Posts Tagged ‘Virginia Woolf’

I have reviewed books by Virginia Woolf before on this blog, but it’s never an easy task – how to talk about a writer like Virginia Woolf? Is it the mark of a genius that we mere mortals struggle to find the right words – perhaps.

“Slowly wheeling, like the rays of a searchlight, the days, the weeks, the years passed one after another across the sky.”

The Years was Virginia Woolf’s penultimate novel – the final one though to be published in her lifetime. It was also the one which was the most popular and sold most widely during her lifetime – and along with Night and Day one of her more conventional novels. It was also the last of her novels I had to read. I still have many of her essays and some short stories to read. Conventional is probably what I am most comfortable with, and despite my great love for To the Lighthouse and Mrs DallowayNight and Day is probably my favourite of her novels. So, despite the fact that I have had The Years on my tbr bookcase for about five years – I knew I would love it, and I did.

The Years is the story of the Pargiter family, from 1880 to the ‘present day’ (early 1930s) it represents the span of Woolf’s own life to this point (she was born in 1882). Each chapter – some longer than others – depicts one day in a particular year within that fifty year period. Each of these chapters begins with a slightly broader view acting as a transition from one year to another – taking in the weather across Britain and delivering a birds eye view of the countryside or London. Woolf does this sort of thing so well – creating that wonderful sense of connectedness and time passing that we have seen her use before.

“The fine rain, the gentle rain, poured equally over the mitred and the bareheaded with an impartiality which suggested that the god of rain, if there were a god, was thinking Let it not be restricted to the very wise, the very great, but let all breathing kind, the munchers and chewers, the ignorant, the unhappy, those who toil in the furnace making innumerable copies of the same pot, those who bore red hot minds through contorted letters, and also Mrs Jones in the alley, share my bounty.”

Despite this span of fifty years – the novel itself is not epic in scope, there’s no feeling of a large family saga, because Woolf’s concerns are smaller and more everyday than that. In this novel Woolf is focussing on the small details of the everyday life of a family.

In many ways there is very little plot – but that certainly doesn’t make this novel inaccessible or hard to read, there’s no build up to a big climax – but you probably wouldn’t expect that from Virginia Woolf – would you? Characters are glimpsed in part – we don’t see everyone wholly or in any exacting detail – it’s as if we meet them fleetingly and having had a brief conversation, they leave us with an impression of who they are as they move on. Later we hear something more about them and we think – ah so that’s what happened to them.

Opening in 1880 – we meet the large Pargiter family. Colonel Abel Pargiter visits his mistress Mira – before retuning home to his family. At home Col Pargiter’s wife is dying – his eldest daughter Eleanor is in her early twenties, she is clearly the most adult person in the family – something of a do-gooder, involved with charitable works and such like. Her brother Morris is already a barrister, while Edward is at Oxford – (we meet him there later) Delia and Milly are in their teens while Rose and Martin still very much in the school room at just ten and twelve years old. Delia is struggling to cope with the fact her mother is dying – and rather wishes she would just get on with it – each crisis which comes along and is then got through almost a disappointment.

The scene shifts to a rainy night in Oxford, Edward Pargiter is thinking a great deal about his cousin Kitty Malone and reads Antigone. Kitty meanwhile is enduring another of her mother’s dinner parties, she is the daughter of an Oxford head of house. She has been taking lessons from a poor female scholar, though she doesn’t seem to have completed the tasks previously set for her. Kitty’s mother predicts that Kitty will marry Lord Lasswade. Kitty, though clearly not as enamoured of Edward as he is of her, seems to be weighing up several possibilities. Kitty is sat with her mother when the news is brought to them that Mrs Pargiter has finally died.

The novel then moves forward to 1891 – life has moved on, more so for some than others. Eleanor is running her father’s house and heavily involved in charity work providing homes for the poor. Other characters have married or gone abroad. In this section we meet Col Pargiter’s younger brother and his family. Time moves on with each chapter, characters age, marry or have children, some may not marry.

“The wind ceased; the country spread wide all round her. Her body seemed to shrink; her eyes to widen. She threw herself on the ground, and looked over the billowing land that went rising and falling, away and away, until somewhere far off it reached the sea. Uncultivated, uninhabited, existing by itself, for itself, without towns or houses it looked from this height. Dark wedges of shadow, bright breadths of light lay side by side. Then, as she watched, light moved and dark moved; light and shadow went travelling over the hills and over the valleys. A deep murmur sang in her ears—the land itself, singing to itself, a chorus, alone. She lay there listening. She was happy, completely. Time had ceased.”

 Friendships develop that will last years. People who went abroad return home – family reunions are brought about.

This was such a lovely novel to read, Woolf’s prose is simply gorgeous and her portrait of London and Oxford are especially lovely I thought.

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Sometime around this time last year I came up with the idea of a yearlong read-a-long of Virginia Woolf. Suddenly it is very nearly over.

“what is this moment of time, this particular day in which I have found
myself caught? The growl of traffic might be any uproar – forest trees or
the roar of wild beasts. Time has whizzed back an inch or two on its reel;
our short progress has been cancelled. I think also that our bodies are in truth
naked. We are only lightly covered with buttoned cloth; and beneath these
pavements are shells, bones and silence.”

(Virginia Woolf – The Waves)

Our final phase of #Woolfalong was to read one or more of the novels: Jacob’s Room, The Waves and The Years. Originally – and perhaps optimistically, I intended to read all three – and I haven’t managed that. I read Jacob’s Room and The Waves, enjoying them both, but although I do have a few days of the year left, The Years must wait.
Fewer people managed to join in this phase – but I’m not surprised at that, the end of the year is always so busy. Still as ever I like to take a look at what other people read for phase 6.

#Woolfalong has enabled me to connect with non-blogging Woolf readers on Twitter. For phase 6. Mary, Adeline and Kate read The Waves, Anne read Jacob’s Room.

Caroline – from Bookword read and reviewed The Waves, which she admits to not having enjoyed as much as she had hoped. Liz from Adventures in reading, writing and working from home, read The Waves too, which Liz says in part is a critique on gender rolls (I hadn’t thought of this while I read it, but of course it is).

Karen from Kaggsysbookishramblings re-read Jacob’s Room after a gap of more than thirty years. Her reaction to reading Jacob’s Room was enormously positive, and she considers Jacob’s Room a good book for someone to begin their Woolf reading.

O from Beholdthestars read The Years which she describes as being measured by the changing seasons, her review makes me want to read it at some point in 2017.

So, that’s it – #Woolfalong has taken rather more energy than I realised, but I am so very glad I did it, and so happy that so many lovely readers and bloggers joined in. I will continue reading Virginia Woolf, there are essays I still haven’t read, some short stories and The Years. I also have a books called The Marriage of True Minds about the relationship between Leonard and Virginia Woolf. On balance, I’m rather glad I haven’t read everything yet.

Last year, before embarking on #Woolfalong I read Orlando, The Voyage Out and A Room of One’s Own. It was those books which got me started, I had previously read To the Lighthouse and Mrs Dalloway though many years earlier, and knew I needed to re-visit them first. #Woolfalong was born, so to speak, and since then I have read a lot more by and about Virginia Woolf. It’s been a wonderful experience, and I have gained so much by reading these books. There was no one else quite like her, and while I encountered some challenges along the way, they were welcome ones. img_20160525_165059

My favourites: To the Lighthouse, Night and Day, Flush, A writer’s Diary. Though for those of you who might be interested, below is a list of titles with links to all my #Woolfalong reviews.

Finally, I want to say a big thank you to everyone who has supported #Woolfalong – including Oxford World’s Classics – who back at the beginning of the year sent me a lovely box of Virginia Woolf books, some for me some for a giveaway. Also to Vintage books who provided books for a giveaway last December. Whether you’ve joined in all year – or once or twice along the way I was happy to have your company and your contributions, those who have retweeted, or posted comments on blog posts – your support is just as appreciated.

#Woolfalong reviews

To the Lighthouse
Mrs Dalloway
Night and Day
Between the Acts
Monday or Tuesday
Mrs Dalloway’s Party
Three Guineas
A Writer’s Diary
Jacob’s Room
The Waves
Virginia Woolf – Nigel Nicolson
Virginia Woolf; a critical memoir by Winifred Holtby
Recollections of Virginia Woolf -ed Joan Russell

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With thanks to Oxford World’s Classic – for providing this lovely edition.

The Waves has the distinction of being my final read of my year of #Woolfalong. Although I technically have enough time left to squeeze in The Years, as I had originally intended, I know I won’t read it this year now. So, I shall be saving that for another day.

Approaching The Waves, I think I had already decided it was difficult, infamously so perhaps – I knew some people love it while others find it almost unreadable, it’s hard not to be influenced by such conflicting opinions. Like Jacob’s Room, the last Woolf novel I read, I suspect I will get more out of The Waves with a second reading, but I certainly liked it very much, far more than I expected to. The beginning and the end were my favourite sections. Such exquisite renderings of childhood and old age.

“How much better is silence; the coffee cup, the table. How much better to sit by myself like the solitary sea-bird that opens its wings on the stake. Let me sit here for ever with bare things, this coffee cup, this knife, this fork, things in themselves, myself being myself.”

Certainly, The Waves is not an easy read, it is challenging, and is considered her most experimental novel, and by many Virginia Woolf’s greatest achievement. It is a novel which explores the continuity of human life, through six inner monologues, spoken, by six friends. Taking us from childhood to old age, in togetherness and in moments of isolation. Small incidents, brief moments are shown to often have great importance, as the novel progresses we gradually get a sense of all these lives, each of them connected to the others, through their past and their friendship. Their soliloquies weave together, crossing one another, creating a sense of a shared existence between Bernard, Susan, Louis, Neville, Rhoda and Jinny.

“We are about to part,” said Neville. “Here are the boxes; here are the cabs. There is Percival in his billycock hat. He will forget me. He will leave my letters lying about among guns and dogs unaswered. I shall send him poems and he will perhaps reply with a picture post card. But it is for that that I love him. I shall propose a meeting – under a clock, by some Cross; and shall wait and he will not come. It is for that that I love him.”

Bernard is a storyteller, Susan keen to put the city behind her as soon as she can, living in the countryside she becomes a mother. Jinny is a London socialite, Rhoda filled with self-doubt, Neville seeks out a series of men as the object of his love, while Louis – the outsider seeks acceptance. For me Bernard and Susan were the characters who spoke loudest to me, who emerge from Woolf’s poetic novel most fully formed.

“I have torn off the whole of May and June,’ said Susan, ‘and twenty days of July. I have torn them off and screwed them up so that they no longer exist, save as a weight in my side. They have been crippled days, like moths with shrivelled wings unable to fly. There are only eight days left. In eight days’ time I shall get out of the train and stand on the platform at six twenty-five. Then my freedom will unfurl, and all these restrictions that wrinkle and shrivel – hours and orders and discipline, and being here and there exactly at the right moment will crack asunder. Out the day will spring, as I open the carriage-door and see my father in his old hat and gaiters.”

One of their particularly shared experiences is their hero like devotion to the memory of Percival, a friend who dies part way through the novel. Percival never speaks to us directly, like Jacob Flanders in Jacob’s Room we experience him only through the eyes of others.

Between the sections of soliloquy which chart each stage of these character’s lives, childhood, school, young adulthood, middle-age, are brief interludes. These interludes, describe a coastal scene, each one depicting a different time of day, from sunrise to sunset. I found these interludes to be strangely poignant, they add to the feeling of connectedness between human beings and the natural world, the ebb and flow of life.

“The waves broke and spread their waters swiftly over the shore. One after another they massed themselves and fell; the spray tossed itself back with the energy of their fall. The waves were steeped deep-blue save for a pattern of diamond-pointed light on their backs which rippled as the backs of great horses ripple with muscles as they move. The waves fell; withdrew and fell again, like the thud of a great beast stamping.”

Woolf’s prose is glorious, there is a rhythm and flow which I read with complete awe. I couldn’t help but ask myself how she managed to achieve such poetic prose, there is a delicious sense of movement, of the passage time, of life continually flowing, moving forward. Perhaps the best way to read such a novel is to simply allow the prose to wash over you, for the reader to put their trust in Virginia Woolf and ‘go with it.’

Realising that The Waves was going to be an incredibly difficult novel to write about succinctly (I write book reviews not critical essays) I have decided to keep it simple, and short. Sometimes it is better to let an author speak for themselves, which is why I have included so many quotes.

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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.

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On November 1st the final phase of #Woolfalong will begin. If you haven’t joined in yet, then it isn’t too late. The challenge of Phase 6 is just to read one or more of: Jacob’s Room, The Waves or The Years. However, that is all still to come.

Phase 5 officially comes to an end tomorrow – but of course there may still be people reading Virginia Woolf essays, letters or diaries, so please alert me to anyone I have missed in this round up.

Virginia woolf2Woolf’s non-fiction was the theme for phase 5. Virginia Woolf wrote an enormous number of essays, her two most famous A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Many more essays available in her famous two volumes of The Common Reader, there are now of course, other collections of her essays available like the selected essays from Oxford World classics which I bought but have still not read.


Alongside the essays Woolf has left letters and diaries behind her. I had read A Room of One’s Own – last year, so Three Guineas was my first choice. I enjoyed the first two thirds of the book very much, but then got rather bogged down, finding the final third hard going. Those other essays I will no doubt get around to another time, perhaps next year. My second read for phase 5 was A Writer’s Diary – the extracts of Virginia Woolf’s diaries edited by her husband after her death, which relate mainly to her life as a writer. It was, quite simply, a wonderful reading experience.

I had expected that by this point in the year, far fewer people would still be joining me in #Woolfalong, so I am delighted that I do still have some company.

A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas were chosen by other readers too – including A Great Book Study who read and reviewed A Room of One’s Own, in her review saying how much the essay resonated for her, and how relevant it is still for us today. O from Behold the stars also reviewed A Room of One’s Own  in which O tells that Virginia Woolf’s essays ‘don’t merely inform they also enchant’ – I would have to agree. In her post about A Room of One’s Own Caroline from Bookword considers what has changed in the 88 years since the book was first published. Mrs Arachne from Twitter who has the blog A Canon of One’s Own planned on re-reading A Room of One’s Own and Three Guineas. Unfortunately, O from Behold the Stars didn’t really like Three Guineas, finding it an odd read, left wing and middle class at the same time.

Mary from Twitter read the Selected Letters – finding (as is the case with letter collections I find) some dull, other fascinating, she particularly liked those to Vanessa Bell and  Gwen Raverat.

Liz from Adventures in reading, writing and working from home, re-read The Common Reader vol 1 – particularly enjoying her take on Austen the Brontes and George Eliot, and not really agreeing with her thoughts about Arnold Bennett.

Phase 6 seemed a long way off back in January as I began reading To the Lighthouse. Suddenly it’s here, and I have books I bought for #Woolfalong still unread – despite the amount I have read. I intend to read at least two of the three novels linked to phase 6 – I would like to do all three – but I may not manage it.  Would love to hear from you if you are intending to join in especially if this will be the first time you have Woolf-ed-along with us.


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I am always a little cautious with letter or diary collections – I can’t quite ever rid myself of the idea that I am completely the wrong audience. Letters and diaries have a very specific audience – often rooted in the time they were written, and the writers never intended, never dreamed perhaps that they would be being read by random strangers on buses, fifty, sixty or seventy years on. Still we can’t help but be fascinated can we – to read words never intended for us, left behind by those we still revere.

Diaries are difficult to review. Where to start? A Writer’s Diary really is a wonderful reading experience, Virginia Woolf seems to have been incapable of writing a poor sentence, though she was horribly hard on herself. From the first entry in this diary dated 1918 to the final entry – 1941 just three weeks before her death, we see something of her private inner world, from the books she was reading, the words she was herself writing to the people she encountered.

“One out to say something about Peace Day, I suppose, though whether it’s worth taking a new nib for that purpose I don’t know. I am sitting wedged into the window and so catch almost on my head the steady drip of rain which is pattering on the leaves. In ten minutes or so the Richmond procession begins. I fear there will be few people to applaud the town councillors dressed up to look dignified and march through the streets, I’ve a sense of Holland covers on the chairs; of being left behind when everyone’s in the country. I’m desolate, dusty, and disillusioned.”

When Virginia Woolf died in 1941 she left behind her the diaries which she had kept intermittently since 1915. In her diaries Virginia Woolf, had recorded what she did, what she thought and the impressions she had of the people around her. She also recorded her struggles as a writer, her hopes, fears, inspirations and experiments. Frequently her struggles, so exhaustive they made her ill.   One of the uses Virginia made of her diary – Leonard Woolf explains in his preface – is that she would commune with herself about her books. She discusses sometimes briefly, sometimes at length her characters, her use of plot, form, even the titles she will give her books come in for scrutiny.

Some years after her death it fell to her husband, Leonard Woolf to edit twenty-seven years’ worth of diaries, it must have been quite a task. He realised that there were parts that could not be published until after people referred to in them had died. However, there was still lots of wonderful material, waiting to be discovered by her readers, and Leonard Woolf concentrated on those entries which particularly referred to Virginia Woolf’s writing. In these entries, we see the woman Virginia was, we feel her frustration as she wrestles with her writing, driving herself on, remorselessly sometimes, it is quite simply a wonderful portrait, painted by Virginia herself.

“So I have to create the whole thing afresh for myself each time. Probably all writers now are in the same boat. It is the penalty we pay for breaking with tradition, and the solitude makes the writing more exciting though the being read less so. One ought to sink to the bottom of the sea, probably, and live alone with one’s words.”

We see, Virginia elated when Morgan (that’s E M Forster to you) responded favourably to one of her works. Anxious about reviews that will inevitably appear whenever a new book was published – telling herself she wouldn’t care – she clearly did.

“My mind turned by anxiety, or other cause, from its scrutiny of blank paper, is like a lost child–wandering the house, sitting on the bottom step to cry.”

Alongside the detailed life of a writer – which is wonderfully readable, we catch glimpses of her life, life in London and at Rodmell, holidays to France and Italy. She records details of a slightly bizarre meeting she had with Thomas Hardy his wife Florence and their dog in 1926. She reads voraciously, and widely, is saddened by the death of Arnold Bennett. Life and death are a constant presence in these diaries, every bit as important as in her fiction. Virginia reports on the deaths of various figures; Strachey, Hardy and Roger Fry among others.

The woman who gave us Septimus Smith, who wrote Three Guineas was a woman deeply affected by war. She had been somewhat traumatised by the reports from the Front during The First World War. Here we see her, a woman in her fifties, living through another terrible war, struggling to make sense of it.

“Walking today (Nessa’s birthday) by Kingfisher pool saw my first hospital train – laden, not funereal but weighty, as if not to shake bones: something – what is the word I want – grieving and tender and heavy laden and private – bringing our wounded back carefully through the green fields at which I suppose some looked. Not that I could see them. And the faculty for seeing in imagination always leaves me suffused with something partly visual, partly emotional, I can’t, though it’s very pervasive catch it when I come home – the slowness, cadaverousness, grief of the long heavy train, taking its burden through the fields. Very quietly it slid into the cutting at Lewes. Instantly wild duck flights of aeroplanes came over head; manoeuvered; took up positions and passed over Caburn.”

Although I did a bit of dipping in and out – I did read another short novel while reading this collection – I did pretty much read this collection straight through – although it took the best part of a week. On reflection, it is probably not the best way to read these diary extracts – although I found myself more compelled and constantly drawn back to the book – Virginia Woolf’s testimony to her own creativity and triumphs is endlessly readable and endlessly quotable, as are her vulnerabilities. Forgive the wealth of quotes – I couldn’t help myself. I was amused by her preoccupation with her age – she mentions it quite often – sometimes on her birthday – but at other time too like this from April 1937.

“I was thinking between 3 and 4 this morning, of my 55 years. I lay awake so calm, so content, as if I’d stepped off the whirling world into a deep blue quiet space and there open eyed existed, beyond harm; armed against all that can happen.”

I am so glad I managed to fit in this marvellous volume of diaries to my #Woolfalong phase 5 – I wasn’t sure I was in the right frame of mind – but I needn’t have worried.

So phase 5 of #Woolfalong ends soon – and I will be late with my usual round up as I am away for a few days. Not sure what chance if any I will have for blogging – so if I go a little quiet – you know why.

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There are books I approach reviewing with some caution – or fear – and Three Guineas was one such book – the themes are so huge, the writing (naturally) so good – and the author – is Virginia Woolf. So you can expect a bit of prevaricating and waffle before I get down to it. My edition – the one pictured above, containing A Room of One’s Own – was sent to me by the lovely people at OUP when they heard about #Woolfalong. I had already read A Room of one’s Own last year – but only had it on kindle – this lovely edition with its copious notes gave me the perfect excuse to read Three Guineas for phase 5 of #Woolfalong.

Non-fiction and I don’t always get along, and September is a nightmare month for me – I’m so tired and busy – and I haven’t even got to my very very busy weekend yet – it means non-fiction wasn’t the best fit for me this month. Still I gave it a go – and I did pretty well. Despite my exhaustion and limited reading time I really engaged with this famous essay – well the first two thirds anyway – the final third did drag rather – and I struggled a little at times – due almost certainly to my own tired mind and nothing more. Still the whole is incredible, Woolf’s brilliance demonstrated here by her sharp commentary and fiercely intelligent wit. I found lots to enjoy and marvel at – Woolf’s insight into the society in which she lived with its obvious weaknesses and limitations – especially for women of her own class, is extraordinary.

“No guinea of earned money should go to rebuilding the college on the old plan just as certainly none could be spent upon building a college upon a new plan: therefore the guinea should be earmarked “Rags. Petrol. Matches.” And this note should be attached to it. “Take this guinea and with it burn the college to the ground. Set fire to the old hypocrisies. Let the light of the burning building scare the nightingales and incarnadine the willows. And let the daughters of educated men dance round the fire and heap armful upon armful of dead leaves upon the flames. And let their mothers lean from the upper windows and cry, “Let it blaze! Let it blaze! For we have done with this ‘education!”

Virginia Woolf originally wrote this as a novel-essay which was to form part of her novel The Pargiters – the original idea to have alternating fiction and non-fiction chapters. Of course in the end Woolf re-thought this idea and The Pargiters became The Years, the non-fiction sections removed to become Three Guineas.

The essay is essentially a series of letters – letters which serve to answer the question of how war could be prevented. This was a subject which would have been very much in vogue I assume at this time, written in the mid to late 1930s when everyone felt the world to be on the brink of another war. In her letter –  her reply to an educated gentleman – Woolf wryly wonders why she should be so approached with this difficult question, when as a woman, the daughter of an educated man – she doesn’t enjoy the same access to universities, societies and the professions as the sons of educated men.

“Behind us lies the patriarchal system; the private house, with it nullity, its immorality, its hypocrisy, its servility. Before us lies the public world, the professional system, with its possessiveness, its jealousy, its pugnacity, its greed.”

In her bid to answer this larger question about the prevention of war – Woolf also sets about answering the questions of why the government does not support the education of women and why women must be continually prevented from following professional careers. In asking these question Woolf is naturally considering why educated families are prepared to spend money on educating their boys but not their girls, and what it might mean for society should those girls be allowed to be so educated. Woolf imagines a new kind of women’s college, a college which would be more experimental – less concerned with shoring up the traditional male world.

“…what should be taught in the new college, the poor college? Not the arts of dominating other people; not the arts of ruling, of killing, of acquiring land and capital.”

She envisages a time when women too will be able to deliver sermons from church pulpits, sit in judgement in courts of law, teach young men at university or rise through the ranks of the civil service.

Woolf who had been so badly affected by the horrors of the First Word War, was a famously anti-war pacifist – she was also ardently feminist, and with Three Guineas she combines these two concerns. More than eighty years after it was first published Three Guineas still has lots to say to us in the twenty-first century.

I am very glad I read this for all its challenges because as always Virginia Woolf opens my eyes and gives me food for thought.

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I think it was Kaggsy who first alerted me to this book, I knew I had to buy it immediately – one I certainly hadn’t heard of, but which was perfect for phase 4 of #Woolfalong. Since then Liz has also read it, and having bought it a few weeks earlier Liz’s enthusiasm prompted me to move it up my tbr.

These recollections from friends and contemporaries of Virginia Woolf leave us with a wonderfully multi-faceted portrait of Virginia Woolf, we see her here as a friend an acquaintance, an employer, sister-in-law and wife. In his introduction Michael Holroyd, reminds us of the salient facts of Virginia Woolf’s life and death in his brief biography. From here we move straight to the testimonies of the people who knew her. Joan Russell Noble has collected together a raft of different voices, who share their memories, impressions and criticisms of a woman who still has the power to fascinate and move us.

There are some big names in this book – another reason it is so readable – Vita Sackville West, T S Eliot, E M Forster, Christopher Isherwood, Rebecca West and David Cecil – to name just a few.

The collection opens with a lovely childhood memory from Ann Stephens, she relates how she heard servants gossiping about Mrs W, the talk made her rather nervous, yet when Virginia appeared, young Ann was totally charmed. So right away we begin to get the idea that the idea people had of Virginia Woolf was not always borne out by their later experiences of actually knowing or at least meeting her.

Duncan Grant explains how the famous Bloomsbury group came into being and of what these evenings consisted.

“About 10 o’clock in the evening people used to appear and continue to come at intervals till 12 o’clock at night, and it was seldom that the last guest left before two or three in the morning. Whiskey, buns and cocoa were the diet and people talked to each other. If someone had lit a pipe he would sometimes hold out the lighted match to Hans the dog, who would snap at it and put it out. Conversation; that was all. Yet many people made a habit of coming, and few who did so will forget those evenings.”

(Duncan Grant)

There are far too many recollections in this book for me to talk about individually, instead I am trying to give a flavour. Some of the main impressions I was left with after reading this book were ones of Virginia Woolf’s appearance; referred to in many of these essays. Continually described as beautiful, her grace, slender height, beautiful hands and even her voice are described with affection. It seems that for those who knew her, Virginia Woolf left a lasting impression.

There is plenty of honesty in these accounts too. We hear from John Lehmann who worked alongside Leonard and Virginia Woolf at the Hogarth Press, it was not always an easy time, and there was a falling out which lasted a few years. Still Lehmann writes honestly and with affection. His sister Rosamond Lehmann herself a successful novelist, describes the Roger Fry biography as her masterpiece, remembers a woman whose…

“…conversation was a brilliant mixture of reminiscence, gossip, extravagantly fanciful speculation and serious, critical discussion of books and pictures. She was malicious and she liked to tease. Now and then her tongue had a corrosive edge, and one suspected that she enjoyed the embarrassment and discomfiture of a victim.”

(Rosamond Lehmann)

Several people consider the question of Virginia Woolf’s genius, I suspect it was a question asked of the contributors.

My favourite pieces are the ones from people who knew Virginia and her husband for a lengthy period of time, Clive Bell, Nigel Nicolson of course but my two favourites are from Louie Mayer, and Leonard Woolf himself. Louie Mayer worked as a cook and housekeeper for Leonard and Virginia Woolf for over thirty years. Through her reminiscence we see Virginia Woolf at Monks House, witness Virginia’s talent for bread making, her excitement at finishing The Years, her inability to sew. We also, movingly witness the trauma of Virginia Woolf’s death. Louie Mayer stayed with Leonard Woolf after his wife’s death for the rest of his life.

The Leonard Woolf who emerges from this book, for me was a wise – though occasionally temperamental – figure, but his care and understanding of his wife was absolute. His protection quite probably ensuring that she lived as long as she did. The book ends with an adaptation of a conversation between Malcolm Muggeridge and Leonard Woolf recorded in 1967. Leonard Woolf has always been a shadowy figure for me – not having read any biographies of him, here he becomes a more real and sympathetic man than I had ever thought him – he was probably overshadowed in my mind by Virginia.

Despite her illnesses, which were crippling at several points during her life – the reader of this collection is not left with the impression of a sad, fragile half broken woman, quite the reverse. She was a woman prone to hooting laughter, wit, love and enjoyment, she drove herself hard, and doubted herself terribly. She adored children and they loved her, they appreciated the way she talked to them. There are lots of fabulous personal reminiscences, plaudits and criticisms, which together show us how Virginia Woolf touched people in a variety of ways, not all the recollections are a hundred percent positive, as not all recollections could be – it just goes to make a realistic whole.
I will leave you however with this wonderful memory from Elizabeth Bowen –

“As it happened the last day I saw her I was staying at Rodmell and I remember her kneeling back on her heels and put her head back in a patch of sun, early spring sun. Then she laughed in this consuming, chocking, delightful, hooting way. And that is what has remained with me.”

(Elizabeth Bowen)

I am very glad I managed to read this right at the end of phase 4 – it has added yet another dimension to my knowledge and understanding of Virginia Woolf.

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VW critical memoir

So it is already September which means the beginning of #Woolfalong phase 5 and I am still reviewing books for phase 4. This is the first of two books I read in the final week of August for the biography section. Strictly speaking Virginia Woolf; a critical memoir is not a work of biography, it is more a piece of criticism, although there is naturally a biographical element. It was the first critical study of Virginia Woolf in English.

Winifred Holtby was a well-respected novelist, journalist and social reformer, who died tragically young in 1935. Now known best for her novel South Riding, Holtby was a very different kind of writer to Virginia Woolf, but in 1931 she began writing this work of literary criticism at the invitation of an editor working for publisher William Collins – it was finally published by Wishart & Co in 1932. Virginia Woolf was perfectly aware of the book being written, making a note in her diary about it and following that up with a letter to Winifred Holtby saying that she looked forward to reading it. Fascinatingly the two women met once during the writing of the book, and Woolf arranged for an advance copy of The Waves to be sent to Winifred Holtby. These are the kinds of details which fascinate me. The result is a thoughtful piece of literary criticism, in which Holtby considers the limitations of Woolf’s work, while showing that while they were very different writers Holtby quite obviously appreciated it.

Forgive me for quoting perhaps too much from this excellent work, which shows Holtby’s gift as a superb writer (one of my favourites) and her attention to detail, presumably showing the exactitude of a good journalist too.

“In 1919 it is highly probable that she understood Jane Austen better than she understood herself. She appreciated Jane Austen’s perfection, her integrity, her technical skill and her exquisite discrimination of moral values. To a large extent, she shared these.”

Holtby considers her very careful reading of Woolf’s work against the debate – which was prevalent at the time – between modernist and traditional styles of writing explaining:

“Dorothy Richardson did not invent the ‘stream of consciousness’ technique, but she had re-introduced it; she had made people talk about it.”

In her first chapter Holtby suggests that Virginia Woolf ‘inherited the instinct to write’ from her mother rather than her father Leslie Stephen; Victorian man of letters. In 1883 Mrs Stephen published a small book called Notes from the Sickroom, a book providing good sense hygiene advice, long out of print by the time Holtby was writing. However, Holtby maintains that in that slight long forgotten work there can be found some resemblance to Virginia Woolf’s later writing style. She quotes a short extract about crumbs in the bed – which seems to bear out what she says, showing what she calls Mrs Stephen’s ‘half-amused detachment.’

Holtby highlights Woolf’s own criticism, at this period Woolf was still known by many as a reviewer and critic first. Pointing out how Woolf’s choice of title for her first collection of essays – The Common Reader – showed how Woolf wanted to distance herself from the idea of a critic and scholar, borrowing the title from Dr Johnson.

Constantly while reading this marvellous book one is aware of Holtby’s intelligent reading of Woolf’s work, and her astute assessment and understanding of it.

“She is, as it happens, enormously aware of time. Throughout her novels time clangs like fate; its sound reverberates with terrifying persistence. When Jacob, when Mrs Dalloway, when Orlando hear clocks strike, the explosion shakes the complex fabric of their being. The whole of Orlando is a fantasia on time sense.”

There is probably very little point – me writing at any length about each chapter of this book, I can’t see any benefit of a long review of it. Holtby considers each of Woolf’s works, shining a light on its brilliance and complexity. For instance, Holtby shows the importance of water and the sea in Woolf’s work, examining everything from Woolf’s childhood holidays in Cornwall, to her use of water in To the Lighthouse, The Voyage Out, Jacob’s Room and The Waves. Of course this was all written before Woolf’s death at her own hand – by water. Holtby acknowledges that she and Woolf were poles apart, perhaps that is what makes this such a great piece of writing. For me, the one thing I loved is how this book has supported my own reading of Woolf.

Holtby considers the reception of Woolf’s work, and how Woolf continually subverted reader’s expectations. Surprising them, challenging them and constantly evolving her own art.

“The significance of To the Lighthouse was tragic. Its analysis was luminous and profound, its mood poetic, its preoccupations spiritual. It concerned life and death and human character. Those who read and admired it awaited eagerly its successor, expecting another Clarissa Dalloway, another Mrs Ramsay. They got, in 1928, Orlando: A Biography; in 1929, A Room of One’s Own.”

True Holtby talks at some length about books I have yet to read – and in a sense there are spoilers – only they weren’t spoilers for me. I have come away from this book slightly less nervous of The Waves (though I am still a bit) and really very excited about reading Jacob’s Room – during phase 6 of #Woolfalong.

This book also served as a reminder of what an excellent writer Winifred Holtby was. Her critical memoir is beautifully written, balanced and fair.

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The most recent phase of #Woofalong, taking place throughout July and August was the biography section. I am so pleased that at the end of eight months of #Woolfalong, there are still other people joining in. Thank you everyone for your enthusiasm.

Virginia woolf2The choices for readers was quite varied. Two Woolf novels – although called biographies by Woolf are of course Orlando and Flush. I read Orlando last year for a book group I was then attending. It was that book really, which set me off on my quest to know Virginia Woolf better, read much more of her work, and learn to appreciate her brilliance. #Woolfalong has done all of that for me, although I still feel something of a beginner with Woolf – even having read a few more books and with only two phases of #Woolfalong to go. So I opted to read Flush – and it was an absolute joy of a book, which I know I will read again one day. I also read Virginia Woolf; a short biography by Nigel Nicolson, son of Vita Sackville West, and at the time of writing I am reading Winifred Holtby’s critical memoir of Virginia Woolf – which I believe is the only work of biography written during Virginia Woolf’s lifetime. I have two more books which I could have read for phase four but which I haven’t managed to fit in yet; Recollections of Virginia Woolf and A Marriage of True Minds. I would like to think I might read them by the end of the year  – but as I still have one volume of stories left over from phase three – don’t hold your breath.  20160827_211844 (1)

Helen from She reads novels read Flush, a book she had looked forward to reading for a long time, she wasn’t disappointed, calling it a creative combination of fiction and non-fiction. Valarie from The London Particular described reading Flush as an ecstatic reading experience, I definitely agree with that.

Karen from Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings re-read Orlando, which she calls a brave book for its time, saying that ‘the vision of an evolving England is a vivid and wonderful one’.
Karen also shared her thoughts on Flush.  which she read at the beginning of 2015. Karen then further delighted me with her review of Recollections of Virginia Woolf – Edited by Joan Russell, a book I have since bought, and may even get time to start this final week of August. Liz from Adventures in reading, writing and working from home, has also been reading Recollections, and I know will be reviewing it soon.

Caroline from Bookword read Orlando, which she admits to not especially enjoying even on a second reading, though Caroline finds a lot to admire in it, including Woolf’s wit and love of words. David from David’s Book World also read Orlando –  Calling it sublime on Twitter. In his review David discusses how Woolf creates a landscape of time.Ladyfancifull first read Orlando when she was in her teens, and enjoyed re-reading it for #Woolfalong.

An alternative biography by Virginia Woolf – and which I had neglected to put on my original list, was that of Roger Fry, which Woolf published in 1940, just a year before her death. Simon, from Stuckinabook read Roger Fry – and posted his review at the beginning of October.

Of course there have been a good number of biographies written about Virginia Woolf, and these were perfect for phase 4 too. Hermione Lee’s biography is generally thought very highly of, but I didn’t have a copy, and not being very good at reading huge books of non-fiction (I begin to crave a novel around 300 pages in) – I opted for Nigel Nicolson’s very slim biography which I had read before, but I found a lot in it that I hadn’t picked out the first time – good and bad. Mary B – (Twitter) also read the Nicolson biography, giving it four stars and she said it made her want to read more for #Woolfalong – which I was delighted to hear.

O from Behold the stars has read the biography of  Virginia Woolf by Quentin Bell, in which O tells us that Bell offers a simple straight narrative to Virginia Woolf’s life – which frankly makes it appeal to me immediately.

Audrey from Booksasfood read a book called Virginia Woolf and the Reverats, edited by William Pryor, which takes readers inside the friendship between Woolf and the Reverat family. This book would also fit into phase 5 – so I especially wanted to tell you all about it.

As ever if your review hasn’t been posted yet or I have missed you – please let me know and I will do my best to edit you in.

It has been great seeing all these thoughts on such a variety of books. Roll on phase 5.  Phase 5 begins on September 1st – the theme non-fiction written by Virginia Woolf. Diaries, letters,  essays – there are plenty to choose from. I have three books already set aside – unsure if I will get to them all. I have actually read A Room of One’s Own last year, but I’m anxious to get to Three Guineas and A Writer’s Diary.

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