Sunday 29 April 2007

Not Afraid Of Virginia Woolf...

There are only a handful of authors who find themselves in the privileged position of having a whole shelf devoted to them, chez Stuck-in-a-Book in Somerset. AA Milne, Richmal Crompton, EM Delafield, Agatha Christie, and... Virginia Woolf. Perhaps an odd companion to those decidedly non-highbrow authors (though Milne was at university with Leonard Woolf, and Delafield knew the Woolfs enough to have them to tea) - but I can't help loving Virginia Woolf. So much, that I'm slightly dubious about writing of Ginny when quite so tired... but I'll give it a shot.

I'm aware that Woolf has her enemies as well as her friends - many based on the assumption that she was "that crazy, suicidal lesbian, wasn't she?" Others have tried diligently, but simply can't get on with her prose. Thank goodness for people like Susan Hill - I haven't been taking her Woolf for Dummies, because she'd be preaching to the converted, but I know lots of people are giving it a shot.

Like many others, I came to Woolf through the 2001 film The Hours (which you'll have spotted the other day, in my list of literary DVDs) - again, mixed opinions, but the point is that it got me searching. I read Michael Cunningham's The Hours, then I headed to our village's Woolf-stockist, a very nice lady called Karen, who lent me Mrs. Dalloway, and then To The Lighthouse. I was hooked. I've now read all of her novels (except half of Night and Day... oops) and quite a few essays, letters, diaries. A lot of that came about when I was lucky enough to study Woolf as my Special Author last year - wrote a thesis on Clothing in Virginia Woolf, which is doubtless of indescribable importance in the furtherment of the world. Ahem.

But what do I like about Woolf? Mostly, it's her style; the way she writes.
All other authors seem to seek words to fit their meaning - Woolf's words are always RIGHT; the meaning leaps to fit her words. That doesn't quite make sense, but it is the feeling I get when reading her novels - which can be read as a form of poetry. I love to just sink into the language, even when I don't quite know what's going on - indeed, The Waves can be dipped into AS poetry, I think. I can't quite remember where Susan Hill said one should start with Woolf, but my only advice is "not The Waves" - leave it until you've made a first acquaintance with Virginia. I think Mrs. Dalloway is a good a way in as any. Not a lot happens - Mrs. Dalloway organises a party, and remembers her youth - but... not a lot needs to happen when an author writes this well.

I've not put this in the '50 Books...' because it's too well-known - but look out for a Woolf entry in there, sooner or later.

And then there's the biography. Yes, she killed herself. Like Keats, a premature death seems to have preoccupied critics for decades - the only veto our Woolf tutors gave
was "whatever you do, don't write on Woolf and suicide". I find the Bloomsbury group fascinating, and Virginia's own life very interesting (though Hermione Lee's recent biography was a little too thorough for my liking - every stroll down the hallway was documented, with footnotes) - but I hold these entirely separate to her writing. A little New Historicist of me, but there you are. Just find a Woolf novel, forget everything you know about the woman, and let the writing wash over you.

Something a lot of people don't realise about Woolf is that she's FUNNY. Very funny - in a dry, drole, upper-class sort of way, but funny nonetheless. One of my favourite bits is in her essay 'Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown' - in the section below she is mocking the novelist Arnold Bennett's over-attention to detail in his prose.

So I leave you with that. What impression has Virginia made on you? Like or loathe? She's a little different to the bulk of my reading taste, but an integral one nevertheless.

...He would notice the advertisements; the pictures of Swanage and Portsmouth; the way in which the cushion bulged between the buttons; how Mrs. Brown wore a brooch which had cost three-and-ten-three at Whitworth's bazaar; and had mended both gloves—indeed the thumb of the left-hand glove had been replaced. And he would observe, at length, how this was the non-stop train from Windsor which calls at Richmond for the convenience of middle-class residents, who can afford to go to the theatre but have not reached the social rank which can afford motor-cars, though it is true, there are occasions (he would tell us what), when they hire them from a company (he would tell us which).


  1. I'm afraid I'm a dropout from Woolf for Dummies. I only had a one-way ticket for The Voyage Out. I'm still stuck out there somewhere mid-ocean.

  2. I agree that Mrs Dalloway is a good place to start. But To the Lighthouse is an amazing book and I'd recommend that highly too. Like the thesis title -- it's a sort of pun without quite being a pun, I guess?

  3. Ah, confessions - never read Woolf and loathe the music to The Hours (film) which goes in circles getting nowhere (other than more depressing) which is what I suspect I would think of the book. Ah me, now I am a fully confessed Philistine - who believes in a dose of Andrews Liver Salts and a Brisk Walk!

  4. Keats killed himself? You learn something new every day.

  5. Erm, Keats didn't kill himself - he just died young. Sorry!

  6. I've dummied on until the end and it's been so good.I just couldn't warm to Woolf, I could marvel at it all and appreciate the language but it all felt as cold as a fish and didn't warm the cockles of my heart.The book that turned me around was Night and Day which is perhaps my second favourite after Mrs Dalloway now.Too much about her life and not enough reading her writing was my problem.


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