In “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown” (1924), Virginia Woolf applies her sensational style of prose to argue that the art of novel writing should begin with the character. Her argument is based on her understanding of literary trends and conventions, that the need for new conventions was urgent during the era in which she wrote. The Mrs. Brown of her title is in fact symbolic for this new way of writing. Deriving from an experience in which Woolf observed an interactive, somewhat dramatic episode between a man and an old woman on a train, she endowed the woman with a fictitious name and used it to symbolize the character of a novel in general. Her point was that previous writing trends tended to focus on the thematic, at the expense of character development, or on a more general level, the novel’s formal qualities. The distinction suggests a sort of coldness that can be attributed to the thematic writers, the Edwardians who have “never once looked at Mrs. Brown in her corner” (Woolf 33). For Woolf, the novel is a personal space, and Mrs. Brown is the emblem of human nature that occupies that space, the meeting point in which a reader comes to relate to her subject, because they are both human.
Woolf read her essay aloud to The Heretics Club of Cambridge, England, obviously during a period of incredible awareness as to the evolving nature of literature. Woolf’s ideas are centered in progress and the advent of modernism, the break from conservative literary scholars who felt that novel writing could be bound by tradition. While Henry James once wrote along the same lines, that the art of novel writing cannot be tied down by conventional constraints, Woolf’s ideas on creating and exploring character would come to change the novel forever, much as she had hoped.
Woolf, Virginia. “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown.” Essentials of the Theory of Fiction. First Edition. Eds. Hoffman, Michael J., and Patrick D. Murphy. Duke University Press (Tx), 1988. Print.