In her 1924 Modernist essay ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,’ Virginia Woolf criticizes the work of writers such as H.G. Wells and Arnold Bennett, whom she sees as ‘materialists.’
Today, three years shy of a century after the publication of Woolf’s manifesto for modernist fiction, her ideas still ring true.
The move into the 20th century was characterized by a shift in the way we, as people, but most importantly writers, see the world. The human mind was suddenly at the center of modernist fiction, and its complexity at the crux of every novel.
“Mrs. Brown is eternal, Mrs. Brown is human nature, Mrs. Brown changes only on the surface, it is the novelists who get in and out.”
In this brilliant piece of criticism on the progressive, subtle metamorphosis of human nature through fiction, Woolf compares the work and ideas of two different schools of Literature: the Edwardians and the Georgians. According to her, the Edwardians’ work no longer serves the purposes of the century, for novels should be about character, not politics and social milieus. And herein lies the essence of the conflict that propelled the fiction novel into the 20th century: Ideas as opposed to Character.
In order to prove her point, Woolf uses Mrs. Brown as a metaphor for narrative. Mrs. Brown, the eternal character, the definition of human nature. Because Woolf believed that everything dwells inside the book, not outside of it, and that is how I think fiction should be approached.
As readers, we pick up hundreds of books throughout our lives, but the ones that will stay with us, are the ones we are able to see ourselves in. Let me prove that to you.
Think of your favorite (preferably contemporary) book, or the last book you read and loved. What do you like about it? What made you pick it up in the first place? What made you keep reading it? Now that you’ve read it, why do you think it’s your favorite book? Nine out of ten times, the answer will be: the characters. Because a novel does not make characters; characters make the novel. Of course, I am not disregarding the multitude of other elements that make up a good book; plot, narrative, and themes are all crucial to the making of a compelling story. Nevertheless, if the reader is unable to connect with the characters, they will quickly lose interest in the story.
“In the course of your daily life this past week … you have overheard scraps of talk that filled you with amazement. You have overheard gone to bed at night bewildered by the complexity of your feelings. In one day thousands of ideas have coursed through your brains; thousands of emotions have met, collided, and disappeared in astonishing disorder.”
Writers are often asked the question: where do you get your inspiration from? Well, as corny and as overused as it sounds, the answer is everywhere. Because the way the human mind works is a truly mesmerizing process. Maybe you saw someone on the bus and decided to make up a story about them. Maybe you heard someone’s laugh and wanted to write about the reason behind that laugh. Because that’s what writing is, it is a complex mix of words and emotions and ideas and characters that somehow, if and when brought together in a certain way, result in a story. A beautifully honest, and memorable story.
We write to be remembered. We write because we want to leave something behind us when we’re gone, not necessarily something that will change the world or alter the course of humanity, but something that will make someone feel heard, seen, and hopefully, less alone.
And now, I would like to leave you with one of my favorite quotes from ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,‘ one that will perhaps inspire you just like it continuously inspires me:
“Your part is to insist that writers shall come down off their plinths and pedestals, and describe beautifully if possible, truthfully at any rate, our Mrs. Brown. You should insist that she is an old lady of unlimited capacity and infinite variety … for she is, of course, the spirit we live by, life itself. But do not expect just at present a complete and satisfactory presentment of her. Tolerate the spasmodic, the obscure, the fragmentary, the failure. Your help is invoked in a good cause. For I will make one final and surpassingly rash prediction – we are trembling on the verge of one of the great ages of English Literature. But it can only be reached if we are determined never, never to desert Mrs. Brown.”
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