Photo of bullied little boy in classroom

Woolf’s The Waves and tormented public-school boys: A Closer Look at JML 46.4

By Patricia Morgne Cramer, author of “‘Everyone chooses their love after their own fashion’: The Waves as a Modernist Symposium,” Journal of Modern Literature 46.4, now on Project Muse, free for a limited time.

This moment of reconciliation . . . this evening moment [ ] with…youth coming up from the river in white flannels, carrying cushions, is to me black with the shadows of dungeons and the tortures and infamies practiced by man upon man.

(Woolf, Waves 219)

As a novice [‘barely turned seven’] I was soon taken to see the dungeons…. The sight of a boy in fetters…was not exactly fitted to assuage the natural terrors of initiation…. I was told he had run away…. And here he was shut by himself by nights, out of reach of any sound.

(Charles Lamb [1775-1834], First day at Christ’s Hospital)

My reading of Virginia Woolf’s The Waves as a modernist symposium began when I first realized how intimately A Room of One’s Own (1929) predicts The Waves (1931). In Room of One’s Own Woolf advises women writers to spotlight men’s mental disabilities, at least those common to educated men of her generation and class. She asks, “why are these men so angry [at women]?” (32). In The Waves Woolf responds, finding the origins of male habits of domination in men’s fear of other men, terrors rooted in boyhood, which for elite men of Woolf’s life span meant public schools. My essay in JML 46.4 follows this line of causality to attribute the failed literary ambitions of Bernard, Louis, and Neville to this breed of virility that Woolf condemns in Room.

Like other second wave feminists, I have made Woolf’s declaration—“Women Alone Stir My Imagination”—the centerpiece of my work, downplaying the influence of Bloomsbury men.1 Then a few years ago, I decided that because Woolf’s feminism, including her lesbian aesthetics, took shape within Bloomsbury, I should look afresh at the writings and lives of the men she was so fond of. After all, as late as 1936, despite innumerable bouts of rage over the years at their manly ways, Woolf maintained, “All the people I most respect and admire have been . . . ‘Bloomsbury’” (L6 53). I realized my work was incomplete without them.

I first immersed myself in Bloomsbury (Clive Bell, Goldie Dickinson, Roger Fry, John Maynard Keynes, Leonard Woolf, E.M. Forster, Lytton Strachey), then other moderns (W. H. Auden, Richard Aldington, Samuel Butler, Cyril Connolly, Robert Graves, Harold Nicolson, C. S. Lewis, Compton MacKenzie, Robin Maugham, Stephen Spender, Alec Waugh, and H. G. Wells). To my surprise, from each of these prominent moderns I heard an outpouring of rage, fostered by boyhood miseries, not yet accounted for in Bloomsbury or modernist studies.

My essay is prelude to a monograph in which I read The Waves alongside the diatribes against public schools that I discovered. As I extended my reading of public-school histories and old boy memoirs back into the nineteenth and then eighteenth centuries, I found that not since Romantics Samuel Coleridge, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, and Percy Shelley has a generation of old boys protested so truthfully against their elite educations. Public school brutalities were widely exonerated because public schools were so good at turning out the manly gentleman, the coveted public-school type.

The Waves resonates with the cries of boys bullied and thrashed by public-school masters and older boys, just as the minds of old boys remained haunted by scenes of boyhood agonies. One scenario appears repeatedly: a boy—not the author himself—is being caned or otherwise tortured in the next room or in front of the entire school or group of boys; the author is forced to witness (at public schools, violence against boys was staged and often public); the tormented boy’s screams of pain reverberate through time. An anonymous informant at Bedford public school in the 1930s, recalling a small boy on display naked, electrocuted by older boys writes, “I can hear his screams to this day” (qtd. in Gathorne-Hardy 179). An Eton schoolmate of Percy Shelley (1792-1822) recalls, “I have seen him [Shelley] surrounded, hooted, baited like a maddened bull—and at this distance of time I seem to hear ringing in my ears the cry which Shelley was wont to utter in his paroxysm of revengeful anger” (qtd. in Bieri 58).

This recalcitrant offstage scream that I find so often in old boy memoirs recurs in The Waves as moaning doves (sometimes pigeons) commingled with the song of the choir boy (“one boy’s voice wail[ing] round the dome like some lost and wandering dove” [281]). This cry of the choir boy weaving through The Waves is the voice of shock and terror, echoing down the ages, of little boys coming to manhood amidst the omnipresent threat of male violence and sexual violation. It is the voice of boy rage at and fear of other men (doves defecating on the statue of the school founder [61]); lonesome agonies (“moaning pigeons” [51]); and yearning (the choir boy’s momentary soaring triumph [282]). What Woolf seems to have captured in this dove-like choir boy cry is a resurgent, resistant male voice so often lost in the process of initiation into manhood that I have also discovered in these memoirs.

A Room of One’s Own presents history as haunted by the ghostly cries of women—the “many who wept their eyes out” (“Florence Nightingale shrieked aloud in her agony” [57]). Is the choir boy’s cry, briefly resurrected in Woolf’s lifetime then lost to subsequent generations, the male equivalent of Shakespeare’s sister, buried within the traumatized imaginations of the sons of empire as well as—or so The Waves suggests—the boy-haunted literary canon?


1 I am especially indebted, of course, to the work of Jane Marcus.

Works Cited

  • Bieri, James. Percy Bysshe Shelley: A Biography. Johns Hopkins UP, 2004.
  • Gathorne-Hardy, Jonathan. The Public School Phenomenon 597-1977. Hodder, 1977.
  • Lamb, Charles. “Christ’s Hospital Five and Thirty Years Ago.” Christ’s Hospital: Recollections of Lamb, Coleridge, and Leigh Hunt, edited by Brimley Johnson. George Allen, 1896, pp. 36-64.
  • Woolf, Virginia. The Diary of Virginia Woolf. 5 volumes, edited by Anne Oliver Bell. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1977-1984. 
  • —. The Letters of Virginia Woolf. 6 volumes, edited by Nigel Nicolson and Joanne Trautmann. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975-1980. 
  • —. A Room of One’s Own. 1929. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1957.
  • —. The Waves. 1931. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1959.

PATRICIA MORGNE CRAMER ([email protected]) is associate professor of English at the University of Connecticut at Stamford. She is co-author of Virginia Woolf: Lesbian Readings. Her most recent essays on Woolf and sexuality appear in the Cambridge University Press collections, Virginia Woolf in Context (2012) and Cambridge Companion to Virginia Woolf (2010). “The Waves as a Modernist Symposium” is based on her current book project, The Waves: A Love Story / Bloomsbury vs. the Public Schools.

Bullied schoolboy photo courtesy of Adobe Stock Images.