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.

The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 2: 1912-1918

It is a treat to descend into the cool, calming prose of Woolf’s reviews for the Times Literary Supplement, which she continued to churn out even during this tumultuous time of war and death and illness and marriage. I pulled this volume out as I was uncovering the work of Samuel Butler to read her July 1916 review of a newly released biography; she praised it mostly because it causes us to take down Butler’s work itself to reread. I find her essays to be a great place to start when I’ve just discovered a new-to-me writer; she praises or eviscerates, she rarely hides her barbs. Here is a limited selection of hits I enjoyed:

Hours in a Library

Her November 1916 “Hours in a Library” is both a nod to her father’s collection of essays by the same title and a declaration of love for reading.

For the first time, perhaps, all restrictions have been removed, we can read what we like; libraries are at our command, and, best of all, friends who find themselves in the same position. For days upon end we do nothing but read. It is a time of extraordinary excitement and exaltation. We seem to rush about recognizing heroes. There is a sort of wonderment in our minds that we ourselves are really doing this, and mixed with it an absurd arrogance and desire to show our familiarity with the greatest human beings who have ever lived in the world. The passion for knowledge is then at its keenest, or at least most confident, and we have, too, an intense singleness of mind which the great writers gratify by making it appear that they are at one with us in their estimate of what is good in life.

This gets at the heart of my dilettantish curiosity about most topics under the sun:

And then there are the books of facts and history, books about bees and wasps and industries and gold mines and Empresses and diplomatic intrigues, about rivers and savages, trade unions, and Acts of Parliament, which we always read and always, alas! forget.

To Read or Not to Read

This 1917 review of a book by someone who thought books were evil.

‘Books!’ What sin do you most abhor? Is it drunkenness or lying, cruelty or superstition? Well, they all come from reading books. What virtues do you most admire? Pluck them in handfuls, wherever you like, the answer is still the same; that is the result of not reading books. The trouble is that somehow or other the vicious race of readers has got the virtuous race of non-readers into its power.

Mr Conrad’s ‘Youth’

I note this 1917 essay on Joseph Conrad’s latest batch of stories as the first place I’ve seen her mention what ultimately will be her own method of suicide twenty-four years later:

… when old Captain Whalley, betrayed by nature and by man, fills his pockets with iron and drops into the sea we feel a rare sense of adequacy, of satisfaction, as if conqueror and conquered had been well matched and there is here ‘nothing to wail’.

Reading Virginia Woolf during the pandemic

An ongoing collection of relevant quotes from VW as I read my way through her oeuvre. Updated daily.

I never felt anything like the general insecurity.

Aug 12, 1914; Letter to Ka Cox

Well—I wonder what we shall do. I’d give a lot to turn over 30 pages or so, & find written down what happens to us…. At this moment, I feel as if the human race had no character at all—sought for nothing, believed in nothing, & fought only from a dreary sense of duty.

Jan 15, 1915; Diary

The future is dark, which is on the whole, the best thing the future can be.

Jan 18, 1915; Diary

I saw a beautiful woman in the Bus; who could hardly contain her laughter because a great military gentleman was thrown on to her lap, like a sack of coals, which seemed to tickle her greatly, & the more she laughed, the nicer I thought her. About one person in a fortnight seems to me nice—most are nothing at all.

Jan 28, 1915; Diary

keep well, and dont think that life is a thing to be thrown up into the air like a ball, which I’m sure is your present frame of mind.

Feb 12, 1916; Letter to Ka Cox

It is wonderful how entirely detached from sanity the aristocracy are; one feels like a fly on the ceiling when one talks to them.

March 26, 1916; letter to Duncan Grant.

we want to do so many things. Why can’t one be turned back and live everything over again, perhaps rather more slowly?

March 27, 1916; letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies

I saw Lytton yesterday, who told me he had heard that you and Duncan and possibly others had all got influenza at Wissett. I should be very grateful if anyone who hasn’t go it would send a line to say how you are. I hear Clive had it, and Adrian too, and Nellie went for a holiday and was in bed with it all the time; and Ott’s got it… I saw Ka, who seems rather feeble still. I do hope you are all right. Please dont start a move with the germs still in you.

Oct 9, 1916; letter to Vanessa

If Shakespeare were to awake now! The thought of what he would see in the sky and on the earth is at once appalling and fascinating.

December 21, 1916; review in the TLS

The spring season is full of disease; and a small break in your life might keep you healthy for a year.

March 23, 1917 letter to Vanessa

But oh dear, how little one believes what anyone says now. I feel we’ve sunk lower than ever before this summer.

September 9, 1917 letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davis

The K. Shuttleworths advertise the birth of a [posthumous son] with the statement “His Perfect Gift” a good title for an Academy picture, or a Mrs Ward novel, & rather a terrible testimony to the limelight now desired by the rich upon their sacrifices.

October 9, 1917; Diary

The moon grows full, & the evening trains are packed with people leaving London. We saw the hole in Piccadilly this afternoon. Traffic has been stopped, & the public slowly tramps past the place, which workmen are mending, though they look small in comparison with it… “business goes on as usual” so they say.

October 22, 1917; diary

I suppose to Philip [Leonard’s war-wounded brother] these days pass in a dream from which he finds himself detached. I can imagine that he is puzzled why he doesn’t feel more.

December 12, 1917; diary

The streets remind me of Cambridge streets. People walk down the middle. This is partly because of the queues waiting to buy at Liptons. One has some difficulty in keeping on the pavement, & the motor buses are always grazing people’s sides.

December 15, 1917; diary

“A very interesting state of things—”
“And what’s going to happen?”
“No human being can foretell that.”

January 3, 1918; diary noting Leonard’s response to reading the latest news from Russia

Everything is skimped now. Most of the butchers shops are shut; the only open shop was besieged. You can’t buy chocolates, or toffee; flowers cost so much that I have to pick leaves, instead. We have cards for most foods… Suddenly one has come to notice the war everywhere.

January 5, 1918; diary

There are food riots & strikes at Woolwich, & the guards have notice to march there at any moment, & fire on the people, which their own Woolwich regiments would refuse to do.

January 21, 1918; diary

How are you? Influenza, [Dr] Craig told me, poisons the nervous system, and nourishment is the only way to get rid of it. Do take milk and ovaltine. I have 2 glasses a day.

January 29, 1918; letter to Vanessa

But when a crisis happens, scarcely anyone meets it naturally; either they’re too composed & prosaic, or the other extreme.

April 6, 1918; Diary

Influenza, which rages all over the place, has come next door.

July 2, 1918; Diary

Rain for the first time for weeks today, & a funeral next door; dead of influenza.

July 10, 1918; Diary

… the extra-ordinary number of coffins one sees about. Coffins at luncheon, coffins as I come back from London; and the gentleman next door is dead of the influenza.

July 15, 1918; Letter to Vanessa

The time passes, with proper nights and days, I suppose, but one seems to float through them in a disembodied kind of way here. For one thing we’ve been practically alone, which has a very spiritual effect upon the mind. No gossip, no malevolence, no support from one’s fellow creatures. I can’t think why one doesn’t spend the whole year in this way.

August 18, 1918; Letter to Ottoline

… avoiding London, because of the influenza—(we are, by the way, in the midst of a plague unmatched since the Black Death, according to the Times…)

October 28, 1918; Diary

The general state perhaps is one of dazed surfeit; here we’ve had one great relief after another; you hear the paper boys calling out that Turkey has surrendered, or Austria given up, & the mind doesn’t do very much with it; was the whole thing too remote & meaningless to come home to one, either in action or in ceasing to act?

November 9, 1918; Diary

Taxicabs were crowded with whole families, grandmothers & babies, showing off; & yet there was no centre, no form for all this wandering emotion to take. The crowds had nowhere to go, nothing to do; they were in the state of children with too long a holiday. … in everyone’s mind the same restlessness & inability to settle down, & yet discontent with whatever it was possible to do.

November 12, 1918; Diary

Ray [Stratchey], who is standing for Parliament as a Coalition candidate, says that if ever she were tempted to hoard food, now would be the time. The Lower classes are bitter, impatient, powerful, & of course, lacking in reason.

November 21, 1918; Diary

Not Woolf, but related. From society hostess Lady Aberconway who decamped from London to North Wales at the outbreak of WW2: “… all my past life – everything that has happened before last September [1939], seems to me these days like a tiny picture seen through the wrong end of a telescope …”

I bought my first (and probably last) ebook

Very exciting day here—I finally found a reason to purchase an ebook. The Virginia Woolf listserve parried a question about how best to search for a subject across all of her volumes of essays, diaries, and letters, and the brilliant Stuart Clarke weighed in with a simple answer: “Buy this for a pittance through Kobo.” For $1.99 I now have an electronic, searchable copy of her complete works. Not only the aforementioned diaries, letters, and essays, but also all the novels, biographies, and other works. O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!

Naturally I have no plans of actually attempting to read any of these 15,581 pages on a screen (over 4M words!), but I can search for terms across all volumes and pinpoint which print book to pluck off the shelf to read her opinions of Herman Melville, Montaigne, Gertrude Stein, Samuel Butler, etc. as I myself am rubbing elbows with them. This removes from my list of possible chores the creation of an uber-index that pulls together all of the indexes from the other volumes.

Here are her thoughts about Gertrude Stein:

Monday [24 August 1925]

Sept 16, 1925

June 2, 1926

Addendum I’m not sure where else to put— Stuart’s cautions about the ebook:

I have not used the Kobo very much, but, I find it OK. They have rearranged the essays, so that the rediscovered ones in Vol. 6 have been slotted in where they should have been in earlier vols. I agree with Madelyn that “it is useful for searching and then double checking with a reliable print source”. The main problem I have found is with the diary: it is not always
immediately obvious to which year an entry belongs.

Since it is on my phone, I expect to be using it more and more, and the CD-ROM, which cost so much so many years ago, less.

The Voyage Out

I begin the year with the taste of literary champagne on my tongue, re-reading Woolf’s first novel which came out in 1915. Swept away in her brilliant words, like listening to the notes from the choir echoing in a cathedral. The bar is set high for the year, I hope not to dip too low or chase too many scattered ideas.

Rachel dies in the end, but life goes on. Life continues for her fiancee Terence, who has only been engaged to her for a few weeks before a tropical illness overtakes her and pushes her through the veil of the living. Great strange descriptions of Rachel’s fever in the end chapters, and Terence’s own grappling with what matters. But at the finale, St. John stumbles back to the hotel and finds groups of people chatting, playing chess, knitting; in short, life continues even in the shadow of Rachel’s death in the villa on the hill.

Helen and Ridley kick off the book, leaving their children behind in London and joining Helen’s brother-in-law on his ship to Brazil, taking her 24-year-old niece Rachel under her wing on the long voyage. The Dalloways (Richard and Clarissa) are picked up at one port then deposited at another, but not before Richard kisses Rachel and awakens her realization that she knows nothing of life. The rest of the book takes place in a small fictional town near the Amazon, with a hotel full of Englishmen to add zest to the parade of characters and mirrored love stories/engagements.

“The vision of her own personality, of herself as a real everlasting thing, different from anything else, unmergeable, like the sea or the wind, flashed into Rachel’s mind, and she became profoundly excited at the thought of living.” (p 75)

“I don’t think you altogether as foolish as I used to… You don’t know what you mean but you try to say it.” (p 98)

The importance of a room: “Among the promises which Mrs. Ambrose had made her niece should she stay was a room cut off from the rest of the house, large, private—a room in which she could play, read, think, defy the world, a fortress as well as a sanctuary. Rooms, she knew, became more like worlds than rooms at the age of twenty-four. ” (p 112)

Terence, on what he wants to write: “‘I want to write a novel about Silence,’ he said; ‘the things people don’t say. But the difficulty is immense.'”

Lush descriptions of reading

“As he read he knocked the ash automatically, now and again, from his cigarette and turned the page, while a whole procession of splendid sentences entered his capacious brow and went marching through his brain in order. It seemed likely that this process might continue for an hour or more, until the entire regiment had shifted its quarters, had not the door opened…” (p 95)

“Far from looking bored or absent-minded, her eyes were concentrated almost sternly upon the page, and from her breathing, which was slow but repressed, it could be seen that her whole body was constrained by the working of her mind. At last she shut the book sharply, lay back, and drew a deep breath, expressive of the wonder which always marks the transition from the imaginary world to the real world. ” (p 112)

“Terence, meanwhile, read a novel which some one else had written, a process which he found essential to the composition of his own.” (p 278)

“‘God, Rachel, you do read trash!’ he exclaimed. ‘And you’re behind the times too, my dear. No one dreams of reading this kind of thing now—antiquated problem plays, harrowing descriptions of life in the east end—oh, no, we’ve exploded all that. Read poetry, Rachel, poetry, poetry, poetry!'” (p 276)

On the river, Terence quotes from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, a snippet added in 1860: “Whoever you are holding me now in your hand, Without one thing all will be useless.”

Rachel doesn’t like Gibbon’s history:

No, I don’t like it,” she replied. She had indeed been trying all the afternoon to read it, and for some reason the glory which she had perceived at first had faded, and, read as she would, she could not grasp the meaning with her mind.

“It goes round, round, round, like a roll of oil-cloth,” she hazarded. Evidently she meant Hewet alone to hear her words, but Hirst demanded, “What d’you mean?”

She was instantly ashamed of her figure of speech, for she could not explain it in words of sober criticism.

At a church service in the hotel basement, Hirst reads Sappho in Greek:

Early in the service Mrs. Flushing had discovered that she had taken up a Bible instead of a prayer-book, and, as she was sitting next to Hirst, she stole a glance over his shoulder. He was reading steadily in the thin pale-blue volume. Unable to understand, she peered closer, upon which Hirst politely laid the book before her, pointing to the first line of a Greek poem and then to the translation opposite.

“What’s that?” she whispered inquisitively.

“Sappho,” he replied. “The one Swinburne did—the best thing that’s ever been written.”

Mrs. Flushing could not resist such an opportunity. She gulped down the Ode to Aphrodite during the Litany, keeping herself with difficulty from asking when Sappho lived, and what else she wrote worth reading, and contriving to come in punctually at the end with “the forgiveness of sins, the Resurrection of the body, and the life everlastin’. Amen.”

Virginia Woolf, the War Without, the War Within: Her Final Diaries and the Diaries She Read

The final installment of Barbara Lounsberry’s valuable contribution to VW scholarship, this book covers Woolf’s diaries from 1929 to 1941 (book one 1897-1918, book two 1918-1929). This look at Woolf’s diaries and the diaries she read was less interesting than the other volumes, although I did pick up recommendations for Alice James’s diary and reinforced the idea I need to eventually finish reading Gide’s diary. As always, Lounsberry does a great job picking apart how the diary influences Woolf’s other published work, her grand exhaustion over The Years, her use of one work to balance out another. Oh! And the Michael Field diaries, the pseudonym of an aunt & niece combo who wrote poetry but who suffered much abuse from the male establishment, by way of Ruskin, giving Woolf much material for On Being Despised.

On being 50:

how possessed I am with the feeling that now, age 50, I’m just poised to shoot forth quite free straight & undeflected my bolts whatever they are…

Her prodigious appetite for reading:

I want to write another 4 novels… & to go through English literature, like a string through cheese, or rather like some industrious insect, eating its way from book to book, from Chaucer to Lawrence. This is a programme (1932).

And in 1939: “I take my brain out, & fill it with books, as a sponge with water”.

Alice James on suicide: “Every educated person who kills himself does something toward lessening the superstition. It’s bad that it’s so untidy… But how heroic to be able to supress one’s vanity to the extent of confessing that the game is too hard.”

Tidbits of the outer world float in, like the shocking discovery of Cook’s travel pamphlets issuing a brochure inviting a “Heil! Summer!” which helped to normalize Nazi Germany in the mid-1930s. (See: Petra Rau’s “The Fascist Body Beautiful and the Imperial Crisis in 1930s British Writing.”)

My interest is only increased in setting aside all my attention to the VW project and working my way through her enormous mound of words, piece by piece.

 

Virginia Woolf’s Reading Notebooks

This is a volume of use for anyone who has actual access to the notebooks themselves in the Berg collection at NYPL (33 notebooks) or the notebooks at University of Sussex (33 other notebooks) or the single notebook at Yale. Sadly the notebooks themselves are not digitized or collected in any accessible form that I can discover, so I’m left in suspense about VW’s notes on Moby-Dick, Amelia Earhart’s Last Flight, or Hemingway’s Men Without Women, among hundreds of other books she kept notes for in these notebooks. Luckily this index of sorts is now available online from Dartmouth, in case I need to make my mouth water about what’s out there.

 

The Letters of Virginia Woolf: Volume 1, 1888-1912

I struck gold by finding all six volumes of VW’s letters at the (now defunct) Logos bookstore in Santa Cruz last year, staggering out to the car with the books stacked up to my chin. A month ago I decided it was time to stop postponing the luxurious treat of diving into her life and began reading the letters, alternating with Vol 1 of her essays to read the finished product of the writing she casually bitched about to her friends in the letters. I plan to continue this, layering in her diaries and completed novels or other books once I reach that point in the timeline where they come in. Immersing myself in the world of Virginia Woolf is the best form of escapism I know.

It would be foolish to try and capture the 30? 40? notations that I tagged in this volume as especially resonating with me. Most of them are about reading and letter writing and the craft of writing and her love of London and her love of nature. Her letters are wickedly, wildly funny, gossipy, brilliant, irreverent, endearing. Her letter to Leonard brutally weighing the pros/cons of marriage is stunning (p 496).

There are some gaspingly gorgeous lines like, “I despair of my brains, which seem to be guttering like a tallow candle.” (p 182) Also “A true letter, so my theory runs, should be as a film of wax pressed close to the graving in the mind…” (p 282) and “… I run to a book as a child to its mother.” (p 274)

“I begin to believe that I shall write rather well one of these days.” (p 368)

The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. 1: 1904-1912

VW started writing journalism (mostly book reviews) in 1904 at age 22 after her father died, determined to make a living by her pen and becoming more and more confident in her writing skills. This volume of early essays collects the work she published in the Times Literary Supplement, Guardian, Speaker, Cornhill, and the Academy. Essays that stand out are on Jane Carlyle, Boswell, Henry James, George Gissing, her father (Leslie Stephen), Charles Lamb, Charlotte Brontë, Jane Austen, Richard Hakluyt, and scores of obscure women writers.

The best quote I got from this applies to several books that I read and think would be better off as articles: “The ordinary reader… will doubt whether this vagrant air is potent enough to steep three-hundred-and-fifty-odd pages in its fragrance. A magazine article or a sonnet were the proper vessel for such sweetness.”

A Room of One’s Own

I had drinks with a friend last week and mentioned that I’ve been having difficulty finding a book to sink my teeth into, frequently hurling rejects across the room into a return-to-library pile. My friend said that sounded like a scene from A Room of One’s Own, I disagreed, then we determined to investigate the source of the “woman throwing book across room” image without the help of modern search technologies. Anything for a excuse to reread this absolute gem.

I must get this on the calendar for a regular re-read. Along with exploding patriarchal myths, delighting the senses, filling you with wit and laughter, it’s an exhortation to get out and write write write what you know (“the truer the facts, the better the fiction—so we are told”).

But no, there are no scenes of throwing a book across the room. Perhaps my friend was remembering  that Woolf mentions a girl who refused to marry the man of her father’s choosing was liable to be beaten and “flung about the room,” or that upon reading a poorly constructed novel that doesn’t reveal the human condition, Woolf “heaves a sigh of disappointment and says, Another failure.” My friend later emailed that she thought it might be Becky Sharp’s character in Vanity Fair who does the tossing, and Becky herself makes an appearance in Woolf’s list of women  who don’t lack in personality or character.

Something else that jumped out at me on this nth reading was that this work is truly the origin of the Bechdel test. It’s in the section where her fictitious author Mary Carmichael creates two characters (Olivia and Chloe) that talk about something other than men. “I tried to remember any case in the course of my reading where two women are represented as friends…. almost without exception they are shown in their relation to men.”

I’m in the midst of luxuriating in a leisurely read of Proust and appreciate Woolf’s comments on him in this:

  • “Even so it remains obvious, even in the writing of Proust, that a man is terribly hampered and partial in his knowledge of women, as a woman in her knowledge of men.”
  • “In our time Proust was wholly androgynous, if not perhaps a little too much of a woman.”
  • “For the reading of these books [La Recherche du Temps Perdu] seems to perform a curious couching operation on the senses; one sees more intensely afterwards; the world seems bared of its covering and given an intenser life.” (I agree with Woolf—I have only been able to read a few paragraphs of Proust at a time without my heart bursting)

I’d forgotten that she explodes the myth of the starving artist in here as well, at the end, reinstating her demand for £500/year for these women to have the financial security to write. Quoting Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch, Woolf notes “It may seem a brutal thing to say, and it is a sad thing to say: but, as a matter of hard fact, the theory that poetical genius bloweth where it listeth, and equally in poor and rich, holds little truth… the poor poet has not in these days, nor has had for two hundred years, a dog’s chance… a poor child in England has little more hope than had the son of an Athenian slave to be emancipated into that intellectual freedom of which great writings are born.”

Reading this in year 2 of McDonald Tr*mp, I enjoyed Woolf’s musing that anger is “somehow, the familiar, the attendant sprite on power… Rich people, for example, are often angry because they suspect that the poor want to seize their wealth.”

Previously documented readings of ROOO in 2016, 2014.

*** UPDATE ***

Apparently it was Becky Sharp who flung books around. Let’s not forget that Thackeray was the father of Virginia’s father’s first wife, e.g. a step-grandfather of sorts.