On Virginia Woolf

Hello everyone! It feels so lovely to be back, and as if I’ve been away for a very long time. I think I can say that my addiction to blogging is now official (as if it hadn’t been long suspected in this household!); it seemed so very strange to be reading books on holiday and unable to share my thoughts about them. My fingers itched for a keypad to tell you all about the effects of chronic illness on relationships in Alison Lurie’s novel, and my first conscious experience of ‘slipstream’ with A. N. Wilson’s, and as for David Sedaris, well… what comic genius! But without the blog, I felt as if I’d only had half a reading experience. And now, of course, I have a lot of catching up to do.

So without further ado, let me just adjust the stage curtain and wheel the collected works of Virginia Woolf into the spotlight. I must say I didn’t realise I’d read so many of them, until I did a little head count the other week. When my graduate studies programme allowed me to branch out of the confines of French literature, Woolf’s works were the first I reached for. I always knew I wanted to write about her, simply because I think she’s the kind of writer who makes you want to understand the experience you’ve just had reading her work. Reading Virginia Woolf must be like taking an extremely safe form of narcotic (I have to speculate here as I’m not even fond of taking paracetamol), in that the world inside her novels is that bit more intense, more vivid, more sensorially alive than lived experience, and yet it is at the same time fuzzy around the edges, fragmentary and composed of random, if implicitly meaningful, connections. The reader is so excessively inside the head of a Woolf character, and yet her brilliance is to shift you incessantly from consciousness to consciousness, through space and time, from drowsy midsummer teatimes, through to wintry London nights, and no matter what the scene, the impression of being there will be so strong, so luminous. I came across a term that intrigued me a while back: ‘the unthought known’. It’s a psychoanalytic term that refers to the knowledge of life a child absorbs as it grows that is never consciously given, nor knowingly received. It’s the knowledge children have about whether or not their parents are happy, or about how monsters live under beds, or that sun, sea and sand feel good (but sunscreen does not), or that certain activities will make your mother mad if she happens to discover them. None of it can be put into words, and yet it dictates the unconscious pattern of our lives. Now if ever there was an award for the writer who brings us closest to an experience of that unthought known, then I think Woolf ought to win it. Here’s a passage from The Years, which I’ve been rereading this week, concerning Edward Pargiter, who is studying alone in his rooms at Oxford. I always love Woolf’s evocations of the academic life, and here she surpasses herself:

‘All sounds were blotted out. He saw nothing but the Greek in front of him. But as he read, his brain gradually warmed; he was conscious of something quickening and tightening in his forehead. He caught phrase after phrase exactly, firmly, more exactly, he noted, making a brief note in the margin, than the night before. Little negligible words now revealed shades of meaning which altered the meaning. He made another note: that was the meaning. His own dexterity in catching the phrase plumb in the middle gave him a thrill of excitement. There it was, clean and entire. But he must be precise; exact; even his little scribbled notes must be clear as print. He turned to this book; then that book. Then he leant back to see, with his eyes shut.’

I can’t quite put my finger on what it is that makes this such a breathing portrait of study, but I can feel its reality; some shadowy zone of my experience recognises the truth of Woolf’s description here. Woolf writes about her own intentions in her essay ‘Modern Fiction’. Here she criticises the realism of writers like John Galsworthy and Arnold Bennett, declaring her own commitment to a more sensorial and psychological approach to representation: ‘life is a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from the beginning of consciousness to the end. Is it not the task of the novelist to convey this varying, this unknown and uncircumscribed spirit, whatever aberration or complexity it may display, with as little mixture of the alien and external as possible?’ For Woolf, this was ‘the proper stuff of fiction’, which is to say it was an alternative, more authentic form of realism for her. ‘Let us record the atoms as they fall upon the mind in the order in which they fall, let us trace the pattern, however disconnected and incoherent in appearance, which each sight or incident scores upon the consciousness.’ All of which aligns Woolf to the movement of phenomenology that was sweeping Europe in the early part of the century. It’s a term I try to avoid whenever teaching, because it’s incredibly hard to say unless you approach it at quite a focused gallop, but it refers to the fascination writers and philosophers had with the fervent felt experience of existence; how did we know what consciousness was? What did it contain? How did we perceive things – was it the same for everyone or different? What always strikes me about Woolf’s scene-setting, however, is that to allow sensations to dominate, she often concentrates on her characters in the moments before or after what we might call events, or else in moments that are eventful although they are not generally acknowledged as such. So, if Woolf portrays a dinner party she often enters the consciousness of her main protagonist just before it begins, or as the host prepares for bed once it has finished. Or there’s my favourite Woolf moment ever, in To The Lighthouse, when Mr Ramsey is out of sorts and demanding sympathy from his wife, one of the greatest portraits of a mother in European literature: the incomparable Mrs Ramsay. The so-called simple act of sympathising with her husband becomes a moment for Woolf to show the unacknowledged, unsuspected creative genius of Mrs Ramsay who ‘seemed to raise herself with an effort, and at once to pour erect into the air a rain of energy, a column of spray, looking at the same time animated and alive as if all her energies were being fused into force, burning and illuminating (quietly though she sat, taking up her stocking again), and into this delicious fecundity, this fountain and spray of life, the fatal sterility of the male plunged itself, like a beak of brass, barren and bare.’

Such descriptions made Woolf into an acute writer of gender politics, for they told the secret history of women that was quietly but effectively lived in the era around suffrage. Yet Woolf is not really a political author, although she had aspirations to be one: I love the novel, The Years, but it fails as a political work because it’s impossible to explore the political, I think, by means of the tangential, the contingent, the shadowy and the unthought known. Yet this is the territory in which Woolf excels. She is wonderful at bringing together the richness of the external world (give her an omnibus, a chiming clock tower, a particular season and a recording consciousness and you have a perfect Woolf moment) with the slippery, evasive twists and foibles of the inner world. Often the two will be radically at odds, and yet oddly harmonious, just the way opposing colours in the spectrum will elegantly concord. So to my mind, Woolf is that hybrid beast, the lyric social historian. I’m not sure how many there are in existence, but in the way that she charts so exactly, and yet with such poetry, the quiet life of a certain class of Englishmen and women, she evokes an atmospheric and enlightening picture of life as it was lived, as well as producing one of the most unique voices in modern literature.

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9 thoughts on “On Virginia Woolf

  1. Welcome back! And with this post, you certainly come back in dramatic fashion — it’s beautiful! I’ve been itching to read more Woolf lately — I’m such a fan of hers but there are still a lot of novels I haven’t read. Your description in the last paragraph reminds me of Proust — of the way Woolf and Proust both are wonderful at evoking what it’s like to experience the world outside the mind and what the world inside the mind is like too. Is this combination unusual? Or does a great degree of self-awareness, of self-consciousness about the mind, lead to beautiful writing and insight into the external world?

  2. Welcome back. I hope you had a nice vacation! I am hoping to read some of Woolf’s work–I’ve just bought some books, but I hope she is not too “over my head”!

  3. Welcome back! I love the term ‘the unthought known.’ I’ve never really thought about the way we intuit things like that — and yet, now I can see how it becomes so deeply ingrained in us that it shapes our behavior and our responses to others. I can see vestigial ‘unthought knowns’ in my relationships: the old thought of ‘this situation won’t please x’ lingers, and I adjust my behavior accordingly.

    I’ve missed your posts!

  4. How nice to click on your link and see you’ve returned. It’s true, this is an addictive activity. But rewarding. I’m so glad you’ve been hooked! I loved reading what you have to say about Woolf. I like many things about her — particularly the voice she uses in her diaries and letters. And The Years, while not perfect, is wonderful for just what you describe — the telling details which give you the rich external world and the inner lives of her characters. Thank you for this lovely essay.

  5. How wonderful not only that you’re back (I certainly missed your posts), but also that you’ve come back with such a lovely essay on Woolf. I just love the way you describe her as taking some extremely safe form of narcotic. OLEANDER is one of my favorite books, as well as being one of the sexiest books ever written. And I could easily finish reading TO THE LIGHTHOUSE and start right back at the beginning again. I’ve just discovered her little book FLUSH, which is her biography of Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s spaniel, as well as Leonard Woolf’s THE WISE VIRGINS, neither of which I’ve read. Have you?

  6. It’s great to be back – I’ve missed our discussions so much! I’m so glad you like the ‘unthought known’ – it was a term that pleased me very much when I came across it. Dorothy – you pose a very good question. I think that Woolf and Proust and other authors like James Joyce, Pound and Eliot do share common features in that they are all modernists. I’m not sure I could define that term off the top of my head (people spend whole books trying to do so) but it is certainly bound up with writing about the experience of the modern world. Perhaps that’s something I’ll come back to another day (and that other bloggers may well have something to say about). Danielle – I’m really looking forward to you reading Woolf – I think you’ll love her. ‘The Years’ is pretty much a comfort reading book for me. ‘The Waves’ is the only one I remember as being a bit of a plough. Emily – you know I have never even heard of Flush, nor of The Wise Virgins – what a find! I shall now try and seek them out!

  7. I like the extract from The Years – I love it when translation goes like that, as opposed to the other kind, where you work at it for ages, and it gets worse and worse and makes less and less sense as you progress, until you have to leave it and come back to it another day. Woolf’s captured that feeling of doing translation well very effectively.

  8. Welcome back from your holiday! I was so glad to see your posts again. You’re right about the blogging addiction: while I read, I think ‘I really must get this book finished so that I can write about it’.

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