Saturday, 17 December 2011

Major Works Challenge: Virginia Woolf (16/16)

Little G examining the Woolf pile.
Having wrote this blog post back in August, I decided I needed to re-visit Virginia Woolf and work through her major works. And last night, I finished. I have now read -

  • Melymbrosia
  • The Voyage Out
  • Night and Day
  • Jacob’s Room
  • Mrs Dalloway
  • To the Lighthouse
  • Orlando
  • The Waves
  • The Years
  • Between the Acts
  • Flush
  • The Common Reader 1st Series
  • The Common Reader 2nd Series
  • A Room of One’s Own
  • Three Guineas
  • A Haunted House: The Complete Shorter Fiction

My point was this: when I first began reading Woolf in my early twenties, I was reading selfishly. I was looking for someone to give me a voice when I needed it, so I was reading myself, essentially. Now, at nearly thirty, I think that method of reading had done a great disservice to Mrs. Woolf. There is so much more there than what I was looking for initially.

It was strange, because I had her on a pedestal, despite not reading all of the major works, I had read a great many biographies. I still believe her earlier work is the absolute benchmark of novels. I read, in particular, The Voyage Out and Night and Day and felt that this is what a novel ought to be. Both of these novels are my favourites, I think, with perhaps Night and Day having the edge. I have had both books on my shelf for ten years or so, and of course I'm amazed at myself for not having read it sooner. As for the others, I was surprised that I had no interest in The Years, and that I was bored by Between the Acts.

Being bored by Between the Acts is something I feel very guilty about because it was her last novel, completed only a few months before she killed herself and published shortly after. Herbert Marder writes of her struggles to complete this novel, saying it was
... a reminder of how effectively her present life in Rodmell with all its dull mediocrity broke up the path to her visionary mountaintop. In any case, there were weeks of drudgery ahead, beginning with the task of copying the manuscript - the text was rough in places, and she would refine and revise constantly as she retyped it. And there were interruptions: a trip to London, followed by the arrival in Rodmell of all the remaining contents of the Mecklenburgh Square flat - books, papers, and furnishings - which were deposited in rented space and in every available nook and cranny of Monk's House; then two weeks spent preparing and writing an essay on the actress Ellen Terry, the heroine of the farcical Freshwater; but by December 24 she was immersed in the revisions, declaring she was "word drugged" again. The phrase suggests her flight from a reality that became harder and harder to ignore.
By the end of it, Octavia Wilberforce observed that Woolf was very fragile, and feeling "'depressed to the lowest depths', as often happened after a major work" (Marder). You can see why I felt guilty about not liking it.

And speaking of the author's experience: I've read Faulks and Winterson argue that looking to understand the author when reading their novels is a mistake, however I found this temptation unavoidable with Woolf. Perhaps I know too much about her, but her work is very much inspired by events in her own life, and she is visible, as are her family, in works such as Night and Day (most notably Vanessa Bell), To The Lighthouse (her mother), and Orlando (Vita Sackville West). It's hard to want to stop here, though I have Woolf "covered" now, I want to read on: read everything I own, the "lesser read" works if you will, and read and re-read all the biographies.

I have much more to say on Woolf and these novels, however I'm still trying to complete my Shakespeare Challenge (and if you follow me on Twitter, you know I'm at the "I hate my life" stage with it). So, when I've finished and I can relax, free my mind, and focus on Woolf, then I will write an indepth post on the novels I've read. I cannot bring myself to hurry one off: I love Woolf, still to this day when I feel like I'm a completely different person to how I was when I first started reading her. This challenge has been so thoroughly enjoyable, and so inspiring. I want to go on to read the "lesser read" works, as well as the biographies. She's also made me want to stop saying I'll learn NT Greek and start actually learning it (I've even emailed my old personal tutor from university, and he's sent me many links and suggestions), she's kept me going with Shakespeare (she refers to Shakespeare more than any novelist I've ever known), she's made me want to read more of Vita Sackville West and Katherine Mansfield, and finally, because of an essay in The Common Reader Second Series, I am eager to read more of Dorothy Wordsworth, starting with my copy of Journals of Dorothy Worsworth.

I'm very much looking forward to writing much more indepth on this, there is so much I have to say! For now, let me close this with a quote from Common Reader II:
Yet who reads to bring about an end, however desireable? Are there not some pursuits that we practice because they are good in themselves, and some pleasures that are final? And is not this among them? I have sometimes dreamt that, at least, when the Day of Judgement dawns and the great conquerors and lawyers and statesmen come to receive their rewards - their crowns, their laurels, their names carved indelibly upon impersishable marble - the Almighty will turn to Peter and will say, not without a certain envy when He sees us coming with our books under our arms, “Look, these need no reward. We have nothing to give them here. They have loved reading.


  1. I love how passionate you are about this author. I know next to nothing about Woolf (she's on my 2012 TBR list though) and I still loved this post. It actually made me really look forward to getting into her work and enjoying what I can tell from the quotes you posted is some lovely prose and beautiful subjects. That last quote is absolutely stunning.

  2. This is a beautiful post -- I too am a Woolf fan and someone who tends to conflate author/creation -- so your comments resonate with me. I think I'm going to try to read Woolf's complete works in 2012 -- and a bio or two -- perhaps her diaries. (I'm biting off too much, I know.)

  3. Thank you, both :)

    Caro - have you read any books at all by her? What do you think you'll start with? I hope you love her! Will follow your progress :)

    Audra - Do you have a list? I was thinking of complete works, reading her "lesser" known etc... Just wondering what you have on your Woolf TBR pile. I'm not sure if I have EVERYTHING by her, there's a chance I do, with the exception of letters, Roger Fry biog and the diaries (I only have the 1920-1924 diary). Do you know what biographies you'd pick? I have a ton of suggestions, but if you can, do check out Virginia Woolf's Women and The Measure of Life by Marder, who I quoted. The Nigel Nicholson one is good as well (I think he's a little strange, though). Leonard Woolf's biography by Victoria Glendinning (who wrote Vita's) is also quite illuminating :)

  4. This makes me so want to dig into my giant Hermione Lee biography of Woolf, and then absorb her works. Right now I have a handful of her novels and a couple book-length essays. Not sure if I can make time for her in 2012...

  5. Hermione Lee... ooh, hinny - I really don't like putting people off a book, and go for it by all means... But honestly, it is not the best one. It's very dry. I tried a few times years ago and never got through it. I dare say I could now (I'm more determined these days than I was), but I can think of some much better biographies. In my humble opinion, it is boring, and it should not be boring. It is wrong that it is boring, it offended me with boringness! If you like, I could recommend some others? But you may be made of stronger stuff than me and enjoy it! :)



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