In 1924 the young novelist Virginia Woolf stood in front of a group of students at the University of Cambridge, to speak about the state of the novel. Her talk became the basis for one of her most famous essays, Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown, which she published the following year. Mr Bennett and Mrs Brown is a clarion call to writers, an exhortation to pursue character and a reminder of fiction’s innate compassion. Woolf wrote:
“It seems to me possible, perhaps desirable, that I may be the only person in this room who has committed the folly of writing, trying to write, or failing to write, a novel”. And when I asked myself, as your invitation to speak to you about modern fiction made me ask myself, what demon whispered in my ear and urged me to my doom, a little figure rose before me – the figure of a man, or of a woman, who said, My name is Brown. Catch me if you can. Most novelists have the same experience. Some Brown, Smith, or Jones comes before them and says in the most seductive and charming way in the world, Come and catch me if you can. And so, led on by this will-o-the-wisp, they flounder through volume after volume, spending the best years of their lives in the pursuit, and receiving for the most part very little cash in exchange.”
Lest you feel overwhelmed by the requirements of character, Woolf reminds us that everyone already “is a judge of character. Indeed, it would be impossible to live for a year without disaster unless one practiced character reading and had some skill in the arts. Our marriages, our friendships depend on it. Our business largely depends on it; every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help.”
Who is your Mrs Brown or your Mr Jones?
Woolf describes meeting her own Mrs Brown in a railway carriage. Could you, today, take yourself to a café or library or bar or train station and wait for your own will-o-the-wisp? Wait and watch, and when someone marches by or sits opposite you or shouts across the concourse to a friend and you feel yourself leaning in, wondering… there they are. There is your Mrs Brown.
Begin to write, then, safe in the knowledge that you are already, as Woolf says, skilled in the art of character-reading. Begin with the walk, or the talk, or the shout. Begin with what you hear or what you see.
Record the movement, the gesture, the voice. Take it all down, and then ask some questions: why does she move in that way? Does she want to avoid attention? Is she pretending to feel safe when she does not? What does she want from that friend sitting next to hear? Where has she come from? What story has she left behind? What is she afraid of? What does she want? What does she feel?
It is an act of connection, an act of love, to create and care for character in this way. To notice. To observe.
One caveat though – in the Immersion: Flow program, I mentioned my late father-in-law and his lack of self-consciousness when observing and eavesdropping on strangers. Driven by curiosity and compassion, he did this often. There were occasions when I feared we might end up in a brawl as a result. So exercise discretion in your compassionate observation. Resist the temptation to follow your Mrs Brown or Mr Jones down the street (though I have done this), or to invite yourself into their conversation (though I have also done this).
Observe. See where your Mrs Brown leads you.
When she imagined