In Virginia Woolf’s novel Night and Day (1919), the description of Ralph Denham’s bedroom includes this phrase: “The only object that threw any light upon the character of the room’s owner was a large perch, placed in the window to catch the air and sun, upon which a tame and, apparently, decrepit rook hopped dryly from side to side.” It might seem unusual to call attention to an object’s ability to reflect the fundamental nature of a fictional person. But it wasn’t unusual for Woolf; she addressed the relationship between character and material things throughout her work, most directly in the essay “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924). In every piece of writing, fictional or otherwise, persons and things coexist. Whether or not objects help a writer express the pith of a person, however, depends on both the choice of objects and their interpretation—the meaning that the writer gives them.
In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Woolf complained that the “Edwardian” novelists, writers of what was then the old school, had their priorities backwards. Rather than focusing primarily on character, as Woolf thought they should, they seemed more interested in social issues. To make this point, Woolf invented a hypothetical figure, Mrs. Brown, seated on a train opposite a novelist. Woolf imagined how she might begin describing Mrs. Brown and then how the Edwardians would go about it. In Woolf’s thought bubbles, the Edwardian writers would use Mrs. Brown to illustrate some larger idea rather than illustrating Mrs. Brown herself. H.G. Wells, for example, would see Mrs. Brown as embodying “the unsatisfactory condition of our primary schools.” Arnold Bennett, on the other hand, would note details of the railway carriage and speculate about Mrs. Brown’s money problems, but would also fail to describe her.
Woolf’s complaint was not that the Edwardians focused on objects per se, but that they were hung up on things that can be objectively determined. Woolf speculated that an Edwardian novelist might give these instructions for writing about Mrs. Brown: “Begin by saying that her father kept a shop at Harrogate. Ascertain the rent. Ascertain the wages of shop assistants in the year 1878. Discover what her mother died of. Describe cancer. Describe calico.” Woolf insisted that facts alone are not the key to character or to novels. “I knew that if I began describing the cancer and the calico, my Mrs. Brown, that vision to which I cling though I know no way of imparting it to you, would have been dulled and tarnished and vanished forever.” Part of the reason the Edwardians focused on facts, Woolf suggested, was that it was relatively easy—a way of avoiding “the appalling effort of saying what I [or they] meant.”
Woolf summed up her argument about the primacy of character and the secondary place of material things with a lovely metaphor. The Edwardians, Woolf said:
have laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there. To give them their due, they have made that house much better worth living in. But if you hold that novels are in the first place about people, and only in the second about the houses they live in, that is the wrong way to set about it.
Woolf concluded that modern novelists should devote themselves to the difficult task of capturing what makes Mrs. Brown herself.
Woolf’s screed against focusing on “the fabric of things” might seem to set up a duality between people and objects. But she doesn’t take issue with material things in themselves; rather, she criticizes the way the Edwardians listed objective things instead of offering more telling details. Woolf knows that it’s possible to use material things precisely as a means of evoking character, that a writer could give readers a house and, at the same time, give a feeling of the person living there. That’s one of many things Woolf experimented with in Jacob’s Room (1922)— describing Jacob indirectly, in part through depictions of his chamber and possessions. The title character dies at war, but Woolf doesn’t show it. When the book ends, Jacob’s mother is standing in his room and holding out “a pair of his old shoes.”
Woolf addressed two important questions in “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” which she explored throughout her work: Is character of primary importance in novels or should characters exist in service of something else? Secondly, what is the best way to communicate character, and how do houses and other material things play into that endeavor?
In fiction, prizing character above all else is hardly contentious. While character is certainly valued in nonfiction, too, the nonfiction writer has fewer ways of observing and expressing it because of the professional distance separating writer and subject. She can’t make up Mrs. Brown’s thoughts (without saying they are imagined). The writer also has to consider Mrs. Brown’s feelings: real people often dislike the way others perceive or portray them. Is the expression of character worth jeopardizing a writer-source relationship? Along those lines, there are certain personal questions many nonfiction writers just won’t ask, ones the novelist could pose and answer through imagination. That’s not to mention the many facts the journalist juggles along with Mrs. Brown’s je ne sais quoi. Sometimes the story really is about housing or education, rather than a particular person. Creating vivid impressions of real people in nonfiction is tricky, to say the least.
In this effort, Janet Malcolm succeeds brilliantly. When Malcolm first started writing for the New Yorker, she had a column about interior design, and in her later essays she often got at temperament via décor. For example, in “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” (1986), a profile of former Artforum editor Ingrid Sischy, Malcolm introduces each personage by describing his or her apartment. The essay begins:
Rosalind Krauss’s loft, on Greene Street, is one of the most beautiful living places in New York. Its beauty has a dark, forceful, willful character. Each piece of furniture and every object of use or decoration has evidently had to pass a severe test before being admitted into this disdainfully interesting room—a long, mildly begloomed rectangle with tall windows at either end, a sachlich white kitchen area in the center, a study, and a sleeping balcony. A geometric arrangement of dark-blue armchairs around a coffee table forms the loft’s sitting room, also furnished with, among other rarities, an antique armchair on splayed carved feet and upholstered in a dark William Morris fabric; an assertive all-black minimalist shaped-felt piece; a strange black-and-white photograph of ocean water; and a gold owl-shaped art deco table clock. But perhaps even stronger than the room’s aura of commanding originality is its sense of absences, its evocation of all the things that have been excluded, have been found wanting, have failed to capture the interest of Rosalind Krauss.
It takes another sentence or two for Krauss to actually appear, but we get a sense of her nonetheless. Malcolm goes on to quote the art critic as being “bored with” and “not interested in” Artforum, which she had left, and having thought a particular article was “very stupid” and that an ensuing correspondence about said article was “very unpleasant because you couldn’t tell which side was the more horrible.” Krauss is as selective about people and ideas as she is about furniture.
Malcolm introduces other characters with the same formula. The odd thing, however, about “A Girl of the Zeitgeist” is that the main character’s apartment is conspicuously left out. Rather than hearing a catalogue of Sischy’s belongings, we instead find out that she “has no possessions to speak of,” and that “all her belongings (mostly books and papers) fit into a trunk that she brought to the house of the woman she lives with when she moved in four years ago, and that she has yet to unpack. The not yet unpacked trunk is a fitting metaphor for Sischy,” who moved twice as a child. Even Sischy’s lack of stuff tells us something about her.
Material things may be particularly important for character development in nonfiction because they can shorten the distance between writer and subject, providing visible hints at an inner life that a source might not make explicit. They also give the nonfiction writer some opportunity for subjectivity. If Malcolm had just taken an inventory of Rosalind Krauss’s furniture, it would have been a digression. Instead, she chose to mention particular items and ignore others. Then, in her description, she made a subjective judgment: “Each piece of furniture and every object of use or decoration has evidently had to pass a severe test before being admitted.” Of course, there’s always the danger that a nonfiction writer will misinterpret such details. But she can always rely on the subject herself, using quotations to support unspoken signals of character. Deft selection and interpretation of details is the key to using material things to write about people while avoiding the factual clutter of which Woolf accused the Edwardian novelists. Furnish your writing with care.
I think that if Malcolm had covered not interior design but fashion or sports or music, those things, not furnishings, would have served as metaphors for the people she wrote about and that the essays would have been equally good. Character is reflected in everything people do or don’t do, every item they own or lack. Anything can be brought to bear as long as capturing the qualities of a person, and not something else, is the aim.
Mrs. Brown’s furniture can reflect her character. For the neo-Edwardian, it might represent the decline in fine craftsmanship and the turn toward disposable everything. Without the writer’s interpretation, it is meaningless; it is just what keeps an old lady off the floor.
ContributorAshley P. Taylor
ASHLEY P. TAYLOR is a Brooklyn-based writer of journalism, essays, and fiction. View more of her work at ashleyptaylor.com.