The presence of the past: medieval encounters in the writing of Virginia Woolf and Lynette Roberts

Doctoral thesis English OPEN
McAvoy, Siriol
  • Subject: PN

This thesis starts from the premise that medievalism is an important yet under-recognised seam in British modernist culture. Untangling and examining the medieval threads that weave throughout the modern interest in the new, I supply an important link in the chain connecting modernism to postmodernism. Specifically, I consider medievalism through the lens of gender. Suggesting that women’s prolific engagement with medieval culture during the modernist period has been mysteriously neglected, I illuminate modernist women writers’ creative engagement with the Middle Ages by focusing on two writers in particular – Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) and Lynette Roberts (1909-1995). By means of historicist cultural analysis and close reading, I show that the Middle Ages emerge in their work as an important imaginative structure for thinking about questions of war, gender, and national identity.\ud \ud My central argument is that Woolf’s and Roberts’s representations of medieval culture are strongly implicated in their wider reassessment of national identity and women’s relation to national tradition in the first part of the twentieth century. Re-visioning the Middle Ages from a new angle, Woolf and Roberts recast the foundational myths on which the categories of gender and national identity were based. This project, as I see it, is twofold: recuperating a female-oriented past through a close attention to the ‘details of life’, and inventing a tradition for use in the present day. Returning to the Middle Ages, Roberts and Woolf salvage a ‘usable past’ with which to construct a new form of national culture for the future – one that admits women and ‘outsiders like ourselves’.\ud \ud There is a political, recuperative impulse behind my decision to pair Woolf, a modernist who is ubiquitous and canonical, with Roberts, a writer who, partly due to her gender and Welsh affiliations, remains an obscure and marginalized voice even today. Establishing a dialogue between Roberts’s ethnographic poetry and Woolf’s poetical prose, I use Roberts’s positioning on the cultural margins in order to attain new purchase on Woolf’s complex approaches to empire and national belonging. On the other hand, Woolf’s feminist polemics help to uncover the feminist components of Roberts’s cultural vision, indicating the ways in which her feminism intersects with her nationalist and socialist commitments.\ud \ud I show that, in spite of their cultural differences, Roberts and Woolf both use the medieval past in order to articulate those marginalised experiences, at once ‘travelling’ and ‘native’, that remain unassimilated to the colonial experience. While, for Roberts, the act of historical re-writing opens out the possibility for a new, postcolonial awakening for Wales, for Woolf, it provides the basis for reconceiving the nation on new ‘common ground’ for the postwar future.
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    19 references, page 1 of 2

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    Hill, Katherine C., 'Virginia Woolf and Leslie Stephen: History and Literary Revolution', PMLA, 96.3 (1981), 351-62.

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