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Virginia Woolf: Experiments in Character By Eric Sandberg

Chapter :  Introduction
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Virginia Woolf:


Human Character Changed

In her 1924 essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Virginia Woolf famously proclaimed that “on or about December 1910 human character changed” (E 3: 421). Understandably, this statement has attracted an enormous amount of critical attention; it is, after all, a challenging—even taunting—thesis. Not all of the attention Woolf’s pronouncement has received, however, has been strictly accurate. A number of commentators have Woolf arguing that “human nature” rather than human character underwent this sudden and mysterious transformation (Eksteins 117, Teukolsky 168). Nor are these isolated instances: even the Oxford Dictionary of Quotations erroneously offers “human nature” in place of “human character” (Knowles 826). There must, it seems, be something peculiar and puzzling about the phrase “human character” to lead to such pronounced and persistent confusion. In contemporary English “human character” is not a frequent collocation. It was similarly rare in the early twentieth century, and Woolf’s choice of words was as unusual in 1924 as it is today.

The peculiarity of Woolf’s choice of words is an instance of what David Trotter has described as a recurring strategy of modernist texts, in which “minor disturbances of linguistic structure alert us to the possibility