A Room of One’s Own

I’m apparently re-reading this book every two years (2014, 2016, 2018), which feels completely reasonable. This was the first reading where I’ve been comfortably sunk in VW-land for months as I read her work chronologically. And so it struck me to see threads of things she’s been grappling with, like what is “the novel” anyway? And her favorite writers show up again, and anyone who’s been on this same journey will recognize flashes and flares of ideas from her myriad of essays, letters, and diary entries.

Other thoughts from the grab-bag of my brain: that this was published only days before the epic stock market crash that plunged the world into The Depression; that there are beautiful passages about writing and city walking and time passing. That I will invariably reach for this again in 2022. And now, back to the books! I’m excited to read the letters/diaries to see the reactions Room received!

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 3, 1923-1928

It’s taken me a few months to work my way through the 6 highly productive years covered in this volume of letters. During this time she wrote Mrs Dalloway, The Common Reader, To the Lighthouse, and Orlando, in addition to numerous essays, diary entries, and these letters. Her reputation began to soar but she still found time to write careful criticism to her nephew Julian about his poems, and launch her intense relationship with Vita.

The sheer volume of letters that deal with problems and theories of writing make me wonder if anyone’s ever attempted a corollary to Leonard’s compendium of her diary entries into a Writer’s Diary by making a compendium of advice from the letters. In these we find her thoughts about Gertrude Stein (“For my own part I wish we could skip a generation—skip Edith and Gertrude and Tom and Joyce and Virginia and come out in the open again…”) among other current writers.

In 1925 she’s wrestling with what a novel is; a letter to Janet Case: “What is form? What is character? What is a novel?” and to Vita: “I want you to invent a name by the way which I can use instead of ‘novel’. Thinking it over, I see I cannot, never could, never shall, write a novel. What, then, to call it?”

Style is a very simple matter; it is all rhythm. Once you get that, you can’t use the wrong words. But on the other hand here am I sitting after half the morning, crammed with ideas, and visions, and so on, and can’t dislodge them, for lack of the right rhythm. Now this is very profound, what rhythm is, and goes far deeper than words. A sight, an emotion, creates this wave in the mind, long before it makes words to fit it; and in writing (such is my present belief) one has to recapture this, and set this working (which has nothing apparently to do with words) and then, as it breaks and tumbles in the mind, it makes words to fit it: But no doubt I shall think differently next year.

We see her rejecting London social life in order to focus on work: “I have banged my door on parties, dug myself into a dank dismal burrow, where I do nothing but read and write. This is my hybernating season. I read 5 hours yesterday, the same today. Its grim but salutary.” Yet we find she does not like reading novels: “Nothing induces me to read a novel except when I have to make money by writing about it. I detest them. They seem to me wrong from start to finish—my own included.”

“I am reading six books at once, the only way of reading; since, as you will agree, one book is only a single unaccompanied note, and to get the full sound, one needs ten others at the same time.”

Against typewriting: “And then you’d never believe what a sterilising fracturing bone-cracking backaching effect on the style the typewriter has.”

The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 4: 1925-1928

This volume includes the essays I was grumpy about being missing from earlier volume, the editor choosing to put the entire Common Reader in here for some reason. Once you get over that chaffing, you settle in for hundreds of pages of essays printed across a much wider number of journals, including American ones which paid more than  TLS’s fee (so we see a precipitous drop in submissions to poor Bruce Richmond who was so important to helping VW gain confidence in her voice; plus there’s the 1921 matter of him rejecting her characterization of Henry James’s story as lewd).

Asking How Should One Read a Book, “one should read it as if one were writing it.” She gives an example of Defoe and how we casually drops in a little unnecessary fact that isn’t necessary to the story but is necessary to the truth of the story because this is how people talk—they always add some irrelevant detail without thinking. In this essay she also mentions something that I’m afflicted by: “so curiously is the brain compounded that while tracts of literature repel at one season, they are appetising and essential at another.”

We need to realize “how great a part the art of not reading plays into the art of reading. To be able to read books without reading them, to skip and saunter, to suspend judgement, to lounge and loaf down the alleys and bye-streets of letters is the best way of rejuvenating one’s own creative power.”

Another favorite, Street Haunting, has brilliant passages about books:

Second-hand books are wild books, homeless books; they have come together in vast flocks of variegated feather, and have a charm which the domesticated volumes of the library lack. Besides, in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.

In writing of American writers, she praises Ring Lardner’s You Know Me, Al, pinpointing his success of using baseball as a meeting place for a diverse group of people who have no other center. “Games give him what society gives his English brother.” She also praises Americans for coining new words, saying that when the Brits want to freshen their speech, they borrow from America’s “poppycock, rambunctious, flipflop, booster, good-mixer — all the expressive ugly vigorous slang which creeps into use among us first in talk, later in writing…”

Tackling the subject of  her great-aunt Julia Margaret Cameron, she notes how Cameron chased Tennyson into his room shouting Coward! Coward! when he refused to get a vaccination.

Orlando, A Biography

Reading this playful book that Woolf herself referred to as a “bad joke” in a several letters to friends and family was a joy. I feel like my reading this time (as opposed to when I read it in 2016) was deeper due to the onramp I took toward it, fully immersed in her journals/diaries/essays. I know more about her constant stretching towards defining what a novel is, what fiction is, and revel in seeing her throw the label off completely by tagging this a biography, complete with preface and index. I’m more aware of who the friends are that she thanks in the preface, and can appreciate the gentle wave she gives to Lydia Lopokova (“the beauty of movement”). I see the gentle threads that connect this to her earlier work with an interest in the concept of time (see Chapter 2’s digression on whether or not simply saying “Time passed” isn’t easier, a direct connect to The Lighthouse’s section Time Passes). From her diary, I’m also aware of her examination of her own growing fame, put into words by Orlando that “fame impedes and constricts,… [but] obscurity is dark, ample, and free; obscurity lets the mind take its way unimpeded.”

Having just read her essay skewering Hemingway in 1927, I can see another barb for him here: “(And from this it follows that only the most profound masters of style can tell the truth, and when one meets a simple one-syllabled writer, one may conclude, without any doubt at all, that the poor man is lying.)”

What else? Of course the gender fluidity, plus commentary about reading, writing, teasing that she’s about to reveal the meaning of life, protesting against Victorian-era worship of the act of marriage, protesting about the treatment of women in general and women writers more particularly. It’s the most famous example of a labor of love, directed at Vita, swirling round Vita, with Knole as the backdrop and photos of Vita (and Angelica, VW’s niece) included to make it a proper bio.

Life? Literature? One to be made into the other? But how monstrously difficult! For – here came by a pair of tight scarlet trousers – how would Addison have put that? Here came two dogs dancing on their hind legs. How would Lamb have described that? For reading Sir Nicholas and his friends …, she somehow got the impression – here she rose and walked – they made one feel – it was an extremely uncomfortable feeling – one must never, never say what one thought. (She stood on the banks of the Serpentine. It was a bronze colour; spider-thin boats were skimming from side to side.) They made one feel, she continued, that one must always, always write like somebody else.

Woolf on Hemingway

Reading Woolf’s review of Hemingway made me laugh out loud. She found herself unable to turn down the £120 offered for four reviews for the New York Herald Tribune but bemoans the effort in a Sept 1927 letter to Vita, “Here I am bound hand and foot to write an article on the works of a man called Hemingway… write for the Americans again, write for money again, I will not.” (Spoiler alert: she will and does.)

According to Hemingway’s biographer, Michael Reynolds, he read the review in Sylvia Beach’s Parisian bookshop (Shakespeare & Co) and was so furious “that he punched a lamp and broke it. Sylvia billed him for the lamp.”

Woolf begins the review uncovering the nature of criticism, attempting to pull back the curtain and explain the inner workings of what goes on. First, what does the critic already know about the author. Vague rumors—Hemingway is an American living in France, “an ‘advanced’ writer, we suspect, connected with what is called a movement, thought which of the many we own that we do not know.”

Then we must read his earlier book, The Sun Also Rises, in order to evaluate the current book, Men Without Women. In looking at that book, Woolf determines that Hemingway’s writing occasionally gives us a real emotion, “[b]ut there is something faked, too, which turns bad and gives an unpleasant feeling…” She sums up what she knows so far: he is not an advanced writer, he seems to fake his characters (this is a particular passionate inquiry of Woolf’s, see Mr. Bennett & Mrs Brown/Character in Fiction).

With this in mind, what do we make of his current book? Woolf starts with the problematic title, Men Without Women. Once you gender a book, you’ve “brought into play sympathies and antipathies which have nothing to do with art. The greatest writers lay no stress upon sex one way or the other.”

Another thing critics do is compare against classics, so Woolf flashes these short stories against the masters, to Hemingway’s disadvantage. “If one had not summoned the ghosts of Tchekov, Mérimée, and Maupassant, no doubt one would be enthusiastic.” The short stories aren’t as deep as his novel, probably due to the “excessive use of dialogue… At last we are inclined to cry out with the little girl in ‘Hills Like White Elephants’: ‘Would you please please please please please please stop talking?'” (This is where I laughed.)

She examines his craft and finds it lacking. Things are out of proportion. His “tendency to flood the page with unnecessary dialogue” trips him up. A true writer gets much closer to the truth, life, reality, than Hemingway does. To sum up, “he has moments of bare and nervous beauty; he is modern in manner but not in vision; he is self-consciously virile; his talent has contracted rather than expanded; compared with his novel his stories are a little dry and sterile.”

To the Lighthouse

I can’t recommend highly enough the best way to approach this book—sneaking up on it slowly by reading the months and years worth of letters and diaries and essays and other books that came before and during its birth. As soon as I reached 1927 in my chronology I got more and more excited that this was within reach, finally.

I haven’t read this in over 20 years. What is wrong with me? This needs to be a perennial read. Coming to it now, with a few decades under my belt, I’m even more staggered. The figure of Mr. Ramsay, so selfish in his widowhood, reminds me of my own father.

I can’t say too much here, there are really no words. After I finished, I immediately read Vanessa’s letter to Virginia that she wrote after reading it, high praise indeed, calling her a magnificent portrait painter for the likenesses she captured of their parents.

These seeds dropped into my brain at an early age, did they strengthen my resolve not to tether myself to one person for an eternal life sentence? Lily Briscoe succeeds and thrives as a spinster, urging her “exemption from the universal law” because she likes to be alone and to be herself. If so, add that to my growing list of debts to Woolf.

Most certainly I read this more slowly than ever before, taking long breaks in between sections to catch my breath and mull over her craft. If there is a blessing in the current chaos of pandemic life, it is in embracing slowness, stillness, appreciating things to the depth of their cores, no more surface skimming to get on to the next thing.

***

Related: letters from readers, cf:

and one from George Duckworth:

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.

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.

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 2, 1912-1922

What an utter joy to have access to these letters; Woolf was a fantastically funny and engaging and relentless letter writer, her friends saved most and we benefit from that squirreling away. These letters range through the tumultuous era of the Great War and the deadly influenza and I found comfort in her words.

Beyond pandemic thoughts, she writes of social outings and seeing art and going to the 1917 Club (describing a meeting of conscientious objectors at the club “met here to croak like so many dull raucous vociferating and disgorging cormorants”) and losing Asheham but finding Monk’s House, buying Hogarth House, becoming better friends with Morgan Forester and T.S. Eliot, losing her friendship with Katherine Mansfield, cozily comfortable with Lytton and Leonard and Nessa and Roger, gossiping with her various correspondents and letting her pen fly across the page. She loathed Joyce’s Ulysses and swooned over Proust, and throughout it all was working on her first experiment in a new direction with Jacob’s Room.

Her unconventional life caused a rift with more somber family members and I loved her chastising letter to cousin Dorothea who objected to Nessa’s odd domestic setup (ostensibly married to Clive, but living with Duncan): “You, for example, accept a religion which I and my servants, who are both agnostics, think wrong and indeed pernicious. Am I therefore to forbid you to come here for my servants sake?… If after this you like to come with Katharine, by all means do; and I will risk not only my own morals but my cook’s.” (October 1921)

“It is lovely down here, and I read as a weevil, I suppose, eats cheese.” (10 Aug 1922)

“I wish I could discuss the art of writing with you at the present moment. I am ashamed, or perhaps proud, to say how much of my time is spent in thinking, thinking, thinking about literature. It is a dangerous seed to plant in your children. Still, I doubt whether anything else in life is much worth having—so there is the philosophy of an old woman of 40.” (Aug 25, 1922)

“My great adventure is really Proust. Well—what remains to be written after that? I’m only in the first volume, and there are, I suppose, faults to be found, but I am in a state of amazement; as if a miracle were being done before my eyes. How, at last, has someone solidified what has always escaped—and made it too into this beautiful and perfectly enduring substance? One has to put the book down and gasp. The pleasure becomes physical—like sun and wine and grapes and perfect serenity and intense vitality combined. Far otherwise is it with Ulysses; to which I bind myself like a martyr to a stake, and thank God, now finished…” (Oct 3, 1922)

“And at my age, my dear Carrington, life I may say melts in the hand. You think a day quite long enough. But I sit down, just arrange my thoughts, peep out of the window, turn over a page, and its bed time! Nothing is accomplished. Moreover, at my age one ought to be doing something violent.” (Aug 24, 1922)

Finally, as someone who is making her way through reading the bible, I enjoyed this: “I read the book of Job last night—I dont think God comes well out of it.” (12 Nov 1922)

 

 

Jacob’s Room

I’m having a hard time exiting my dreamy state of mind from reading this. The words take over, pull you under, lull you with mystic rocking into the deep.  Ghostly characters swim into view then vanish. We get scratches on the surface about who they are, why they live. Time accumulates and coagulates as the clocks tick and ring out the hours. Jacob is searched for but unknowable.

I’m overcome with goosebumps by reading the end of chapter 11, just awash with beauty. Chills. Awe. Respect. Nothing happens, it’s just that my soul has been wrenched out of my body and transported to a time before the Great War, a time when everything was still possible.

There is humor (“Probably,” said Jacob, “we are the only people in the world who know what the Greeks meant”), there is poetry (describing the cheap weekly magazines: “the weekly creak and screech of brains rinsed in cold water and wrung dry”), there’s an explanation of the best way to read (“any one who’s worth anything reads just what he likes, as the mood takes him, with extravagant enthusiasm”).

Jacob Flanders, his widowed mother, his two brothers, the married Captain who pays daily house calls to Betty Flanders, his disabled wife taken out for an airing, Jacob’s pals at Cambridge, his various prostitutes and female conquests, his gay friend Bonamy who is perhaps in love with Jacob, we get waves and wave of people crashing into our consciousness. Like the girls spotted crossing the Waterloo Bridge “striding hand in hand, shouting out a song, seem to feel neither cold nor shame. They are hatless. They triumph.” Bright, vague creatures. Snippets of conversation. A peek inside a Parisian artist studio.

Poetry poetry poetry: “Often, even at night, the church seems full of people. The pews are worn and greasy, and the cassocks in place, and the hymn-books on the ledges. It is a ship with all its crew aboard. The timbers strain to hold the dead and the living, the ploughmen, the carpenters, the fox-hunting gentlemen and the farmers smelling of mud and brandy. Their tongues join together in syllabling the sharp-cut words, which for ever slice asunder time and the broad-backed moors. Plaint and belief and elegy, despair and triumph, but for the most part good sense and jolly indifference, go trampling out of the windows any time these five hundred years.”

“Stretched on the top of the mountain, quite alone, Jacob enjoyed himself immensely. Probably he had never been so happy in the whole of his life.”

In August 1922 she wrote in her diary: “On Sunday L. read through Jacob’s Room. He thinks it my best work. But his first remark was that it was amazingly well written. We argued about it. He calls it a work of genius; he thinks it unlike any other novel; he says that the people are ghosts; he says it is very strange: I have no philosophy of life he says; my people are puppets, moved hither & thither by fate. He doesn’t agree that fate works in this way. Thinks I should use my ‘method’, on one or two characters next time; & he found it very interesting, & beautiful, & without lapse (save perhaps the party) & quite intelligible… But I am on the whole pleased. Neither of us knows what the public will think. 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.”

Pub’d 1922, her first experimental novel although she’d shown flashes of this in the short stories published previously.

Monday or Tuesday

This is the only short story collection Woolf published in her lifetime, out via the Hogarth Press in 1921. The eight stories show her shift away from the more conventional novel form in her first two books towards the more modern approach that she launches in Jacob’s Room. She’s writing that novel over the same period that this collection of stories comes out, and has a conversation with Lytton Strachey about writing where he asks about her novel, and she says “Oh I put in my hand & rummage in the bran pie.” (The OED defines bran-pie as: “a tub full of bran with small gifts hidden in it to be drawn out at random, as part of festivities at Christmas, etc.” – apparently a Victorian tradition.)

These are the stories included in Monday and Tuesday:

  • A Haunted House
  • A Society – Poll’s dad leaves her a fortune but on condition that she read all the books in the London Library.
  • Monday or Tuesday – short, experimental swirl of sounds, colors, snippets of conversation, a heron flies past, time passes.
  • An Unwritten Novel – brilliant imagining of the life of a stranger commuting by train.
  • The String Quartet – penetrating description of London society as one goes to an afternoon concert.
  • Blue & Green
  • Kew Gardens – delightful, previously published in 1919, a first glimpse at a more free flowing form. I think she felt the riskiest part was the conversation between two women b/c she was nervous about certain women reading that section.
  • The Mark on the Wall – first pub’d in 1917; spoiler alert, it’s a snail!

The Diary of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 1: 1915-1919

So many things to be thankful for. I’m grateful to Woolf for having written diaries most of her life, this is the volume where we witness her getting her sea legs with the diary and read of her delight in re-reading the pages; the shift comes in October 1917. I’m thankful for the pandemic closing the library and thus focusing my energy on this project of reading Woolf sequentially, something I’ve dreamed of doing for years. I’m thankful for her words of wisdom and description of the horrors of the Great War and the influenza of 1918, coffins next door and being laid up several times herself. I’m very thankful to Anne Olivier Bell for being up to the tremendous task of bringing the diaries to print and doing a phenomenal job with the explanatory notes. I’m thankful for the gaps in her pages which remind me that it’s ok not to drudge at it day after day (but it’s also very ok to do so). I love her list of friendships in January 1919, something we’ve all done; while Vanessa and Leonard are missing from the list it’s because she feels something stronger than friendship there. Leonard’s access to her diaries is established early, the 8 Oct 1917 entry mentioning “L has promised to add his page when he has something to say,” which is possibly why she never goes into detail about her thoughts on him.

Night and Day

Woolf’s second novel was written during the Great War but makes no mention of it, causing criticism from Katherine Mansfield who complained about the aloof attitude, written as if “unaware of what has been happening.” Woolf herself later dismisses the novel as “interminable” but at the time it provided her a structure to work out the conventional form of a novel. Like painters, once she’s mastered that, she’s free to experiment with more modern forms. (Contrarily, she also writes in 1919 “I don’t suppose I’ve ever enjoyed any writing so much as I did the last half of N. & D.”)

Dreams and realities was the working title of the manuscript and the heroine, Katharine, floats in between those two states, confidently ordering the household of her aged parents and helping with her mother’s biography of the famous ancestor, a poet whose artifacts clog the house and make it impossible to breathe and think of a life for herself. She’s on a fast track to marriage with William Rodney because she believes it will give her the freedom to do what she wants to most in her life: study mathematics.

Instead, Ralph Denham captures her heart (eventually), and William gets paired with the more traditional Cassandra. But Ralph and Katharine have difficulty believing in their love, that it’s not an illusion.

Honestly, who cares about plot when you’re bound to run into lush descriptions of walks around London, Kew Gardens, the Zoo, the Embankment, the Strand, the Inns of Temple. Woolf makes you laugh but mostly makes your heart soar with her elegant prose.

Bonus points for memories dredged up by encountering detritus I’ve left throughout the years in my books—this has a train ticket stub from Paris to London and a sheet of paper from the London hotel I stayed in; additionally, I did much penance by having to erase my ill-advised college-era pencil notations as I read my way through again.