“And the donkey brays”: Donkeys at Work in Virginia Woolf
“And the donkey brays”: Donkeys at Work in Virginia Woolf
Abstract and Keywords
While the donkey is a figure of toil, it is also a figure of fun. This essay will explore how the donkey bears both of these associations vividly in Virginia Woolf’s writing. It is in their labor that donkeys most often inhabit Woolf’s imagination through hundreds of mentions in her writing in all genres. Woolf associates their work with the work of the writer. Although Woolf generally uses “donkey work” as a somewhat dismissive term, this essay examines the “donkey work” that the ubiquitous donkey does in Woolf’s writing. Throughout Woolf’s work, donkeys function as figures of humor, ordinariness, or suffering and their often peripheral placement is itself significant. Woolf’s donkeys are never central; rather, they are pervasively marginal. This paper focuses primarily on Woolf’s donkeys as they appear in several of her essays and in Between the Acts (1941).
In summer 2012, when Pamela Caughie and I were proofreading transcriptions of the essays to be included in Woolf Online, I noticed something peculiar. “What is it with Virginia Woolf and donkeys?” I asked. In seemingly every essay we encountered, there was a donkey. And once we started noticing them, they were everywhere. My inbox was soon brimful of emails from Pamela reporting new donkey sightings. Woolf may not have written a novel without one, to say nothing of the hundreds of references scattered throughout her letters, diaries, and essays. The question, once we were confronted with this wealth of examples, became what to do with them. So what is it with Virginia Woolf and donkeys?
In A Room of One’s Own (1929), Woolf’s narrator describes how receiving an income of five hundred pounds a year from her aunt relieved her of the burden of making her “living by cadging odd jobs from newspapers, by reporting a donkey show here or a wedding there” (37). Oddly, Woolf never quite seems to have left the donkey show behind. With the recent emergence of animal studies, scholars have examined her literary treatments of companion species such as dogs and horses, as well as reptiles, amphibians, and insects. No one, however, has yet given sustained attention to donkeys.
Like dogs and horses, donkeys are companion animals but with a different connotation for human observers. We map a certain dignity and grace onto horses, while donkeys serve a traditionally comic function in literature. While the donkey is a figure of toil—particularly for Woolf—it is also a figure of fun. It bears both of these associations vividly in Between the Acts (1941), as I will explore in this paper. Like horses, donkeys faced increasing obsolescence as working animals in the modernist period, given the spread of automobiles and other motorized vehicles. Yet it is in their labor that they most often inhabit Woolf’s imagination through hundreds of mentions in her writing in all genres. Woolf associates their work with the work of the writer—but generally the less significant, more difficult work, the work less facilitated by ease and inspiration.
Jane Marcus writes in her essay “No More Horses: Virginia Woolf on Art and Propaganda” that Woolf distinguishes between art and propaganda by distinguishing between the “donkey work” of pamphleteers and the “thoroughbred” work of the artist. While Caughie has critiqued Marcus’s essay for accepting this distinction as stable and noncontradictory (115–16), Marcus’s characterization of Woolf’s longstanding distinction between “donkey-work” and “galloping” is useful for clarifying the function of Woolf’s donkeys: Marcus regards this distinction as the successor to Woolf’s earlier distinction between “‘stonebreaking’ and ‘flying’; writing was to her always divided into two categories, one of hard work and one of speed and release” (154). The opposition between “galloping” and “donkey work” also suggests an opposition between leisure and labor, writing that is pleasurable and writing that is financially necessary for the writer. Although Woolf generally uses “donkey work” as a somewhat dismissive term, I would like to examine (p.137) “donkey work” of a different kind here—the work that the ubiquitous donkey does in Woolf’s writing.
Throughout Woolf’s work, donkeys function as figures of humor, ordinariness, or suffering and their often peripheral placement is itself significant. We have no counterpart to Flush (1933) in which the donkey’s consciousness takes on narrative centrality, but that is precisely the point. The nature of donkey-work, in both of the senses in which I am using it, almost precludes the donkey from being the center of attention. What we have instead is a wealth of passing references. Orlando leaves Constantinople on a donkey and “could not endure to see a donkey beaten or a kitten drowned” (O 140, 189). In The Voyage Out (1915), a seasick Rachel “had just enough consciousness to suppose herself a donkey on the summit of a moor in a hailstorm, with its coat blown into furrows” (71). Woolf’s donkeys are never central; rather, they are pervasively marginal. In the interest of space, I will focus my attention in the remainder of this paper on Woolf’s donkeys as they appear in several of her essays and Between the Acts.
My initial donkey sightings with Pamela were in the essays Woolf was writing concurrent with the composition of To the Lighthouse (1927). Woolf opens the 1926 version of “How Should One Read a Book?” with the observation that many houses contain a space explicitly dedicated to books, then encourages readers to picture themselves in such a space and to envision it as “a sunny room, with windows opening on a garden, so that we can hear the trees rustling, the gardener talking, the donkey braying, the old women gossiping at the pump—and all the ordinary processes of life pursuing the casual irregular way which they have pursued these many hundreds of years. As casually, as persistently, books have been coming together on the shelves” (32). The donkey here is part of “the ordinary processes of life,” “casual and irregular,” forming part of the background noise to the act of reading. As in Woolf’s references to “donkey work,” the donkey is distinct, separate, and exterior to literary art but never too remote from it. Indeed, Woolf’s analogy draws a parallel between the braying donkey’s everyday existence, presumably one of farm labor, and the gradual accumulation of literary tradition. Woolf develops the donkey’s role in this tradition in greater detail in Between the Acts.
In the introduction to Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women by Julia Margaret Cameron, Woolf again portrays the donkey’s labor as supporting literary endeavors, this time the famous prolixity of the Victorians. Here the donkey is more visible as working than as distracting the reader in the way it does in “How Should One Read a Book?” Both roles are central to the donkey’s function, however. Describing Cameron’s epistolary excess, Woolf writes, “Volume after volume was despatched through the penny post. She wrote letters till the postman left, and then she began her postscripts. She sent the gardener after the postman, the gardener’s boy after the gardener, the donkey galloping all the way to Yarmouth after the gardener’s boy” (Introduction). Although donkey work is once again exterior to the creative element of writing, it is essential—humorously so—to the successful transmission of that writing. To be read, Cameron’s postscripts must reach the postman, which depends on the speed of the donkey. Reinforcing this association, Julia Margaret Cameron recurs in Woolf’s play Freshwater, which Woolf described in her diary as “a donkeys work,” even going so far as to rent a donkey head to wear when she took her curtain call (AWD 229).
(p.138) Woolf provides the fullest picture of the relationship between the donkey and the literary tradition in Between the Acts. The novel features three donkeys, all artificial in some way and all embedded in literary productions. The first is the subject of a fable that Bartholomew recalls and has a typically didactic aspect. The second, comprised of two people in a costume, appears in the pageant. The third is wholly a product of Isa’s poetic imagination.
As the characters wait for the pageant to begin and sit wondering about the content of Miss La Trobe’s play, Mrs. Swithin remarks that “there’s the whole of English literature to choose from.” Reflecting on the enormity of this choice, she describes the way she spends rainy days enumerating what she has and hasn’t read, with books scattered on the floor around her. Bartholomew then likens her to “the pig in the story; or was it a donkey?” Isa clarifies the comparison: “The donkey who couldn’t choose between hay and turnips and so starved” (BTA 59). Placed in the context of this comparison, the donkey embodies the anxiety that characterizes the modernist relationship to the enormity of the literary canon. It finds itself paralyzed with indecision when confronted with the task of selection.
Mrs. Swithin’s predicament—and the donkey’s—bear an uncanny resemblance to the one that Woolf frames at the beginning in “How Should One Read a Book?”: “Now, one may well ask oneself … how am I to read these books? What is the right way to set about it? They are so many and so various. My appetite is so fitful and so capricious. What am I to do to get the utmost possible pleasure out of them? And is it pleasure, or profit, or what is it that I should seek?” (32). If we substituted hay and turnips for books, this set of questions might just as well belong to the donkey. Re-imagining reading as eating allows the human reader to enter, in a limited way, into the donkey’s world, where the choice of the most desirable kind of food holds more sway than the choice of a mode of reading.
The image of the donkey starving in spite of the abundance around it is not the only image of a donkey in distress that Isa has at her disposal, however. She feels the same sort of historical and literary belatedness as Mrs. Swithin, returning to the same metaphor of excess as she walks alone before the Victorian playlet begins, finally coming to the pear tree in the stable yard, which “was weighted with hard green pears. Fingering one of them she murmured: ‘How am I burdened with what they drew from the earth; memories; possessions. This is the burden that the past laid on me, last little donkey in the long caravanserai crossing the desert. “Kneel down,” said the past. “Fill your pannier from our tree. Rise up, donkey. Go your way till your heels blister and your hoofs crack”’” (BTA 155). The donkey that Isa recalled from the story was fatally unable to act when confronted with an excess of food. Here, a similar excess becomes a burden for the donkey. It carries the unripe, inedible fruits of the literary past with no indication that it will have the opportunity to enjoy them. In the same way, Isa recites poetry to herself as a sort of solace, but it goes largely unheard, and her loneliness and discontentment remain. Isa’s image also calls attention to what Woolf obscures in her myriad references to “donkey work:” the physical difficulty, even the acute pain, that the donkey’s prescribed work causes it. The implication of donkey work, for the donkey, is suffering. Isa makes us aware of the downside of this labor and of the possibility of failure: there is no end in sight and at some point, the donkey simply may not be able to go on—a possibility that serves as a sobering reminder of the novel’s historical moment.
(p.139) But Isa still sees value in persistence. As the audience returns to their seats on the terrace, “She encourage[s] herself. ‘On, little donkey, patiently stumble. Hear not the frantic cries of the leaders who in that they seek to lead desert us. Nor the chatter of china faces glazed and hard. Hear rather the shepherd, coughing by the farmyard wall; the withered tree that sighs when the Rider gallops; the brawl in the barrack room when they stripped her naked; or the cry which in London when I thrust the window open someone cries … ’” (BTA 156). Isa separates the donkey from the dominant political discourse of the day, directing its attention instead to scenes of everyday reality, as well as this reality’s attendant violence. The work of the donkey is the difficult work of engaging with fact.
The donkey’s persistence in its task depends on its indifference to the rhetoric of authority, and part of its work in Between the Acts consists in subverting that authority. The third donkey in the novel appears in Miss La Trobe’s pageant. By its placement there, it participates again in questions of the efficacy and the purpose of literary tradition. The pageant, of course, is acted with the war close at hand—in the newspapers, in the conversations of the audience, and in the twelve airplanes overhead that drown out Mr. Streatfield’s attempt to sum up and make sense of the pageant. The pageant donkey, comprised of Albert “the village idiot” and another unnamed actor, suggests how the donkey as a hardworking minor participant in official literary productions can destabilize or disrupt them. Interrupting Mr. Hardcastle’s prayer during the Victorian playlet, “the hindquarters of the donkey, represented by Albert the idiot, became active. Intentional was it, or accidental? ‘Look at the donkey! Look at the donkey!’ A titter drowned Mr. Hardcastle’s prayer,” and at the end of the scene, “[t]he donkey was captured; hampers were loaded; and forming into a procession, the picnickers began to disappear over the hill” (BTA 171). Woolf leaves unresolved the question of whether this moment of levity is intentional or accidental, although the necessity of capturing the donkey suggests some improvisation on Albert’s part. In what Christopher Ames calls Woolf’s “most explicitly carnivalesque novel” (394), we see a mingling of high and low, of serious and comic discourses, and a subversion of authoritative tradition. The donkey’s posterior, played by Albert, upstages the scripted reverence for the sacred meant to receive a privileged place in Mr. Hardcastle’s prayer.
The other half of the donkey also disorders familiar hierarchies at the end of the play in the midst of a more general jumbling of literary history: “The actors were reluctant to go. They lingered; they mingled. There was Budge the policeman talking to old Queen Bess. And the Age of Reason hobnobbed with the foreparts of the donkey. […] Each still acted the unacted part conferred on them by their clothes. Beauty was on them. Beauty revealed them” (BTA 195–196). For Woolf, beauty resides in this scene of carnivalesque instability, and like the idiot—as William Dodge says—the donkey is “in the tradition” (111). Its humble labor and its potential to shock, off end, or disrupt are integral to literature, as Woolf suggests in the revised version of “How Should One Read a Book?” that appears in the Second Common Reader. She emphasizes the merits of “rubbish-reading” as well as familiarity with canonical literature, likening this sort of reading to taking a refreshing look out of the library window:
How stimulating the scene is, in its unconsciousness, its irrelevance, its perpetual movement—the colts galloping round the field, the woman filling her pail at the well, the donkey throwing back his head and emitting his long, acrid moan. The (p.140) greater part of any library is nothing but the record of such fleeting moments in the lives of men, women, and donkeys. Every literature, as it grows old, has its rubbish-heap, its record of vanished moments and forgotten lives told in faltering and feeble accents that have perished. But if you give yourself up to the delight of rubbish-reading you will be surprised, indeed you will be overcome, by the relics of human life that have been cast out to moulder.
As Woolf develops this idea, she tellingly discards the “fleeting moments in the lives of donkeys” in favor of “the relics of human life that have been cast out to moulder,” as she also shifts from “looking out” to a different kind of reading. Even amidst ephemeral and noncanonical material, the donkey is peripheral. This difference also gives us occasion to remember that the donkey is first and foremost a donkey, not a convenient metaphor.
Jamie Johnson has described how Woolf decenters human subjectivity through the nonhuman animal in Flush by drawing attention to the animal perspective in human-animal relationships and to the perspective of the nonhuman animal in itself (34). Is it possible to read Woolf’s donkeys against anthropomorphism, or at least as exposing the tendency to anthropomorphism? Doing so is difficult, and I have certainly failed at points in this paper. The donkey, as donkey, has no interest in literature. Its perception of “donkey work” is of the weight of whatever burden is laid upon its back or the speed at which its rider makes it run to catch the gardener’s boy. Most of the roles in which Woolf places donkeys, in fact, are those of subservience to human demands, and it is rare for her to bring into focus how the donkey as donkey experiences those roles. Woolf’s metaphor of “donkey work” does serve to remind us of writing as working for someone or something—whether willingly or grudgingly—persisting in the hard work of writing out of necessity. The donkey has its place in the literary tradition, but it can also make us aware of the power relations that have made that tradition possible.
Ames, Christopher. “Carnivalesque Comedy in Between the Acts.” Twentieth Century Literature 44.4 (1998): 394–408. JSTOR. Web. 4 June 2014.
Caughie, Pamela L. Virginia Woolf and Postmodernism: Literature in Quest & Question of Itself. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1991.
Johnson, Jamie. “Virginia Woolf’s Flush: Decentering Human Subjectivity through the Nonhuman Animal Character.” Virginia Woolf Miscellany 84 (2013): 34–36. Web. 8 May 2014.
Marcus, Jane. “No More Horses: Virginia Woolf on Art and Propaganda.” Critical Essays on Virginia Woolf. Ed. Morris Beja. Boston: G.K. Hall, 1985. 152–71.
Woolf, Virginia. Between the Acts. San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1941.
——. “How Should One Read a Book?” The Second Common Reader. 1932. New York: Harcourt, Brace Jovanovich, 1960. 234–45.
——. “How Should One Read a Book?” 1926. Yale Review 16: 32–44. Woolf Online. Web. 18 Aug. 2014.
——. Introduction. Victorian Photographs of Famous Men and Fair Women by Julia Margaret Cameron. Hogarth, 1926. Woolf Online. Web. 15 Aug. 2014.
——. Orlando: A Biography. 1928. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1956.
——. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. 1957.
——. The Voyage Out. 1915. New York: George H. Doran, 1920.
——. A Writer’s Diary: Being Extracts from the Diary of Virginia Woolf. Ed. Leonard Woolf. New York: Harcourt, 1954, 1982.