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‘Roses blooming under glass; lips cut with a knife’: Hermeneutics of the Modern Female Face in Woolf and Mansfield

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  07 May 2021

Gerri Kimber
Affiliation:
University of Northampton
Todd Martin
Affiliation:
University of Huntington, Indiana
Christine Froula
Affiliation:
Northwestern University, Illinois
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Summary

In ‘The Art of Biography’ (1939), Virginia Woolf defines her historical moment as ‘an age when a thousand cameras are pointed, by newspapers, letters, and diaries, at every character from every angle’. Declaring that the modern life-writer ‘must be prepared to admit contradictory versions of the same face’, Woolf configures the face as a site that spurs ‘contradictory’ interpretations of ‘character’. In an essay about the bounds of biography – and in a paragraph that ends with the injunction, ‘We must revise our standards of merit and set up new heroes for our admiration’ – the writer summons a hypothetical face to present a shared project of cultural revision. Her portrayal of the face as an inconsistent locus of cultural examination exemplifies an enduring interest that flickers through her fictional and critical oeuvres – in addition to those of her contemporaries. Rochelle Rives, engaging Mina Loy, Henri Gaudier-Brzeska, Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot, has persuasively demonstrated that the notion of ‘prepar[ing] a face to meet the faces that you meet’ was a modernist preoccupation. I analyse this concern in Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, whose fiction displays an overt fascination with the modern female visage.

Grounding my study in analyses of female faces in Woolf's Mrs Dalloway (1925) and Mansfield's ‘Bliss’ (1918), ‘Pictures’ (1920) and ‘The Garden Party’ (1922), I investigate these writers’ ascriptions of conspicuous facial features and expressions. If, as Rives demonstrates in her article, many writers and artists of the early twentieth century dispelled facile assumptions about a mimetic relationship between face and character, why do two modernist women writers highlight the female face in their fiction? My essay approaches the lexical visages they produce by situating their work within a cultural-historical framework that constellates nineteenth-century physiognomy, a growing female presence in the public sphere, and the rise of modern visual technologies that facilitated the production of films and mass-market advertising.

In her landmark study, Angela Smith asserts that the two writers share an ‘unlikely affinity’ and ‘mirror each other constantly’. While Mansfield and Woolf both convey a salient interest in the inscrutable female visage that resists being read as an interpretable text, this shared preoccupation is not ‘mirror[ed]’ symmetrically.

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Publisher: Edinburgh University Press
Print publication year: 2018

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