Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

I‘m not afraid of Virginia Woolf. When I first set out on my reading project I put her on the list of novelists I wanted to read, and I’ve finished rereading To the Lighthouse, the first of several novels by Woolf that I hope to read as part of this project.

This novel was the first I’d ever read by Woolf, and had read it, along with Heart of Darkness, Frankenstein, Tess of the D’Ubervilles, and Women in Love, as part of an undergraduate course on the English Novel, taught by Dr. Bob Randolph at then Southwest Texas State University (now Texas State University-San Marcos). In each of those novels we traced the theme of the hero’s journey, an idea that had been popularized by scholar Joseph Campbell.

I again read the novel in graduate school, in a comparative course on D. H. Lawrence and Woolf taught by Dr. Lydia Blanchard. We covered three different thematic elements in that course: the effects of World War I, modernism, and gender. In my disjointed (perhaps modernistic) notes from that course, I had jotted down that Woolf in To the Lighthouse had wanted to create a new kind of character in fiction, in rebellion against the 19th century’s notion that a literary character is “knowable”; the characters in To the Lighthouse can’t be fully known; no person, real or imagined can be fully known. It’s a notion that fits with Woolf’s idea that “[l]ife is not a a series of gig lamps symmetrically arranged; but a luminous halo, a semi-transparent envelope surrounding us from beginning to end.”

As writers, as human beings, we see others, as Paul says, “through a glass, darkly,” and Woolf certainly evokes the halo of perception in To the Lighthouse. Even though the minds of multiple characters are presented, we never get to see them fully. The novel seems to discourage us from ever trying to capture any one single character or action (there’s almost no external action, other than James Ramsay’s yearning to go to the lighthouse and the voyage out to the lighthouse ten years later, or the illuminating “Time Passes” section in which the Ramsay home, after the death of Mrs. Ramsay and after the war, declines into chaos); and yet, when reading the novel — or any novel for that matter — we see as best we can the complex relationships between human beings, as Woolf’s husband Leo noted was the point of To the Lighthouse.

This third reading of To the Lighthouse was inspired after reading Ursula K. LeGuin’s Steering the Craft, a book on writing. I picked up LeGuin’s book a couple of years ago after flipping through it at the bookstore and reading this sentence: “Again I am inclined to fault journalists and schoolteachers, however well meaning, for declaring it a sin to say the same word twice, driving people to the thesaurus in desperate searches for farfetched substitutes.” Back then I glommed onto any attack on journalism, because I was miserable at my job at a daily newspaper. (I’m still ambivalent about what effects my newspaper experience had on my writing, though I’m beginning to think the worst part of the experience was the blows suffered to self confidence, blows struck by an editor with an unruly personality and a publication too friendly to the public’s whims.)

I loved LeGuin’s early chapters, because they concerned themselves with sentences, especially with writing fluid and rhythmic sentences and fluid gorgeous sentences have, as those of you who have followed this blog know, been a singular obsession of mine. And Woolf, LeGuin notes, citing an example from To the Lighthouse, writes beautiful, evocative sentences.

“The rhythm of Woolf’s prose is to my ear the subtlest and strongest in English fiction,” LeGuin writes.

Here is just a portion from the “Time Passes” section of To the Lighthouse that LeGuin cites:

Indeed, the voice might resume, as curtains of dark wrapped themselves over the house, over Mrs. Beckwuith, Mr. Carmichael, and Lily Briscoe so that they lay with several folds of blackness on their eyes, why not accept this, be content with this, acquiesce and resign? The sigh of all the seas breaking in measure round the ilses soothed them; the night wrapped them; nothing broke their sleep, until, the birds beginning and the dawn weaving their thin voices in to its whiteness, a cart grinding, a dog somewhere barking, the sun lifted the curtains, broke the veil on their eyes, and Lily Briscoe stirring in her sleep. She clutched at her blankets as a faller clutches at the turf on the edge of a cliff. Her eyes opened wide. Here she was again, she thought, sitting bolt upright in bed. Awake.

Even this single paragraph would be perfect to study for its sentence variety, from lengthy meditative sentences to an abrupt single word sentence, all perfect for a moment in which a night passes into morning and a character suddenly awakens. Reading this passage, reading Woolf again, I’m not afraid of her. I am somewhat intimidated by her prose. And I’m still left wondering if I can ever write sentences as wonderful as those in the passage above.


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