Beautiful compilation of photographs throughout her life, set to a score by Phillip Glass.
Beautiful compilation of photographs throughout her life, set to a score by Phillip Glass.
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.
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.
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)
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.”
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:
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.”
*** 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.
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.
This is a rabbit hole I won’t be falling out of anytime soon.
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.
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)
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”