Aesthetics of Being: The Unfinished Memoirs of Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys
Patricia Moran is now Lecturer in English at the University of Limerick; prior to assuming this post in 2008, she was Professor of English at the University of California, Davis. She is the author of Virginia Woolf, Jean Rhys, and the Aesthetics of Trauma (2007); Word of Mouth: Body/Language in Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf (1996), and, with Tamar Heller, co-editor of Scenes of the Apple: Food and the Female Body in 19th and 20th Century Women's Writing (2003). Her articles and reviews on women's modernism and psychoanalysis have appeared in such journals as Tulsa Studies, Modern Fiction Studies, Feminist Studies, and Woolf Studies Annual. She is currently working on a study of Charlotte Bronte's legacy in 20th century women's writing, and, with Erica Johnson, editing a collection of women's literary representations of shame.
This essay reads the unfinished memoirs of Virginia Woolf and Jean Rhys through the lens of relational psychoanalysis, particularly that of Christopher Bollas. Building upon the latter's theorisation of a maternal aesthetic based on her handling of the infant, what Bollas terms the mother's "idiom of care", the essay traces both positive and negative registers of such an aesthetic. Both memoirs open with self-identified "first memories", and both go on to connect the act of writing with these first memories. Woolf's memoir foregrounds moments of containment in a uterine, preoedipal surround, "colour-and-sound" experiences shattered by the mother's sudden death: Woolf goes on to characterise her writing as a practice that allows her to rebuild the shattered world. Rhys, by contrast, connects her writing to experiences of disharmony, alienation, and estrangement, an aesthetic she traces back to her mother's insistence on a surface conformity, at odds with the daughter's inner turmoil.