Jacob’s bedroom begins with a mystery: “‘So of course,’ Betty Flanders wrote, sinking her heels a little deeper into the sand, ‘there was nothing to do but walk away’.” Why does Betty Flanders (with her disturbing last name) have to leave? Why “of course”? We’ll never know. 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 that formed an integral part of the wide range of social realist fiction of the nineteenth century, those novels of Dickens, Thackeray and the Brontes which contained models for forming men who would maintain the best qualities of the British Empire. But Jacob’s bedroom subjects such models to the unforgiving gaze of history and resists their powers of intrigue. Written in the aftermath of the Great War which massacred 1 million English people, the anti-Bildungsroman suggested that the very virtues on which the Empire prided itself – bravery, stoicism, duty – were the sources of its vulnerability. How the formal originality of Jacob’s bedroom, his 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? annus mirabilisthe year that gave us Joyce’s Ulysses, by Eliot waste land, and Mansfield 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 New York Public Library’s Berg Collection, I treated myself to symphonic 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 possibilities had changed between Symphony 2 and Symphony 3 – the “Eroica” – I suddenly understood how to read marriage aesthetics and history in Jacob’s bedroom.
Separated by gender, nation, professional training and span of a century, Ludwig van Beethoven (1770-1827) and Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) seem to have little in common. But their similarities are intriguing. The German composer and English writer lived through cataclysmic periods in history, inventing ever bolder art forms to oppose the tyrannies that precipitated the French Revolution and the Great War. They battled debilitating conditions – his deafness and mental illness – that threatened to be fatal to creativity. These debilitations contributed to the suicidal impulses that visited every artist at the age of 31. Both Beethoven and Woolf died before they were 60, leaving behind great diverse works anchored in nine major works, and it is in the developmental parallels of these major works that we can locate Jacob’s bedroomimportance. 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 put it, “received[d] the spirit of Mozart from the hands of Haydn”; and the narrative conventions of Woolf’s novels The trip out and Night and day descendant of Austen and Dickens. Their fifth work would be their most beloved: the first four notes of Beethoven’s Symphony 5 imprinted themselves on the musical consciousness just like the lyrical beauty of Woolf’s Symphony Towards the Lighthouse infused the literary firmament. And Beethoven’s 9e symphony, its last movement opening with a dissonance that Wagner would call the “fanfare of terror” and closing, radically, with a chorus singing Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”, finds many affinities not with the ninth Woolf’s novel Years but with his latest genre-busting work, between actswhich fuses narrative, poetry and drama to find its strength in art on the terrifying eve of World War II.
“Woolf’s third work joins that of Beethoven not only in rejecting the predictable modes of an earlier art form, but in remaking the idea of heroism.”
From these similarities, which deserve more attention than I can give here, I return to how the third works of Beethoven and Woolf heralded their emergence into a new artistic phase. How does the “Eroica” illuminate Jacob’s bedroom? Beethoven’s Third Symphony – expansive, explosive, confusing for listeners – marked a turning point not only in the composer’s career but also for symphonic music in general. The first movement begins with rapid doubled tonic chords played in unison followed by a lilting cello melody interrupted by an unexpected dissonance. Beethoven catches his 1804 audience off guard, combining melodic urgency with bold, accelerated rhythms where listeners would have expected a smooth development and recapitulation. This is precisely what Woolf does to narrative expectations in Jacob’s bedroom, the opening of which, as we have seen, presents an unanswered question. Woolf’s novel woos the promises of Bildungsroman and the Kunstlerroman, getting Jacob Flanders through the University of Cambridge, a job in London, a major tour of Europe and multiple artistic endeavours: but Jacob thwarts our assumptions, becoming less knowable and less effective until the Great War swallow. Thus, Woolf’s third work joins that of Beethoven not only in rejecting the predictable modes of an earlier art form, but in remaking the idea of heroism.
Originally, Beethoven dedicated his Third Symphony to Napoleon Bonaparte in homage to the latter’s anti-monarchical ideals, but, in what is musical legend, Beethoven was so enraged when Bonaparte made himself Emperor of France that he tore the title page of the symphony – with its inscription “Bonaparte” – in the middle. The room has been renamed Sinfonia Eroicaor “heroic symphony”, in 1806. Woolf’s journey into writing Jacob’s bedroom was not as dramatic, but it also undid historical figures of kings, emperors, and prime ministers, and its loose plot critiqued selfish acts of power labeled as greatness. Like Beethoven, Woolf initially considered dedicating his work to a specific person. She wrote an epigraph for her older brother, Thoby Stephen, who died of typhoid at age 26, which contained a repeated line from the Roman poet Catullus:
Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale.
Julien Thoby Stephen (1881-1906)
Atque in perpetuum, frater, ave atque vale
Woolf may not have ripped off her dedication, but she ultimately decided against including him in Jacob’s Bedroom, a work that treats heroism as a troubled abstraction rather than touting it as a quality embodied in a character. But while Beethoven’s symphony ultimately offered a romantic celebration of the human spirit, Woolf took a darker direction, with the narrator of her novel declaring: “All history holds up our windowpane. Running away is futile… No need to try to sum people up.
As Yannick Nézet-Séguin began conducting “Eroica” and the room filled with the complex 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 is no doubt in my mind,” she wrote in her diary at the end of the novel, “that I have discovered how to begin (at 40) to say something with my own voice. ” This voice brought a new note to the revolutionary literature of 1922, an anti-transcendent dissonance distinct from the hope running through the writings of Mansfield, Eliot and Joyce. It was a dissonance that opened rather than closed literary possibilities and signaled the creative impetus behind works that came to life even before Jacob’s room has been published: Mrs. Dalloway, at the lighthouse, the common reader. What Beethoven wrote about his artistic energies while composing his third symphony also 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