Book Review: The Sensuous Pedagogies of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence

1st September 2020

Michael Black, University of Glasgow

Benjamin Hagen, The Sensuous Pedagogies of Virginia Woolf and D. H. Lawrence (Clemson: Clemson University Press, 2020)

Benjamin Hagen’s study, that shows us what, as teachers, critics, and students, we can learn from ‘sensuous pedagogies’ in the writing of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence, is supplemented by assignments, the first of which immediately catches attention with its stimulating questions: ‘How do your favourite writers teach? How do they read? How do they love?’(14). Hagen’s argument in favour of a definition of pedagogy that partakes of ‘sensation, emotion, intensity, the body, as well as attachment and relation’ (8) adopts a theoretical approach supported by Deleuze, Eve Kosofky Sedgwick, and Sara Ahmed, to name a few. However, Hagen’s own questions and the open, supple approach taken to the practice of learning and teaching, may also suggest intellectual kinship with Sister Corita Kent and John Cage’s ‘Some rules for students and teachers’ (1967), a text that is both disciplined and accepting. Kent and Cage insist that education is personal and creative, since there is no ‘mistake’ or sense in which we ‘win’ or ‘fail’, but instead only the imperative to ‘make.’[1] Acceptance of personal limitations must be balanced with discipline: ‘The only rule is work. If you work it will lead to something.’[2] My own first thoughts and desires, in response to Hagen’s first assignment, led me to go and look again at Corita Kent’s and Cage’s instructions. Hagen wants the ‘sensuous pedagogy’ outlined to be of value ‘beyond modernism’(7). Yet we would do well to remember that the modernist pedagogical instruction par excellence might come from Samuel Beckett: ‘Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try again. Fail again. Fail better.’[3]

Hagen explains what might comprise the truly urgent novelty of his approach, namely that it aims to ‘contravene the foreclosure of queer accounts’ (7) in Lawrence studies. This is achieved through close attention to Lawrence’s early novels’ engagement with ‘problems and relations that push back against normative constraints of the family’ (13). Hagen rightly refuses to lose heart by the apparent failure of such challenges against ‘heterosexist bonds’ (13) to ‘sustain themselves’ in Lawrence’s work. Another positive aspect of Hagen’s approach is that it examines ‘non-institutional relationships’ for their theory of pedagogy, refusing to be restricted to the college or university, which allows Hagen to explore the extent to which learning is ‘public and private’, both a matter of ‘the classroom’ and ‘solitude’, meaning the ideal ‘autodidact’ needs formal and informal spaces to explore ideas (7).

The central tension that lends narrative continuity to Hagen’s study is the challenge of empirically showing Lawrence and Woolf read each other’s work, and respected one another. Chapters therefore alternate between Woolf and Lawrence, with well formulated comparison between the two. Similarly, Helen Wussow’s 1998 study of Woolf and Lawrence includes the caveat that it ‘may seem unusual at first to link’ these two writers otherwise ‘diametrically opposed’ in their views and writing style.[4] The reply to such objections is simple: it is always productive for scholarship to consider the ‘unusual’.

Wussow compared Woolf and Lawrence’s alternative models of community that break with patriarchal and capitalist norms. To do so she invokes the ‘Society of Outsiders’, explored by Woolf in the polemical, feminist critique of fascism, Three Guineas (1938). In Lawrence’s case, Wussow invokes the ‘Rananim’, Lawrence’s ideal writing community. Wussow responds to a potential criticism that these communities seem unreal because ‘utopian’, by arguing that both the ‘society of outsiders’ and the ‘Rananim’ were ‘visionary societies’ seeking to unite ‘uncompromising difference’ in contradistinction to ‘larger society.’[5] Both Hagen and Wussow unite Lawrence and Woolf to examine their respective critique of educational institutions. Hagen equips us to understand that Lawrence and Woolf recognize the need for a coruscating view of the institutions that threaten to undermine flourishing education. Wussow helps us to see that both Lawrence and Woolf react against institutions perpetuating a situation in which ‘war’ becomes ‘the basic structure of human existence.’[6]

Hagen supports his theoretical approach to Woolf and Lawrence through detailed close reading. Among the insights that emerge from his writing on Woolf is a sense, especially from Woolf’s autobiographical Sketch of the Past (1939), of how experimental practice as a writer becomes a means of teaching oneself to articulate a philosophy, and to teach oneself how to write. In this sense, Hagen’s approach treats Woolf and Lawrence’s writing as experiential. From the chapters on Lawrence, there is a distinctive feel of the community in Lawrence’s writing, one that is based on what Hagen calls ‘relational’ exchange through pedagogy and learning through communication, rather than Lawrence’s well covered ‘heterosexist’ theme of the notionally incommensurable experience of men and women.

There will be scholars out there possessed of a far more sceptical view than I have of Lawrence and Woolf’s writing as sources for progressive and practical lessons in pedagogy. Some might even still share Richard Hoggart’s view that Woolf’s description of Charles Tansley in To The Lighthouse (1927) evinces Woolf’s ‘middle-class spectator’s view.’[7] In addition to offering a happily less hierarchical view than Hoggart, Hagen’s work reminds us not to assume we can easily discern Woolf’s own view. Hagen shows that what is missing from Hoggart’s definition of Woolf’s class politics is appreciation of the ideal, even idealistic, class politics immanent in her work. Benjamin Hagen’s book might be read nicely alongside Clara Jones’ Ambivalent Activist (2016), a major account of class contradictions in Woolf’s political activism. While Jones foregrounds the idea of a modernist community through activism, Hagen does so through pedagogy. Collectively, these studies show that pedagogy and activism in Woolf cannot be limited to the ‘middle-class spectator’s view’.

More recently and perhaps more polemically than Hoggart, there was John Carey’s The Intellectuals and the Masses (1992) which argued that modernism was a barbarous reaction to universal literacy – as if writers of any kind would ever not want more readers. Clearly, Carey conceptualizes a hierarchical view of early twentieth century readers, but I happen to think he also misconceives this hierarchical view. As far as I’m concerned, a hierarchy of early twentieth century readers scarcely exists, except in explicit form, in Carey’s book. To sense this, it helps to remember that one of Hoggart’s main methodological questions in The Uses of Literacy was ‘Who are ‘the Working classes’?[8] I rehearse Carey’s hostile views because Hagen’s idea of ‘sensuous pedagogy’ can now be added to a vocabulary that challenges misconceptions of modernism and its ideas as elitist.

Finally Hagen’s work calls for further research by promising to stimulate further reflections, and maybe even research, on how Woolf , Lawrence and other modernist writers and artists might have acquired a ‘sensuous pedagogy’ from their own teachers. In studying and learning from Woolf and Lawrence’s own ‘sensuous’ educational theory, we will need to keep thinking about the best sites of productive, individual, and collective discovery; of how to learn and teach, both in and outside of the institution. As to the timeliness of Hagen’s work, it does seem, whether due to a crisis caused by casual labour conditions in the university, or the pressures of working through the restrictions of a pandemic, that higher education, both in the Anglophone world and elsewhere, is ready for change. In Hagen’s tenth assignment, there is a tantalising question that corresponds to this situation: ‘What if Virginia Woolf or D.H. Lawrence had influenced twentieth-century literary criticism and pedagogy to the extent that T.S. Eliot did?’(115). The proper response to such questions is not to dwell too long on the counterfactual possibilities. Instead, we must start to practice ‘sensuous pedagogies’ right away. In this way Lawrence and Woolf’s ideas will continue to come into closer contact.


[1] Corita Kent and Jan Steward, Learning by Heart: Teachings to Free the Creative Spirit (New York: Allworth, 2008), p. 291

[2] Kent and Steward, Learning by Heart, p. 291.

[3] Samuel Beckett, ‘Worstward ho’, in Nohow on (London: Calder, 1989), p. 101.

[4] Helen Wussow, The Nightmare of History: The Fictions of Virginia Woolf and D.H. Lawrence (London: Associated University Press, 1998), p. 15.

[5] Wussow, The Nightmare of History, p. 28.

[6] Ibid, p. 15.

[7] Richard Hoggart, The Uses of Literacy (London: Chatto & Windus, 1957), p. 251; CF: Virginia Woolf, To The Lighthouse (London: Hogarth Press, 1927)

[8]See his first Chapter in The Uses of Literacy, pp. 3-14.  For a more stimulating account of the relation between class and readership than Carey’s work, see Jonathan Rose, The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes (London: Yale University Press, 2010)

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