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.