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