‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’ is an important exploration of modernism by Virginia Woolf. This edition of the essay was published on 30 October 1924 by the Hogarth Press. It is the first number within the first Hogarth Essays series, which ran from 1924 to 1926.
‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’ was originally published as 'Character in Fiction' in the July 1924 issue of The Criterion, a journal edited by T S Eliot.
Towards the start of the essay Woolf writes about the arrival of
modernism, making the now-famous observation: ‘On or about December 1910
human character changed’. (This date refers to the seminal exhibition Manet and the Post-Impressionists,
organised by Roger Fry.) This change in human character caused a
domino-effect: 'All human relations have shifted – those between masters
and servants, husbands and wives, parents and children. And when human
relations change there is at the same time a change in religion,
conduct, politics, and literature'.
Modernity, as defined by Woolf, is a society and culture in flux. With
references to breaking, ‘smashing and crashing’, and chaotic noise,
Woolf presents modernity as fragmentary and unstable. These observations
are crucial to Woolf’s main argument.
What is ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’ about?
In ‘Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown’ Woolf analyses the state of modern fiction by contrasting two generations of writers.
The essay is framed as a response to an essay by novelist Arnold Bennett in which he declares that the current generation of ‘Georgian’ authors – D H Lawrence, James Joyce, T S Eliot – have failed as writers because they have not created real, convincing characters. But Woolf challenges Bennett’s concept of ‘reality’:
Mr. Bennett says that it is only if the characters are real that the novel has any chance of surviving. Otherwise, die it must. But, I ask myself, what is reality? And who are the judges of reality?
Woolf recognises that ‘the tools of one generation are useless to the next’. New forms must be explored if writers are to capture the rapidly changing modern world. She explains that the Georgian writer has turned to an impressionistic, fragmented technique that more accurately reflects modern existence. The Georgians may have not yet mastered their art, Woolf admits, but they nevertheless strive towards ‘telling the truth’.
Who is Mrs Brown?
Woolf’s discussion revolves around an anonymous woman she has observed on a train carriage journeying through London, whom she names ‘Mrs Brown’. She examines the various literary methods that could be employed to capture Mrs Brown’s character and the world she inhabits.
The cover design
Vanessa Bell designed the cover art, and this was used for each title within the first Hogarth Essays series. It depicts a woman reading from an open book. Modernity is reflected in Bell’s graphic lines and in the woman’s style: she appears to have short, cropped hair, as fashionable in the 1920s, and wears a low, sleeveless outfit.