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Virginia Woolf and the sciences of prehistory: a study of five major novels

Research output: ThesisDoctoral Thesis

Publication date2019
Number of pages267
Awarding Institution
Thesis sponsors
  • Office of Higher Education, Thailand
  • Lancaster University
<mark>Original language</mark>English


This thesis examines Woolf’s major novels and other writings in relation to the discourses of science in her period. As a modernist writer, she has been considered as anti-science and an advocate of formalist aesthetics. A later literary-critical generation constructed her as a feminist writer, at once robust and subtle in her polemics and experimental techniques. But Woolf also consistently expressed her interest in a variety of sciences including natural history and biology, palaeontology, physics, psychoanalysis, technology, astronomy, archaeology and anthropology. By examining her diverse scientific interests, particularly as they cluster around the notion of prehistory, this thesis examines in detail five of her major novels. Her first novel The Voyage Out sets forth, in the light of Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution, on the mission of creating a new self and a language suitable for women’s use to express their subtle experiences and elusive attitudes to society. Jacob’s Room and Mrs. Dalloway reveal Woolf’s awareness of social agitation and national instability in a time of global turbulence through the discourses of melancholia, medicine and psychoanalysis. The Waves exemplifies the novelist’s attempt to integrate her interest in the new physics of her time to portray the radical indeterminacies of modern life as well as creating new forms of modernist writing. Woolf’s final novel, Between the Acts, which is informed by her archaeological and anthropological concerns, accentuates her sceptical ideas on human history and extinction drawing on Jane Harrison’s anthropological account of ancient Greek ritual as her modernist narrative technique. Science in Woolf is not a distraction from her feminist-experimental concerns, but rather an enabling condition of them.