Tag Archives: Virginia Woolf

Text for my Woolf Presentation

Here is the full text for my presentation at the 2015 International Virginia Woolf Conference, Bloomsburg, PA, June 2015:

Masculine Reproduction in Virginia Woolf, Enid Bagnold, and Naomi Richardson

This presentation begins with a question: how was female physical reproduction—any aspect of fertilization, gestation, and parturition—portrayed by modernist writers? Did their extreme experimentation extend to this equally extreme physical experience? As I began to hunt, I found reproduction popping up in varied and fascinating ways among modernist writers. I soon formed the argument that two cultural shocks—the shock of modernist experimentation and the shock of a reproductive crisis augmented by significant reproductive advances—are intimately interwoven in many modernist novels. Focusing mostly on the years 1900-1950, mostly on novels, and mostly on Britain and her colonies due to the necessity of limiting my search, this presentation details some of what I found.

I found that the majority of British modernist texts that tackled reproduction did so predominately in three main ways. 1) Writers tangled up the often disorienting process of reproduction with the disorienting status of the colonized individual: isolated, confused, and adrift in the metropolitan landscape. See Jean Rhys (Voyage in the Dark, 1934 and Good Morning, Midnight, 1939) and Olive Moore (Spleen, 1930 and Fugue, 1932). 2) Writers portrayed the reproducing female form as akin to a machine that was constantly breaking down and therefore must be ameliorated by masculine forms of scientific control. See Charlotte Haldane’s Man’s World (1926), Susan Ertz’s Woman Alive (1936), Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World (1937), and Katharine Burdekin’s Swastika Night (1937). And 3) writers turned to masculine rhetoric when considering the female birthing body, often employing masculine tropes to resist meeting the physical birth process head-on. See Enid Bagnold’s The Squire (1938), Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, Orlando, and Three Guineas, and Naomi Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned (1935). It is this last category of modernist reproduction that I’m going to talk about today.

But first, I want to sketch out why the early 20th century pairs so well with a discussion about reproduction. This era witnessed not only extreme cultural conflicts around reproduction, but an explosion of new rights surrounding the female form, and a panoply of new advances in science, hospitals, and medicine. For example:

  • Partially due to unrest in the empire (Boer agitation, Irish home rule movement) and war recruits deemed “unfit,” a vast cultural movement began to reeducate and train able-bodied men and women, especially mothers and pregnant women, via the “mothercraft” movement (training mothers in the craft of child rearing). Not only did Britain need more bodies, then, they needed eugenically good ones.
  • Due to new forms of communication and the increase of newspapers and small journals, a new conversation about the “now” of reproduction was created—a conversation happening in real-time about real-time issues.
  • The rise of the Women’s Movement which in part fought against the Victorian idea that woman was fundamentally unstable and at the mercy of her physical form – see Havelock Ellis, who in 1929 explains, “Whenever a woman commits a deed of criminal violence it is likely that she is at her monthly period.”
  • The rise of birth control and the beginnings of divorcing the act of sex from the act of reproduction, a process that had extreme ramifications for the cultural portrayal of both sex and reproduction. See my colleague’s wonderful forthcoming book, Conceived in Modernism: The Aesthetics and Politics of Birth Control.
  • The appearance of the first mass-produced maternity clothes around 1910, allowing the pregnant woman more freedom to appear in public throughout her pregnancy
  • Scientific advances like the first pregnancy test in 1928, the rise of ultrasounds and X-rays, the field of “sexology,” new forms of pain management like the unfortunate Twilight Sleep movement, the rise of prenatal care in the 1920s
  • The rise of hospital births and of a reproductive process that was a masculine enterprise (overseen by male doctors) and the fall of midwives and of a female-centric model of reproducing

Today, I detail three modernist authors who bear a highly conflicted relationship toward female reproduction. While it may appear these authors celebrate the complexities of the female condition, upon closer reading, their female characters merely become a tool for the use of the masculine mind, state, and empire machine the moment they enter the female-centric experience of pregnancy and childbirth. I call this process “masculine birth.” The intrusion of the masculine happens in diverse ways: Woolf transmutes birth from a physical act of the female flesh into a mental act of the masculine mind in A Room of One’s Own (1929); Bagnold emphasizes the masculinity of the birthing woman in The Squire (1938); and Mitchison couches reproduction firmly in the masculine realm of commerce, empire, and eugenic “science” in We Have Been Warned (1936). All three novelists ask what it is to be a reproducing female in early twentieth-century Britain, concluding that the female body is strong when it is masculine, and successful when it is more than female.

I also want to explain that throughout I’m using traditional gendered binary divisions of male vs. female that were so prominent in modernism and that writers such as Woolf sought to dismantle (but I claim that it was unsuccessful). When I speak of “masculine” ideas like road-building and empire-making, then, it is because these concepts fell under the aegis of activity that was seen as belonging to men. I also speak of “birth from above” versus “birth from below” throughout. This is simply a way of speaking of mental, disembodied birth (above) versus physical and embodied birth (below). This scaffolding is borrowed from Robbie Pfeufer Kahn’s book Bearing Meaning: The Language of Birth (1995).

Turning to Woolf first: Woolf was eager to jettison rhetoric limiting the woman to her body and to her reproductive capacity. While such bodily ambivalence is often included in Woolf scholarship, what is consistently overlooked is how this ambivalence coupled with her use of masculine (or disembodied) births in her texts combines to create a birth paradigm founded on the masculine and the mind, eschewing the bodily feminine and thereby removing critical avenues of power from the woman. Birth in Woolf is patriarchal, often has masculine connotations, and seeks to bolster the empire and Englishness (by supplying proper British citizens), to map the mind of the writer, or to explore psychological, ideological, and political systems. Physical birth, when it happens, appears in the margins (literally between the acts) or is artificially truncated (as in Orlando).

For example, in A Room of One’s Own, Woolf famously describes the writer’s ideal mind begetting a novel as it “celebrate[s] its nuptials in darkness” (104); “[p]oetry ought to have a mother as well as a father,” the narrator argues, as if the poem itself is offspring of a mental union (103). While Woolf claims “[t]he book has somehow to be adapted to the body” (Room 78), she also argues it is “fatal” to write as either a man or a woman, but instead, to write in the “perfect fullness” of the consummation of this “marriage of opposites” (104).

Woolf shrewdly surmises and advises her readers in Room that in order to be more effective in an institutionalized, patriarchal world, women need to turn from the slavery of bodily births to the birth of the mind. Woolf was importantly distancing herself from the body when systems such as fascism sought to confine women to their physical bodies. In this light, Woolf’s revision of a “bloodless” birth can be read as an attempt to free women from the prison of being cast as only “walking wombs.” But what I am also interested in is how Woolf consistently turns away from specifically female embodiment. Consistently downplaying the physical in light of the mental results in a problematic and recurrent theme of female disembodiment.

In Three Guineas, Woolf claims fascist sentiments are breeding in England under the word “Miss,” “the egg of the very same worm”; the “embryo” of the “creature, Dictator.” Woolf also attacks “brain prostitution,” in which a woman prostitutes her mind to provide for her children. Selling your brain is worse than your body, Woolf claims, for “its anemic, vicious and diseased progeny are let loose upon the world to infect and corrupt and sow the seeds of disease in others” (112). In short, worms are breeding and laying eggs which hatch into more worms, an image usually equated to maggots, which translates to decay of the somatic. Brains are engaging in sexualized behavior for money, out of which their horrific and monstrous zombie-offspring clamber forth to wreak havoc on the helpless masses. The corporeal disgust here is laced with the specifically female body in a dual manner: not only is it the female body that reproduces, but Woolf is writing about specifically women and women’s needs in a masculinized world. It is a woman who is committing “brain prostitution,” and it is her progeny which need to be curtailed and controlled. Out-of-control breeding by the wrong sort of woman poses a eugenic problem for mainstream England, for “hideous progeny” are not what an empire needs to wage the wars that protect its boundaries and territories. But note the barely‑controlled disgust with which the (female) reproducing body is handled here. This disgust, coupled with the call for disembodiment and androgynous being in Room, begins to give us a clue as to the broader use of birth imagery in Woolf. It is employed to remove women from their bodies—to free them, to be sure, but also to negate any power they have in specifically feminine modalities of being.

Consider Orlando:

But wait! but wait! we are not going, this time, visiting the blind land. Blue, like a match struck right in the ball of the innermost eye, he flys, burns, bursts the seal of sleep; the kingfisher; so that now floods back refluent like a tide, the red, thick stream of life again; bubbling, dripping; and we rise, and our eyes (for how handy a rhyme is to pass us safe over the awkward transition from death to life) fall on—(here the barrel-organ stops playing abruptly).

“It’s a very fine boy, M’Lady,” says Mrs. Banting, the midwife. In other words Orlando was safely delivered of a son on Thursday, March the 20th, at three o’clock in the morning. (295)

The predominant tone of this passage is one of disgust, or at the very least, borderline negative events: blindness, striking a match in one’s eye, burning in a bright ball of flame, bursting forth, flooding in a torrent of blood. Rather than the exuberant fluidity of the flowing and freeform female body as seen in Cixous or Kristeva, the fluid body in Woolf is often aligned with the primordial mud at the bottom of the lily pond in Between the Acts: a space of creativity, perhaps, but also one of death and of consuming femininity.

Turning to Enid Bagnold: A prolific writer who lived to age 91, she is best known for National Velvet in 1935. Bagnold famously explained of The Squire (1938): “‘If a man had a child and he was also a writer we should have heard a lot about it….   I wanted The Squire to be exactly as objective as if a man had had a baby.’” The project of the novel is therefore twofold: to justify the power of birth in masculine terms and to introduce the power of birth to a masculine world. The novel follows the female squire who waits to give birth, then labors in great detail. Throughout the novel, the squire proudly references her masculine strength, resolve, and courage as she approaches the birth of her fifth child: “But I’m getting older and tougher. […] I’m getting more male, that’s all!” (96) In Bagnold’s approximation, female physical existence and birth itself is not enough; both must be recategorized and recast as masculine to lend them authority, in the eyes of Bagnold herself and in the eyes of the empire.

Bagnold may seek to justify the importance of both narratives of the body and of a woman’s place in British empire and in society, yet she ends up painting women into a tightly cramped and confined corner. The squire questions her identity right before the birth:

“What am I?” she whispered into her hands, unable to sleep. “My excitement, imagination, vitality, gift for life—are like a spray that falls again on to the ground and is lost and sopped up. I am lost every day. By every nightfall all is lost.” (194)

The squire’s life force is figured here as a virile spray being spilled and wasted upon the ground (a passage that resonates with Woolf’s description of Mr. and Mrs. Ramsay’s relationship in To the Lighthouse: “into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare”). Try as she might to lay claim to the masculinity within, the squire remains female, conscribed to the realm of the home and of the children. Important (or upper-class) women in The Squire do one important thing with their lives: they reproduce. Their virility remains at the service of the men in their lives; their potent “spray” is but a cheap copy and a ghostly image of the masculine, phallic spray.

[You can read the full text of The Squire on the Internet Archive here: https://archive.org/stream/squirecompleteno00bagn#page/n7/mode/2up ]

Naomi Mitchison was much more prolific than either Woolf or Bagnold combined, as she published more than 70 books over the span of her more than one hundred years. Mitchison was a remarkable woman who was a passionate supporter of birth control but who had seven children, an upper-class socialist who worked hard to surround herself with devoted followers and purchased vast swaths of land in her native Scotland. Her 1931 novel The Corn King and the Spring Queen is perhaps her most well-known work. In her 1936 novel, We Have Been Warned, Mitchison portrays birth as a masculine-encoded enterprise, and, similar to the eugenic birthing model found in The Squire, births in Warned subscribe to the birth from below model. Mitchison highlights the significant reproductive issues women faced in the early years of the century, including new birthgiving techniques, access to abortion and birth control. However, Mitchison also conspicuously uses masculine “tools of the nation”—national and political hegemonic systems and ideology, in her consideration of birth-giving.

Warned is the story of an upper-middle-class Scottish couple, Tom and Dione Galston, and of Tom’s campaign for a Socialist seat in the local government while Dione supports him and grows ever more radical about worker’s rights, veering towards Communism. Even by contemporary standards, the amount of space in the novel given to discussions of sexuality and the problem of reproduction in a modern society is shocking. Sex and reproduction, and the politics thereof, comprise the scaffolding of the entire novel.

In the novel, the ancient Galston family legend in Warned is of a woman, Jean MacLean (“Green Jean”), who was thought to be a witch and whom the Campbell Women left outside to freeze to death with her infant. At the end of the novel, Green Jean comes to visit Dione (who is unexpectedly pregnant with her fifth child), and bids her look through a stone with a hole to view a warning of the future. Dione sees Tom win the election for the socialist party, then the counter‑revolution takes place during which their home is destroyed, her daughter Morag is raped, and Tom is executed for being a socialist. The final words of the novel are: “‘We have been warned,’ Dione said, and it was as through a steel spring had suddenly loosened and vibrated inside her. The baby was coming alive and moving in her for the first time” (553).

While the bulk of the novel purports to show the appeal of a socialist revolution, then, it is rooted in ambivalence, as it also clearly demarcates the differences in the lives of two classes of people, upper and lower. As Dione realizes the importance of the class divide, she simultaneously experiences the quickening of the infant inside her as a physical and industrial movement—the shock of her vision or of the baby moving (the two cannot be separated) is as if a “steel spring” has come loose (553). The movements of the fetus blend with the Green Jean‑inspired vision, and Dione’s body, painted as a mechanical apparatus in the language of factories and workers, pops a gasket. This final image is conflicted—is Dione now broken? Has she come to her right mind now that a few mechanical parts have been rewired?—but the importance lies in the pregnancy portrayed in language of masculine commerce. Dione is quite literally a factory of the right sort, producing proper citizens of the empire. Her prolific reproduction (again like the Squire, she will have five children) is not the problem Warned seeks to solve.

The problem is Dione herself, who exhibits “masculine” freedoms throughout the novel: she canvasses the countryside with Tom working for his campaign; she visits Russia and the abortion clinic to view firsthand the horrors of the lower-classes; she leaves her children at home and enters the public world at will. Yet at the end of the novel, pregnant Dione is portrayed as noble but meddling in forces completely beyond her comprehension, and the “warning” of the title is partially for her to resume her role as a birther and mother, return to the home and leave politics behind.

Pregnancy and childbirth lie at the heart of Mitchison’s novel, but in the end, they are subsumed by the larger political systems in which they take place. What is going on in Warned is a masculine reinscription and appropriation of reproduction, not through disembodied birthing rhetoric as we have seen in Woolf, but through the calculated and pronounced political placement of the birthing women. Much like Squire, women in Warned have no freedom to reproduce outside the political and patriarchal system. Their race and class dictates how—or indeed, even if—they will reproduce at all.

Authors like Virginia Woolf, Enid Bagnold, and Naomi Mitchison knew the contemporary cultural assumptions about pregnancy and childbirth were somehow wrong, but they were not ready to make the substantial leap to woman as double‑birther (birthing children of both the mind and of the body). Instead, they began to reconfigure birth in their own texts, respectively recasting birth as a either a key mental process, a masculine feat on par with the work of soldiers in a war, or as a significant issue for society to monitor and amend. I argue that births in their texts were therefore “bloodless,” as they were infused with a healthy dose of the masculine mind to mitigate the shortcomings of purely female, purely bodily birth. While these texts are noteworthy for the groundbreaking ways in which childbirth is either recast (as in Woolf), displayed in all its corporeal splendor (as in Bagnold), or placed within a larger society with its political issues surrounding reproduction (as in Mitchison), they simply cannot yet imagine a future for femininity that is predicated on the ability to successfully birth both babies and texts.

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