study of The Waves charts the evolution of Woolf’s thinking about gender, genre, and feminine/ist aesthetics during the years she was working on her most experimental novel (1926-31). Taking the fullest possible advantage of the holograph edition of Woolf’s text, Kostkowska reads Woolf’s revisions of The Waves against the backdrop of all the other major writing projects she was working on while drafting this novel: i.e., Orlando, A Room of One’s Own, “Professions for Women,” as well as numerous other essays, letters, and diaries. Often read as Woolf’s most “poetic”—read apolitical—novel, The Waves’s feminist message is conveyed, Kostkowska demonstrates, through metaphors “that only become visible through close consideration of the holographs’ revisions.” The increasingly abstract, metaphorical character of The Waves, she argues, encodes messages about female creativity and sexuality that would have been impermissible to express more directly in the aftermath of The Well of Loneliness trial in 1928 and the ensuing reinforcement of censorship restrictions. Kostkowska’s analysis of Woolf’s revisions thus emphasizes the fully historicized complexity of Woolf’s feminism and the feminist motivations for her narrative experimentalism during this period. Studies of the holographs to date have focused narrowly on one or another aspect of this archive; Kostkowska’s study employs a wider lens, and very productively so.” – Ann Ardis, Professor of English, University of Delaware

Table of Contents

1. Genre Synthesis as Feminist Politics
2. Androgyny as Difference within Unity: A Creative Metaphor of Gender
3. Negotiations of Feminine Consciousness

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