Mrs. Dalloway

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fantastic last lines revolve around Peter’s thoughts:

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

The Common Reader

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Since I was curious, here are the dedicated books:

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Jacob’s Room

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

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

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

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

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

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

In August 1922 she wrote in her diary: “On Sunday L. read through Jacob’s Room. He thinks it my best work. But his first remark was that it was amazingly well written. We argued about it. He calls it a work of genius; he thinks it unlike any other novel; he says that the people are ghosts; he says it is very strange: I have no philosophy of life he says; my people are puppets, moved hither & thither by fate. He doesn’t agree that fate works in this way. Thinks I should use my ‘method’, on one or two characters next time; & he found it very interesting, & beautiful, & without lapse (save perhaps the party) & quite intelligible… But I am on the whole pleased. Neither of us knows what the public will think. There’s no doubt in my mind that I have found out how to begin (at 40) to say something in my own voice; & that interests me so that I feel I can go ahead without praise.”

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

Monday or Tuesday

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

These are the stories included in Monday and Tuesday:

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

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

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

Night and Day

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hours in a Library

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

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

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

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

To Read or Not to Read

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

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

Mr Conrad’s ‘Youth’

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

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

Reading Virginia Woolf during the pandemic

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

I never felt anything like the general insecurity.

Aug 12, 1914; Letter to Ka Cox

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

Jan 15, 1915; Diary

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

Jan 18, 1915; Diary

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

Jan 28, 1915; Diary

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

Feb 12, 1916; Letter to Ka Cox

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

March 26, 1916; letter to Duncan Grant.

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

March 27, 1916; letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davies

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

Oct 9, 1916; letter to Vanessa

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

December 21, 1916; review in the TLS

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

March 23, 1917 letter to Vanessa

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

September 9, 1917 letter to Margaret Llewelyn Davis

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

October 9, 1917; Diary

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

October 22, 1917; diary

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

December 12, 1917; diary

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

December 15, 1917; diary

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

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

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

January 5, 1918; diary

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

January 21, 1918; diary

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

January 29, 1918; letter to Vanessa

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

April 6, 1918; Diary

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

July 2, 1918; Diary

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

July 10, 1918; Diary

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

July 15, 1918; Letter to Vanessa

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

August 18, 1918; Letter to Ottoline

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

October 28, 1918; Diary

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

November 9, 1918; Diary

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

November 12, 1918; Diary

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

November 21, 1918; Diary

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

I bought my first (and probably last) ebook

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

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

Here are her thoughts about Gertrude Stein:

Monday [24 August 1925]

Sept 16, 1925

June 2, 1926

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

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

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

The Voyage Out

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lush descriptions of reading

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

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

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

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

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

Rachel doesn’t like Gibbon’s history:

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

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

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

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

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

“What’s that?” she whispered inquisitively.

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

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

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

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

On being 50:

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

Her prodigious appetite for reading:

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

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

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

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

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