Virginia Woolf is a woman who always intimidated me; the sense of bourgeois exclusivity which surrounded her work made it seem somewhat unreachable to me. The opacity of her writing when I first picked up Between the Acts and failed to even realise it was all about the war left me defeated and quite ready to never pick up another of her books. I was resigned to knowing that I would never love Woolf, or Joyce, and that modernism was not for me. Now, years on, I have learnt to love Virginia Woolf and consider her to be one of my favourites. Not all of her work is baffling or abstract, a lot of it is incredibly beautiful and powerful. I shan’t go through the plot of each in detail because that isn’t really the point of her work. Consider reading Woolf to be an exploration of emotion. humanity and life rather than a plot.
A Room of One’s Own
At some point, I can’t recall when, I picked up ‘A Room of One’s Own’ and settled down to read it. Not being one of her novels but instead based upon lectures she delivered to female students of Cambridge in 1928, it is a powerful manifesto of feminist rights and female determination. I found it easy to read, on both the basic level that I actually understood the meaning behind her words but also that it struck a chord with me. I turned the last page and I cried. To write, Woolf says, a woman must have a room of one’s own and money. She must also have the right to access the materials she requires; access to education, or lack of, is potentially the strongest factor which has limited female ability throughout history. The message of this text reaches far beyond the importance of women’s writing into the importance of female equality and power in all disciplines and life in general. I have gifted a copy of this text to some of the women I love most in my life in the hope that it will inspire them as strongly as it did me and also that it may serve as a segue into an appreciation of Woolf.
Of the several texts I’m featuring here I regard Mrs Dalloway to be the most approachable. Following Clarissa Dalloway through a single day in London, June 1923, this text is filled with beautiful imagery and striking emblems, such as the city clock which chimes throughout the day. Though this text may, at its core, have a linear plot, this is not what is important. What struck me when reading Mrs Dalloway is Woolf’s ability to dive within the mind, and soul, of her characters through her unique mastery of free indirect discourse, floating uninterrupted from a private musing of a character into a vivid depiction of a London street, all overlapping to produce one lucid picture of Mrs Dalloway’s life.
To go against all that I have just said, my love for Orlando is purely based upon its plot. Following the eponymous character through his life, spanning more than 350 years, this text begins with Orlando living as a young male in Elizabethan England, ageing only until he is 36 and then transforming into a woman. At the close of the text Orlando is now a 36 year old woman living in London in 1928. I find this text to be witty, light-hearted and poetic. It is also an interesting exploration into the roles of man and woman through Orlando’s comparison between the two. Based loosely on the life of Woolf’s lover at the time, Vita Sackville-West, this text also explores ideas about sexuality but mostly I just find this text to be a downright enjoyable read.
To The Lighthouse
Possibly the most abstract of these four but by no means difficult to read. This text is situated at the holiday home of a family on the Isle of Skye and compares two of their visits, ten years apart. What sets this book apart from the others is the short, second part, ‘Time Passes’. In a matter of pages you witness ten years fly before your eyes as though you are watching a sequence in a film. The writing here is exquisite and encompasses Woolf’s greatest skill which is bringing words to life. Plot is minor here, if you don’t focus you will miss something important, you will be too lost in the wisp of a scarf falling to the floor to notice the devastation taking place beyond the house wreaked by war.
Woolf won’t be for everyone but I think that reading some of her work should be something that everyone does at least once. I could spend hours attempting to tease into words the effect that her work has upon me but really your time would be far better spent reading it first hand rather than my re-hashed interpretations.
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