Finding Bachelard’s Poetics of Space in Virginia Woolf's The Lady in the Looking Glass
The Lady in the Looking Glass by Virginia Woolf offers the reader a powerful analogy of the mind to a room, allowing us to derive key lessons from theorist Gaston Bachelard regarding the positioning of the individual in time and space.
Lady Isabella finds herself standing before a mirror in the drawing room pondering the life sequence that has passed before her as Woolf drills in on a spatial analogy. “Her mind was like her room, in which lights advanced and retreated, came pirouetting and stepping delicately, spread their tails, pecked their way; and then their whole being was suffused, like the room again, with a cloud of some profound knowledge, some unspoken regret, and then she was full of locked drawers, stuffed with letters, like her cabinets,” Woolf writes in the Lady in the Looking Glass.
In his work, The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard offers additional insights into the conceptual yet hidden realm of the future in prose. “With the theme of drawers, chests, locks and wardrobes, we shall resume contact with the unfathomable store of daydreams and intimacy,” Bachelard states.
(Bachelard, 1964) For Isabella, this
imagination translates into a fantasy world of love, passion, love lost that
may contrast her life as a “spinster.” “….Isabella has known many people, had had
many friends: and thus if one had the audacity to open and drawer and read her
letters, one would find the traces of many agitations, of appointments to meet,
of up bradings for not having met, long letters of intimacy and affection,
violent letters of jealousy and reproach, terrible final words of parting – for
all those interviews and assignations had led to nothing – that is she never
married, and yet, judging from the mask-like indifference of her face, she had
gone through twenty-times more of passion and experience than those whose loves
are trumpeted forth for all the world to hear.” (Woolf)
In the world of the lonely spinster Isabella, the cabinet offers a receptacle to hide the anguish of her solitude. “Wardrobes and their shelves, desks with their drawers and chests with false bottoms are veritable organs of the secret psychological life,” Bachelard states. “The pages inside those marble-looking envelopes must be cut deep and scored thick with meaning. Isabella would come in, and take them, one by one, very slowly, and open them, and read them carefully word by word, and then with a profound sigh of comprehension, as if she had seen the bottom of everything, she would tear the envelope to bits and tie the letters back together and lock the cabinet door in her determination to conceal what she did not wish to be known,” Woolf writes.
As the drawer is pried open, so too is the soul of Isabella for the reader to view. “Every poet of furniture – even if he be a poet with a garret, and therefore has no furniture, knows that the inner space of an old wardrobe is deep. A wardrobe’s inner space is also intimate space, space that is not open to just anybody,” Bachelard writes.
(Bachelard, 1964) “Isabella did not wish to be
known – but she should no longer escape. It was absurd. It was monstrous. If
she concealed so much and knew so much one must prize her open with the first
tool that came to hand – the imagination,” Woolf writes. (Woolf)
For Bachelard, the concept of the drawer files away the creativity and quells vitality. “Concepts are drawers in which knowledge may be classified; they are also ready-made garments which do away with individuality of knowledge that has been experienced. The concept soon becomes lifeless thinking since, but definition, it is classified thinking,” Bachelard states.
“To talk of ‘prizing her open’ as if she were an oyster, to use any but the finest and subtlest and most pliable tools upon her was impious and absurd. One must imagine – here she was in the looking glass, it made one start,” Woolf writes.
For the protagonist of this story, the Bachelard projection of lifelessness rings true as Woolf writes: “Isabella was perfectly empty. She had no thoughts. She had no friends. She cared for nobody.”
(Woolf). In the final
revealing scene, the reader learns that Isabella’s current letters are
comprised of bills, not even worthy of opening.
This Virginia Woolf work offers a somber treatment of the spinster, revealing alienation and the secret concealed nature of the individual’s soul through the spatial relationships drawn between the mind, the room and its contents.