Time Passes

lighthouseoupI’m reading To the Lighthouse for the first time. I know, I know. I also know that I should love it, because it is beautiful and moving and brilliant and original — and I sort of do, so far, except when I don’t. I am not a particularly good reader of Woolf’s fiction: it was only a few years ago that I finally read Mrs Dalloway, and I “succeeded” in that only when I stopped working so hard and let myself “fall under the spell of the language, which is beautiful and languorous but shot through with moments of startling clarity and, sometimes, brutality,” as I said at the time. The same is true of the language of To the Lighthouse, though at this point in my reading it’s that very languorous beauty that’s interfering, perhaps paradoxically, with my pleasure in the novel. It is making me impatient, faintly fretful, with its self-conscious artistry. The novel is not opaque, the way late Henry James novels are, but for all its meticulous attention to the mundane, such that everything everyday becomes somehow transcendent, it feels strangely detached from the reality it explores with such nuance.

These are just early impressions, and of a first reading, at that — and I’m also not finished the novel. So don’t think the worst of me! I will learn more as I read on, and more still as I reflect and reread. It’s a good thing, really, to read a novel that doesn’t fit easily into the grooves of my mind. It’s good for my mind, I mean. Already, To the Lighthouse has me thinking — not just about what I want from my reading and why, but about fiction and realism, about mothers and children, about husbands and wives, about lighthouses visited and not, literal as well as metaphorical.

The part I’ve liked least so far is Part II, “Time Passes.” But even though I found it excessively mannered, with its calculated parentheticals, it does wonderfully evoke both the long sweep of time and specific moments and details of change that seize our particular attention:

The house was left; the house was deserted. It was left like a shell on a sand-hill to fill with dry salt grains now that life had left it. The long night seemed to have set in; the trifling airs, nibbling, the clammy breaths, fumbling, seemed to have triumphed. The saucepan had rusted and the mat decayed. Toads had nosed their way in. Idly, aimlessly, the swaying shawl swung to and fro. A thistle thrust itself between the tiles in the larder. The swallows nested in the drawing-room; the floor was strewn with straw; the plaster fell in shovelfuls; rafters were laid bare; rats carried off this and that to gnaw behind the wainscots.

Oxford“Time passes.” It’s such a neutral-sounding phrase, almost like a stage direction, one that requires all the director’s ingenuity to show us its truth without taking us through the whole chronology. It’s an obvious truth, one we’re all perfectly well aware of, but we feel it deeply only during what George Eliot calls “one of those rare moments of experience when we feel the truth of a commonplace,”

which is as different from what we call knowing it, as the vision of waters upon the earth is different from the delirious vision of the water which cannot be had to cool the burning tongue.

The immediate context of that quotation is Mr Casaubon’s confrontation with the reality of death in the great 42nd chapter of Middlemarch, but that isn’t all that different, when you think about it, from our confrontation with the reality that time passes. You can’t stop it. It’s inexorable! It stops, for each of us, only with death, which is thus rightly pervasive in the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse.

Funny little things can really bring home the reality that time passes. I don’t mean just obvious chronological markers like birthdays. They do remind us, but they don’t surprise us: they just keep coming round again on their predictable dates. I’m thinking more about things like my embroidered series of Henry VIII and his wives. And if that seems like an unlikely connection, that’s exactly my point: when it occurred to me that it might be nice to do some work on these cross-stitched portraits again, I didn’t expect to end up contemplating either the relentless passage of time or my own mortality, but that’s what happened.

newstitches9You see, I’ve been working on these off and on since 1993. I was newly married then and still not quite accustomed to the amount of golf my husband likes to watch on TV every weekend. Since it was hard to get away from the TV in our small apartment, and it didn’t seem very friendly (or very practical) to absent myself from home altogether, I decided to take up some hobbies that would keep my hands busy and give me a sense of accomplishment while I watched golf with him. A long-time reader of Tudor fiction, I was also working on a dissertation about Victorian historical writing, including Agnes Strickland’s Lives of the Queens of England— one way or another, Henry VIII and his wives had been in my life a long time. My thesis also included a chapter on the symbolic significance of needlework in Victorian historiography! So I was pretty excited when I chanced on a pattern in New Stitches magazine for Katherine Howard (wife #5, beheaded, in case you can’t keep them all straight). and even more excited when I realized it was part of a series and I could order the back issues, which I did. Over the next few years I completed four of the queens (Katherine Howard, Anne of Cleves, Katherine of Aragon, and Anne Boleyn). Just two wives were left, plus Henry himself.

After we had children, though, I found it almost impossible to work on these patterns, which are quite fussy and require both close attention and a minimum of interruptions if you’re not going to lose your place. Also, embroidering on white fabric means keeping your work area, your hands, and anything that might touch the work very clean: you can’t just put your hoop down any old place and grab it up again when you’re back. Even when it started to seem possible in theory to go back to these patterns in the evenings, I discovered that multi-tasking at the necessary level had become much harder: keeping track of the pattern and of the plot in a gripping HBO drama, for instance, was too much for me. The long and short of it is that poor Katherine Parr has been malingering in the drawer, barely half-finished, for years now.

IMG_0910What inspired me to take her out? Mostly that I’ve been experimenting with audio books for a while and though I do enjoy coloring as I listen, I thought I might get more satisfaction out of doing something with more tangible results, and especially out of finishing this series. I hoped that my current audio book (Eloisa James’s Three Weeks with Lady X) would entertain me without overtaxing my poor brain while I followed the design. And in fact it seems just right as a combination of activities — except that I couldn’t help noticing that since the last time I worked with the pattern, it has somehow shrunk so that it’s much harder to see! (Well, OK, actually my eyes have gotten weaker.) Also, the needles: were they always so hard to thread? So those were two blunt reminders that time had passed. And they got me thinking about how much harder this kind of finicky work is going to get as I keep aging, which got me thinking that I’d better not wait another decade before starting (or finishing) Henry and Jane Seymour, because even if I am very lucky and stay healthy and safe from accident or catastrophe — even then, who knows how much more time I’ve got to work on them?

Suddenly, I feel the truth of a commonplace indeed: time passes.

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Update: Lest y’all doubt my Woolf credentials, here’s a link to one of the bravest (for me) pieces I’ve written for OLM – a literary essay in appreciation of one of the great literary essayists. Or you could check out the entries in the ‘Woolf, Virginia’ category. I think she’s a genius. It just occasionally occurs to me that she’s not my genius.

“She wrote. She wrote. She wrote.” Virginia Woolf, Orlando

orlando

Orlando had so ordered it that she was in an extremely happy position; she need neither fight her age, nor submit to it; she was of it, yet remained herself. Now, therefore, she could write, and write she did. She wrote. She wrote. She wrote.

Part way into my book club’s discussion of Orlando, one of my friends spoke out with the intensity of someone who has reached a difficult conclusion. “I think that’s my problem,” she said. “The world is overwhelming enough: I want my books to be little, to focus in on something, not to open out onto everything.”*

I liked Orlando better than she did, but it’s hard not to sympathize with that sense that it’s a book that is always on the verge of spiraling off into chaos. There’s just so much in it. It kept giving me a crazy mental image of Woolf at her desk dipping her hand into a bowl full of confetti representing everything she knew and had read and, with a flick of her wrist, tossing her handful into the air and letting it settle onto her pages — except that the result of that would be random, and Orlando is full of stories and patterns and repetitions. Still, it feels ebulliently excessive and joyfully disorderly, at least to someone approaching it more or less for the first time. (I had read it before, sort of, years ago, but since then I had only returned to the marvelous opening of Chapter 5, in which “the Eighteenth century was over; the Nineteenth century had begun” — which I have used many times as a part comic, part provoking starting point for courses on 19th-century fiction.)

It is so many things all at once: a satirical but erudite sketch of 300 years of English history; a sideways look at literary history; a feminist polemic; a love story; a hymn to what in A Room of One’s Own she calls being “man-womanly” and “woman-manly.” It offers meditations on time, on biography, on our many selves, on writing in general and poetry in particular, on nature, on gender. What doesn’t it address, really? And it does it all in those paragraphs that only Woolf writes: they start out so purposefully, then come unmoored and drift away, only to make their way confidently to what turns out to have been their destination all along.

I won’t pretend that I found reading Orlando entirely pleasurable. I was often a bit bored, a bit frustrated, a bit irritated. If I hadn’t spent a lot of time on A Room of One’s Own in class recently, trying my best to coach my students to cope with its meandering structure, I would probably have allowed myself to react even more negatively, but I tried to learn my own lesson and find the logic and the rhythm of it. I do think that A Room of One’s Own is easier to make sense of than Orlando, because after all, it states its thesis right away and proceeds to explore and defend it. Does Orlando have a thesis? Why should it? It’s a novel, after all. Does it have a point? a central “aboutness”? I’m not sure. I think if it does, it might lurk in one of the sentences I underlined as I was reading: “we write, not with the fingers, but with the whole person.” Or it might be in here somewhere: “when the shrivelled skin of the ordinary is stuffed out with meaning it satisfies the senses amazingly.” Or here: “everything was partly something else, and each gained an odd moving power from this union of itself and something not itself so that with this mixture of truth and falsehood her mind became like a forest in which things moved; lights and shadows became like a forest in which things moved; lights and shadows changed, and one thing became another.”

But why does it have to have one point or be about something? I think my friend is right that it’s about everything — at least, everything Woolf cared for. One of our group found it very sad, and there is a lot of failure and disappointment and heartbreak in it, but overall it didn’t seem dark to me. It seemed to me like Woolf was playing, having fun. It’s a pretty strange game, I suppose, but how else is a mind like hers supposed to enjoy itself? When I was bored, I think it was because I didn’t understand how to play along. That might get better if I kept rereading it, but I expect I would never quite be able to catch or match the spirit of the book.

Even this time, though, I did find plenty of moments delightful, beautiful, or wonderfully sharp. The parts I liked best (besides the onset of the Victorian period, which remains my favorite section) were soon after Orlando becomes a woman and she has to reconsider everything about her place in the world. It’s not that the gleefully surreal fantasy of the first half gives way to something altogether different, but you can sense the angry political Woolf of Three Guineas when Orlando has thoughts like “what an odd pass we have come to when all a woman’s beauty has to be kept covered, lest a sailor may fall from a mast-head. ‘A pox on them!'”


*Or at least, to the best of my recollection, she said something very close to this! It was a convivial night out and I wasn’t exactly taking notes.

Recent Reading Round-Up: Mysteries, Romances, and Feminists

It isn’t that I haven’t done any reading since I posted on Elena Ferrante’s The Story of a New Name; it’s just that none of the reading has felt really notable, or else it has been reading for work and thus not something I necessarily have more to say about here. I’m actually looking forward to getting into a book with a bit of heft to it (it doesn’t have to be literally weighty, just something that matters when I read it): I have a number of candidates lying around. At a minimum, I’ll be starting on Alexandros Papadiamantis’s The Murderess soon for my book club, which meets at the end of the month. But that’s so short: surely I can read something else before then! In the meantime, here’s a quick catch-up post on my recent, and quite miscellaneous, desultory reading.

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1. Saints of the Shadow Bible. I’m not quite as enthusiastic about Rankin’s latest as Steve, who called it “rippingly good” in his review at Open Letters Weekly. It is good, but for me it was predictably so: it has all Rankin’s characteristic virtues, and now that I’ve gotten over my pleasure at having Rebus back in action, I feel (perhaps unfairly) a bit blasé about it. Rankin is very good at this kind of book, but as a result it doesn’t impress me very much when he does it again. This particular installment of the series is reliable but doesn’t take the characters or the genre in any new directions. I liked the ambition of some of the books from a few years back (Fleshmarket Close or The Naming of the Dead, for instance), which had a social and political agenda that broadened their scope. Here we’re just hunkered down with Rebus again. We are seeing Siobhan grow in stature: to me that remains the most promising direction Rebus could take the series in.

2. Mr. Impossible. Back in Ye Olden Days when I knew not what I was missing by not reading romance novels, Lord of Scoundrels was proposed as a possible conversion book. That did not go well (though the experiment as a whole was ultimately successful). I think that if Mr. Impossible had been proposed instead, it might have won me over, because it’s funnier. For some reason (OK, because I’m cynical), I prefer romance that doesn’t take itself too seriously. This was my second read of Mr. Impossible and I enjoyed it just as much. Actually, technically it was my second almost-read, or mostly-read, since I don’t read to the very end of many romance novels. The last pages (in some, the last chapters) almost always turn too cloying for my taste. Sure, all the way through I know pretty much how things are going to end, but often a lot of the energy goes out of the plot by the time the characters have overcome whatever is keeping them from their HEA. (Is that wrong or unusual of me? I can’t think of another genre in which I have fallen into this DNF habit. If I’m quite interested in the characters or the plot sustains some tension to the end, I’ll read it all, but sometimes I’ve just had enough. I also get most of my romance reading from the library, so I don’t feel any anxiety about dabbling in it rather than committing fully to it.)

3. Along those lines, I’ve been reading Nora Roberts’s Happy Every After, which is the 4th one in her “Bride Quartet.” It is hard to imagine a more anodyne series, really: sure, all of the main characters have tortured backstories of one kind or another, but there’s a bland formulaic simplicity to the novels that belies this attempt to give them depth. As a result, they are kind of relaxing, but the main thing I like about them is their “neepery.” Each protagonist in this quartet has a particular job, and there are lots of specifics about how it gets done. For whatever odd reason, I like that (I learned the wonderful term “neepery” from Victoria Janssen in a thread about the Dick Francis novels, which are full of it). I’m about half way through but I think I’m already about to DNF it for the reasons noted above. Plus, I already watched The Wedding Planner (speaking of predictable) so the neepery here isn’t as novel to me as the stuff about cakes or flowers in the other books.

paretsky

4. Now that I’ve finished with the new Rebus, I’m catching up on V.I. Warshawski with Critical Mass. I’m not very far along in it yet, but like Saints of the Shadow Bible it feels familiar: these are the people, these are the moves, this is the style I expect from Paretsky. In neither case is this a bad thing! I wrote in some detail about Paretsky in a review of Body Work in Open Letters a couple of years ago. I teach her often (we just finished discussing Indemnity Only in ‘Women & Detective Ficton’ today, in fact) and admire her principled determination to use the form of the detective novel to advocate for social justice. If the results are occasionally somewhat didactic, more often than not she integrates her political with her artistic purposes pretty effectively.

5. How to Suppress Women’s Writing, by Joanna Russ. This too came to me by way of Victoria Janssen, and again I’m grateful! I was mentioning on Twitter that I’m working on A Room of One’s Own with my class, and she wondered if I’d ever paired it with Russ’s book. I haven’t, since I’d never read or even heard of How to Suppress Women’s Writing before, but I found it in our university library and have just finished reading it through. It certainly does pair up well with Woolf: I can imagine a lot of conversations that the juxtaposition would spark, not least because Woolf is a major figure in Russ’s own meditations on ways women writers have been opposed and discouraged through the ages. Her approach is (as she says herself) not systematic or scholarly but anecdotal and epigrammatic: she lines up examples under categories such as “Prohibitions,” “Bad Faith,” “False Categorizing,” and “Anomalousness.” Many of her earlier examples were familiar to me, especially those from the 19th century, but she carries her topics forward to her present (the book was published in 1983). At the same time I was preparing my lecture on women and writing and Woolf for my class and reading Russ’s book, an excellent essay by Anne Boyd Rioux on “Women’s Citizenship in the Republic of Letters” appeared at the VIDA site: while it would have been nicer to explain all this to my class as a historical phenomenon, it is good to be able to show them how the conversation we are having in class, through Woolf, is part of a larger ongoing one they might take an interest — and a part — in. And yet things have definitely changed. We read Woolf now in the context of decades of scholarship filling in the absences that preoccupy her; reading Russ I was happily struck by at least a few improvements, such as the availability of works such as Villette (which she recalls being unable to order for a class in 1971 because no US edition was in print) — or the impossibility (surely) that anyone at a university today would read Woolf’s novels “secretively and guiltily like bonbons,” as she describes herself doing, “ashamed of them because they were so ‘feminine.'”

“She is in love with life”: Winifred Holtby’s Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir

holtby-woolfIn my post on Vera Brittain’s Testament of Friendship, I quoted a passage Brittain includes from Holtby’s letters, addressing her decision to write a critical biography of Virginia Woolf:

I took my courage and curiosity in both hands and chose the writer whose art seemed most of all removed from anything I could ever attempt, and whose experience was most alien to my own. . . . I found it the most enthralling adventure–to enter, even at second-hand, that world of purely aesthetic and intellectual interests, was to me as strange an exploration as it would have been for Virginia Woolf to sit beside my mother’s pie and hear my uncles talk fat-stock prices and cub-hunting. I felt that I was learning and learning with every fibre of such brain as I have.

The result of this open-minded effort, Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir (1932,) is as generous as I’m coming to expect from Holtby. Though at times it’s clear she has reservations about the potential limits of Woolf’s emphasis on art as “an end in itself,” or Woolf’s opposition to “materialism” in the novel (Holtby cites, for instance, “Modern Fiction,” with its critique of Bennett and Wells and Galsworthy for being “concerned not with the spirit but with the body”), and sharp as Holtby is, too, about “the advantages of being Virginia Stephen” (the title of a chapter in which, among other things, she lightly mocks Woolf for concluding “Every second Englishman reads French” — “that particular hyperbole was only possible to a woman brought up as Leslie Stephen’s daughter had been brought up”)–despite all this and the differences in her own life and aims, Holtby writes with energetic appreciation, sometimes even rapture, about Woolf’s development from a writer with an abstract and difficult idea about the novel to a novelist who has found the freedom and technique to realize her vision.

Holtby finds broad continuities of theme across Woolf’s oeuvre: an interest in life and death (especially death), in women and men (especially women), in the meaning of life, in the possibilities of art. She also finds a continuity of aesthetic effort, a movement towards a different kind of fiction. She sees it taking Woolf a while to figure it all out, to achieve unity of form and concept in a single work. So The Voyage Out shows signs of what will come, especially in its characters and thematic interests, but “here she has curbed her fancy, and accepted the traditional novel form.” Holtby’s chapter on Night and Day is called “Virginia Woolf is not Jane Austen”: she reads this novel as Woolf’s experiment in writing “a domestic story on the Jane Austen model.” She quotes a passage from Woolf’s essay “On Not Knowing Greek” (a passage I quoted too, in my piece on Woolf’s essays for Open Letters), about Austen choosing “the dangerous art where one slip means death”: “Mrs. Woolf, in Night and Day, chose it and failed.” It’s not, Holtby is quick to say, that the novel itself is dead, not altogether: “It has beauty and gravity, nobility of theme and high distinction.” But in it, Holtby believes, Woolf followed the wrong master for her own gifts and for her own time:

Her technique is the technique of experiment, not of tradition. Her hunting-ground lies among the subtle gradations of sentiment, memory and association to which less delicate sight is blind. She was, in Night and Day, playing a game which was a good game, which had been played almost perfectly, which she could play better than most; but it was not her game. She was a disciple here, not a master; a follower, not a maker of the law.

More specifically, she thinks “a comedy of restrictions” (such as she believes Austen writes) does not suit a writer who is “a rebel against restrictions.” Austen had the “peculiar fortune to live at a time and in circumstances ideally suited to her talent.” Woolf, in contrast, stood in a critical a relation to her age, and “it is this implied criticism, this straining towards some larger life, some more liberal standard of values, which disturbs the quiet and enclosed perfection of the comedy.” So for all its virtues, Night and Day is a failure–but “the measure of its failure was, perhaps, a mercy,” Holtby concludes, as “it drove Mrs. Woolf to seen new forms of expression. It marked the end of her apprenticeship to tradition.” (Another exhibit for our case that failure is necessary to greatness?)

Holtby finds in Woolf’s essays experiments in the fictional techniques that will finally free her: the “cinematic,” in which the “perspective shifts from high to low, from huge to microscopic, to let figures of people, insects, aeroplanes, flowers pass across the vision and melt away” (Holtby sees this as the aesthetic style of “Kew Gardens,” for instance, or “The Mark on the Wall”) and the “orchestral,” in which “senses, thoughts, emotions, will, memory, fancies, the impact of the outside world, action and conversation each play a different instrument.” The result of this freedom to create in new forms, when Woolf finally achieved it, was to be superb:

If her knowledge of life was narrow, it was profound. There was no fear, no sorrow, no ecstasy, and no limitation that she could not penetrate. And now she had an entirely new technique. She could compensate herself for all the things she did not know by arranging in a thousand new patterns the things she did.

Once free, she learns “an entirely new note”: gaiety. “She did not use it for long; her sense of life is tragic rather than comic,” Holtby says; “But having discovered it, she never lost it again. Perhaps laughter is the first gift of freedom.”

Though her discussions of Woolf’s later books is extraordinarily sensitive to the tragedy in them, the remaining chapters echo with Holtby’s appreciation of Woolf’s delight in both the world and her own expanding art. There’s an inevitable poignancy in that, not just because when we reach the last chapter, “The Waves–and after?” we know, as Holtby could not, that there was to be only one more major novel, and that published posthumously after Woolf’s suicide, but because we also know that Holtby herself did not live to read it (she died in 1935, leaving her own last novel, South Riding, also to be published posthumously). But there’s also something exhilarating in reading about Woolf from someone who can focus on what is life-affirming in her work without any sense of impending doom. Holtby’s focus is deliberately on the novels, not the life, and that design plus her ignorance of Woolf’s illness and death  lets us too revel in what is triumphant and joyful about the writing.

Holtby’s commentaries are persistently articulate and interesting. Like Woolf’s own critical essays, they are more impressionistic than analytical, though I was struck by how attentive Holtby is to technique, and particularly to the congruencies between the forms and the ideas of the novels. Holtby’s own fiction is so formally straightforward it could give the impression of a certain artistic naivete, but reading this book confirmed for me what Marion Shaw argues (in the essay I quoted from in my post on Brittain’s Honourable Estate)–that documentary realism was a deliberate option, not a default for writers who could not conceive of alternatives. Jacob’s Room was, Holtby observes, “a triumphant experiment in a new technique”;

But now that we can set it beside Mrs. Woolf’s later work, beside Mrs. Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and The Waves, we know that it was not the best that she could do. The cinematographic style was brilliantly effective, but it was not as subtle as the orchestral effect which she was to use in To the Lighthouse; she was to obtain a surer control over her material in Mrs. Dalloway. She was to adventure further into obscure realms of human consciousness in The Waves. The contrasts, perhaps, in Jacob’s Room are too violent. There are obscurities which even the most diligent study cannot penetrate. The effect created is very largely visual. Later she would plunge into the nerves, the brains, the senses of her characters, exploring further, yet binding the whole more closely into a unity of mood.

So Jacob’s Room too is seen as a step towards Woolf’s greatest work:

She had thrown overboard much that had been commonly considered indispensable to the novel: descriptions of places and families, explanations of environment, a plot of external action, dramatic scenes, climaxes, conclusions, and almost all those link-sentences which bind one episode to the next. But much remained to her. She had retained her preoccupation with life and death, with character, and with the effect of characters grouped and inter-acting. She had kept her consciousness of time and movement. She knew how present and past are interwoven, and how to-day depends so much upon knowledge and memory of yesterday, and fear for or confidence in to-morrow. She was still preoccupied with moral values; she was immensely excited about form and the way in which the patterns of life grow more and more complex as one regards them. And she was more sure now both of herself and of her public. She dared take greater risks with them, confident that they would not let her down.

The chapter on To the Lighthouse and Mrs. Dalloway is called “The Adventure Justified,” and it treats the novels as the culmination of a dangerous but ultimately triumphant experiment. In them Holtby finds a unity “far more profound than anything that can be obtained by a trick of reference. . . . It is a metaphysical unity, the unity which the old scholastic philosophers saw binding creature to creature and all created things to God. It was also a psychological unity, such as the most modern Viennese psychologists see binding infancy to age.” In these novels “her characters play now a double purpose”:

They are themselves and they are symbols. They are part of the visible universe and they are its interpretation. Her metaphors have grown more fluid, and they have overflowed into the action of the novel. The motion of time, light, change, the passage of wind through a house, have all assumed a spiritual quality.

About To the Lighthouse Holtby is ecstatic, almost as if caught up herself in the final vision of the novel:

Its characters move in a radiant, half-transparent atmosphere, as though already suffused into the spiritual world. The action takes place out at sea, on an island; because it is there, away from the land, on a ship, out at sea, on an island, that Mrs. Woolf sees humanity with detachment. From that vantage point she can look back on life, look back on death, and write her parable. Its quality is poetic; its form and substance are perfectly fused, incandescent, disciplined into unity. It is a parable of life, of art, of experience; it is a parable of immortality. It is one of the most beautiful novels written in the English language.

Orlando and A Room of One’s Own do not move her to such raptures, though she seems them as complementary completions of long-running preoccupations of Woolf’s. Reading her discussion of Room I was expecting more polemical engagement, but I think in the end it’s to Holtby’s credit that she keeps her focus on Woolf’s theories, particularly on sorting out Woolf’s arguments about man-womanly and woman-manly collaboration as part of her overall vision for art and creative freedom.

I wish Holtby had lived to write about Three Guineas. But her last section is about The Waves, and again, her appreciation for Woolf’s experimental form–her interest in what it reaches and enables–is strikingly open-minded and generous, as well as attentive to its place in contemporary literature:

We know, externally, very little about [the characters]. They are the cultured, well-to-do characters common to most of Mrs. Woolf’s novels, but their external lives, their relations to each other, are barely indicated. Yet we know almost everything about them. For the drama takes place not in the external world of speech and action, but in the subconscious world, below the articulate thoughts and spoken words with which most novels are concerned. Down there, in the submarine cave of which Mrs. Woolf’s characters are always dreaming, moves the strange, subtle confusion of memory, experience, contact and imagination which forms the running stream below our surface thoughts. It is a world hitherto largely neglected by the English novelist. James Joyce, Dorothy Richardson, and D. H. Lawrence have adventured there; but their voyages of discovery have not been followed by a general conquest. The territory is uncharted and extremely hazardous, for only the most intent and penetrating observation of human behaviour can make a writer free of the unformed thoughts and impulses of his characters. Yet these are as much a part of “character” as their external acts . . . .They inhabit a land where the law of reason does not run; and Mrs. Woolf acknowledges allegiance to the law of reason. Yet in spite of these difficulties she has essayed the task, crossed the borders, and, finding the new land still sunk beneath a tossing sea, plunged bravely down to discover and reclaim.

If you find that extended metaphor a little florid, note that Holtby turns neatly to technical specifics: “The method that she has used to re-create this world is not entirely strange to her. Each character speaks in a kind of recitative, recording an individual current of subjective thought . . . . personality, drama and development emerging slowly from the sequence of conscious and unconscious thought and memory.” In The Waves, she concludes, Woolf has achieved “the music and subtlety of poetry.” The Waves, she believes, has not just its own internal unity but “is bound in that strange unity which is the artist’s mind, to Mrs. Woolf’s other novels.” And in it, too, she finds “an affirmation of life”: “Death is the enemy; death, not only of the body, but of the mind, the perceptive spirit, the faculty by which man recognises truth.”

Virginia Woolf: A Critical Memoir ends by wondering where Woolf will go next: “We cannot predict what problem will attract, what beauty entrance her next”–though Holtby anticipates continued growth “in breadth and power.” But Holtby speculates that Woolf “is unlikely ever to command the allegiance of a wide contemporary public”: “at present there is still only a minority which prefers To the Lighthouse with its demands upon the reader’s intelligence and imagination, to a novel such as [J. B. Priestley’s] The Good Companions, which tells a pleasant, full and easy tale.” That’s ironic in a way, of course, because Woolf’s name is well known to a wide public today, while Holtby’s much more accessible novels are largely unread–though it remains true, surely, that To the Lighthouse is a minority taste. In fact, I have never read it myself, though I have started it several times. I have always found Woolf’s fiction much more elusive than her non-fiction; until a couple of years ago I hadn’t read Mrs. Dalloway either. I felt I didn’t know how to read the novels (and frankly, reading Orlando didn’t help much with that!), and the academic criticism I read about them was typically intimidating rather than encouraging. Holtby’s book, on the other hand, has an infectious enthusiasm along with a lot of smart and useful discussions of what Woolf is doing and why. Now I feel that I too should take my “courage and curiosity in both hands” and “learn and learn with every fibre of such brain as I have.”

Holtby’s final passages stand as both a celebration and, unintentionally, a worthy epitaph, generously offered from one artist and woman to another:

For all her lightness of touch, her moth-wing humour, her capricious irrelevance, she writes as one who has looked upon the worst that life can do to man and woman, upon every sensation of loss, bewilderment and humiliation; and yet the corroding acid of disgust has not defiled her. She is in love with life. It is this quality which lifts her beyond the despairs and fashions of her age, which gives to her vision of reality a radiance, a wonder, unshared by any other living writer. . . . It is this which places her work, meagre though its amount may hitherto have been, slight in texture and limited in scope, beside the work of the great masters.

Virginia Woolf, Three Guineas

It’s hard to spot similarities between Virginia Woolf and the Somerville novelists I’ve been looking at if you focus on Woolf’s fiction. Winifred Holtby wrote a book about Woolf, and as I noted in my post about Testament of Friendship, she did so deliberately because she knew Woolf was such a different novelist: “I took my courage and curiosity in both hands and chose the writer whose art seemed most of all removed from anything I could ever attempt, and whose experience was most alien to my own.”

A Room of One’s Own, with its framing focus on women’s education and particularly on the material differences between women’s colleges and their male counterparts, brings out an important point of convergence, if also another distinction, as unlike Holtby and Brittain and Kennedy and Sayers, Woolf did not go to university herself. It’s in Three Guineas, though, as I have just (belatedly, I know) discovered, that Woolf really shows herself their contemporary, as the issues she focuses on are very much those that dominate their non-fiction as well. Woolf’s arguments offer nothing like the sharp direct hits of Holtby and Brittain’s social and political journalism: as in A Room of One’s Own, she is indirect, circuitous, ironic; she ventriloquizes both questioners and audiences, sets up targets only to slyly destroy them, hypothesizes, imagines, projects. Her conclusions are not single and direct but layered and proliferating. I have taught A Room of One’s Own several times. Once, in a course evaluation, a student raged that it made her “want to gouge [her] eyes out with an ice pick.” Ridiculous! A Room of One’s Own  is a (arguably, the) great work of non-fiction prose. But at the same time, if you go to books like these expecting the orderly presentation of an argument that proposes and then supports a straightforward thesis, well, I can see how you  might end up a little frustrated. But what a trip it is when you follow her along those byways of her thought–not as exhilarating, perhaps, as her literary essays, but with the same effect of provoking surprise and argument and active thought as you go.

In this case what I tripped across most often was her careful restriction of her arguments to “the daughters of educated men,” a class specificity for which she makes some careful arguments (mostly in the notes) but which I think raises a lot of questions about the economics of the ideals she holds out in the book. She is ruthless about the moral corruption of writing for money, for instance (poor Mrs. Oliphant, who “sold her brain, her very admirable brain, prostituted her culture and enslaved her intellectual liberty in order that she might earn her living and educate her children” – the underlying point is that she ought not to have to sell herself in this way, but isn’t there another version of this story by which writing is a good enough way to make a living? and in Mrs. Oliphant’s case at least, do we really imagine that freed of the need to make money she would have turned her “intellectual liberty” in some particularly brilliant direction?). By and large Woolf seems to characterize money as weakening to the moral fiber–though at the same time she is passionate about the need, the right, to be economically independent. You should want enough to sustain yourself, I think is the idea, but not otherwise pursue financial reward, as all too quickly then you will interest yourself in what pays best rather than what is best.

There’s lot more to be considered about the economics of Three Guineas (its whole conceit, after all, is “where shall I bestow these three precious coins?”). Given that I’m reading it as part of my “Summer of Sommerville,” though, I am particularly interested in ways it resonates with the other things I’ve been reading. On women’s education, she offers a curt history but also a trenchant commentary on the investment women across the centuries have made in the education of their brothers:

For have not the daughters of educated men paid into Arthur’s Education Fund* from the year 1262 to the year 1870 all the money that was needed to educate themselves…? Have they not paid with their own education for Eton and Harrow, Oxford and Cambridge, and all the great schools and universities on the continenent…? Have they not paid so generously and lavishly if so indirectly, that when at last, in the nineteenth century, they won the right to some paid-for education for themselves, there was not a single woman who had received enough  paid-for education to be able to teach them?

She is similarly pointed on women’s enthusiasm for the first World War:

So profound was her unconscious loathing for the education of the private house with its cruelty, its poverty, its hypocrisy, its immorality, its inanity that she would undertake any task however menial, exercise any fascination however fatal that enabled her to escape. Thus consciously she desired ‘our splendid Empire’; unconsciously she desired our splendid war.

The support rests, then, not on patriotism, but on rebellion, and in fact a continuing theme of the book is women’s very different relationship to the country that expects their loyalty and service:

She will find that she has no good reason to ask her brother to fight on her behalf to protect ‘our’ country. ‘ “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. “Our” country denies me the means of protecting myself, forces me to pay others a very large sum annually to protect me, and is so little able, even so, to protect me that Air Raid precautions are written on the wall. Therefore if you [men] insist on fighting to protect me, or “our” country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect either myself of my country. For,’ the outsider will say, ‘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.’

For Woolf, as for Holtby, it’s not so much the military-industrial complex that is a threat to her freedom as the military-patriarchy complex: both writers make a strenuous case for recognizing the links between the masculine will to power (which Woolf analyzes in one section of Three Guineas, with stinging condescension, as “infantile fixation”) with Fascism. In Holtby’s 1934 essay “Black Words for Women Only” she observes that Nazism has rolled back all the progress made by women between 1918 and 1933:

There is little hope for ambitious young women in Nazi Germany, where the brightest contribution of constructive economic thought towards the solution of the unemployment problem appears to have been the expulsion of large sections of the community from paid work, as a penalty for being women, Socialists or Jews, and their replacement by unobjectionable loyal male Aryans. Individual women have protested against this mass campaign to restore their economic dependence and drive them back to the kitchen. . . .

Throughout history, whenever society has tried to curtail the opportunities, interests and powers of women, it has done so in the sacred names of marriage and maternity. Exalting women’s sex until it dominated her whole life, the State then used it as an excuse for political or economic disability. . . . Today, whenever women hear political leaders call their sex important, they grow suspicious. In the importance of the sex too often has lain the unimportance of the citizen, the worker and the human being. The ‘normal’ woman knows that, given freedom and equality before the law, she can be trusted to safeguard her own interests as wife, mother, daughter, or what you will.

Pondering the contaminated “atmosphere” created by the unwanted intrusion of women into professional life (“it is likely that a name to which ‘Miss’ is attached will, because of this odour, circle in the lower spheres where the salaries are small rather than mount to the higher spheres where the salaries are substantial”) Woolf demands, in her turn, “is not the woman who has to breathe that poison and to fight that insect, secretly and without arms, in her office, fighting the Fascist or the Nazi as surely as those who fight him with arms in the limelight of publicity?” The Fascist dictator is simply the oppressive patriarch gone national:

He has widened his scope. He is interfering now with your liberty; he is dictating how you shall live; he is making distinctions not merely between the sexes but between the races. You are feeling in your own persons what your mothers felt when they were shut out, when they were shut up, because they were women. Now you are being shut out, you are being shut up, because you are Jews, because you are democrats, because of race, because of religion. It is not a photograph that you look upon any longer; there you go, trapesing along in the procession yourself. And that makes a difference. The whole iniquity of dictatorship, whether in Oxford or Cambridge, in Whitehall or Downing Street, against Jews or against women, in England, or in Germany, in Italy or in Spain is now apparent to you.

The dictator is only the extreme version of “Man himself, the quintessence of virility, the perfect type of which all the others are imperfect adumbrations”: “He is called in German and Italian Führer or Duce; in our own language Tyrant or Dictator. And behind him lie ruined houses and dead bodies – men, women, and children.”

The key lesson of Three Guineas is “that the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected; that the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.” But from this connection Woolf draws hope, and a recipe for social and political transformation:

It suggests that we cannot dissociate ourselves from that figure but are ourselves that figure. It suggests that we are not passive spectators doomed to unresisting obedience but by our thoughts and actions can ourselves change that figure. A common interest unites us; it is one world, one life. How essential it is that we should realize that unity the dead bodies, the ruined houses prove. For such will be our ruin if you, in the immensity of your public abstrations forget the private figure, or if we in the intensity of our private emotions forget the public world. Both houses will be ruined, the public and the private, the material and the spiritual world, for they are inseparably connected.

I think that this desire for men and women to recognize and stand together in a united front (“now we are fighting together. The daughters and sons of educated men are fighting side by side”) lies behind her rejection of the word “feminism” (“a vicious and corrupt word that has done much harm in its day and is now obsolete”), though this was another of the things I stumbled against, reading along. Given her insistence precisely on women’s “outsider” status, and on the particularities of their experiences and perspectives, why oppose language that identifies their cause as sex-specific? “They [those called ‘feminists’] were fighting the same enemy that you are fighting and for the same reasons,” she says; “They were fighting the tyranny of the Fascist state.” But that rather erases that until the rise of the Fascist state, and indeed for those not living in a Fascist state, different groups in fact have different antagonists. She wants to make a distinction between men as private people (she is eloquent, for instance, about the excellent relationships of brothers and sisters in private life) and men as social beings: “we look upon societies as conspiracies that sink the private brother, whom many of us have reason to respect, and inflate in his stead a monstrous male, loud of voice, hard of fist . . . [who] enjoys the dubious pleasures of powers and dominion.” But men and brothers, and societies, do not exist in the abstract, and as her own examples of the ‘infantile fixation” of fathers with controlling their daughters show, the tyranny actual individual women fought was very much the tyranny of their own families, a fact that no analogy or extension to Hitler and Mussolini should erase.

But that’s what Woolf does: she provokes argument even as she compells you with the intelligence and elegance of her writing. I know she met Holtby but did not warm to her (actually, she was quite snooty about her in her letters), but I don’t know if she met Brittain (she read Testament of Youth “with extreme greed”). Do you remember the old TV show “Meeting of Minds,” hosted by Steve Allen? An episode featuring these three would absolutely bristle with intellectual excitement, political commitment, and aesthetic contrasts.

*The explanation for this is in my favorite line of the book: “You, who have read Pendennis, will remember how the mysterious letters A.E.F. figured in the household ledger.” OK, fine, Virginia, I will read Pendennis this summer!

‘She illuminated everything’: Bowen on Virginia Woolf

Elizabeth Bowen to Leonard Woolf, April 8, 1941:

Dear Leonard,

It was very good of you to write to me, as and when you did. I do thank you. I have been in Ireland for the last three weeks, so your letter, sent on from Clarence Terrace, reached me here last Saturday. I had not heard anything at all till the Thursday before that, when someone told me what they had heard on the wireless. English papers take nearly a week to come. It meant a good deal, then, to get your letter. You and Viriginia and Rodmell had, for those two days, hardly been out of my thoughts–not by day and not much by night. I had begun to imagine what I learned from you to be true–that she had feared her illness was coming back.

You said not to answer your letter, and above all I don’t want to trouble you with words now. And it is no time to speak of my own feeling. As far as I am concerned, a great deal of the meaning seems to have gone out of the world. She illuminated everything, and one referred the most trivial things to her in one’s thoughts. To have been allowed to know her and love her is a great thing.

(quoted from The Mulberry Tree: Writings of Elizabeth Bowen, ed. Hermione Lee)

More of Woolf on the Victorians: “an abandonment, richness, surprise”

I think I must be on the verge of a breakthrough in my relationship with Virginia Woolf, a writer I have been interested in, drawn to, even, for many years but whose fiction nonetheless I haven’t seemed able to read. I know my way around A Room of One’s Own pretty well, and I have thoroughly appreciated a number of Woolf’s essays and reviews. I love the crackling intellect of her critical writing, the combination of wit and tenderness she shows, her appreciation of writers whose aesthetics seem so wholly unlike her own (she writes wonderfully about EBB, for instance, as well as George Eliot). I blame only myself for my inability to reach further into her creative work, and I was pleased when I finally read all of Mrs Dalloway last summer. There at least, the ice is broken: now that I am acquainted with that novel, I can develop a deeper relationship with it, by rereading it and thinking more about it, and reading more of what other people have written about it. I’ve begun Hermione Lee’s much-praised biography, and look forward to finishing it. So far, though, I like listening to Woolf’s own voice the best, and so it seemed more than serendipitous to find three volumes of her letters and the final volume of her diary on the discard table at the public library on the weekend. Maybe Woolf “unfiltered” is the right next step for me. And just dipping in to the letters, immediately I came across this:

I don’t know that I had anything very definite in mind about dialogue–only a few random generalisations. My feeling, as a novelist, is that when you make a character speak directly you’re in a different state of mind from that in which you describe him indirectly: more ‘possessed,’ less self-conscious, more random, and rather excited by the sense of his character and your audience. I think the great Victorians, Scott (no–he wasn’t a Vn.) but Dickens, Trollope, to some extent Hardy all had this sense of an audience and created their characters mainly through dialogue. Then I think the novelist became aware of something that can’t be said by the character himself; and also lost the sense of an audience. (I’ve a vague feeling that the play persisted in the novelist’s mind, long after it was dead–but this may be fantastic: only as you say novelists are fantastic.) Middlemarch I should say is the transition novel: Mr Brooke done directly by dialogue: Dorothea indirectly. Hence its great interest–the first modern novel. Henry James of course receded further and further from the spoken word, and finally I think only used dialogue when he wanted a very high light.

This is all rather incoherent, and also, as is the case with all theories, too definite. At the same time I do feel in the great Victorian characters, Gamp, Micawber, Becky Sharp, Edie Ochiltree, an abandonment, richness, surprise, as well as a redundancy, tediousness, and superficiality which makes them different from the post Middlemarch characters. Perhaps we must now put our toes to the ground again and get back to the spoken word, only from a different angle; to gain richness, and surprise.

I wish you’d look one day and see if there is any sense in this.

First, this letter makes me want to talk to her: she just sounds so lively and interesting and well-read and curious! Second, I can’t think of any contemporary author I’ve heard or read an interview with who has anything like this kind of critical or literary-historical perspective; like Eliot and James, Woolf is a novelist-critic, and that may account for the intellectual rewards of their best writing (fictional and critical). Finally, this is the first thing I’ve read in about a year that actually made me want to read a work of recent criticism: Steve Ellis has a recent book called Virginia Woolf and the Victorians that I’m going to sign out of the library today.