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Cut out characters and cracky plots: Jacob’s Room as Shakespeare Play

Cut out characters and cracky plots: Jacob’s Room as Shakespeare play

In April 1919, Virginia Woolf (née Stephen) published “Modern Novels” in the TLS, the first of her series of essays taking issue with Arnold Bennett, John Galsworthy, and H. G. Wells, whom she termed “materialists.” In Woolf’s view, these contemporary novelists, Bennett in particular, described villas and carriages when they should describe the “myriad impressions” a mind receives daily; they gave the spaces in which life happens when they should give life itself, by way of psychology. It is therefore striking that Woolf’s first experimental novel, Jacob’s Room, published in 1922, should so determinedly avoid the inner life. In light of Woolf’s quarrel with the materialists, the book’s title reads almost as a joke, a reductio ad absurdum of Bennett’s error, implying I won’t even pretend to give you a character; here is yet another dwelling. The form of the novel exists to create character, Woolf asserts in many essays throughout her life. And she is well-known for revealing characters by “tunneling” (her word) into their thoughts. But this innovation did not come until her next book, Mrs. Dalloway (1925). Jacob’s Room is its inversion, its shadow, an exploration of what the novel can be when centred on someone unknowable.

The novel traces the life of Jacob Flanders from age six, when he captures a crab on a Cornish beach, to 26, when he is absent from his room in the midst of World War I. But “trace” is not the right word; it is more like a “connect-the-dots” pattern that invites the tracing line. Each dot is a scene from the life of Jacob or those around him. These vignettes are laid next to each other like paint swatches or slabs of different rocks. (It is a book whose structure provokes simile.) Nothing is told directly, and we are never in Jacob’s mind. We get Jacob’s words only when he shares them with someone else—in conversation, in correspondence—and they are fragments: a curse, a brief quotation, the start of a joke, the end of an argument. We see Jacob through the eyes of others: his mother, the man and the several women who are in love with him, and the mercurial narrator—female, ten years older (so she tells us on p. 98), by turns a distant observer and a stalker, veering between diffidence and confidence in her self-appointed task. Others’ love for Jacob, not Jacob himself, warms us to him.The narrator’s quest is our own; with this tender, sardonic, voyeuristic woman we keep pursuing Jacob, as though we expect a revelation. The narrator describes the feeling: “something is always impelling one to hum vibrating, like the hawk moth, at the mouth of the cavern of mystery, endowing Jacob Flanders with all sorts of qualities he had not at all [ . . . ] what remains is mostly a matter of guess work. Yet over him we hang vibrating” (74). At the novel’s end, as Jacob’s mother and his friend Bonamy stand in his room, guess work is indeed what remains. Bonamy wonders, “What did he expect? Did he think he would come back?” And Jacob’s mother, holding out her son’s shoes, asks, “What am I to do with these, Mr. Bonamy?” (186-7). Jacob escapes them, and us, but he does not escape the fate his surname had foretold.

The motives for mystery

Why, within the world of the novel, is Jacob unknowable? Partly because he is a type: the young man with a confident grasp of English and Classical literature, ready to assume his place among the English institutions for which he has been prepared by his Cambridge education. Were he allowed to grow old, his individuality would grow more pronounced. The fact that he is a type allows him to stand for many besides himself. That we can never know him better indicts the system that sent hundreds of thousands of young men to their deaths. Further, the stymied effort to know Jacob casts doubt on all that seemed, before the war, known or knowable. Jacob is also impenetrable because, to some extent, everyone is, even the old. And he is a cipher, finally, because a person does not exist in isolation; others compose us, as the narrator suggests (“part of this is not Jacob but Richard Bonamy,” 73). 

But there is another reason, a reason outside of the novel, that Jacob is unknowable. He is the hero of a Shakespeare play.

On 5 November 1901, Virginia Stephen writes a letter to her older brother Thoby, studying at Cambridge, about her new reverence for Shakespeare. I transcribe her writing exactly, here and later.

I have been reading Marlow, and I was so much more impressed by him than I thought I should be, that I read Cymbeline just to see if there mightnt be more in the great William than I supposed. And I was quite upset! Really and truly I am now let in to [the] company of worshippers—though I still feel a little oppresed by his—greatness I suppose. I shall want a lecture when I see you; to clear up some points about the Plays. I mean about the characters. Why aren’t they more human? Imogen and Posthumous and Cymbeline—I find them beyond me—Is this my feminine weakness in the upper region? But really they might have been cut out with a pair of scissors—as far as mere humanity goes—Of course they talk divinely. I have spotted the best lines in the play—almost in any play I should think—

Imogen says—Think that you are upon a rock, and now throw me again! and Posthumous answers—Hang there like fruit, my Soul, till the tree die [Cymbeline V.v.262-5]. Now if that doesn’t send a shiver down your spine, even if you are in the middle of cold grouse and coffee—you are no true Shakespearian!  [ . . . . ] Of course Shakespeares smaller characters are human; what I say is that superhuman ones are superhuman. Just explain this to me—and also why his plots are just cracky things [ . . . .] (L1, 45-46)

Portrait of Thoby Stephen by the British photographer George Charles Beresford (1864-1938). 1902-1906.
(Courtesy of the collection of the National Portrait Gallery, London. Crown Copyright expired. Via Wikimedia Commons.)

In Jacob’s Room, Woolf gives some of this language to an English painter whom Jacob befriends in Paris, Cruttendon. “I’ll tell you the three greatest things that were ever writen in the whole of literature,” Cruttendon says, and offers the first: “‘Hang there like fruit my soul’”. Jacob replies, “I’m with you there,” and declaims the line dramatically. He then says the line at the same time as Cruttendon, which sets them laughing (132). In Cymbeline, the exchange Virginia Stephen quotes marks the lovers’ reunion: Posthumus had thought Imogen dead, but here she revives from what was only a temporary sleep. When Imogen says “Throw me again,” her stage direction reads, “[Embracing him.]” 

Thoby Stephen’s other world 

As is well known, Woolf’s private model for Jacob was Thoby (born Julian Thoby), who died at 26 from typhoid contracted on a trip they took to Greece in the fall of 1906. Like Jacob, Thoby played on the beach of St. Ives as a child, attended Cambridge, and was given to bold declarations. Like Jacob, Thoby had close male friends, romantic entanglements with women, a lanky and handsome figure, and a certain reserve and gloominess. Jacob’s literary taste is Thoby’s: both admire Homer, Virgil, Lucretius, Aristophanes, Marlowe, Donne, Fielding, Shelley, Tennyson—and Shakespeare above all. 

Title page of In Memoriam, by Alfred Lord Tennyson (London: Macmillan, 1894). Signed “J. T. Stephen.”
(Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Washington State University, Holland-Terrell Libraries, Manuscripts and Special Collections, PR5562.A1 1894.)
Half-title page of The Works of Alfred Lord Tennyson, Poet Laureate (London: Macmillan, 1894). Inscribed “Julian Thoby Stephen / from his father. / 8 Sep. 1895.”
(Library of Leonard and Virginia Woolf, Washington State University, Holland-Terrell Libraries, Manuscripts and Special Collections, PR5550.E94.)

Jacob plans to read a Shakespeare play while sailing to the Scilly Isles, but his ambition is thwarted: he takes a brief swim, and, on his return to ship, accidentally knocks Shakespeare overboard (46-47). The reader and his book are twinned—both plunge into the sea—and the loss of one prefigures the loss of the other. For Woolf, Thoby and Shakespeare were likewise twinned. Late in her life she wrote of her brother, “Shakespeare was to him his other world; the place where he got the measure of the daily world” (“A Sketch of the Past,” 138-9). After her brother’s death, Woolf looked to Shakespeare as if to Thoby, as when she conjured up Judith Shakespeare, William’s younger sister with a “genius . . . for fiction,” in A Room of One’s Own (1929). Voicing her youthful judgment of Shakespeare through Cruttendon, Woolf revives not only Imogen, but also Thoby. She continues her conversation with her lost brother; she is again “embracing him.” And he says, “I’m with you there.”

I wrote in my book Virginia Woolf and Poetry of Virginia Stephen’s letter to Thoby that inspired the exchange with Cruttendon, and I’ve written elsewhere about Woolf’s growing identification with Shakespeare in the late 1920s. I would now add that the whole of Jacob’s Room might be seen as a Shakespeare play; the novel matches Virginia Stephen’s bardolatrous criticism almost point by point. Jacob’s Room shows, along with the 1917 short story “The Mark on the Wall” and the 1920 public letter “The Intellectual Status of Women,” that Woolf already takes Shakespeare as a model. 

“Why aren’t they more human?” Virginia Stephen asks her brother of Shakespeare’s characters. “Why isn’t he more human?” readers of Jacob’s Room have wondered. Jacob is a peripatetic silhouette, as though “cut out with a pair of scissors.” He is “superhuman” in the sense that he is a generic hero, a compelling example (though he does not “talk divinely”), exceeding individuality and our understanding. Like Imogen and Posthumus, in Virginia Stephen’s estimation, he does not seem fully real. But the “smaller characters are human,” such as Betty Flanders, Jacob’s mother, and Clara Durrant, a thoughtful young woman in love with him. As in Shakespeare, the minor characters are sometimes the stars of a scene that lacks the hero, and, as in Shakespeare, there are so many minor characters. Woolf wrote, a decade or so later, that she relished Shakespeare’s “crowd of minor lesser people” (manuscript draft of “A Letter to a Young Poet,” qtd. p. 235 in Virginia Woolf and Poetry). And the plot of Jacob’s Room, as Virginia Stephen wrote of Shakespeare’s plays, is certainly “cracky.” 

“Poor Jacob,” Clara’s mother observes at a social gathering, “They’re going to make you act in their play” (62). “They” is the young ladies who have been making costumes. More remotely, it is the political leaders who will later cast Jacob as a soldier in the war. The line’s Shakespearean undertones—“All the world’s a stage, / and all the men and women merely players”—sound louder when we have in mind Virginia Stephen’s 1901 letter. Indeed, the “seven ages” detailed in As You Like It by Jaques (II.vii.139-66) chart the life, or would-be life, of Thoby Stephen and “judicial” Jacob Flanders (132): “the infant,” “the whining schoolboy,” “the lover,” “a soldier,” “the justice [who] plays his part,” “shrunk” old age, and “second childishness.” Blending this speech and Fortinbras’s on the death of Hamlet (Hamlet V.ii.397-8), Woolf would write of Thoby, “I felt he scented the battle; was already, in anticipation, a law maker; proud of his station as a man; ready to play his part among men. Had he been put on, he would have proved most royally” (“A Sketch of the Past,” 139). 

Woolf rereads her letters to Thoby

A favorite theme of the narrator of Jacob’s Room is the need and failure of letters. They consume tremendous time and often do not last; they clutch at intimacy and misrepresent reality. And yet, “These are our stays and props. These lace our days together and make of life a perfect globe” (96). The world is a stage and letters our props, Jacob’s Room as though acted in Shakespeare’s Globe. The exchange with Cruttendon is not reported in Jacob’s letters to his mother. Of his friendship, perhaps romantic, with Cruttendon and Cruttendon’s friend Jinny Carslake, the narrator avows, “No—Mrs. Flanders was told none of this” (137). But what Jacob does not write to his mother, Virginia Stephen wrote to Thoby. Echoing her 1901 letter makes public, and permanent, what the siblings shared in private. 

Clearly Woolf reread her correspondence to Thoby as she wrote Jacob’s Room. The word “room” recurs in these letters, since she imagines Thoby’s Trinity apartment or mentions his empty bedroom at their family home. She asks, for instance, “did [you] say really that you wanted a kitten for your rooms” (L1 45, [Oct.? 1901]).” And a letter of July 1901 begins, “Your Bill was not in your room [but I found it] on the writing table in the drawing room” (L1 42). At the end of Jacob’s Room, Bonamy is “standing in the middle of Jacob’s room.” He exclaims, “All his letters strewn about for any one to read,” and then: “Bonamy took up a bill for a hunting-crop. ‘That seems to be paid,’ he said” (186). Again Woolf becomes a friend of Jacob’s. When Thoby was alive, she searched his room for bills; after his death, she sets his affairs in order, including by preserving his letters. And although the stories letters tell may be trivial, partial, or distorted, of such stories a more significant, replete, and honest one can be made.

In January 1903, for her 21st birthday, Virginia Stephen asks Thoby if he could “ask David [a bookseller] to try and get a Hollinshead, not black letters, for me some time?” (L1 67, [25? Jan. 1903]. Raphael Holinshed’s Chronicles, first published in 1557, was the major source for many of Shakespeare’s plays. Puzzled by Shakespeare’s “cut out” characters and “cracky” plots, Virginia Stephen pursued a historical source for the work. If we are puzzled by Jacob’s Room, we are helped by pursuing an epistolary one.


Works cited

  • Shakespeare, William. The Riverside Shakespeare: The Complete Works. Gen. Eds.  G. Blakemore Evans and J. J. M. Tobin. 2nd ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1997.
  • Woolf, Virginia. The Letters of Virginia Woolf, Volume 1: 1888-1912. Edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975. Abbreviated L1.
  • Woolf, Virginia. “The Intellectual Status of Women.” 1920. In The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Volume 2: 1920-1924. Edited by Anne Olivier Bell, assisted by Andrew McNeillie. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1978. Appendix III: 339–42.
  • Woolf, Virginia. Jacob’s Room. 1922. Annotated with an introduction by Vara Neverow. Gen. Ed. Mark Hussey. Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 2008.
  • Woolf, Virginia. “A Letter to a Young Poet.” MS draft. Accession # MA 3333. The Morgan Library & Museum, Dept. of Literary and Historical Manuscripts, New York.
  • Woolf, Virginia. “The Mark on the Wall.” 1917. In The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf. Edited by Susan Dick. 2nd edn. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1989. 83–89.
  • Woolf, Virginia. “Modern Novels.” 1919. In The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Volume 3: 1919-1924. Edited by Andrew McNeillie. San Diego, CA: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1988. 30–37.
  • Woolf, Virginia. “A Sketch of the Past.” In Moments of Being: A Collection of Autobiographical Writing. Edited by Jeanne Schulkind. 2nd edn. San Diego, CA: Harcourt, 1985. 61–159. Composed 1939–40.

Feature image: Thoby Stephen, Leslie Stephen photograph album, Mortimer Rare Book Collection, MRBC MS 00005, Smith College Special Collections, Northampton, Massachusetts.

Recent Comments

  1. Dianne

    Absolutely compendious! these articles on Woolf´s admiration of Shakespeare
    to compare her “tunneling” into characters with those of the Bard…so interesting, fruicy, may I say this? I may…

  2. Andrea Campana

    Virginia was brilliant in sensing that Shakespearian characters are not real. They are ideas, political positions, emblems, and sinful modes of behavior. For example, the falcon imagery in The Taming of the Shrew is a Jesuit emblem for the taming of the soul from weakness into obedience; Katherine’s soul has been saved as she is “tamed.” The drunken characters in Shakespeare personify the Jesuit emblem of drunkenness as the lack of a spiritual life.

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