The Carnivalesque and Grotesque Realism in Modernist Literature

The Carnivalesque and Grotesque Realism in Modernist Literature:
The Final Novels of Ronald Firbank and Virginia Woolf
Marlene Katherine Case
A Thesis Submitted to the Faculty of
The Dorothy F. Schmidt College of Arts and Letters
In Partial Fulfillment of the Requirements for the Degree of
Master of Arts
Florida Atlantic University
Boca Raton, FL
May 2015
Copyright 2015 by Marlene Katherine Case
The author wishes to express sincere gratitude to Dr. Oliver Buckton and Dr.
Julieann Ulin for all of their patience, guidance, and support throughout this project. A
distinctive appreciation is extended to Dr. Don Adams, who not only kindled a desire to
further investigate the work of Ronald Firbank and Virginia Woolf, but who always made
time to answer questions and provide a further inspiration toward, and understanding of,
literature as a whole. In addition, the author is thankful to Dr. John C. Leeds for his
illuminations into the history and progression of the English language that made the
insights provided throughout this manuscript much more worthy.
Marlene Katherine Case
The Carnivalesque and Grotesque Realism in Modernist Literature:
The Final Novels of Ronald Firbank and Virginia Woolf
Thesis Advisor:
Dr. Don Adams
Master of Arts
Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli by Ronald Firbank and Between
the Acts by Virginia Woolf both liberate the text from the expected form to engage
emotional awareness and instigate reform of societal standards. Employing Mikhail
Bakhtin’s theories of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism as a means to create this
perspective is unconventional; nevertheless, Firbank, predominantly misunderstood, and
Woolf, more regarded but largely misinterpreted, both address sexuality and religion to
parody what they believe to be the retrogression of civilization by narrating christenings,
pageants, and other forms of carnival. Both novels forefront nonconformity, and the
conspicuous influence of debasement is identified as a form of salient renewal.
Christopher Ames, Melba-Cuddy Keane, and Alice Fox have already expressed
remarkable insight into Woolf; unfortunately not a single scholar has approached
Firbank’s text in this manner, and this essay discusses the value of both authors in the
aspect of Bakhktin’s theories.
This manuscript is dedicated to Justin D Case, who is more encouraging and
open-minded than anyone else I have ever known. Also, I would like to dedicate this
work to Waneya, Maxwell, and Troy Bryant, who in large part made this project possible
by lending me the back room of their home to research and write; to my Fairy Godmother
Patty Muenznmeyer and The Old Troll Art Muenzenmayer for their support and
confidence; to Amanda Meulton for always having an open ear and a being a loving
confidant; and to Kathleen Anne, Paul Edward, Lisi Marie, and Paul James Grimm, who
all recognized the difficulty of this endeavor, but who also appreciated that the pursuit of
this challenge would prove to be advantageous and fulfilling for me in the end.
The Carnivalesque and Grotesque Realism in Modernist Literature:
The Final Novels of Ronald Firbank and Virginia
Chapter 1: Introducing Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theories of the Carnivalesque and Grotesque
Realism ......................................................................................................................... 1
Chapter 2: The Modernist Multi-voiced Perspective ........................................................ 11
The English Modernist Literary Agenda .................................................................................. 11
English Modernism Meets with the Ideals of Carnivalesque and Grotesque
Realism ........................................................................................................................................ 19
Emotion as Perceived through Between the Acts and Concerning the Eccentricities of
Cardinal Pirelli ......................................................................................................................... 27
CHAPTER 3: Playful versus Serious: History and Society in Virginia Woolf’s
Between the Acts ............................................................................................................................ 31
Narrative Background and Theoretical-Critical Approach ................................................. 31
Life and Death .................................................................................................................................. 33
Debasement and Renewal ............................................................................................................. 39
Grotesque Realism Unifies with the Carnivalesque .............................................................. 44
The Final Act .................................................................................................................................... 50
Chapter 4: Ronald Firbank’s Mode of Carnivalesque and Grotesque Realism: The
Quandary of Politics, Religion, and Society ............................................................... 55
Firbankian Aesthetics and Ethics ................................................................................................ 55
Firbank’s Take on Religious Conventions in the Carnivalesque and Grotesque
Realism ........................................................................................................................................ 59
Society, Sexuality, and Satire ...................................................................................................... 63
Firbank’s Paradoxical Ideal of Life and Death, or Debasement and Renewal:
Eccentricity Personified in the Arena of Carnivalesque and Grotesque
Realism ........................................................................................................................................ 66
Works Cited ...................................................................................................................... 81
Chapter 1
Introducing Mikhail Bakhtin’s Theories of the Carnivalesque and Grotesque Realism
Let us take a few moments to discern the theoretical and critical approach that
will be used to analyze the texts that we will be examining, namely the modernist texts
Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf and Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal
Pirelli by Ronald Firbank. The rhythm of the language in their work invokes the reader to
perceive and interpret emotion, and when reading Firbank and Woolf’s last novels
through the context of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism the reader is even better
able to understand the authors’ overall positions with regard to their struggle against the
society structures prevalent during their lifetimes. Furthermore, the portrayal of the
carnivalesque combined with grotesque realism is successful in both of these novels
because Firbank and Woolf liberate the text from the expected form through their own
styling of spatial montage.
Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli is not plot-driven; rather, the
protagonist moves from one scene to the next as he interacts with, and causes interaction
between, all of the other characters. In Firbank’s final novel we first notice this universal
interaction taking place between the guests, and even the dogs, present in the church
during the christening of the police-dog Crack at the beginning of the novel. In addition,
the characters also associate at the town circus, as well as in the cathedral for other
ceremonies; they mingle on the streets and at bars, and as invited guests in the homes of
upper class society members. Cardinal Pirelli is role-playing throughout the entire novel,
and so are all the other characters. Firbank presents his readers with an alternative view
of their shifting society, and he asks that we join him in taking a few moments to realize
that change, or difference, does not always have to cause anxiety, but can instead be both
positive and renewing. Firbank begins Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli
with the baptism of a dog exactly because he wants to reiterate to himself and to his
readers how absurd the world really is, and also in the hope that through absurdity comes
resolution -- not absurdity of the warlike and abusive nature, but absurdity of the playful
and peaceful nature1.
Taking place within a twenty-four hour timespan amidst the backdrop of the
English countryside during the vehement outbreak of WWII, Between the Acts revolves
unexpectedly around a parodic pageant based on English history. The novel takes place in
an English village where a lunch feast is served in the barn as cows are strolling about,
and birds are heard singing. Georges Letissier reads Concerning the Eccentricities of
Cardinal Pirelli as a neo-pastoral landscape whereby the characters are able to
shamelessly pursue sexual freedom and personal passions by ignoring institutional
normativities and the call toward patriotism2. Similar to Concerning the Eccentricities of
Cardinal Pirelli, the definite backdrop of sexual tension and gender transition running
throughout Between the Acts is fundamental to the carnivalesque and grotesque realism.
For example, when reading Between the Acts, we encounter Miss La Trobe as she is
designing the setting for her pageant at Pointz Hall in the dead of winter, even though her
I am not insinuating that Firbank was aware of Bakhtin’s theories of the carnivalesque and grotesque
realism; rather, I am implying that even without being aware of said theories he was formulating a plot, an
artifice, which has been used before, and is still today innate to the human complex. In the Modernist era in
which Firbank lived and wrote, his plot-structure was perceived as new and as almost inaccessible.
See GeorgesLetissier, and Alan Hollinghurst. “/Ronald Firbank: Camp Filiation as an Aesthetic of the
Outrageous.” Études britanniques contemporaines 45 (2013): n. pag. 17 Feb. 2014. Web.
pageant will take place in the summer3. The world in these two novels is, as Mikhail
Baktin describes it, turned inside-out in a manner that allows for debasement as a means
for renewal.
Living in the same era as both these authors, Bakhtin developed several literary
and philosophical theories revolving around ethical values and the use of language
including insights in “linguistics, psychoanalysis, theology, social theory, historical
poetics, axiology, and philosophy of the person” (Clark Holquist vii). Though for
Bakhtin, living in the turbulent Russian atmosphere of Joseph Stalin’s regime, his
theories, while certainly not underdeveloped, were largely ignored; his original
manuscripts were either hidden away or largely destroyed, and often his writings were
published under the names of friends. His dissertation on Rabelais was never approved;
although later in his lifetime, when it was published, it brought him back again into the
regard of other scholars. Bakhtin’s dissertation is interesting because it provides a sense
of debasement and sexuality that had been previously disregarded or ignored, yet they are
important to the understanding and community of the social atmosphere as a whole.
When his thoughts on Dostoevsky were first published he was banished into exile, and
his work was principally ignored; but when it was reprinted after Stalin’s demise it was
received with considerable interest4.
The pageant actually occurs in June 1939. I prefer to think of June as the end of spring when everything is
coming fully to life, whereas Hussey believes that June represents the summer where everything is already
in full bloom and has come into the full development of livelihood. Both perspectives, of course, are
correct -- depending upon one’s viewpoint. In my perspective, the late springtime is more appropriate to the
motif of rebirth and renewal as the spring represents the beginning of maturation and humanistic (or
biological) understanding.
For an excellent short biography of Bakhtin and discussion about his body of work and his publication
history see the preface to Mikhail Bakhtin by Katerina Clark and Michael Holquist in Works Cited, pp. viixi.
Knowing that his hypotheses were useful, but also understanding that his thoughts
were antithetical to the atmosphere of his contemporary native Russian political and
sociological climate, Bakhtin was largely unable to publish and discuss his work until
near the end of his life. In the meantime, the factors of war were changing as the
increasingly industrial atmosphere was innovating hitherto unknown atrocities of
weaponry and poisoning. Genocide was rampant, and often disguised as a solution to the
problems humanity incurred as the agrarian social systems incurred large changes and
losses in the face of mechanization. Much of the general public welcomed the concept of
a socialized, communistic society as a reprieve to the opposition they were faced with.
Power was open for the taking; only later did the masses understand the catastrophe they
had in many ways helped to create. In the midst of this calamity, Bakhtin remained in the
background as he continued to work. Rarely did he correspond with family and friends as
he wrote his thoughts down, stashing them haphazardly once he was done, and moving
on to his next theoretical premise.
While Christopher Ames provides the most focused work on the idea of the
carnivalesque in Woolf’s final novel, he neglects to focus on the important aspect of
grotesque realism. David McWhirter concentrates more on what he describes as the
tragicomedy of history, and reaches towards grotesque realism; nevertheless, he misses
the importance of debasement as a form of social renewal. Melba Cuddy-Keane provides
a thorough backdrop and material description of several important scenes in Between the
Acts, but she also neglects to connect Bakhtin’s theories of the carnivalesque to the idea
of grotesque realism as a whole. Alice Fox provides an excellent reference in interpreting
Woolf’s use of Renaissance literature for her pageant in Between the Acts, but overall
there is no real focus on Bakhtin’s theories of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism
that are so important to understanding the final novels of Firbank and Woolf.
Unfortunately, no scholastic work or interpretations exist in relation to the carivalesque
and grotesque realism with regard to Firbank’s novel Concerning the Eccentricities of
Cardinal Pirelli; however, the avenue is available, and the opportunity should be
Firbank and Woolf experienced the same realm of confused humanity as Bakhtin
did, and during the same era. Between the Acts by Virginia Woolf and Concerning the
Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli by Ronald Firbank is the final novel each author wrote;
each was published posthumously, and each is a divergence from the style of their
previous works. While an aspect of emotion concerns all literary endeavors, Modernist
authors were more attentive to the subtleties and ranges of emotion that encapsulate
human life. Fragmenting their texts in an effort to express various emotions for their
readers to experience, Woolf experiments with the arrangement of her language, and
Firbank makes use of abundant dialogue and the lack of narrative direction -- a technique
he thrived on -- to create emotional perspectives for their readers to contemplate.
Therefore, it does not seem all that curious that Bakhtin’s theories and critical approaches
to literature and the philosophy of humanity as a whole infiltrates both their forms of
fictional writing even though they were most likely unfamiliar with his work as they
wrote. Bakhtin’s theories of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism developed within his
work on Rabelais and Dostoevsky are particularly useful when evaluating Firbank and
Woolf. Furthermore, his concepts of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism relate well
to the multi-voiced literary characterizations and perspectives that both authors employ in
their final novels. The analysis of these texts throughout this thesis will use Bakhtin’s
specific theories of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism to emphasize how Firbank
and Woolf use their final novels to expound upon how society can and should act as a
whole; furthermore, how when traditional social structures are overcome society is much
more at peace5.
Grotesque realism is necessarily involved with the carnivalesque, the former
being the literary mode by which the social institution representing the latter is achieved.
Therefore, the “[c]arnival is ‘a pageant without footlights and without a division into
performers and spectators … its participants do not watch but ‘live in it’, with its
suspension of ‘hierarchical structure and all the forms of terror, reverence, piety, and
Bakhtin made considerable headway in reevaluating the grotesque in terms of both aesthetic analysis and
critical response (Rabelais and His World (Cambridge: The Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press,
1968) and Problems of Dostoevsky's Poetics (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). For
further review see the German critic Wolfgang Kayser, The Grotesque in Art and Literature (Gloucester:
Peter Smith, 1968) who explains that in the 18th and 19th centuries the grotesque was more often viewed as
an absurd distortion of nature, with an exception being the viewpoint of Victor Hugo, who in his preface to
Cromwell (1827) insists that “the grotesque, transmitted through the medium of comic drama, is to be the
hallmark of literature henceforth…. It is also worth noting that Hugo associates the grotesque not with the
fantastic but with the realistic, making it clear that the grotesque is not just an artistic mode or category but
exists in nature and in the world around us” (Thompson 17, see Works Cited). In the 20th century the
grotesque comes more and more to be viewed as an intrinsic part of human nature, though the exact
definition and level at which it can be understood remain still in the 21 st century to be controversial. Also
see Arthur Clayborough, The Grotesque in English Literature (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1965) where he
discriminates against Kayser’s assessment of the grotesque in Chapter 4 by asserting that he “might well
have been more explicit” when differentiating between how one should regard grotesque art. That is, either
as “the autonomous grotesque which has run riot and enslaved its master, [or] the directed or ‘applied’
grotesque in which the fantastic elements are consciously employed for the purpose of the artist” (68). I do
agree with Clayborough’s point, especially for our purposes here, that “[t]he most valuable of Kayser’s four
complementary definitions of the grotesque … is the second: ‘The grotesque is the creation of the “Es”’, if
the latter term is understood in the sense of ‘the unconscious mind’ (Clayborough 68-69). Finally, Gabriele
Schwab says in Subjects Without Selves: Transitional Texts in Modern Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard
University Press, 1994) that “modernism appears no longer as a unified aesthetic and aestheticizing
movement of esoteric (if not reactionary ) writers, but as a diverse and heterogeneous cultural practice that
not only reflects the larger trends of its own time but also resists them and works toward shaping new ones
… Woolf, Joyce, Beckett, and Pynchon [and I would argue Firbank] share what Foucault once called an
“opening of language toward the unconscious. Such an opening constitutes much more than a
psychological device. It testifies to a cultural politics that uses the capacity of language to draw from
unconscious energies and creative skills in order to resist the unifying and codifying powers of language
and thus expand the boundaries not only of language, but mediated through it, of perception,
communication, and emotion.” p. 17.
etiquette connected with it’” (Vice PDP6 152, emphasis in original). In these two
concepts there are carnivalistic mésallainces between “‘the sacred and profane, the lofty
with the low, the great with the insignificant, the wise with the stupid’” (Bakhtin PDP
1237). Laughter applies to everyone in the carnival atmosphere, and this laughter often
revolves around the degradation and debasement of persons and objects.
Through the death brought on by degradation and debasement one is forced to
seek out new life and renew themselves by way of (re)birth. In Modernist literature this
degradation is often actualized through parody, although the parody is presented with far
less intensity than in the texts of Renaissance writers. Grotesque realism’s “essential
principle … is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal,
abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their
indissoluble unity” (Bakhtin RW 19-20). This degradation and debasement is viewed
cosmically in terms of upper and lower stratums whereby the lower stratum represents
earth and the upper stratum represents heaven. Associated with the cosmic aspects are the
bodily facets represented in the upper or heavenly realm by the “face or the head” and in
the lower earthly realm by the “the genital organs, the belly, and the buttocks;”
cosmically it is represented both as “an element that devours, swallows up (the grave, the
womb) at the same time an element of birth, of renascence (the maternal breasts)”
(Bakhtin RW 21). Degradation and debasement are meant to bring one down to earth, to
PDP refers to Bakhtin’s Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics, see Works Cited. Also see Bakhtin, PDP, pp.
122-123. In Rabelais and His World, hereafter referred to as RW, Bakhtin writes that the “carnival does not
know footlights, in the sense that it does not acknowledge any distinction between actors and spectators …
Carnival is not a spectacle seen by the people, they live in it, and everyone participates because its very idea
embraces all the people. While carnival lasts there is no other life outside it. During carnival time life is
subject only to its laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom. It has a universal spirit; it is a special condition
of the entire world, of a world’s revival and renewal, in which all take part. Such is the essence of carnival,
vividly felt by all its participants” (7).
For additional reference also see Vice in Works Cited, p. 152.
both consume and give birth simultaneously. A death countered by a renewal that
improves upon the person (or object) undergoing the degradation is the goal, and
degradation encompasses the lower stratum of the body including the acts of defecation,
sexual intercourse, pregnancy, and birth. When a person (or object) is degraded they are
meant to be thrown into “the reproductive lower stratum, the zone in which conception
and a new birth take place” (Bakhtin RW 21). In that way they are able to return again in
a renewed state to the upper stratum of the head, namely the mind and the face that others
While the grotesque in literature did not originate with modernism, modernist
literature may be the first period that, almost without exception, insists that the grotesque
must include the comic as well as the unnaturally outrageous or shocking. Philip
Thomson suggests that perhaps the most profound meaning of the modernist literary
grotesque is that “the vale of tears and the circus are one, that tragedy is in some ways
comic and all comedy in some way tragic and pathetic” (63). Bakhtin tells us how the
seeming “nonliterary nature, that is the nonconformity of … images to the literary norms
and canons … have a certain undestroyable nonofficial nature. No dogma, no
authoritarianism, no narrow minded seriousness can coexist with Rabelaisian images,
[because they are] completely at home within the thousand-year-old development of
popular culture” (RW 2-3). These same ideas are just as useful when deliberating the
final works of Firbank and Woolf because both authors are rediscovering this equivalent
concept of mixing higher versus the lower classes of society in a way that their texts
investigate the ideal world situation for their readers through their unconventional
narrative forms.
In Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli Firbank presents a destruction
and reinterpretation of official events in much the same way that Bakhtin describes
Rabelais doing; and Woolf, also living and writing during “an age of experimentation, an
era in which art producers were consciously trying to escape the limits of their particular
genres,” provides a similar avenue of exploration and interpretation in her final novel
(Weaver 3). Imposing divergent forms of language simultaneously throughout their
narratives, Woolf and Firbank fragment their language in a way that engenders their
reader’s understanding the greater impression, and emotion, that the authors are trying to
convey. Moreover, when approaching these novels in the context of the carnivalesque
and grotesque realism, one must note that Firbank is far more brazen in providing his
audience access to outright opprobrious behavior, while Woolf, being more concerned
with form, is more subtle than Firbank, but just as absolute in her convictions.
Firbank and Woolf both succeed in infusing their final works with the constructs
of the carnival atmosphere, including various rituals, games, and carnal excesses;
Thomson imparts that “[i]t is likely that the play-urge, the desire to invent and
experiment for its own sake, is a factor in all artistic creation, but we expect this factor to
be more than usually strong in grotesque art and literature, where the breaking down and
reconstructing of familiar realities plays such a large part” (64). Both authors create
environments and situations that are playfully in opposition to society standards in an
attempt to create a new agent for understanding humanity’s awareness towards these
same standards. Where one reader may find these texts wholly amusing, another may find
them equally offensive. Bahktin explains that “the reason for this is [the] conglomeration
of personalities the reader encounters” (RW 27). He further explains how “[i]n the literary
sphere the entire medieval parody is based on the grotesque concept of the body;” this
idea of the grotesque concept of the body will also be further explored throughout this
thesis (RW 27).
Woolf and Firbank make use of multiple characters in their narratives Between the
Acts and Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli that are neither significant to
the story nor dominant to the plot. They also use these assorted characters to make fun of,
and sometimes render ugly, various ideas predominant in the human world: religion,
marriage, fashion, age, success, work, respectability, sexual identity, customs regarding
sexual conduct, nobility and the gentry; even ideas regarding life and death. To do this,
myriad characters and perspectives are presented similar to what one would experience at
the circus, or while walking through a local festival where voices and perspectives are
intermingled in a sense of reverence and appreciation for one another. Bakhtin explains
how “[t]he single adequate form for verbally expressing authentic human life is the openended dialogue … To live means to participate in dialogue: to ask questions, to heed, to
respond, to agree, and so forth. In dialogue a person participates wholly and throughout
his whole life: with his eyes, lips, hands, soul, spirit, with his whole body and deeds”
(PDP 293, emphasis in original). Living their lives with similar ideals in mind, for
example, their need to expound beyond the strapping politics and social customs of their
upbringing, and their need to each reiterate the foundations of the common social
atmosphere, as opposed to the in their dialogue, it becomes easy to understand how
compatible Firbank and Woolf were to writing fiction that embodied the concepts of the
carnivalesque and grotesque realism so readily into their work
Chapter 2: The Modernist Multi-voiced Perspective
The English Modernist Literary Agenda
Modernist literature abounds with experimental narrative forms. Although Woolf
is the more well-known of the two authors discussed here for her use of dialogue and
interior monologue, it may be that she learned some of these techniques from Firbank8.
Regardless, both Firbank and Woolf fragment language in a manner that causes their
readers to realize how communities modify the ways in which people interact throughout
history, the importance of family and personal relationships as opposed to acquaintances
Indeed, it is not out-of-the-question to believe that such a voracious reader as Woolf was acquainted with
Firbank’s work. It does seem likely. In fact, her half-brother, Gerald Duckworth, founder of Gerald
Duckworth and Company Ltd., published Firbank’s work (See Brigid Brophy, Prancing Novelist: A
Defense of Fiction in the Form of a Critical Biography of Ronald Firbank in Works Cited, p. 96.) Brophy
explains how “Firbank punishes Victoria Gellybore-Frinton a little further yet: by having her take the
rhetorical question literally and confess in reply that hardly anyone ‘is doing anything at present for English
Letters’ with the exception of herself and Lilian [Madam Adrian] Bloater - which latter I take to be
Firbank's name, and a fine one, for Virginia [Mrs. Leonard] Woolf,” see Works Cited, p. 344. Brophy, later
in her biography of Firbank when she is discussing his Mistress of the Robes character in The Artificial
Princess, questions “Was it an unrecognized (sic) memory of Firbank's novel that made Virginia Woolf
[Lilian Bloater] reassemble Firbank's syllables and name the author of her open-air play, in Between the
Acts, Miss LaTrobe?” (Brophy 425, emphasis hers). Furthermore, their contemporary, E. M. Forster, wrote
cautions to critics of both author’s work, although in somewhat different terms (See the Rede Lecture E. M.
Forester presented on Virginia Woolf at the Senate House, Cambridge, on May 29, 1941 and in a slightly
different format at the Royal Institute of Great Britain on March 5, 1942 (New York: Harcourt, Brace and
Company, Inc., 1942) and the essays entitled “The Early Novels of Virginia Woolf” (1925) and “Ronald
Firbank” (1929) in Abinger Harvest (London: Edward Arnold, 1961). Admittedly, while Forster’s
treatment of Woolf is positive overall, his treatment of Firbank is at points severe and seems today to be
based on a large misunderstanding of his style overall. For more insight on Forster’s unjust and
“disappointing” criticism of Firbank see Don Adam’s essay ”Ronald Firbank’s Radical Pastorals” (Critical
Essays on Ronald Firbank, English Novelist 1886-1926) pp. 1, 26-27; also “Laying it Bare and Being
Naughty with the Novel: Ronald Firbank and Henry Green” by David Malcolm, p. 135 in the same text.)
Ernest Jones indicates that Firbank’s technique of “careful selection and ordering of detail, his reliance on
evocation and juxtaposition […] has been so widely imitated—by way of [James] Joyce and Virginia
Woolf and not of Firbank, who appears to have developed it independently” that it becomes necessary for
the scholar of Modernist literature to again reassess Firbank’s position in the canon of Modernist literature
overall (See Works Cited xiii-xiv).
and passers-by and, perhaps most importantly, how one views their own self in relation to
society as a whole. Today, Woolf more than Firbank is well-regarded both for her
creative ingenuity and her curious point-on assessment of the changing human condition,
however Firbank should not be at all disregarded or forgotten.
In Between the Acts Woolf plays with poetics and lyrics and music and silence -all at once. The reader is meant to become immersed in the entire realm and rhythm of
the text, and thus can also come to realize the textual wordplay of musical sound and the
sociological interplay between the high and low usage of word context and verbal
interchange that is exhibited in the experimental ingenuity of language and syntax that
are at play. Combining dialogue with poetry and stage directions, she asks that her
readers realize the greater meaning that rhymes and silences and allusions and
fragmentations create as they actively participate in her language. Indeed, Firbank was
one of the first authors to create “simultaneity or spatial montage (the disruption of linear
narrative structure in favour (sic) of interaction in space)” (Gardiner 94). And by doing so
he is able to liberate the novel from the expected form to make to the focal point of the
text become an interaction with, and understanding of, societal structures for his readers;
as is his intent. Woolf creates a similar diversity in Between the Acts, and this is how both
authors demonstrate the artistry and command of the English language as a means to
provoke insight and engender the changes they feel are necessary for the social structure
of their own society to become stronger and more balanced.
Presenting the relationship between the Greek Alexandrian-era pastoral author
Theocritus’s style in association to Firbank, Don Adams reveals what I believe is
analogous to the relationship between Woolf and Firbank as well: “Both writers create a
world through allusion and implication in which tone is all-important and characters and
actions are reduced to vehicles for the maintaining of mood or attitude. What is being
said, and by whom, is less important than the manner in which one is speaking and the
atmosphere created” (RP 79). While a pastoral reading could easily be applied to both of
the texts we are analyzing here, the pastoral is not something that will be focused on
extensively throughout this thesis; however, it does play a role in the overall interaction
between the characters in both novels. In fact, both of these authors use the fiction of
their novels to take aim at, draw attention to, and also disregard their current place in the
annals of time. Firbank and Woolf feel disgust at, and crave for a renewal of, their current
condition -- especially in the face of World War II.
Firbank uses dialogue almost exclusively to express what literary critics refer to
as a “multi-voiced use of language” (Morson 433). In The Dialogics of Critique, Michael
Gardiner quotes Eugene Lunn’s reference to the “crucial feature of modernism,” a feature
Gardiner refers to as ‘aesthetic self-consciousness’ or ‘self reflexiveness’: “The
modernist work often willfully reveals its own reality as a construction or artifice …
[and] such an ‘aesthetic of the new’ could freshen perceptions and cleanse the senses and
language of routine, habitual, and automatic responses, to ‘defamiliarize (sic)’ the
expected and ordinary connections between things in favour (sic) of new, and deeper
ones” (92-93). Woolf’s characters in Between the Acts play multiple roles as both
performers in the pageant and fictional characters in their own right. In Firbank’s
Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, the reader becomes immersed in the
snippets of conversations created by multiple characters as the cardinal travels from one
place to the next continuously throughout the novel. One could argue that Woolf’s use of
See Don Adams, “Radical Pastorals” in Works Cited; hereafter referred to as RP.
the multi-voiced perspective is even more foundational, immersed, and meaningful to the
scope of her narrative than Firbank’s. However, the multi-voiced layering in both of these
texts creates a rich ambiguity, and these fictional worlds are also filled with the authors’
deep personal emotions. Fragmentation and multi-voiced layering provide the avenue
through which both Woolf and Firbank are able to express their thoughts on sexuality,
politics, and social constructs.
In Firbank’s novel we meet Cardinal Pirelli, an ordained and presumably
sacrosanct minister who is christening a police dog named Crack when first we encounter
him -- an important scene we will return to later. Cardinal Pirelli represents the clown
figure, a man who expresses his inward wisdom about life through the guise of a fool.
Firbank “used dialogue not only to reveal aspects of character but to amuse, shock,
suggest, and to further whatever plot he had. Frequently, he used it to do all of these
things at once” (Potoker 32). In Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli Firbank
provides scenes of singular harmony and distinct ambiguity. In an example that takes
place when the girls at the College of Noble Damosels are preparing for the annual
celebration of their school’s ‘Foundation’ day to be attended by Cardinal Pirelli, they are
conversing about society, men, and sexuality in general:
‘Since seeing Peter Prettylips on the screen the Spanish type means nothing to
me,’ Senorita Soledad, a daughter of the first Marques of Belluga, the greatest
orange-king in the Peninsula, remarked.
‘How low. She is not noble.’
‘I am noble.’
‘Oh no; you’re not.’
‘Cease wrangling,’…. (316)
The almost incessant and non-directional dialogue throughout Firbank’s novel provides
his readers with meaningful insight into the playful, festive nature through which the
characters interact. Firbank provides little narrational direction throughout the novel, but
one could easily argue that the narrator is also taking part in the festivities as he does
occasionally remind us of places, situations, and conversations; and so it must be that he
is involved as more than just an observer. Moreover, Firbank is expressing his own ideals
and inclinations through his characters, and his portrayal of commonplace dialogue
introduces the more outward thoughts that would remain silent within the interior
monologue, or stream-of-consciousness narrative.
Firbank’s carnival atmosphere takes place in Spain, and also for a brief while at
the Vatican in Italy, so his readers are introduced to foreign (that is, not English)
dialogue. Bakhtin explains how language revolves around given context and
understanding: language as a medium of interaction exists regardless of divergent
language forms. Referring to a carnival, an arena where multiple personas from all walks
of life are intermingled, he claims that
The world becomes polyglot, once and for all and irreversibly. The period of
national languages, coexisting but closed and deaf to each other, comes to an end.
Languages throw light on each other; one language can, after all, see itself only in
the light of another language. The naïve and stubborn coexistence of “languages”
within a given national language also comes to an end—that is, there is no more
peaceful coexistence between territorial dialects, social and professional dialects
and jargons, literary language, generic languages within literary language, epochs
in language, and so forth. (Bahktin DI10 12)
In the atmosphere of the carnivalesque where the higher and lower classes intermingle,
and persons from places all over the world interact with one another as equals, actions
become more important that language. In Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal
Pirelli Firbank makes the interaction between everything, human and non-human alike,
evident by portraying the christening of the dog Crack, the gala at Duquesa Dun Eden’s
home where everyone is invited, and the activities of Cardinal Pirelli as he dons various
attires and plays the part of disparate characters as he connects with all branches of
When reading Between the Acts, we encounter Miss La Trobe as she is designing
the setting for her pageant at Pointz Hall in the dead of winter, even though her pageant
will take place in the summer11. For Woolf, “Between the Acts becomes united with an
opposition between life and death that is fundamental to her entire oeuvre. The leafless
winter tree in summer [or late spring] is a symbol of life in death; it is, essentially, the
core of the ancient rituals of death and rebirth…” (Hussey 139). Miss La Trobe
represents the figure of the other; she is the lesbian director who engenders the
atmosphere of conventional nonconformity integral to the carnivalesque and grotesque
realism in Woolf’s Between the Acts. It was thought by her fellow villagers that Miss La
Trobe had tried and failed at many endeavors, but “[v]ery little was actually known about
See The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M. M. Bakhtin. in Works Cited.
The pageant actually occurs in June 1939. I prefer to think of June as the end of spring when everything
is coming fully to life, whereas Hussey believes that June represents the summer where everything is
already in full bloom and has come into the full development of livelihood. Both perspectives, of course,
are correct -- depending upon one’s perspective. In my perspective, the late springtime is more appropriate
to the motif of rebirth and renewal as the spring represents the beginning of maturation and humanistic (or
biological) understanding. In addition, June is also the month in which Mrs. Dalloway, another example of
Woolf’s single-day narratives, takes place; undoubtedly June had significance to her.
her. Outwardly she was swarthy, sturdy, and thickset; strode about the fields in a smock
frock; sometimes with a cigarette in her mouth; often with a whip in her hand; and used
rather strong language—perhaps, then, she wasn’t altogether a lady? At any rate, she had
a passion for getting things up” (Woolf 58). Our contradictory introduction to Miss La
Trobe is already playful and ironically debasing at the same time, and the actions of both
our lead characters combined with the attitudes and actions of all of the other various
characters we meet in these novels are comparable to the festive atmosphere enjoyed
during the carnival when there is “the creation of special forms of marketplace speech
and gesture, frank and free, permitting no distance between those who [come into]
contact with each other and liberating from norms of etiquette and decency imposed at
other times” (Bahktin RW 10). An analysis of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism in
these texts is appropriate because “[First, c]arnival laughter is the laughter of all the
people. Second, it is universal in scope; it is directed at all and everyone, including the
carnival’s participants. The entire world is seen in its droll aspect, and its gay relativity.
Third, this laughter is ambivalent: it is gay, triumphant, and at the same time mocking,
deriding. It asserts and denies, it buries and revives” (RW 11-12). Laughter is
experienced throughout these two novels; it is shared between the characters as a group,
as well as directed at one another. Also, the laughter in these novels is felt and
experienced by the readers in an effort to employ them to realize the necessity for change
in their society. Therefore, in an atmosphere of communicable oneness this environment
nevertheless revels in the spectacle and acknowledgement of the baser sides of human
Contrasting ideas abound more distinctly in Between the Acts and Concerning the
Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli in the way that the actions of the characters are
fragmented from place to place, scene to scene, and time period to time period throughout
the narration of both of these novels in order to make readers further contemplate what is
happening between and outside the lines of text. Woolf allows her readers to realize their
own thoughts with regard to the actions of the narrative; furthermore, she allows her
reader’s individual ideas to resonate and be recognized more prominently within their
own minds by fragmenting the actions of her characters and their surroundings. Notice
how she creates a harmonious connection with language to that which is really not
harmonious at all:
For I hear music, they were saying. Music wakes us. Music makes us see the
hidden, join the broken. Look and listen. See the flowers, how they ray their
redness, whiteness, silverness and blue. And the trees with their many-tongued
much syllabling, their green and yellow leaves hustle us and shuffle us, and bid
us, like the starlings, and the rooks, come together, crowd together, to chatter and
make merry while the red cow moves forward and the black cow stands still.
(Woolf 120)
By defining the incongruous actions that occur within everyone’s lives, Woolf explores
the rhythm of otherness that nevertheless brings us together in a singular harmony meant
to be understood within the silence of our personal conscious and unconscious beings, but
also within the interactions of our larger social lives. She uses language and the
separation of language to identify the emotion of -- and create feeling for -- the characters
within her narrative, and for her readers as well.
According to Bakhtin, even the everyday differences normally acceptable within a
given specific language become unimportant. The differences between the speech of the
upper and lower classes, and the inhabitants of the country versus the city, are
indistinguishable within the realm of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism. In the two
novels we are analyzing here, emotions shared between, and contrasted amongst,
individuals and social divisions become evident through the concepts of the
carnivalesque and grotesque realism, and are represented by an ambivalent multi-voiced
layering of emotions accessible to all.
English Modernism Meets with the Ideals of Carnivalesque and Grotesque Realism
Although Woolf and Firbank each maintained private incomes, they were
nevertheless seeking a way to overcome the class systems and social codes that they
believed disintegrated, rather than strengthened, humanity as a whole (especially in their
native England). In the sense of finances, sexuality, and psychology Woolf and Firbank
are similar. That is, they reach outside of the codified respectable boundaries and do not
care, care too much, find release, and suffer all at the same time for their views and
values. Woolf, for example, had no problem openly maintaining intimate relations with
other women while also cultivating a prosperous livelihood with her husband, Leonard
Woolf, who was not only her lover but also her editor and business associate in their
jointly-owned Hogarth press12. Leonard was well-aware of her proclivities, and while he
Virginia Woolf was especially close to her sister, Vanessa; their relationship stretched the boundaries of
appreciation and disdain. They did not always agree with one another, but they loved one another and
respected their own opinions equally. Carrington also gave and received affection from and toward Woolf.
In may be that Virginia and Leonard were the final friends she associated with before her suicide (see Bell
vol. 2 p. 67 in Works Cited). Woolf also enjoyed an interesting love-hate relationship with Katherine
Mansfield - not physical at all, but psychological and emotional; without compromise. Her relationship
may not have encouraged them he nevertheless sanctioned them, and often he
accompanied his wife on visits with her female friends. Woolf’s nephew Quentin Bell
explains in Volume Two of Virginia Woolf: A Biography how Woolf received no
pleasure from actual intercourse13. Soon after their marriage Leonard decided that it
would be better for Virginia's overall health if she didn't have children. In fact, they
visited several doctor's, including her sister, “Vanessa's specialist,” and though “their
views differed ... in the end Leonard decided and persuaded Virginia to agree that, though
they both wanted children, it would be too dangerous for her to have them” (Bell 8).
Overall, Woolf’s relationships (with both men and women) were more psychologicallyemotionally sexual than physically sexual because the psychological and emotional rather
than the physical seems to have afforded her more pleasure.
Enjoying society most in the form of meetings with her sister and other artisan
contemporaries, including the members of the renowned Bloomsbury Group, Woolf lived
her life surrounded by philosophical discussions about art and aesthetics as well as sexual
freedoms and the body politic. While many believe Woolf was a snob, and others
believed her to be an ungracious recluse involved only in her own thoughts and
with Ethel Smyth is also interesting (see Bell vol. 2 pp. 151-153, 159-160, 170). Virginia's relationship to
Vita Sackville-West (Mrs. Harold Nicolson) is discussed on pages 115-120 in the same text by Bell we
have been reviewing, and the lead character of Woolf’s novel / biography Orlando is said to be based
largely upon Sackville-West and the relationship she and Virginia shared. From the time they met in 1925
“and for some years to come she [Vita] was the most important person - apart from Leonard and Vanessa in Virginia's life ... Vita would seem to have been invented for Virginia's pleasure” (115). But, in late 1934
or early 1935, Leonard and Virginia went to visit with Vita, and “[a]s they took their leave Virginia
realized that their passionate friendship was over. There had been no quarrel, no outward sign of coldness,
no bitterness, but the love affair – or whatever we are to call it – had for some time been quietly
evaporating, and that particular excitement had gone out of her life, leaving a blankness, a dullness” (183).
In the end it seems that Leonard was to her a solid rock of support and emotional stability regardless of
their occasional strife, and perhaps Vita was correct when she wrote to Virginia early in their relationship
saying to her that “you like people better through the brain through the heart” (117).
See pp. 5-6 of Bell in Works Cited.
inclinations, these ideas have little truth14. After all, Hermione Lee describes the
“dazzling talk she gave to the Rodmell Women’s Institute” on the Dreadnought Hoax
“which made her audience laugh themselves silly, gave her … the pleasure of reentering
the past, and, in the same breath, of satirizing uniforms and military dignity” (722). The
Dreadnought Hoax is a wonderful tale about the night she and five others boarded the
HMS Dreadnought after sending a telegram to the Admiral announcing that the Emperor
of Abyssinia would be visiting. They dressed up and boarded the most imposing ship in
the English navy at the time, and no one was the wiser to the whole escapade until
Horace Cole, one of the imposters, leaked the information to the newspapers when they
had all safely returned to London15.
Taking a stand against patriarchy and the military is something Woolf continued
to do throughout her lifetime, and apparently the Dreadnought incident was an event that
those closest to her remember being very dear to her heart. Let us also take note of the
lectures Woolf was invited to deliver in 1928 at the two women’s colleges at Cambridge
University, Newnham and Girton. A series of lectures on “Women and Fiction” was
offered at each college and received with mixed reviews; and although “[h]er lecture did
not seem, at the time, the stuff of which legends would be made” “she fused the two
occasions together” adding a few select anecdotes about her time and experiences during
See the essay Woolf wrote in 1930 entitled “Am I a Snob?” in Moments of Being (Jeanne Schulknid, ed.
Sussex: The University Press, 1976), pp. 182-198. Though Woolf concludes that she is a snob, I believe
that she comes to this conclusion with a mixture of seriousness and comedy -- as if to almost say ‘so what?’
to the whole situation. That is, perhaps in some of her mannerisms and opinions she could be qualified as a
snob, but she also often went out of her way to curb these innate values in search of a more common
picture and greater understanding of what the world has to offer. Furthermore, she goes out of her way in
this essay to insist that it is those with less wealth that are often more snobbish than those with more
wealth, and this is often the result that those with more wealth simply do not care what others think about
For a more thorough account of the details regarding this event see Penny Farfan’s Women, Modernism,
and Performance (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 89-90.
these lectures, and soon afterwards published one of her more famous texts, namely A
Room of one’s Own (Lee 557, 556).
On the other hand, Firbank, an author so charismatic in his writing, was far less
social than Woolf, and far less gratified by the outcome of his endeavors. He was often
either uncomfortably shy or outrageously outgoing in an effort to overcome his shyness.
Indeed, he was not at all subtle, and could be quite obstreperous when it suited him.
Brigid Brophy, in her thorough biography of Firbank, describes how he asked his friend
Vyvyan Holland (actually the son of one of his idols, Oscar Wilde) to arrange a meeting
with the writer Ada Leverson who had been close friends with Wilde, and whom Holland
referred to as “the Gilden Sphinx of Golden Memory” (Holland 109). When Leverson
invited them both “to call on her one Sunday afternoon at four” Firbank donned himself
in “‘a silk hat of Parisian proportions and the most remarkable pair of trousers then in
existence’ … ‘mauve in motif, with black lines of varying thickness running down them’”
(Brophy 272-27316). The guests rang Mrs. Leverson’s doorbell, and were told by a
servant that Mrs. Leverson was not at home. Firbank, who at the time left Vyvyan
Holland without speaking, later told him that he was convinced Mrs. Leverson had
looked out of the window and been frightened by his trousers -- and that he spent the rest
of the afternoon cutting up the trousers and feeding them into his bedroom fire. In my
mind the trousers, and the overall outfit Firbank wore to the meeting, represent the clown
figure -- the powerful outsider, the character so attuned to himself and his atmosphere,
yet so disregarded by others -- similar to his own character Cardinal Pirelli, and Woolf’s
embodiment of Miss La Trobe.
Also see V. B. Holland’s essay “Ronald Firbank” where Holland claims that Firbank was “really
“arrayed,” in the noblest sense of the word, rather than dressed….” See Works Cited, pp. 110-111.
No doubt he was shy, but Firbank playacted his innermost thoughts through his
writing, and what one must remember above all else is that the spectrum of his life is
expressed exquisitely through his prose. In addition, Firbank’s “carefully ordered décor
which he carried about on his travels” was also well-noted (Jones viii). Holland
remembers Firbank’s rooms at Cambridge “were filled with unaccustomed things
disposed in unusual places” and he goes on to describe how all the furniture was placed
in an untraditional manner; how fresh flowers filled the room throughout the year even
though no one ever saw them come in, and how “[i]nstead of the pictures one expected to
find in an undergraduate room, Firbank’s walls were covered with Conder lithographs,
etchings by Helleu, and other fine paintings” (Holland 102-10317). Artistic objects, and
especially their ironic portrayal and displacement, would later prove to be an underlying
development in his prose. Further, Osbert Sitwell describes Firbank’s “delightful fits of
deep, hoarse, helpless and ceaseless laughter, in such contrast to the perpetual struggle of
his speech. For so nervous was he, that the effort required to produce his words shook his
whole frame, and his voice, when it at last issued forth, was slow, muffled and low, but
never perfectly in control … he drank so much more than the little he ate. On one
occasion, for example, he went to dine with a friend of ours, who in his honour (sic) had
ordered a magnificent dinner, and refused to eat anything except one green pea!” (125126). Firbank seems to have lived life on his own terms; yet, no matter his ambiguous
sarcasm concerning the truths about life, there was always something just outside of his
For another interesting account of Firbank’s “small collection of objets d’art from which he never
parted” see Osbert Sitwell’s essay “Ronald Firbank” in Works Cited, p. 124.
Firbank remained unsatisfied and unfulfilled until his death by lung disease (as
well as alcoholism most like likely). Sadly, he was only thirty-nine. Woolf committed
suicide by placing rocks in her pockets and drowning herself in the River Ouse after
leaving a heartfelt letter to her husband. She was both terrified of the Second World War
and fidgeting over the viability of her recently completed Between the Acts manuscript18.
Both of these authors exude a presence of mind with regard to their personal emotions,
and it is their identification of these dissimilarities within themselves and in relation to
the world around them that enables their art to so deeply affect others. Each lived with a
fierce sense both of their own individuality, and also of an intimate connection to their
Both Firbank and Woolf present a vast array of playfulness and disharmony
within the narratives of these particular novels, yet neither presents a situation that is
terrifying, or a character that is wholly a caricature19. The situation or character is often
parodic, bizarre, absurd, and even at times ironic, or slightly satiric. In the case of
Cardinal Pirelli the situation may even go so far as to be considered somewhat macabre,
but that may only be a reaction to his sudden and unexpected death. Though the
characters and situations presented may seem uncomfortable or shocking when the reader
See the “note” Leonard Woolf wrote at the beginning of Between the Acts informing readers that at the
time of Woolf’s death the “book had been completed but had not been finally revised for the printer.” He
continues: “She would not, I believe, have made any large or material alterations in it, though she would
probably have made a good many small corrections or revisions before passing the final proofs.” Finding
the final edit of her manuscripts difficult throughout her lifetime, it seems that when she completed the
manuscript for Between the Acts she was not up to the task again. Her final letter to Leonard begins with “I
am certain I am going mad again. I feel we can’t go through another of those terrible times. And I shan’t
recover this time.” She then becomes reverent and thanks him, but admits she believes she must exit the
existence and realities of the human world before she ends her letter by expressing “I don’t think two
people could have been happier than we have been.” See Bell in Works Cited, p. 226.
Isabel María Andrés Cuevas suggests that Budge playing the part of the policeman in the Victorian
parody of Woolf’s pageant is representative of a caricature. In the context of her reading she makes a strong
argument; nevertheless, for our purposes here, Budge will not be considered as a caricature. See Works
Cited, pp.5-6.
first encounters them, they are never crass or truly horrifying because they are buffered
by the comedy of the situation or the character’s place in these situations. For example,
Firbank’s portrayal of a sacred christening being performed upon a dog named Crack,
and Woolf’s exposition of a relaxing afternoon walk taken by her character Giles that
results in the violent murder of a snake and a toad do not represent what they at first
glance appear to be. The concepts of carnivalesque and grotesque realism in terms of
strife, adaptability, and renewal work together in these novels. The emotions of the
characters as they are performed in the reader’s mind concern humanity as a whole within
any given timeframe.
Between the Acts is “Woolf's most explicitly carnivalesque novel. Comedy arises
from parody, incongruity, and linguistic play -- all forms characteristic of what Bakhtin
calls the “public square,” -- and these characteristics become obvious as the reader
continues to engage with the novel;” further, Woolf’s combination of villagers both high
and low playing parts in the pageant beside each other, and in contrast to their usual
positions in society, is an important aspect of how she attempts to bring equality to social
structures. (Ames 394, Bakhtin PDP 128). Additionally, Woolf makes use of her comedy
to further explore the political and social constructs of society; the incongruities of the
world we live in are displayed as evidence in an attempt to both enlighten and instigate a
change in her reader’s behaviors. Firbank explores the eccentric circumstances
surrounding the actions of Cardinal Pirelli, and unites Bakhtin’s theories of the
carnivalesque and grotesque realism as a social institution within his novel to
demonstrate that the festival atmosphere is not constricted by place, time, or social
situation. Charles Taylor explains in A Secular Age that
… the notion of complementarity or necessary alternation between
elements of opposed, or at least unequal, value supposes that society is set
in a cosmos in which such complementarities reign, governed by a time
which is not a homogeneous container, indifferent to its content, but is
multiform and kairotic. This is the kind of world in which Carnival, an
interlude in which established order is reversed, and the “world turned
upside down20”, could make sense. Thus order itself is in a complementary
relation to something beyond order, and this alternation recognizes the
beyond, and gives it its due. (712)
Firbank and Woolf both recognize the critical juncture instigating change in the
environment in which they live, and through their literature they desire to make evident
the opportunity for this turning point to their readers.
Woolf uses stream-of-consciousness, or interior-monologue, in the majority of her
fiction, but only rarely does this style appear in Between the Acts. And while Firbank also
employs some stream-of-consciousness in his final novel, dialogue is the main operator
in both the novels discussed here21. John Shotter and Michael Billig, in their essay “A
See Bakhtin RW in Works Cited, where the text reads “”world inside out” rather than “world turned
upside down,” p. 11. Bakhtin explains that “[a]ll the symbols of the carnival idiom are filled with this
pathos of change and renewal, with the sense of gay relativity of prevailing truths and authorities. We find
here a characteristic logic, the peculiar logic of the “inside out” (l’envers), of the turnabout, of a continual
shifting from top to bottom, from front to rear, of numerous parodies and travesties, humiliations,
profanations, comic crownings and uncrownings. A second life, a second world of folkculture is thus
constructed; it is to a certain extent a parody of the extracarnival life. A “world turned inside out.” We must
stress, however, that the carnival is far distant from the negative and formal parody of modern times” (RW
11). For our purposes here, let us believe that both Woolf and Firbank relied on their knowledge of
literature enough to understand that their parodies were not so formal, not so negative. Indeed, both authors
well understood how to reach their contemporary “modern” audience in manner that was actually
humorously uplifting, engaging, and evident given the current social atmosphere that they were operating
For a more extensive discussion of Ronald Firbank’s use of stream-of-consciousness see James Douglas
Merritt’s “Saints and Sinners” chapter in Ronald Firbank (New York: Twayne Publishers Inc., 1969), pp.
Bakhtinian Psychology: From Out of the Heads of Individuals and into the Dialogues
Between Them” begin by quoting Bakhtin: “‘Language lives … only in the dialogic
interaction of those who make use of it’ … Thus the move to the dialogical in psychology
leads us more towards a focus on people’s social practices, rather than on what is
supposed to be occurring within their individual heads” (Bell, Gardiner 13). For our
present study it is also important to note that the characters within these novels are meant
to express their author’s intrinsic thoughts; moreover, these thoughts are meant to be
applicable to the masses.
Emotion as Perceived through Between the Acts
and Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli
It is a hallmark of modernist literature to exhibit language that inherently awakens
emotions when the reader understands the rhythms the language is displaying. Iin
conjunction to the carnivalesque “the effect of the grotesque is at least as strongly
emotional as it is intellectual” (Thomson 5). Because the “traditional plot-led structure of
‘the novel’ was a source of frustration for Woolf, as she believed that it did not reflect
what it felt like to be alive” Woolf uses the imagination of her mind and the art of her pen
to make her language into a myriad piece of art itself (Jensen 112). While reading
Between the Acts it becomes evident that one must realize the interaction between the
fictional audience and the parody of history being depicted throughout the pageant;
moreover, the way in which the fictional audience, together and as individuals, responds
to the parodies of history that are being displayed is imperative to comprehending the
sense of transfiguration that Woolf is intimating throughout her final novel. Additionally,
it is important for Woolf’s readers to understand how they themselves can engage, and
bring into operation, their own voice, by uttering the words aloud to allow the punctuated
silences of the text to be realized with a greater exactness. Aaronson believes that the
modernist writer uses the expressive power of music to transcend the more formalist,
rational structure traditionally associated with classical literature. He maintains that
Modernist authors “turned to the musical experience as embodying a primordial vision of
human life expressed through rhythm or melody, pitch or volume, concord or discord. In
[the modernist author’s] search for a faithful representation of the inwardness of
experience, be it through individual consciousness or through the awareness of social
identity, they discovered in music a metaphor of harmonious coexistence” (Aaronson
3422). Woolf met this stricture; in fact she sought to realize it.
Firbank’s work has not yet been considered critically in terms of performance, but
the entire narrative Firbank creates in Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli
revolves around the actions and reactions of performance. The christening of Crack is a
performance of a Christian ritual; it is even more of performance because Cardinal Pirelli
is christening a dog as opposed to a child. The gathering a Duquesa Dun Eden’s home,
the Maiden Mass, the spectacle of the circus proper are all forms of performance Firbank
Also see Bucknell in Works Cited, p. 2 where he states that “it is [Walter] Pater who so clearly articulates
the scene of the modernist difficulty of style and form in the sense of the work of art as the difficult, and
potentially obscure, interface of parallel interiorities -- that of the artist, that of the viewer / reader /
listener” and theorizes about the ideas Aaronson is proposing concerning music and modernist literature in
more detail. Bucknell describes how “Aaronson points out that the formal experimentation that novelists
develop usually revolves around attempts to represent consciousness and to portray non-verbal awareness
by verbal means” (2). He further explains that “what Aaronson means by “harmonious coexistence” is
unclear,” and he uses “Woolf’s socially complex representation of popular music in Between the Acts to
recognize that inward harmony is not the only thing moderns sought from music” as an example (2). He
also suggests that Aaronson makes a valid point by saying that “in a strange recuperation of a romantic
belief in the expressive potential of music and in its capacity to go beyond the mere rationality of language,
many moderns do indeed turn to music in their search for a form to represent both conscious and
unconscious levels of emotion” (2-3).
found useful in his final novel. And Firbank may have found fuel to narrate these
performative episodes from his interest in theatrical performances. In fact, it is wellknown that he often attended performances of the symphony, opera, and ballet. Sitwell
tells us how
… always I noticed in gallery, opera-house or theatre … the lonely
stooping, rather absurd figure of a man some ten years older than myself.
With a thin frame, long head, and a large, aquiline but somewhat chinless
face, the cheek-bones prominent and rather highly coloured (sic), showing
that he was ill, he had something of the air, if one can imagine such a
combination, of a witty and decadent Red Indian. And is it possible that
there was, added to this, a touch of priest or even curate? He haunted the
background of my favorite scenes for me … The eyes of my phantom, I
noticed, were full of wit, though he never spoke a word, being always
alone.” (118)
Woolf and Firbank proved well able to express in prose the dialogical systems of the
human world even if they sometimes failed in expressing themselves fully in their
moments of forthright human contact.
And both Woolf and Firbank excelled at pursuing the new, and searching for a
way to express the peculiar emotions of humanity. Reading their final novels through the
lens of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism one can come to a communion with, and
perhaps even an acceptance of, the dissonances that encompasses our lives. In addition to
Bakhtin’s theories of the carvivalesque and grotesque realism, the approach to reading
these texts here will focus largely on reader response theory. The possibilities for
interpretations of any text are boundless, and it may be important to remember “that the
world is not only a messy place, but is also an open place” (Morson Emerson 36).
Though Bakhtin had distinct thoughts about what the carnivalesque and grotesque
realism represent in literature, he also believed that inquiry is never final, and that it
should be approached with “innovation, “surprisingness,” the genuinely new, openness,
potentiality, freedom, and creativity” (37). Both Woolf and Firbank manipulate language
in a manner that attains an emotional reaction in the mind of the reader, and while the
emotional reaction may differ from reader to reader, a study of their texts in the context
of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism should be both an interesting and fruitful
endeavor towards expanding the scholarship of these two literary artists.
Chapter 3: Playful versus Serious:
History and Society in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts
Narrative Background and Theoretical-Critical Approach
Taking place within a twenty-four hour timespan amidst the backdrop of the
English countryside during the vehement outbreak of WWII, Between the Acts by
Virginia Woolf revolves unexpectedly around a parodic pageant based on English
history. Applying Bahktin’s theories of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism to
Woolf’s final novel will enable a more complex humanistic reading of this text. In fact,
“Woolf believed, with Dostoevsky, that the “chief task” of the modern novelist was to
convey the “incessantly varying” movements of the mind “with whatever stress or sudden
deviation it may display” in order to represent the self in mental and historical process”
(McWhirter 78823). In addition, “the novel, like the pageant itself, refuses to permit any
simple understanding,” and this feature “is part of the full meaning of each” (Rosenthal
190). The narration of the characters and the lines of familiar British literature spoken
within the pageant mix with the rhymes of Isa and the village idiot, Albert, alongside
chirruping birds, mooing cows, and broken sounds from the gramophone.
Also see Virginia Woolf’s essay “Dostoevsky in Cranford” in The Essays of Virginia Woolf Vol. 3.
(McNeillie, Andrew, ed. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1986-88), pp. 113-115.
The pastoral and the modern combine as Woolf uses a poetically musical form of
language to present emotion and enable her audience to realize the importance of their
own participation within her novel. “The Pageant,” (sic) says Jean Guiguet, is
“asynthetic, theatrical and poetic version of Orlando, retracing through a series of
tableaux the evolution of the British consciousness, from Chaucer’s time to the present
day … when the play is over, as the evening falls, recalling that of the opening pages, we
realize that [each of the characters] are returning to [their] habitual ways, slipping back
into [their] everyday sel[ves] after this interlude which gradually fades in to the past to
merge with the stuff of which each life is made: acts and entr’actes, dreams and reality”
(322).The carnival is an atmosphere where everyone is equal, and this interacts well with
Woolf’s awareness of “the presence of commoners” in the vast amount of English
Renaissance plays she was familiar with (Fox 92). Woolf, however, delves deeper into
English history with other periods of well-known English writing in Between the Acts.
She also includes the Restoration and Victorian eras, and concludes with the final portion
of the pageant titled “Ourselves” as the one in which the actors turn the mirrors to the
audience in an effort to make them see their fragmented selves in present time more
The pageant begins just as the growing split in society ensues, that is, at the time
of the late Renaissance when “élite ideals of life [began to be] seen as incompatible with
much of popular culture, ideals of piety in the religious sphere, and of “civility” in the
secular domain. This secession doesn’t remain at the stage, but is the basis to remake
society, the active re-ordering of mass life, which has had such fateful consequences” and
which also seems to be the driving force behind Woolf’s sentiments in her final novel
(Taylor 8724). Highlighting the history of England through parody in the first three
portions of the pageant alongside the various antics of the village people that takes place
during the intervals, and concluding with the shocking mirrors display -- a scene meant to
represent the present day -- Woolf uses the ideas of the carnivalesque and grotesque
realism in an attempt to entertain and educate her audience by provoking their senses of
Life and Death
One of the longest speeches of the pageant highlights “an aged old crone and a
priest” (Fox 92). Just as birth and death, or beginnings and endings, are an important
motif in the carnivalesque and grotesque realism, so too are these same ideas significant
for English modernist writers. Therefore, the death of the common crone, Elsbeth, whose
“primary purpose in the pageant would seem to be to die” cues the beginning of the
speech by Reverend Steatfield that begins as a reverence to the tragedy of death and
“achieves authenticity by incorporating the opening line of the dirge from [John
Webster’s revenge tragedy] The White Devil, ‘Call for the robin redbreast and the wren’”
(92). Here we are again visited by the birds that Woolf seems to acclimatize with literal
soundness to life and death. The reverend concludes his speech and the Elizabethan
portion of the pageant with a comic and renewing (or rebirthing) turn by placing a
“benediction on a happy couple” with the line “Lead on the dance”… (92-93). The
various characters introduced in Between the Acts are all faces in the carnival crowd:
renewal is evident, but there are certain characters whose utterances are distinctly
See Lee in Works Cited, pp. 733-735 for a sense of how Woolf felt about and described her own
relationships with the gentry and village people she associated with throughout most of her adult life.
remarkable in terms of the ubiquitous atmosphere representative of the revolving life and
death involved with the unbiased environment of the carnivalesque and grotesque
Reverend Streatfield understands at the conclusion of the pageant that “we act
different parts but are the same,” and “Isa’s chants [throughout the novel] reveal a buried
consciousness of origins, the cultural memory that seems, in the novel, to inhere in
literature…” (Woolf 215; Hussey 142). Furthermore, Isa seems to comprehend that it is
emotion that distinguishes a human being from other forms of life. It “is Isa who
understands that the plot doesn’t matter, that the ‘plot was there only to beget emotion’”
and “it is Isa who responds most acutely to the emotional content—‘Love. Hate. Peace.
Three emotions made the ply of human life’—of the production25. Her intensely personal
reaction—utilizing the feelings and poetry of the play for her own purposes—suggests a
function of art which is belied by the pageant’s grand historical sweep” (Rosenthal
19926). Brenda R. Silver points out that “the Elizabethan playhouse as Virginia Woolf
envisioned it [was] a place where the writer and his audience, groundling and noble alike,
shared a common culture and participated in a communal act in spite of obvious social
differences” (29327). In communion with Bakhtin’s theory of humanity -- that being the
communal environment of high and low, and the celebration of both life and death -Woolf’s narrative in Between the Acts encompasses and realizes this same humanistic
See Woolf in Works Cited, pp. 90-92.
See also Fox in Works Cited, p. 92.
See Virginia Woolf, “The Leaning Tower” in The Moment and Other Essays (London: Hogarth Press,
1947) where she describes the writers of her generation being no longer comfortable in their hierarchical
class positions and having “the desire to be whole; to be human … the longing to be closer to their kind, to
write the common speech of their kind, to share the emotions of their kind, no longer to be isolated and
exalted in solitary state upon their tower, but to be down on the ground with the mass of human kind.” p.
Stanley Fish, in the section titled “Interpretive Communities” from his most
anthologized essay “Interpreting the Variorum” indicates that
meanings are not extracted but made and made not by encoded forms but by
interpretive strategies that call forms into being. It follows then that what utterers
do is give hearers and readers the opportunity to make meanings (and texts) by
inviting them to put into execution a set of strategies. It is presumed that the
invitation will be recognized, and that presumption rests on a projection on the
part of a speaker or author of the moves [s]he would make if confronted by the
sounds or marks [s]he is uttering or setting down. (Rivkin 22028)
Therefore, it becomes even more clear that it is the reader’s responsibility to use the text
that Woolf has provided them with to create their own meanings. The reader must decide
how Bart, Giles, William, and Albert operate in connection to Isa, Lucy, and Mrs.
Manresa; finally, how they all operate in connection to the signifying outsider, Miss La
Trobe, who represents the carnivalesque-grotesque clown in Between the Acts: “Miss La
Trobe seeks “oblivion” not only to escape from the problems of life, but also to
experience a rebirth. She is the artist who comprehends unselfconsciously the tragedy of
her community and makes every attempt to guide them to the recognition of rebirth”
(Rosenthal 203). And while it is true that her efforts are comically misplaced and clumsy,
For further consideration of Bakhtin’s ideas concerning the meaning and importance of utterance see
Morson and Emerson in Works Cited; also Clark and Holquist in Works Cited. Emily A. Shultz’s book
Dialogue at the Margins: Whorf, Bakhtin, and Linguistic Relativity (Madison: Wisconsin University Press,
1990) is also useful for investigating the sociological behaviors of utterance, and how utterances can create
meanings regardless of correct grammar usage through style and intonation -- especially comical meanings.
The language of “everyday life” often includes “abstract language forms [that] are put to work in actual
utterances in real social situations, often with the effect of undermining their formal grammatical or
dictionary meanings” and being relatable even when the primary languages of the utterers are different due
to context in space and time, p. 42. Information on this topic can be discovered by reviewing the pages
listed after “Utterance” in the indices of each of these texts.
they are also vibrantly legitimate, and are meant to create awareness toward and tolerance
of each natural phenomenon and the human individual simultaneously.
The reader must remember that “[a]lthough Miss La Trobe is by no means an easy
persona for Woolf, the vision animating her pageant is much the same as that behind
Woolf’s novels. The sense of the past informing the present, the recognition of the world
as being at once fragmented and unified, and the understanding that it is through art that
the world can become conscious…. Part of the novel’s interest lies in the complex way in
which the form and meaning of the pageant contribute to the larger significance of the
book as a whole” (191). Woolf means for her audience to note that Miss La Trobe denies
herself the satisfaction that comes with her community lauding her achievement as
director of the pageant because she knows they are still afraid to openly relay discourse
on that which her artistry has made them realize, and understand, and feel. Being aware
of these facts, La Trobe associated a “reunion with the one (whether in life or through
death) with the possibility of a rebirth” (Bazin 20829). Indeed, she decides not to make an
appearance for congratulations on her completed pageant, and the birds seem to agree
with her mood:
... the starlings attacked the tree behind which she had hidden. In one flock
they pelted it like so many winged stones. The whole tree hummed with
the whizz they made, as if each bird plucked a wire, A whizz, a buzz rose
from the bird-buzzing, bird-vibrant, bird-blackened tree. The tree became
a rhapsody, a quivering cacophony, a whizz and vibrant rapture, branches,
See also Hussey’s quotation from the notebooks of Samuel Butler concerning life and Woolf’s
association to the same frame of mind concerning these subjects in Works Cited, p.40.
leaves, birds syllabling discordantly life, life, life, without measure,
without stop devouring the tree. (Woolf 209, emphasis mine)
In fact, La Trobe is opposed to having an audience, and that is somewhat ironic given the
obvious, open, and spontaneous communication with the audience she plans for and
expects throughout her production. Nevertheless, the call of the birds bringing her back to
life at the end of the pageant unashamedly opposes her previous refrain of “death, death,
death” at the start of the final portion of the pageant when she had left ten minutes “to
expose them, as it were, to douche [her audience], with present-time reality. But
something was going wrong with the experiment” (Woolf 180, emphasis mine). And just
as La Trobe faces her panicked audience a shower poured down, and Isa “received two
great blots of rain full in her face. They trickled down her cheeks as if they were her own
tears. But they were all people’s tears, weeping for all the people … The rain was sudden
and universal. Then it stopped. From the grass rose a fresh earthy smell” (Woolf 18030).
The world has indeed been turned upside-down. In seeking rebirth La Trobe plies herself
and others with debasement and a sense of impending death (or at least doom) in the
process, but she achieves what she sought to impart. That is, the transmission that life can
be renewed more vividly, and with more satisfaction, after one has become
uncomfortable in their present communal environment.
Westling indicates that the birds’ “celebration of mutability and cacophony is
much like that conjured by Miss La Trobe’s pageant, as a carnivalesque, incongruous
group of villagers danced and processed across the lawn,” and La Trobe’s pageant seems
even more carnivalasque in terms of Bakhtin’s belief that “carnival celebrated temporary
For an enlightening and detailed account of Woolf’s understanding and feeling toward human tears,
especially in light of the atmosphere of World War II, see Lee in Works Cited, p. 720.
liberation from the prevailing truth and from established order; it marked the suspension
of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms, and prohibitions. Carnival was the true feast of
time. The feast of becoming, change, and renewal. It was hostile to all that was
immortalized and completed” (Westling 870; Bakhtin 1031). Reverend Streatfield
celebrates death by inviting the living to dance, and Miss La Trobe celebrates life by
provoking the sense of, and then accepting the death of, her current production as the
starlings awaken the birth of her next piece of artistry while at the same time “devouring
the tree” (Woolf 209). We are reminded again how Bakhtin implies that it is through
degradation that one is brought back down to earth: “the contact with the earth as an
element that swallows up and gives birth at the same time” (Bakhtin 21). Reverend
Streatfield as our fool, and Miss La Trobe as our clown both fulfill their duties by
invoking a sense of joy similar to “Medieval laughter, when it triumphed over the fear
inspired by the mystery of the world and by power, [and] boldly unveiled the truth about
both. It resisted praise, flattery, hypocrisy” (Bakhtin 92). In Between the Acts Woolf
provides a narrative that allows her audience to contemplate the mysteries and power
structures of the world they are living, in and hopefully invokes them to choose to realize
the truth and overcome their adversities with good will in mind.
It should be noted that Westling’s essay favors, and largely revolves around, French phenomenologist
Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s theories as well as various theories of quantum physics including those
developed by Albert Einstein to explain the interactions that have occurred and will most likely continue to
increasingly occur in the (inter)flux that occurs between the earth and humankind.
Debasement and Renewal
Perhaps easy to disregard on a first reading, debasement and renewal is a constant
presence in Between the Acts; in fact, “a sense of debasement as well as renewal is
associated with mud, water, and drinking. Filth and cleanliness combine somewhat
seamlessly with life and death…” as tumultuously and concordantly as do humans with
nature in general (Bazin 208). In “Virginia Woolf and the Flesh of the World” Louise
Westling reminds us that the “novel begins with a discussion of a cesspool, a seemingly
humble, even indecorous, subject for polite society, but it is one which turns out to
represent the basic workings of life—mutability, decay, and regeneration—which
underlie human affairs” (866). And all the characters in Woolf’s final novel are either
likened to animals or eventually have some interaction with animals.
Bart Oliver, for example, becomes a “terrible peaked eyeless monster moving on
legs, brandishing arms” as he speaks to his grandson, George, from a beak of paper
(Woolf 11-12). While himself taking on the attribute of an animal and debasing himself,
Bart also strives to further debase his grandson who is already “[d]own on his knees
grubbing” to discover the essence of the “leaf smelling, earth smelling” flower that has
captured his eye (11). In the Victorian portion of the pageant Albert becomes a donkey,
and this is another instance of play relevant to the carnivalesque and grotesque realism
that will be discussed further in this thesis32. Humans are described as and take on the
Also see Tromanhauser, Vicki. "Animal life and human sacrifice in Virginia Woolf's Between the Acts."
Woolf Studies Annual 15 (2009): 67+. Web. 13 May 2014 for a decisive presentation of Woolf’s use of
animal metaphor as a means of suggesting the difference and similarities between animal and human
nature; also as a means of suggesting Woolf’s disdain for her contemporary political climate -- World War
II in particular. Tromanhauser’s essay also discusses sacrifice and herding with regard to animals, and
relates this to the behaviors and emotions of human beings; further, this association is particular to the
characteristic behaviors of animals, and animals act (or respond) in the place of humans;
therefore, “inanimate objects, nature—indeed everything—have a legitimate role and a
legitimate right to the stage where human beings act out history. Moreover, everything
expresses some important, though ultimately incomprehensible, meaning” (Love 275).
The cows bellow, the birds chirp, the wind makes the leaves in the trees rustle
unabashedly, spontaneously, and instinctively just when humankind is unable to respond.
And here we might remember that in Bahktin’s terms degradation is the necessary part of
grotesque realism that unites one bodily with the earth, and in doing so creates an
instinctive renewal.
In providing her readers with an artistic rendition of language filled with the
silences and emotive feelings of what all of these many attitudes and perceptions mean to
her, Woolf is able to create emotion for her readers to respond to as they realize their own
environments and desires. She uses the rhythm and melody of her language to provide
pitch and volume to the concord and discord that surrounds each and every being and
situation that humanity encounters or is encountered by (Bucknell 2). Maria DiBattista
reminds us that “Woolf’s representations of the group mind echoes and addresses Freud’s
Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, a work she read while writing Between
the Acts, and “[l]ike Freud, she localizes the creative genius of the group in its use of
language, particularly in the collective productions of folksong and folklore (22033 34).
politics of Adolph Hitler’s view and treatment of human beings he considered to be other than perfect, and
the reactions and counteractions that ensued throughout the war.
See Virginia Woolf, A Writer’s Diary (New York: Harcourt Brace Javanovich, 1954), p. 310.
DiBattista cites Sigmund Freud, Group Psychology and the Analysis of the Ego, Standard Edition, Vol.
18, p. 183. Also see Hermione Lee, The Novels of Virginia Woolf (London: Methuen, 1977), p. 218; Allen
McLaurin, “Consciousness and Group Consciousness in Virginia Woolf” in Virginia Woolf” A Centenary
Perspective (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1984) Warner, Eric, ed., p. 38; and Gillian Beer, “ Virginia
Woolf and Pre-History,” pp. 103-108 in the same text. Additionally, see Bakhtin’s sense of the thorough
Woolf creates a carnival atmosphere where each character is dynamic in the moment; an
atmosphere where, as Bakhtin explains, “[t]he material bodily lower stratum and the
entire system of degradation, turnovers, and travesties presented this essential relation to
time and to social and historical transformation” (RW 81). Therefore, all the characters
are well aware of each other’s inclinations and tendencies, and are able to play with one
another and the nature of their environment shamelessly -- often through silent looks and
personal thoughts, but also in the form of open gossip and direct assault.
Aging and widowed Bart Oliver believes himself to be an upstanding war hero
and man of the manor, but many of the villagers view him as an old-fashioned and
brutish grouch. His sister Lucy Swithin, also a widow, is derided for her religious beliefs
and “Angel in the House” demeanors35. “Bossy” Miss La Trobe is mocked for her
eccentric unfeminine behaviors and unusual modes of attire (Woolf 63). William Dodge
is largely overlooked because everyone believes he is gay. Mrs. Manresa is considered an
over-the-top man-chaser; Isa is viewed as disinterested and rather unintelligent; and Giles
is regarded as (sexually) frustrated and unhappy. The substantial girth of “Eliza Clark,
licensed to sell tobacco” and able to “reach a flitch of bacon or haul a tub of oil with one
sweep of her arm” becomes turned upside-down when she appears on top of the stage
soapbox in parody of the rather dainty but fiercely powerful and revered Queen Elizabeth
of England (83). And let us not forget Albert, our so-called idiot, our court jester, who we
importance of folklore with regard to the carnivalesque and grotesque realism in the Introduction to RW in
Works Cited, pp. 1-58.
See the poem of the same name by Coventry Patmore written about his wife Emily as a glorified version
of her attributes being those of the perfect woman. Woolf did not agree with Patmore’s version of the ideal
woman, and satirized this embodiment of what a man believes a woman should be in “Professions for
Women” (Collected Essays Vol. 2 (New York: Harcourt, Brace, and World, Inc., 1967), pp.284-289.
often find in the most debasing and amusing of positions and situations. Davis McWhirter
explains that
Woolf praises the Elizabethans' radically inclusive attitude towards life,” a
“view which, though made up of all sorts of different things,” allows them
“to express themselves freely and fully,” to turn “without a hitch . . . from
philosophy to a drunken brawl; from love songs to an argument; from
simple merriment to profound speculation.” Like the comic writers, the
Elizabethans are free from “the cramp and confinement of personality”:
“They never make us feel that they are afraid or self-conscious, or that
there is anything hindering . . . the full current of their mind.” Yet their
possession of “some general shaping power, some conception which lends
the whole harmony and force,” does not preclude historical complexity
and “psychological subtlety,” or prevent them from conveying “an attitude
which is full of contrast and collision.” (79036)
The same is also true of the Restoration comedy that Woolf parodies for the second part
of the pageant -- perhaps even more so because Restoration comedy set out to revive the
comedy of the past, following the years when no theater was allowed at all37, and in
doing so borrowed especially from Shakespeare38.
The third part of the pageant, the Victoria era, is perhaps the most parodic and
debasing of all the episodes, and one may argue that this is because it is the period just
Ibid. See also “The Narrow Bridge of Art,” pp. 218-229.
See Taylor in Works Cited, p. 614.
Fox notes that “[i]n Between the Acts Woolf alludes to some fifteen plays by Shakespeare, some in
passing, some, like Hamlet and especially King Lear, insistently […] The Tempest had been a particularly
rich source of ideas and images, and it too would be involved in Between the Acts.” See Works Cited, p.
156. Also see where Woolf directly mentions Shakespeare in a conversation between Mrs. Swithin and
Mrs. Manresa in Works Cited, p. 175.
before the time in which the pageant takes place. Therefore, those audience members
who grew up during the Victorian era are especially appalled at the antics occurring on
stage while those of the current generation find them even more comic because they are
trying to break free and renew themselves from what they believe to be the confining
elements of the previous generation. And this is true for all new generations in human
existence: “Thus while Woolf values classical comedy's detachment, she also shares
Bakhtin's suspicion of its monological "completedness,” its vision of reality as an
ahistorical, “absolute distanced image, beyond the sphere of possible contact with the
developing, incomplete, and therefore re-thinking and re-evaluating present” (McWhirter
Like Bakhtin, Woolf wants a form that apprehends wholeness without imposing
ideological closure, a fiction that encompasses tragedy's empathetic vision without
succumbing to “the cramp and confinement of personality,” a narrative that can see the
world through comedy's detached perspective without perpetuating a “settled code of
morals”” (791). Throughout the pageant Woolf creates an environment for her readers
that undermines privilege, and refuses to entitle any one class of persons over another,
while at the same time continuing to include all perspectives of life even as each portion
of the pageant brings about some stylistic turn. The Elizabethan portion of the play is
exceptionally rich with opposites including a false Duke, a princess disguised as a boy,
and a beggar who is actually the rightful heir to the throne (Woolf 88). Life has indeed
been turned, as Bakhtin claims, upside-down: the audience becomes engaged in the
fictional pageant, the reader becomes aware of the circumstances, and the necessity of
parody becomes clearer as the parody evolves.
See also Bakhtin, DI in Works Cited, p. 17.
Woolf employs parody to bring to light the falsities and incongruences of each
particular era. The parody of the final scene is distinctly notable because it serves to
announce the inconsistencies and vulgarities of the audience to themselves in the present
moment. We realize that the class positions of the characters in the pageant have been
reversed, and we understand that Woolf is playing with us just as the characters are
playing with one another. Indeed “[t]he stress [in Between the Acts] is on all aspects of
life equally—the physical as well as the spiritual—the social as well as the individual—
the active as well as the contemplative,” and Woolf is trying to convey the idea that if we
can accept that one can knowingly be mocked by another, or even by themselves, and
find a sense of growth and renewal in the process, then we can come to appreciate the
boundaries humanity lives with and within and truly comprehend, acknowledge, and
appreciate the mechanisms of humanity and the earth we live in as a combined whole
(Thakur 142).
Grotesque Realism Unifies with the Carnivalesque
The interesting and exciting aspect of the carnivalesque’s conjunction as a social
institution with the literary mode of grotesque realism is that the deployment and
consequences of “the unresolved clash of incompatibles in work and response” or what
may also be defined as “the ambivalently abnormal” almost always take different forms
for different people (Thomson 27, emphasis his). They are, after all, unresolved. There is
no single format for the grotesque to follow. There may be a similar response by some
persons toward a certain example of grotesque art, but the specific reaction is intrinsic to
the individual; often the reaction is subliminal to the extent that one may be unable to
understand their own reaction enough to be comfortable with it. Thomson claims that
disharmony is the “most consistently distinguished characteristic of the grotesque,
whether this is referred to as conflict, clash, mixture of the heterogeneous, or conflation
of disparates” (20). Grotesque realism is meant both to shock and to bring about a
Perhaps the most exemplary illustration of the upper and lower stratums of the
cosmos, or rather the ideas of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism working in unison,
in Between the Acts is demonstrated by Giles as he walks to the barn for afternoon tea
upon a dry path “strewn with stones”:
Stone-kicking was a child’s game. He remembered the rules. By
the rules of the game, one stone, the same stone, must be kicked to the
goal. Say a gate, or a tree. He played it alone. The gate was a goal; to be
reached in ten. The first gate was Manresa (lust). The second, Dodge
(perversion). The third, himself (coward). And the fourth and fifth and all
the others were the same.
He reached it in ten. There, crouched on the grass, curled in an
olive green ring, was a snake. Dead? No, choked with a toad in its mouth.
The snake was unable to swallow; the toad unable to die. A spasm made
the ribs contract; blood oozed. It was birth the wrong way round—a
monstrous inversion. So, raising his foot, he stamped on them. The mass
crushed and slithered. The white canvas on his tennis shoes was
bloodstained and sticky. But it was action. Action relieved him. He strode
to the Barn, with blood on his shoes. (Woolf 98-99)
Here grotesque realism is intensified and defined in the detail of language. What begins
as a common afternoon walk from one place to another becomes an intense realization of
personal feeling and nearly horrifying brutality. Attraction to the grotesque is a natural
human phenomenon specifically because the disarming qualities of the subversive lead to
a renewed sense of life. Giles’ walk leads him along a path of madness that results in
understanding only because he is confronted with the exact type of misunderstanding he
is experiencing in his own life, and his mind feels comforted by the fact that he
overcomes his obstacle, even if the obstacle is overcome through debasement; because
the innate mind knows that debasement leads to renewal.
The fact is that “something which is very strange, and perhaps ludicrous as well,
is made so exceedingly abnormal that our laughter at the ludicrous and eccentric is
intruded on by feelings of horror or disgust; or, a scene or a character which is laughably
eccentric suddenly becomes problematic, and our reaction to it mixed, through the
appearance of something quite at odds with the comic” (Thomson 33). At this point in the
novel the parodic comedy of the history of England being portrayed to the audience by
the common townspeople who are playing the parts of nobility comes almost to a halt:
Now it is true that any higher morality, which proposes to control
passions, will have to bring about a debunking operation of this kind.
Because in fact our “lower” passions are often surrounded with a very
powerful aura. The impulse to violence, for instance, is frequently
invested by a sense of great moment. I have been insulted, my honour (sic)
is at stake; or this act I am about to strike is for a noble cause. And on top
of all that, violence can be exciting, can seem to lift us out of the banality
of everyday existence, onto a higher, more exalted plane. And here’s
where violence comes close to the domain of sexual desire, so that the two
are often interwoven. Separately, or interwoven, they can give us a sense
of release from the everyday, from the monotony of the ordinary world.
That’s why they can appear, separately or together, in rituals—such for
instance of Carnival. (Taylor 135)
So as Giles continues upon his way up to the barn, and all is more-or-less as it was before
the incident occurred between everyone else, Giles himself feels a certain sense of
rapture. But none of the other participants of the novel, except for the reader and the
narrator, are privy to Giles’ found pleasure. The effect created through the reader
knowing something without not necessarily wanting to know can leave us defenseless,
even terrified, and yet slightly intrigued by the humanity, or rather inhumanity, of the
action itself. Perhaps Giles did murder the snake and the toad simultaneously out of a
sense of release from his sexual frustrations, but then again perhaps it was an act carried
out as a release from the tension building up all around him by the war. In fact, though
we should know that a war is in action, and we occasionally read about the sounds of
airplanes overhead, the war seems almost nonexistent. In fact,
[Woolf] purposely makes the threat of war seem as incredible and absurd
as it seemed to her. By distracting the reader’s attention from the actual
situation, she intensifies the horror which he feels when he becomes fully
aware of it. That is, the pastoral setting and ordinary quality of the
characters’ conversations and activities (centering on the pageant) seem to
belie the reality of the threat … However, brief but persistent references to
the international situation serve to build up the reader’s consciousness of
the political context within which he must see everything that is thought,
said, or done in the novel. (Bazin 196)
Whatever reason each reader feels Giles has for carrying out this assault, the action
becomes almost comic as one realizes the extents to which human individuals will
selfishly go to in order to disregard others and satisfy their singular passions or desires.
Somehow the debasement of another human, animal, or object becomes psychologically
redeeming to the perpetrator. In the environment of the carnivalesque and grotesque
realism this same persecution also perpetuates renewal for that which its actions are
meant to propagate and sustain.
The definite backdrop of sexual tension and gender transition running throughout
Between the Acts is also fundamental to the carnivalesque and grotesque realism. Bart
imagines he is attracted to Mrs. Manresa, Mrs. Manresa openly puts herself on display for
everyone, Isa fantasizes about being in love with Mr. Haines, Miss La Trobe and William
Dodge are homosexuals. But Albert playing the part of a donkey (domesticated ass) and
moving his hindquarters (colloquial ass) in the pageant may be the most forthright
example of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism’s idea of sexuality on display in
Woolf’s novel. In “The Donkey-God and The Holy Stake: The Subversion of Religion
Through Carnival Identities in Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts” Isabel María Andrés
Cuevas suggests that “the inclusion of the ass into the pageant entails a twofold meaning
… [that] reveals the narrator’s desire for going beyond the sole mockery and debasement
of social conventions to degrade even the traditionally worshipped system of ancient
myths and rituals…. The introduction of the donkey into the church represents a
degrading parody of the presence of a sacred animal originally intended as an offer to the
gods” (440). Here we have a scene that is already a parody of Victorian England where we
also witness a parody of ancient forms of ritual like Saturnalia from which the
carnivalesque and grotesque realism essentially derive. Yet, there is a further parody.
Cuevas contends that this display “directly points to the “festivals of the ass” described
by James Frazer” (441). The scene, already twice a parody, now goes further to present a
false priest giving a mock sermon in a fake church. Then “the hindquarters of the donkey,
represented by Albert the idiot, became active” as “a titter drowned Mr. Hardcastle’s
prayer; and then he was heard saying: … a happy homecoming with bodies refreshed by
thy bounty, and minds inspired by thy wisdom. Amen,” and the crowd forms a procession
as they leave for the interval (Woolf 171, emphasis hers). The “introduction of the ass
into the church” is one of the “buffooneries of the Festival of the Fools” described by
Frazer (Cuevas 4). During this time festival goers also held a mass of sorts by combining
different parts from various special ceremonies before forming a procession to take part
in drinking during the intervals. Further, notice how Bakhtin’s ideas of the lower bodily
realm of reproduction and debasement and the upper realm of mind are combined in the
closing of Woolf’s false priest’s prayer.
During the context of the narrative in Between the Acts many instances of
grotesque realism occur. The instances of Giles stomping on the snake and frog, and
Albert acting the part of a donkey being perhaps the most evident; nevertheless, what is
important to remember is that the function of human bodily emotion, however grotesque
it may initially seem, is a perception Woolf represents over and over again as a realistic
This short, descriptive essay is well worth paying attention to with regards to the subversive atmosphere
religion plays in the carnivalesque and grotesque realism evident in Woolf’s Between the Acts.
See James Frazer, The Golden Bough, vol. 4, The Scapegoat. (her note)
function necessary to the renewal and growth of humanity as a whole that the
environment of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism work together to embody.
The Final Act
For Woolf, experimenting with her application of words and employing parody
creates a very effective mechanism through which the reader can learn about and
question life. By realizing the characters’ many and divergent viewpoints, everyone, both
individually and together, whether as a character in the text or as a reader, achieves
awareness through both internal and external communication. It seems that the more
prolific and truthful thoughts are achieved internally -- in the moments of silence -- and
that through their active participation in conversation, or acknowledgment of what it is
they are hearing on stage and through the sounds of nature, that the characters become
able to communicate to the reader the larger ideas about humanity that Woolf is trying to
portray. The entire novel requires that the reader perceive for themselves what it is
happening. In addition, “Woolf’s claim that it is the forms of the past (at least the
immediate past) which no longer serve the representations of “Human Nature,” or her
sense of a “new” reality, points toward a necessary and ongoing revitalization of both the
literary past and present with “form” or artifice of the literary text as the site of the
reappropriation or recognition of the “real”” (Bucknell 44, emphasis his42). She asks that
the reader find rhythm within the text, and come to grasp the greater meaning that her
rhymes and silences and allusions and fragmentations create when they actively
participate in the musicality of her language.
See also Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” The Captain’s Deathbed, and Other Essays,
(London: Hogarth Press, 1950), pp. 90, 103, 99.
The human repetition of “orts, scraps and fragments” and “Unity—Disparity”
merge with the voices heard from animals and nature -- sometimes independently and
sometimes in unison -- to create an atmosphere where both acceptance and rejection are
felt equally. Further, this dissonance should be considered as natural to reality, until
finally Isa murmurs (re-murmurs) in the presence of her family before she proceeds to
bed with Giles at the end of the novel: “This year, last year, next year, never,” and we
realize that things change, come and go, happen or do not happen, depending upon how
one chooses to participate in their own life (Woolf 217). Melba Cuddy-Keane suggests
that “[i]nstead of using fragmentation to represent disintegration, [Woolf] employs
fragmentation as a new way of seeing … [her] comedy conveys not random
meaninglessness, but a validation of individual eccentricity and difference … it focuses
not on irreconcilability but on inclusiveness” (28343). The fragments of prose, poetry,
music, and silence create meaning for both the characters in Between the Acts as well as
the readers, who must mediate how, and if, the fragments correlate, and what the silences
and sounds of nature and modernity and history-being-portrayed convey throughout the
text. The atmosphere of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism is one where difference
is derided and celebrated, contained and let go, simultaneously among the entire
Cuddy-Keane reads the comedy of Between the Acts as a community centered text focused on politics. At
the same time, she discusses several genres of comedy, including “festive” comedy, and compares the
chorus in the pageant to the chorus in ancient Greek comedy (a source Bakhtin also refers to in his theory
of the carnivalesque,) but she focuses on her belief that the subversive nature of Woolf’s comedy
“celebrates an irreversible dismantling of order and advocates a permanent instability” rather than a
temporary inversion or ‘misrule’ that allows release, but concludes with a restoration of common rule.
While I believe she makes several valid points, and she may be correct in asserting that this is what Woolf
was ultimately trying to accomplish given the catastrophic events of the Second World War, I believe that
the novel does conclude with a return to order. See Works Cited, pp. 280, 283. Also disagreeing with
Cuddy-Keane’s assessment, Ames states that the “ambivalent politics of carnival shapes the ideological
charge of Woolf’s complexly political work,” and that “Woolf’s politics of laughter allows the truths of
celebration and criticism to coexist. She presents the imaginative richness and the social oppressiveness of
the past as inextricably intertwined.” Therefore “Between the Acts is a work that just won’t sit still for a
single coherent political reading. The comic charge of the novel is so pervasive that it makes almost every
sentence multivalent, energized by wordplay and laughter.” See Works Cited, p. 405.
community; Woolf creates a mood within her novel wherein all the participants feel
despair in one moment only to turn around and rejoice, or at least accept with new
perspective, in the next.
E. M. Forster notes that “[o]ur debt to [Woolf] is this: she reminds us of the
importance of sensation in an age which practices brutality and recommends ideals” (27).
Reverend Streatfield acts the part of the fool while at the same time epitomizing the
necessity of change in societal structure -- a change toward a more equalized
environment for all parties involved. In essence, the Reverend reminds Woolf’s readers
that she is ultimately opposed to class boundaries. Having grown up in the upper
echelons of society, and experienced first-hand the difference in quality of life between
the higher and lower classes, Woolf nevertheless chose to interact with, and take interest
in, all of the villagers near her home at Monk House over a period a several years44. In
particular, she is opposed to men having more authority and rights than women, and she
is unfavorable to the English system of hierarchy being based on a family name alone:
“Woolf seems to suggest that most men are also victimized by patriarchal society”
(Waterman 2245). Creating the persona of the fool and the court jester using the male
characters Reverend Streatfield and Albert, along with the fact that William Dodge is
offhandedly dismissed based on the single factor that everyone believes him to be a
homosexual, brings home Woolf’s point with even greater veracity.
Again, see Lee in Works Cited, pp. 733-735 for a sense of how Woolf felt about and described her own
relationships with the gentry and village people she associated with throughout most of her adult life.
See Gerardo Rodríguez-Salas and Isabel María Andrés Cuevas, The Aesthetic Construction of the Female
Grotesque in Katherine Mansfield and Virginia Woolf: A Study of the Interplay of Life and Literature
(Lewiston: The Edwin Mellen Press, 2011), p. 102. See also Note 193 on the same page that reiterates
further texts also referenced in this essay regarding “the debasement of religious authorities in Between the
In a much quoted line from A Writer’s Diary Woolf wrote that Between the Acts
was meant to speak for “‘We’ … the composed of many things … we all life, all art, all
waifs and strays—a rambling capricious but somehow unified whole—the present state
of mind46” (289-90). The mirrors scene at the end of the pageant is perhaps one of the
most important scenes of the entire novel in terms of removing the already tenable
disguise from the players and the village people, but also in terms of making the
atmosphere of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism clearly evident to the reader47.
Christopher Ames, in what I believe is the most focused essay of the carnivalesque in
Between the Acts, explains that “[in] a true modernist expression of art as subjective and
fragmented, the mirror held up to nature is transformed into multiple pieces of mirrors
held up to ourselves. The audience still squirms—except for Mrs. Manresa [the so-called
Bakhtin explains in Speech Genres and Other Late Essays (Trans. Vern W. McGee. Emerson, C. and M.
Holquist, eds. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1986) that “[j]ust as the body is formed initially in the
mother’s womb (body), a person’s consciousness awakens wrapped in another’s consciousness. Only later
does one begin to be subsumed by neutral words and categories, that is, one is defined as a person
irrespective of I and other,” p.138, emphasis in original. Also see Gabriele Schwab, Subjects Without
Selves: Transitional Texts in Modern Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1994) where she
explains that “It is clear that the transgression of boundaries between I and Not-I or self and Other is
already part of the process of literary production. An author such as Virginia Woolf, for example, uses her
own speech to give voice to imaginary characters or utterances, thus derealizing herself in an “alien
speech” that is nevertheless her own. Like transitional objects, poetic language belongs to the I and Not-I at
the same time. The possibility of language to transgress the boundaries of its speaker is pushed to its limits
… where it is even difficult to attribute the multiple voices to specific characters or character effects. In
exploring the most refined ways in which language can dissolve its unequivocal attachment to a speaking
subject, poetic language migrates into a space between the boundaries of I and Not-I. It uses that potential
for which the transitional space lays the psychogenetic foundation, namely to speak the voice of the Other
in one’s own voice.” pp. 38-39, emphasis mine. Also helpful for more on “the tension between “I” and
“We”” and the “dynamic interplay between the inner voice and the world of relationships; the one and the
many; ontogeny and phylogeny,” is Hussey pp. 132-133 in Works Cited where he suggests that “Between
the Acts is concerned with voices, memory, scars, names, and “common emotion” are concerns and
functions of language;” he continues to describe how words mean different things to different characters
“acting differently on the mental substance of each person who hears or utters them. Nevertheless, they are
the vehicle of our emotions and in some sense the matter by and in which life moves,” pp. 145-146. Judy S.
Reese also discusses the importance of Bakhtin’s ideas concerning the “I” and “non-I’ of discourse in a
slightly different framework, insisting that the “I” of the author is more aggressive than non-aggressive in
nature, and that all discourse is in some manner political in Recasting Social Values in the Work of Virginia
Woolf (London: Associated University Presses, 1996), p. 37.
See also Hussey’s note concerning the effects of mirrors and framing from Roger Fry’s “An Essay in
Aesthetics” that Woolf most likely read as she was preparing her biography of Fry in Work Cited, pp. 173174.
man-chaser], who powders her nose and adjusts her curls in the proffered looking glass.
In contrast to Isa before her three-way glass in solitude, Mrs. Manresa’s festive “making
up” seems utterly true to the carnival spirit, the spirit Bakhtin associated with crooked
and distorting mirrors” (402). The final mirrors scene is distinguished further because it is
meant to be representative of the contemporary moment, and before the audience “had
come to any common conclusion, a voice asserted itself. Whose voice it was no one
knew. It came from the bushes—a megaphonic, anonymous, loud-speaking affirmation”
that evolves into a diatribe on the graces and faults of humanity and asks that we “…Look
at ourselves, ladies and gentlemen! Then at the wall; and ask how’s this wall, the great
wall, which we call, perhaps miscall, civilization, to be built by (here the mirrors flicked
and flashed) orts, scraps and fragments like ourselves?” (Woolf 186,188, emphasis hers).
This scene is meant to shock both the characters in the novel and the readers who are
expected to see themselves and their behaviors on display. In essence, all are meant to be
horrified enough to seek change and solution. Westling believes that the “carnivalesque
finale of the pageant is a paean to the kinship of the living,” and indeed as the villagers
and visitors leave the final scene of the pageant and proceed back to the regularities of
their everyday lives, and the readers conclude the novel moments later, all have come full
circle and experienced the debasing renewal that occurs by taking part in the antics of the
carnivalesque and grotesque realism (867).
Chapter 4: Ronald Firbank’s Mode of Carnivalesque and Grotesque Realism: The
Quandary of Politics, Religion, and Society
Firbankian Aesthetics and Ethics
Aesthetics came before ethics for Firbank. Don Adams indicates that Oscar
Wilde’s essay “The Critic as Artist” explains that the “state of "true culture" in which
"sin is impossible" is the world that Firbank strived to envision throughout his mature
fiction48” (Adams glbtq Firbank’s Style Aesthetics versus Ethics paragraph 8). Ernest
Jones, in the introduction to Ronald Firbank: Three Novels indicates that Firbank’s
“novels are thronged with brilliant, entirely material grotesques,” and that “[g]iven his
double view, the enchantment and disenchantment out of which he wrote, his humour
(sic),at its best, simultaneously affirms and denies;” he also mentions that his good friend
“Sir Osbert Sitwell has described how, while writing, Firbank would be so overcome
with laughter at the absurdity of the situation he had created that he would have to
See also Adams glbtq in Works Cited, Aesthetics versus Ethics paragraphs 5-7: “Aesthetics are higher
than ethics,” Wilde wrote, “They belong to a more spiritual sphere. To discern the beauty of the thing is the
finest point to which we can arrive. Even a color sense is more important, in the development of the
individual, than a sense of right and wrong.” Wilde follows up this provocative pronouncement near the
conclusion of "The Critic as Artist" with the acute and far-reaching observation that the difference between
ethics and aesthetics in the “sphere of conscious civilization” may be compared to the difference between
natural and sexual selection in the realm of the material world: Ethics, like natural selection, make
existence possible. Aesthetics, like sexual selection, make life lovely and wonderful, fill it with new forms,
and give it progress, and variety and change. And when we reach the true culture that is our aim, we attain
to that perfection of which the saints have dreamed, the perfection of those to whom sin is impossible, not
because they make the renunciation of the ascetic, but because they can do everything they wish without
hurt to the soul.”
abandon work for the day” (Jones xviii). Sitwell further describes Firbank’s pen
as “pointed, absurd, yet indeed magic,” and insists that in Firbank’s work there is “to be
found a new if minute world, a world which existed in its own pulse of time and
exhibited its own standards of behavior that thus could never be questioned. Strange,
fresh tides of rhythm lapped round its breathless shores, on which figures, that however
etiolate, were sufficiently substantial for one to never be able to forget them…” (120). In
the introduction to The Complete Ronald Firbank Anthony Powell points out that
Firbank’s work “must be approached” rather than “critically imposed by argument,” and
that “[e]ither you find entertainment—even food for thought—in the Firbankian
Universe, or you do not” (10). In the opening of Ronald Firbank’s novel Concerning the
Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, considered by critics such as Brigid Brophy, Joseph
Bristow, and Miriam J. Benkovitz to be his masterpiece, the “Society had rallied in force
… [for a] christening—and not a child’s,” and the reader becomes immediately aware
that the circumstances surrounding the actions of Cardinal Pirelli are unusual; in fact,
they induce an odd, simultaneous feeling of unexplainable discomfort and comedy
(Firbank 289).
Given the expectations of Firbank’s upbringing alongside the audacious
temperament of his mother, it seems only fitting that he devised for himself a livelihood
to accompany his general attitude about life and social position given his family’s
interference, or to some opinions the lack thereof. Aside from his mother, he seemed
closest to his sister, Heather. However, following his death, his sister proved to be the
worst defense against his fiction, and this may be due to the attitudes and inclinations she
had developed in her more mature years. Heather had altered her perspectives more
toward the conservative as the years went by, and she was not willing to provide an
avenue for others to view her brother’s work in the same way as she had enjoyed it when
she was younger. But again, with the passage of time, scholars have been able to begin to
reassess the enduring importance of his oeuvre.
In his final novel, Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli, Firbank
infuses comedy to create environments and situations that are playfully in opposition to
society standards. We will consider the novel as a modernist example of Bakhtin’s idea
of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism, and also keep in mind that “[a] great deal of
the historical misreading and continual undervaluing of Firbank's fiction is the result of
the confusion between his entirely earnest and serious effort at the fictive realization of
the truth of both self and style, and the eccentric and temperamental nature of the self and
style that his novels fictively realize” (Adams glbtq Aesthetics versus Ethics section
paragraph 1). Firbank “experiments in making an art form out of the raw material of
narration” as he maintains an “objective attitude” and insists that “the novel should be
directed toward entertainment” (Potoker 36). Cardinal Pirelli not only performs unusual
sacred ceremonies, but he also takes part in what might be considered unruly social
events. He seemingly disappears, travels, and is forever changing his attire, especially,
and also most symbolically, his hat. He has been decrowned, but tries on many other hats
to fit his mood, and play a part in the world outside of his designated role of cardinal,
while the festival ensues. Cardinal Pirelli interacts with, and causes interaction between,
all of the other characters and situations the reader is confronted with throughout the
Though often misbehaved and perverse, Cardinal Pirelli is not evil. Rather, he
represents a satire of the society Firbank grew up in; he may be the character who most
“embodied many of Firbank’s own desires and disappointments” (Jones xviii-xix;
Potoker 22). Firbank always placed his own temperament into the characters of his work,
and similar to Lady Parvula de Panzoust in Valmouth he lived “as other fools, in quest of
pleasure and… usually [found] tedium” (Potoker 23). In fact, Firbank had such an
acknowledged pessimism about life that while “he never entirely rejected the philosophy
of aestheticism, he subordinated it to the objectives of self-discovery and social satire,”
so that even though aesthetics came before ethics, self-discovery and the objectification
of the world as a whole were always foremost on his mind (Potoker 25). Furthermore, in
“the notebook for the final chapters of Cardinal Pirelli” can be found in “the author’s
large, clear handwriting, this illuminating valedictory quotation from Montaigne … “I
have no other end in writing but to discover myself”” (Potoker 25). The dialogue in his
novels moves rapidly from one character and scene to the next, but always finds some
point of connection pages later in another scene or through another character. Comparing
Laurence Sterne’s search to present “consciousness as a model for experience” in
Tristram Shandy, Edward Martin Potoker explains that “out of broad humor and a sense
of structural irony, Sterne balanced the sentimental, the emotional, and the pathetic with
the obscene, the trivial, and the absurd” (38). He further suggests that Firbank used this
example “with its indirection, deliberate incoherences, subplots, and miscellaneous
digressions” to objectify the subject matter presented in his own writing, namely
Firbank’s own consciousness (39). Moreover, “[Firbank] consciously avoided intrusive
analysis of character in the dialogue sections. And the result was the masterly
presentation of a magpie chattering crowd. Firbank’s attitude seems to have been literally
to ‘score’ the conversation for a full complement of voices…” (Kietchler 5949).
Intentionally crossing ethical boundaries to create for himself and his audience an
unconventional, yet fundamentally sobering, aesthetic was Firbank’s essential approach
to literature.
Firbank’s Take on Religious Conventions in the Carnivalesque and Grotesque Realism
From a very young age Firbank was fascinated by religion. While growing up as a
child in his family home at Chistlehurst, he would often visit Saint Mary’s, a church just
opposite from his family home, and make lists of the ecclesiastical objects that he thought
most beautiful and worthy of praise (Brophy 222). He was engaged by the artistry and
grandeur he witnessed in the panoply of religious accoutrements and ceremonies rather
than by the precepts of the Catholic religion itself. Nevertheless, in young adulthood he
went so far as to try to become a Catholic priest; yet, “except for the occasion on which
he said to Lord Berners, “The Church of Rome wouldn’t have me and so I mock at her,
[Firbank] confided in no one about his religious beliefs …” (Fletcher, 3350 51). Although
For an excellent analysis of Firbank’s use of dialogue see Kietchler in Works Cited, pp. 59-75.
Also quoted to Berners “The Church of Rome wouldn’t have me and so I laugh at her.” See Works Cited,
p. 149.
51Also see Brophy in Works Cited: “The Gothick-erotic strain, a frisson for fun during the Enlightenment, a
programme (sic) of serious anti-rationalism for Newman and for the architects of the Gothic Revival, was
by the end of the 19th century turning back into camp. Through its transmutations it kept the original
necessity of Catholicism: hence the conversion to Catholicism of the 'decadents' who influenced Firbank
(Henry Harland, Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde) and of Firbank himself. Like Newman, Beardsley
drew (his Hail Mary, for instance, when he was about 19) and Firbank wrote (Odette D'Antrevernes) in the
terms of Catholic talismans, long before they turned Catholic themselves. Cardinal Pirelli belongs to the
same imaginative tradition as Cardinal Newman: but the imagination which beheld Pirelli was ironic,
comic, distanced, skeptical and tragic. Perhaps it was because he was personally haunted (by his own
ghost) that Firbank was able to re-animate the Gothick dramatis personae with his own tragic camp giggle.
Firbank made a perhaps tidier and neater effort than Oscar Wilde managed (Firbank was tidier with his
money, too, than the extravagant and generous Wilde) towards schooling his personality, and the
immediate objects in which he expressed it, into the dandyism and exquisiteness of camp.” pp. 173-274.
Firbank dabbled in the belief structures of several diverse religions, he came to believe
that the age of religious faith was coming to an end. It is fitting, therefore, that Firbank
would write what would turn out to be his final novel in unison with the theory of
carnivalesque and grotesque realism, an arena where the religious beliefs and social
systems of the world are turned upside-down.
We have only to encircle our minds in the realm of the late medieval or
Renaissance eras to begin to grasp what may have been infiltrating Firbank’s mind as he
admired and coveted all the fine religious artifacts he was so drawn to in his youth. Just
as with all the pontiffs, kings, and other members of high society during these eras, his
guiding factor towards religion was more a love of the material possessions and power to
be gained through a place in the ecclesiastical realm than the spiritual enrichment to be
secured with such a vocation -- at least at first. The difference was that Firbank was more
aware of this divide between the material and the spiritual than had been many of his
predecessors. When he attempted to enter the seminary himself, clearly knowing that he
would be viewed as different from others trying to do the same, but also aware that so
many more before him in the history of the Catholic church had been allowed to obtain a
position in the realms of the church’s hierarchy based solely on family rank, politics, or
even through bribes alone, he became disgusted with the continuing hypocrisy -knowing his denial as a homosexual was mainly because of the era in which he sought
admittance. Had he sought entry into the echelons of the Catholic faith during the late
medieval or high Renaissance eras, eras that openly enjoyed entertainments similar to the
pagan rituals of Saturnalia even within their cloistered realms, with the right amount of
influence or money Firbank would have been welcomed with open arms -- regardless of
what may have been being paraded as doctrine to the masses. But for Firbank, his
fondness for baroque styling and intricate ceremonials could not find an appropriate or
opportune place within the stringent dictates of the late Victorian era he grew up in, or
the early modernist period that he created his work within.
In Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli Firbank creates a playful
parody of the Catholic religious structure, and of society at large, which both meets with
and opposes what is believed to be righteous and condoned behaviors, by exposing us to
the immoral, mischievous, and flirtatious practices that all the characters in the novel
naturally exhibit while they are participating in religious ceremonies and living their
everyday lives as human beings. In terms of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism,
religious conventions took on a different spirit than they did for Firbank during his
lifetime. Firbank chose to separate himself from religion -- Catholicism in particular -because it appeared to him that those in the hierarchy of the church during his lifetime
took themselves altogether too seriously. Perhaps they disregarded their history as an
arrogant façade, wanting to believe they had all rehabilitated their past ways, or maybe
they just chose to ignore it out of contempt or embarrassment for the past mishaps and
susceptibilities to perversions the ecclesiastical body demonstrated; nevertheless, Firbank
uses the character of Cardinal Pirelli to remind himself of the baroque styling and openly
jubilant sexual atmosphere that the church once enjoyed, and even once openly
The religious conventions of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism revolve
around spectacle and inversion. Just as Firbank had “been accused… of mere submission
to the aesthetic aspects of the mass, the music and color and incense,” he also came to
believe for a time that in matters of good and evil, of finite moral certitude, the Catholic
Church “provided the comfort of established and authoritative value,” and he based this
belief largely on both the history of the church as he understood it through visiting
cathedrals and churches and coveting the physical aesthetics the church presented, and
also through his association with Hugh Benson, who enjoyed a ““close aquantainceship
(sic)”” with his friend Vyvyan Holland (Benkovitz 9152).
Cardinal Pirelli, in effect, is Firbank himself. Firbank may mock the church, but
he also imagines himself in the place he, at one point at least, most desired to be: adorned
in the vibrant and acroamatic ecclesiastical vestments of the church, vestments that to
him exuded ornate reverence, but also absolution to the soul. In addition to the personal
facets of adornment and adoration, Firbank was invested in the art of the church: in the
aesthetic. Whether it be an opulent chalice, a vibrant scene of stained glass, or the
sumptuous aroma of pure frankincense burning, and thrown around the church through a
large, gilded thurible. Firbank was in love with the artistic and creative assets of the
Catholic Church -- through Cardinal Pirelli Firbank is able to imagine all of the baroque
styling of the Catholic Church that he is so enamored by while at the same time mocking
the church for their hypocrisy, and realizing, unfortunately, that hypocrisy is everlasting.
A larger premise of Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli is to both expunge
and ingratiate the laughter, the noise, and the body of Christianity, and Bakhtin’s theories
of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism provide ideal avenues for understanding how
Firbank was able to accomplish this concern.
For the story of Hugh Benson’s relationship with Firbank, and how Firbank became more familiar with,
and enamored by, the Catholic religion, see Benkovitz in Works Cited, pp. 91-93.
Society, Sexuality, and Satire
Let us now explore a few areas in the novel where society, sexuality, and satire
are highlighted in Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli. In Chapter III
Firbank expresses how “[f]ew women … are indifferent to the seduction of a Maiden
Mass, and all in a second there was scarcely one to be found in the whole sacristia” (298).
Here Firbank is highlighting the idea of a definitive shift: for the nuns the seduction of
the maiden, or first, mass, given by a new priest, is not to take part in the sacred ritual of
the mass, but rather to engage themselves in a first glance of the young, attractive new
man in their midst. The sacred honor meant to be felt by the priest who “had bent, more
than once, his good-natured head, to allow some small brothers and sisters to inspect his
tonsure” as he prepares to perform his first mass in his “broidered cope” is overridden by
the nuns who play with the idea of the divine by obsessing over the physical
representation before them (Firbank 297). One nun goes so far as to intimate that she
would “like to see him in a Papal tiara” (297). This upside-down display is replete with
both truth and comedy. Surely most nuns are interested in attending the first mass being
given by a new priest in their realm, and Firbank seems to be asking why a mass should
be held for the sheer purpose of aggrandizing the fact that they are not openly able to act
upon the human instinct for sexual companionship; indeed, the seemingly sacred mass is
officiated by the same man they are in fact fawning over. The nuns, and really all the
women of the parish, even though they find it “queer the time a man takes to slip on a
frilly!” desire to see the priest in even more elaborate and decorous attire; they go so far
as to imagine him in a Papal tiara because they understand that the outward adornment of
the ecclesiastical being is a representation of power (296).
In the next chapter even the clergy are amused by the Maiden Mass. Pope Tertius
jests as he entertains himself with his pet squirrel: “‘A dozen blessings, for a dozen
Hymens -- but only eleven were sent,’” and it becomes clear that the church in this novel
is nothing more than a farce, a means of foolish interplay and exploration between the
high and low members of society and the sexes (303). The reality of purity is incomplete;
the missing hymen relegates sanctity. And the joke is relative -- it is enjoyed by both the
commoners and the clergy alike with equal regard and amusement. Nothing is sacred, and
all is meant to provide an enjoyable diversion in place of the reality which must be reintroduced and made serious once again when the festivities come to a close at the end of
the novel. The foundations of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism continue to make
themselves apparent in The Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli as the lower stratums of the
body, or human emotions, conflict, with the higher stratums of the body, or the human
mind; furthermore, the upper and lower stratums of society merge and conflict as well.
Bakhtin’s idea of the carnivalesque interplay between the lower class debasing the higher
class, or at least the higher class acting the part of the expected lower class spectrum of
behavior, becomes more evident as we continue to read Firbank’s novel -- a novel that is
in essence a figurative interplay of Firbank’s own sense of life.
In Chapter V we take notice of one of the guests at Duquesa DunEden’s palace, a
princess nonetheless, admiring a terra-cotta sculpture “depicting a pair of hermaphrodites
amusing themselves. She was looking like the ghost in the Ballet of Ghislaine, after an
unusually sharp touch of Boheara; eight-and-forty hours in bed, and, scandal declared,
not alone” (306-30753). Let us also notice, in the same chapter, the mythical Muse:
Brophy explains how “Firbank distributes life in Clemenza over several fixed points and more than one
social layer. The point of highest fashion is the DunEden palace, which is so high, indeed, in fashion that
Clasping a large bouquet of American Beauty-roses, the Poetess Diana
Beira Baixa was being besieged by admirers, to ‘give them something; just
something! Anything of her own.’ Wedded, and proclaiming (in vers
libres) her lawful love, it was whispered she had written a paean to her
husband’s ‘….’ beginning Thou glorious wonder! which was altogether
too conjugal and intimate for recitation in society.
‘They say I utter the cry of sex throughout the Ages,’…. (308)
Firbank uses the idea of sexuality to provide comedy for his readers, and also, perhaps, a
new way to approach the subject of sex altogether. In the attitude of the carnivalesque,
sexuality is playful and incapable of receiving judgment, the high and the low classes
alike enjoy the opportunity to revel in their sexual desires and fantasies, and the higher
class’ sexual desires are turned upside-down and put out for general display and laughter
in a way they cannot be once the festival ends. Sex and sexuality are meant to be
celebrated in the same way as all attributes of life are meant to be celebrated, rather than
derided, during the festival. Firbank creates an atmosphere in Concerning the
Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli that are analogous to Bakhtin’s theories of the
carnivalesque and grotesque realism in literature.
Discovering a channel to express his outlook and conduct towards life is an ideal
Firbank strove for throughout his life, and he attained what was unattainable in his own
lifetime through the fictitious character representations in his final novel. Adams explains
how Firbank “is unique among English writers of his period in his insistence on treating
homosexuality as merely another facet of the social carnival” and that “[a]lthough the
the women of its milieu enjoy an exclusive disease: “Boheara”, the new and fashionable epidemic,
diagnosed by the medical faculty as “hyperaesthesia with complications.”” See Works Cited, p. 559.
frivolous attitude of Firbank's fiction may seem to claim immunity from all political and
social concerns, when we make explicit their attitudinal implications, we find that they
are actually quite actively engaged in opposing what they imply to be unnecessary and
oppressive socio-political strictures against individual identities and inclinations. In
particular, Firbank's novels work to combat sexual, racial, and religious discrimination,
and they do so by treating sex, race, and religion as matters of individual and cultural
taste, rather than as issues of ethical right and wrong” (RP 3, glbtq Firbank’s Pastoral
World paragraph 5 Web). The fact that Firbank makes specific reference to sexuality
over and over again in the realm of the church, in sacred religious ceremonies, and in the
arena of what one would ordinarily consider the higher class of society, is apropos to the
high-low counterbalance of the carnivalesque. Further, the reference to, and metaphorical
depictions of, the lower stratums of the body coincide with the foundations of grotesque
Firbank’s Paradoxical Ideal of Life and Death, or Debasement and Renewal: Eccentricity
Personified in the Arena of Carnivalesque and Grotesque Realism
The attitudes of the characters in Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli
as personified through Firbank’s writing seem unconcerned with death. For them, life is
always enjoyed in the moment; whatever the moment brings to their scheme of
enjoyment is what is most important. That is not to say that there are not strictures that
they must deal with, but in the midst of these restraints, and along the path as they deal
with them, there is freedom and joy in the life they are living in the moment, step by step.
Death is part of life, and life should be lived to the fullest until death intercedes. Cardinal
Pirelli is a splendid example of this premise. A man steeped in the hierarchy of the
Catholic Church, he is also a man passionately devoted to changing his attire and
parading around afterhours amidst the commoners in search of pleasures that range from
simple drunkenness to debaucheries that today would be considered openly blasphemous.
In his final act towards the pursuit of pleasure, Cardinal Pirelli chases Chicklet, an altar
boy who has been ignoring his overtures, but who now feels the need to play a more
provocative game of catch-me-if-you can through the cathedral. The final scene of this
act plays out:
‘Don’t provoke me child, again.’
From pillared ambush Don Prudent saw well, however, to effect a bargain.
‘You'd do the handsome by me, sir; you'd not be mean?’
‘The Fathers only give us texts; you'd be surprised, your Greatness, of the
stinginess of some!’
‘You'd run to something better, sir; you'd give me something more
‘I'll give you my slipper, child, if you don't come here!’ his Eminence
warned him….
‘Olé, your Purpleship!54’ (Firbank 340)
Not only is purple widely recognized as a color of royalty and higher position due to the fact that it was
an expensive color to manufacture before mass production became available, but Firbank was obviously
quite taken with shades of the color purple. In addition to the mauve pants he wore to meet with Ada
Leverson, “Firbank wrote ‘usually’, he told Carl Van Vechten (perhaps he found it difficult to get, as my
secretary did in getting enough for me to write the manuscript of this book), in purple ink. The Sotheby’s
sale of his notebooks confirms the ‘usually’. The earlier notebooks are mainly in black ink and pencil,
though the 15 notebooks for Vainglory have parts in red and purple ink. By the time of The Flower Beneath
Here we witness Chicklet provoking Cardinal Pirelli even as the Cardinal is advancing in
an effort to disgrace the innocence of the young boy. The irony of the situation becomes
increasingly evident through the cheeky responses Chicklet poses to the Cardinal, and in
his obvious desire to both partake of his own sexual desires as well as to make every
attempt to best the Cardinal in the game of chase before succumbing to both of their
desires. The games of opposition and pursuit, as well as the inversion of commonplace
societal standards and expectations, are palpable and pronounced as Chicklet asks the
Cardinal for more than may be his due, while at the same time playing homage to his
position. The importance of this episode as it occurs at the conclusion of Concerning the
Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli is similar to the importance of the mirror scene that
concludes the pageant in Woolf’s Between the Acts in that it reveals the truth of the
situation at hand. Cardinal Pirelli chases Chicklet in an effort to make him serve as a
sacrifice for his earthly desires. But even as Chicklet protests the Cardinal’s advances he
is also impudent in his actions and speech as the Cardinal chases him; in effect, he desires
the Cardinal’s ambition to assail him even as he craves to play the game of pretending to
deny his own eagerness at the expense of the Cardinal. And it is this incongruity and
mésalliance in Chicklet’s actions that perpetuates Cardinal Pirelli to further pursue his
initial intentions; moreover, it is the idea of nonconformity that escalates Cardinal
Pirelli’s pursuit of Chicklet.
the Foot the last four of the five notebooks are in purple ink, and it is purple ink from then on. It was in
purple that Firbank made, in his own printed copy of the book, the alterations for the United-States edition
of Vainglory, including the later withdrawn alteration of Winsome to Sacheverell; and it was ‘in violet ink’
(the variation in shade is probably in the eye of the beholder rather than in the bottle) and ‘his bold,
feminine handwriting’ that (according to Siegfried Sassoon) Firbank ‘wittily inscribed’ copies of his books
to Sassoon.” Having already indicated that Firbank placed a lot of his own feelings and internal psychology
into his characters, it seems fitting that at the end of the novel, just before Cardinal Pirelli is recrowned, he
is referred to as “your Purpleship!” -- perhaps a title renewing him to his state of stature (purple being a
color generally associated with royalty and the upper clergy) just before his death, and the conclusion of the
festivities. See Brophy in Works Cited, pp. 172-173.
In an effort to explain Bakhtin’s theories of grotesque realism, Thomson claims
that disharmony is the “most consistently distinguished characteristic of the grotesque,
whether this is referred to as conflict, clash, mixture of the heterogeneous, or conflation
of disparates;” and he further indicates that this disharmony is not only present in the art
itself, but also in the reactions the art produces in others, as well as the “creative
temperament and psychological make-up of the artist” (20). Firbank is similar to Cardinal
Pirelli in his zest for life, but Cardinal Pirelli is able to actualize his desires -- for the most
part -- where Firbank is not. For Firbank, Cardinal Pirelli is the character he creates
because he desires the peculiarity of his own characteristics to be respected in the same
way his fictional characters’ are. Cardinal Pirelli represents the clown who “exposes the
underside and the falseness of a situation” (Lanters 202). That he is a member of the
higher clergy fits in perfectly with the idea of a parodic representation of the “world
inside out” (Bakhtin 11). In reference to the clown, Bakhtin explains how “these figures
carry with them into literature first a vital connection with the theatrical trappings of the
public square, with the mask of the public spectacle; they are connected with that highly
specific, extremely important area of the square” (Lanters 202). Perhaps thinking back to
his meeting with Ada Leverson, when he wore his mauve and black striped pants that he
later burned, Firbank desired to feel comfortable in his own skin, and so he created the
figure of Cardinal Pirelli to do it for him.
We also learn early on that “[a]fter the tobacco-factory and the railway-station,
quite the liveliest spot in all the city was the cathedral-sacristia;” the church is a social
and sexual marketplace, and the church environment continues to operate as a public
square throughout the novel (Firbank 296). Regardless of which place of worship --
whether it be his home cathedral, another church in his diocese, or even the local
watering hole -- we find Cardinal Pirelli in, he always maintains the performance of the
clown. We continue to experience the carnivalesque idea of the marketplace as Cardinal
Pirelli dons mufti (or plain clothes,) and becomes even more foolish in “[t]he dear street
… [amidst] the quickening stimulus of the crowd: truly it was exhilarating to mingle
freely with the throng!” (294). Here again we notice the sense of freedom from the usual
aspects of daily life: “Through carnival, the folk are “freed from the oppression of such
gloomy categories as ‘eternal,’ ‘immovable,’ ‘absolute,’ ‘unchangeable,’ and instead are
exposed to the gay and free laughing aspect of the world, with its unfinished and open
character, and the joy of change and renewal”” (Clark Holquist 301). The act of roleplaying allows evidence of an alternative to and an allowance for a shifting society, and
in doing so Firbank reminds us that difference and change can perpetuate a positive
In Chapter V Firbank makes a direct connection to the idea of the carnivalesque
when his characters interact at the circus proper. An extravagant soiree is being
patronized by the Duquesa DunEden (the same character whose dog is christened,) and
“[b]eing the day it was, and the social round never but slightly varying, most of the guests
had flocked earlier in the evening to the self-same place, i.e. the Circus, or Arena
Amanda, where it was subscription night, and where, at present, there was an irresistibly
comic clown” (Firbank 305). Firbank sets up an arena where his characters can relate and
communicate as equals -- where guilt is unfamiliar, or at least remote: “Civil and social
ceremonies and rituals [take] on a comic aspect as clowns and fools, constant participants
in these festivals, mimicked serious rituals…” (Bahktin 5). So when Cardinal Pirelli
christens the dog, Crack, he also takes on the character of a clown; he becomes
uncrowned for the duration of the festivities which the reader is engaged within until the
novel ends. It is important for the reader to understand that “[t]he fool … is the masked
inheritor of the Christ motif in Bakhtin’s writings. However, his role here is not so much
to proffer an authoritative, inwardly persuasive voice as to represent a bastion of liberty,
to stand as an example and a source of hope for the people” (Coates 171). By making
Cardinal Pirelli the most obvious clown (or fool) in his novel, Firbank captures all of the
most important characteristics of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism in one
character, namely his title or lead character.
To be sure, binary relationships play a large part in the carnivalesque. The
carnivalesque is a parody, but it is not satirical in the same sense that our contemporary
parody often is. In The Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli Firbank returns “to the role of
medieval parodies versus high ideology and cult, to the role of the clown versus serious
ceremonial” (Bakhtin RW 22). The body is essential to the carnivalesque atmosphere, and
“[t]he grotesque image … is noncanononical by its very nature … in the wider sense of a
manner representing the human body and human life;” therefore, it should be expected
that Cardinal Pirelli do the opposite of what one would expect of a man in his rank of
societal structure (Rabelais 30). The idea of grotesque realism is what Bakhtin describes
as the carnival body, and he asserts that this body “is collectivized at a transindividual
level: In grotesque realism … the bodily element is deeply positive. It is presented not in
a private, egoistic form, severed from the other spheres of life, but as something
universal, representing all the people…” (Hirschkop Shepherd, eds. 216). We notice this
universal interaction taking place between the guests at the christening of Crack at the
beginning of the novel; furthermore, we notice various body parts and bodily functions
on display, and all are being used by Firbank as a source of amusement relating
debasement and open sexual variances that yet lead to a soulful renewal.
The scene begins: “‘Mother’s pet!’ [Duquesa] cooed, as the imperious creature
passed his tongue across the splendid uncertainty of her chin,” and already we have
interaction pertaining to one of the most important facial features in terms of the
grotesque bodily image. The tongue of the mouth seeks outside of its normal bodily
confines in search of a chin, another facet of the body that can grow outside of and
beyond its normal confines to become a visually grotesque image. And there are two
particulars we must note here: first, we are witnessing a canine tongue in search of a
human chin; second, both the tongue and the chin are important because they can relate to
renewal and rebirth via the mouth, whereas the eyes, the cheeks, and the forehead belong
only to the individual seeking inside the body towards their own mind (Firbank 290).
Members of the audience begin to question the relevancy of the baptismal
sacrament about to ensue, and “Monsignor Silex’s large, livid face grew grim” as he
wonders what if the dog were in fact Dunquesa’s offspring before remembering “in an
old lutin once he had read of a young woman engendering a missel-thrush through the
channel of her nose. It had created a good deal of scandal to be sure at the time: the Holy
Inquisition, indeed, had condemned the impudent baggage, in consequence, to the stake”
(290). The nose, Bakhtin points out, is the other most important feature of the face in the
representation of grotesque realism, and it “always symbolizes the phallus” (Bakhtin RW
316). Also in attendance is the father of the dog being christened; his owner, Madame La
Urench, “gurgling away freely,” exclaims “‘No, my naughty Blessing; no, not now! …
By and by, a bone.’ Words which brought the warm saliva to the expectant parent’s
mouth” (290). The upper and lower stratums of the body, the thoughtful and generating
stratums, respectively, are comically inverted and conjoined even before the christening
to save the dog’s soul begins. The material bodily level, the lower stratum represented by
pleasures including food, the senses, and sexuality have positive, renewing connotations.
The christening of a dog performed in a cathedral by a cardinal may seem ambivalent,
and indeed it is, but that is the point.
Further into the scene we notice the canine father with “[t]ail away, sex apparent
(to the affected slight confusion of the Infanta Eulalia-Irene), [as] he crouched, his eyes
fixed wistfully upon the nozzle of his son,” and the pride of parenthood in the earthly
realm is declared while “the modest sacristan, at attention by the font, felt himself to be
superior of parts to a certain unproductive chieftan of a princely House, who had lately
undergone a course of asses’ milk in the surrounding mountains -- all in vain!” (290).
Here the sexual lower body becomes more apparent, and when the christening proper
begins, Cardinal Pirelli rises, and all take note of his exceptional elegance and
attractiveness, before he immerses the dog in water declaring: “‘And thus being cleansed
and purified, I do call thee “Crack”!’” (290). According to Bakhtin’s theory of the
grotesque body, there are parts of the body that can grow apart from the original body,
and in effect sin against the original body. The bowels, genital organs, mouth, and anus
are the main offenders precisely because they are the “convexities and orifices … that the
confines between bodies and between the body and the world are overcome: there is an
interchange and an interorientation” (Bakhtin RW 317). Yet through grotesque bodies
there is also renewal and rebirth; moreover, celebration.
The christening ceremony now over, the scene in the cathedral continues. His
“tongue pendant,” Crack sits with his legs between the Duquesa’s breasts licking the
rouge from her cheeks before springing from her grasp to rapturous freedom:
‘Misericordia!’ Monsignor Silex exclaimed, staring aghast at a leg
Ave Maria purissima! What challenging snarls and measured mystery
marked the elaborate recognition of father and son, and was no one then to
forbid their incestuous frolics?
In agitation Monsignor Silex sought fortitude from the storied windows
overhead, aglow in the ambered light as some radiant missal…
Yes; divine interference, ’twixt father and son, was hardly to be looked
Monsignor Silex started slightly, as, from the estrade beneath the dome, a
choir- boy let fall a little white spit.
Dear child, as though that would part them!
‘Things must be allowed to take their “natural” course…’ (Firbank 290291).
The scene concludes with the royal Infantata dropping to her knees and mouthing
“‘Fortify …asses …’” as the Duquesa calls after her recently christened dog, Crack.
Firbank’s use of the carnivalesque in the sense of the grotesque image is on full display
here, and by the closing of the first chapter, we already notice several themes of the
carnivalesque and grotesque realism at play through the specific symbolic meanings of
the body parts. The christening acts metaphorically, but more amusing in terms of the
atmosphere of carnivalesque and grotesque realism in Concerning the Eccentricities of
Cardinal Pirelli is that sexuality is at first realized through animals rather than human
Chapter X is the final chapter of the novel, and also the culmination of the
festivities. After punishing Chiclet, the choir-boy, by locking him into the cathedral at
night with the mice because he had “rushed about the cathedral after mice” rather than
succumbing to his advances, Cardinal Pirelli chases him around the cathedral as dawn
breaks “[d]ispossessed of everything but his fabulous mitre, [and] the Primate was nude
and elementary now as Adam himself” (Firbank 334, 34156). The comedy has reached its
climax, and the cardinal has been completely uncrowned in metaphorical terms, but
perhaps just to add to the final comic effect, he wears only his official headgear in place
of the various headgears he has been changing into throughout the carnival as he takes on
Brophy explains how “Firbank’s imagination devised a way round the law of the church and of literary
nature,” and how “[h]is imagination was beautifully prolific of unorthodoxies in general” In the answering
comment, ‘Not if it was Veronese,’ Firbank art-historically alludes to the difficulties Veronese had in 1573
with the Inquisition, who bade him paint out a dog (in a painting of his of either the Last Supper or the
Feast at the house of Simon) and replace it by a Mary Magdalen. Conceivably it was this line of thought
which Firbank’s imagination presently enlarged into its cardinal indeed heresy: Cardinal Pirelli's sublimely
canon-law-defying ‘eccentricity’, whose unorthodoxy stands patent metaphor for sexual unorthodoxy, of
baptizing a dog. But the unorthodoxy which Firbank obsessively plays on is premature (that is, within one's
lifetime) canonization”. See Works Cited, p. 374.
Brophy explains a bit about Firbank’s lifelong fear of mice: “That Firbank associated the terror of mice
with ecclesiastical skirts I deduce from the last hours of Cardinal Pirelli (whose eccentricities include the
habit of prowling the city by night in disguise - his disguise often female, because he doesn't want 'to forgo
altogether the militant bravura of a skirt'.) On the last night of his life, the Cardinal repents having imposed
too severe a punishment on his favourite (sic) ('yet, Thou knowest, I adore the boy!') choirboy, the Chiclet:
'It must have been love that made me do it.' The Chiclet's crime has been to miss the responses during
service because he 'had rushed about the cathedral after mice'. The Cardinal's over-severe punishment is to
shut the boy in the cathedral 'alone with them after dark'. Going to rescue his victim, the Cardinal goes to
his death - hearing, on his way through the cathedral, a symbol of castration and mortality: 'the determined
sound of a tenacious mouse gnawing at a taper-box'. (Firbank has by design insisted, in the previous
chapter, on the phallicness of ecclesiastical candles: a woman who is arranging to have a mass said for her
lover's safety is asked by the cathedral secretary if she wants the candles 'long and, I dare say, gross'.) By
Firbankian irony the Cardinal takes the gnawing mouse for an 'admirable example in perseverance', and his
own perseverance in pursuit of the boy kills him. As a matter of fact, Firbank's account of the mice in
Wyndham Lewis's studio consists of a note in one of his notebooks for Concerning the Eccentricities of
Cardinal Pirelli.” See Works, pp. 156-157.
the different attributes of the foolish clown in different situations. We learn that Cardinal
Pirelli has passed on: “Now that the ache of life, with its fevers, passions, doubts, its
routine, vulgarity, and boredom, was over, his serene, unclouded face was a marvelment
to behold. Very great distinction and sweetness was visible there, together with much
nobility, and love, all magnified and commingled,” and Firbank has successfully
completed the cycle of birth, death, and the means for renewal (Firbank 341-342). One
can surmise that the cardinal has been recrowned in heaven. The festivities have come to
a close, and life for everyone still living will continue as it had been before the festivities
began, but with a renewed sense of vitality. We have seen our individual subject,
Cardinal Pirelli, being fragmented throughout the novel, and we conclude by witnessing
his demise. Cardinal Pirelli is representative of the entire realm of subjective matters we
come into contact with throughout the novel in an objective, or impartial and
carnivalesque, sequence of events -- his foolish character enacts the open-minded
experience of relativity necessary within the festival environment. Firbank’s novel is a
representation of carnivalesque and grotesque realism at work; moreovethis festive
atmosphere, the cardinal is the character who shows us that above all else physical,
earthly life is meant to be enjoyed.
Firbank creates a festival season that begins with a christening, or celebration of
birth and cleansing of the soul, and concludes with Cardinal Pirelli’s death, or a return to
the kingdom of Heaven. Similar to the Medieval and Renaissance carnivals which were
only held for a certain period of time, Firbank creates that same effect for his readers by
creating a season of carnival which lasts only for the duration of the novel -- ten chapters
in a mere fifty-three pages -- perhaps a slight irony by Firbank on the ten commandments.
Cardinal Pirelli’s death at the conclusion of the novel should not be realized as a tragic
ending, but rather a celebration of renewal and rebirth to come: Cardinal Pirelli’s death is
intendede to represent something renewing, gratifying, and worthwhile.
The portrayal of the carnivalesque combined with grotesque realism is successful
in Concerning the Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli because Firbank liberates the text
from the expected form. Scholars in our 21st century should not deny Firbank’s artistic
viewpoint of human culture as considered through the carnivalesque atmosphere where
“[t]he grotesque image reflects a phenomenon in transformation, an as yet unfinished
metamorphosis, of death and birth, growth and becoming. The relation to time is one
determining trait of the grotesque image. The other indispensable trait is ambivalence.
For in this image we find poles of transformation, the old and the new, the dying and the
procreating, the beginning and the end of the metamorphosis” (Bakhtin 24). Not only has
Cardinal Pirelli, the only main character of the novel, been fragmented and become
ambiguous through his complexity within the carnival over and over again, and to various
ends, but we have also witnessed his demise and symbolic rebirth57. Firbank chooses not
to provide a specific authorial point-of-view, but he does portray himself as similar to
other modernist authors, and an early one at that, who sought to create revival through a
change in the realization of the earthly scene. In the environment of the carnivalesque and
Brophy explains: “Yet though there are many milieux in ... Cardinal Pirelli there is only one personage.
The milieux are put in with Firbankian brilliance in their own right. (‘They say’, murmurs a woman poet, ‘I
utter the cry of sex throughout the Ages’; to which the response of the Duchess-Dowager of Vizeu is to
‘spread prudishly her fan’ and declare ‘Since me maid set me muskito net afire, I'm just a bunch, me dear,
of hysterics.’) With equal brilliance of design, all the surrounding milieux, even when they turn their back
on him, point attention to the central figure. The very ladies who attend the convalescence (from Boheara)
party at the DunEden Palace, in ‘focusing languishly the Cardinal’, focus the book on him, too. ‘“He is
delicious in handsomeness to-night!”’ ‘“A shade battered. But a lover's none the worse in my opinion for
acquiring technique”, the Duchess of Sarmento declared.’ A frisson of mass hysteria runs through his flock
at sight of the Cardinal's handsomeness; ‘broken sobs of either sex’ are provoked by the dicta he delivers at
the inspiration of 'what prurient persons might term, perhaps, a “frolic’”. See Brophy in Works Cited,
grotesque realism Cardinal Pirelli’s death symbolizes revitalization, and this is exactly
what modernist authors including Firbank were attempting to achieve through their
Firbank and Woolf, both living in an era of significant change, sought an
alternative to the strictures their lives had placed before them. When we situate their final
novels beside one another and consider their themes we find more alikeness than perhaps
thought possible. Woolf seems to enjoy “manifestations of continuing community” more
than Firbank, while he in essence hopes for the same; but he also realizes that human
consciousness must alter in even greater form for true growth to occur (Lee 423). Both
authors find justification in presenting the performance of the absurd in an attempt to
allow their readers to feel the emotion necessary to arrive at the same ideal of change
with unmistakable, if not entirely direct, insight. Turning to figures that are resilient yet
troubled, vulnerable, and ridiculed, namely Miss La Trobe and Cardinal Pirelli, both
authors enable their readers to understand the reason for the necessity of change, growth,
and renewal necessary for the betterment of society as they know it.
Applying Bakhtin’s theories of the carnivalesque and grotesque realism to the
narratives of Virginia Woolf’s Between the Acts and Ronald Firbank’s Concerning the
Eccentricities of Cardinal Pirelli creates a bridge of understanding for the reader of
modernist literature. When one first crosses the bridge, unaware and confused by the
sudden concept of this new realization, they encounter Firbank who proclaims “I am all
design58.” For Firbank nothing else mattered but proclaiming his perception on the
Almost each of his books contains a thematic trailer for the next. Because he was so short of time,
Firbank made a rigorously systematic exploitation of the material he found deposited in his mind. The same
terrible pressure of time which made him systematic in his private literary life obliged him, in each work, to
economic design and, as part of his economy, to a reliance on design as an incarnation in itself of his
natural order, and to be sure his perception was diversified. Nevertheless, Firbank’s
cognition of the natural order, and of the place of each participant in such an order, was
far more introspective than many give him credit for. Similarly, Woolf lived her life in
pursuit of the classical boundaries which also related to the new. Although in many ways
more contained sociologically than Firbank, Woolf lived her life on her own terms.
In a perhaps ironic, but nevertheless truthful way, both Woolf and Firbank very
well might appreciate and find synchronicity with the lines from our contemporary
musician Hozier’s song entitled “Take Me to Church” as he incites us with his words:
“We were born sick. You heard them say it … I’m a Pagan of the good times … We’ve a
lot of starving faithful. That looks tasty. That looks plenty. This is hungry work … No
masters or kings when the ritual begins, there is no sweeter innocence than our gentle sin
… In the madness and soil of that sad earthly scene, only then I am human, only then I
am clean” (Hozier). Firbank and Woolf each fought for a world of understanding even
though they both recognized that a clear social structure was evident in the world.
Furthermore, they both believed that when a social difference was on display to the
benefit of the lower classes it was in a way that allowed them to seek some sort of
comeuppance, and that in the end the world would be better if everyone were able to
make time to play at role-reversal and mock the world they lived in. Society displayed
through the carnivalesque and grotesque realism is always this way -- the lesser citizen,
the more deprived and debase, the more ugly and unrefined, always become the spore for
meaning and his imagery. It was a factual description of himself as an artist which he gave when he wrote,
in a letter of 1924, ‘I am all design.’ Urgently mortal, he was driven to design immortal structures. Startled
and startlingly, Cardinal Pirelli reflects in and of his cathedral: ‘the great fane (after all) was nothing but a
cage; God’s cage; the cage of God!’ God can be caged. Firbank, like his Cardinal, can and will die. The
baroque-cathedral structures of Firbank's books are the cages of Firbank’s immortality. (Brophy 408-409).
the rejuvenation of the population at large while at the same time also finding enjoyment
in their personal earthly life.
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