Reading the Past: Virginia Woolf, Chaucer and the Pastons

Virginia Woolf (1882-1941) is probably best known to us now as part of the history of feminism. Most famously, she wrote that women need to be able to “think back through our mothers,” arguing that to develop a tradition of women’s writing, we need a history of women’s writing that women can use as a platform to develop new writing. Perhaps less well known is that Woolf was passionately interested in writing that conveyed a strong sense of “Englishness.” But Woolf was not interested in nationalism or championing England in some kind of imperialistic way. Indeed some of her work, like Three Guineas (1938) specifically challenged the use of place in militaristic jargon. Instead, what interested her was trying to think about the past as a way of rethinking the present.

While some writers in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth-centuries constructed a sense of medieval England as an idyllic, rural, peaceful place, before industrialisation, mechanisation, and unfulfilling paid labour, Woolf wanted to get at how living then might have felt, warts and all. She was particularly interested in Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales (1387-1400?) because these lively stories were each told in the voice of a strongly described character, and the characters in the Tales interacted with each other in engaging and humorous ways. While it seems as though she had read other parts of Chaucer’s work, the more erudite pieces did not attract the same kind of attention from her.

Woolf writes of life itself being like a bowl that we fill with memories. In “A Sketch of the Past” (1938/9) she recalls a scene from her childhood holidays in Cornwall, hearing the waves breaking, time after time, on the beach. This could stand as a metaphor for Woolf’s sense of history’s connection to the past. The forward movement of the waves depends upon and is built on the backward pull of the waves as they fall back from the beach. So the present, in its relentless forward movement, is nevertheless influenced by the pull of history. Woolf tries, time after time, in her writing, to depict how the twentieth century’s demand for progress and improvement needs to somehow recognize and appreciate where peoples and culture have come from, without creating some past perfect world that is only nostalgic, and inherently dead and gone.

Woolf’s writing reimagines Chaucer’s world, the highly literary professional world of a well-known writer, as being part of the same space that a well-off but non-literary family like the Pastons inhabited. The Pastons were an upwardly mobile family from Norfolk, made famous following the discovery of their extensive collection of medieval letters. In her essay “Chaucer and The Pastons” Woolf imagines John Paston reading Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales in a draughty room, in an uncomfortable chair, where the wind ruffles the furnishings. In this simple image Woolf takes Chaucer’s work out from modern academic classrooms, and puts it back into living spaces where Chaucer’s works were read for pleasure. In a delightfully intimate and insightful scene in this essay, Woolf even contextualizes this moment of reading by imagining John Paston’s irritated mother Margaret complaining that he is sitting reading, stuck with his nose in a book, rather than getting on with putting up a tombstone for his father.

Woolf’s work with medieval texts alerts modern readers to the different ways in which the past can be used. How might we think about history and its connections with today? Rather than see the past as a static block of time lost to us, Woolf draws us pictures of men and women energetically engaged with texts, with life, and with each other. Throughout all these images Woolf uses her knowledge and imagination to revivify the past, to breathe new life into it and to ask us to see ourselves as part of a living bridge with links backwards and forwards, invisibly connected to what has gone before, capable of building new futures formen and women. Woolf’s use of the medieval period, then, is linked with her projects for broadening culture and art through including more people in it, for more women to stand beside men, and for families like the Pastons to stand alongside canonical authors of English Literature like Chaucer.