New Worlds in Focus

Holly Henry
January 01, 1998

In 1923 Edwin Hubble, working in California with what was then the world's largest telescope, made a monumental discovery: the Andromeda nebula appeared to be located nearly a million light-years beyond our galaxy.1 Hubble's confirmation of the existence of galaxies external to the Milky Way was said to have "expanded one hundred fold the known volume of the material universe." It also sparked widespread popular interest in emerging telescopic technologies, and in cosmology. By the early 1930s, Mount Wilson Observatories, where Hubble made his discoveries, had opened for public viewing of stars and nebulae, and popular astronomy texts on Hubble's findings had become the rage in both the U.S. and Britain.

drawing if a greenish moon

One British writer whose work demonstrates a significant response to Hubble's radical reconfiguration of the universe is, perhaps surprisingly, Virginia Woolf. Her writing throughout the 1920s and '30s indicates not only that she was aware of Hubble's Andromeda results, but also that her aesthetic practices were inspired by her own fascination with visualization technologies, especially telescopes, and with the rapidly changing models of cosmology. Woolf persistently incorporated into her novels and short stories references to stars and telescopes, mathematics and the science of astronomy.

The allure of telescopic technologies and cosmology for Woolf surfaces throughout her diaries, letters, essays, and fiction. That hers was no passing or idle interest is evidenced by various references to her reading of popular astronomy texts by the British cosmologist James Jeans, and to her own telescopic observations. "I read about the Stars," she wrote in 1930, "and try to imagine what is meant by space bending back. Eliz: must take me to her telescope." Elizabeth Williamson, great-niece to Woolf's close friend Ethel Smyth, was demonstrator in Practical Astronomy at University College, London. In her diary, Woolf mentioned having viewed, through a friend's telescope, the "craters of the moon": "These I saw silver white & like the spots that are made by water dropping into plaster of paris. . . ." Eventually Woolf obtained a telescope of her own and had it mounted at Monks House, the Woolfs' summer home. She recorded her husband Leonard's "brilliant idea of converting half the library into an open air verandah with glass doors, in which we can sit on a hot night & survey the stars." Through her telescope, Virginia reports, she and Leonard viewed the moon, stars, and comets, "Jupiter minus the waiting women" (its moons), and the "cardboard collar" rings of Saturn.

Woolf's obsession with telescopes was indicative of a larger public interest in astronomy and cosmology triggered in large part by Hubble's work. By 1929, Hubble had announced a second earth-shaking find: The universe seemed to be expanding at an incredible rate. Light emitted from distant galaxies indicated they were receding from the Milky Way and each other at speeds upwards of 14,000 miles per second.2 As a result, Mount Wilson would be transformed "from a quiet enclave of astronomers into a bustling tourist attraction," hosting as many as 4,000 visitors on a holiday weekend. The observatory's 100-inch telescope drew guests such as Albert Einstein alongside Hollywood celebrities Anita Loos (author of the novel that became the Broadway smash Gentlemen Prefer Blondes) and screen and stage star Helen Hayes.

But the interface between Woolf and developments in cosmology extended beyond popular interest. During weekends spent at a Bohemian British salon, Woolf socialized with some of the nation's most prominent scientists and science popularizers, including Bertrand Russell and Alfred North Whitehead, as well as Aldous and Julian Huxley. She became acquainted with a network of Cambridge scientists and intellectuals, among them geneticist J.B.S. Haldane and physicist and crystallographer J.D. Bernal, known for their non-technical science writing.

It was, however, the popular explications of Hubble's findings by the Cambridge mathematician and cosmologist James Jeans that seemed to captivate Woolf's imagination. Jeans had traveled to the U.S. to work with Hubble, collaborating with the American astronomer to develop a systematic classification of the newly discovered galaxies. In constant demand as a lecturer and broadcaster, Jeans had acquired in Britain a popular omnipresence. So widely read was his The Mysterious Universe (1930) that it was translated into 13 different languages, including Czech, Bengali, and Burmese.

Woolf was a particularly close and careful reader of Jeans. Not only does she mention in her diaries and letters having read and owned his books, but nearly verbatim passages from them appear in her novels The Waves (1931) and The Years (1937). Bernard, the main character in The Waves, paraphrases Jeans's theory that the earth was accidentally formed from molten material ripped from the sun by a passing star. And Susan Squier, a Woolf scholar at Penn State, has noted that a Jeans analogy regarding the brevity of human existence compared to the age of the universe appears in an excised section of The Years. In addition, Woolf explicitly mentions Jeans in her final novel, Between the Acts (1941), when the character Isa Oliver wanders into a drawing room library looking for a book that would provide a "remedy" for her generation; she considers "Eddington, Darwin, or Jeans."3

Jeans's popular astronomy texts helped shape the public response to Hubble's findings. In The Universe Around Us (1929), Jeans persistently emphasized 1) the inconceivable vastness of the abyss of space, 2) the great age of the universe in comparison to the brevity of human existence, and 3) the rarity of life within a cold and indifferent universe. Woolf's fiction and essays, in turn, reverberate of these three themes. In The Waves, Bernard calculates, presumably in light-years, the brevity of human existence and, in particular, the British Empire against the long ages of cosmological time: "How strange it seems to set against the whirling abysses of infinite space a little figure with a golden teapot on his head. . . . Our English past—one inch of light."

For Jeans, it was specifically the technology of the telescope that had clarified humanity's nascent and ephemeral position within the universe. "For all but a 500th part of its long journey," Jeans wrote in 1929, "the light by which we see the remotest of visible nebulae travelled towards an earth uninhabited by man. Just as it was about to arrive, man came into being on earth, and built telescopes to receive it." The public response to such claims by Jeans was echoed by Leonard Woolf in a review of Jeans's Universe Around Us: "One may gape at the stupendous figures of space and time and speed . . . but the spectacle, from every human point of view, is horrible and terrible in its meaningless-ness."

Virginia Woolf, however, found Jeans's picture of the seemingly infinite reaches of intergalactic space productive for her writing. Contemplating the artist's predicament in an "age . . . not fast anchored," unhinged by new discoveries regarding the vastness and age of the universe, she wrote in 1927, "That the age of the earth is 3,000,000,000 years; that human life lasts but a second . . . it is in this atmosphere of doubt and conflict that writers have now to create. . . ." In light of the mysterious universe that Hubble had unveiled, Woolf eschewed the insipid "getting on from lunch to dinner" of realist fiction. She spoke of her novels and short stories as her own "experiments" in forging non-conventional narrative techniques that might more adequately articulate the modern human experience.

Aldous Huxley once complained that Woolf wrote as "one who is a thousand miles away and only has a telescope to look remotely at the world." To some extent he was right. The telescope afforded Woolf an appropriate structural and thematic device for her general concerns about human survival in an age which had already witnessed one world war, and in a universe seemingly devoid of life. She saw, for instance, that the telescope is a time machine of sorts, in that looking out into space always marks a looking back into cosmological time. As a result, Woolf developed various narrative scoping strategies, which invited her readers to focus on the brevity of human existence compared to the cosmological eons, so that humans might see their responsibility in securing a more livable world.

Holly Henry is a Ph.D. student in English and the recipient of a 1997 Weiss Graduate Scholars Fellowship, established with a gift from William L. and Josephine Berry Weiss for the support of interdisciplinary research. She can be reached at 103 Burrowes Building, University Park, PA 16802; 814-863-3069;

1 In 1923, Hubble had estimated the distance to Andromeda as roughly 978,000 light-years. Today scientists calculate that distance at approximately 2,800,000 light-years.

2 Astronomers' calculations now show that Hubble's velocity/distance relation for the recession of extra-galactic nebulae was too high by approximately a factor of 10.

3 Arthur Eddington, a leading Cambridge astrophysicist, was also a widely read popularizer of astronomy and physics.

Last Updated January 01, 1998