An Ethics of Wartime Protest
An Ethics of Wartime Protest
Voicing Servant Characters in To the Lighthouse and The Years
Reacting to the Armistice of November 11, 1918 in her diary, Virginia Woolf reported seeing a “fat slovenly woman” on the train from Richmond to London and commented that “she & her like possessed London, & alone celebrated peace in their sordid way...” (D 1:216). Of Peace Day, July 19, 1919, designated as the official celebration of the peace, she later remarked how the “poor deluded servants” had taken the bus to see the decorations left over from the celebratory parade. She stated, “I was right: it is a servants [sic.] peace” (D 1:294). In spite, however, of these patronizing and slightly derogatory comments about servants’ crowd mentality, Woolf initially chose to present both the Great War and the Armistice through individual servants’ eyes in the Time Passes interval in To the Lighthouse and in the 1914 and 1918 chapters of The Years. The lurching Mrs. McNab in To the Lighthouse and the hobbling Crosby in The Years are not among the sordid celebrators Woolf criticizes in her diary. Instead, their painful efforts to persevere regardless of war or peace reflect Woolf’s criticism of a jingoistic and patriarchal patriotism that panders to the lower classes. Adapting Gérard Genette’s and Mieke Bal’s narrative structures of focalization, this essay considers Woolf’s ethical struggle as a novelist to articulate private and voiceless alternative perspectives through the servant characters. McNees traces Woolf’s successive revisions of both novels from holograph to published edition in which she substantially reduces the servants’ roles to render them less effectual as alternative reflectors of war and peace. Against critical analyses that consider Woolf’s revisions as mainly aesthetic, the essay argues for an ethics of revision in which Woolf critiques her own methods of manipulating the servants’ views of war and peace to produce an authentic alternative to the paternalistic public version. Examining the revision process of both Time Passes and the first “expurgated chunk” of The Years, McNees suggests that Woolf’s efforts at focalization through Mrs. McNab and Crosby ultimately fail because, as Woolf herself states in “The Niece of an Earl” (1928),, “...it is impossible, it would seem, for working men to write in their own language about their own lives” (E 5:132). Nevertheless, Woolf’s attempt to cross this divide to register a perspective otherwise silenced and obscured deserves the qualified praise she rendered Meredith.
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