Jacob’s Room was Virginia Woolf’s third novel, and the first of her experimental novels. A novel I enjoyed for many reasons though I can imagine my experience of it would be improved with subsequent readings. The reader is left with myriad images and impressions, each described exquisitely. It is a thoughtful, quietly nuanced work, and shows Virginia Woolf’s development as a writer, as it is far less conventional than her first two novels.
“Listless is the air in an empty room, just swelling the curtain; the flowers in the jar shift. One fibre in the wicker armchair creaks, though no one sits there.”
There’s little plot in Jacob’s Room, which I have seen described as being more of a character study. Instead what Woolf did was to create a series of impressions of her character Jacob Flanders (that surname can be no accident) by his mother, his lovers and his friends. Jacob’s life is presented in a series of vignettes, and the whole is quite fragmentary in style. The novel starts in Jacob’s childhood, Jacob is one of the three sons of Betty Flanders, a widow, who has brought her sons to Cornwall from their home in Scarborough. This opening for me is luminous and so evocative it is the part of the novel which I think will stay with me longest.
“Mrs Flanders had left the lamp burning in the front room. There were her spectacles, her sewing; and a letter with the Scarborough postmark. She had not drawn the curtains either.
The light blazed out across the patch of grass; fell on the child’s green bucket with the gold line round it, and upon the aster which trembled violently beside it. For the wind was tearing across the coast, hurling itself at the hills, and leaping, in sudden gusts, on top of its own back. How it spread over the town in the hollow! How the lights seemed to wink and quiver in its fury, lights in the harbour, lights in bedroom window high up! And rolling dark waves before it, it raced over the Atlantic, jerking the stars above the ships this way and that.”
From here we drop into scenes of Jacobs life from childhood through his student days at Cambridge, to his life in London as a young man, before he is – inevitably – called to the battlefields of the First World War.
Jacob is however, throughout this novel, strangely absent, I’m sure this is wholly deliberate. It is as if the people in his life, along with us the reader are searching those empty spaces left behind for the person Jacob was. Absences and emptiness are recurring motifs; I think this adds to its elegiac tone. The novel must surely be an elegy for her dead brother, and perhaps for the legions of young men lost in the Great War, echoes of which can be heard in this novel written not so many years after its end.
It is the people who Jacob knew, who are the greater presences in this novel, his friend Bonamy, Clara who loves him, Florinda with whom Jacob has an affair and Sandra who Jacob meets in Italy his mother of course and various others who move in and out of his life. Points of view – as so often with Virginia Woolf’s fiction – shift around, and it is only through these shifting perspectives that we are able to view Jacob at all.
“It is no use trying to sum people up. One must follow hints, not exactly what is said, not yet entirely what is done.”
From the first page the reader somehow knows, senses I suppose, that Jacob won’t be with us on the final page, he is already fading. One of the really distressing things that happens when we lose someone is that after a little while the memory of them becomes less distinct, their face in our mind blurred around the edges, their voice – instantly recognisable should we hear it – soon a vague kind of echo in our memories. Having lost her mother when she was still a young girl, and later her brother Thoby Stevens from Typhoid, Virginia Woolf knew all about loss. Life and death are themes which permeate much of her writing.
“The rashest drivers in the world are, certainly, the drivers of post-office vans. Swinging down Lamb’s Conduit Street, the scarlet van rounded the corner by the pillar box in such a way as to graze the kerb and make the little girl who was standing on tiptoe to post a letter look up, half frightened, half curious. She paused with her hand in the mouth of the box; then dropped her letter and ran away. It is seldom only that we see a child on tiptoe with pity – more often a dim discomfort, a grain of sand in the shoe which it’s scarcely worth while to remove – that’s our feeling and so – Jacob turns to the bookcase.”
Place is key too, the college rooms, the London streets, the Cornish coast of Jacob’s childhood, drawing rooms the British museum the Scilly Isles. These; the places where he once passed, where the shadow of Jacob remains. Travel to Italy and Greece in the years shortly before the war herald the turmoil that will soon be unleashed in Europe.
Jacob’s Room is a difficult novel to review, as there is so little plot, but the mood is just right and Woolf’s prose is beautiful. I connected with the characters far less than those in other Woolf novels. What I did connect with however, was the mood of the novel, the sense of place and time passing. It is these things that Woolf does so well, she reminds us of the transitory nature of life.