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.

What did Virginia Woolf read?

I just discovered this incredibly useful resource that has compiled a searchable database detailing the history of reading in Britain from 1450 to 1945. Yowza.

Here’s a list of 381 works VW read, pieced together from letters and diaries. Basically, I found this site because I was wondering what her exposure to Dickens was, and was too lazy to page through the indexes of her letters/diaries myself. (And here’s what Dickens was reading.)

I knew Vita Sackville-West was a fan of Proust (“To read of Proust’s parties [while one is] in the Persian Gulf is an experience I can recommend”) and her list of books contains quite a few references to the Frenchman.

Maybe you’re curious what Samuel Johnson read? Or his sidekick, Boswell? Or Carlyle? The great 17th century diarist, Pepys? Mary Anne Evans (aka George Eliot)? Charlotte Brontë?

This is a rabbit hole I won’t be falling out of anytime soon.

Moments of Being

There was a frenzy of publication of VW’s unpublished works once she died, this collection of memoir writing no exception. This edition is comprised of  Reminiscences (written about Vanessa for her unborn child, Julian, with lots of detail about Julia, their mother ), A Sketch of the Past (100-odd pages written in 1939 in gulps taking a break from writing Roger Fry’s biography), and three pieces VW launched at the Memoir Club—22 Hyde Park Gate, Old Bloomsbury, and Am I A Snob?

It’s a hodgepodge, and the bits of greatest interest to me are, as usual, around her voracious reading habits. She mines the vein of her complex feelings about her father, rehashes details she can remember about her lovely mother, and gives us rich detail about the daily lives of Victorians and Edwardians, including the existence of a town crier at St Ives that was actually used by one of their guests who lost a brooch, shuffling along with a bell crying “Oyez, Oyez, Oyez.”

There’s also a phrase that rings particularly true in 2017 w/r/t Vanessa as she rejects George’s efforts to bring her into high society, (emphasis mine):

“But poor George was no psychologist. His perceptions were obtuse. He never saw within. He was completely at a loss when Vanessa said she did not wish to stay with the Chamberlains at Highbury; and would not dine with Lady Arthur Russell —a rude, tyrannical old woman, with a bloodstained complexion and the manners of a turkey cock. He argued, he wept, he complained to Aunt Mary Fisher, who said that she could not believe her ears. Every battery was turned upon Vanessa. She was told that she was selfish, unwomanly, callous and incredibly ungrateful considering the treasures of affection that had been lavished upon her—the Arab horse she rode and the slabs of bright blue enamel which she wore. Still she persisted.

On Leslie Stephen:

Yes, certainly I felt his presence; and had many a shock of acute pleasure when he fixed his very small, very blue eyes upon me and somehow made me feel that we two were in league together. There was something we had in common. “What have you got hold of?” he would say, looking over my shoulder at the book I was reading; and how proud, priggishly, I was, if he gave his little amused surprised snort, when he found me reading some book that no child of my age could understand. I was a snob no doubt, and read partly to make him think me a very clever little brat. And I remember his pleasure, how he stopped writing and got up and was very gentle and pleased, when I cam into the study with a book I had done; and asked him for another.

Later, still trying to understand her relationship with her father:

But from my present distance of time I see too what we could not then see—the gulf between us that was cut by our difference in age. Two different ages confronted each other in the drawing room at Hyde Park Gate. The Victorian age and the Edwardian age. We were not his children; we were his grandchildren. There should have been a generation between us to cushion the contact. Thus it was that we perceived so keenly, while he raged, that he was somehow ridiculous. We looked at him with eyes that were looking into the future.

Congenial Spirits: The Selected Letters Of Virginia Woolf

The selected letters is Joanne Trautmann Banks’s collection of the greatest hits, and this volume does a great service for those of us who are dipping our toes into the letters and not yet ready to read all six volumes. There are also 12 new letters that appeared after the complete collection was released. A remarkable collation giving the breadth and depth of VW’s life in a more easily digestible format. “Gracious child, how you gobble!”

This keeps echoing in my head and has been working as a great incentive to be a good person: “How I adore nice people. What else makes life worth living?” (19 Sept 1937 to Ethel Smyth)

On reading:

  • 30 Oct 1904 to Violet Dickinson; “… the only place I can be quiet and free is in my home, with Nessa: she understands my moods, and lets me alone in them… I long for a large room to myself, with books and nothing else, where I can shut myself up, and see no one, and read myself into peace.”
  • 16 April 1906 to Violet: “I lead the life of a Solitary: read and write and eat my meal, and walk out upon the moor, and have tea with Madge, and talk to her, and then dine alone and read my book, which I might be doing now if I weren’t writing to you.”
  • 21 Aug 1927 to Saxon Sydney- Turner; “Do you agree that one never thinks of Saxon or Barbara singly, but always as the centre of a nest of other objects? this fact has never been observed by the novelists—but my word, what a set of dunderheads and duffers they are! Even Scott has passages of an incredible imbecility. Trollope has gone up in my estimation however. But then, as its all a question of mood, and of what one’s just read, or whom one’s just seen, whats the good of criticism?”
  • 19 Feb 1929 to Vita: “I am sometimes pleased to think that I read English literature when I was young; I like to think of myself tapping at my father’s study door, saying very loud and clear ‘Can I have another volume, father? I’ve finished this one’. Then he would be very pleased and say ‘Gracious child, how you gobble!’… and get up and take down, it may have been the 6th or 7th volume of Gibbons complete works, or Speddings Bacon [Life and Letters of Sir Francis Bacon, edited by James Spedding], or Cowper’s Letters. ‘But my dear, if its worth reading, its worth reading twice’ he would say. I have a great devotion for him —what a disinterested man, how high minded, how tender to me, and fierce and intolerable—”
  • 28 Dec 1932 to Ethel Smyth: “Nobody but the postman can possibly interrupt me between today and tomorrow. Therefore I am sunk deep in books. Oh yes, I write in the morning—just a little joke [Flush] to boil my years pot: but from 4.30 to 11.30 I read, Ethel. Isn’t that gorgeous?… D’you know I get such a passion for reading sometimes its like the other passion —writing—only the wrong side of the carpet. Heaven knows what either amounts to. My own brain is to me the most unaccountable of machinery—always buzzing, humming, soaring roaring diving, and then buried in mud. And why? Whats this passion for?… oh so may books —doesn’t it break your heart almost to think of me, with this passion, always consumed with the desire to read, chopped, chafed, bugged, battered by the voices, the hands, the faces, the bodily presence of those who are pleased to call themselves my friends? Its like knocking a bluebottle off its lump of sugar perpetually…”
  • 29 July 1934 to Ethel Smyth: “Sometimes I think heaven must be one continuous unexhausted reading. Its a disembodied trance-like intense rapture that used to seize me as a girl, and comes back now and again down here, with a violence that lays me low.”
  • 8 Feb 1936 to Hugh Walpole: “I’m reading David Copperfield for the 6th time with almost complete satisfaction. I’d forgotten how magnificent it is. Whats wrong, I can’t help asking myself? Why wasn’t he the greatest writer in the world? For alas – no, I won’t try to go into my crabbings and diminishings.”
  • 25 June 1936 to Ethel: “I’m almost floored by the extreme dexterity insight and beauty of Colette. How does she do it? No one in all England could do a thing like that.”
  • 1 Feb 1941 to Ethel: “Did I tell you I’m reading the whole of English literature through? By the time I’ve reached Shakespeare the bombs will be falling. So I’ve arranged a very nice last scene: reading Shakespeare, having forgotten my gas mask, I shall fade far away, and quite forget… They brought down a raider the other side of Lewes yesterday. I was cycling in to get our butter, but only heard a drone in the clouds. Thank God, as you would say, one’s fathers left one a taste for reading! Instead of thinking, by May we shall be – whatever it may be: I think, only 3 months to read Ben Jonson, Milton, Donne, and all the rest!”

On writing:

  • January 1907 to Lady Robert Cecil (Nelly): “I think you ought to write novels: you can write letters which is far harder.”
  • 25 Aug 1907 to Violet: “Never did any woman hate ‘writing’ as much as I do. But when I am old and famous I shall discourse like Henry James [whom she had just described as saying ‘My dear Virginia, they tell me… that you… as indeed being your fathers daughter nay your grandfathers grandchild – the descendant I may say of a century… of quill pens and ink – ink – ink pots, yes, yes, yes, they tell me… that you, that you, that you write in short.’]
  • 22 June 1930 to Ethel Smyth: “And then I married, and then my brains went up in a shower of fireworks. As an experience, madness is terrific I can assure you, and not to be sniffed at; and in its lava I still find most of the things I write about. It shoots out of one everything shaped, final, not in mere driblets, as sanity does.”
  • 2 June 1935 to Ethel Smyth: “I’m sorry I’ve been incommunicative, but I can only write letters when my mind is full of bubble and foam; when I’m not aware of the niceties of the English language. You dont know the bother it is, using for one purpose what I’m perpetually using for another. Could you sit down and improvise a dance at the piano after tea to please your friends?”
  • June 28, 1936 to Julian Bell: “[re: his piece on Roger Fry] My criticism is; first that you’ve not mastered the colloquial style, which is the hardest, so that it seemed to me (but my mind was weak) to be discursive, loose knit, and uneasy in its familiarities and conventions. However you could easily pull it together. Prose has to be so tight, if it’s not to smear one with mist.”

On dispassionateness:

  • July 1906 to Madge Vaughan: “But my present feeling is that this vague and dream like world, without love, or heart, or passion, or sex, is the world I really care about, and find interesting.”

On her brain:

  • Dec 1907 to Violet: “Now my brain I will confess, for I dont like to talk of it, floats in blue air; where there are circling clouds, soft sunbeams of elastic gold, and fairy gossamers – things that cant be cut – that must be tenderly enclosed, and expressed in a globe of exquisitely coloured words. At the mere prick of steel they vanish.”

On not wanting children:

13 May 1908 to Violet: “I doubt I shall ever have a baby. Its voice is too terrible, a senseless scream, like an ill omened cat. Nobody could wish to comfort it, or pretend that it was a human being… the amount of business that has to be got through before you can enjoy it is dismaying.”

On French:

  • 25 Dec 1906 to Violet: “… I think it a virtue in the French language that it submits to prose, whereas English curls and knots and breaks off in short spasms of rage.”

On autobiography:

  • 28 Dec 1932 to Hugh Walpole; “Of all literature (yes, I think this is more or less true) I love autobiography most. In fact I sometimes think only autobiography is literature—novels are what we peel off, and come at last to the core, which is only you or me.”
  • 22 Dec 1934 to Victoria Ocampo; “Very few women yet have written truthful autobiographies. It is my favourite form of reading (I mean when I’m incapable of Shakespeare, and one often is)”
  • 5 April 1928 to Ling Su-Hua: “I find autobiographies much better than novels.”

Humorous:

  • 17 July 1935, to Vanessa; “I have been asked to be President of the P E.N Club in succession to [H.G.] Wells: this is about the greatest insult that could be offered a writer, or a human being.

Gertrude Stein:

  • 16 Sept 1925 to Roger Fry: “We are lying crushed under an immense manuscript of Gertrude Stein’s [Hogarth Press pub’d Composition as Explanation in Nov 1926]. I cannot brisk myself up to deal with it – whether her contortions are genuine or fruitful, or only such spasms as we might all go through in sheer impatience at having to deal with English prose. Edith Sitwell says she’s gigantic, (meaning not the flesh but the spirit). For my own part I wish we could skip a generation – skip Edith and Gertrude and Tom and Joyce and Virginia adn come out in the open again, when everything has been restarted, and runs full tilt, instead of trickling and teasing in this irritating way.
  • 2 June 1926 to Vanessa: “We were at a party at Edith Sitwell’s last night, where a good deal of misery was endured. Jews swarmed. It was in honour of Miss Gertrude Stein who was throned on a broken setee… This resolute old lady inflicted great damage on all the youth. According to Dadie [Rylands], she contradicts all you say; insists that she is not only the most intelligible, but also the most popular of living writers; and in particular despises all of English birth. Leonard, being a Jew himself, go on very well with her.”
  • 26 May 1938 to T.S. Eliot: “Dear Tom, Whichever Woolf it was, it wasnt this Woolf; but now it is this Woolf – which sounds like a passage from the works of the inspired Miss Stein.

Ambivalence about Stella Benson’s writing:

  • 20 April 1931 to Ethel: “Stella Benson I dont read because what I did read seemed to me all quivering—saccharine with sentimentality; brittle with the kind of wit that means sentiment freezing: But I’ll try again: I’ll think about jealousy.”
  • 28 Dec 1932 to Ethel: “And I’m reading Stella Benson: with pleasure…”
  • 12 Jan 1933 to Stella Benson; “I have just finished Tobit and so can say… I like it immensely.”
  • 19 Dec 1933 to Ott; “Did you know Stella Benson? I’m sorry for her death—I think one of these days she might have written something I liked—And I wanted to see her, apart from the dull little man [her husband] who never left her alone for a moment.”

 

Virginia Woolf’s Modernist Path: Her Middle Diaries and the Diaries She Read

Barbara Lounsberry is quickly becoming one of my favorite Woolf scholars, what with this look at her diaries from 1918-1929 and her earlier Becoming Virginia Woolf which dips into the early diaries. Once again, she dons her literary detective cap and sets off to pick out the influences of VW’s diaries from other diaries she’s reading at the time, expertly pointing out how these threads show up in Woolf’s finished essays, books, and novels. It’s quite helpful for us armchair quarterbacks (? not the right metaphor, but is there something similar for amateur scholars?) to have her descriptions of the actual source documents themselves, whether they are notebooks turned upside down and repurposed as journals or a tidy collection of loose-leaf papers or journals missing covers perhaps from the 1940 bombing of Woolf’s London home. Also very helpful to have her incisive comments decimate Murry’s release of Katherine Mansfield’s journals, which I suspected in my reading of them. I went back to add in her withering invective at the end of my review of those 1927 Journals. At times Lounsberry overstates her case, like when she announces similarities between journals that are just common sense, not that VW would have picked up those habits from things she read, such as using initials instead of names and talking about happiness.

In the 1919 diary, she continues to be curious and ask questions and begins to write about her own writing and that of others. Her 1920 diary tips her enthusiasm for London, wanting a “city community to complement her country commune” as Lounsberry notes. As VW says: “The ease & rapidity of life in London a good deal impressed me—everything near at hand, to be compassed between lunch & tea, without setting out & making a job of it. Roger, Duncan, Nessa, Clive & so on; I seeing it all much composed & in perspective owing to my outsider’s vision.”

Illness returns in 1921 and she thinks for the first time of making a will. “Sometimes it seems to me that I shall never write out all the books I have in my head, because of the strain.” VW and Katherine Mansfield echo each other in this worry.

In 1926, she reads the diaries of Beatrice Webb, My Apprenticeship, and is much influenced by it. Lounsberry notes that the main difference between “restless searcher” and “social investigator” defines neatly the difference between VW & Webb. Also in 1926, she read Benjamin Robert Haydon’s journals which she reviewed and identified with. Lounsberry credits Haydon’s 1836 diary entry “if I had £500 a year regularly, never would I cease painting, morning, noon, or night, and never have a debt” for the £500 necessary in A Room of One’s Own. I was struck by the idea of vacancy as a spur to invention—ideas flashing into the mind where a blank spot remains to be filled. Don’t over-describe, but allow for the reader’s mind to flesh out, to participate.

Her 1927 diaries contain evidence that she had accepted her childlessness: “And yet oddly enough I scarcely want children of my own now. This insatiable desire to write something before I die, this ravaging sense of the shortness & feverishness of life, make me cling, like a man on a rock, to my one anchor. I don’t like the physicalness of having children of one’s own. This occurred to me at Rodmell; but I never wrote it down.” The pleasure in childlessness returns in her 1928 diary, in a picture of dinner with Maynard Keynes and wife “two couples, elderly, childless distinguished;” and also declaring “I don’t want [children] any more, since my ideas so possess me & I detest more & more interruption & the slow heaviness of physical life & almost dislike peoples bodies, I think, as I grow older; & want always to cut that short & get my utmost fill of the marrow, of the essence.”

Most interesting to me was her take on VW’s reading of Mansfield’s Journal in 1927, a later-discredited version that revealed her hubby Murry making many changes, removing all mention of her disapproval of him. Lounsberry credits this work with giving VW ideas for Orlando about androgyny, passages for The Waves, and even the idea that A Room of One’s Own may have been VW’s private gift to the dead KM. A 1921 entry is cited, “But I bitterly long for a little private room where I can work undisturbed” along with a 1919 letter from KM to Murry: “How I envy Virginia; no wonder she can write. There is always in her writing a calm freedom of expression as though she were at peace—her roof over her—her own possessions round her—and her man somewhere within call. Boge what have I done that I should have all the handicaps—plus disease and an enemy.”

In her 1928 diary she mentions reading Moby Dick and Proust, affirming that she needs to experiment and explore. “At 46 I am not callous; suffer considerably; make good resolutions – still feel as experimental & on the verge of getting at the truth as ever.” Lounsberry does a tremendous job, she has prepared me to drop deeply into the diaries themselves, those books that have sat quietly on my shelves for decades, waiting for my attention.

Becoming Virginia Woolf: Her Early Diaries and the Diaries She Read

This book by Barbara Lounsberry is an incredibly interesting look at VW’s early diaries, layered in with descriptions of other journals and diaries she was reading during this time (from 1897 at age 15 to mid-1918 at age 36). I read this one closely, carefully, devouring each well-written and non-duplicative footnote, whisking off to the library for Boswell’s journals and making a list of others to imbibe. If I start now, read everything she read, can I possibly hope to attain a fraction of the intelligence she had at age 20? Instead of genius-envy, I have only genius-awe.

Early Diary Influences
This section mainly focused on her 1897 diary and exploring those diaries she was exposed to at the time: Sir Walter Scott, Fanny Burney, Pepys, and William Johnson Cory. Lounsberry asserts that at age 14, Virginia found her “diary parents” in Sir Walter Scott and Fanny Burney, adopting stylistic traits and ways of seeing the world from these notable foremother/fathers. “The influx of influence begins,” says Lounsberry. And we’re off! Burney shows VW how women are treated, but with her happy example bucking the usual “self-abnegation, modesty, and silence present in most English women’s diaries.”

Pepys 1.25 million-word diary is consumed completely in the twelve days leading up to step-sister Stella’s wedding, and Virginia notes in her diary, “My dear Pepys… the only calm thing in the house.”

She reads Boswell’s Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides in 1903. Interestingly, Boswell’s papers only surfaced in 1925 in Ireland, causing a new edition of the Hebrides to be issued in 1936. The footnote quotes the editor of the 1936 version by saying that the version V read in 1903 “remained one of the most indiscreet books ever given to the world (did it not bring its author to the verge of a duel?).” Boswell lets us know that Dr. Johnson favors speedy prose, “I would advise every young man beginning to compose, to do it as fast as he can, to get a habit of having his mind to start promptly; it is so much more difficult to improve in speed than in accuracy… But, if a man is accustomed to compose slowly, and with difficulty, upon all occasions, there is danger that he may not compose at all, as we do no like to do that which is not done easily…” (emphasis mine). Boswell is also potentially credited with inspiring V to start a reading notebook, one of his 1773 entries noting books he has read: “This is a very slight circumstance, that every man should keep minutes of whatever he reads. Every circumstance of his studies should be recorded; what books he has consulted; how much of them he has read; at what times; how often the same authors; and what opinions he formed of them, at different periods of his life. Such an account would much illustrate the history of the mind.” She’ll return to Boswell (and the rest of her mentors) for the rest of her life; in 1934, depressed over Roger Fry’s death, Leonard advises her to read. V reports “I am as slack as a piece of maccaroni: & in this state cant shake off a blackness, a blankness. Now (10 to 1) after writing & beginning to read an old life of Boswell I feel the wheels grinding”.

Embracing the Unconscious
In 1907 V discovers Lady Dorothy Nevill’s Note-books, which Lounsberry nods to as influencing the character of Mrs. Hilbery in Night and Day. V writes a review in 1908 quoting lines from the Note-books: “People of original character and brilliant intellect were undoubtedly more frequently to be met with some thirty or forty years ago than is now the case, when almost every one seems to be cast in a mould of a more or less mediocre kind. Society in old days cannot in any way be compared with the motley crowd which calls itself society today… The general level of conversation in the so-called society of modern days must, of necessity, be low, for society, or what passes for it, is now very large, whilst wealth is more welcome than intellect. Good conversation, therefore, is practically non-existent.” This, speaking of life mid-19th century seems woefully too real to someone in the early 21st century.

Lady Charlotte Bury’s Diary of a Lady-in-Waiting is another source of delight and learning for V in 1908. Lounsberry asserts that V got her conviction that women and women writers were despised mostly from primary sources, including diaries. She includes an excerpt from a letter included in Bury’s Diary written by an apoplectic male writer, so delightful I must quote in full here (“plaguy deal of mischief”!!!):

“I wish [Susan Ferrier] would let such idle nonsense alone, for,… as as rule, I have an aversion, a pity and contempt, for all female scribblers, The needle, not the pen, is the instrument they should handle and the only one they ever use dexterously. I must except, however, their love-letters, which are sometimes full of pleasing conceits; but this is the only subject they should ever attempt to write about. Madame de Staël even I will not except from this general rule; she has done a plaguy deal of mischief, and no good, by meddling in literary matters, and I wish to heaven she would renounce pen, ink, and paper for evermore… In a word, … I hate a blue; give me a rose any day in preference, that is to say, a pretty woman to a learned one. What has made you inflict this long harangue upon me? you will exclaim, and I must beg your pardon for so doing; but the fact is, I am full of the subject, being at the present moment much enraged at Lady [__], for having come out in the shape of a novel; and now, hearing that Miss F is about to follow her bad example, I write in great perturbance of mind, and cannot think or speak of anything else.” — letter from Matthew Lewis to Lady Charlotte Bury, early 19th c.

Lounsberry makes an interesting case that the lack of diary entries signified that V was working productively during that time, not that she was done under by sickness or laziness. V takes several solo trips, including one in August 1908 to Wells in Somerset, where she attempts to continue making progress on her first novel. She’s forced to leave her lodgings after a week, but without regret: “The Close has filled itself with theological students, & I am not sorry to leave. The cheery male voice is as the drone of bluebottles in my ear.” A footnote includes comment that V’s attitude toward the “male” was known to her sister Vanessa, who writes her about her Scotland visit and reports horror after her husband kills three rabbits: “There is an atmosphere of undiluted male here. How you would hate it!”

The Problem of Description
V flirts with travel diaries for a few years but struggles against the too-easy pull to write like a guidebook. “I begin to distrust description… the fault of most of my descriptive writing is that it tends to be too definite… Descriptive writing is dangerous & tempting… It is easy, with little expense of brain power, to make something. One seizes some broad aspect, as of water or colour, & makes a note of it. This single quality gives the tone to the piece. As a matter of fact, the subject is probably infinitely subtle, no more amenable to impressionistic treatment than the human character. What one records is really the state of ones own mind.”

She reads Lady Elizabeth Holland’s journal, Lady Hester Stanhope’s diaries, Mary E. Coleridge’s diary extracts, along with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s early journals (which she defines herself against). I loved the reiteration that surfaced in Emerson to keep a reading journal: “The best of all ways to make one’s reading valuable is to write about it.”

The Diary Coalesces
There’s an unfortunate gap between 1909 and 1915 when V takes up diary writing again (unless there are missing/destroyed diaries for those years). In 1915, she’s now married to Leonard for 2 years and finds the steadiness needed to balance out her routine. During this time she reads the collaborative journals of the Goncourt brothers, Mary (Seton) Berry’s journals, Stopford Brooke’s diaries.

Roger Fry: A Biography

Finally read Virginia Woolf’s carefully balanced biography of her friend Roger Fry. She was hampered somewhat by the restrictions of having to please his sisters and friends and not include any scandalous material (like her sister’s love affair with him) which has illuminated Frances Spalding‘s more recent bio.

Fry sounds like rather an interesting old chap, pushing forward into Post Impressionism but still wrangling with a more traditional painting style of his own. He marries another artist, Helen, to the dismay of his Quaker parents who want nothing more than him to be hard-working and successful in the more common business aspects; Helen “goes mad” and is shut up in an asylum for nearly 30 years before kicking the bucket.

Fry gets more and more confident as a critic, and is tapped by JP Morgan to be the director of the Metropolitan Museum in NYC, but Fry initially resists because he doesn’t want to leave England and he sees that Morgan had no real appreciation for art. On Morgan: “I don’t think he wants anything but flattery. He is quite indifferent as to the real value of things. All he wants experts for is to give him a sense of his own wonderful sagacity… The man is so swollen with pride and a sense of his own power that it never occurs to him that other people have any rights.” Fry signs on with an amended contract that allows him to spend most of the year in London, only traveling to NYC for three months of the year, but then acting as their buyer in Europe for the remaining months. Apparently there was quite a struggle with Morgan about whether pieces would be purchased for his private collection or for the museum.

Fry didn’t quite like America, “the contrasts are amazing… I sometimes wonder whether this society isn’t drifting back to sheer barbarism…. the trouble is that no one really knows anything or has any true standard. they are as credulous as they are suspicious and are wanting in any intellectual ballast so that fashion and passing emotions drift them anywhither.” He did meet Mark Twain at a dinner and liked him tremendously, though.

Back in London, he becomes estranged from the position and either quits or is let go after a battle with Morgan over a painting. He then takes up his previous life of lectures and writing, traveling all over Europe to look at pictures, to study them so he can go back to London and talk about them all winter.

I’m petering out my enthusiasm here, but could probably do a re-read at some point if investigating VW’s notes on writing biography.

Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Room of One’s Own

I hate book clubs. My latest attempt was an aborted one at the Mechanic’s Institute, I felt sure that I could handle it because it was the launch of the Virginia Woolf book group, dedicated to reading her work over the next few months. Instead, it’s the cast of (older) characters you would expect—the old white man who knows everything and whom I had to correct occasionally after he loudly declared some false statement about VW, the old white woman who loves to hear herself speak and who doesn’t listen when others are speaking. There was a core group of four people who are all in another book group at the library dedicated to world literature, their voices amped up and overpowering those of us who weren’t accustomed to the over-talking and pontificating.

But all this is beside the point. For the above-mentioned book club, I re-read A Room of One’s Own, and I am delighted to have done so. My first write-up a few years ago covers a lot, but I did uncover one area in this read that I had overlooked before:

Woolf suggests several areas of scholarship that need to be completed, perhaps by some brilliant scholars at Newnham and Girton, including a rewrite of history to include all the information about women that has been suppressed, the life of the average Elizabethan woman (at what age did she marry, how many children did she have on average, what was her house like, did she have a room to herself, did she do the cooking, did she have a servant); a book on the discouragement of the mind of the artist; a history of men’s opposition to women’s emancipation (“more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself. An amusing book might be made of it if some young student at Girton or Newnham would collect examples and deduce a theory, but she would need thick gloves on her hands, and bars to protect her of solid gold.”); and the effect of men’s value of women’s chastity on their education (“That profoundly interesting subject, the value that men set upon women’s chastity and its effect upon their education, here suggests itself for discussion, and might produce an interesting book if any student at Girton or Newnham cared to go into the matter”).

Also the question of anger. In the book club, one man mentioned that he didn’t feel like it was an angry book at all. I referred to her restrained and reined in feelings that were necessary to get her message across, but there are definitely flashes of pure rage, especially in the section about Professor von X whose book was entitled The Mental, Moral, And Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex. As she reads the newspaper headlines on her lunch break, she says:

the most transient visitor to this planet, I though, who picked up this paper could not fail to be aware, even from this scattered testimony that England is under the rule of a patriarchy. Nobody in their senses could fail to detect the dominance of the professor…With the exception of the fog he seemed to control everything. Yet he was angry… it seemed absurd that a man with all this power should be angry. Or is anger 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. The professors, or patriarchs, might be angry for that reason partly, but partly for one that lies a little less obviously on the surface. Possibly they were not “angry” at all… Possibly when the professor insisted a little too emphatically upon the inferiority of women, he was concerned not with their inferiority, but with his own superiority. That was what he was protecting rather hotheadedly and with too much emphasis, because it was a jewel to him of the rarest price.

 

Virginia Woolf: Women and Writing

Michèle Barrett selected and introduces these essays by Virginia Woolf on women and writing. Paired with A Room of One’s Own, you have a hearty mix of thoughts on women writers and the challenges they faced/face. She points out that throughout history, ‘Almost without exception women are shown in their relation to men,’ e.g. they don’t exist except as Other. In this collection of essays Woolf dives deep into Austen, the Brontës, Aphra Behn, etc. She also touches on (to my interest:) Dorothy Richardson, Katherine Mansfield, and Olive Schriener. Not to mention: Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Mrs Humphry Ward, Christina Rossetti, George Eliot, Mrs Gaskell, Elizabeth Browning, Margaret Cavendish, Mary Wollstonecraft, Eliza Haywood.

In Women and Fiction, published 1929 in The Forum, she asks why there was no continuous writing done by women before the 18th century:

Thus it is clear that the extraordinary outburst of fiction in the beginning of the nineteenth century in England was heralded by innumerable slight changes in law and customs and manners. And women of the nineteenth century had some leisure; they had some education. It was no longer the exception for women of the middle and upper classes to choose their own husbands. And it is significant that of the four great women novelists—Jane Austen, Emily Brontë, Charlotte Brontë, and George Eliot—not one had a child, and two were unmarried.

Later, she also calls out the fact that women were not exposed to the adventures and sights and travel that male authors were:

Even in the nineteenth century, a woman lived almost solely in her home and her emotions. And those nineteenth century novels, remarkable as they were, were profoundly influenced by the fact that the women who wrote them were excluded by their sex from certain kinds of experience. That experience has a great influence upon fiction is indisputable. The best part of Conrad’s novels, for instance, would be destroyed if it had been impossible for him to be a sailor. Take away all that Tolstoi knew of war as a soldier, or life and society as a rich young man whose education admitted him to all sorts of experience, and War and Peace would be incredibly impoverished.

Beyond this, novels by women were sometimes affected by the rage that boiled beneath the maltreatment.

The desire to plead some personal cause or to make a character the mouthpiece of some personal discontent or grievance always has a distressing effect, as if the spot at which the reader’s attention is directed were suddenly two-fold instead of single…. The genius of Jane Austen and Emily Brontë is never more convincing than in their power to ignore such claims and solicitations and to hold on their way unperturbed by scorn or censure. But it needed a very serene or a very powerful mind to resist the temptation to anger. The ridicule, the censure, the assurance of inferiority in one form or another which were lavished upon women who practiced an art, provoked such reactions naturally enough.

In 1920’s Men and Women, Woolf touches on the root of it all: “From her [Helen Pendennis] we learn also that when one sex is dependent upon the other it will endeavour for safety’s sake to simulate what the dominant sex finds desirable.” Thus you have women reluctant to embrace their strength, pretending delicateness and muddle-headed-ness.

In 1918’s Women Novelists, she mentions one of the core causes for why there has been so much terrible writing by women: imposed purity of thought. “The effect of these repressions is still clearly to be traced in women’s work, and the effect is wholly to the bad. The problem of art is sufficiently difficult in itself without having to respect the ignorance of young women’s minds or to consider whether the public will think that the standard of moral purity displayed in your work is such as they have a right to expect from your sex. The attempt to conciliate, or more naturally to outrage, public opinion is equally a waste of energy and a sin against art.” (Emphasis mine).

In Indiscretions (1924), Woolf writes one of the most brutal takedowns of Byron that I’ve ever read:

But no woman ever loved Byron; they bowed to convention; did what they were told to do; ran mad to order. Intolerably condescending, ineffably vain, a barber’s block to look at, compound of bully and lap-dog, now hectoring, now swimming in vapours of sentimental twaddle, tedious, egotistical, melodramatic, the character of Byron is the least attractive in the history of letters. But no wonder that every man was in love with him. In their company he must have been irresistible; brilliant and courageous; dashing and satirical; downright and tremendous; the conqueror of women and companion of heroes–everything that strong men believe themselves to be and weak men envy them for being. But to fall in love with Byron, to enjoy Don Juan and the letters to the full, obviously one must be a man; or, if of the other sex, disguise it.

Aphra Behn’s section from A Room of One’s Own was pulled out for separate inspection in this collection, giving credit to one of the trail blazers. “Aphra Behn proved that money could be made by writing at the sacrifice, perhaps, of certain agreeable qualities; and so by degrees writing became not merely a sign of folly and a distracted mind, but was of practical importance… The extreme activity of mind which showed itself in the later eighteenth century among women–the talking, and the meeting, the writing of essays of Shakespeare, the translating of the classics–was founded on the solid fact that women could make money by writing. Money dignifies what is frivolous if unpaid for.” (My emphasis)

In her review of Mary Wollstonecraft, she mentions Godwin’s belief that “if two people of the opposite sex like each other, they should live together without any ceremony, or, for living together is apt to blunt love, twenty doors off, say, in the same street.”

Orlando

I love those moments of reading serendipity when you’re in the middle of one book (Rubyfruit Jungle) in which one of the characters is reading another book you have on your table about to dive into. In Rubyfruit, Molly is reading Orlando and gets overcome, finally, by grief over Carl’s death, claiming to Carrie that she’s crying because she’s reading a really sad book. But Orlando is not sad– if anything it’s delightful to see Woolf’s pen frolic without care, running roughshod over the centuries that Orlando’s alive, galloping through Elizabethan times, then choking on exhaust from modern horseless carriages. VW wrote the book in 1928, flexing her muscles and winking at Vita Sackville-West, whom Orlando represents, raised as a boy then transforming to woman while serving as Ambassador to Turkey. It’s not only a tale of gender fluidity, but also offers a peek inside the head of a writer. Orlando is frustrated, wanting his poems to be admired by the great poets of the day, then realizes he’s only free to write when he does not desire fame. But first, he becomes a reader, “The disease gained rapidly upon him now in his solitude. He would read often six hours into the night… but worse was to come. For once the disease of reading has laid hold upon the system it weakens it so that it falls an easy prey to that other scourge which dwells in the ink pot and festers in the quill. The wretch takes to writing.”
She offers us an almost obscene look behind the curtain:

Anyone moderately familiar with the rigours of composition will not need to be told the story in detail; how he wrote and it seemed good; read and it seemed vile; corrected and tore up; cut out; put in; was in ecstasy; in despair; had his good nights and bad mornings; snatched at ideas and lost them; saw his book plain before him and it vanished; acted his people’s parts as he ate; mouthed them as he walked; now cried; now laughed; vacillated between this style and that; now preferred the heroic and pompous; next the plain and simple; now the vales of Tempe; then the fields of Kent or Cornwall; and could not decide whether he was the divinest genius or the greatest fool in the world.

Woolf is still thinking deeply about time:

The mind of man, moreover, works with equal strangeness upon the body of time. An hour, once it lodges in the queer element of the human spirit, may be stretched to fifty or a hundred times its clock length; on the other hand, an hour may be accurately represented on the timepiece of the mind by one second. This extraordinary discrepancy between time on the clock and time in the mind is less known than it should be and deserves fuller investigation.

Naturally any book about a man who becomes a woman who becomes a man must involve questions of dress. Once a woman, Orlando thinks “these skirts are plaguey things to have about one’s heels… Could I leap overboard and swim in clothes like these? No!” She finds that people treat her differently because of what she wears. Don a skirt and everyone is super-protective, flattering. Put on pants and roughhouse away with the boys. “There is much to support the view that it is clothes that wear us and not we them…”

So, having now worn skirts for a considerable time, a certain change was visible in Orlando, which is to be found even in her face. If we compare the picture of Orlando as a man with that or Orlando as a woman we shall see that though both are undoubtedly one and the same person, there are several changes. The man has his hand free to seize his sword; the woman must use hers to keep the satins from slipping from her shoulders. The man looks the world full in the face, as if it were made for his uses and fashioned to his liking. The woman takes a sidelong glance at it, full of subtlety, even of suspicion. Had they both worn the same clothes, it is possible that their outlook might have been the same too…. Clothes are but a symbol of something hid deep beneath.

Putting on men’s clothing again, Orlando ventures into the night and befriends streetwalkers, then reveals herself to be a woman. Nell brings Prue, Kitty, and Rose into the circle, and the five of them have a great time telling stories. VW’s biting cynicism is in grand form here:

So they would draw round the Punch bowl which Orlando made it her business to furnish generously, and many were the fine tales they told and many the amusing observations they made for it cannot be denied that when women get together–but hist–they are always careful to see that the doors are shut and that not a word of it gets into print. All they desire is–but hist again–is that not a man’s step on the stair? All they desire, we were about to say when the gentleman took the very words out of our mouths. Women have no desires, says this gentleman, coming into Nell’s parlour; only affectations. Without desires (she has served him and he is gone) their conversations cannot be of the slightest interest to anyone. “It is well known,” says Mr. S.W.,”that when they lack the stimulus of the other sex, women can find nothing to say to each other. When they are alone, they do not talk; they scratch.”

Time moves onward and yet Orlando does not age. She enters the 19th century and reluctantly takes on the fashion of the time, “dragged down by the weight of the crinoline which she had submissively adopted. It was heavier and more drab than any dress she had yet worn. None had ever so impeded her movements. No longer could she stride through the garden with her dogs, or run lightly to the high mound and fling herself beneath the oak tree. Her skirts collected damp leaves and straw.” These clothes engender a sort of dependency, and Orlando looks around for someone to lean on. She ends up marrying a man who was riding by on a horse, but who is soon off to his ship to round Cape Horn. In the first hours of their engagement, they talk endlessly, and VW has a nice discourse on conversation:

“Shel, my darling,” she began again, “tell me…” and so they talked two hours or more, perhaps about Cape Horn, perhaps not, and really it would profit little to write down what they said, for they knew each other so well that they could say anything they liked, which is tantamount to saying nothing, or saying such stupid, prosy things, as how to cook an omelette, or where to buy the best boots in London, which have no lustre taken from their setting, yet are positively of amazing beauty within it. For it has come about, by the wise economy of nature, that our modern spirit can almost dispense with language; the commonest expressions do, since no expressions do; hence the most ordinary conversation is often the most poetic, and the most poetic is precisely that which cannot be written down. For which reasons we leave a great blank here, which must be taken to indicate that the space is filled to repletion.

A Writer’s Diary

Can I excuse myself for reading this cheat sheet of Virginia Woolf’s diary, compiled in the 1950s by Leonard, instead of the 5 volumes of the complete diary that sit on my shelf? It has only served to whet my appetite to dive into the full ocean of her words, so I suppose yes, I am excused. Leonard edited out the names of people VW insulted in this culled down edition, marking “X” instead of those august personas who would supposedly be offended to read her words. Luckily, having the complete diaries on hand (which came out in the 80s, fully intact), I could look up the names, nothing shocking though. This edition focuses mostly on entries that describe VW’s writing process and what she was reading. For instance, her 1922 take on Ulysses (8/16/22 and 9/6/22) “a misfire,” “genius… but of the inferior water,” “brackish… pretentious…illiterate,” “underbred book of a self taught working man, and we all know how distressing they are, how egotistic, insistent, raw, striking, and ultimately nauseating” which differs a bit from her remembrances of Joyce upon his death in 1941, read the book “with spasms of wonder, of discovery, and then again with long lapses of intense boredom.” In 1941’s entry, she also records Katherine Mansfield’s initial reaction to the book – “she began to read, ridiculing, then suddenly said, But there’s something in this.” TS Eliot’s own spasms of delight were recorded initially, and also in the 1941 entry, “rapt, enthusiastic.”
The entries teem with doubts and confidence, a roller coaster of emotions caused by praise and criticism of how her work was received, carefully totted up notes on how many copies were selling and the fact that she could now pay for a water closet to be installed at the house off her earnings. She talks of her head being wound up in a ball thinking about the book she’s writing, the tightness eased by playing a game of bowls. She thinks of how she’ll walk along the Strand and let “each face give me a buffet” to write about. For any reader, it’s a wonderful experience to peek behind the curtain as she’s crafting the books you love, to see her struggles and triumphs, the long months spent spinning wool and then slogging over editing, trying to tamp her imagination down to prevent from other ideas for books spouting out. And of course war looms dirty, terrible, from 1939 on, casting a gloom and shadow occasionally pierced by VW’s wit.
Her struggle with plot:

I can make up situations, but I cannot make up plots. That is: if I pass a lame girl, I can without knowing I do it, instantly make up a scene: (now I can’t think of one). This is the germ of such a fictitious gift as I have. (10/5/27)

An idea to write about aging:

Oh and I thought, as I was dressing, how interesting it would be to describe the approach of age, and the gradual coming of death. As people describe love. To note every symptom of failure: but why failure? To treat age as an experience that is different from the others; and to detect every one of the gradual stages towards death which is a tremendous experience, and not as unconscious, at least in its approaches, as birth is. (8/7/39)

I found this to be a perfect sentence:

Today’s rumor is the Nun in the bus who pays her fare with a man’s hand. (5/25/40)

Mid-August reading

Finally forced myself to “finish” reading The Years by Woolf; I just didn’t want it to end, I kept circling back back back to re-read. Delightful. Will definitely re-read, perhaps as soon as next month. I also gulped down another Gabrielle Bell graphic novel (her first)- Lucky (I’m preferring her later work, though).

Laura Riding’s 1928 Anarchism is not enough urges us to think critically, to reject the easy path, to consider poetry. “What is a Poem?” says that poems are nothing:

The only productive design is designed waste. Designed creation results in nothing but the destruction of the designer: it is impossible to add to what is; all is and is made. Energy that attempts to make in the sense of making a numerical increase in the sum of made things is spitefully returned to itself unused. It is a would-be-happy-ness ending in unanticipated and disordered unhappiness. Energy that is aware of the impossibility of positive construction devotes itself to an ordered using-up and waste of itself: to an anticipated unhappiness which, because it has design, foreknowledge, is the nearest approach to happiness. Undesigned unhappiness and designed happiness both mean anarchism. Anarchism is not enough.

And Katherine Mansfield. Finally, to read the other writer whom Virginia Woolf could talk shop with! I enjoyed The Garden Party and Other Stories, especially the lyrical At the Bay, describing KM’s early life in New Zealand at the beach. After setting the scene, “Ah-aah! sounded the sleepy sea. And from the bush there came the sound of little streams flowing, quickly, lightly, slipping between the smooth stones, gushing into ferny basins and out again…”, a bather alights from a bungalow, plunges into the water, “Splish-Splosh! Splish-Splosh! The water bubbled round his legs as Stanley Burnell waded out exulting. First man in as usual! He’d beaten them all again. And he swooped down to souse his head and neck” only to find that Jonathan Trout was swimming and hailing him with “Glorious morning!” Stanley has a quick swim, then back home for breakfast. After he leaves, the whole family exults. “Oh the relief, the difference it made to have the man out of the house. Their very voices were changed as they called to one another; they sounded warm and loving and as if they shared a secret.” Stanley’s wife Linda begrudges the children she’s had to bear: “It was all very well to say it was the common lot of women to bear children. It wasn’t true. She, for one, could prove that wrong. She was broken, made weak, her courage was gone, through child-bearing. And what made it doubly hard to bear was, she did not love her children. It was useless pretending.” Later, Jonathan drops in, reluctantly headed back to work in a few days:

‘It seems to me just as imbecile, just as infernal, to have to go to the office on Monday,” said Jonathan, ‘as it always has done and always will do. To spend all the best years of one’s life sitting on a stool from nine to five, scratching in somebody’s ledger! It’s a queer use to make of one’s… one and only life, isn’t it?’

Definitely enjoyed most of the other stories in this collection, the famous Garden Party, The Daughters of the Late Colonel (free at last after their father’s death!), Mr and Mrs Dove, 15 stories in all. Mansfield, read her.
Last but definitely not least, Evelyn Scott’s The Narrow House, published in 1921 and a miracle of prose. I picked up her ignominiously titled biography (Pretty Good For a Woman) but decided I’d rather read some of her work first. This novel reads like a five act play, with the kind of writing that knocks you out. Laurie/Laurence marries Winnie and has two kids, Bobby and poor ignored May (the oldest), lives at home with elderly father & mother and spinster sister Alice. Winnie is sick with some deathly illness, forbidden to have another child, and yet lures Laurie to impregnate her, later resulting in her death upon the arrival of baby #3. There is unrelenting tension between the father and mother, apparently he had an affair with a woman in Kansas City years earlier that resulted in a child. Alice is intent on freeing her parents of the burden of staying together, tries to get them to part. Winnie’s death is a relief, her constant whinging of being unloved, her self-love overshadowing everything.

Laurence went out of the room, out of the house A pale fiery mist rose up from between the houses and filled the wet morning street. The houses with lowered blinds were secret and filled with women. Girls going to work came out of the houses like the words of women. Women going to market passed slowly before him with their baskets. Pregnant women walked before him in confidence. The uncolored atmosphere threw back the sky. It was the mirror of women. Laurence felt crowded between the bodies of women and houses. He walked quickly with his head bent. On the concrete pavements, washed white as bones by the storm of the night before, were rust-colored puddles. Dark and still, they quivered now and again, like quiet minds touched by the horror of a recollection. The reflections of the houses lay deep in them, shattered, like dead things.