Virginia Woolf was the bane of my existence in High School. I was required to read To the Lighthouse over the summer of ’95, while this was my first memorable expedition into stream of consciousness writing. It took me the whole summer to get through 209 pages and I had nothing nice to say about it.
This perception remained true for over twenty years, until I had reason to read Mrs. Dalloway. I had listened to Virginia Woolf in 90 minutes by Paul Strathern in preparation, and was somewhat won over by aspects of her personality I was not aware of before. She was a pretty interesting lady. I added Orlando to my reading list and decided at long last to give her a break. That my teenage mind wasn’t ready to grasp what she was trying to say at age 59 was my problem, not hers.
I picked up A Room of One’s Own from a used bookstore thinking that the time it would take me to read 114 pages and re-evaluate how I felt about Virginia Woolf was a reasonable expense. What I discovered was an appreciation for this author whom I previously loathed. Woolf seemed to have a sense of the psychology of the author. She writes of sensing anger, hesitation, fear and confidence from the way words are used and organized. Focusing on this undercurrent of emotion she is somehow able to categorize a writer whom is attempting to follow convention from one whom is following what she calls “reality”, and to what degree of success. A fearful writer may hold back, while an uncertain author may have fits and starts in the progression of their novel. The concept evoked a way of perceiving beneath the words that I had yet to consider between author and creation. For example, here’s an excerpt where she is envisioning a scholar from earlier times:
“His expression suggested that he was labouring under some emotion that made him jab his pen on the paper as if he were killing some noxious insect as he wrote, but even when he had killed it that did not satisfy him; he must go on killing it; and even so, some cause for anger and irritation remained.”
I gathered several quotes along the way which I am still cogitating on. Here are my favorites:
“Yet it is in our idleness, in our dreams, that the submerged truth sometimes comes to the top.”
“For books continue each other, in spite of our habit of judging them separately. “
“For masterpieces are not single and solitary births; they are the outcomes of many years of thinking in common, of thinking by the body of the people, so that the experience of the mass is behind the single voice.”
And, in speaking of women (which is primarily the point of this essay):
“Imaginatively she is of the highest importance; practically she is completely insignificant. She pervades poetry from cover to cover; she is all but absent from history.”
Virginia died in 1941. The world was struggling to change from the circumstances which required Jane Austen to hide the fact that she was writing novels or for Mary Ann Evans to publish as George Eliot. I think that she would have loved Finding the Grain by Wynn Malone and perhaps have been fascinated by the current of LGBTQ authors that are now finding voice. I think to call her a feminist is an oversimplification, especially with the conclusion of her essay fresh in my mind.
A Room of One’s Own was definitely worth my time. It took me less than a day to get through and can already tell that it has impacted how I will approach future reads. If you have not read any of Woolf’s works, then Mrs. Dalloway is entertaining. The characters are realistic and they way that they relate to each other I thought was the best part of the novel. I got more out of A Room of One’s Own. I’ll likely take some time in the future to read The Waves. Maybe (and yes this is a personal statement) just don’t start with To the Lighthouse.