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Comparing Woolf's Jacob's Room and Beethoven's Third

Comparing Woolf’s Jacob’s Room and Beethoven’s Third

Jacob’s Room begins with a mystery: “‘So of course,’ wrote Betty Flanders, pressing her heels rather deeper in the sand, ‘there was nothing for it but to leave’.” Why does Betty Flanders (with her ominous surname) have to leave? Why “of course”? We never find out. It is a beginning that announces an end, a departure imposed rather than chosen. And it heralds a story built on the hollow promises of a young man’s coming-of-age: promises integral to the nineteenth century’s massive array of social realist fiction, those novels by Dickens, Thackeray, and the Brontës that contained templates for molding men who would uphold the finest qualities of the British Empire. But Jacob’s Room holds such templates up to the pitiless gaze of history and resists their plot-making powers. Written in the wake of the Great War that slaughtered 1 million Englishmen, Woolf’s anti-Bildungsroman suggested that the very virtues the Empire prided itself on—valor, stoicism, duty—were the sources of its vulnerability. How does the formal originality of Jacob’s Room, its dark tenor, fit into the arc of Woolf’s career? And a century after its publication in 1922, what does it tell us about English literature’s annus mirabilis, the year that gave us Joyce’s Ulysses, Eliot’s The Waste Land, and Mansfield’s The Garden Party and Other Stories?

I found unexpected and illuminating answers to these questions when after days of studying Woolf’s drafts and preparatory notes for the novel in the Berg Collection of the New York Public Library, I treated myself to symphony tickets, thrilled by the prospect of hearing live music after the pandemic. It was a privilege to hear Yannick Nézet-Séguin conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra in an all-Beethoven concert at Carnegie Hall. And when he turned to address the audience, explaining how Beethoven’s sense of musical possibility changed between Symphony 2 and Symphony 3—the “Eroica”—I suddenly understood how to read the marriage of aesthetics and history in Jacob’s Room

Separated by sex, nation, professional training, and the span of a century, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) would seem to have little in common. But their similarities are intriguing. The German composer and the English writer lived through cataclysmic periods of history, inventing ever-more daring forms of art to oppose the tyrannies that precipitated the French Revolution and the Great War. They struggled with debilitating conditions—his deafness and her mental illness—that threatened to be fatal to creativity. These debilities contributed to suicidal impulses that visited each artist at the age of 31. Beethoven and Woolf both died before turning 60, leaving behind large, diverse oeuvres anchored by nine major works, and it is in the developmental parallels of these major works that we can locate Jacob’s Room’s significance. The first two works of the nine belong to the traditions that preceded them: the Classical symmetries of Beethoven’s first and second symphonies suggest that he had, as his patron Count Waldstein said, “receive[d] Mozart’s spirit from Haydn’s hands”; and the narrative conventions of Woolf’s novels The Voyage Out and Night and Day descend from Austen and Dickens. Their fifth works would be their most beloved: the first four notes of Beethoven’s Symphony 5 have imprinted themselves in musical consciousness just as the lyrical beauty of Woolf’s To the Lighthouse has infused the literary firmament. And Beethoven’s 9th symphony, its final movement opening with a dissonance that Wagner would call the “terror fanfare” and closing, radically, with a choir singing Schiller’s “Ode to Joy,” finds numerous affinities not with Woolf’s ninth novel The Years but with her last, genre-collapsing work, Between the Acts, which merges narrative, poetry, and drama to find strength through art on the terrifying eve of the second World War. 

“Woolf’s third work joins Beethoven’s not only in rejecting the predictable modes of an earlier artistic form, but in remaking the idea of heroism.”

From these similarities, which merit greater attention than I can give here, I return to how Beethoven’s and Woolf’s third works announced their emergence into a new artistic phase. How does the “Eroica” illuminate Jacob’s Room? Beethoven’s third symphony—expansive, explosive, baffling to listeners—marked a turning-point not only in the composer’s career but also for symphonic music more generally. The first movement begins with swift, doubled tonic chords played in unison followed by a lilting melody in the cellos that is interrupted by unexpected dissonance. Beethoven catches his 1804 audience off guard, combining melodic urgency with bold, accelerating rhythms when listeners would have expected smooth development and recapitulation. It is precisely what Woolf does to narrative expectations in Jacob’s Room, whose opening, as we have seen, presents an unanswered question. Woolf’s novel courts the promises of the Bildungsroman and the Kunstlerroman, moving Jacob Flanders through Cambridge University, a job in London, a grand tour of Europe, and multiple artistic efforts: but Jacob thwarts our assumptions, becoming less knowable and less effective until the Great War swallows him. Thus, Woolf’s third work joins Beethoven’s not only in rejecting the predictable modes of an earlier artistic form, but in remaking the idea of heroism. 

Beethoven originally dedicated his third symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte as a tribute to the latter’s anti-monarchical ideals but, in what is the stuff of musical legend, Beethoven was so enraged when Bonaparte made himself Emperor of France that he tore the symphony’s title page—with its inscription “Bonaparte”—down the middle. The piece was retitled Sinfonia Eroica, or “heroic symphony,” in 1806. Woolf’s journey in writing Jacob’s Room was not as dramatic, but it also unmade the historical figures of kings, emperors, and prime ministers, and its loose-jointed plot critiqued self-serving acts of power styled as greatness. Like Beethoven, Woolf had initially considered dedicating her work to a specific individual. She drafted an epigraph for her older brother, Thoby Stephen, who had died of typhoid at age 26, that contained a repeated line from the Roman poet Catullus:

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.

Julian Thoby Stephen (1881-1906)

Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale

Woolf may not have torn up her dedication, but she eventually decided against including it in Jacob’s Room, a work that treats heroism as a troubled abstraction rather than lauding it as a quality embodied in one character. The novel’s chapters are crowded with motifs and metaphors of the fast-approaching Great War, very much like the repetitive, fugal funeral march in the second movement of the “Eroica,” which Beethoven breaks into barely recognizable fragments by the movement’s end. But whereas Beethoven’s symphony ultimately offered a Romantic celebration of the human spirit, Woolf took a more somber direction, her novel’s narrator pronouncing, “All history backs our pane of glass. To escape is vain…It is no use trying to sum people up.” 

As Yannick Nézet-Séguin began conducting the “Eroica” and the hall filled with the intricate sonorities of what was once unimaginable musical terrain, I was reminded that Woolf considered Jacob’s Room the novel where she found her artistic self.  “There’s no doubt in my mind,” she penned in her diary on completing the novel, “that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice.” That voice brought a new note to the revolutionary literature of 1922, an anti-transcendent dissonance distinct from the hopefulness coursing through the writings of Mansfield, Eliot, and Joyce. It was a dissonance that opened rather than shut down literary possibilities and signaled the creative momentum behind works that were stirring to life even before Jacob’s Room was published: Mrs. Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, The Common Reader. What Beethoven wrote about his artistic energies while he composed his third symphony equally describes Woolf as she wrote her third novel: “I live only in my notes, and with one work barely finished, the other is already started; the way I write now I often find myself working on three, four things at the same time.” 

Featured image by Sigmund on Unsplash, public domain 

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