Having demonized Lytton Strachey in The Voyage Out (1915) by making the purportedly straight character based on Strachey misogynist, Virginia Woolf treats him rather well in Jacob’s Room (1922). Not only is Richard Bonamy, the decidedly gay character based on Strachey, not misogynist, he’s the hero Jacob’s fondest friend, just as Strachey himself had been to Virginia’s brother Thoby. He’s also someone with whom Woolf seems to identify: it’s Bonamy, after all, who’s left alone with Jacob’s mother in that suddenly empty room and to whom, holding out a pair of shoes, she poses that suddenly sentimental—and unanswerable—question: “What am I to do with these?” Or at least I find the question sentimental, almost unbearably so—which for me happens to be a good thing, and which is why I cherish it more than any other finale in prose fiction.
Yet for Woolf, Bonamy himself is almost unbearably sentimental—a bad thing to be. Sentimentality, according to the momentarily ironic narrator, may be one of the things (along with “blankness of mind” and “haphazard ways”) that make “every woman nicer than any man,” but it’s also something of which gay—or stereotypically effeminate—men like Bonamy can be accused. For instance, when Bonamy, idealizing Jacob, thinks him “more sublime, devastating, terrific than ever,” Woolf, despite her own such idealization, throughout the novel, of Thoby as Jacob, remarks:
What superlatives! What adjectives! How acquit Bonamy of sentimentality of the grossest sort; of being tossed like a cork on the waves; of having no steady insight into character; of being unsupported by reason, and of drawing no comfort whatever from the works of the classics?
One boring word for this maneuver might be projection, and one description of that finale (“What am I to do with these?”) might be the return of the repressed. Woolf tries to dissociate herself from both Victorian femininity and Victorian (if not Edwardian) fiction by attributing the debased sentimentality she finds they share to an effeminate (if not Victorian) associate, but can’t help being sentimental herself when touching upon—and hence touched by—the hero’s death. (Jacob—surname Flanders—got killed in World War I; Thoby, though, died of typhus.) Fortunately, there are—there have been—other, more interesting words, and other descriptions.
What else, for someone like Woolf (a group of someones that does include Strachey), is wrong with sentimentality? Apart from being feminine, old-fashioned, and irrational (“unsupported by reason”), it’s excessive and insincere. Too much emotion: loving something more than God does, to cite J. D. Salinger. Inauthentic emotion: as if one could turn such feelings off and on, like charm. Sentimentality is also, nowadays, and for presumably homophobic people opposed to Woolf and Strachey, excessively—almost exclusively—homoerotic. “Whereas in the nineteenth century,” wrote the late Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet (1990), “it was images of women in relation to domestic suffering and death that occupied the most potent, symptomatic, and, perhaps, friable or volatile place in the sentimental imaginaire of middle-class culture, for the succeeding century—the century inaugurated by [Oscar] Wilde among others—it has been images of agonistic male self-constitution.” Images—sexy, moving ones—like that of a dying Dorian Gray in the Wilde novel (“self-constitution” through inadvertent suicide) and also, perhaps, in the Woolf, that of dead Jacob.
I first read Sedgwick—it was an article on Henry James—when I was a graduate student of English Literature at Brown. I first saw the woman—fell in love with her, really, among other things—when she came to speak there on both Wilde and Nietzsche: material, along with that article, to soon appear in Epistemology of the Closet. I first met her at Harvard: a conference on, as we used to say, “lesbian and gay studies.” Nowadays, of course, it’s “queer theory,” thanks in large part to Sedgwick herself. Rolling Stone, though, called it “gay studies,” with Sedgwick, they said, as our “queen.”
At any rate: Woolf’s characterization of Strachey, through Bonamy, as sentimental wasn’t exactly inaccurate, but it wasn’t very accurate either. Strachey’s biographical writing now strikes us, as does most modernist literature, as radically antisentimental. He favors innuendo and irony, caricature and pastiche. He has a “virtuoso” style, according to his own biographer, Michael Holroyd, “with its ornate overstatements, its laconic recording of incongruities, its unpredictable transpositions, its ironic crescendoes and plummetings into bathos”—much like Sedgwick, perhaps. Some contemporaries did see sentimentality there. Bertrand Russell, reading Eminent Victorians (1918) in Brixton gaol, found “it caused me to laugh so loud that the officer came to my cell, saying I must remember that prison is a place for punishment.” But Russell detected “girls’ school sentimentality” as well. Ivor Brown, reading Queen Victoria (1921), discovered that the “cool and unsparing portrayer of the Victorian notables” was, at least when it came to their queen, “no longer the aloof scrutineer.” Following that woman, Victoria, down the decades, Strachey, he said, was “at last engaged in a sentimental journey”—which for Brown happens to have been a good thing. Even Strachey admitted, “I think perhaps my whole treatment of [Cardinal] Newman [in Eminent Victorians] is over-sentimentalized—to make a foil for the other Cardinal [i.e., Manning].” Woolf, however, wasn’t another such contemporary. She saw no over-sentimentality in Strachey’s writing—his public writing.
But Woolf did see it in Strachey himself—in the man’s very “being,” to cite Sedgwick, if not in his private correspondence as well. (“Perhaps,” wrote Sedgwick in Epistemology of the Closet, “there isn’t a differentiation to be made between sentimentality and its denunciation.” Perhaps, that is, only those who are themselves “prone” to sentimentality are equipped to denounce it in either the writing or the “being” of others.) He was too sentimental, for Woolf, about crusty old men like Edmund Gosse, and far too sentimental about callow young men like Roger Senhouse—an assessment shared by numerous friends of theirs, as well as by Strachey himself. Russell, for example, found that Strachey degraded G. E. Moore’s ethics into “advocacy of a stuffy girls’-school sentimentalizing”—a false charge, according to fellow homosexual E. M. Forster. The painter Duncan Grant, that Bloomsbury heartthrob, made him feel “cloudy, I fear almost sentimental,” as a love-struck Strachey put it to—of all people—John Maynard Keynes. (The economist himself had had an affair with Grant, and like Strachey may still have been in love with him.) For some reason, though, the death—in battle—of war poet Rupert Brooke, another such heartthrob, left Strachey cold.
Like Woolf, Strachey was quick to disparage other men’s sentimentality, if not to “project” his own onto them. But his reasons differed. Early in life, he’d been impatient with his college friend Goldsworthy Lowes Dickinson, who used sentimentality to conceal homosexuality. (Strachey was relatively “out.”) He later complained to the painter Dora Carrington (who may have wanted an affair with Strachey and was certainly in love with him) that the wonderfully named, or nick-named, “Sebastian” Sprott, a “charming” young man with whom he’d been traveling (“most easy to get on with, most considerate, very gay, and interested in everything that occurs”), is “inclined to be sentimental, though too clever to be so in a sickly style”—a complaint presumably generated by the fact that such “sentimentality is not directed towards me.” Sprott, as it happens, was Keynes’s lover at the time, though the latter, by then, was married.
Strachey also disparaged—yet unlike Woolf clearly identified with—women’s sentimentality. His Florence Nightingale, in Eminent Victorians, ends her days “indulging in sentimental friendships with young girls” and weeping—in print—over old probationers, which may explain Russell’s negative reaction. His Victoria ends the “sentimental journey” Brown relished in similar ways. All of which may explain Strachey’s explicit identification with Bonamy. “I am such a Bonamy,” he is said to have remarked upon reading Jacob’s Room for the first time. (Given the tough-minded accusation by Woolf of sentimentality, “Mea culpa“ would have been more appropriate.) The novel may not involve the character’s, his character’s feelings for suicidal young women, or even for crusty old men, but it does involve emotions far more central to his, to our sentimental imaginaire: Bonamy’s barely sublimated sexual feelings for a young male friend and would-be lover, now dying (like Sedgwick, of late), now—finally—dead. And whereas Strachey may not have been so naive—so bold, rather—as to have said, or written, that Thoby was “more sublime, devastating, terrific than ever,” he didn’t have to be. Bonamy—that is, Woolf—said it for him.
Apart from Jacob’s Room, with its surprising finale, and The Waves (1931), with its fleeting indication of yet another lovelorn homosexual, I don’t see Woolf as a sentimental novelist. The deaths of both Rachel Vinrace in The Voyage Out (1915) and Mrs. Ramsay in To the Lighthouse (1927) leave me cold, as they seem to have left the author. So does the suicide of Septimus Smith in Mrs Dalloway (1925). I do, however, find Woolf sentimental in her very “being”—to the extent I can know it at all. I also find her closet sentimentality feminocentric, and hence passé by modern standards. (Recall Sedgwick, once again: Whereas for the nineteenth century it was images of women in relation to suffering and death that mattered most, for the twentieth and now twenty-first centuries it’s been ones of “agonistic male self-constitution.”) Notwithstanding the slighting of forsaken Fanny Elmer (Jacob’s sweetheart), it was suicidal young women—Carrington in particular—and not doomed young men who really tugged at Woolf’s heart-strings, perhaps because they shared both a gender and a death wish—as opposed to, say, a terminal illness. As one male friend—straight—remarked upon seeing the careful attention she paid Carrington after Strachey’s death, “I’ve been mistaken about Virginia; somewhere she keeps a warm heart.”
Could it be, then, that one definition of literary modernism should underscore the momentary, deliberate, and often ultimate eruption of an overtly homoerotic—yet (pace Sedgwick) covertly feminocentric—sentimentality all the more powerful (“potent, symptomatic, and, perhaps, friable or volatile”) for its unexpected inclusion in an otherwise ironic text like Jacob’s Room? And that, not so contrary to popular belief, modern irony should be read as inauthentic, modern sentimentality as real? Certainly, the case can be made. One need only consider such sentimental moments as Frédéric Moreau telling his friend Deslauriers in Sentimental Education (1869) that the time they didn’t make it to the brothel “was the happiest time we ever had” (distressed young men in the foreground, young women—prostitutes—in the background), or Stephen Dedalus in Ulysses (1922) finding his little sister Dilly with a French primer and realizing he can’t save her (distressed young man in the foreground, young woman in the background).
But it’s more complicated than that. Consider, for instance, the sentimental moment in Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (1964) when the latter does save the former, his own kid sister, by explaining just who older brother Seymour’s “Fat Lady” was—the one idealized (if make-believe) radio listener for whom Zooey, on air, would shine his unseen shoes (unseen, that is, by her) and Franny, imagining the lady with cancer, would try to be funny: distressed young woman in the foreground (Franny), dead young man in the background (Seymour the suicide), distressed older woman behind him (that Fat Lady), and even older dead young man—Christ Himself, don’t you know—behind her. “There isn’t anyone anywhere that isn’t Seymour’s Fat Lady,” Zooey says on their phone. “Don’t you know that? Don’t you know that goddam secret yet? And don’t you know—listen to me now,—don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? … Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.” Fortunately, another such Fat Lady (for she’d come out that way, as overweight), another cancer-ridden Fat Lady (she’d come out that way as well) can help us understand such a moment, in part by having acted for so long, yet not long enough, as an aloof scrutineer of her own public, overtly homoerotic, yet—truth be told—covertly feminocentric sentimentality
I’m not sure any gay men, like me, ever truly identified with her, but Sedgwick, a self-proclaimed “pervert” others saw as straight, did so with us—a function of her off-beat eroticism as well as of our having occupied analogous closets. She also identified with dying gay men—a function of her having deliberately confused breast cancer with AIDS. (See for example her essay “White Glasses,” in Tendencies .) And while she was quite sorry for ones who died young, whether of AIDS, at the hands of gay bashers, or through suicide—Sedgwick’s public writing about them is far more sentimental than deconstructive criticism had ever allowed itself to be—her most interesting (“potent, symptomatic, and, perhaps, friable or volatile”) sentimental (or peri-sentimental) moment concerns both a distressed young woman (Eve Kosofsky) and the even older young woman (Queen Esther) behind her. “Even today,” said an aside in Epistemology of the Closet, “Jewish little girls are educated in gender roles—fondness for being looked at, fearlessness in defense of ‘their people,’ nonsolidarity with their sex—through masquerading as Queen Esther at Purim; I have a snapshot of myself at about five, barefoot in the pretty ‘Queen Esther’ dress my grandmother made (white satin, gold spangles), making a careful eyes-down toe-pointed curtsey at (presumably) my father, who is manifest in the picture only as the flashgun that hurls my shadow, pillaring up tall and black, over the dwarfed sofa onto the wall behind me.” Later on, in an aside that explicates a decision “to break with the tradition of personal disclaimer and touch ground myself with a rapid but none the less genuine guilty plea to possessing the attributes, in a high degree, of at the very least sentimentality, prurience, and morbidity,” Sedgwick acknowledged this identification—an identification that has nothing to do with self-pity.
On the infinitesimally small chance that any skepticism could greet this confession, I can offer as evidence of liability—or, one might say, of expert qualification—the pathos injected in the paraphrase of Esther, in Chapter 1, which I loved composing but which is rendered both creepy and, perhaps, rhetorically efficacious by a certain obliquity in my own trail of identifications. As a friend who disliked those paragraphs put it acidly, it’s not me risking the coming out, but it’s all too visibly me having the salvational fantasies.
So it turns out that Sedgwick’s identifications with both gay men and Queen Esther were not very different from Woolf’s identifications with Strachey and Carrington. It also turns out that postmodern criticism—or queer theory, at any rate (thanks, once again, to Sedgwick herself)—is still more capable than modern literature of comprehending (both willing to deploy and able to fathom) sentimentality. (See, for example, Feeling Backward  by the wonderfully named Heather Love. See, on the other hand, Michael Snediker’s Queer Optimism 2009.)
Sentimentality, and also comedy. I last saw Sedgwick at a 1994 conference on “lesbian, gay, and bisexual studies” here, where I work, at the University of Iowa. Her talk, which I introduced, was a hilarious deconstruction of Marcel Proust’s deconstruction, in A la recherche du temps perdu, of what she called “peri-performativity”—or the seeming capacity of some speech act to nearly do something. My introduction, I confess, consisted in large part of a limerick, written by me, called “Sedgwick.”
A spankable critic named Eve
Wrote books that made homophobes heave.
She’d give them depictions
Of anal addictions
That showed them how not to conceive.
That “spankable,” as nearly everyone knew, referred to Sedgwick’s confession, in the essay “A Poem is being Written,” about her having actually enjoyed such treatment. She laughed, too, at my poem. Then so did the crowd. And then we all laughed at the talk. Of course, not everyone elsewhere enjoyed these shenanigans. Donald Morton, a gay Marxist, called such comedy—derisively—“ludic poststructuralism.” Lee Siegel, a non-gay near-Marxist, called such confessional work “a reveal-all-hurts-and-wounds style of writing.” I myself, though, quoting the play Plenty (1978) by David Hare, have called—in fact still call—both modes combined: “psychiatric cabaret.”
What was it about Sedgwick, maybe in her very “being,” that made so many such theorists, younger men in particular, want to please her—and even, with all due aggression, to emulate her? Or even, as some readers here will know, to steal from her. She seemed to think, in relation to most gay men, that she was a mother figure. For those of us who write, if only criticism, she also seemed to think she was Proust’s mother. (“Is it not the mother,” she asked rhetorically in Epistemology of the Closet, “to whom both [any] coming-out testament and its continued refusal to come out are addressed? And isn’t some scene like that behind the persistent force [in A la recherche] of the novel’s trope, ‘the profanation of the mother’?” Then again, she could see herself as Proust too. “Who hasn’t dreamt,” she also asked, “that A la recherche remained untranslated, simply so that one could—at least if one knew French—by undertaking the job justify spending one’s own productive life afloat within that blissful and hilarious atmosphere of truth-telling.”)
She was also, therefore, a kind of, well, fag hag. (“Sometimes,” she wrote in A Dialogue on Love , “I think the term ‘fag hag’ has a fake specificity. Maybe it does the same work that, say, ‘nigger lover’ did in the ’50s and ’60s: to punish anyone who doesn’t feel some form of contempt that their society says they ought to feel. So I don’t have any sense whether or not the term describes me.”) Or if not fag hag, I’d say diva. But I also think, at bottom, that she became our own Fat Lady, someone we were supposed to do all sorts of things for (shine those shoes, try to be funny, be sentimental)—and that she became her for reasons which reflect Sedgwick’s own feminocentric sentimentality. After all, the woman, we knew, was dying—as perhaps am I. Yet unlike Salinger’s basically pathetic figure, Sedgwick seemed ideal as well. She was, to invoke both Bonamy’s and Woolf’s sentimentality, sublime, devastating, terrific—and never at all crusty.
But what if our sentimentality is, if not excessive, inauthentic? To pose a series of naive and somewhat disingenuous questions, what if some of us do turn it off and on like charm? What if, for some of us, sentimentality is our particular charm? Do we turn it on simply because (yet how complicated that “simply” is), as writers who’ve inadvertently confused the emotion with pity, we need readers—readers like Sedgwick, that is—to love us? Or maybe to love us back. And, to re-pose the final question of Wilde’s An Ideal Husband, the oddest (most potent, symptomatic, friable and volatile) of the plays: “Is it love you feel for me, or is it pity merely?”