« 1910, human character changed. »

Virginia Woolf said it: « on or about December, 1910, human character changed. » (1) Isn’t that a most unexpected statement? Why is this said in the form of an oxymoron (the singular « December 1910″ as against the universal « human character »), and isn’t this oxymoron of an ethical kind? 

From an ethical point of view, precisely the standpoint of the then recent history of ethics,  »human character  » may well have been « changed » by the impact of G.E. Moore’s Principia Ethica, resulting in an unprecedented suspensive concept of goodness and a floating notion of happiness. As early as 1903, Moore had proclaimed any reference to the Good invalid in moral judgments; from then on, mental attitudes were more and more influenced by a provisional undefined or suspended concept of goodness (for the first time in history), therefore a notion of happiness henceforward devoid of substance or fixedness — which entailed the quest for an ethos of one’s own — in that sense, “human character” was changed. 


My intention here is to map the psychological, cultural, ethical awareness of the first decade of the XXth century, and whenever possible, trace the origins of a few tenets and influences that came to culminate at that period. We may get seemingly disconnected data, but if we do try to connect them  especially in view of the intellectual / symbolic context of the time, Woolf appears to be pointing at a significant (r)evolution.

- For a few years, Cambridge had taken the lead in philosophy, with its decisive revisioning of the epistemology of perception, and the two “Principia (Mathematica by Bertrand Russell, Ethica, by G.E. Moore) that were laying the foundations of analytic philosophy. -  In 1910, the members of the ‘Bloomsbury Circle‘ were already active: E.M. Forster had Howards End published ; Roger Fry, just back from New York, was preparing the first Post-Impressionists’ Exhibition, Leonard Woolf was still in Ceylon, and V. Stephen (-Woolf) had not yet observed that  “human character [had] changed”.  As for G.E. Moore, their intellectual referent, he was getting more and more famous,   - “Manet and the Post-Impressionists”, Grafton Galleries, 1910. With this unprecedented event, the connection is made between European (especially Parisian) Modernism and the spirit of research that is developing around Roger Fry and the ‘Bloomsbury Circle‘; this is the event Woolf has in mind when she writes her famous statement. - Another event, far less commented upon, was Caroline Stephen’s death  in 1909. through her life, Caroline had been a role-model both as  a woman ruling her own life and as an independent quality writer. After Caroline’s death Virginia, her niece, received her legacy of £ 500 a year, a more important event than gaining the right to vote, she said. The first thing she needed was money of her own. Woolf later explained « my aunt’s legacy unveiled the sky to me, and substituted for the large and imposing figure of a gentleman [to marry], a view of the open sky. »  


 It is of course debateable whether human character changed in a continual 1900-1910 process (like the emergence of ‘New Woman’,  the long road to Suffrage, the rise of pacifist commitment) or if it took a sudden turn in 1910. Another major question concerns the meaning of “human character”, especially in a novelist’s use. We shall probably retain the obvious meaning, but the literary / narratological reference, its echo of type – person - persona problematics have to be dealt with.   

And in a sort of Kantian-Copernican revolution, was it not the way human character was observed that changed primarily? In conclusion, what is at stake in Woolf’s statement is the contents of a concept which has long been missing from philosophical dictionaries yet appears to be the focal point of Woolf’s thought and work : life as such (hence the interest in biography).


Note (1): « [I]t would be impossible to live for a year without disaster unless one practiced character-reading and had some skill in the art. Our marriages, our friendships depend on it; our business largely depends on it; every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help. And now I will hazard a second assertion, which is more disputable perhaps, to the effect that on or about December, 1910, human character changed. I am not saying that one went out, as one might into a garden, and there saw that a rose had flowered, or that a hen had laid an egg. The change was not sudden and definite like that. But a change there was, nevertheless; and, since one must be arbitrary, let us date it about the year 1910. » (Virginia Woolf, ‘Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown’, 1923) 

3 commentaires à “« 1910, human character changed. »”

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