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Me! I'm afraid of Virginia Woolf!

I have been racking my brains for some time now trying to figure out just what it was about Virginia Woolf I didn’t like. I know here are many admirers of Woolf here; and I know also that one tends to be less perceptive about what one doesn’t like than about what one does. Putting those two pieces of knowledge together, it is inevitable that whatever I write will be countered by “No, no – you’ve missed this!” Or even “You’re talking out of your back side” (although I think other contributors here are more polite than to say such a thing, even if they think so). But it has to be done – so here goes.

Imagine a novel set in Venice, where the author appears unaware that Venice has canals. Imagine a novel where the author seems to think that Venice is a mountain resort in the Dolomites, and presents as characters tourists who have come to Venice for a ski-ing holiday. All that is distinctive about Venice – the canals, the artworks, the churches and galleries – aren’t even mentioned. Now, all this would appear so absurd, that it would be difficult to take the novel seriously. Even if the novel had other aspects of great merit, the whole thing would be a bit laughable.

Now, let us consider another novel – this time, set on the Isle of Skye. Skye happens to be a favourite spot of mine: although its mountains can hardly be called mountains by, say, Alpine standards, its scenery is every bit as breathtakingly beautiful and awe-inspiring. It is a part of the world with its own very distinctive feel and atmosphere – a feel and atmosphere that are easy to recognise, though hard to describe. Now, the novelist who has chosen to set her novel on Skye has no intention of describing it: indeed, she appears unaware that there are hills and mountains in Skye: they aren’t mentioned, even in passing, even though they are the most salient aspect of teh place, and are bound to be noticed by any tourist. The novel is populated with tourists, who don’t seem to notice the hills and mountains. These fictional tourists have come here for sea-bathing, although anyone who knows Skye wouldn’t in their right minds dream of stepping into that cold, grey mass of sea that surrounds it. The novelist mentions at one point that they were some three hundred miles from London, when merely a glance at an atlas would have told her that they true distance is closer to three times that distance.

The author seems unaware also that Skye is a very isolated part of the country, and that, even now, it is quite difficult to get to. Even now, if one comes by road, whether from the south, or from the eastern cities of Inverness or Aberdeen, one has to negotiate long stretches of winding, single-track roads. By train, one has to make several changes before getting to Mallaig; and from there, one has to take a ferry to Armadale. Even when one gets to Armadale, one is unlikely to be at one’s destination: one has to travel miles and miles of winding mountain roads to get to any place with a reasonable population. The only town on Skye is Portree, a good three hours’ drive from Armadale. As for the rest, there are scattered and very isolated villages and hamlets. But the author seems unaware of all this. Even though the novel is set nearly a hundred years ago – when even Portree wouldn’t have been sizeable enough to call itself a town – we are shown an entire army of people who have trekked up from London for their summer holidays, and all living in some presumably large house fitted with all mod cons. Indeed, close your eyes, and you are effectively still in London. The local shops, even a hundred years ago, it seems, were supplied with everything these Londoners could want (a circumstance that is unlikely even today); and, it seems, a family of two parents and eight children, plus a rather large number of guests who have made the arduous trek all the way from London (even the characters must all be imported in from London as the local material is presumably not good enough), seem comfortably bestowed in a single house. (What house is this they were renting out, I wonder? Dunvegan Castle?) At one point, one of the characters thinks of nipping off quickly to Edinburgh to replace a brooch lost by a friend. Nipping off quickly to Edinbrgh? It would take him the better part of a day just to get to the ferry point! At another point, there is mention of a circus coming to Skye, with a huge troupe and a large menagerie. Imagine a huge troupe of a circus, complete with a menagerie, trekking all the way up to Skye! It would have been almost as unlikely a trek as that of Hannibal and his elephants crossing the Alps. I must admit that this was one of several points in the novel where I found it hard to repress a loud guffaw.

Now, many will say that all this doesn’t matter – that To the Lighthouse isn’t actually about Skye. But in that case, why bother setting it in Skye? Anyone who knows Skye at all can only be convulsed in incredulous laughter on reading some of Woolf’s ideas about the place that she quite clearly never visited (nor even, it seems, looked up in an atlas). Not only did this make it difficult for me to take the work seriously (as I said, it’s like a novel set in a Venice that is presented as a mountain ski resort), but, perhaps more importantly, a novel in which the setting counts for so little indicates to me a novelist utterly uninterested in the external world. And, yes, I do have a problem with that – a very severe problem.

I have read subsequently that Virginia Woolf was depicting the family holidays she had as a child in Cornwall. But if so, why not set it in Cornwall? Why insist its setting is Skye? And why not even notice the sheer absurdity of it? The truth is, it seems to me, that it doesn’t matter a jot to Woolf whether it’s Cornwall or Skye. Because, basically, there really only are two places in the world – London and Notlondon; and Notlondon is important only insofar as it affects Londers. (By Londoners, I don’t mean, of course, any old Londoner: I mean those from Ms Woolf’s own particular set – poets, artists, philosophers, that sort of thing.) I’m afraid none of this did anything to dispel the stereotype image I have of the Bloomsbury set as insular and self-regarding.

That in itself is perhaps not the problem: after all, Henry James and Marcel Proust (to name but two) did not stray beyond people from within their own milieu. And of course, I do realise that the focus of To The Lighthouse is the internal landscape, rather than the external. But the internal landscape – i.e. the inner workings of the characters’ minds – seems to me of little interest unless placed in the context of an external landscape. This external landscape could try to simulate the real world (as in George Eliot or Tolstoy); or it could be a distorted, stylised picture of the real world (as in Dickens or Kafka); or it could be wholly imaginary (as in the fantasy genre). But the real world should, I think, be present; even when the focus is on the internal landscape, we should be aware of the context in which this internal landscape exists. Here, I wasn’t. And, as a consequence, everything appeared curiously disembodied, lacking a sense of urgency. It was this, I think, I missed; and, as I was reading, I realised how much I valued this quality. I don’t mean that I necessarily want the narrative to be fast-moving: I loved Clarissa, for instance, and it is hard to imagine anything slower than that. But, however slow the pace is, there has to be some sense of movement, some sort of momentum. But here, all sense of movement, of momentum, seemed vitiated: the whole thing seemed quite devoid of any sense of vigour or of vitality. I’m afraid even the word “insipid” came to mind. And this, I think, is due to Woolf’s lack of interest in placing her depiction of inner landscapes in the context of an outer. The whole thing emerged as decontextualised, disembodied. And while, I suppose, many readers may enjoy it for this very reason, it is not the sort of thing I personally find appealing.

Generally, I feel that poetry is the best medium or depicting states of mind – the “interior landscape”, as I’ve called it. Of course, novels can do this as well, but generally in passages that are described as “poetic”. The great advantage of prose fiction is that it can anchor depictions of the inner landscape to an outer landscape – i.e. it can provide a context for the inner landscape. I don’t really see the point of writing a prose narrative, and yet showing such apparent disdain for the context (Skye, Cornwall ... who cares?) And I’m afraid I don’t find myself part of the consensus that considers Woolf’s writing “poetic”. I found little poetry in the writing. To take just one example, in Mrs Dalloway, the chimes of big Ben are referred to as “leaden circles”. This expression is repeated as a sort of leitmotif. But is this intended to be poetic? I suppose that the sound of Big Ben is heavy and metallic, and “leaden” is an apt adjective to describe it – although hardly, it seems to me, a remarkable flight of fancy to do so. But “circles”? In what way is “circles” descriptive – either literally or metaphorically – of the chimes of Big Ben? A god image should capture different layers of meaning, and should resonate with yet more meanings suggested, though not stated. “Leaden circles”, though repeated frequently, seemed to me both inexpressive and – frankly – flat-footed.

But there is, on top of all this, another major reason for my failure to find Woolf particularly interesting. This is to do with Woolf’s use of the “stream of consciousness” technique. This technique is usually associated with modernism, but there are several instances – in Fielding Defoe, Dickens, Tolstoy, etc. – of this technique. However, it is true that the modernists used it far more extensively. The idea, I think, is to give the illusion that the author is absent. Of course, it is no more than an illusion: the author cannot absent his or her self from the narrative for the very obvious reason that the author is, by definition, writing the damn thing. There’s nothing Leopold Bloom or Clarissa Dalloway can think or feel that the author has not put into their heads: no fictional character can be truly independent. However for the story to be credible, an illusion must be created that they are, and many have felt that if the author makes his or her presence too prominent in the narrative, then this illusion is broken. I personally disagree with this: readers have no difficulty, I think, in believing in the independence of a Tom Jones or of a Becky Sharp despite Fielding & Thackeray making their personal presence felt so prominently. However, there’s no arguing against literary fashions, and the fashion of modernism tends towards the author being invisible. And to this end, modernist authors made much use of “stream of consciousness” - which really is no more than following a character’s train of thoughts without authorial comment. This way, it is felt, we may go directly into a character’s mind without the third party intervention of the author. Nothing wrong with that, of course: far from it. However, the illusion of the independence of the character is just that – an illusion: it is really the author who is directing everything. Otherwise, it would all be too boring to read. If my train of thoughts as I walked in to Staines railway station this morning were to be accurately reproduced, I think most readers would die of boredom even before I’d got as far as crossing Staines Bridge. It’s all very well giving an illusion of randomness, but randomness itself is deadly dull.

But no – I have no quarrel with the technique of “stream of consciousness”. I do have a bone to pick with those who claim it is a step forward in the art of narration, and that this technique has made writing from the point of view of the omniscient narrator dated and even obsolete: but the technique itself is perfectly valid, if exercised some judicious authorial manipulation.

And Virginia Woolf, as any author must using this technique, does manipulate. After all, a straightforward recording of anyone’s stream of thoughts without authorial intervention would be unreadable. My problem, however, is not the fact that she manipulates, but the way she manipulates. No matter which character’s stream of consciousness she is depicting, she uses the same diction, the same rhythms, the same syntax. As a consequence, I did not find the characters sufficiently differentiated one from the other: within the heads of all these characters, I was hearing the same voice. And that voice, inevitably, is the author’s. So, despite the use of the stream of consciousness technique, I got the impression of the very thing that the technique sets out to abolish: I was constantly aware of the authorial presence.

The consequence of all this is that we get the worst of all worlds. We never get to see the characters from the outside, as Woolf is not the slightest bit interested in external perspectives: we only get to see the characters as seen by others. But others only see them through Woolf’s eyes. The illusion of the independence of the characters simply wasn’t there - at least, not for me. A Fielding or a Thackeray will tell you “This is what this character was like, and you know this is accurate because I, the author, am telling you”. That works: the likes of Fielding or Thackeray presented their characters with a tremendous vigour and gusto, and makes the reader believe in the author’s authority. But these qualities of vigour and gusto are conspicuously lacking in Woolf. She effectively says “I am not telling you what these characters are like – you may figure that out from the way they are seen by the other characters”. And yet, the other characters all seem to see each other through the author’s eyes: every time we do enter another character’s mind, the diction, the rhythms, the
sentence structures, the syntax, all belong to the author. For this reason, I could not believe in any of the characters. It’s not that I could “relate” to the characters – whatever that means! – it’s just that I couldn’t believe in them.

Mrs Dalloway suffered for much the same reasons. There was more of a senseof place here than in T the Lighthouse – this one, after all, is set in London rather than in Notlondon. But i wasn’t convinced. I had read much of how, in this novel, Woolf brings an entire city to life; but it is precisely here that she seems to me to fail. I never really got a sense of place; I never got a sense of the streets, of the teeming crowds. I get a sense of the city in novels such as Crime and Punishment, Little Dorrit, Petersburg, Ulysses – but not, I’m afraid, here. But I haven’t had teh time to think why not, so it may well just be me.

Near the start of the novel, an aeroplane writes something in the sky, and everyone has a different idea of what it is the aeroplane writes. And a big car passes with a famous person inside, and soon, different stories go around about who this famous person is. Yes, I think I get it; interpretation of the world is difficult, and at best vague. But, as with the “leaden circles”, isn’t this a bit flat-footed?

As for the rest, I had the same problem as in To the Lighthouse: whoever’s head we go into, we hear the same voice. I tried opening the book art random, and reading a paragraph or so, to see if I could work out whose stream of consciousness we are supposed to be following: each time I failed. Maybe, once again, it’s my fault for not reading carefully enough, but the streams of consciousness of the different characters just did not seem to me sufficiently well differentiated one from the other. As a consequence, I did not believe in any of the characters sufficiently to find them interesting.

OK – I’m sure I have angered admirers of Woolf sufficiently. But I am sorry to say that whatever it is that makes Woolf a great writer, I missed it badly.

Hello Himadri

Looks like a lengthy review there - shame I haven't read any of it then!

I have about 100 pages left of this novel so will read your post and add my thoughts when I finish.



I often wondered that myself... why not set the novel in Cornwall where she  had holidays etc.
 A bit like that movie ... "The Wicker Man "with your namesake  Chris Lee... the novel was set in Cornwall
but for the movie the location was moved to an island
in the west of  Scotland.

 Does anyone read Virginia these days ?  does anyone get past the first  2 or 3 paragraphs ?  she was writing novels from a very early age with hardly any real life experience.... contrast that with  an author you mentioned... Henry Fielding...  who did nt write his first novel till his mid  30s ! and tragically   died young.. age 47 !

I read 'To the lighthouse' about thirty years ago and what stays in my mind was how after 200 pages of meandering a vast amount of action is suddenly concentrated in less than two pages.

goldbug wrote:
 Does anyone read Virginia these days ?  does anyone get past the first  2 or 3 paragraphs ?

A few do, I believe. Even some on this board!

goldbug wrote:
 she was writing novels from a very early age with hardly any real life experience.... contrast that with  an author you mentioned... Henry Fielding...  who did nt write his first novel till his mid  30s ! and tragically   died young.. age 47 !

Works should be judged on their own intrinsic merits, don't you think? Thomas Mann wrote Buddenbrooks and Carson McCullers wrote The Heart is a Lonely Hunter when they were in their early 20s, so youth need not be a barrier to producing literature.

Himadri, if I don't reply to this immediately I never will reply, so my apologies for random, not well-thought-out comments.  But just one or two things, not countering anything really, but just remarks.  For one thing it is many years since I read Virginia Woolf - I am afraid like Goldbug, when I tried recently, I just gave up after a few pages.  Too lazy a reader, I think - it felt very much like hard work, and not hard work that was going to be rewarding in the long run.  I might try again - but there is still Great Expectations, Middlemarch, Dombey and Son, Lolita, Narayan, Tom Jones, and zillions of others that I have more empathy with, and am sure I will enjoy more.  Woolf wrote short books, but that still didn't seem to help me.  

But people like Mike Alexander and others have really valued her, so, like you, I feel I must have missed something.  

I suspect stream-of-consciousness doesn't appeal much to me - though in the bit I did read recently, I was surprised at how it was less odd than I had imagined/remembered.  Not that different from the thoughts very ordinary authors put into their characters' minds.  I am not sure how varied people are in their interior thoughts - you only really know your own, don't you?  And not them very objectively.  My thoughts are often directed at someone else (telling someone on a messageboard or arranging them to make a suitable story for my husband or friends, or similar) - I am not sure that they are particularly random, though certainly a name I have been seeking in my mind will suddenly pop up.

But I don't know if it is a fully valid criticism to say people can't be differentiated by their speech patterns.  Would I be able to differentiate Levin from Vronsky apart from what they are saying (as opposed to how they are saying it?)?  I'm not sure.

The thing that I am most likely to counter perhaps is your first assertion that the interior needs to be placed in a exterior world for it to work.  I agree that the Bloomsbury set and lots of other writers who are very confined in their little worlds (and they are more likely to be academic than, say, rural or factory workers, simply because academics are more likely to write novels) do tend to see the world in a very limited fashion, and I think youth does have something to do with that, too.  I am amazed really that Thomas Mann managed to write Buddenbrooks when he was so young (perhaps it explains why the main character - forgotten his name - so quickly, and at such a young age, feels himself and his world disintegrating.  A sad book.  

I don't quite agree, though, a novel has to be set in a recognisable exterior.  Certainly, I agree that it is weird to set it in an UNrecognisable exterior.  But my thoughts at least are not generally dependent on situation (they might be dependent on what book I am reading at the moment or how I have been talking to or listening to).  I think an interior monologue could certainly be based on place - as in Ulysses - but I don't see that it has to be.  Maybe it needs some situation, but that is not quite the same as a setting as such.  I think you could set a novel based on me with my computer blowing up and interior thoughts round that.  It wouldn't matter if I was here in my rural town or in my son's house in Sheffield.  You could still write a story of a world falling apart and a lack of ability to cope with what for most people would be a minor inconvenience.  And it could still be perfectly well done.

Not every piece of poetic writing is necessarily good poetic writing!  And what is in a writer's head may not necessarily translate into the reader's mind.

Cheers, Caro.

Thanks for that detailed post Himadri. I can quite understand why as an admirer of Skye you'd be miffed that Woolf tried to pass off St Ives as a Scottish island! I don't know why she chose to do that - does anyone else? - but it was always Cornwall in my mind's eye when I read it. It might annoy me more if I was at all familiar with Skye.

I don't think it's quite correct to suggest that the point of 'stream of consciousness' is the absenting of the authorial voice. Perhaps this is more true of the interior monologue approach (such as Joyce used in the Molly Bloom section of "Ulysses"), but Woolf uses the "free indirect discourse" approach, which, as many critics and theorists have pointed out, is more about merging the narrator's voice with a character's in order to create a sort of synthesis where you're not quite sure where the line between author/narrator and character lies.

I can't say I've tried distinguishing the voice by picking pages at random, but I certainly found it very rare that I didn't know who was the focal character at any point (unlike many, I gather, I don't find Woolf at all hard to read). The most extreme example is the housekeeper (in that accelerated bridging section where a long time passes between holidays) who is very distinct in voice and thought from the others - one might accuse this section of being a little patronising, but certainly not of lack of differentiation. I think the difference between the domesticated, enabling matriarch (Mrs Ramsay - based on Woolf's mother) and the artist Lily Briscoe is pretty well defined as well.

As to those leaden circles, I interpret this as a metaphor for the sound spreading out across Westminster, like ripples in a pond. And I do find Mrs Dalloway quite evocative of London, albeit a London on a rather sleepy afternoon, in the days when motorcars were a far rarer sight than today.

Personally I don't find the lack of urgency or action a problem at all. I just think it wasn't something Woolf was interested in. She was saying, "look, there's all this other interesting stuff going on in people's lives that nobody bothers to talk about because they're so damn busy getting on with the story". She doesn't much deal with present urgencies, because she's not really interested in the present in and of itself, but rather all the little detours into memory and speculations about the future that it opens up, in order to present a full-blown narrative of identity. And I think this is what we get most from Woolf - a sense of people's lives and personalities, in their entirety.

I've always wondered a bit myself why VW didn't just set the novel in Cornwall and be done with it, but as I don't know Skye at all, it has never bothered me particularly! Nevertheless, it is probably my favourite Virginia Woolf novel novel, and all that I can say in its defence is that place has never seemed to me a particularly important aspect of this novel. Atmosphere is certainly significant, and the evocation of rooms, gardens, time of day, light and even beaches are, at least in my view, very masterfully done. But I agree that there is nothing to anchor these things in any specific place. Character, too, seems to me to be well handled in this novel: I absolutely believe in the existence of Mrs Ramsay and the more minor characters also seem very credible. Sorry you din't enjoy it much Himadri. Better luck with your next Book!
Green Jay

In common with several others here, I have not read any of Virginia Woolf's fiction for ages, since my 20s in fact, I think, though I have read and enjoyed her non-fiction much more recently. I do wonder if at the time (university and so on) if I was more willing to take her reputation as a given, and if I did not thoroughly engage with her fiction then that was my fault and not hers. A common reaction to my set reading! I also wonder if, like other 'classic authors', I found the experience of having read her better than the actual experience of reading her?! I must have read at least 6 of her novels, (Orlando, Mrs Dalloway, The Waves, Jacobs Room, Between The Acts, To The Lighthouse) and I know I did not complete The Years and possibly one other. Plus the short stories. No, the more I list them, the more I think I must have admired them.

Also, I have never been to Skye - nor indeed any part of Scotland, when I read To The Lighthouse - so again, like others, its huge mis-match with Cornwall did not bother me when I read the book. But I can see that if you know Skye it might be a major irritant and I think part of Himadri's reaction to that book is this irritation - it makes every minor detail stand out as wrong, wrong, wrong. I know I feel this about (usually lesser) books. If some particular aspect of it is inconsistent, un-thought-through or just plain wrong, then the whole thing gets on my wick, and taints all my other responses. That is not to dismiss Himadri's criticisms of it on this basis, but I can see he just finds the whole milieu of VW distasteful, and I don't see how it can repair itself after that. My own personal irritations are usually financial and economic clangers, with characters who could not possibly do or have what they do/have on the income/job they are provided with by the author - or the author has not bothered to justify it at all; this makes me feel they have come from such a "comfortable" (now there's a euphemism) background that they just don't have to think about where the pennies come from or what things cost, (like politicians and pints of milk), and that makes me feel very hostile and frequently spoils the rest of the writing for me.  Evil or Very Mad

On the point of the stream of consciousness technique, I had not understood VW etc to be trying to remove the author and make the character independent (impossible, as you say ) but to try and find a way of conveying what our interior thoughts  are like moment by moment;  that they are fragmentary, unorganised, fleeting, changing, darting off in directions and making connections, rather than fluent, focused and complete, like a perfect speech. Her writing was an attempt or attempts to capture this, and I don't think she was particularly confident or highly convinced that she had "got" it. She was far more interested in sensation (as in our senses), response, emotion, memory, than action, place, even character, in a way. The Bloomsbury set seemed snobby, opinionated and competitive in public - with each other - but VW does seem much more diffident about what she has achieved in her own diaries and comments. Which makes me much more sympathetic to her. She was always striving to improve her writing and explore techniques she thought important and was never satisfied with what she managed to produce.  Which, given some of the self-satisfied chappies I've heard in "In Their Own Words" recently, is quite refreshing!

Thank you all for your comments. I think you've all been very kind in refraining from calling me a shithead!

I'm afraid I will have to give up on Woolf: she really is not for me, and, quite clearly, the qualities of her writing that attract other readers mean very little to me.

Just a few brief replies to some of the points raised:

On the point of the stream of consciousness technique, I had not understood VW etc to be trying to remove the author and make the character independent (impossible, as you say ) but to try and find a way of conveying what our interior thoughts  are like moment by moment;  that they are fragmentary, unorganised, fleeting, changing, darting off in directions and making connections, rather than fluent, focused and complete, like a perfect speech.

The characters' thoughts do, indeed, come across as "fragmentary, unorganised, fleeting, changing, darting off in directions and making connections" - but the problem I had was that every character's thoughts were fragmentary, unorganised, fleeting, etc. in much the same way. I'll take everyone's word for it that the characters are indeed differentiated in how they think, but I'm afraid it passed me by.

I agree with Mike that Woolf uses more "free indirect discourse" rather than the interior monologue, and that, that being the case, we should expect the author's voice to be mingling with that of the characters. But it was the author's voice I kept hearing above those of the characters. No doubt that was because I wasn't reading carefully enough, but try as I might, I couldn't really find enough of interest to encourage me to read more carefully. Once again, I accept this is a personal reaction. And as for the "leaden circles" - yes, I think you're right in your interpretation of that: I still can't say that it strikes me as an impressive flight of poetic fancy.

Caro - you raise the interesting issue of differentiating between characters' speech patterns. Some writers are better at this than others: Mark Twain, for instance, was very good at differentiating speech patterns. Henry James, on the other hand, didn't care much, and made most of his characters speak in much the same way. It's a stylisation which I am reasonably happy to accept - just as  I accept that Shakespeare's characters all speak in blank verse (although Shakespeare did vary the nature of this blank verse to convey different characters, and different states of mind). But however one makes the characters speak, they must all think in different ways: otherwise, they'd all come across as much the same character. I think it is demonstrable that the various characters in Anna Karenina, say, do think in very different ways. (I am not referring to what they think, but, rather, to how they think.) However, in these novels by Woolf, I personally (and once again, I emphasise this is a personal reaction) couldn't see the characters as anything other than ventriloquist's dummies, all thinking in much the same way.

Obviously, I am wrong in all this. But one cannot like everything, and as there's too much out there I want to read, I'm just happy to say to say in this instance that Woolfis not for me, and leave it there.

As it happened, I was interspersing my reading of Woolf with the short stories of Flannery O'Connor - a writer who has, over the last few years, become a firm favourite of mine - and the qualities of these stories kept reminding me of everything I found myself missing in Woolf: a vividness; a sense of strength and dynamism, and an urgency; an intensity of vision; a forward momentum; and so on. No doubt Woolf has other qualities - otherwise she wouldn't have so many admirers - but these qualities are not really very high on my personal list of priorities. The qualities that I personally tend to value most I couldn't, on the whole, find.

Oh well - I suppose I have now destroyed my credibility here! Will anything I say about books ever be taken seriously again?  Smile

This is another thread I want to contribute to when I have time, as a fan of old Virginia!  I haven't even had time to read the posts properly let alone compose my own thoughts.  I doubt if it's going to happen this week, but maybe next week I will find time to contribute to this site with something of vague substance rather than dashing off a post here and there!

Far from undermining your credibility, H, you have reinforced it by articulating in detail why Woolf doesn't work for you. At least now we all know the precise terms by which we agree to disagree.

I finally got round to finishing To the Lighthouse at the weekend. I too had been rather confused about the choice of location of the Isle of Skye and, whilst I have never visited Skye, from what I know of the place it did indeed seem nothing like where the characters were staying.

In a similar way to Mike A, I also envisioned it as being set in Cornwall and remain unsure as to Woolf's motives in not actually setting it in the place she knew so well from her childhood holidays. On a side point, in a complete coincidence I actually finished the book on a flight down to St Ives (via Newquay) for a wedding at the weekend and so, while it wasn't the lighthouse in question, I did get to see probably the source of the author's inspiration. It's quite an odd feeling turning the last page of the book which is about the lighthouse and then being being a matter of yards away from one moments later.

Although I wouldn't say it was a great book, my thoughts do differ slightly from Himadri's and a few others. From a structural point of view I thought it was particularly interesting. I read somewhere that Woolf planned the story as two blocks joined by a corridor and that was certainly the case - with the "Time Passes" section linking the two being particularly poignant. Having said that, I was surprised at the level of damage and decay that befalls the house in a matter of ten years - perhaps for this Woolf did her research on the rather harsh weather that can be found in the Isle of Skye! The use of brackets in this question came also as a surprise and the shortness of their use - mainly detailing deaths - were all the more powerful for it:

[A shell exploded. Twenty or thirty young men were blown up in France, among them Andrew Ramsey, whose death, mercifully was instantaneous.]

Woolf's writing style, despite the odd grate here and there, I found quite interesting. Whilst at times the inner emotions of each character were perhaps over discriptive there were some great jumps in perspective particularly in the first part where I find myself running to catch up with who was being portrayed. A few sentances later of me thinking to myself "this doesn't sound much like Mrs Ramsay" to realising that Woolf is talking about her husband was rather effective.

Does anyone read Virginia these days ?  does anyone get past the first  2 or 3 paragraphs ?

I thought this comment from Goldbug particularly interesting as it made me think of a particular passage in the book which I dug out:

For Charles Tansley had been saying (she looked up as if she expected to hear the crash of books on the floor above) had been saying that people don't read [Sir Walter] Scott any more. Then her husband thought, 'That's what they'll say of me'; so he went and got one of those books...He was always uneasy about himself. That troubled her. He would always be worrying abouyt his own books - will they be read, are they good, why aren't they better, what do people think of me?

Now, I wouldn't be so presumptious to suggest that Woolf was perhaps writing about herself here, but it does make interesting reading in light of the number of people on this board who are no fans of Woolf.

In conclusion, whilst I didn't perhaps enjoy it as much as I hoped, it has certainly not put me off trying more Woolf one day. Perhaps not for a while though eh.



Hector, she was probably writing about her father, Sir Leslie Stephen, who was also an author and critic, and editor of the first edition of the National Dictionary of Biography.

Coming very late to this discussion, but trying to rally my thoughts about V. Woolf. In my student days, long ago, I admired The Waves, To the Lighthouse, Jacob's Room and Mrs Dalloway, but had difficulty with her more conventional novels, such as The Years which I found rather hefty and unengaging. Now, I realise, I'm very unlikely to re-read those much admired 'stream of consciousness' novels, not even Mrs Dalloway, which, in retrospect is my favourite of the four.  I feel I've 'done' them and just don't have the time to return to them, when there's so much else clamouring to be read and re-read!

The one Woolf novel that I WOULD return to, and probably will, is ORLANDO, her historical fantasy that was inspired by her friendship with Vita Sackville West. In this book, Woolf broke out of her usual mould, (not to say mode!) and is playful and witty.
John Q

The only Virginia Woolf Novel I managed to finish was Mrs Dalloway, which was interesting but have never felt inclined to re read.  
But I really enjoyed the two books of The Common Reader by Woolf, which includes some very fine literary essays.  She really was an excellent critic , even managing to provoke interest in totally pole axing books like The Paston Letters and Hakluyt’s  Travels.   I know they are pole axing because I looked into them, after  reading  Woolf’s essays.  Excellent pieces  in these books on George Eliot, Joseph Conrad, William Hazlitt and many more.
I also read quite a bit  of  Woolf’s diaries  obtaining the odd volume as they became available at the Library.  The diary is rather sporadic with long gaps in its  entries.  Woolf  tries to examine her recurring mental problems here and describe what it was like when she felt herself ‘going under.’  
The diary also revealed her to be a quite a  snob, describing certain authors  (J B Priestley for one) as belonging to the tradesmen’s section of English literature and G B Shaw as writing’ Irish.’
One entry which I recall was when she makes extremely disparaging remarks about the persons present at the funeral service of H G Wells’ wife and how common they were.   Service over , she ran off - she tells us -  to Fortnum and Masons to buy shoes; duty done , back to business.   Mrs Beatrice Webb’s diaries  have similar aspects,  spending her days  ostensibly working for the Labour movent  (although Woolf herself was not really a political person)  but every time a election comes round fervently wanting a conservative government returned.   I digress, but I think  I have finished anyway.
Green Jay

I'm glad you enjoy her non-fiction, too, John. Someone above used "vivid" to describe Flannery O'Connor's writing, and that word really stood out as not being my idea of Woolf, except in her non-fiction.

The snobbery and hypocrisy is difficult for us now, but I think it also conveys how much of a contrast they found themselves to the old high Victorian period of their parents, where to be "comfortably-off" meant a huge house and a battalion of servants, the the entire lot decamping elsewhere equally spacious for months on end for holidays. It is all on a scale we can scarcely imagine now. And the social levels were highly differentiated and almost never crossed (except for sound financial reasons!!). There wasn't much expectation that people could be intelligent but from a poor background (God made them high and lowly, as the hymn goes. i.e. don't get uppity and rock the boat). The Woolfs and the Bells saw themselves as being very different, open-minded, mixing socially with diverse people (not that diverse to us!), living the simple life, being quite "poor", yet to us they seem otherwise. They can't do without some servants, their houses and gardens appear lovely and spacious, they suit themselves as to holidays and travelling. I read an account - maybe in Hermione Lee's biog of Woolf which I never actually finished - of how incredibly well Virginia was doing from her various writings by the late 1920s/1930s in comparable financial terms today. Just one example was that when she and Leonard decided they needed a car they went out and ordered a brand-new model upholstered to their own requirements in bottle-green leather. A bit like strolling into the showroom and ordering a top-of-the-range car now with all the additional trimmings. I think Lee's point was that this level of wealth and earning power relative to others' (and in a Depression) does not come across in Virginia's own accounts and perceptions of herself, and if you take these at face-value as a reader you do seem to see the Woolfs as slightly precarious and struggling to work to keep earning a crust.

I think I can live with the snobbery: after all, Henry James and Marcel Proust were at least as snobbish. What bothered me more was the lack of, as you say, "vividness". I like writers like Flannery O'Connor or William Falkner (I do have a thing about writers from the American south!) - writers who painted with powerful, primary colours: pastel shades don't seem to do much for me.

From what I know of Woolf's literary criticism, they seem spot on: after all, anyone who rates "Middlemarch" as the finest English novel and Tolstoy as the finest of all novelists surely had impeccable taste and discernment!  Very Happy

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