Katherine Mansfield, Virginia Woolf and the nature goddess tradition

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This article proposes a comparative reading of Katherine Mansfield’s and Virginia Woolf’s writing in relation to the medieval concept of anima mundi (world soul), that is, the belief in an animistic universe in which the earth is revivified through a spiritus mundi (spirit of the world). Both drew on the medieval tradition of nature personified, inherited from the Renaissance writings of Spencer, Shakespeare and Marvell, for images of plenitude, generation, and a catalyst of awe and wonder, while the writings of Chaucer offered a more down to earth, satirical model for their modernist response. Mansfield’s affinities with medieval cosmology and her participatory relationship with the created world is often undercut by a critique of nature as a source of maternal and natural fecundity. The encounters with natural forces in her work, represented as odd, disturbing or disruptive, suggest a ‘decentring’ modernist aesthetic. Virginia Woolf, by contrast, aims to reinforce and redefine the centre in relation to the search for form, although like Mansfield in adapting the inherited philosophical, literary and iconographic traditions for her portraits in Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse, she stresses the unpredictability of the unconscious response to nature’s munificence. Other differences in their approach to human and non-human relations appear in their representations of the ordinary, the animated and lifelike, and these are contextualized by examining their theories of art and life. The chapter concludes by examining both writers’ handling of the modernist trope of the epiphany inspired both by landscape settings and man-made forces, and will suggest that these moments of illumination, wonder and heightened consciousness -- whether suggestive of transcendence, healing, and psychic renewal, or of disillusionment and withdrawal – further differentiate their literary modernisms.
Original languageEnglish
Article number1
Pages (from-to)17-38
Number of pages22
JournalLiterature and Aesthetics: the journal of the Sydney Society of Literature and Aesthetics
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 19 May 2017


  • Katherine Mansfield
  • Virginia Woolf
  • nature goddess
  • anima mundi
  • To the Lighthouse
  • Mrs Dalloway
  • grove
  • Pan
  • sacred tree


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