Wednesday, July 24, 2019


Nancy Worman, Virginia Woolf's Greek Tragedy. Classical Receptions in Twentieth-Century Writing. London; New York: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Pp. xii, 152. ISBN 9781474277822. €52,50.

Reviewed by Holly Ranger, Institute of Classical Studies (

Version at BMCR home site


A rich vein of scholarship in Virginia Woolf studies over the last thirty years has explored the intersection between feminism and imperialism in Woolf's work. Scholars including Urmila Seshagiri, Supriya Chaudhuri, and Sonita Sarker have been writing and thinking through the ways in which—and the extent to which—the undoubted legacy of the pacifist and feminist polemic exemplified by Three Guineas and A Room of One's Own is undermined by Woolf's imperial gaze. This dilemma is perhaps best expressed for classicists in Jamaican writer Michelle Cliff's formulation that '[w]hile being Arachne, unveiling the face of Empire, in matters of capital, the state, war, and women, Woolf may become—or remain—Athena in matters of race'.1 The general trend in Woolf studies has been towards increasingly acute postcolonial critiques which have problematized any naïve extension of Woolf's clear anti-patriarchal and anti-militarist politics to anti-imperialism or anti-racism. Nevertheless, these accounts do not discard Woolf as a feminist foremother; all acknowledge Woolf's self-conscious gestures towards her complicity in imperialism and its expression in modernist aesthetics. Such critical interventions have ensured that credible scholarship examining Woolf's politics always foregrounds the double movement of complicity and critique enacted by her work.

A similar shift in thinking around Woolf's relationship with Greek was effected by the ground-breaking discovery in 2010 by Christine Kenyon Jones and Anna Snaith that Woolf had been formally educated to 'final pass B.A.' level in ancient Greek at King's Ladies' Department for three years (1897-1900) under the tutelage of George Warr ('my beloved Warr', Letters Vol. I, 20). The shockwave from this discovery is still reverberating in Woolf studies; although it does not undermine her later pedagogical critique and its searing reckoning of the abuses wreaked by educational privilege, it has forced a significant revision both of the image of Woolf as the ur-outsider, and of narratives around her use of Greek as emblematic of female exclusion from the academy, amateurism, and feminine forms of knowing or not knowing. It is amongst these tectonic shifts that Nancy Worman's excellent new book makes its nuanced contribution. Worman's innovation is to identify Woolf's Greek aesthetics as a potent site for an examination of the intersection of empire, race ('exoticism'), and gender in Woolf's work. The book explores how Woolf's 'Greek' both reflects and challenges imperial perspectives—and, in turn, how her feminism inflects and is inflected by those perspectives.

Previous studies of Woolf's Hellenism have been dogged by biographical reductionism, which has resulted in forensic comparisons of the novels with Woolf's diaries and Greek translation notebooks and in studies of the spectral presences of J— H— and Woolf's family bereavements (this is not to dispute the tragedy of those deaths, but to set aside such criticism's phatic use of 'tragedy'). Worman signals early her 'anti-biographical' approach and justifies her intention to pass over the Monks House Papers and the 'rich accretions' of letters, journals, and holographs (which a reader would expect to find), except where they serve as productive 'extensions and supplements' to the book's central aesthetic analysis (3). Each of the chapters treats a particular aesthetic strand of Woolf's gendering of Greece: Greek primitivism and exoticism; tragic styles; and choral voices. Previous studies have also tended to treat 'Hellenism' very broadly defined, although the individual figures of Sophocles' Antigone and Aeschylus' Cassandra, and the Platonic themes of To the Lighthouse do predominate; Worman adds Electra and Clytemnestra and specific choral imagery. Of course, any account of Woolf's Hellenism hinges on the essay 'On Not Knowing Greek'; Worman's insight here in moving away from biography is to read the essay as setting out Woolf's ars tragoedia.

Chapter 1, 'Gender and Primitivist "Greek" Aesthetics', first sets out how Woolf genders the Greek elements in her work, searching past the male bodies that dominated the Athenian stage to find 'the more female aspects of [tragedy's] textures, including mournful embodiments and choral voices' (21). Worman also places Woolf's 'often racializing… classical aesthetic' within English modernist aesthetic impulses, which 'collude […] with imperialist and colonialist perspectives while only appearing to critique them' (16). But, 'if Woolf's aesthetic orientations resist reduction to a brand of imperialist nostalgia, this is largely due to her sensitivity to the ways in which gender and class inflect privilege' (35). Worman's load-bearing conditionals ('if', 'may', 'to what extent', 36) invite the reader throughout the book to consider Woolf's 'compromised stance' (6) vis-à-vis imperialism; Worman remains sensitive to the contradictions of Woolf's attempts to critique masculinist militarism while patronizing admiration of a perceived primitive purity and imperialist racism are in play. It is Worman's attendance to Woolf's status as a problematic foremother that surely allows her to detect the presence of Electra where previous scholarship has focused on Antigone, a more readily recovered feminist foremother. Electra is difficult. Yet she is a 'recalcitrant presence' (38), a feminine body that won't quit the stage (51). Although Worman regrets Electra's 'conventional' characterization in much of the literature, this moment in the book distils an essential quality of the difficult work of Worman's project and her confrontation with Woolf's 'compromised stance'.

Chapter 2, 'Electra and the Materialities of Tragic Language' is exemplary of the readings opened by Worman's anti-biographical perspective. Rather than searching for traces of the tragedies in the novels, Worman instead reads Jacob's Room, Mrs Dalloway and The Years as classical Athenian tragedy. Drilling beneath the surface layer of a 'tragic' plot, Worman uncovers the craft of Woolf's manipulations of the figurative and material elements of tragic form and style: the discursive inflections of female tragic characterization, epitomized by the 'sharpness and compression' of Electra (28); the imagery of characters' language and their sense of 'language itself as embodied and textured' (46)… 'as if it were material and geometric'; cadences that echo tragic lyric metres (61); the way the 'the most meaningfully embodied actions take place offstage'; the use of deixis, and proxemics. This is 'Virginia Woolf's Greek tragedy'.

Worman resists the subjectivist speculation that Woolf was drawn to the strong female characters of Greek tragedy, noting Woolf's disinterest in Euripides; instead, she pinpoints Woolf's aesthetic attraction to tragedy and to Sophocles in particular: a master of 'stylistic balance and restraint', whose Electra and Antigone 'seem to have had special resonance for their stark characterizations and lapidary choral modes' (9). Later, Worman suggests that Clytemnestra, Electra, and Antigone are also of interest to Woolf for their unruly bodies ('riveting inhabitations', 12), finding in Woolf a sympathetic reader resonant with her own scholarship on tragic embodiments. Despite Woolf's exoticizing gestures, Electra's harshness provides a feminist counter to propagandist or sentimentalizing wartime aesthetics in Jacob's Room (68), while the rich colorations and literal materials of Aeschylus' Clytemnestra (55) shade Mrs Dalloway's weighty 'stylistic, tonal and characterological elements' (50). Worman's identification of the presence of these female tragic characters re-casts two works conventionally labelled elegiac as books of rage (68).

Chapter 3, 'Female and "Natural" Choral Voices', tracks the gendered and structural development of Woolf's 'Greek' choruses. It is a critical commonplace to highlight the trope of the bird chorus in Woolf, but Worman links it specifically to the choruses of Sophocles' Electra and Oedipus at Colonus, and secondarily to Aeschylus' Agamemnon (81). Again, the metonymic and symbolic function of Electra to Woolf is foregrounded. The chapter moves from Jacob's Room and Mrs Dalloway, in which choral passages briefly punctuate the authorial narration and evince 'classicizing presumptions usually associated with men' (79); through the 'extraordinary choral orchestration' of The Waves; to the 'feminine and non-human voices' of Between the Acts, which pose 'a choral challenge' to the imperialist undertones of the male voices (80). The feminine chorus is not unambiguously positive, however, and Worman draws out how it is also gossipy, propagandist, even murderously inclined. I would have liked to see this analysis pursued a little further with reference to the power dynamics and characterization of ancient choruses, particularly as outsider figures who often express conventional attitudes, and how these factors may have nuanced the ways in which Woolf's choruses both reinforce and challenge imperialist discourse.

Over the course of the book, Worman tracks a tension between feminine tragedy and masculinist Platonic dialogue—and to a lesser extent, Homeric epic—that increasingly shapes Woolf's 'Greekness' and which emerges from an initial 'gendered face-off' (13) of style and form, to a dynamic integration. The book's epilogue explores how the polemic Three Guineas 'orchestrates a triangulated "Platonic" dialogue that is tragic in a deeper and more pervasive sense than [its] occasional references to Antigone would suggest' (14). In this reading, Three Guineas enacts at a structural level the entanglement of the feminine element within the masculine, and replicates in its aesthetic dynamic the tragedy of women's lives both complicit in and entrapped by patriarchy.

The book is engaging throughout and accessibly written for scholars and students of modernism and Woolf studies without training in Athenian drama: all Greek is translated, the introduction includes a synopsis of feminist approaches to Greek tragedy in ancient and modern settings, and each of the three major chapters begins with a brief overview of the elements of Greek tragedy relevant to the chapter's focus (Silenus, tragic lament, etc.). This reviewer was not wholly convinced by the book's claim to write against 'traditional historicizing' (3) accounts of Woolf's work, a claim qualified as relating to both the historical situatedness of Woolf's writing (the book argues instead that Woolf's Hellenism is inflected by a timeless 'mystical strain', 16), and to the monograph itself, which states an intention to challenge the tendency in existing criticism to track Woolf's Hellenism in 'developmental and periodizing historicist modes' (18). To my mind, any account of the discursive and ideological conflicts of empire and fascism as they play out in Woolf's Hellenism before and then through two World Wars is deeply historicized; and, while the book is careful to show how the idiosyncrasies of Woolf's 'Greekness' can oscillate messily between periods and styles, there is a general positive correlation that is reflected in the book's structure, which traces a line from 'A Dialogue upon Mount Pentelicus' [1906] (22-28) to Between the Acts [1941] (92-107) and Three Guineas [1938] (109-116). However, this claim to anti-historicism does not detract from Worman's achievement. Worman's contributions to Woolf studies, modernist studies, and reception studies are many, and I include only some of the many points of interest. Woolf's Hellenism is a major research area in Woolf studies, but Worman shows us that the field is far from exhausted; the book itself contains tantalizing glimpses of areas for future research, including p. 59's brief reference to the 'evidence of… [Aeschylus'] Helen' (!) on Woolf's style of her mid-period.

Worman's book is one of two inaugural volumes in Laura Jansen's new series, Classical Receptions in Twentieth-Century Writing (full disclosure: I have a book under contract in the same series). The series foregrounds the dynamic processes of reception which generate new insights into modern artists and ancient texts. This two-way perspective is reflected in each volume's attempt to probe the tension between the wish to break with tradition, and the persistent and fluid dialogue with the Greco-Roman past, a tension focalized here by Worman's attention to the ways in which Woolf creates an 'exoticized aesthetic space' at the same time as she 'negotiates classical ideals' and the 'British colonizing of Greek literature' (17). Worman presents us with a significant revision of the 'modalities and textures' of Woolf's 'Greek' and in turn, to offer one example, shows us how reading Woolf reading Aeschylus opens the dramatist to 'a much more ambivalent and imbricated vision of male-female roles and interactions than some feminists have thought' (11). But she also demands that her reader interrogate disciplinary classical ideals: 'I want to emphasize that [Woolf's] struggles with the British versions of triumphalist Hellenism remains familiar and dangerous territory for classicists. It is the rare student of Sophocles… who can resist the sense that something thrillingly, simply and essentially human underpins his dramas' (17). That this is a radical provocation is evidenced by Worman's frequent anticipation of a hostile reader (e.g., 'this may sound an unduly harsh assessment of Woolf's engagements with Greek literature', 17). Jane Marcus once asked Woolf scholars to consider whose interests are served in the creation of facile anti-imperialist readings of Woolf 2; Worman's book poses the same question to the classical scholar. ​


1.   Cliff, M. 1994. 'Virginia Woolf and the Imperial Gaze: A Glance Askance', in M. Hussey and V. Neverow (eds), Virginia Woolf: Emerging Perspectives (NY: Pace University Press), 91-102 (99).
2.   Marcus, J. 2004. Hearts of Darkness: White Women Write Race (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press), pp. 18-19.

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