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.