Tuesday 29 December 2009

Drifting in the Euphrosyne somewhere off the South American coast...

I am still here and reading Woolf but I can't seem to find the words to post about The Voyage Out. It has almost taken me as long to write about it as it took Woolf to write it in the first place. I am almost there and will be posting shortly.

In the meantime can I draw your attention to a Woolf online reading group and discussion that is taking place from 15th January. Four bloggers are going to be reading and reviewing four of Woolf's novels over two months; Mrs Dalloway, To the Lighthouse, Orlando and The Waves.

If you would like to join them, details can be found here: Woolf in Winter: An Invitation

Wednesday 26 August 2009

Virginia Woolf's First "Novel" - Hiterhto Unpublished

I recently discovered the Bloomsbury Heritage Series, which is a series of short booklets about all things Bloomsbury and the people that were part of this group. It was set up by Leonard Woolf’s nephew Cecil Woolf and it is a really delightful collection of books. The series is published very much in the spirit of the Hogarth Press, each book is bound in card and the front cover has a design similar to those that Vanessa Bell designed for The Hogarth Press.

The idea of the series is to bring together pieces of writing about and around the Bloomsbury group. It explores all aspects of their lives and has many contributors. There is something very charming about them and I love that you send off for them by post, It is a real pleasure to wait for it to arrive through the letter box, the anticipation, something that we have lost in the age of the internet, download it now, next day delivery. Mr Woolf is a real character too, and he recently attended the International Virginia Woolf Conference in New York, coverage of this can be seen here and here -Thank you to Blogging Woolf for the links.

I had ordered a catalogue by e-mail and was pleasantly surprised when I had a reply from Cecil Woolf to say that it was in the post. When I placed my order for the first book in the series ‘A Cockney’s Farming Experiences’ I had read that Mr. Woolf would be attending the annual Virginia Woolf conference so I did not expect an immediate response. About a week later I received another e-mail apologising for the delay in sending out my order, it was a lovely touch and by far the best customer service I have received in a long time.

‘A Cockney’s Farming Experiences’ which is “Virginia Woolf’s first ‘novel’ - Hitherto Unpublished” as pronounced on the front cover, was written when she was just ten years old. Virginia Woolf decided at a very early age that she would be a writer and from that point onwards she was always writing, early attempts at stories, the Hyde Park Gate News, with her siblings, diary entries, fiction, critical essays - she was always writing.

The book itself is a delight to read and you sometimes forget that it was written by a child, as some of the language is quite sophisticated and yet at other times it is very childlike. It is difficult to know how much of this is due to the different use of language (this was, after all, written 110 years ago) and how much is down to Virginia being a very bright and capable child. Despite what she felt in later life about her education, compared to many of today’s ten year olds her education was very broad and thorough.

The introduction, written by Suzanne Henig is very informative about Virginia Woolf and her siblings early writings as well as making comparisons to Woolf’s later works. This seems a little unfair, (how many of us would want to be judge on our achievements aged ten?) but at the same time fascinating to see the seeds of ideas which would go on to become ground breaking novels.

The book itself is actually two stories, both a only a few chapters long. ‘A Cockney’s Farming Experiences’ tells the story of a Cockney and his wife who decide to buy a farm in Buckinghamshire. They don’t know anything about farming but “we were then lately married and very energetic and hopeful” (P15) The story tells of the various trials and tribulations that the Cockney farmer faces, but it all turns out right in the end when he inherits “ a jolly lot of money” (P 20) from an Aunt who has just died.

The second story is a sequel entitled “The Experiences of a Pater-familias (A sequel to A Cockney’s Farming Experiences.) which takes place three years later and is about the arrival of the farmer’s son Alphonso, who he dislikes and is rather jealous of.

There is a lot of emphasis on the relationship of the husband and wife

“nothing worth recording happened except that Harriet did not say one nasty word to me during the whole day” (P17 )


“I got a blowing-up from Harriet for half an hour afterwards as I had burnt the toast to a cinder.” (P16)

The poor farmer never seems to be able to do anything right!

I have really enjoyed reading this first attempt by Virginia Woolf at writing a novel, it certainly gives you an insight into what she might have been like as a child. The story was started by both Thoby and Virginia, but Suzanne Henig has suggested that Thoby quickly got bored and that the story was completed by Virginia alone.

I have also got the second book in the Bloomsbury Heritage series, ‘Roger Fry: A Series of Impressions’ which was written by Virginia about her great friend Roger Fry after he died in 1934. I shall be returning to this later on.

Thursday 2 July 2009

In The Footsteps of Virginia Woolf

On Saturday 13th June I walked 8 miles from Monk’s House in Rodmell (Virginia and Leonard Woolf’s country house) to Charleston (Vanessa Bell’s country house that she shared with Clive Bell and Duncan Grant!) via Firle Place, as part of the guided walk ‘In The Footsteps of Virginia Woolf’, organised by The Charleston Trust. The walk was led by two artists, Judith Stewart and Christine Arnold who were interested in the effect walking has on the creative process as well as what inspiration they might get from talking to all of the people who had signed up to do the walk.

At 10.30 we all gathered at Monk’s House with just enough time to have a quick wander about the garden. The last time I had visited was in September when many of the plants were past their best, but this time it really was in full bloom and very impressive.

We were briefed on the itinerary for the day and after having given our order for lunch we left Monks House and wound our way down to the river, over the railway at Southease, before beginning our climb up the South Downs. The hill was steeper than it looked and it just seemed to keep on going. It was fascinating to see the way the trees have grown at an angel as they are battered by the wind.

At the stop of the hill we stopped for a very welcome breather. Looking around, I could see all the way back down the hill to Rodmell, and in the other direction Newhaven was in the distance.

Five minutes later we set off again and wound our way across the top of the Downs until Firle was in the distance, before descending a very steep hill that was almost as difficult to walk down as the other side had been to walk up. At the bottom of the hill was the very picturesque village of Firle, which we were told is mostly still owned by Lord Gage and his family. It looks like quite an idyllic place to live, with beautiful houses and equally beautiful gardens to match.

The lane we were walking along wound around a corner and I thought we were about to stop for lunch, but when we rounded the corner the vast estate of Firle place came into view and we had a short walk across a field of sheep before we stopped for lunch.

Firle place was quite a spot to stop for lunch and I think we all would like to have imagined that we lived there and could eat lunch like that everyday. It really is quite a magnificent setting. It is normally open to the public but on this occasion it was shut, much to the disappointment of two weary walkers who had seen us tucking into our lunch and were hoping to get something similar.

With the prospect of a cream tea when we got to Charleston we all set off again, across the estate and over a few fields until we had finally made it, a little sun burnt and with aching feet but all in one piece. By the time we had got to Charleston we were all ready for a cup of tea, a scone with cream and jam, and most of all a sit down.

I can’t quite believe that Virginia Woolf used to do this walk regularly, as it was really quite strenuous. I suppose I have read so much about how her illness affected her physically that I assumed that she was not very strong, but I think actually Quentin Bell mentions her walking a lot in his biography, as well as her father’s exploring nature, so she was perhaps more of an outdoor type than I imagined. I really enjoyed imagining Virginia doing this walk, in an old coat and a large hat, striding out across the downs. I had brought a copy of her diary from 1919 with me, so whilst we stopped at the top of the Downs I took the time to read a couple of passages about the Woolf’s move to Sussex, buying Monk’s House and visiting Vanessa at Charleston

At the start of the walk Judith and Christine had said that their interests lay in the thought process that occurs when you walk and the conversations that you can have with the people you are walking with. All sorts of people came on the walk, most people were local, some like me were from farther a field and there were different levels of interest in Virginia Woolf, Vanessa Bell and ‘Bloomsbury’. It was really interesting to hear different peoples reasons for coming and to share the experience of walking together. I am by no means an artist but I am a keen photographer and so with the idea of walking inspiring the creative process I did try to take some photos that I felt summed up the walk and these are my efforts…

I had a good conversation with Judith about Virginia Woolf and walking, and was able to talk about ‘The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn’ as Judith has also done some work on 15th? Century women very much like the women mentioned in the story. Interestingly she also hails from Norfolk.

I was also interested in the walk from the perspective of reading Virginia Woolf’s work in context with the places that she lived, and so visiting Monk’s House and Charleston is a way of experiencing a little of what her life might have been like. They are both also wonderfully inspiring places in themselves and I don’t think I could ever tire of visiting them.

Saturday 30 May 2009

The Afterlives of Virginia Woolf - Hermione Lee

Yesterday I had the pleasure of hearing Professor Hermione Lee speak at the University of Essex. She gave a lecture entitled “Taking Possession and Letting Go: Virginia Woolf and Biography” as part of The Afterlives of Virginia Woolf season that is running at the University.

Professor Hermione Lee has written a wonderful biography of Virginia Woolf in which she discusses all aspects of her life and work. I am currently reading it and in it she brings to the factual details of Virginia Woolf’s life a wonderful insight into the motivation for her writing; her style of speaking is equally insightful. I felt a little out of place being at the lecture as I am not an academic (as the rest of the audience was) but Professor Lee speaks in such an eloquent and passionate way that it was actually a very enjoyable experience.

The room that the lecture was being held in was very ‘Bloomsbury’, there were purple and white stocks on the table and Professor Lee was wearing a scarf that would not look out of place in the Omega workshops or Charleston. The lecture began with a discussion of the many ways in which Virginia Woolf has been perceived since her death and how, as new approaches to looking at her work and life have evolved, so attitudes towards her as a writer have changed. Professor Lee discussed how Virginia Woolf has this odd characteristic of being “Near and far away at the same time”, both a Victorian daughter and a modern feminist, and how her diaries seem to speak directly to people.

The discussion moved on to the book and film The Hours by Michael Cunningham, another type of afterlife. Professor Lee appeared to like the book, but I am not entirely sure if she liked the film or not. I thought that maybe she liked the essence of the book, taking inspiration from Woolf and reinventing it in a new way, but that the film fell short in many ways including; the social inaccuracies, the house and lifestyle of the Woolf’s being too grand, Vanessa being too posh, Nicole Kidman being too young, that Virginia Woolf is portrayed as perpetually scowling, ferocious rather than charming, that she was played as “a doomed victim”, that more could have been shown of Virginia Woolf’s involvement with the press and setting type, as well as several other things. But apart from that she still seemed to speak very positively about The Hours, recognising that the nature of making a film has limitations with being completely accurate to historical fact.

I think that she felt the film gave a romantic but not realistic picture of Virginia Woolf. The idea that a first sentence just came to Virginia Woolf and a book flowed from it is very different to Virginia Woolf’s own account of her writing in which she revised her work again and again (sometimes even after publication) until she got it exactly as she wanted it. The most striking example of this romanticising was Professor Lee’s brief mention of Virginia Woolf’s suicide which, in the film, is shown as Nicole Kidman walking gracefully into a gentle river in a tweed coat on a bright sunny day. Professor Lee contrasted this with the image of Virginia Woolf on a cold, March day, wearing an old coat, Wellington boots and a hat kept on with an elastic band. The river is actually very fast flowing so that nothing grows on the banks and the trees would have been bare. We don’t know how Virginia Woolf entered the water as no one was there. A very stark image to describe.

She read out an interesting e-mail correspondence with Michael Cunningham in which he discusses the oddity of people becoming possessive over Virginia Woolf when she does not belong to anyone!

The lecture moved on to discuss the approach taken towards biographies of Virginia Woolf, how Professor Lee approached her biography and the style used by Virginia Woolf when she approached biographical writing. I found this section particularly interesting as the last two Virginia Woolf pieces I have read (Memoirs of a Novelist and Reminiscences) have both focused on the concept of biography.

I can’t really begin to capture Professor Lee’s style but I thoroughly enjoyed the lecture. It was followed by a question and answer session in which Professor Lee was able to take the questions being asked by the audience and elaborate them into mini lectures of their own. I was quite blown away by the ease at which she was able to recall examples in Woolf’s work that was relevant, it really was very impressive. The question and answer session was led by
Dr. Sanja Bahun and Professor Marina Warner who also gave very interesting insights into Virginia Woolf and asked Professor Lee some great questions that prompted some interesting responses. Virginia Woolf's writing style was discussed, the way in which she used words and the rhythm of the sentences to turn her work into a “performance”.

It was a real privilege to hear Hermione Lee speak, not only as she is such a good speaker but because of her passion yet subjective approach towards Virginia Woolf. She hinted that there were books that she liked less than others and she approaches Virginia Woolf as a critic whilst at the same time enjoying her as a writer.

I don’t think that this post can really do justice to professor Lee’s lecture, but I hope that it expresses how much I enjoyed it and the inspiration it has given me to continue reading Virginia Woolf. One of the main points of the lecture was that Virginia Woolf’s afterlife is still very much alive; some of her work has yet to be published and Hermione Lee is just one of many who, through publishing very readable books and speaking so passionately about her, ensure that her afterlives will continue for many years to come.

Wednesday 20 May 2009

Memoirs of a Novelist 1909

Memoirs of a Novelist raises the question of why people write biographies and what right they have to look into the inner and private lives of people, in particular after their death.

A very recent example is the publication of ‘The Other Elizabeth Taylor’ by Persephone Books founder Nicola Beauman. As discussed on the Blog Random Jottings of a Book and Opera Lover, it seems that the children of Elizabeth Taylor were not happy about certain aspects of their mother’s life being published even though her husband had give consent to the book being written.

I have found it uncomfortable reading about certain aspects of Virginia Woolf’s private life. The factual events; births, marriages and deaths are ok but reading about things which would be private if the individual were still alive is very voyeuristic. There is a fine line between what is comfortable and what is not. Reading about the inner life of the Bloomsbury Group; what they discussed at their get togethers and the relationships between them is interesting but it begins to feel intrusive when you read their personal letters and very private experiences.

Memoirs of a Novelist is a comment on a biography by Miss Linsett written about her novelist friend Miss Willat, although all of the characters in the piece are fictitious.

You don’t actually learn very much at all about Miss Willat or Miss Linsett, instead the piece focuses on some of the many issues involved in writing a biography.

What is interesting is that the characters of Miss Willat and Miss Linsett are fictitious, and therefore when Virginia Woolf quotes passages from their books this is written by her as well. In a similar vein to Joan Martyn she is writing a story about a character who in turns reads/writes about another person in biography form all of which are actually written by Virginia Woolf.

As in most of the pieces I have read so far the central characters of this story are women and more specifically women writers. Virginia Woolf was very clear that she thought the lives of women were as important of those of men and that there was just as much you could say and write about a woman as a man. I don’t know how important it is that all of these women were either spinsters (Miss V., Miss Willat, Miss Linsett) or only on the verge of getting married (Phyllis and Rosamond and Mistress Joan Martyn) but it may give an insight into Virginia Woolf’s views on marriage.

The image used at the beginning is of the reading room at The British Museum

Sunday 17 May 2009

Reminiscences - 1908

I have been struggling with what to say about Reminiscences for several weeks now. On the one hand it is an autobiography, detailing the lives of Virginia’s sister and mother, but on the other it was written as a biography of Vanessa for her son Julian Bell, so it is not an ordinary biography.

I am currently reading Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf and at 750 odd pages it is long but incredibly comprehensive. It is proving very insightful and revealing about the family history of Virginia Woolf and what some of her motivation to write may have been. Hermione Lee also wrote the introduction to Reminiscences in the edition I am reading (Virginia Woolf - Moments of Being edited by Jeanne Schulkind published by Pimlico 2002) and again her insight into why Virginia Woolf may have written these pieces is very interesting. I am trying not to read too far ahead into Virginia Woolf’s life as this can change the way that I will look at the earlier pieces, but it is fascinating to know how important biography and autobiography as a style of writing were to Virginia Woolf, from her fathers editing of the Dictionary of National Biography to her own autobiographical writing. There was also a tradition in her family for each generation to write their memoirs of the family to be passed on to the next generation.

To put this piece of writing into context you need to look back to 1906. Shortly after the Stephen siblings holiday in Greece where they climbed Mount Pentelicus, both Thoby and Vanessa became unwell. Once back in England Thoby was thought to be recovering but he in fact died of Typhoid Fever in November of 1906.

The move from Hyde Park Gate to Bloomsbury a few years earlier had been a big change for the Stephen siblings, not only was the location physically removed from their past, but it also allowed them to break with the conventions of the previous generation. The introduction of Thoby’s Cambridge friends opened up a whole new world to Virginia and Vanessa and this would continue after his death. Many of his close friends rallied round the sisters after his death and were there to support them. Shortly after Thoby’s death Vanessa accepted the proposal of Thoby’s friend Clive Bell, so not only did Virginia loose her brother, but in very quick succession she also lost her sister. Vanessa and Clive moved in together and Adrian and Virginia continued to live together.

Clive Bell would be very influential in encouraging Virginia to write but there also seems to have been some jealousy and rivalry for Vanessa’s attention. Virginia often showed her work to Clive Bell and welcomed his feedback. Reminiscences was written for Virginia Woolf’s nephew Julian Bell who was born 1908 but it may have been begun before sometime before his birth. Hermione Lee suggests that

“It is written out of Virginia’s equally intense feelings about Vanessa, …jealousy, competitiveness, bereavement, a sense of having been displaced.”

Reminiscences begins with the birth of Vanessa and a description of how she was as a child. It reads partly as a conventional biography with a formal tone and structure, but it is supplemented with personal anecdotes and accounts of Vanessa’s life from Virginia. The piece deals with the death of their mother and sister, the impact that this had on the remaining children and it finishes shortly after the death of Stella.

I think I will want to read this piece again as I read Virginia’s fictional accounts that are drawn from her family life. The book contains several autobiographical pieces written at different times in her life and I think it will make sense to come back to the pieces as a whole and look at how she treats her autobiographical writing as her fictional writing develops.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Knole Park - a day out

Last Saturday I visited Knole Park in Kent with family friends who have recently moved to Bromley. The day started off a bit grey and cold but by the time we had visited the house and started to wander in the grounds the sun had started to shine.

Knole Park was the childhood home of Vita Sackville-West who in later life would become a close friend of Virginia Woolf. It is also the place that inspired Virginia Woolf to write Orlando, a fictional biography, in 1928.

I wont say too much about it now as I want to come back when I am reading Orlando, but I was very excited as I saw the original manuscript for Orlando. Virginia gave it to Vita as a present and she in turn gave it to the National Trust to be kept at Knole Park. It is shown in a display case in the great hall. Whilst we were there most people were looking at the large paintings on the wall and admiring the decorative wood panelling. If you didn’t take the time to read the label on the case you wouldn’t know what is there, but for me it was a real treat.

The manuscript is in a large leather bound book and it is open at the passage where Knole Park is described for the first time. Virginia Woolf’s handwriting is quite neat but tricky to read in places and there are lots of words crossed out and revisions to the writing. I can see why she was inspired to write about the place, it is absolutely huge and full of character and history.

I will definitely be coming back to Knole Park, to read Orlando in the place that inspired it to be written and also just to enjoy the park itself. There are deer living in the park and it is very relaxing to wander about the grounds and watch the deer.

Tuesday 14 April 2009

A Dialogue Upon Mount Pentelicus 1906

This story was possibly written in the Autumn of 1906 following a holiday to Greece. Virginia Woolf’s journal from the time notes that along with her sister and brothers, she climbed Mount Pentelicus and also that they encountered some monks.

I found this story more difficult to read, partly I think, because I have not really studied any Greek history or mythology. It is however, a very amusing sketch of the British abroad:

“To address them in their own tongue as Plato would have spoken it had Plato learned Greek at Harrow.” (p64)

It reminds me a little of E. M. Forsters A Room With a View, particularly with the reference to Baedeker.

The story begins as a group of “tourists” are descending Mount Pentelicus, although the narrator states that the group of people would not refer to themselves as tourists.
The group pauses for a rest under the shade of some trees and the narrator describes the Greek guides resting in the sun. A debate then begins between the English about what Greece is today but are interrupted by the appearance of a monk.

Virginia Woolf comments on the difficulty in capturing a true account of the dialogue of the debate on paper so she instead records fragments of what is said and fills the reader in on the rest of the conversation. This is similar to the approach in The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn, where the essence of the conversation is given rather than a complete dialogue.
The appearance of the monk interrupts the debate and the group moves on in their descent of the mountain. The pieces finishes in a very domestic way

“The talk was of supper and a bed.” (p68)

I’m not really sure what I think about this piece yet so I think I may come back to it at a later date to have another look at it.

Sunday 12 April 2009

The Journal Of Mistress Joan Martyn 1906

Image taken from this website about Blo Norton Hall.

The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn was written in August 1906 at Blo Norton Hall, East Harling, Norfolk.

I love the beginning of this story as I too am a bit of a geek when it comes to other peoples family histories. The story begins with a woman in her 40’s, Miss Rosamond Merridew, travelling around Norfolk looking for documents relating to 13th, 14th and 15th century land tenure. She stumbles across a run down manor house and after having dinner with the owners is shown their collection of family documents which include a diary, “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn” after which the story is named.

The first half of the book is written from Miss Merridew’s perspective, describing the finding of Joan Martyn’s diary and the second half takes you back to the 15th century with extracts from this diary written by Joan herself.

After her discovery of the house, Miss Merridew is shown round by the lady of the house and very little is given away as to it’s history and whether it contains the treasures of papers that Miss Merridew is looking for. When the man of the house returns for dinner, Miss Merridew is delighted by his interest in his family history. He leads her around the house, showing her his family paintings. At the end of this tour Miss Merridew thinks it is a good time to leave, but a surprise is in store. It is at this point that she is shown Joan’s diary and is allowed to take it away with her to read. It is at this point that the narrator then switches from Miss Merridew in the 20th century to Joan Martyn in the 15th century.*

At the beginning of the story, Miss Merridew explains that when writing about land tenure, she likes to digress into the details about what life might have been like at the time periods that she was studying.

“My researches into the system of land tenure in the 13th (,) 14th and 15th centuries have been made doubly valuable, I am assured, by the remarkable gift I have for presenting them in relation to the life of the time” (p34)


“here I knock at the serf’s door, and find him roasting rabbits he has poached; I show you the Lord of the manor setting out on some journey, or calling his dogs to him for a walk in the fields, or sitting in the high backed chair inscribing laborious figures upon a glassy sheet of parchment. In another room I show you Dame Elinor, at work with her needle; and by her on a lower stool sits her daughter stitching too, but less assiduously.” (p34)

She, goes on to comment that she is criticised for doing this because it is not relevant to the study of land tenure, the main subject of investigation but also that

“It is well known that the period I have chosen in more bare than any other of private records.” (p35)

meaning that the details that she is referring to are not based on factual documents, but from her imagination. This sets the scene nicely for her later discovery of Mistress Joan’s journal, as this provides her with a detailed account of a year in the life of the 15th century. The dialogue is sparse, but filled in with descriptions of how the characters speak, their accents and the tone of their words.

There is a marked contrast between the fist half of the story, written from the perspective of the narrator and the second half, which is extracts of Joan Martyn’s journal. I like the distinct styles of each section and the fact that the narrator hands over entirely from Miss Merridew to Joan allows two very different atmospheres to be created.

Joan’s diary is divided into 7 sections which each look at a different time of the year and a different aspect of her life; a description of her house; the journey her father makes to London; contemplating marrying a neighbour; encountering local people whom she will one day rule over; a meeting with a poet with romantic ideas about love; a pilgrimage to a shrine and acceptance that her life will not be a fairytale of princes and princesses.

Virginia Woolf takes her time to set the scene for the story, describing who the narrator is, what her inertest are and the way that she writes. In fact, the first paragraph is made up of only four sentences.

Once again it is women who are the focus of this story, from the roving narrator Miss Merridew at the beginning, to a year in the life of Joan Martyn. Furthermore, in the diary of Joan it is just an account of her daily life, nothing very out of the ordinary happens but this is what is interesting. As in Phyllis and Rosamond, Joan is also contemplating her marriage and what life with her future husband will be like.
There may also be autobiographical elements to the story, it was written when Virginia was staying in Norfolk so she may well have taken inspiration from her surroundings.

I enjoyed reading this but finishing it left me wanting more. I wanted to go back to Miss Merridew and read about her thoughts on the diary. This is the problem with reading some of Virginia Woolf’s earlier, unpublished work, it was not written as a complete piece to be read so is not perhaps as she would have intended it to be.

*There are some discrepancies here with the dates, the diary is said to be for the year 1480 but Joan’s date of birth is given as 1495. Susan Dick (editor) suggests that this us an unrevised story and that Virginia Woolf would have amended the dates if she had revised the work.

Tuesday 7 April 2009

The Mysterious Case of Miss V. 1906

The Mysterious Case of Miss V. is a very short story, indeed running to only two and a bit pages, it is really a short character study. Miss V. is in fact the Misses V, two sisters who are always at the social functions that the narrator attends, but who blend into the background, “melt into some armchair or chest of drawers” (p31) When the sisters stop attending these functions the narrator is aware that something is not quite right but is not able to put her finger on it. The ending of the piece has a supernatural quality to it, so I wont spoil it. I love Virginia Woolf’s style of writing, she is not afraid to use long sentences, with lots of punctuation which gives a very distinct rhythm to the words and dictates how you read it.

The opening line

“It is a commonplace that there is no loneliness like that of one who finds himself along in a crowd; novelists repeat it; the pathos is undeniable; and now, since the case of Miss V. I at least have come to believe it.” (p30)

Semi-colons seem to have been a favourite of Virginia’s. Matt from A Guy’s Moleskine has been reading Mrs Dalloway and comments here on her frequent use of semi-colons.

At first this use of punctuation can make her work difficult to read, but I have found that as you get used to it being forced to slow down and read everything more carefully actually makes reading the piece more interesting and you get more out of it.

Sunday 5 April 2009

Phyllis and Rosamond 1906

The first piece of Virginia Woolf writing that I have read is a short story called Phyllis and Rosamond written in 1906. It is a short study of the lives of two sisters in their early twenties, Phyllis and Rosamond, as they go about their daily routine. The story follows them preparing, ultimately, to find a husband, but a meeting with two other sisters, the Tristrams, leads them to take look at their own lives through different eyes.

The first half of the story follows Phyllis and Rosamond going about their daily tasks, organising lunch, calling in on people, making arrangements all in the pursuit of finding a husband. The characters of Phyllis and Rosamond lead a life that Virginia and Vanessa could very well have ended up living, where your role in life is to attend parties to find a suitable husband. They describe themselves

“We are daughters, until we become married women.” (p27)

After a dinner, Phyllis joins Rosamond at the Miss Tristrams for a very different sort of party. The party scene that Phyllis describes as she enters the Tristrams is very much the Bloomsbury group in full swing. The two Tristram sisters live a lifestyle more like Virginia and Vanessa were living when Virginia Woolf wrote the story.

The first thing that struck me about Phyllis and Rosamond is that it is very deliberately being written about women, more specifically women who have not been educated outside of the home.

“As such portraits as we have are almost invariably of the male sex, who strut more prominently across the stage, it seems worth while to take as model one of those many women who cluster in the shade.” (p17)

The first three stories that I am reading are all predominantly about women. It is also interesting to note how much emphasis is put on women being educated and encouraged to do something.

I was intrigued by the way Phyllis and Rosamond are treated, their pursuit of a husband is seen very much as a job and in turn the “frivolities” of the parties that they go to have a different meaning.

The lives of the Miss Tristrams are very similar to Virginia and Vanessa, the older sister is “a young woman of great beauty, and an artist of real promise” (P25) and the younger sister writes. For me, the most interesting part of the story is when the younger Miss Tristram Sylvia goes over to Phyllis to engage her in conversation. If you assume that this character is based on Virginia Woolf it gives a real insight into her thoughts on the role of women in the society of her time. She questions Phyllis on why she cannot do things to change her life if she is not happy with them, and is puzzled when the response is that it is too late or that is her purpose in life.

This story was written at a pivotal moment in Virginia Woolf’s life, she had begun an independent lifestyle due to the death of both of her parents and along with her siblings, she was embarking on a life that was in great contrast to the life she may have led had her parents lived.

Wednesday 1 April 2009

Short Stories

Virginia Woolf wrote a lot! Apart from the fiction, novels and short stories she also wrote critiques and reviews for various publications such as the Times Literary Supplement, as well a various biographies, the most known of which is her biography of her good friend Roger Fry. Her first published work was a review of ‘The Son of Royal Longbrith by W.D. Howells” published in The Guardian, 14th December 1904 when she was 22.

I am not going to attempt to read everything she wrote, just the main books that were published and a selection of the short pieces that she wrote. For these, I will be refereeing to ‘The Complete Shorter Fiction of Virginia Woolf’ put together and edited by Susan Dick.

This is a fantastically comprehensive book that not only puts these works into chronological order, but it is also supplemented with a wealth of information about the text, when it dates from and it also details the changes to the manuscripts that Virginia Woolf made. It even goes into the detail of words, punctuation and passages of text that are crossed out. Susan Dick must have spent many an hour reading and re-reading Virginia’s original manuscripts to decipher what her intended meaning was. On it’s own it would be a fascinating read, but I am going to use it to supplement my reading of her longer works.

Many of these short stories have been published in collections such as ‘Monday or Tuesday’ and ‘ A Haunted House and Other Short Stories’ but what this book does is to bring them together in the order that they were written, rather than published so you are able to see the progression of Virginia Woolf’s work.

So to begin, I am going to read five short stories written between 1906 and 1909, and a piece written about her sister Vanessa for her nephew Julian in 1908, but I shall begin with Phyllis and Rosamund written in 1906…

Tuesday 31 March 2009

Virginia Stephen 1882 to 1906

Before beginning to read her books I thought that I would write a little about Virginia Woolf’s life to put her work into context. In this first post I am going to look at her life from 1882, when she was born, until 1906 when the first story I am going to read was written.

If you want a complete history of Virginia Woolf’s life and her family history I would suggest that you get a copy of her biography by Quentin Bell, her nephew. Written in two volumes, Vol. I Virginia Stephen 1882 to 1912 and Vol. II Mrs Woolf 1912 to 1941 it is a comprehensive look at her life and work. Not only does it trace her family history back several generations, but it also includes lots of personal accounts about Virginia from her friends and family. It is also where the below information has been sourced from.

Virginia Woolf was born Adeline Virginia Stephen in London on 25th January 1882. She had a large family as both of her parents had been married (and widowed) before and had children from their previous marriages.

Her mother Julia had married a Herbert Duckworth and had 3 children with him, George, Gerald and Stella. Herbert died in 1870. Virginia Wool’s father Leslie Stephen had married Minny Thackeray, daughter of W. M. Thackeray (who wrote Vanity Fair) Minny and her sister Anny were good friends with Julia Duckworth. Leslie and Minny had a daughter Laura in 1870. She was what at the time was called a backwards child and she was eventually sent to an asylum in York, In 1874 Minny became very unwell and was visited regularly by Julia. After Minny’s death a friendship between Leslie and Julia grew out of mutual loss and eventually they were married in 1878.

As well as 4 half brothers and sisters, Virginia had 3 full siblings, Vanessa and Thoby, who were older, and a younger brother Adrian. Growing up Virginia and her sister had a close relationship. Whilst their brothers were sent to public school Vanessa and Virginia were educated at home by their mother and father. This was something that Virginia felt strongly about and a theme that she often revisited.

In 1895 Virginia’s mother died and it was after this that Virginia had the first of many breakdowns that she was to suffer from throughout her life. Following her mother’s death Virginia’s half sister Stella took on the role of looking after the family. Sadly she too was taken ill and died in July of 1897.

More tragedy was to follow, in 1902 her father became ill with what was suspected as cancer. In May 1903 he was given six months to live but did not die until February the following year. Again, following the death of someone close to her Virginia had another breakdown and was sent to various relatives to recover. Whilst she was away her Vanessa and her brothers arranged to move out of their parents house in Hyde Park Gate and to move in to 46 Gordon Square, Bloomsbury.
Virginia joined her siblings in 1905 and began her life in the world in which the Bloomsbury Group developed.

Wednesday 25 March 2009

Old Books

I enjoy the whole process of reading a book. The cover, the smell, the font and the edition all add to the experience of reading as well as the worlds themselves. I think this why I am fascinated by all of the E-readers that are currently being produced, especially the Kindle which is beautifully packaged.

I can see the appeal of having one of these, you can hold a huge number of volumes in something the same size as a paperback and not just books, you can also subscribe to magazines and online publications. There are also things you can do with them that you can’t with books, such as searching the text for words or quotes. I have not used one of these, and maybe I am being very cynical, but despite all of the advantages I don’t think I would enjoy having one.

You shouldn’t judge a book by it’s cover, but sometimes the care taken over a book really adds to the experience of reading it. Vanessa Bell designed many of the covers for Virginia Woolf’s books and they really make the books stand out, you know that it is a Woolf book you have picked up.

This gets lost when you transfer over to an electronic book. I love reading old books and it is the smell and feel of these books that distinguishes them from modern books. ,The feel of the paper and the worn covers, not a sterile clean screen or the hint at the books past from the previous owner’s name written inside.
I have several books that date from the 1940’s and you can really feel the difference in paper quality due to the rationing of paper during the second world war. A reminder that reading was important to people even during a time when the whole country was at war.

I don’t know what Virginia and Leonard Woolf would have made of E-readers or blogs? For them, the need to be able to publish their own work drove them to set up the Hogarth Press. I hadn’t realised, until a visit to Sissinghurst Castle in Kent last year that the Hogarth Press was a manual press (I’m not sure what I thought it was!) and that Leonard and Virginia actually set the type themselves. You can see the press in a small exhibition in an old barn at Sissinghurst castle.

The process of setting type by hand is very labour intensive, which must have made the end result of the finished book all the more rewarding. I don’t know if Virginia would have enjoyed the immediacy that you get from publishing online. She was renowned for revising her work many times over to get them just right. Compare this to the modern online world where your thoughts are published immediately and (sometimes) spontaneously.

With all this in mind, I am going to try to read only old editions of Virginia Woolf’s books. Ideally I would love to be reading first edition Hogarth Press copies with Vanessa Bell woodcut dust jackets. Unfortunately these are both rare and expensive, so instead I have tried to track down editions that were published in Virginia Woolf’s lifetime and that her readers, the common readers, may have read.

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