Sunday, 22 March 2009

The Common Reader

I am about to begin a literary journey into the world of Virginia Woolf by reading all of her major works in chronological order.

I read a little bit about Virginia Woolf when I studied English Literature A-level and I had attempted to read The Waves on a whim, but it was not until the film, The Hours, that I decided to take more of an interest in her. My first attempts at reading her work were not very successful. I painfully worked my way through Mrs Dalloway and struggled to the end of To The Lighthouse.

Then I read A Writers Diary and in quick succession after that Quentin Bell’s wonderful biographies of her life and it all started to make a lot more sense. What I came to realise is that you cannot separate Virginia Woolf from her writing and in order to understand her writing you need to start to understand her. For Virginia, her whole life was built around her need to write things down and she does this both for her fictional world as well as capturing her life in her many volumes of diaries. As you read through her diaries you get a very clear sense of how her work develops and progresses as she comments on new ideas and how she feels things are working.

For this reason I am going to read all of her major works, as well as some shorter stories, in chronological order. I am also going to read extracts of her diary that she was writing at the same times as the novels to see what her moods and thoughts were at the time she wrote the books. I am hoping that by reading the diaries I will gain an insight into her thoughts and by reading her work in the order it was written that I will be able to see the progression of her ideas.

I have no idea how long this will take me, with my long train commute I can usually read a book in a week, but I may take a break between each book. Along the way I will be posting my thoughts on the books and welcome comments


  1. Great start mate! You are a far better writer than me! Looking forward to learning more about Virginia before we go visit Charleston in the summer!

  2. Just like you I watched The Hours and it kindled an interest in Virginia Woolf which I'd never had before. Ijust haven't the courage to read her yet, there's something quite daunting about her books, so I'll be really interested to see how you go and can't wait to hear about your first book.
    Julia x

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  4. Hi Julia

    I should be posting about my first story shortly. I am starting with some of her early short stories which is a gentle way into some of her tougher reads. Her work gets more experimental over time so the earlier stuff is more accessible.


  5. Well done for getting this up and running. Looking forward to reading it. Mum x

  6. I admire your unswerving effort to read through this difficult author. I have plan to read a couple more this year, most likely A Room of One's Own and Mrs. Dalloway's Party. The first one because of its famous dictum, "a woman must have money and a room of her own if she is to write fiction."

    I'm sure I'll turn to your blog often for background information on her. :)

  7. Thank you for doing this. I will read your blog on VW with interest. I am a 54-year-old developing writer, and my teacher had led me to try reading her work, again. I was maybe in college when I first tried her out and was completely baffled. Now, through my personal writing practice, I have new tools with which to read her and am finding her work of greater interest. However, I ardently seek the insight of others on her work, thus my gratitude to you. My question to you is, "Why should one have to read the author's biography and diary before benefiting from the work? Doesn't this sugguest that the work itself is lacking?" Please understand the intent of this question is not to question you, but to question the work. All best, Sylvia Hohri

  8. Hi Sylvia, thank you for commenting.

    I have been thinking about your question all day. I think perhaps it is more my skill as a reader that is lacking, rather than Virginia Woolf's work.

    I studied English Literature at school and then stopped reading until I started to commute to work 5 years ago. In that time I have read more than I have ever done, but I still feel like a novice! When I first read her work I don't think I really understood some of the techniques she was using (Stream of Conciousness in Mrs Dalloway as an example) or the things she was attempting to do, but reading about the idea of these concepts and the progression of her thought process really improved my understanding. I think like you say, having "new tools" for reading really helps.

    You can read her work as stand alone pieces but I am just as interested in the process of writing them as in the final result. Virginia Woolf was writing all of her life and so only reading a final draft of a piece of work is missing so much.

    I'm looking forward to reading your thoughts


  9. That is a great answer to my question! Thank you so much. It feels so affirmed to have you actually think about what I, a complete stranger, asked. You have reminded me so graciously of how much the process of coming to the final published work forms the work, which of course is self-evident when one takes the time to reflect; and you have also reminded me of the deep truth that the writer's writing comes from her life, so of course, reading her diaries and her biography would add immeasurably to the reader's understanding of her published work. I can now revise my earlier comment by saying that the reading of the diaires and biographies adds to and supports the reading of the works alone.

    And now that I've read through your entire blog to be caught up to the current month, I can see examples of that enhanced understanding in these pages. The proof is in the pudding, so to speak.

    You are motivating me to read her diaries and perhaps as a writer myself, developing a habit of writing about my process, too.

    Thank you, again!

  10. Hi Flo,

    I'm emailing from the Institute of Art and Ideas as we've just released a video debate which I think readers of your blog will love. The Art of Life explores the claim that writers are able to uncover the truth about figures from the past. In particular, Hermione Lee, who has written numerous works on Virginia Woolf, talks about how she wrote Woolf's biographies. Alongside her is director of The Queen, Stephen Frears and author Ray Monk.

    I wondered whether this might make for an interesting blog post? Do drop me a line with your thoughts.

    graihagh (dot) jackson (at) artandideas (dot) org

    Happy new year,