Virginia Woolf: An Inner Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Room of One’s Own

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

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

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

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

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


Virginia Woolf: Women and Writing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

Woolf is still thinking deeply about time:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A Writer’s Diary

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

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

An idea to write about aging:

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

I found this to be a perfect sentence:

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

Mid-August reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Three Guineas

This marvelous anti-war, pro-woman tract is slightly less approachable than A Room of One’s Own, but worth a dozen reads of its own. Its dense, tightly constructed argument covers points in detail (with copious footnotes), and Woolf’s sly style trumpets wisdom while slightly mocking. She is a wonder.
Written as a letter in response to a request by a man asking her opinion of how to avoid war (along with a plea for a donation to his cause and to join it), this is a diatribe against the mistreatment of women at the hands of England. She quotes biographies, newspapers, speeches, to point out the very precarious position women are in, only having been given the right to work in certain professions 20 years earlier, and the brutal response of society to attempt to drain her of any power. Her argument is that war is the plaything and desire of men, and women should resist the patriotic fervor by absenting themselves from war-work, by not appearing at rallies, by pure indifference. Her snobbery does come through in her insistence on focusing only on the daughters of educated men (e.g. the wealthy), and leaving the poor ladies toiling in the dust, forgotten.
My biggest takeaway (perhaps because it’s at the end of the book, after a month of on-and-off reading), is the section on the psychologist’s testimony as to whether women should be allowed in the upper echelons of the Church of England. She quotes Professor Grensted:

“It is clearly a fact of the very greatest practical importance that strong feeling is aroused by any suggestion that women should be admitted to the status and functions of the Order of the Ministry. The evidence before the Commission went to show that this feeling is predominantly hostile to such proposals… This strength of feeling, conjoined with a wide variety of rational explanations, is clear evidence of the presence of powerful and widespread subconscious motive… it remains clear that infantile fixation plays a predominant part in determining the strong emotion with which this whole subject is commonly approached.”
For as Professor Grensted gave his evidence, we, the daughters of educated men, seemed to be watching a surgeon at work – an impartial and scientific operator, who, as he dissected the human mind by human means laid bare for all to see what cause, what root lies at the bottom of our fear. It is an egg. Its scientific name is “infantile fixation.” We, being unscientific, have named it wrongly. An egg we called it; a germ. We smelt it in the atmosphere; we detected its presence in Whitehall, in the universities, in the Church… Listen to the description. “Strong feeling is aroused by any suggestion that women be admitted” – it matters not to which priesthood; the priesthood of medicine or the priesthood of science or the priesthood of the Church. Strong feeling, she can corroborate the Professor, is undoubtedly shown should she ask to be admitted… [The two other motives for this feeling are:] To pay women more would be to pay men less [and]… a psychological motive, hidden beneath what the Commissioners call a “practical consideration” – “At present a married priest is able to fulfill the requirements of the ordination service ‘to forsake and set aside all worldly cares and studies’ largely because his wife can undertake the care of the household and the family…” (p 126-128)

After detailing the supportive private relationship between brothers and sisters, she rails against the public relationship and hits on something critical to what’s broken in society:

[T]he public, the society relationship of brother and sister has been very different from the private. The very word “society” sets tolling in memory the dismal bells of a harsh music: shall not, shall not, shall not. You shall not learn; you shall not earn; you shall not own; you shall not… Inevitably we ask ourselves, is there not something in the conglomeration of people into societies that releases what is most selfish and violent, least rational and humane in the individuals themselves? (p 105)

Some ridiculous letters to the editor are quoted, “thickening the odor” of blatant sexism. You can almost hear VW hooting with laughter as she clips these out of the Daily Telegraph (p 51):

I think your correspondent … correctly sums up this discussion in the observation that woman has too much liberty. It is probably that this so-called liberty came with the war, when women assumed responsibilities so far unknown to them. They did splendid service during those days. Unfortunately, they were praised and petted out of all proportion to the value of their performances. (20 January 1936)
I am certain I voice the opinion of thousands of young men when I say that if men were doing the work that thousands of young women are now doing the men would be able to keep those same women in decent homes. Homes are the real places of the women who are now compelling men to be idle. It is time that Government insisted upon employers giving work to more men, thus enabling them to marry the women they cannot now approach. (22 January 1936)

She brings up the very real problem of the power of the press to ignore issues, causing them to be scuttled, quoting Josephine Butler’s fight against the Contagious Disease Act:

“Early in 1870 the London Press began to adopt that policy of silence with regard to the question, which lasted for many years, and called forth from the Ladies’ Association the famous ‘Remonstrance against the Conspiracy of Silence’,… which concluded with the following: ‘Surely, while such a conspiracy of silence is possible and practised among leading journalists, we English greatly exaggerate our privileges as a free people when we profess to encourage a free press, and to possess the right to hear both sides in a momentous question of morality and legislation.” Again, during the battle for the vote the Press used the boycott with great effect. (p 162)

She brilliantly eviscerates the life of lawyers and clergymen:

Here is an extract from the life of a great lawyer. ‘He went to his chambers about half-past nine… He took his briefs home with him… so that he was lucky if he got to bed about one or two o’clock in the morning.’ That explains by most successful barristers are hardly worth sitting next at dinner – they yawn so…. Here is a quotation from the life of a great bishop. ‘This is an awful mind-and soul-destroying life. I really do not know how to live it. The arrears of important work accumulate and crush.’ (p 70)
Those opinions [quoted above] cause us to doubt and criticize and question the value of professional life – not its cash value; that is great; but its spiritual, its moral, its intellectual value. They make us of the opinion that if people are highly successful in their professions they lose their senses. Sight goes. They have no time to look at pictures. Sound goes. They have no time to listen to music. Speech goes. They have no time for conversation. They lose their sense of proportion – the relations between one thing and another. Humanity goes. Money making becomes so important that they must work by night as well as by day. Health goes… What then remains of a human being who has lost sight, sound, and sense of proportion? Only a cripple in a cave. (p 72)

She asks how we can enter the professions and yet remain civilized human beings, human beings who discourage war:

If you refuse to be separated from the four great teachers of the daughters of educated men – poverty, chastity, derision and freedom from unreal loyalties – but combine them with some wealth, some knowledge, and some service to real loyalties then you can enter the professions and escape the risks that make them undesirable…
By poverty is meant enough money to live upon. That is, you must earn enough to be independent of any other human being and to buy that modicum of health, leisure, knowledge and so on that is needed for the full development of body and mind. But no more. Not a penny more.
By chastity is meant that when you have made enough to live on by your profession you must refuse to sell your brain for the sake of money. That is you must cease to practise your profession, or practise it for the sake of research and experiment; or, if you are an artist, for the sake of the art; or give the knowledge acquired professionally to those who need it for nothing.
By derision… is meant that you must refuse all methods of advertising merit, and hold that ridicule, obscurity and censure are preferable, for psychological reasons, to fame and praise.
By freedom from unreal loyalties is meant that you must rid yourself of pride of nationality… religious pride, college pride, school pride, family pride, sex pride and those unreal loyalties that spring from them. (p 79-80)

More on why women should have no particular patriotism:

“‘Our country,'” she will say, “throughout the greater part of its history has treated me as a slave; it has denied me education or any share in its possessions. ‘Our’ country still ceases to be mine if I marry a foreigner… For in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman, I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world.” (p 108-109)

Among the many tangents, some thoughts on literature as currently taught:

Further, the reduction of English literature to an examination subject must be viewed with suspicion by all who have firsthand knowledge of the difficulty of the art, and therefore of the very superficial value of an examiner’s approval or disapproval; and with profound regret by all who wish to keep one art at least out of the hands of middlemen and free, as long as may be, from all association with competition and money making. (p 155)
But for the sons and daughters of [the working class] to continue to sip English literature through a straw, is a habit that seems to deserve the terms vain and vicious; which terms can justly be applied with greater force to those who pander to them. (p 156)

Follow-up reading:
* The Life of Sophia Jex Blake
* Life as We Have Known It by Co-operative working women, edited by Margaret Llewelyn Davies

A Room of One’s Own

Gearing up for a summer class on Women’s Studies, I dusted off this classic for a re-read. Part of the pain of owning a book for a long time is having to suffer through the annotations left by your younger self, what resemble the markings of a maniac. My prior reading was during a time when I felt it acceptable to underline phrases I liked, instead of drawing a line in the margin to indicate something worth diving deeper into. I shamefully admit that my former self drew a smiley face and made other odd call-outs in the margins (but at least I was never a highlighter). Once I got past the frailty and foibles of my youth, I was knocked out by VW’s powerful, reasoned, calm dismantling of the problem of patriarchy.
Asked to give a lecture on Women and Fiction, she’s weighted down with the dilemma of having only an hour to discuss these enormous unsolved problems, she sits on the banks of a river and a thought comes to her, darting and sinking like a fish, setting up “such a wash and tumult of ideas that it was impossible to sit still.” So up she goes, walking across the grass, only to be frantically waved off by a professor– only Scholars are allowed on the grass, she must get back on the gravel. By that time, whatever grand thought she’d been chasing had fled. Now she decides to head to the library to check out Milton’s Lycidas, but is fluttered and chased off because she’s not accompanied by a Fellow of the College. She wanders the college grounds until lunch, going into great detail about the soles, partridges with sharp or sweet sauces, salads, potatoes, roast, pudding and wines of both hues.

And thus by degrees was lit, halfway down the spine, which is the seat of the soul, not that hard electric light which we call brilliance, as it pops in and out upon our lips, but the more profound, subtle and subterranean glow, which is the rich yellow flame of rational intercourse. No need to hurry. No need to sparkle. We are all going to heaven and Vandyck is of the company- in other words, how good life seemed, how sweet its rewards, how trivial this grudge or that grievance, how admirable friendship and the society of one’s kind, as, lighting a good cigarette, one sunk among the cushions in the window-seat.

Walking back to town, she muses that the war (WWI) has changed the undertone of conversation, removing the buzz of romantic hope that was previously. When she gets to her friend’s college, contrast lunch with what is served the women: plain gravy soup, beef and potatoes, prunes and custard. “The lamp in the spine does not light on beef and prunes.” Safely up in Mary Seton’s room with a post-dinner cocktail, VW details the elaborate meal, the impressive architecture of the men’s college, and Seton explains that the women found it very hard to get £2,000 together to start the college in the first place, so “amenities will have to wait.” And why was it so hard to raise the funds? Why were women poor?
VW attacks this question back in London with a visit to the British Museum and is absolutely stunned by the volume of books written about women by men. “Are you aware that you are, perhaps, the most discussed animal in the universe?” She later muses that this explosion in interest was due to the recent campaign for voting rights, “when one is challenged, even by a few women in black bonnets, one retaliates, if one has never been challenged before, rather excessively.” Swirling in a sea of books about women, she doodles and finds herself most angry at the book entitled The Mental, Moral, and Physical Inferiority of the Female Sex, and realizes that most of these men are also angry. How to explain their anger? Over lunch, she decides it’s because women are no longer functioning as “looking-glasses possessing the magic and delicious power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.”
There is of course, much more. Shakespeare’s hypothetical sister Judith. The fact that women pervade poetry as subjects but are completely absent from history. The effect of active discouragement upon female artists. Bronte & Austen & Eliot. The strange absence of any females depicted as friends throughout literature (except as Woolf stumbles onto Carmichael’s “Chloe liked Olivia”).

The Death of the Moth and Other Essays

This collection of posthumously gathered essays showcases the growth of VW’s skill from 1917 onward. One favorite from the batch is Street Haunting, an account of an afternoon stroll across London in quest of a lead pencil, eyes floating but not focused too deeply on what is around, dipping into secondhand bookshops where “in this random miscellaneous company we may rub against some complete stranger who will, with luck, turn into the best friend we have in the world.” She sees a dwarf getting fitted for shoes, a necklace of pearls that transport her to 2AM and just home from a party, and a cat creeping along a garden wall. When she arrives at the stationer’s shop, she senses tension between the husband and wife owners, which dissipates as she lingers over her particular choice of pencil.
Also lovely is Twelfth Night at the Old Vic, deconstructing what is great about spoken vs. read Shakespeare.

Certainly there is a good deal to be said for reading Twelfth Night if the book can be read in a garden, with no sound but the thud of an apple falling to the earth, or of the wind ruffling the branches of the trees…. There is time.. to make a note in the margin; time to wonder at queer jingles like “that live in her; when liver, brain, and heart”… “and of a foolish knight that you brought in one night”… For Shakespeare is writing not with the whole of his mind mobilized and under control but with feelers left flying that sport and play with words so that the trail of a chance word is caught and followed recklessly. From the echo of one word is born another word, for which reason, perhaps, the play seems as we read it to tremble perpetually on the brink of music.

Versus spoken aloud:

Perhaps the most impressive effect in the play is achieved by the long pause which Sebastian and Viola make as they stand looking at each other in a silent ecstasy of recognition. The reader’s eye may have slipped over that moment entirely. Here we are made to pause and think about it; and are reminded that Shakespeare wrote for the body and mind simultaneously.

Another favorite is the essay on Craftmanship, which dances with words and shows the futility of making them mean anything. “They hang together, in sentences, in paragraphs, sometimes for whole pages at a time. They hate being useful; they hate making money; they hate being lectured about in public. In short, they hate anything that stamps them with one meaning or confines them to one attitude, for it is their nature to change.”
Several of her essays touch on the art of letter writing, diving into the correspondence of Madame de Sevigne, Horace Walpole, Reverend Cole. “Was it the growth of writing as a paid profession, and the change which that change of focus brought with it that led, in the nineteenth century, to the decline of this humane art?” If Horace Walpole was the greatest letter writer, “above all he was blessed in his little public- a circle that surrounded him with that warm climate in which he could live the life of incessant changes which is the breath of a letter writer’s existence.” In A Letter to a Young Poet, she exhorts him “for heaven’s sake, publish nothing before you are thirty.”

Thus the fourteen volumes of her (M. de Sevigne’s) letters enclose a vast open space… thus we live in her presence, and often fall, as with living people, into unconsciousness. She goes on talking, we half listen. And then something she says rouses us. We add it to her character, so that the character grows and changes, and she seems like a living person, inexhaustible.
This of course is one of the qualities that all letter writers possess, and she, because of her unconscious naturalness, her flow and abundance, possesses it far more than the brilliant Walpole, for example, or the reserved and self-conscious Gray. Perhaps in the long run we know her more instinctively, more profoundly, than we know them.

News and gossip, the sticks and straws out of which the old letter writer made his nest, have been snatched away. The wireless and the telephone have intervened. The letter writer has nothing now to build with except what is most private; and how monotonous after a page or two the intensity of the very private becomes!

There is room for a bit of feminism in the collection, with the essays Professions for Women, Why? and Thoughts on Peace in an Air Raid. “Even when the path is nominally open- when there is nothing to prevent a woman from being a doctor, a lawyer, a civil servant- there are many phantoms and obstacles, as I believe, looming in her way. To discuss and define them is I think of great value and importance; for thus only can the labour be shared, the difficulties be solved.” “Are we not stressing our disability because our ability exposes us perhaps to abuse, perhaps to contempt? ‘I will not cease from mental fight,’ Blake wrote. Mental fight means thinking against the current, not with it.”
Space is devoted to analyzing the friendships of Walpole/Cole (unlikely pals who bonded over antiquities) and Gibbons/Sheffield (the historian and the Peer). A few essays touch on Shelley, Henry James, George Moore, E.M. Forster. Woolf also pulls apart the Coleridge myth, likening him to Mr. Micawber, and saying “anything may tumble out of that great maw; the subtlest criticism, the wildest jest, the exact condition of his intestines.”

But there is a difference. For this Micawber (Coleridge) knows that he is Micawber. He holds a looking-glass in his hand. He is a man of exaggerated self-consciousness, endowed with an astonishing power of self-analysis. Dickens would need to be doubled with Henry James, to be trebled with Proust, in order to convey the complexity and the conflict of a Pecksniff who despises his own hypocrisy, of a Micawber who is humiliated by his own humiliation. He is so made that he can hear the crepitation of a leaf, and yet remains obtuse to the claims of wife and child.

Her letter to the editor of New Statesman chided the reviewer of her book for not using the word “highbrow” to describe her (or to specify her location as “Bloomsbury”). She pleads for highbrows and lowbrows to come together to fight middlebrows. Invited to tea at a middlebrow’s house, she’s not sure what to wear:

We highbrows may be smart, or we may be shabby; but we never have the right thing to wear. I proceed to ask next: What is the right thing to say? Which is the right knife to use? What is the right book to praise? All these are things I do not know for myself. We highbrows read what we like and do what we like and praise what we like. We also know what we dislike… bound volumes of the classics behind plate glass… people who call both Shakespeare and Wordsworth equally “Bill”… And in the matter of clothes, I like people either to dress very well; or to dress very badly; I dislike the correct thing in clothes.

We highbrows, I agree, have to earn our livings; but when we have earned enough to live on, we live. When the middlebrows, on the contrary, have earned enough to live on, they go on earning enough to buy- what are the things that middlebrows always buy? Queen Anne furniture (faked, but none the less expensive); first editions of dead writers- always the worst; pictures, or reproductions from pictures, by dead painters;… but never anything new, never a picture by a living painter, or a chair by a living carpenter, or books by living writers, for to buy living art requires living taste.

A receipt tucked inside informs me that I purchased this book at the Borders on Peachtree Road in Atlanta in 1998, and have carried this book with me, unread, for one cross-country move and five intra-city moves. Also scrawled on the receipt is a 919 phone number for Susan, an pal I took a Woolf class with in school. Yes kids, we once wrote phone numbers down on scraps of paper.