Women, Windows, Mirrors, Diaries

Bank Holiday Monday, and I had the first opportunity in some time to have a good long look in the mirror.  And what did I see?  What does the writer ever see – the disconnect between mind and body, between that other in the reflection and the me whose words long to scream out across the paper. So I sit down to write.

The figure of a woman standing in front of a mirror is a recurrent one in Virginia Woolf’s fiction, and critic Emily Dalgarno has argued that such images are related to a childhood trauma that Woolf recounted in her 1939 memoir “A Sketch of the Past.” In “Sketch,” Woolf recalls the “small looking-glass in the hall at Talland House” and the “looking glass-shame” she continued to feel, and links this shame to being molested as a “very small” child by her much older step-brother in front of that hallway mirror.2  Dalgarno argues that that this event constitutes the primal source for Woolf’s fiction in which:

“the moment of becoming a female subject often occurs before the looking-glass.  Although many of her characters use the mirror to check their social identity, others glimpse the split between visual subject and object that brings subjectivity into play.  … the mirror scene in Woolf’s ‘A Sketch of the Past’ figures the process by means of which her fiction challenges and accommodates the ideology of patriarchy” . 

Dalgarno concludes that for Woolf, such mirror images reflect “not a face, but a structure in which the face is visualised in the context of its resemblance to its lineage” , and thus confront the split between subject and subjectivity – the felt divide between one’s public and the private self that is the central dilemma in virtually all Western women’s writing. 

For many women writers, diaries worked like mirrors, reflecting this split between self as subject and self as object – but they were also windows – framing and offering escape from, the split-voiced selves of the writers that composed them.  Moreover, in the major fictions of writers like Virginia Woolf, Katherine Mansfield, and Louisa May Alcott, we encounter not only mirrors but also numerous images of windows, open and closed.  If Woolf’s mirrors symbolise her characters’ resemblance to, and divergence from social and familial expectations, and Mansfield and Alcott were likewise concerned with the divide between their public and private selves, between family duty and artistic desire.   These concerns, I would argue, were first reflected on in their diaries and then reimagined, or reframed, into new forms in their fiction: into symbols of mirrors confronted and avoided, windows open and closed.   While the stories that Woolf, Mansfield and Alcott published are very different, their shared need to construct a written borderland between self-reflection and public revelation is striking. Their diaries functioned as transformative locations in which personal concerns became textual artefacts. As Woolf, Mansfield and Alcott turned from journal to storytelling and back again, their diaries enabled them to define their writerly efforts against the past, and transform the split they felt between their public and private selves into figurative discourse.

Towards the end of her life, there is a perceptible difference in Woolf’s tone in the journal, as its focus turns decidedly inward. In one of her final entries she considers this change:

I intend no introspection.  I mark Henry James’s sentence: observe perpetually. Observe the oncome of age. Observe greed. Observe my own despondency.  By that means it becomes serviceable.  Or so I hope. […] I will go down with my colours flying.  This I see verges on introspection; but doesn’t quite fall in (DVW 5:357).

By such observance of both her public and private selves, and her negotiations of the division she felt between them, Woolf’s diary offers more than biographical fact or insights into the sources of her fiction: it was a mirror in which she could reflect upon her ancestry and her private desires, a frame in which she could contextualise her duties as a Victorian daughter and a public figure, and an open window that allowed her to transform these struggles into a symbolic language of subjectivity. For this reason her diaries stand alongside her novels as her flying colours, her statues against the sky.

3 responses to this post.

  1. ” … this shame to being molested as a “very small” child by her much older step-brother … Dalgarno argues that this event constitutes the primal source for Woolf’s fiction …”
    To me Dalgarno’s statement, as quoted above, seems like an extreme analytical oversimplification. I really don’t believe in the idea of a trauma being the source of a persons creative life. A trauma (sexual, emotional, physical …) can certainly influence a persons life, but we are also, all of us, a lot more than our own bad & awful experiences. It is, in my opinion, very wrong to reduce a writer to a victim of her own childhood.


  2. I completely agree – for surely there are many many sufferers of childhood sexual abuse and only one Virginia Woolf – but what Dalgarno is suggesting I think is that this terrible childhood experience imbued this particular image -that of a mirror – with all kinds of resonances, ideas and memories and that we can see the various permutations of those things when Woolf uses mirror images in her writing. It may be that taken out of context, this sounds like a reduction, and if so I apologise on behalf of Dalgarno, who is careful in her essay to explore lots of possibilities and keep her ideas open. As a writer myself, I also am very dismissive of reductive readings that pin everything about a writer on a single cause. What is interesting to me, however, and the focus of my recent research, is the way in which many writers repeatedly explore images (like Woolf’s mirror) in their fiction that are related to specific moments in their past, and the way in which they re-claim them and re-write them – perhaps in order to reclaim that past, and as a way out of the story of victimhood – and into instead a story of imaginative power. Thank you for your thoughtful comment.


    • Ouch – I did seem rather strict in my first response, didn’t i?!

      So first of all: thank you for a kind & thorough answer!

      As a critic I find it extremely important to keep my mind open, to listen to the text – without letting what I know about the author determine my understanding and interpretation of what I read. But this position do of course not rule out a researcher’s comprehensive analysis of images & symbols in a text, an authorship, a epoch etc.

      In my reading of Woolf I am very interested in how she came to have her own voice. As I understand it, this voice was dependent on a sense of freedom – from her own history and from being a woman. (She discuss this in an interesting way in her first novel: “Each of the ladies, being after the fashion of their sex, highly trained in promoting men’s talk without listening to it”) Woolf was also herself trained to letting men speak, but she opposed to it, and this opposition was very important for her own writing. But just as trauma (and of course you know this – I just have to spell it out) female rebellion was only one among several sources to her creativity.

      ps: “Imaginative power”; its a concept with double meaning, isn’t it?


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