Cymbeline

Oh, you want to know more about the significance of Clarissa Dalloway’s “Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” murmur? Of course you must fling yourself into a Shakespearean rabbit hole and read the play it comes from, where you find that it’s a somber funeral song crooned as the two lost princes dig a grave for Imogen (unbeknownst to them, their sister; unbeknownst to them, actually still alive).

This is the a normal ragtag and slapdash Shakespearean tragedy, involving the usual doses of: miscommunication, an evil stepmother, cross-dressing, foolish leaders, poisons that send people into sleep not death, mysteriously kidnapped princes later discovered, hiding in chests to gather proof of infidelity. Some good insults, as always, like “whoreson jackanapes.”

Mrs. Dalloway

Reading this again by taking the smallest possible sips over the last week has been a balm for my soul. I never allowed myself that kind of space to sink into her writing before. When I caught myself straying from giddy attention, I marked my spot and put the book down, tended to my next object of thought, and returned to it when my mind was fresh. This quality of total, clear attention unleashes marvels from the book… which sounds dumb because what book wouldn’t benefit from that level of steady focus?

What strikes you first? The sounds. The hours marked by Big Ben, the leaden circles dissolving in the air. The backfiring of an automobile. The words of Shakespeare (“Fear no more the heat o’ the sun” from Cymbeline) spoken in a memory of the luxuriant past in the country at a home, Bourton, her brother inherited now that her father is gone. Bourton is as much of a place as London in this story, with layers of flashbacks to her youth spent flirting with Peter Walsh and falling in love with Sally Seton and finally meeting Richard Dalloway there.

Also the absence of sound: “As a cloud crosses the sun, silence falls on London; and falls on the mind. Effort ceases. Time flaps on the mast.”

The layers of consciousness, each character’s thoughts crashing on top of the other, a cacophony of perspectives.

Peter’s been away for many years, is now back in town, drops in to see Clarissa unexpectedly, weeps when he tells her he’s in love with a married woman in India. He flings himself outdoors, leaving her to prepare for her party. In Regent’s Park he sits on a bench and snores, then crosses paths with Septimus Warren Smith—the shell-shocked veteran of the Great War who has threatened to kill himself (and later does, by jumping out a window), who hears the birds singing in Greek. An airplane spells out an ad for coffee in the sky, droning on.

Peter thinks to himself “Those five years—1918 to 1923—had been somehow very important” (p 71). You could openly refer to things that were previously unmentionable. Woolf loves marking these lines of time in the sand, like in her essay Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, “on or about December 1910 human character changed.”

My favorite character that I did not remember from previous readings was the female vagrant spotted by Richard Dalloway in Green Park: “she had flung herself on the earth, rid of all ties, to observe curiously, to speculate boldly, to consider the whys and the wherefores, impudent, loose-lipped, humorous”, and she laughs at the sight of him.

And of course, Septimus, news of whose death reaches the Dalloway’s party on the lips of one of his doctors. Clarissa is twinned with him, “She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air.” Earlier, Clarissa thinks “Death was defiance. Death was an attempt to communicate… there was an embrace in death.”

Fantastic last lines revolve around Peter’s thoughts:

It is Clarissa, he said.
For there she was.

Joshua, Judges, Ruth, Samuel 1 & 2

Like water torture, I am continuing the drip, drip, dripping of the Bible. Joshua is an incredibly dull book—wars, circumcision (“At that time the Lord said unto Joshua, Make thee sharp knives, and circumcise again the children of Israel the second time.” – A SECOND TIME?!), the walls of Jericho fall down.

Judges continues the dullness with a bit more spice, continued wars but then there’s a lady who nails someone in the head to kill him, and the weird decision to draft every man “that lappeth of the water with his tongue, as a dog lappeth,” and the dude whose skull was fractured by a woman who then asked his servant to kill him so that people wouldn’t be able to say that a woman killed him. Our pal Samson (the strong hairy dude) is in here, shorn of his strength then he grows it back and pulls down the pillars of a house to kill everyone. Then there’s a scene with an eerie echo of Sodom, a man goes into a house and townsmen beat at the door saying they want to “know him” (bugger him) but the master of the house says don’t do such a wicked thing but here’s my daughter. Violent rape ensues and she dies on the doorstep of her father’s house the next morning. Jesus fucking christ. But the horror isn’t over—her body is then cut into 12 pieces and sent to all the coasts of Israel. WTF!? Then there’s some low-key kidnapping of wives and finally we get to Ruth.

Ruth, what a delight! The first book named after a woman, I settle in and am excited to read about her and Naomi (her mother-in-law). This is a welcome change from the war and violence of the previous seven books of the Bible. Ruth marries Naomi’s son who dies, and Ruth clings to Naomi, then she is married off to a kinsman, Boaz. We hear about the custom of giving someone your shoe as a testimony for confirming a land transaction? “Now this was the manner in former time in Israel concerning redeeming and concerning changing, for to confirm all things; a man plucked off his shoe, and gave it to his neighbor: and this was a testimony in Israel.” Ruth has a son and is the great-grandmother of David. Is it the famous David of Golliath? We’ll have to wait and see! And I’m ready to continue flipping pages of this delightful tale when, whoops, Ruth is over. Only 4 chapters?!

Samuel 1. Lots of killing, wars. Some weird thing where god turns Samuel into “another man”?? Saul is trouble from the start, hiding from everyone but he’s tall so his hiding place discovered easily. Then Saul becomes a mad king and we meet David, the gentle harp player/shepherd who’s known for taking down Goliath with a single stone before sawing his head off and parading around with it. (I guess you had to come with receipts to prove what you’d done.) Saul tells David he can marry his daughter Michal, but instead of a dowry he wanted 100 foreskins of the Philistines. What is up with this obsession about foreskin/circumcision? David overachieves and brings 200 foreskins. Saul keeps trying to kill David so he escapes, and when he’s recognized pretends to be mad (has lots of practice from seeing Saul up close, foaming at the mouth). Surprise: there is an extended discussion of fortune telling in here! (1 Samuel 28:7-19) Samuel, who’s dead, gets brought back by a spiritual medium and he tells Saul that he’ll die tomorrow. Which he does and David comes out on top.

Samuel 2. More killing, rape, incest. Good times. King David has an all-night dance party (he “danced before the lord with all his might). There’s a special form of torture where they “shaved off half of their beards, cut off their garments in the middle, even to their buttocks”. I vaguely remembered a Biblical tale of David and Bathsheba which is here: David spots Bath-sheba washing herself and she was “very beautiful to look upon” so he gets her pregnant and then has her husband sent off to be killed in war. More rape in 13:14 where Amnon rapes his half sister Tamar; this is revenged 2 years later when Tamar’s brother Absalom kills Amnon. This causes Absalom to flee from David’s wrath and leads to this curious exchange: he sends for Joab to be a messenger between him and David but Joab refused to come. After the 2nd time he refused to come, Absalom told his servants to set Joab’s barley field on fire, which they do, and Joab comes running, WTF are you doing, mate? Absalom sends him to talk to David for him. Later, Absalom humiliates his father David by sleeping with David’s 10 concubines in a tent on the roof of his palace so the whole town can see. During battle, Absalom gets caught in a tree and Joab walks up to kill him with 3 darts. David mourns his son’s death, “Absalom, O Absalom, my son, my son!” What’s refreshing in all these violent, ruthless, devious books is the near absence of that vengeful god—most of the blathering is being done by humans instead of a jealous spirit. The ark, however, is being yanked around and moved from place to place still.

The Common Reader

From her diary and letters we know she wanted to have The Common Reader—written concurrently with Mrs. Dalloway—published first, followed by the novel, which is exactly what happened in 1925. Reading the essays, it’s clear why this order was preferred—she lays out a case for the experimentation she’s doing with her own writing and paves the way for a deeper dive into self in Mrs. Dalloway. The last sentence of the book indeed urges us to “scan the horizon; see the past in relation to the future; and so prepare the way for masterpieces to come.” Mic drop, may I introduce you to a masterpiece I call Mrs. Dalloway?

This last essay, How It Strikes a Contemporary, tries to understand why critics can’t agree on any masterpieces being produced in the current post-Great War age. Woolf points out that this is primarily a result of writers having “ceased to believe.” (This emphasis on belief is something she pushes as a prerequisite for good writing in The Modern Essay.) But looking at past classics, she raises a questioning finger and says they “seem deliberately to refuse to gratify those senses which are stimulated so briskly by the moderns; the senses of sight, of sound, of touch—above all, the sense of the human being, his depth and the variety of his perceptions, his complexity, his confusion, his self, in short.”

Modern Fiction carries on the argument she developed in 1924’s Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown, drawing a line between the old guard “materialists” and the new writers she deems “spiritualists”; Joyce gets a lot of ink here (although she does call out the “comparative poverty” of his mind, zing!), pointing out how much of life we normally exclude or ignore. With regard to the old way of writing, she asks “Must novels be like this?” Life is very different from the tight plots of novels, it’s “a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?”

She seems also to be speaking of herself in the Jane Austen essay as she imagines what Jane could have done with her next six novels:

She would have devised a method, clear and composed as ever, but deeper and more suggestive, for conveying not only what people say, but what they leave unsaid; not only what they are, but what life is. She would have stood farther away from her characters, and seen them more as a group, less as individuals. Her satire, while it played less incessantly, would have been more stringent and severe. She would have been the forerunner of Henry James and of Proust—

Excellent advice on writing fills the space of The Modern Essay. “… but what art can the essayist use in these short lengths of prose to sting us wide awake and fix us in a trance which is not sleep but rather an intensification of life…?” She must know how to write. Essays must be free from “dullness, deadness, and deposits of extraneous matter.” Of the dangers encountered: “Soon the current, which is the life-blood of literature, runs slow; and instead of sparking and flashing or moving with a quieter impulse which has a deeper excitement, words coagulate together in frozen sprays…” And THIS, MY GOD THIS: “To write weekly, to write daily, to write shortly, to write for busy people catching trains in the morning or for tired people coming home in the evening, is a heart-breaking task for men who know good writing from bad.

The Brontës essay (Charlotte was a poet, but Emily was the greater poet) also gives us a window into what Woolf was trying to do with her own fiction: “It is as if she could tear up all that we know human beings by, and fill these unrecognisable transparences with such a gust of life that they transcend reality. Hers, then, is the rarest of all powers. She could free life from its dependence on facts; with a few touches indicate the spirit of a face so that it needs no body; by speaking of the moor make the wind blow and the thunder roar.”

In On Not Knowing Greek, she gets as close as I’ve yet seen to discussing the impact of the Great War: “In the vast catastrophe of the European war our emotions had to be broken up for us, and put at an angle from us, before we could allow ourselves to feel them in poetry and fiction.”

I’m thankful for having just read Montaigne’s essays and it made me appreciate even more her Montaigne:

For ourselves, who are ordinary men and women, let us return thanks to Nature for her bounty by using every one of the senses she has given us; vary our state as much as possible; turn now this side, now that, to the warmth, and relish to the full before the sun goes down the kisses of youth and the echoes of a beautiful voice singing Catullus. Every season is likeable, and wet days and fine, red wine and white, company and solitude. Even sleep, that deplorable curtailment of the joy of life, can be full of dreams; and the most common actions—a walk, a talk, solitude in one’s own orchard—can be enhanced and lit up by the association of the mind. Beauty is everywhere, and beauty is only two finger’s-breadth from goodness. So, in the name of health and sanity, let us not dwell on the end of the journey. Let death come upon us planting our cabbages

I love her method for introducing Chaucer into the conversation, by way of the story of the 15th century Paston family and the young gentleman who preferred to sit reading in his windy castle rather than tend to his family’s business.

Russian writers were hugely important to Woolf, but only read in translation although she did attempt to learn Russian (1921) in order to help Kot with his translations into English. The subject of translation is briefly touched on in The Russian Point of View:

What we are saying amounts to this, then, that we have judged a whole literature stripped of its style. When you have changed every word in a sentence from Russian to English, have thereby altered the sense a little, the sound, weight, and accent of the words in relation to each other completely, nothing remains except a crude and coarsened version of the sense. Thus treated, the great Russian writers are like men deprived by an earthquake or a railway accident not only of all their clothes, but also of something subtler and more important—their manners, the idiosyncrasies of their characters. What remains is, as the English have proved by the fanaticism of their admiration, something very powerful and very impressive, but it is difficult to feel sure, in view of these mutilations, how far we can trust ourselves not to impute, to distort, to read into them an emphasis which is false.

Also of note in this essay is that she quotes Elena Militsina again (“Learn to make yourselves akin to people… let this sympathy be not with the mind—for it is easy with the mind—but with the heart, with love towards them.”). This is the second time she quotes Militsina in this collection of essays (also in Modern Fiction), and originally quoted in her 1918 essay that I just dug up from a rabbit hole search— The Russian Point of View — which she clearly revised heavily for inclusion here.

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 2: 1920-1924

Too much happens in this lovely volume for a succinct recap, and really why should I deprive you of the joy of sinking into those long ago years yourself? It is here in February 1922 that she writes the infamous “I meant to write about death, only life came breaking in as usual.” A few sentences later, she declares she won’t live to see 70 (she is 40 at the time). In August, “There’s no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice; & that interests me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise.” In October, “At forty I am beginning to learn the mechanism of my own brain—how to get the greatest amount of pleasure & work out of it. The secret is I think always to contrive that work is pleasant.”

In July 1922, she asks herself what is worth while? “Only feeling things for yourself—”.

August 1922: “The way to rock oneself back into writing is this. First gentle exercise in the air. Second the reading of good literature. It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw. One must get out of life—one must become externalised; very, very concentrated, all at one point, not having to draw upon the scattered parts of one’s character, living in the brain.”

Working on Mrs. Dalloway, she begins to feel her stride. “At last, I like reading my own writing. It seems to me to fit me closer than it did before.” (A November entry proposes to call it the “10th of June, or whatever I call it.” but Dalloway Day is celebrated on the 17th of June?)

June 1923 has a lovely entry describing sitting with Mary Sheepshanks in her garden “& beat up the waters of talk, as I do so courageously, so that life mayn’t be wasted… Somehow, extraordinary emotions possessed me. I forget now what… It is a general sense of the poetry of existence that overcomes me. Often it is connected with the sea & St Ives.”

Her plan to move back into London gains force and in her diary she dreams of not having to catch trains back to Richmond but to go hear music, “or have a look at a picture, or find out something at the British Museum, or go adventuring among human beings.” By February 1924 the plan has become a reality as 52 Tavistock Square is acquired. An initial hesitation about being disturbed by street sounds is soothed as she realizes that “it’s just as noisy here [in Richmond], if one listens, as it can possibly be in Tavistock Square. One gets into a habit of not listening. Remember this sage advice.”

In August 1924 she notes the effect of Leonard telling her about Germany’s reparations: “Lord what a weak brain I have—like an unused muscle… Sometimes I think my brain & his are of different orders. Were it not for my flash of imagination, & this turn for books, I should be a very ordinary woman.” (She then goes on to lay out her plan of finishing the Common Reader and Mrs Dalloway, reading Medea and Plato. This is no weak brain.)

She starts to understand what the diary is for: “It strikes me that in this book I practise writing; do my scales; yes & work at certain effects. I daresay I practised Jacob here,—& Mrs D. & shall invent my next book here; for here I write merely in the spirit—great fun it is too, & old V. of 1940 will see something in it too. She will be a woman who can see, old V.: everything—more than I can think.”

“Thinking it over, I believe its getting the rhythm in writing that matters. Could I get my tomorrow mornings rhythm right—take the skip of my sentence at the right moment—I should reel it off; —there is a good deal in this which I should like to think out; its not style exactly—the right words—its a way of levitating the thought out of one—”

In December 1924 she writes “At Christmas I must write & ask Lytton if I may dedicate the common reader to him. And thats the last of my books to be dedicated, I think.” Indeed it was, until Orlando’s inscription to Vita four years later.

Since I was curious, here are the dedicated books:

  • Voyage Out: to L.W.
  • Night and Day: to Vanessa Bell
  • Common Reader: to Lytton Strachey
  • Orlando: to V. Sackville-West.

 

The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 3: 1919-1924

This volume was a bit of a disappointment. It seems that many of the good essays were hoovered up into The Common Reader, so 13 of the articles which should have been in this volume end up in Volume IV, in addition to The Common Reader. Of course, this being Woolf, there is plenty of gold left to mine from this ore.

A short column in 1924 rails against motor-cars. “The cheapening of motor-cars is another step towards the ruin of the country road. It is already almost impossible to take one’s pleasure walking, and only inevitable necessity impels the owners of children or dogs to venture their limbs upon what is now little better than an unfenced railway track. On the line itself there are at least rails and signals to ensure some kind of safety. But on the high road the procession of vehicles is irregular and chaotic, and the pedestrian has to depend upon the consideration and humanity of the motorist, who is in a position to dispense with both if it suits him. That it does suit him those who have lived on the verge of military operations this summer can testify—the approach of a military car being the signal among walkers and cyclists either to dismount and stand still or risk some perfectly wanton onslaught on the part of the military upon the common amenities of the King’s highway. The English road, moreover, is rapidly losing its old character—its colour, here tawny-red, here pearl-white; its flowery and untidy hedges; its quiet; its ancient and irregular charm. It is becoming, instead, black as cinders, smooth as oilcloth, shaven of wild flowers, straightened of corners, a mere racing-track for the convenience of a population seemingly in perpetual and frantic haste not to be late for dinner.”

A 1920 review plucks at the delicate balance between reader and writer: “But who shall trace how it is that coldness yields to curiosity, and curiosity to warmth, or satisfactorily define what constitutes that relationship between book and reader? For the essence of it is instinctive rather than rational. It is personal, complex, as much composed of the reader’s temperament perhaps as of the writer’s. To make a clean breast of it, hour and season and mood, the day’s brightness or the moment’s despondency, all weigh down the scales. With such impressionable instruments are we provided; of such unstable elements are our judgements compounded. No wonder that a second reading often reverses the verdict of a first.”

A 1923 review of a book about George Gissing contains this gem: “Be yourself with vigour and honesty and uncompromisingly, and it is surprising how you tell upon the landscape. It is arguable that you live almost as long in the manner of Dr Johnson and Samuel Butler as in the other way, which is Shakespeare’s way and Jane Austen’s.”

The lecture she gave to a group at Cambridge is captured in Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown (published as Character in Fiction in T.S.Eliot’s Criterion ), taking up the fight against Arnold Bennett’s claim that the current writers (VW included) fail because their characters aren’t alive. As she tries to explain what they are up to, she mentions “on or about December 1910 human character changed.” This sentence is the starting gun for reams of papers about modernism. Essentially she draws a line and says, this is the shift. Edward VII died in May 1910, the first Post-Impressionist Exhibition opened in November 1910 (the show included works by Cezanne, van Gogh, Gauguin, Matisse and Picasso, and led to radical developments like Cubism and the Fauves), Freud’s works were becoming better known (in an earlier draft: “If you read Freud you know in ten minutes some facts—or at least some possibilities—which our parents could not possibly have guessed for themselves), servants were becoming more chummy with their employers, the old world was breaking up. Said from the perch of 1924, post-Great War, you can see that society was cracking back in 1910.

You can tell that she’s enjoying having shaken off the shackles of drudgery reviews for the TLS and she really spreads her wings for The Nation & Athenaeum (for which Leonard was literary editor). She reviews the British Empire Exhibition in a June 1924 article where the excitement is driven by the approach of a storm:

But even as we watch and admire what we would fain credit to the forethought of Lieutenant-General Sir Travers Clarke, a rushing sound is heard. Is it the wind, or is it the British Empire Exhibition? It is both. The wind is rising and shuffling along the avenues; the Massed Bands of Empire are assembling and marching to the Stadium. Men like pin-cushions, men like pouter pigeons, men like pillar-boxes, pass in procession. Dust swirls after them. Admirably impassive, the bands of Empire march on. Soon they will have entered the fortress; soon the gates will have clanged. But let them hasten! For either the sky has misread her directions, or some appalling catastrophe is impending. The sky is livid, lurid, sulphurine. It is in violent commotion. It is whirling water-spouts of cloud into the air; of dust in the Exhibition. Dust swirls down the avenues, hisses and hurries like erected cobras round the corners. Pagodas are dissolving in dust. Ferro-concrete is fallible. Colonies are perishing and dispersing in spray of inconceivable beauty and terror which some malignant power illuminates. Ash and violet are the colours of its decay. From every quarter human beings come flying—clergymen, school children, invalids in bath-chairs. They fly with outstretched arms, and a vast sound of wailing rolls before them, but there is neither confusion nor dismay. Humanity is rushing to destruction, but humanity is accepting its doom. Canada opens a frail tent of shelter. Clergymen and school children gain its portals. Out in the open under a cloud of electric silver the bands of Empire strike up. The bagpipes neigh. Clergy, school children, and invalids group themselves round the Prince of Wales in butter. Cracks like the white roots of trees spread themselves across the firmament. The Empire is perishing; the bands are playing; the Exhibition is in ruins. For that is what comes of letting in the sky.