Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life

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Julia Briggs does a fantastic job weaving Virginia Woolf’s life story into a deep discussion of her major and minor works. I’m left with the greedy desire to close out the world and start re-reading Woolf’s oeuvre, from The Voyage Out all the way through Between the Acts, even tackling Flush and Roger Fry’s biography for the first time. My finger itches to pull the trigger on a purchase of her complete shorter fiction and essays, along with the collected letters. Perhaps I should wait until I make it through all five volumes of her diaries.

Interesting how Joyce is painted as her “greatest rival,” something she shared with Gertrude Stein? “Nineteen forty-one had begun inauspiciously with the death of her greatest rival, James Joyce — ‘about a fortnight younger than I am’. They had never met, though he had been ‘about the place’, and she recalled Harriet Weaver ‘in wool gloves, spinsterly, buttoned up’ visiting them at Richmond in April 1918 with the thoroughly unbuttoned typescript of Ulysses. Woolf had put it away in a drawer, but then took it out to show Katherine Mansfield. Katherine ‘began to read, ridiculing: then suddenly said, But theres some thing in this: a scene that should figure I suppose in the history of literature.’ One after another, the age’s great writers ‘became [their] admirers’.

Woolf praised Dorothy Richardson and Joyce for inventing new techniques but “found their fiction self-centered, egotistical, narrow and lacking in structure (though as both Pilgrimage and Ulysses were still in the process of being written, their structures were more difficult to discern).” Woolf called the fourth novel of Pilgrimage, The Tunnel, ‘better in its failure than most books in their success.’

Growing up, VW was “a voracious reader, to the amusement of her father who gave her the run of his library, later supplementing it with books brought back from the London Library.” While we don’t have her version of a book blog, we have several clues about what she read, through references in her work plus explicit mention. (I need to pick up a copy of Hakluyt’s Voyages, Travels and Discoveries). Also mentioned: Meredith, Ibsen, Shaw, Hardy, Conrad, Henry James, George Eliot, Austen, Thomas Love Peacock, Henry Fielding, Webster, Browning, Shelley, Spenser, Congreve.

Briggs mentions VW’s letters of protest in 1920 to the New Statesman as a turning point where she converts depression and discouragement into social analysis and a critique of patriarchal attitudes. Strong currents of feminism bubble up throughout her work, finding the clearest voice in A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas but very much a presence in everything else, especially her essays. Briggs notes that the fact of ROO‘s adoption of inconsistent positions and debates within itself is the source of its continued appeal to modern audiences… “in the process of writing out its own indignation, arrives, for better or worse, at exactly those compromises with the world of men as most women act out on a daily basis, while scarcely noticing that they are doing so.”

Woolf “associated the primary act of artistic creation with writing in longhand rather than with subsequent typing,” her process was to write by hand in the morning and then type it up in the afternoon. Further, she hit upon the strategy of working on two types of projects at once, one fiction and one non-fiction, so that she could teeter between the two when she got stuck or bored or frustrated.

Random thought– how much was society “civilized” by the tradition of afternoon tea, the stopping of all work to come together and have a conversation on a daily basis?

Further research into her claim from the 1925 essay Character in Fiction that ‘on or about December 1910 human character changed.’

All of this is sending me into a deep dive of Woolf, further convinced of her absolute stunning genius.